Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reflections on Independence Day, 2016

This post addresses the Fabulous Fourth, not the movie sequel, which it seems based on reviews is unworthy of reflection.

For two hundred and forty years, our Great Republic has existed and more or less thrived.  Particularly in the last one hundred years, it has been a dominant if not the dominant nation of this Earth.  The United States has been compared to ancient Rome for quite some time.  That comparison has become commonplace.  Those who make the comparison generally mean to condemn Rome if not us, or at least warn us to take care that the fate of our nation not be that of Rome.  Let's indulge in the comparison for a brief time.

The First Punic War commenced in 264 B.C.E.  Augustus established the principate in 27 B.C.E.  During that period of time, Rome grew from a city which held sway over a good chunk of the Italian peninsula to the master of the Mediterranean world and most of Europe, successively defeating and destroying Carthage and the successors states formed from the dissolution of Alexander's empire.  The United States has in a similar period done much the same, relatively speaking.  This seems appropriate as Rome, or at least the Roman Republic, served as a model of sorts to the Founding Fathers as they created the U.S.

It's doubtful, though, that the Founders thought they were founding an empire like that of Rome.  We have for the most part denied imperial ambitions at least though the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, though Wilson submitted meekly enough to the imperial ambitions of England and France, thus participating in the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, reluctantly signed by many in 1919.  Even before then, though, America had acquired by conquest the American West and a good part of the American East, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and other territories from Mexico, Spain and the indigenous people of North America.  The U.S. managed to buy a great deal of land as well, through the good offices of Napoleon.  So, if imperialism consists of the conquest of territory and its rule by the conquerors, it would seem that America has been de facto an imperial power.

So simplistically far, so simplistically good.  So we carry on.

It's generally thought by many that the fall of Rome began when the Empire replaced the Republic.  If that's so, however, then it was a long, slow fall.  What's usually considered the end of the Empire in the West took place about five hundred years later, and the Empire in the East vanished about a thousand years after that (though it slowly became a very small empire).  Moralists of all kinds seem to be unaware of or ignore the longevity of the decadent Roman Empire.  If it fell due to the sexual and moral corruption they're fond of citing (usually by reference to Nero), we shall be lucky if we last as long no matter how we conduct ourselves or what God we choose to worship (and then ignore when it's convenient to do so, that being our usual practice).

It happens, though, that at its end the Roman Republic was dominated by several gifted and ambitious men, e.g. Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Marcus Antonius, Cicero, Cato, Octavian the Augustus to be.  Most of them weren't particularly moral in our sense, though Cato certainly was ostentatiously virtuous and Cicero at least contemplated what was and was not moral.  Cicero, though, faulted Cato for his stubborn, uncompromising virtue, famously remarking that Cato thought he lived in Plato's Republic, not Romulus' shithole.

While America is full of ambitious men and women at this time, none seem particularly gifted, or moral for that matter.  Given the civil wars which resulted from the conflicting desires of the great of the Roman Republic, perhaps we should be thankful for this lack of ability.

Unfortunately, though, it's ability that might make the difference in the type of empire America will become if it follows the path of Rome.  Augustus, who created the Roman Empire, was a remarkably able politician.  Our politicians are craven and venal and have been for some time, and it may be that the political success of a capering, stridently ignorant man indicates that in the future they'll be craven, venal and boisterously stupid as well.

It's amusing to indulge in comparisons of this kind.  Overall and in the context of history I think the United States has done well in becoming what it is, but just what the future holds can't be predicted through the study of ancient Rome or any other Empire or nation.

There is one sense in which America now resembles old Rome, however, which may give us a hint as to our political future.  Money was of great importance at the end of the Roman Republic; votes were bought, directly or indirectly.  Roman politicians came from a restricted class, but required the support of the people at election time and treated them very generously in return for their support.  Money dominates our politics now, as well.

The difference is that money isn't used as it was in ancient Rome, to pacify and reward common people for their support.  It's used instead by the rich and powerful to pacify and reward politicians who require it to be elected.  Perhaps this accounts for the quality of our politicians.  It's demeaning to be, for all practical purposes, a lackey, a mere chattel in effect, of special interests, corporations, the very rich.  It's demeaning to be a panderer, and an American politician must pander.  What self-respecting, intelligent, able person could stand such a life?

Now, the votes of electors aren't bought; legislators and their votes are bought instead.  It's hard to say which practice will promote a greater degree of corruption in a nation.

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