Wednesday, January 8, 2014

America is NOT Rome

I really wish I could just post about books or indie games every week on this blag. But no, the rest of the world just won't stop being stupid...

Today's misery comes from a recent piece in Politico where a Rob Goodman tries to draw parallels between contemporary Congressional gridlock and the "fall of the Roman Republic." Less an article and more a long-form ad for his non-history book on Cato Minor, Goodman argues that if we don't get ourselves straightened out, our republic will fall too. Somehow.

To make his point, Goodman takes one look at history and says "See ya!" Using Cato to illustrate ancient Rome with all the nuance of a coloring book, he presents a nation in the grip of legislative gridlock where the proscribed elections are suspended in terror of Caesar rolling onto the Capitoline Hill on a wave of popular support. Where the bold if dumb as a brick Cato valiantly denounces the land redistribution plans that would reward returning veterans, as their love of Caesar might become a "constituency for military tyranny." Where such things as "elections" and "liberty" are never explained in the context of Rome but left to linger as self-evident precursors of the modern antics of Ted Cruz and company.

"What the cac is 'gridlock?'"
It's hard not to see Goodman making some connection between the Roman Cato and the American Cruz. Indeed, they're more similar than even he admits - both stonewalled attempts to spread the wealth of their respective nations to the masses while championing the privilege of their own oligarchies. But even that's a shallow reading of history. While Cruz and the Tea Party are - like it or not - a distinctly populist band of reactionaries, Cato was first and foremost an aristocrat. He wouldn't have been caught dead with the plebs that make up the Tea Party and he sure as hell wouldn't have bothered couching his opposition to Caesar in some "for the people" nonsense. Because that sort of faux-populism espoused by the elite was simply not a concept in ancient Rome.

In presenting such a shallow reading of history - really, any undergrad would  get an F for writing this crap - Goodman does harm to the ghost of a good point he has kicking around in this long demonstration of ignorance. American Conservatives are just as driven by postmodern identity politics as Napa Valley hippies, if not more so, and a big part of that identity is just the sort of apocalyptic rhetoric Goodman sees coming from Cato - whether it did or not:

"Envisioning decline is addictive. It offers us the chance to imagine our times as extraordinary and to cast ourselves in heroic roles to meet them. And the thrill demands a higher dose of doom each year."

And that's the only real truth to be had in Goodman's blather. Rome did not fall with Cato and Caesar. Rather, the Republic transitioned to the Principate - and not even until after Augustus had put away the rival Marc Antony. Augustus was an "emperor" because that's the only English word that conveys the sense of power he held. Really, his actual title translates to "First Among Equals," sitting in the Senate and holding enough simultaneous titles to be a de facto dictator without any of the bad press. The transition from the Principate to the Dominate marks a much more obvious historical example of an empire's slide into decadence and that didn't happen for another hundred and eighty years. And that century-plus period had ups and downs from Nero to Marcus Aurelius.

One of the few things even Gladiator got right...

What implications could this have for 21st century America? Good question. Goodman doesn't offer an answer and neither do the comments - that cesspool of contemporary discourse. Rather than offer any interpretations of their own or at least challenge Goodman's risible reading of history, the readers of Politico would much rather use this article to kick off another round of digital pissing contests where all the libertarians can complain about the Big Bad Gub'mint and the progressives can fire back defensively. Because even after steamrolling through two presidential elections, American progressives still can't put up a fight.

Which makes them damn lucky to be living in a time where their enemies are such tremendous cowards. Libertarians are only a threat to you if you're alone at night and black. Both Caesar and Cato had "military constituencies" - men with swords - backing them up, as did every other important gasbag whose memoirs are available two millennia later. Because that's the other glaring difference between America and Rome which Goodman and his readers won't talk about: people killed and died over their disputes as a matter of course. For all their Second Amendment bluster, no conservative or libertarian has the discipline to make serious war against the "tyranny" they always bitch about when a Democrat's in the White House. Doing so not only takes courage and effort but presents the risk of dying horribly. Horrible, honorable death is not part of the political identity of any American.

The American republic isn't going to fall. The Roman republic didn't fall back in the day, it just reorganized the oligarchy. Business as usual will continue - and that should be depressing enough.

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