Thursday, July 26, 2007

Are We Rome?

One of my many summer reading goals is Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? I have heard Murphy interviewed several times the last few months and have been anxious to read his conclusions. I started the book today and it occurred to me that this might be an interesting premise on which to start Govt Class this year. A lot of the students I will have as seniors were my students their sophomore year when I taught them Global Studies. Within that course was an EXTREMELY brief review of Rome. I wonder what kinds of parallels they might draw now - and would they be similar to Murphy's?

The book takes six parallel issues (though Murphy lists many, many more in his intro):

1. The Way Americans see America - specifically, the way the elite inside the Washington Beltway see America; ie, their sense, similar to the Romans, that the world revolves around us.

2. Military Power (of course)- 2 subsets: (a) the cultural division between military society and civilian society and (b) the shortage of manpower.

3. Privatization & Corruption - the difficulty both cultures face in maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities.

4. The Way Americans view the outside world - the flip side of our self-centeredness.

5. Borders - what happens when a rich and powerful civilization bumps up against a poor and less developed one?

6. The Complexity Parallel - "the bigger the entity and the more things it touches, the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control. Maintaining stability requires far more work than fomenting instability."

I am of course (as a teacher of the Constitution) already predisposed to believe the Fall is upon us because no empire can maintain a democracy at home and we've already seen the beginnings of a step-by-step destruction of our Great Experiment (habeas corpus, anyone?). The details will be interesting. Murphy begins chapter one about the capitals with an image that really draws on this Constitution-Loving citizen's heart (especially because I lived many years in our great Capital city). After discussing briefly the ruins of Rome, Murphy writes:
I doubt I'm the only person who has trod, with lofty step, the sculpted gardens of the Capitol and been seized with a vision of how the city below might appear as a ruin. The Washington Monument -- imagine it a millennium hence, a chipped and mottled spire, trussed with rusting braces. The stern pile of the Archives building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, the gothic National Catherdral on its distant hilltop, the turreted Smithsonian Castle on the Mall -- they somehow invite you to see them as derelicts, rendered into darkly impish engravings by the hand of some future Piranesi. What calamity could bring the capital to this condition? Earthquake? Pestilence? Pride? The end of air conditioning?



JayV said...

Hi, this is excellent, thanks. I just discovered your blog. (Well, actully the former one, so cruised on over to here.) To make a long-story-short, I'd searched the word "bohemian," and up popped Mama's 2004 post with that Orwell quote. So, meditating on the then and now aspect of that post, I did one of my own today with attribution, natch! Cheers!

Mz.H said...

Wow - I went to look at that old post from 2004. That's a little sobering. That quote is worth being reminded of regularly. I wonder if is this reliance on lies that will put the inevitable un-fixable chink in our country's armor, or if it will be something more subtle.