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When America Won’t Be Present Tense Anymore

November 28, 2013

One issue you see with many Americans is the view of our nation as the city on the hill, the ultimate culmination of human culture. Especially among conservatives there is the view that not only will history show America to be the greatest nation ever, but that there will never be a history that refers to America in the past tense.

No doubt, the Emperors of Rome and Pharaohs of Egypt felt the same, and yet today they are dust and less than dust. The pyramids are a tourist attraction and cats wander about the stones of the Roman Forum where Octavian once walked.

And so it will be for America.

Perhaps it’s due to our youth. After all, America is a young nation. There were British kings warring to expand their domains and Chinese emperors ruling vast lands long before the first European colonist from Spain, France or Britain touched shore in America.

Perhaps it’s the fact that our lands have never been truly conquered by an outside foe. Yes, Britain burned the public buildings in Washington, but our greatest war was an inter-family squabble. The Indian Wars were a series of mop-up operations that never saw the United States’ domain truly threatened. Our armies have either been successful, or the conflict was one we could afford to walk away from. It’s easy to take that past history and extrapolate it into the future.

However, it would be an erroneous extrapolation.

America is not the culmination of human history, any more than Rome was. We’ve risen, we may rise further, but we will, unavoidably, fall. It may be a slow fall, as demographic and political changes reshape our society and government, or it may be a sudden fall—such questions are cloaked in the future. However, make no mistake about it, one day, as children file into a classroom, the teacher will talk about what the United States was like not what it is like.

But why is that important? Why should we care about the day when America will not be?

There are two reasons to care about it. First of all, a feeling of immortality leads to terrible errors—just look at the life of any teenager. The faith that our nation will always be and is always going to be the greatest nation in the world leads us away from asking the hard questions that we may need to ask. It leads us away from thinking about our long-term policy, which could harm our nation or other nations. Most importantly, it leads to the ability to never worry about what our legacy will be—after all, if we will live forever, there is no need to worry about that question.

Finally, the terror felt by some about the changes in America stems from this feeling that if America is the culminating point of social growth, any change is dangerous and must be fought to the end. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, that’s wrong.  Change always comes, and one day, America, as we know it today will be referred to in the past tense.

Take it from a historian—it’s happened to every other empire that has risen upon this earth.

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