The Decline and Fall of Which Empire?

Nebraska stadium

Empires die, if they are lucky, with a whimper, not a bang. On October 14, 2017, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln Nebraska let out a huge whimper. On that night, the team representing the University of Nebraska laid down and allowed Ohio State to eviscerate the Husker’s defense. Meanwhile, the Ohio State defense smothered the offense, eventually allowing meaningless second half touchdowns, but shutting out the home team throughout the first half while amassing a 35 point total when they were not stopped once. Five possessions, five scoring drives.

The whimper was heard in the second quarter. A tradition of Nebraska football is that fans purchase red helium balloons, and release them when the first score happens for the home team. In the middle of the second quarter, the Huskers gained their second first down of the game. First a trickle, then a flood of balloons started to dance in the strong north wind, signifying the depression that the fans felt due to the humiliation they were witnessing.

At half time, the wind picked up considerably. The huge American flag flying over the north stadium snapped loudly in the breeze as it stood straight out as if starched. The noise of the wind muffled the whimper being sounded by the hordes of fans filing down out of the stands, and eventually out of the stadium to face the cold strong wind. I joined the exiting throngs along with my brother’s family.

As we wound our way back through the campus, we heard the roar of the stadium at our back as the team managed to strike with a lone long touchdown pass. But nothing could disguise the utter demolition of a team with a proud history by one of the few teams with even a prouder history. That pride has shown itself through the 55 years of consecutive sell-outs of the stadium, longest sell-out streak ever in either college or pro sports. If the performance of the team continues to match that of the last two games, even that tattered remnant of empire will fade away, if not this year then certainly next season. But the rise and fall of a college football empire will affect only a small fraction of the population of this country, and does not represent an existential crisis.

Empires do have a finite life. Empires fade when the cost of maintaining the empire exceeds the tribute brought in. They may be overthrown from without, or within. But until this year, I never heard of an empire being overthrown by its own government. With its initial effort, the new President withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade treaty. That treaty, intended to align nations in the Pacific watershed away from the growing maw of China, was a symbol of the American empire of commercial dominance. However, the new administration believes all trade agreements are win/lose propositions, and that the verdict of history is that the US has lost with all of its trade agreements. What this administration does not realize is that the US has used its position as the owner of the global reserve currency to enable this country to run both substantial trade deficits and Federal governmental deficits. The reserve currency is the symbol of the American empire, since it ensures demand for US dollars and US debt instruments. Imagine what the cost of imported goods would be if the US dollar suddenly was not required for international transactions?

Yet the current administration ignores these macroeconomic factors, arguing instead that all of our trading partners are taking advantage of us since we do run trade deficits. This administration believes that if we just pull back from international engagements, trans-national agreements, and treaties, we will be able to set our own trade terms and retreat into a world of US sourced products that fulfill all of the nation’s needs.

The effects of this near-sighted policy is already making itself felt. China is pressing Saudi Arabia to accept yuan as a mode of payment for its oil imports. When that happens, look for other countries to follow suit and then the whole house of cards propping up the US economy will be left teetering in mid-air. Other signs of the US ceding its international role are showing with Europe turning inward as the US President disparages NATO and other treaty obligations. A fundamental misreading of the Iran nuclear treaty shows that this administration does not recognize the treaty as only having jurisdiction over nuclear matters. No, this administration insists that Iran is not adhering to the spirit of the treaty by invoking factors that were never included in the treaty.

And then there is the elephant in the room (sorry, Republicans, you didn’t make the cut). How do you solve a problem like Kim Jong-un? Apparently, this President believes that intimidation and crude insults trump all other choices, like, maybe diplomacy? After all, intimidation and crude insults helped him triumph over all of the other prospective Republican candidates. Why wouldn’t the same tactics work with the still-young heir to the North Korean political dynasty? Everyone fears the US military!  We’re invincible (but we must do something about the appalling lack of nuclear weaponry. What have we been doing since the 1970’s anyhow?). No, North Korea is not a problem you can bluster your way through.

The history of the US empire post WWII took a wrong turn after the end of the cold war. Instead of using the opportunity to begin limited withdrawal of US forces from the excessive number of bases we maintain overseas, we felt the need to expand our footprint. The events of September 2001 enabled the US to go even further to increase our presence throughout the world, and all in the name of the war on terror. We should pursue reductions in bases and overseas presence of our military. It now is viewed as divisive across the world instead of being a soothing presence. But with an administration whose head decries diplomacy, and threatens fire and fury, do not look for this empire to go gently into that dark night.

When you have an empire replete with a naked emperor, and simpering sycophants in his party who still fear the tweet of doom, nothing good will happen. I can only wish that the American Empire does not go out with a bang. Yet I fear that, for once, cooler heads will not prevail, and we will find ourselves in a conflict with unimaginable casualties, and unprecedented global consequences.

After Vietnam Protests at College, Streaking!

streaking-1974-streak-in-spectators

Photo courtesy of the UT History Center of the crowd watching streakers in Austin, Texas.

Spring, in 1974. The cloying stench of Watergate hung over the nation’s senses. Vietnam remained in the nation’s conscience, even though US troops had pulled out the year before. In early March, an unseasonable warm spell brought the college students outside at the University of Nebraska. And the attention of the country was drawn to – Streaking!

I was a college sophomore at the time, trying to make it through my classes of organic chemistry, engineering calculations, classical physics, and partial differential equations. Meanwhile, my roommate who had a ROTC scholarship, but had decided by that time to deliberately flunk out since he would not have a service obligation if he didn’t finish his sophomore year, was drawn to the ongoing pursuit of women. He and I were polar opposites when it came to our success with women at that time. There was once when I went to bed in the bottom bunk, and awoke the next morning and found that the top bunk held two people, but I digress (I was a sound sleeper).

March 6 dawned chilly, but by the afternoon, had warmed up into the 70’s. The first warm day in spring on a college campus brings out the hedonism of the students. Blankets were stretched out in our quadrangle, and shirts are shed in order to soak up the first of the spring’s sun rays after the horrendous winter weather on the prairie. After supper, as we should have been studying, word started spreading from floor to floor, and from door to door. “Hey, they’re streaking around the fraternity houses”.

Our quadrangle was smack dab in the middle of campus. On the far side of our dorm, along 16th street, stood the large fraternity houses – Sigma Phi Epsilon, Sigma Nu, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Kappa Psi, Pi Kappa Phi. And then there were the sorority houses – Alpha Omicron Pi, Alpha Phi, Chi Omega, and others (Google Earth is great for reconstructing these sorts of memories). Beyond 16th street were other high rise dorms, so all in all, a critical mass of horniness and hormones flowed out onto the streets of Lincoln that night.

For those of us in our quadrangle dorm, we wore our non-Greekness as a badge of honor. In fact, I had penned a t-shirt with the symbols of ΣΦØ, or Sigma Phi Nothing. But if the Greeks were putting on a free show, me and a few thousand of my close friends were more than happy to share in the event. A group of us from our floor first fortified ourselves with a toke or two, and then joined the thronging crowd that quickly grew large enough to block the arterial 16th street. Lincoln suffered a traffic infarction that evening, as the campus police did nothing to disburse the crowd, but instead redirected traffic around the blocked artery. There were thousands of men and women out enjoying the warmth and the wild experience.

We were out there, wondering when the show was going to start, when suddenly a group of naked men dashed out of their fraternity and ran around the building, going back in through a side door. The crowd cheered as we inhaled the aroma of released inhibitions. Then at one of the sororities, someone appeared at the window, topless. The crowd surged towards the sorority house just as the fraternity’s show ended. Then another fraternity joined in the display, with a group of men jumping out from the bushes and taking a quick lap around their house. Back and forth went the show, and there was even a sorority house that joined in the naked laps. Eventually, though, the show quieted down, and folks drifted away. Traffic flow was reinstituted, and we went back to our own rooms to reflect upon the night’s events.

Not my roommate, though. He proceeded later in the night to streak the girls portion of the quadrangle, and was rewarded for his deed by having someone join him in a combined streak. He never did come back to our room that night.

Thus ended the great streaking surge at the University of Nebraska. Incidents of streaking broke out sporadically, but never again was there a huge surge in place to watch a few exhibitionists strut their stuff. It turns out that the first week of March 1974 was the peak of the streaking epidemic. Ray Stevens had his novelty hit The Streak that very month:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiR3Jy3-MPWAhVJ9YMKHWP-DgoQyCkIKTAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXtzoUu7w-YM&usg=AFQjCNHz9UXM8EvOFet2ryxAKe6y0f64fw

Though for a few years, some schools kept up the tradition, it now is a rarity for a streak to break out, and it will never be the phenomena it was in ’73-’74. And if a repeat were to happen today, the videos would be all over the internet instantly.

It makes me wonder what the next faddish behavior will be. A generation before I went to college, it was the era of the panty raid. My father had mentioned panty raids at Purdue when he had gone to school, but I never knew if he took part in one of those raids. One of the questions you wish you could ask, but never will be able to now.