Mother of Mercy! Is This the End of Western Civilization?
The 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar ends with the title character, a petty thug named Rico who briefly became a major thug, expiring in a hail of gunfire. Just before he joins the angels, the dying hoodlum (played to perfection by the great Edward G. Robinson) mutters his famous last words: “Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?”
A big shot to the bitter end, Rico (referring to himself in the third person, like any number of self-smitten big shots) seems stunned that he’s about to lose his exalted status in the world… that, in fact, the world will keep spinning without him. More than pain or regret, Rico’s last words brim with sheer disbelief. He never suspected that he might be mortal.
This week, as both Europe and the United States appear to be whooshing down the long death-spiral (or is it a debt-spiral?) to oblivion, I’ve found myself thinking about Little Caesar and his demise. Granted, we’d be hard-pressed to draw parallels between a fictitious crime boss and Western Civilization. Rico could never have produced anything quite as resplendent as the Parthenon or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But he seemed to think he’d be around forever. And so did we.
You have to give us credit: for three thousand years we extended our reach around this smallish blue-green planet, built some impressive empires and monuments, trampled more than a few aboriginal cultures, waged bloody wars for reasons that seemed strangely compelling at the time, expanded our knowledge of the cosmos and plumbed the dusky depths of the human soul. But we founded our achievements at least partly on a peculiar system that required us to gamble on the fortunes of companies, and those companies failed us in the end.
Our governments also failed us by spending far more money than they could possibly collect — always a bad practice in domestic life, and disastrous when multiplied by a factor of millions. Let’s give those governments credit for noble intentions: they emptied their treasuries to subsidize legions of citizens who were too old, sick, unskilled, uneducated or just plain lazy to care for themselves. They never suspected that half their population would eventually fall into the needy category, supported by a dwindling and put-upon middle class.
Major civilizations don’t self-destruct every day. It’s a sobering experience to observe the calamity first-hand, like being on the ground at Lakehurst, N.J., when the Hindenburg blew up in a rumbling cloud of smoke and flames. The demise of Western Civilization is a slow-motion calamity, of course, but no less compelling, terrifying and perversely spectacular for us eyewitnesses.
Think about it: we could be watching the last gasps of the great pulsating organism born on the shores of the wine-dark Aegean, nurtured on the Agora at Athens and propelled into the larger world by Alexander the Great. It could all end here: with a job-hungry middle class, mountains of public and private debt, downgraded credit ratings and a fatal inability to agree on solutions. China and India, those ancient Asiatic behemoths, are waiting in the wings, grooming themselves for their triumphant return to center stage.
So is it all over for Western Civilization? Is this the end of Rico? I have to admit it looks pretty dire at the moment. Crippled by our economic disasters, short-sighted corporations, greedy plutocrats, incompetent governments and irreversible demographic shifts, we could be declining into a loosely connected archipelago of third-rate states — a source of cheap labor for smarter and more industrious Asian economic powers. Our culture has turned stupid, our character flabby, our will to greatness overcome by our addiction to easy amusement.
So maybe we deserve to join the carcasses in history’s graveyard. Maybe it’s time for us to keep company with the crumbling bones of the Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians. But I think it would be a high tragedy… don’t you?
We might be lost and sputtering at the moment, but it’s not too late to mount a counteroffensive. That means rebuilding a culture that values something above and beyond shallow diversions and short-term profits. It also means agreeing to agree on fundamentals.
Even more to the point, given the recent partisan squawking over America’s national debt, it means that our elected representatives must drop their belligerent agendas and start thinking about the greater good of the republic. Any politician who would risk the future of his country for the pleasure of pulling the rug out from under the opposition is a jackass, plain and simple. By now we know who the jackasses are, and some of us radical moderates would love nothing better than to wrap them up and ship them back to their home states, postage due.
Where’s our pride, our decency, our will to rise above self-interest? Where’s George Washington when we need him? Three thousand years of Western Civilization are depending on us to keep the great chain unbroken. So let’s put our heads together, stop shredding each other with our barbs, go out there and win one for the Gipper — and for Socrates, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mark Twain. There’s more at stake here than partisan politics.