TYRRELL: Lessons from the ancient Mayans

Civilizations rise and fall, sometimes over a ‘fiscal cliff’

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SANTO TOMAS DE CASTILLA, GUATEMALA

Wherever is that, you ask? Generally, this column comes to you from Washington, D.C., or New York City. Occasionally, it comes from London or Paris. Yet today it carries the dateline of a seaport in Guatemala, and if it were written a day ago or two days hence, it would carry the dateline of Belize. It is freezing up north. The inclement weather has driven me to tropical parts. Global warming sounds more and more agreeable to me.

The frozen remains of palm trees supposedly have been found in the melting ice of the poles. Well, that is good news. Bring together a village of Eskimos and notify them of the so-called perils of global warming and, my guess is, they would to a man and a woman all become vociferous advocates of man-made climate change or anthropogenic climate change, as the phrase has it. Think of it. Wearing a bikini at the North Pole. That is progress.

I am aboard the cruise ship Yorktown once again. Last summer, we took an amiable crowd of National Review and American Spectator readers on a tour of the Great Lakes. This winter, we have taken mainly AmSpec readers on a tour of the Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala, with stops along the way to inspect the barrier reefs and fish life, and even to partake of snorkeling. Also, we are doing a good bit of basking in the sun and snickering at our friends up north.

Of particular interest is the Mayan civilization. It flourished in the jungles of these parts from roughly 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1521, whereupon it ceased. Gone, fini, vanished — just like that. No war nor pestilence nor plague has been detected by modern scholars seeking to explain its passing. There remain great stone edifices: temples, palaces, living quarters — even evidence of sacred altars for human sacrifice. However, there is no extant evidence as to why Mayan civilization ceased. It was highly advanced, with a written language and astronomical literacy. Yet no word has been found that anything was amiss before A.D. 1521 when it utterly ceased to function. There are Mayans around today, but none seems to know why he is not living atop a ruin in the jungle, perhaps with colorful feathers sticking in his hair and a fancy wand or whatever those sticks are that his ancestors are pictured carrying. I doubt it has even occurred to a modern-day Mayan to reclaim a palace or one of the splendid temples in the jungle even for an occasional ritual sacrifice. Perhaps they are too polite.

American Indians make all manner of extravagant claims on the federal government, some of which have resulted in extravagant restitution. The modern-day Mayans make no such claims down here in Belize or Guatemala. They seem to prefer hanging out at the gas station to taking over a temple or palace. Why doesn’t a local Mayan huckster with a huckster’s gift for dramaturgy and eloquence simply take over a Mayan ruin and declare it his own? Maybe he could even collect taxes. He surely could take his case to the United Nations or the World Court. Today’s Mayans possibly have suffered a huge failure of imagination. It might have begun back in A.D. 1521 when the Mayan civilization went poof. Have modern scholars detected in the records of the ancient Mayans any signs of an awareness of mounting economic problems, of an accumulating unsustainable national debt or of entitlements leading to bankruptcy? The Mayans boasted a rich hieroglyphic language. Is there a word in old Mayan for entitlement? How in Mayan would one spell Obamacare?

The other day as I tripped over a Mayan ruin, some dismal thoughts did occur to me. Could we go the way of the Mayans? Well, I doubt we would leave no evidence of the cause of our demise. True, our godlike leader has never fretted about the problems of entitlements or of unsustainable national debt. If he ever thought seriously about the IOUs being rung up by the government, he never would have wasted years trying to bring down on us yet another unsustainable entitlement, Obamacare. But there are leaders in other branches of government who are immensely worried about the perilous state of our economy and about the drift of our leaders away from the Constitution. In the courts, in the House of Representatives, and in the states there is mounting concern that the progressives in Washington are en route to national decline, if not the end of civilization as we know it.

I had better get back to Washington. There is work to be done.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

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