So a political columnist walks into a bar and starts talking about ancient Rome…

A friend in the U.S. military sent me an e-mail last week with a quote from the historian Lewis Mumford’s book, “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Mumford was describing Rome’s decline: “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”

It was one of those history passages that echo so loudly in the present that it sends a shiver down my spine — way, way too close for comfort.

…[Bla bla bla I’m Thomas L. Friedman I get paid a lot of money to say things that are obviously boring and stupid bla bla bla]…

We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”

Thomas L. Friedman, Third Party Rising.

So I agree with the very general gist of this column—a column which surely allowed Mr. Friedman to purchase a new set of sports cars for his hordes of maturing love children—but I couldn’t help but get my hackles raised and glazed at the author’s reckless bandying about of vague historical references. There is a rule to using the Google: no one can talk politics without concluding that his ideological opponent is basically Hitler, and, also, people whose knowledge of the Roman Empire does not extend far beyond the bounds of Gladiator (very very rich people who have yet to read a single book on the subject) will nonetheless conclude (after a great deal of thoughtful analysis) that the modern world is more or less identical to Europe during the decline and fall of Rome, and that Americans are quite possibly “the new Romans.”

Now that statement is absurd enough on its own. We can simply look at the abstractions in the Mumford quote and apply them to the Roman populace at large during the Empire’s decline—a populace which probably had plenty of “inner go”, struggling rather desperately as most of them always had to get their next meal, too desperately to care about whether a barbarian king or a Roman Emperor was the one collecting their taxes at swordpoint. And there was not a mere “holding on” anywhere. The decline of the Empire was not a constant; later Emperors that Mr. Friedman has probably never heard of, Emperors like Justinian and Basil the Bulgar Slayer (who despite his lack of celebrity status has one of the best names of any political leader, a name more fitting to a certain metal band (his Greek nickname, Bulgaroktonus, even has the word rock in it!)), were able to take back large portions of territory that previous rulers had lost. Then there were cultural Renaissances even in the worst of times, as in the final period under the Palaeologoi. The list goes on. Things get complex when you take the time to examine them.

Basil The Bulgar Rocker

(regardless, the out-of-context Mumford quote is very cool and makes me want to read the entire book, though I think it’s more a reflection of modernity looking at the past than an objective description of that past by itself)

It is simply too simplistic to say there was a constant, thousand-year decline; it is even more simplistic to apply that notion to our world, and to further imply that America’s competitors are akin to the ravening barbarians who supposedly thrashed Rome into the dust—as Friedman probably does here.

Now despite this nitpicking I said I agreed with Mr. Friedman, even if the man is Doctor Phil’s long lost twin, and I do. The two parties, whom the people of the future are not going to remember any more than we remember the Greens and the Blues from Byzantine history, are corrupted by vast infusions of money. Recently on The Daily Show Arianna Huffington said that politicians should pay for their campaigns entirely from a public fund, and I completely agree with that; such a move would make our democracy far more democratic, in enabling anyone to run and not just the people with rich friends; and, more importantly, it would seriously undercut the corruption in the government. But because it is so obviously logical it will never happen. Mountainous, Sisyphean, Impossibly Mind-Numbing Corruption is an inherent cultural phenotype of the human species. And a man who says the world is flat is probably not going to change that. A third party won’t even change that. A successful third party will be co-opted and corrupted by the same fat, walking bags of money that are corrupting everyone else.

Speaking of bags, there is another far more insidious problem in our politics: the vast sums of wealth accumulated by certain political columnists. Have you seen the size of Friedman’s house? I lost any respect I had for the man the moment [Omid and I] accidentally drove past it [Omid was the one at the wheel] a few years ago when [we] went to go see Obama’s inauguration [I could not have gone without Omid’s immense help and then paid him back by getting incredibly sick the night before the event]. From wikipedia: “The July 2006 issue of Washingtonian reported that [Friedman owns] “a palatial 11,400-square-foot (1,060 m2) house, currently valued at $9.3 million, on a 7½-acre parcel just blocks from I-495 and Bethesda Country Club.” Now this man, who looks like a cat, is in fact quite a fat cat. I think he has every right to publish his idiocies—I just wish the only people who read the man were unbearably rich, stupid nitwits who think they are intelligent simply because they were fortunate enough to wheedle their way into an absurd, decadent, and lunatic position of wealth.

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4 thoughts on “So a political columnist walks into a bar and starts talking about ancient Rome…

  1. Omid Mikhchi says:

    your analysis of people looking at history too simplistically is spot on. Will have to think more about the idea of politicians running on public funds. I fear it would fall to the same problems we have today with special interest groups.

    But if I recall correctly I was the one driving 🙂

  2. Ian Schwartz says:

    Whooooooooopsie…

  3. hiddenconnections says:

    Edits made!

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