“Are all of us related by blood at this point?”
The following is a guest blog courtesy of fellow author and playwright David MacDowell Blue. It’s an article he posted on Facebook circa November 28, 2012 under the title “Roman/American Republics,” but hardly out of date in its relevance. It’s edited only for grammar, not content. You can see more of David’s work at his blog http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/.
Let us begin following the triple asterisks.
During the Bush Administration, many complained of the US sliding towards fascism. We engaged in an aggressive war on a flimsy, later totally dis-proven premise. We suspended civil liberties. The White House authorized the use of torture. Today, with a different President, another group makes the same accusation because of health care reform and increased regulation, coupled with extreme paranoia about what they evidently see as a “cult of personality” surrounding Barack Obama.
This is a gigantic set of issues, and I don’t intend to explore them in full. But I would posit that references to fascism seem off-target. Actual fascist states of the past–Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, Cambodia, Revolutionary France, etc.–arise with little or no tradition of democracy or civil liberties. This does not describe the United States of America, not even a little bit. The USA reveres its Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the whole idea of “rights” in a way akin to religious faith.
Which makes us far more similar to another historical precedent. One we therefore should study a bit more. I refer to the Roman Republic.
Rome adored the fact that it had cast out its kings. Even to hint at taking a royal crown was to touch on a deep reservoir of genuine rage–as Julius Caesar discovered at the business end of a few dozen daggers. His successor proved more canny, preserving all the mechanisms of representative government and providing lip service to its ideals while retaining all actual authority in his own hands. Many blame Caesar and Augustus both for ending the Republic. In fact, they were merely the culmination of a long process that took several centuries. And here we get into an important parallel.
Having a legislature is no guarantee of political freedom. Nor is having a Bill of Rights. The Weimar Republic of Germany had both. The military pledging absolute loyalty to one unelected official who serves for life is likewise not an indication of tyranny; every single member of the armed forces of the UK do precisely that. Not that structure and institutions don’t matter! They do! Very very much! But without the attitudes, the sense of what remains “beyond the pale,” the emotional commitment by large enough segments of most parts of society–it all comes to nought. We don’t simply “have” legal rights and civil liberties. They don’t exist outside of a social context. In actual practice, we grant those things to each other and our emotional commitment to what maintains them keeps them real. In the old Roman Republic, one of the key problems that led to their end was a class. More precisely, the ideas inherent in such a class. I’m speaking of the Patricians.
As a group, Patricians regarded themselves as aristocrats, the best of the best and inherently superior to others–be they foreigners or merely those from “younger” or poorer families. They looked upon privilege and special treatment as part of the moral order, at least as long as they themselves received the same. Looking upon non-Patricians, they saw inferiors: lazy, dirty, foolish, unimportant. Barely people at all, but just tools to support the Patricians. Workers to build and maintain Patrician homes, soldiers to fight and die in order to increase Patrician wealth and power, and voters to be manipulated into keeping Patricians in office. And this seemed in no way hypocritical. After all, the Constitution was a contract and it (quite rightly) could be manipulated to give Patrician individuals and families more and more and more. That sometimes others used it to make their own lives better was a distortion of the proper order, to be repaired as soon as was feasible.
Keep in mind, plenty of individual Patricians disagreed with this world view, e.g., the Gracci brothers, when they took up the cause of the lower classes, demanding equal rights and reform. First one, and then the other, were assassinated. An eerie coincidence, yes?
“Who the pluto just just dumped off a bull killed in the arena and a pleb run over by one of our chariots in the middle of the street here? Garbage pickup isn’t until next Juno’s Day! They’re going to attract all kinds of flies in the meantime! We need to write a bill prohibiting the dumping of garbage more than two days before pickup day.”
“Aye, fellow Senator, you’re right as Jove about that! Say, is that a real gold bracelet around that pleb’s ankle?”
At heart, Patricians saw themselves as the state, the nation, and the natural leaders of same. Laws existed to be manipulated for personal gain. Ideals of equality and protection of other classes were not to be taken seriously. So they gradually whittled away at constitutional protections. They turned Rome’s military increasingly into mercenary armies dedicated to Patrician leaders rather than the nation as a whole. Laws became subject to exceptions, not just now and then but routinely. Politics increasingly became about whipping up the mob and aiming them at opponents, usually amid scandalous charges that often had nothing whatsoever to do with truth. Anyone who might regard this as somehow wrong became viewed as being guilty of rank naivete.
‘Cause everyone loves hockey and hierarchies…
I think that is the real threat we face. The rise of just such a class. Surely one of the most obvious symptoms of this would be the recording published by MOTHER JONES magazine of Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” (and believe me, he said a lot more along the same lines). It also shows in the frankly absurd idea that somehow cutting taxes on the wealthy (whose taxes are already at an all-time low) will somehow fix a large deficit. C’mon. Who can buy nonsense like that? Another symptom is the use of private contractors (i.e., mercenaries) for American military operations in Iraq.
“All right, everyone hired by the Black Wreath Co. can take a lunch break now as per company policy… but as for the regular enlisted centurions, keep fighting! For Rome and all its glory, waah-hooo!! Oh, and praise be to Mars!”
But lest any think I’m just picking on the Republicans or Conservatives, let us not forget the equally troubling but more subtle growth of political dynasties. Look at how many people want Hilary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, or Jeb Bush to run for president in 2016! There’s a seat in the Senate literally known as the “Kennedy Senate Seat.”
This may sound like a lot of doom and gloom, but it isn’t meant as such. Rather I offer this comment in the hope that we shall avoid Rome’s fate. But right now, the growth of a Patrician class–not in terms of wealth but in attitude–seems to represent the single biggest threat to our nation’s character and future.
This one speaks for itself 🙂