Conservatism and the decline of empires
[ Main ] [ Home ] [ Work ] [ Code ] [ Rants ] [ Readings ] [ Links ]

This is an idea that had been going around in my head for a while. How come that whenever an empire starts to decline we also witness a parallel rise or resurgence of conservative forces? This is the email I sent to Sam on the issue.

Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 09:11:47 -0600 (CST)
From: Jesus Ortega
To: Sam Moreno
Subject: On the decline of empires and the rise of conservative forces


I'm sending this message today because I came across something quite 
interesting while reading the newspaper this morning.  I was checking the
Arts section, which included a review of a book published by Bernard Lewis.
In case you didn't know, Bernard Lewis is widely respected as one of the
most knowledgeable experts in Islamic culture.  He's currently a professor
at Princeton, and has an extensive bibliography on Islamic studies.  I'd
definitely recommend any of his books for a deeper understanding of the
Islamic countries.  

In any case, the review was about a book he published recently (see link
below).  In spite of the title (which may be read as being somehow related
to the recent events in New York), Lewis tries to find out not why Islam
has become a very fertile ground for extremism but rather how come that 
it declined so sharply from the position it had back in the 11th and 12th

Now, for the actual reason why I'm sending this message.  At one point, 
Lewis studies what different experts had to say at the moment when Islam
was starting its decline.  The book contains many quotes, but one that is
mentioned in the review comes from an Ottoman civil servant who writes 
back in 1630 and who attributes the decline to a "falling away of the good
old ways, Islamic and Ottoman; the basic remedy was a return to them."  
Does it sound familiar?  It's precisely the same attitude that you can
see repeated over and over again in the decline of _any_ other empire
(Roman, Gaul, Germanic, Spanish, French, English...).  The actual source
of the strength of those empires was rather the creativity, dynamism and 
innovation that came right after a rather conservative, dull and stable
era that nevertheless established the foundations of what was to come. 
Yet, in the moments of decline all we manage to see is the 'good old days
of yore", the days where things were stable and a clear-cut rule to decide
what was good and bad was at hand.  Hence, most recipes to recover the old
strength tend to argue in favor of a return to those "traditional values"
that supposedly built the empire.  Of course, this does nothing but to
signal the beginning of a sloppery slope that furthers the decline for 
the original strength was not so much based on the stable and conservative
values of the old days but rather on the opposite: the innovation, the
creativity, the dynamism, the risk, even the love for revolutionary and
reformist ideas that went clearly against the old values.  In other words,
a society became an empire not when it looked to its own past but rather
when it was willing to break free from such past and look forward.  

As I said above, this seems to be a constant of all major empires that 
have existed so far: Roman, Gaul, Germanic, Chinese, Islamic, Spanish,
French, English...  We can even spot it in the decline of the Soviet Union,
with its pathetic and ultimately failed attempt to reverse the course of
History and go back to the old traditional values.  

Do you see where I'm going?  In the seven years I've spent in the USA so
far I've witnessed a very troubling rise of this very same attitude.  More
and more Americans seem to be tempted by this view of History according
to which we need to return to the old traditional and conservative values
in order to regain the strength that was being lost.  Something tells me
though that, just like in all those other historical examples, this will
only lead to partial victories that will appear to reverse the trend but
will actually lead nowhere.

Jesus Ortega