In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon's brilliant narrative power and avalanche of names and numbers is peppered with words like "dissolution," "vice," "fear," "avarice," "lust," "cruelty," "religious zealotry," and "gluttony." The empire, it's clear, was not so much conquered by barbarians as it was felled by the sheer weight of its decadence. The glory that was Rome was, as Tony Bennett put it, "of another day." The Romans, in short, were resting on their laurels. As a result, they were willfully ignorant of the outside world. They believed that their status as "the world's only superpower" (is there an echo in here?) was ordained by God. Thus, they believed they could do anything they wanted -- including squander the world's riches -- without remorse or retribution. This, famously (see Fellini's Satyricon), included orgies of sex, drink, gore and food. Lots of food. Their empire, and waistlines, expanded, even as they collectively grew more weak.
Flash forward to America in 2005. The same suicidal mindset has been reborn. George W. Bush is our Nero, jogging and riding bicycles while Iraq burns. Rumsfeld is our Caligula, blood dripping from his fangs. James Dobson and Pat Robertson share the role of Constantine, religious whack jobs willing to take the rest of us down with them in their rush to the Rapture. And so on. A great writer put it this way: "There is nothing new under the sun."
What inspired these thoughts, besides flipping through an abridged copy of Gibbon's great work, was the latest news bubbling up from the fast food cesspool. Even after Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation offered grim, irrefutable warnings of the deleterious health effects of America's dietary obsessions, the madness continues ... and gets worse. To wit: Pizza Hut now offers a "Full House XL" pizza, 30 percent bigger than its previous biggest; it contains 2,240 calories (the maximum daily recommended caloric intake for humans is 2400). Burger King has introduced "Enormous Omelette the King of Breakfasts" and an "Ultimate Double Whopper" with bacon and cheese. Ruby Tuesday's, blaming a "slimmed down" menu for lower profits, has an "Ultimate Colossal Burger" made from two half-pounds of beef, packing a 1,781-calorie punch. Wendy's new "Triple with Cheese" has 1,000 calories, and Hardee's' "Monster Thickburger, the mother of all hamburgers" has 1,430 calories.