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Are We Rome?

Is America Rome? That is the question Cullen Murphy asks in his very assessable, Are we Rome? : The fall of an Empire and the fate of America. He takes us through the history of Rome and shows us where we are, and are not like Rome and what lessons we can learn from Rome.

Lord Byron wrote is Childe Harold, “There is the moral of all human tales; ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past, First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails, Wealth, vice corruption—barbarism at last.” That was Rome’s fate, is it ours? Murphy identifies six parallels of direct relevance to America. First, both Rome and Washington subscribe to the faulty premises that the world revolves around them. Second, military power, both Rome and America have experienced a widening divide between the military society and civilian society, and a resulting shortage of military manpower. Third, privatization, and the accompanying corruption. Murphy states that, “Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities—and between public and private resources. The line between these is never fixed, anywhere. But when it becomes too hazy, or fades altogether, central government becomes imposible to steer.” America has been embarking on a privatization of previously public tasks. Will we encounter the same consequences as Rome did taking this path? Fourth, is the inability of Rome and America to see the outside world realistically. Murphy asserts that, “it leads to the same preventable form of blindness: either we don’t see what is coming at us, or we don’t see what is hurtling toward.” Fifth, borders, Rome and America share the same dynamic of a rich and powerful civilization bumping up against a poor and less developed one. Sixth, the complexity parallel, According to Murphy sprawling powers face a built in problem. “They inevitably become imposible to manage, because the very act of managing has unpredictable ripple effects, of a global scale, which in turn become part of the environment that needs to be managed.” These similarities may not seem that alarming but Murphy reminds us that, “Changes that seem inconsequential over a single lifetime can upend the social order over three or four.”

Having set the stage, Murphy takes us to the capitals, to the beginnings, and what went wrong in the path from republic, to empire, to demise. Murphy explains the perfect symmetry of it, the last emperor of Rome was Romulus, named after the founder of Rome, and in parenthesis Murphy says, “Imagine if the demise of America were to occur under a president named George?” He explains the similarities between Washington and Rome, physically they can’t be missed. But it is more than that, mentally they share the same outlook. As he wanders Washington, he thinks of the ruins of Rome that he has wandered and imagines what Washington would look like in ruin and asks, “What calamity could bring the capital to this condition? Earthquake? Pestilence? Pride? The end of air-conditioning?” Long before Rome’s formal fall, it had evolved. From pagan to Christian, from a proud army of Romans to paid army of barbarians, from a republic to a regime of one person rule, under which the vestiges of a republican government would remain as shell to legitimize imperial rule. The decline of Rome was gradual and evident in many ways, military power, civil order, trade, architecture, agriculture and infrastructure. Murphy reminds us that, “Rome is a good place to reflect, post Katrina, on how the failure of infrastructure can shape a community for a thousand years.”

Murphy explains that both Rome and Washington suffer from “omphalos syndrome.” Omphalos is the Greek word for navel. Murphy explains that, “the term ‘omphalos syndrome’ originates in the study of old maps, and describes the tendency of people who ‘believe themselves to be divinely appointed to the center of the universe,’ as one geographer explains, to place themselves in the center of the maps they draw.” Washington and Rome are economically pointless cities; they were producers of nothing except words and administration, and truckloads of garbage to be carted off at night. They are importers and consumers of the empires riches. Rome needed constant infusions of grain and olive oil, while for Washington it is tax revenues and borrowed money, to keep them running. The cities become bureaucracies, everyone working for the government or for companies that service the government. Murphy points out that. “Within any closed system, the competitive pressure for status becomes intense” while the “presumption that ‘out there’ is subject to manipulation from the center.”

The legions, the militaries of Rome and America are frequently compared. Both imperial powers with no equal in the worlds they know. The cost of these vast armies demanded enormous treasure. Rome squeezed hard on it citizens and devalued their currency to meet the demands, while America borrows trillions of dollars for theirs. Both had military industrial complexes. Rome had fabricates, that supplied the swords and shields; America has Colt Industries, Lockheed Martin and Point Blank Body Armor. These high maintenance armies were more skilled and more expensive than their competitors. The cost of supporting militaries like this can ruin the poor and enrich the wealthy, as the economy shapes itself to meet the needs of the military. A letter from the fourth century A.D., written by a citizen to the emperor describes the new weapon of war he is promoting and reveals, that Rome to had its lobbyists. But it isn’t just money that armies need, they also needs manpower. And Rome, like America needed more soldiers. It turned to away from Roman citizens, to private soldiers, Barbarians. It would be a devils bargain. This would lead to a divide between the military class and the professional and administrative class. America is seeing this same divide, today most politicians and professors have never served in the military. Murphy states that, “Yesterday’s Conan the Barbarian, is today’s Conon the Contractor.” Murphy reminds us that Milo Minderbinder’s absurd remarks in Catch 22 that, “Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of the business of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry,” is just the path we are now on.

Corruption--the patronage system in Rome led to increasing corruption. Murphy traces this change in society by looking at the Latin word, suffragium. The word originally meant voting tablet, or ballot. The ballot provided a way for citizens to exercise some decision, like electing people to office. The reality was powerful men in Rome began to control large blocks of votes. Eventually voting became an empty ritual, and the word, suffragium, came to refer to the pressure that one man could exert on behalf another. Those that had that kind of power, found that it could be very lucrative to trade that influence for money. The practice of selling influence became so ingrained that emperors no longer tried to halt it, but simply to codify it, regulating how and when it could occur. It wasn’t long before suffragium came to mean bribe. After a look at privatization and the doors it opened to corruption, Murphy looks at the word franchise, and how it reflects the changes in American society. The word originally comes from the French word Franc, meaning free. This word became associated with the fundamental freedom to vote. Like the Latin word suffragium its meaning has evolved as well, and today when one hears the word franchise, they tend to think of its commercial connotations, fast food. The right to market a company’s services or products, Kellogg Brown and Root has the franchise to build military bases. Will the continued evolution of the word franchise reflect America’s history the way the Latin word suffragium has reflected Rome’s history?

In the interactions with others, both Rome and America have borrowed heavily from the cultures around them, embracing what is best from each culture. But all that diversity brings strange uniformity within the culture. When Rome or America goes on the road, building bases and communities elsewhere in the world, those communities look remarkably the same. Our culture writ small; and everywhere we go, we have an impact, and this impact has consequences. Murphy defines this phenomenon as blowback. He says that, “Everything Americans touches can potentially touch us back—often unpredictably, and maybe not for years.” At some point, empires stop expanding and they start defining borders. But the borders of Rome, like Hadrian’s Wall, were not solid barriers to prevent breech, they were porous with commerce pouring through in both directions. For many years, Rome had welcomed new citizens turning them into Romans. What was thought of as, the Sack of Rome by barbarians was less attacks and more immigration. Murphy states that, “By and large the barbarians came not to destroy what Rome had to offer but to get some of it for themselves, in the form of land, employment, power, status.”

However, something was changing in Rome. Murphy observes that, “If there was a tipping point. A factor that made the barbarians a fatally destabilizing force within the Western empire, it was not so much their sheer numbers as the manner in which some of them were eventually let in—a manner that made their absorption much less likely.” Rome began to allow groups of immigrants to settle in designated regions, with their own leaders and their own armies. This was safer than the domestic risks that might have occurred it Rome had pursued conquering them. Money and manpower were in shortage, and trying to extract them from the population could have political consequences. Victories in conquering them would hand glories to generals that might harbor political designs. These autonomous regions would evolve into de facto kingdoms. The fall of Rome would be more of an evolution that a sudden collapse. Murphy states that, “Landlords continued to manage their properties; peasants worked the land; and members of the imperial bureaucracy fulfilled their functions—only now in service of barbarian tribes and chieftains rather than of Roman Emperors.”

Does this have to be America’s fate? Murphy provides us with what he calls the Titus Livius plan. Titus Livius, better know to us a Livy, felt that “what made a society strong is the well being of its people—basic justice, basic opportunity, a modicum of spiritual reward—and the people’s conviction that ‘the system’ is set up to produce it.” The plan calls for first, appreciation for a wider world. Murphy notes that, “Americans have their priorities backward. They worry needlessly about the second part: whether immigrants will ever learn English. They should be worrying about the first part: whether the elites will ever speak anything else.” Second, Murphy proposes, “stop treating government as a necessary evil, and instead rely on it proudly for the big things it can do well.” Government stepping in to open the west, distribute land, nurture business, and reduce poverty is part of the American reality that promotes a sense of common alliance and mutual obligation. Murphy points out that, “Government can be held accountable in ways the private sector can’t. Yes it takes some imagination to see how corrosive privatized government will prove to be many decades down the road—and that’s another thing: start thinking in centuries.”

Murphy third step in his plan is to fortify the institutions that promote assimilation. Murphy observes that, “We can’t change how the world works, cant change the laws of economics, can’t move Mexico somewhere else, can’t seal our border, and can’t turn other countries into Shangri-la so that their people will stay home.” So the answer is to assimilate and turn immigrants into Americans. To say yes, to education, yes to healthcare, yes to national service, and yes to anything that promotes the idea that we are all in this together. Forth, “take some weight off the military.” Murphy suggest that we will never be able to attract enough qualified people for our military to perform all the global tasks we dream up and that we wouldn’t want to pay for an army of that size. His solution is to look at the demand side, rather than supply. To reduce the things we need an army for. For example, reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources would allow us to pull eventually away oversight of the Middle East region. Murphy observes that this might be a hundred year project, but then, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

America is evolving. As Murphy observes, “We don’t live in Mr. Jefferson’s republic anymore, or Mr. Lincoln’s, or even Mr. Eisenhower’s.” Murphy look at the complete picture of Rome provides a perspective for Americans to look at their past and their possible future. Which brings us back to Murphy’s important question, “Are we Rome? In important ways we just might be. In important ways, we’re clearly making the same mistakes. But the antidote is everywhere. The antidote is being American.” This is an important book for Americans contemplating the long-term future of America.

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