Cambodia temple ruins spur wider question: Are there time limits to the greatness of a nation?

Nature is winning its battle with Cambodia's Ta Prohm temple.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Nature is winning its battle with Cambodia’s Ta Prohm temple.

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA — “Welcome to the Angelina Jolie temple,” our guide said as we climbed stone steps toward Ta Prohm, one of the most beautifully eerie sites in Cambodia’s ancient Angkor ruins.

I felt a stab of sadness. Not because the jungle was winning its battle with the 800-year-old temple. Yes, the massive roots of strangler-fig and silk-cotton trees were spectacularly crushing the temple’s intricately carved corridors and pillars.

What saddened me was his eagerness to define this amazing icon of his once-great country by deferring to American pop culture. To be sure, he could have done worse than to associate Ta Prohm with the actress-humanitarian who visited here to shoot the 2001 adventure film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

But this ancient wreck of a temple was the work of the mighty Khmer empire that once controlled vast reaches of Southeast Asia. It deserved respect in its own right.

Here and everywhere else in Cambodia, I couldn’t stop thinking about how and why great civilizations have failed. The questions had puzzled me before I left Minnesota in February. And they’ve hounded me since my return.

Was Jared Diamond correct when he said in his book “Collapse” that societies fail because they inadvertently choose to do so?

Losing its mojo?
One reason the question nags is that so many Americans have lost confidence in their own prominence and prosperity. We’re surrounded these days by headlines like the one in Newsweek a few months ago: “Is America losing its mojo?”

We still pile up the Nobel prizes (won mostly by American scientists in their 70s, Newsweek noted).

Look deeper, though, and it’s clear that America “is like a star that still looks bright in the farthest reaches of the universe but has burned out at the core,” Newsweek said.

One of many points it offered in support of that statement came from a study [PDF] last year by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington. It analyzed 40 countries on various measures of what they were doing to make themselves more innovative in the future. The United States came in dead last.

Of course, doomsday predictions are nothing new in this country. Give me any national crisis, and I think I could find a related political cartoon featuring a variation on the theme “The end is near.”

But polls find an epidemic of pessimism in the country today. “The ‘American Century’ was sooo last century, as many Americans see it,” ABC news said about a poll it conducted with the Washington Post last month. About half of those polled expect the United States to play a diminished role in world affairs and the global economy.

Those findings are consistent with other recent polls in which as many as two-thirds of Americans have said they do not believe our future will be as good as our past.

Lifespan of a great state
At Ta Prohm, I was torn. Much as I hated to see the destruction, I couldn’t help admire those tenacious trees that were snaking their roots around the hand-carved walls and columns of the Buddhist temple.

Maybe there are natural limits to the greatness of a state — sort of like the limits on a human lifespan. Live right, and you can live a bit longer. But just as death is inevitable, so has been the history of great nations eventually slipping from the pinnacle of power.

There are different ways to fall from power, though. As Diamond put it in his best-selling book, a few empires have collapsed catastrophically, and the monumental ruins they left behind “hold a romantic fascination for all of us.”

In the evening vendors sell food for riverside picnics in Phnom Penh.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
In the evening vendors sell food for riverside picnics in Phnom Penh.

Others have managed to decline with minimal damage, even with grace. Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously marked the end of his country’s dominance over Africa with his eloquent “Wind of Change” speech before the South African parliament in 1960.

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it,” he said.

Britain may have fallen from world dominance, but life in what’s left of the U.K squares with my standards for quality.

Cambodia, though, kept falling, falling, falling — right through the 20th century. And it fell so hard, so far.

Some historians blame an excess of self-indulgence. (Ring any alarms for modern-day America?) This temple and its magnificent neighbors — especially the granddaddy of them all, Angkor Wat — demanded an unbelievable investment of labor and resources. Impressive as they are as public works, some of that human power could have gone into farming and defending the land.

The ravages of war
Another cause was the ravages of war. After repeated battles with the Siamese, the Cham (now a fallen people in their own right) and the Vietnamese, almost all of the great temple communities in this part of Cambodia were abandoned by the 15th century.

By the 19th century, the country was on the verge of dissolution, and it fell under French control.

The 20th century brought independence, but neither peace nor prosperity. In the 1960s, supposedly neutral Cambodia allowed the North Vietnamese to use parts of the country for the resupply and training it needed to support its operations in the war next door. And the United States bombed Cambodia, killing thousands of people.

Finally, the unstable country fell under the control of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot. One in every five Cambodians — some 1.7 million people — died during the 1970s. The educated were murdered, the cities were emptied and the people were forced into a living a tragic delusion of idealized peasantry. Starvation and disease reigned.

Cambodia has made remarkable strides toward recovery in the past decade.

It takes time, though, and immense effort to rebuild a shattered society. Someone born in Cambodia can expect to live about 60 years, compared with nearly 80 years in the United States. One in four Cambodians is illiterate. And a baby born here is nearly as likely to die before its first birthday as one born in Haiti.

The sun setting on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
The sun setting on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake.

You still see too many gaunt people sleeping on sidewalks in Phnom Penh, the capital. Too many toddlers are begging — some under the direction of adults who drape the tots in snakes to attract the attention and dollars of tourists. Too many treasures in this temple and others nearby have been plundered for sums that couldn’t be anything but paltry considering their priceless historic and architectural value.

Such is the state of a country which once was so advanced that the French naturalist Henry Mouhot declared [PDF] its buildings to be “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

In grave danger
I still was haunted when I got home from Cambodia by the contrast between the great Khmer empire and the sorry state of the country today.

Thinking about the broader implications, I pulled from my shelf a slender book by David Boren. A Democrat, he was a U.S. senator, governor of Oklahoma and president of the University of Oklahoma.

“The country we love is in trouble,” Boren begins his 2008 book, “A Letter to America.”

“In truth, we are in grave danger of declining as a nation,” he said.

 Boren doesn’t pull his punches. Among other points, he said:

• Our political system is broken. Bipartisanship, with the parties working together to solve urgent problems, is viewed with nostalgic romanticism.

• Grassroots democracy is being destroyed by a flood of special interest money being poured into politics.

• Shockingly, we as citizens are becoming incapable of protecting our rights and democratic institutions, because we do not even know our own history.

• The greatest risk to our economy is posed by continued budget deficits.

• The middle class in our country is shrinking, with many falling into the category of poor or nearly poor. … Continuing to pursue an economic policy driven by greed will destroy us socially.

Scary stuff.

Did any wise man ever give such pointed warnings to the people of ancient Angkor? Did they, maybe, ignore the wisdom to their great peril? Did they laugh when some bearded sage said, “The end is near?”  

A strategy for the future
Still, Boren reassured me somehow — partly because he offers a bold strategy for pulling the nation back on a sound footing. Here’s a sampling of his suggestions:

• Amend the Constitution to restrict campaign contributions to those who are eligible to vote in a given candidate’s election. Congress never will do it. Either will the courts (And Boren wrote this before the U.S. Supreme Court recently cut restraints from corporate contributions.)

• Get a grip on entitlement spending by raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits and also raising the taxes well-off recipients pay on their benefits. Use means testing to end Medicare for millionaires and raise premiums for other high-income earners so that they aren’t subsidized by struggling young workers.

• Launch a nationwide American history crusade and require all college and university students to study government and our nation’s history before they graduate.

Because of tough-minded Americans like Boren — people with the guts to say everyone has to contribute and sacrifice for our collective future — you won’t see me wearing an “End is near” T-shirt anytime soon.

Maybe giant trees will take back Capitol Hill one day. But I don’t believe we are even close to being finished at this point.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Cynthia Boyd on 03/22/2010 - 10:36 am.

    Fascinating and thought-provoking. Thanks for this take, Sharon. I’m going to track down Boren’s book.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/22/2010 - 10:37 am.

    In an odd way Ms. Schmickle presents the American crises in the quintessentially American way. By framing it as a matter of “mojo” (albeit metaphorically) Schmickle betrays a mindset that has paralyzed our nation. The belief in free-market magic has so completely and universally captured the American mind regardless of political orientation, class, or education that as a nation it’s become impossible to escape the circularity of it. The American mind remains so entranced with magic that effective leadership is all but impossible.

    The problem of course with Diamonds thesis in “Collapse” is that it pretends there is “a” reason civilizations collapse. The truth is there are many different reasons; invasion, resource exhaustion, inept leadership, internal strife, overextension, natural disaster, etc. You end up with “mojo” with this approach as matter of logic, if there is one reason for collapse, there then must be one reason for not-collapse, and it’s gotta be magic of some kind because no other single reason will explain it.

    In theory you could believe in magic and still have a decent country but our problem is that this delusion has obliterated our ability to make decent public policy. Magic has so completely captured the American mind that it’s even distorted history. The magic narrative tells us that America is the product of minimal government staying out of the way while entrepreneurial individuals with unstoppable work ethics, egos, and ingenuity built a divinely inspired and protected city of god. Of course this is hogwash, its fantasy pretending to be nostalgia, pretending to be history. Our nation didn’t “emerge” magically from an idea, people designed and built it. The founding fathers did not believe in magic, nor did they assume a decent nation would simply “emerge” from landscape inhabited by free people. The founding fathers wrote a declaration of independence, then they fought a revolution, and then they wrote a constitution, this wasn’t magic, it was action.

    Schimckle points to action when she sites the technology study that asks what other nations are doing. The key concept there is “doing”. What were the founding fathers “doing” when they wrote the constitution? What are other countries doing that’s making them more competitive? It’s called public policy. The thing is to make and implement public policy. Government is the mechanism by which public policy is developed and implemented. The founding fathers understood that, that’s why they created a government. Americans today don’t get it, they don’t believe in “doing”, they believe in “anti-doing”. They believe that public policy and government are irrelevant. As long as you have a good resume, a positive attitude, and the requisite level of self confidence, all else is irrelevant. Liberals and conservatives alike suffer from this anti-policy delusion. Don’t make policy, don’t do anything, you might interfere with the magic.

    The truth is that colonization, the Louisiana Purchase, expansion, railroads, electrification, education, highways, and Teflon, were all products of deliberate public policy, not magic. The recent health care debate has illustrated how completely enthralled Americans remain with idea of magic vs. public policy. We spent over a year designing a health care “solution” that is so convoluted, so complex, and expensive as to be ultimately unworkable and incomprehensible. How did this happen? Well, you don’t want to interfere with the magic. You don’t want to replace a health care market with a health care system because the market is magic and the system isn’t. Note, this isn’t a conservative thing, this bill passed without a single Republican vote.

    The problem with “history” as the solution as Boren suggests is that you end up having to decide “who’s history”. The Texas version of history, or the Howard Zinn version of history? Our country is so enthralled with magic at the moment that even history is obscured. It’s not just that we can’t implement public policy, we can’t event discuss it rationally. We build stadiums with taxpayer money while our bridges collapse. History is good, and it would be nice if people understood how and why governments function (you have to pay for government for example, and that’s not a bad thing). But you’re not going to get anywhere with history or civics lessons until someone really really manages to convince Americans that there really really really is no such thing as magic. Seriously, really, there is no such thing as magic. If you want problems solved, infrastructure built, children educated, you have to make and implement policy, you have to actually do something not wait for it to magically emerge from free markets.

  3. Submitted by patricia benson on 03/22/2010 - 12:14 pm.

    Speaking at the recent South x Southwest event about mainstream media in the age of digital media, Clay Shirky, tech thinker and N.Y.U. professor, said that content is everywhere and “…abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” Sharon Schmickle’s thoughtful article about Cambodia and the collapse of nations brought Shirky’s comment to mind; a very interesting idea and one that speaks to more than the issue of pirated digital music. In 21st century America, the 24/7 cacophony of individual voices, opinions, “expertise,” and animosity seems to have accelerated the loss of any collective notion of what it means to be American. We have an overwhelming abundance of individual perspective and a serious scarcity of collective reflection. This, to me, has more to do with America’s visible fraying at the edges, than magic does. And we can only speculate on the invisible fraying at our core, with consequences not yet known. This is why our history is important. It’s not always pretty, but it’s the best text we have for remembering how to balance two seemingly opposing ideas: individual liberty and collective responsibility. That balancing act is America’s strength. We squander it at our peril through righteous attachment to devout partisanship, which has become self-protection masquerading as democracy.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/23/2010 - 06:33 pm.

    To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr from his book “Moral Man and Immoral Society:” within every societal system, no matter what that system might be, a small number of people always find ways to extract far more resources from the system than their contribution to the system would justify.

    It might seem that “welfare queens” (to borrow a phrase from Reagan) are what Niebuhr is describing, but he does not see “the poor” as the primary culprits. It is “the rich” who destroy societies.

    In every system, there eventually develops a group of people who are, by virtue of their wealth able to gain control over the system in ways that guarantee they will continuously get richer, while others, get poorer because of the way the rich have designed the system to function. The rich then create mythologies about the poor to justify to themselves why they deserve far more than their share of societal resources.

    Human societies can only move in this direction about so far. When the society approaches the point where the rich have everything and too many of the poor have nothing left to lose and nothing to give in hopes of a better life for their children and grandchildren but their own lives. Then all hell breaks loose.

    Since the mythology created by the rich holds those with means blameless in all of this, they NEVER see this inevitable collapse into chaos coming.

    Here in the United States, we were moving rapidly in that direction until FDR initiated the “New Deal.” Violence had already been done nationwide and across the Midwest and West, radical groups prepared to do more violence against big business and the rich and were attracting more and more members and organizing to begin open rebellion.

    We’ve moved back in that direction since Reagan, although in this case, the Republicans and the rich, who have increasingly bought controlling interest in most of our national media, have diverted the public’s anger away from those responsible for the shrinking middle class and the increasing numbers of people living in poverty and, at least so far, successfully redirected that anger at “Big Government,” “Liberals,” and “Democrats.”

    This may be about to change, but we shall see. Unless we work hard to push our nation back in the direction of a more well-regulated, more equal society, we may yet find our way into our own demise, led into that demise by the misinformation supplied by those who, in blindly pursuing their own ends, and willfully ignorant of the consequences of their selfish, self-serving deeds, have engineered our destruction.

  5. Submitted by Kent Davis on 03/24/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    Sharon, thank you for writing one of the most provocative travel articles I’ve read about Cambodia, and for making your Angkor experience relevant to our modern world.

    Standing alone in ruined jungle temples that were once magnificent makes your questions disturbingly real.

    I’ve spent 20 years traveling and working in Southeast Asia. Since 2005 I’ve focused on one mystery at Angkor Wat: Who are the 1,796 ancient women whose realistic stone portraits dominate the structure?

    Nearly 1,000 years later, no one knows.

    Perhaps their identity will help us understand the questions you’ve raised about the rise and fall of this civilization. More info at http://www.devata.org

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