‘San Francisco: It’s the New Rome.’

Bay Bridge San Francisco (Frank Schulenburg / Flickr / CC / Cropped)
Frank Schulenburg / Flickr / CC / Cropped

“San Francisco: It’s the New Rome.” That’s the anonymous comment overheard by Politico’s Mike Allen–or one of his sources–at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the summer gathering of the nation’s intellectual elite (and the people with enough money to be seen with them). It is an acknowledgment of the city’s new power–and its decadence.

The financial and technological power concentrated in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is changing the nature of work, leisure, and even desire. And yet the city’s own limitations–its inequality, its childlessness, its disorder–prove impossible to overcome.

St. Augustine wrote that the collapse of ancient Rome showed the contradictions between the City of God–the ideal republic that awaited in Heaven–and the city of man on earth. San Francisco, the new Rome, is beset by contradictions between the ideal of liberal utopia and the reality of liberal government.

The city’s environmentalists have imposed building restrictions that make housing astronomically expensive. The city’s socialists respond with higher minimum wages that drive up business costs. And so the city welcomes illegal aliens–a minority of whom commit horrific crimes.

For fifty years, San Francisco has been the capital of a counter-culture–one that has since become the nation’s dominant culture. With the legalization of same-sex marriage as a “fundamental right” by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, the city–recognized for decades as the gay capital of the world–has few taboos left to challenge. Having liberated sex from its bourgeois constraints, it now re-asserts restraint as fantasy, in the form of bondage pornography. That cottage industry is now threatened, as the HIV/Aids activism that began in San Francisco imposes condom use–i.e. censorship–in adult film.

The contradictions are everywhere. The city’s leaders want to stop the oil industry from “fracking” in California. So to meet its needs, the city imports oil by rail. San Francisco’s elite insists on locally-produced food, even as drought threatens California’s local agriculture. The farms would have more water, if so much of the state’s rainfall were not flushed into the San Francisco Bay to save a small fish–while the city’s own supply is guaranteed by the sort of dam its environmentalists refuse to allow elsewhere.

Today, Rome stands for both rise and fall. Which Rome, then, is San Francisco?

Time will tell.