Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rome is still burning

Cornel West, speaking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, calls President Obama a "Republican in blackface":
I mean, I'm glad there was not a right-wing takeover, but we end up with a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, with Barack Obama, so that our struggle with regard to poverty intensifies.
Goodman wonders if West is being too harsh, but he refuses to back down:
Oh, that’s what we have. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on health care. Richard Nixon’s to the left of him on guaranteed income.
I think West's comparison is a little over-the-top; Obama is not really to the right of Nixon in the least. And Nixon is hardly a titan in the annals of great Republican leaders, regardless. But prior to the bit on "blackface," West does say something worth repeating. To whit:

I think that it's morally obscene and spiritually profane to spend $6 billion on an election, $2 billion on a presidential election, and not have any serious discussion -- poverty, trade unions being pushed against the wall dealing with stagnating and declining wages when profits are still up and the 1 percent are doing very well, no talk about drones dropping bombs on innocent people. So we end up with such a narrow, truncated political discourse...
It really is an awful lot of money, as I've noted previously, money that apparently failed to induce people to go to the polls, aside from in a few specific States. And in those specific States, the money spent on ads--by the Obama Campaign--was focused on single issue politics, like abortion and the mythical "war on women." West is wholly right in this regard, there was a real lack of serious discussion on big picture issues, on actual economic conditions. Instead, there was just lip service being paid to Party talking points.

West also unloads on a number of hosts at MSNBC, like Sharpton and Dyson, for essentially carrying Obama's water even as significant issues like those above go undiscussed by these hosts and unaddressed by the Obama administration. And on this, he is quite right as well, regardless of how one feels about these issues. Which perhaps justifies West's use of the race card via "blackface," given that MSNBC hosts--and other progressives in the media--are so quick to play that same card in defense of the President.

But getting back to the "narrow, truncated political discourse" that West takes issue with, it is--in my view--a huge problem. The one-up-manship currently in vogue among political leaders and media pundits is out of control (and note that West, even in criticizing it, does it as well). Serious, thoughtful analysis devoid of zingers and sound bites is a rare find these days. It's not to be had among the pundits, nor among the leaders of either major party. A Veterans' Day debate between former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright had moments of heavy debate on heavy issues but ultimately became another zinger contest.

Intellectual laziness, shortened attention spans, information overload, there are many explanations for the lack of a serious discourse on serious issues from our political leaders. Party loyalty, simple politics, fear of a backlash, all of these things and more contribute to the creation of an apparent dichotomy of views--two sides to every issue and only one side allowable for each party--in the current political arena. There is no room for a frank discussion of a given issue anymore. And the consequence? A nation slowly eating itself from the inside out, as fiscal realities are ignored as a matter of course, as the actual ground zero of political decisions--the everyday life of the typical citizen--is largely an afterthought.

In January, President Obama will begin his second term in office, but so far there is little evidence that anything will change, that the President or Congress is prepared to get serious about policy, to actually address the causes of various problems as opposed to simply treating the symptoms via borrowed money (and borrowed time). It is a moment to again reflect on the words of George Santayana:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Comparing the United States to the Roman Empire is of course a time-honored tradition. It's been going on for decades; every period of turmoil and economic collapse (or near-collapse) brings out a flurry of such comparisons. From September of this year, here is a discussion on CNN about the U.S. and it's supposed similarities to the last days of the Roman Empire. The host--Christine Romans--details the debts faced by the U.S. Government and offers up a short summary/comparison:
Historians tell us the Romans, like many civilizations before and after, collapsed under the weight of too much debt. An overextended military, debilitating partisanship and fiscal irresponsibility drove the Roman Empire into the ground.
She then turns to her first guest, former Comptroller General David Walker, who provides a similar summary:
I said three things. One, that we have three similarities to Rome: decline in values, decline in political civility, overconfident and overextended military around the world and fiscal irresponsibility.
The two lists are not all that dissimilar. But are they right? Do they note a comparative reality? In short, is the past being remembered correctly, or is this evidence that it will be repeated?

Let's first dispense with the most obvious error in these lists: the supposed increase in lack of civility. It's a myth, something I pointed out once before. A lack of civility is ever-present in politics when the stakes are as high as they usually are, whether we're talking about Ancient Rome or the world of today. What's actually changed in recent years is--as noted above--the nature of this discourse as played out in the media. It has become--to use West's word--a more truncated discourse. But an uncivil discourse is neither a cause of Rome's collapse nor a present-day mirroring of an ancient problem.

Next, there is the issue of an "overextended" military. As an Empire, Roman survived as long as it did precisely because of its military expansion. Over-extension was its primary tool for growth. The real issue was distance; there came a point where the distance between Rome proper and the borders of the realm were simply too large, where Roman legionnaires could no longer war by season. And this truly was a huge problem, a cause for the eventual failure of the Roman state. The modern world and the modern military is drastically different. Military expansion is not a tool for growth, but a military presence is a tool to expand markets. And in that regard, there is still plenty of room left in the world for a United States military presence. This is not to say such a presence is therefore warranted, only that there is no actual overextended military right now.

Finally, there is the crushing weight of debt, of continued fiscal irresponsibility. It's certainly a valid point. Debt played a role in the fall of Rome, but largely because the model of growth for Rome had the limitations noted above. There were literally no worlds left to conquer for the Romans, insofar as distances had become too great with respect to both communication and return. The debt being piled up by the United States is mostly of another sort, and it is not the first nation to amass such debt either, as even now EU nations are learning about the long-term cost of an extended modern welfare state.

So, does that mean there are no real similarities between a collapsing Rome and our current state of affairs?No. In fact, the CNN discussion completely misses the boat on this, as no one seems to be aware of the single biggest cause of  Rome's fall: a disengaged citizenry, a citizenry more concerned with day to day needs becaming steadily less concerned with issues of governance. During the years of the Republic and the early years of the Empire, Roman citizens--by and large--were concerned citizens and educated citizens, when it came to politics, and in the big-picture sense, not with regard to single-issue politics. Thus, there were instances of civil unrest and even civil war that tended to check the movement of power into more limited hands, a movement that occurs relentlessly in any and every polity throughout history.

Previously, I detailed the background of the Battle of the Colline Gate and how this moment is largely ignored, even though it was the beginning of the end for the Republic (though not for Rome as a whole). This battle was a part of a civil war, a war over serious issues on the nature of Roman government, big issues, fought by citizens who understood what was at stake. The discourse leading up to the moment was similarly serious, not unlike the political discourse in the United States leading up to its Civil War. And this was in 82 B.C.E., before Caesar and Augustus, before the barbarian invasions, before Constantine, before the Decline.

I would argue that from this moment on, the citizenry of Rome became steadily less and less citizens of the State and more and more simple members of a society. The minority who wielded political power became smaller and smaller, with ideology being less of a test than simple access. Bread and Circuses followed, along with consumerism and concerns about achieving the "good life," all built on the back of increasing non-participation and a dumbing down of political issues.

If there are similarities between a declining Rome and the current conditions in the United States, it is in this arena: a weak standard of citizenship coupled with political leaders and commentators more concerned with limited issues, with the maintenance--and therefore the limitation--of political power. Already, the regions around the seat of power--Washington, D.C.--are a far different world from the rest of the nation. Power and wealth flow out from this center, to the detriment of the rest of the nation, the population of which is catered to via limited issues, via simple populism (from both sides, to be sure), and via political games in various elections.

True enough, this consolidation of power began with Lincoln, but it needn't have followed the course it has followed. It needn't stay on that course today. The trick is to de-link the typical citizen from the mostly useless discourse spilling out from national political leaders and pundits. Local politics, state politics, issues in both, these should be the primary concerns. And this was a truth known full well by the earliest groups of the Tea Party, a truth promptly forgotten after the successes in 2010.

Real change begins at home. And so too does the real end, as was the case with the Roman Empire.

Cheers, all.

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