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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Myth: America is Different From Ancient Rome

At this excellent post, six parallels are drawn between ancient Rome (Which- key point -doesn't exist anymore by the way, in case you missed the memo) and the USA:
In addition to these six, I would add #0:  Massive and growing income and wealth disparity.  Wealth oils the economic engine and if too much lubricant languishes in the oil pan, key engine parts can seize up from oil disparity.  This metaphor doesn't dictate equal distribution, just sufficient distribution to keep all the parts moving together.  That should appease the Ayn Rand people.
I'll summarize the six key points from Cullen Murphy's book, "Are We Rome?, the fall of an empire and the fate of America", the six scary ways in which we're similar to that failed empire:
  1. The way we look at ourselves- We think the rest of the world revolves around us.  "Unfortunately, it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy—just a faulty premise."  Such arrogance, even if deserved- it isn't -blinds a society to its weaknesses as well as to lessons to be learned from other countries.  Can you say "national healthcare"?
  2. The way we run our military- Two points here; the widening gap between our military and civilian societies and, closely related, a shortage of manpower.  Most of us feel no responsibility for the physical defense of our country, unlike Germany for example which has mandatory military service.  As a result, Rome had to hire "barbarians" (i.e. "enemies") which didn't make much sense and didn't work out that well either.  The USA has also hired barbarians:  Al-Qaeda, Haliburton, Whackenhut & Blackwater (now sanitized as "Xe Services LLC) to name a few.
  3. The way we privatize (in other words, corrupt) public services-  As the book points out, aside from the conflicts of interest that result, when boundaries blur between public and private resources it becomes easier to privatize profits and socialize losses.  Is water a public resource?  How about tax revenue? Banking?  Yes, they are.  Or were.
  4. The way we look at others-  Arrogance about our capabilities and capacities (based, I believe, in a pervasive inferiority complex) and disparagement of non-Americans has the result that "either we don’t see what’s coming at us, or, we don’t see what we’re hurtling toward.”  Or both and.  Dangerous.
  5. The way we set our borders-  I'm not sure I agree this matters much, but the similarity is that we and Rome resist a mutually beneficial permeability with our neighbors.  We gnash our nationalistic teeth without asking whether we're harming ourselves or protecting ourselves.
  6. The way we can't control consequences-  I would rephrase this to:  The way we think we can violate basic adult principles- e.g. fairness, compassion -without expecting our victims to react.  "Control" isn't really the issue anyway.  In fact, it is our resistance to being affected by the rest of the world that will be our demise.  As John Cage so aptly opined, "I don't know why people are so afraid of new ideas.  It's the old ones I'm afraid of."  But it is true; the larger and more complex we allow ourselves to become, the more susceptible we are to events beyond our control.  So in the face of that given, wouldn't it make sense to adhere to just a few ideals, like truth, justice and simplicity?

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