Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: "Are We Rome?" (2007) - Further note to a book cited during the discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

The Empire in the Mirror, Book Review By WALTER ISAACSON MAY 13, 2007, New York Times

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The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember
Santayana’s maxim is condemned to repeat it. As a result, the danger of not
understanding the lessons of history is matched by the danger of using simplistic
historical analogies. Those who have learned the lessons of Munich square off
against those who have learned the lessons of Vietnam, and then they both invoke
the bread-­and-­circus days of the overstretched Roman empire in an attempt to
sound even more subtle and profound.

In his provocative and lively “Are We Rome?” Cullen Murphy provides these
requisite caveats as he engages in a serious effort to draw lessons from a comparison
of America’s situation today with that of imperial Rome. Founded, according to
tradition, as a farming village in 753 B.C., Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise and fall
before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth century. During that
time it became a prosperous and sometimes virtuous republic and then a dissolute
and corrupt empire that was destined to be mined for contemporary lessons by
historians beginning with Edward Gibbon, whose first volume of “The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire” was fittingly published in the British empire in 1776.

There are almost as many causes cited for Rome’s collapse as there are
historians. But the general sense is that the empire became too fat, flabby and
unwieldy. As Gibbon put it, “prosperity ripened the principle of decay.” Rome’s
decline came to be viewed with an air of tragic inevitability fraught with resonance.
As Byron wrote in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “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.”

The most salient comparison between modern America and classical Rome, as
Murphy notes, is that both have been blessed, and afflicted, with a sense of
exceptionalism [JB emphasis]. In America this begins with John Winthrop exhorting 
his Puritan flock, who were about to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “that we
 shall be as a city upon a hill.” Since then various presidents have described the 
United States in words that echo Cicero’s description of the Romans and their 
shining city upon seven hills: “Spaniards had the advantage over them in point 
of numbers, Gauls in physical strength, Carthaginians in sharpness, Greeks in culture, 
native Latins and Italians in shrewd common sense; yet Rome had conquered them all 
and acquired her vast empire because in piety, religion and appreciation of the 
omnipotence of the gods she was without equal.”

In Rome, the virtues of a republic were originally sustained by selfless leaders
and warriors like Cincinnatus, who took up a sword to save the city but, when the
battles were won, put it aside to take up a plow again. In both the reality and the lore
of America’s founding, George Washington played that role. But Rome eventually
became dominated by fixers, flatterers and bureaucrats who clung to power.
Murphy, the editor at large at Vanity Fair, offers up comparisons with the city of
Washington today that are provocative, if at times a bit stretched. He pokes at
putative panegyrists like Midge Decter on Donald Rumsfeld, and he compares the
Roman undercover operatives, the curiosi, to the eavesdropping programs of the
National Security Agency. He even likens the marvels of Rome’s sewer system to the
effluence to be found on the Internet: “Washington now drains into the blogosphere,
another engineering marvel.”

The military strategist Edward Luttwak, in his 1976 book “The Grand Strategy of the
Roman Empire,” examined how Rome’s legions protected its frontiers. His thesis was 
that during the late stages of their empire the Romans resigned themselves to the fact 
that barbarian invaders would penetrate the borders. So cities began to wall 
themselves in, and “the provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge 
on society.” At the same time, the idea of citizen­-soldiers drawn from all ranks of Roman society
 — including the educated and upper classes — gave way to legions that were hired
 and dragooned from the poor and from immigrants.

Similarly, Murphy worries about the toll the post-­9/11 security apparatus is
taking on America at a time when members of the educated elite no longer feel it
their duty to serve in the military. He reports that 450 of the 750 graduates in the
Princeton class of 1956 served, whereas only eight of the 1,100 in the class of 2004
did. America has begun contracting out many security functions to private
companies, much as Rome farmed out its security to barbarian mercenaries. The
problems that result are exacerbated when America tries to impose its values and
institutions in distant lands. Drawing on the great reporting of others, most notably
Rajiv Chandrasekaran in “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” Murphy shows the
absurdities that occur in places like Baghdad when the proconsuls and legions and
contractors we send have no clue about the people they are dealing with.

Even in its prime as a republic, Rome had a web of patronage among the
connected elite. Later, Pliny the Younger was the master of the patronage letter,
repeatedly asking the emperor for favors. But by the empire’s declining years, the
concept of suffragium, which had originally meant “ballot,” then the exerting of
influence, had evolved into a word for outright bribery. Here Murphy has a target
that is almost too easy. He quotes some of the e­mail of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff
exhorting contributions from his clients, which does not stand up favorably to Pliny
the Younger’s letters. “You iz da man! Do you hear me?! You da man!! How much $$
coming tomorrow? Did we get some more $$ in?”

Occasionally Murphy seems to overstretch his analogies or to treat America as if
it were a society as distant and curious as ancient Rome. His erudite book
occasionally feels like something written from the aloof perch of the Boston
Athenaeum library, which it indeed was, rather than from firsthand observations of
a Rotary Club meeting in the Midwest or an American Army base in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, Murphy’s arguments, even when they fail to be fully convincing, are

Laudably, he ends on some optimistic notes, and some prescriptions, rather
than wallowing in declinism. “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects
rejoice in it,” the Roman historian Livy wrote. To that end, Murphy suggests,
America needs to instill in its citizenry a greater appreciation for the rest of the
world. At home, it should resurrect the ideals of citizen engagement and promote a
sense of community and mutual obligation, rather than treating most government as
a necessary evil. With its capacity to innovate and reinvent itself, and with its faith in
progress, America need never become as stagnant as Rome. “The genius of
America,” Murphy concludes, “may be that it has built ‘the fall of Rome’ into its very
makeup: it is very consciously a constant work in progress, designed to
accommodate and build on revolutionary change.”

Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, is the author of “Einstein: His Life
and Universe” and “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.”

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