A Republic in Trouble

  • Posted: December 18, 2012
  • Category: Politics
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The great republic was in trouble. Even though she stood unchallenged in the world, it was well understood among her citizens that she was also hated. Even though she had never been richer, with thousands immigrating for the chance at a better life that they saw there, great masses of her own citizens were slipping into a poverty of both body and spirit. At the pinnacle of success for her culture and way of life, the good and common people that were the foundation upon which the nation was built were uneasy. They could not help but be bewildered by what they saw. And it bothered them. And it made them angry.

Every day brought new evidence that the rock solid ideals and virtues their forefathers had built their country on were becoming corrupted by new ideas and foreign customs. There were masses of people in their towns and cities who couldn’t even speak the language. But these foreigners were there anyway, working, while their own children idled either on welfare or living at home.

When they looked at their government, the political landscape had never been so bitter. In times past, their leaders had been wise men who led the country through many times of crisis, both on the battle field and at home. Their fathers had been led by giants who were united in their support of the common good. Today they were led by men who were small of spirit and ideas, but large in their hated of each other and their greed for position and wealth.

Great men had led them. In times past, their leaders had been men that both honored and lived out the religious and cultural beliefs of the nation. These men had embodied the ideals that had made the nation both great and preeminent in the world. Their leaders had made the nation great, and in the process become great themselves. They had been virtuous men who led by example and had called the people of the nation to live up to their ideals. Their wives had been women of unquestioned virtue who raised children that followed in their parent’s footsteps, walking in the narrow paths of unselfish virtue.

Their nation was great. It had become great because peopled by religious men and women that actually lived lives true to their beliefs. Their nation had been blessed by destiny and had been inhabited by a people fated for greatness. Their religion, which had been the common heritage of all, was reduced to being only one among many in a marketplace of faiths. Old virtues, the old certainties, no longer held true. Sexual deviancy that had once been unspeakably vile, was now accepted behavior, even fashionable.

No one who visited their towns, or looked at their monuments in the squares of those towns, could doubt that they had once been a solid virtuous people. They lived among monuments to the greatness of their past. There was nothing in those towns to indicate that they had held with the perversion and frivolity common in the rest of the world. Centers of sophistication in the rest of the world might look down their noses at these country bumpkins and laugh, politely or otherwise, but the people of this nation had known who they were and took pride in their humble life. The gay lifestyle might pass without comment, might even be emulated, in other more sophisticated cultures, but not here.

But that was all changing before the eyes of horrified parents and grandparents. The very success of their nation, and its distinctive culture, had served to bring great masses of foreigners to their beloved homeland. It was impossible to go into a town or marketplace without hearing a gobble of words that the solid citizens of the countryside could neither speak nor understand. It was becoming impossible to supervise a construction crew, gardeners or field labor without being multi-lingual. Even the lady of the house needed another language to tell her cleaning lady or her gardener what to do.

It was bad enough that their culture was being corrupted, but they were becoming relatively poorer as well. Many in that solid economic middle looked back at the lifestyle of their parents and envied them. The traditional occupations of their father’s had afforded a comfortable middle class life. Maybe not the life of luxury and convenience expected in today’s world, but then no one lived such a life back then. People in the past had lived much more simply, from the humblest in the town to the local wealthy families. But though some were higher and some were lower, they all lived in the same circumstance, bound by the same economic and social realities of their time and place. All knew their place and were comfortable in it. The continuing success of their nation and a sense of destiny assured them that the future would continue to be increasingly good for their children and grandchildren.

And so it had continued to grow better for the lives of each succeeding generation, but life had taken an unexpected turn. There was prosperity to be sure; their country was almost unimaginably rich. Nearly everybody had participated as the flood of wealth and power had lifted the nation to her present high position. Even the poor now saw what had once been luxury, possessed by the very few, as a necessity. But the riches and the prosperous life were proving to be very unsettling. The middle class, that solid center of the nation, was disappearing. The traditional occupations that had once provided a prosperous income for that solid middle were rapidly disappearing.

The small farmer on his traditional plot of land, or the craftsman in his shop, celebrated by the folklore of the culture just couldn’t cut it anymore. Giant ships brought in cheap food and products from overseas. Food was so cheap that a small farmer just kept getting poorer and poorer until he went broke. Food sold so cheaply that the government was giving it away to poorer people in the cities. Farmers, shopkeepers and manufacturers needed to grow bigger all the time just to stay in business. There was opportunity to grow bigger, the money and labor was available to do so. But to grow bigger, they needed to change.

The money was available for them to grow. There was plenty of labor for them to hire. The cost of that money and labor was very reasonable. By the standards of earlier generations, the capital and the labor were incredibly cheap. The flood of money and immigrants coming into the nation meant that the price for both was low. But it was becoming clear that there are other costs to be paid for growth, for prosperity, for success. The costs of these things were higher than past generations had ever imagined. Many among them said that the cost was higher than could be afforded.

The common circumstances of earlier generations were gone as well. Boys didn’t just follow their dads into the family farm or shop. All those small farms and shops were either gone or disappearing. The farms and business enterprises that were getting bigger needed lots of labor, but foreign workers were so cheap. A social stigma had arisen because of the nature of the foreign born workers and their cheap cost. Nowadays, people of the middle class, even if in poverty, just did not do manual labor. Certain occupations were socially beneath the solid and respectable citizens of the nation.

Those unskilled jobs had existed in the past. And there were always boys, lacking either skills or ambition that had done them. Now those boys, displaced by the changes in their world, that would have done those unskilled jobs in the past just drifted for the most part. As they drifted they found themselves drawn to the big cities. There was not the social stigma there, or the disapproving looks of their parents. They could live there on a few odd jobs and welfare. Certain vices were much more available in the big city and the life was more exciting. Excitement gets more important when spare time needs to be filled.

As the boys drifted, as in a slow moving whirlpool with the beckoning city in its center, so too did the girls. The girls back home couldn’t just be moms and housewives anymore either. The boys that they would have married and raised families with were gone, or just bumming around looking for something to do, usually trouble. Most of the girls headed for the big city as well, often trailing along behind a boy, carrying a baby in her arms. The same vices that drew the boys served to draw girls as well.

The city had always been different. Now the cities were becoming ever more different, and in different ways than the past. They were booming. Cities had opportunity, as well as vice, and a crying need for men of ambition. There were staggering amounts of money to be made there. What passed for riches in the small towns that the newcomers had come from was pocket change in the new economy of the cities. Family connections helped as in every place and time, but opportunity for anyone was there as well. That is, opportunity was there if you were bright and ambitious and if you were willing to ignore the social conventions that your parents had lived by. That opportunity was as big as you wanted to make it, but you had to be willing to do what it took to grab it. The cities were full of new men who were grabbing that opportunity, but they were different men than their fathers had been.

They were different men because they had money and power. They had achieved that money and power because they were ambitious and had done what it took to achieve that money and power. People with ambition for power and money look at their government differently than those without that ambition. They expect their government to help them in their ambitions. To get that help, they are willing to invest their money in that government.

Governments, as are all human institutions, are greatly influenced by money. It may be stating the obvious to say that governments are composed of ambitious people, but it is true nonetheless. Ambitious people may or may not love money, but they all recognize its usefulness. The government of the nation had often resembled a country club in the past. Most in the club had money and ambition, but social norms and a common culture of public service limited their greed, as well as what they would do to meet that greed. There had been a collegiality to the men of a past time, a collegiality born of common circumstance and background.

But now the greatly expanded opportunity to profit for those with power, as well as the clash of cultures being experienced by the nation, played itself out in those governing, and seeking to govern, the nation. Those at the top of society, who ran the game, were no longer united by either family or common background. Many who counted in society were new and did not play by the old rules. Scruples are only effective if everyone has them. Things were decidedly changing.

The older and wiser among the citizens of the nation recognized that the great changes to their government and to their nation had begun during the two great wars fought by earlier generations. Those wars had tested the very foundations of the nation. Twice they had engaged in a world war with another great empire that had threatened their very existence. Both times that war had tested the existence of the nation with enormous loss of both life and treasure. Both wars had been worldwide in scope requiring the complete mobilization of the country, fought on land and sea, on battlefields both close to home and far away lands.

The first war had ended in virtual stalemate. To be sure their enemy had been forced to surrender and accept harsh terms, but the result had left the victors unsatisfied, feeling the peace betrayed, and the losers embittered over what they saw as a betrayal by their leaders. Both sides had renewed that war a generation later. That generation of their nation, today revered as giant figures of nobility and heroism, had fought the second war and virtually destroyed their enemy. The culture and empire represented by that great enemy simply no longer existed.

Since that time, the nation had fought many smaller wars for they were an aggressive and outward looking people, but those wars had been smaller and without the threat of life or death to the nation. Indeed it was said by many in the nation that those smaller wars had been simple grabs by ambitious countrymen for either glory or money. The country now stood unopposed, like a great colossus, over the world. All recognized her military preeminence and power.

The nation, and the government as an institution, had met the test posed by those two wars. But of course, it was no longer the same nation, or government. To be sure, the nation and the government looked the same. But they weren’t. The change was most visible in the government. The institutions that composed the government remained the same in name. But the need to build navies, mobilize armies and then supply those armies and navies over the width and breadth of the world required the exercise of power that the government had never had before. It was a measure of the character of that people that the power necessary to win wars of existence had been created, and then used so successfully.

It is an eternal truth of human affairs that once power exists, it will be used. And as power is used, it changes things. Else it would not be power and it would not be used. Even the most virtuous of men will be changed by power. And in a world of ambitious men, there is no guarantee that ambition will be accompanied by virtue. But there is a guarantee of change.

What had once been parochial was now cosmopolitan. What was once frugal was now opulent. Once constrained by a culture of civic virtue and conservative values, the members of that government were now consumed by the hunger for wealth and power. The success achieved by that government had opened up opportunities never before possible. Both power and wealth, on a scale undreamt of before, was up for grabs. Things were changing.

It is clear that the preceding paragraphs are a sketch of the United States over the past century or so. We are a nation that has gone from the relative obscurity of being a regional power in the late 1800’s to the preeminent nation in the world today. In its past the United States has been a nation convinced that it had been chosen by God and destiny to become great. Its people were civic minded, secure in its culture, its religion and its traditions. Our nation fought two great world wars against the tyranny of the German and Japanese Empires. In the process of winning those wars, we became something other than what we had been before.

But as one of the United States most celebrated writers remarked, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes”. Mark Twain was a keen observer of the world he lived in. He also traveled the world in a time before it was quite so common or convenient. I believe that he spoke truly about the rhymes of history.

The same paragraphs that are descriptive of the recent history of the United States are also true of the great republic that served as a model for our own government by our own Founding Fathers. That great republic which came before our own and served as a model for us was called Rome, or Roma as they referred to themselves. Our Founding Fathers were educated and well read men. They were very familiar with the history and institutions of Rome and used it as a model for the government that they were charged with creating. The structure of our own government is modeled directly on that of the earlier republic, Rome.

In the case of both republics, a provincial and quiet backwater of the world offered the opportunity for a rugged and conservative people to develop into an aggressive and outward looking nation. In the case of both republics, they eventually were tested in a pair of wars over decades that made them preeminent in the world, but also changed them irrevocably.

Where the United States fought Germany in WWI and WWII, the Romans fought two wars with an African empire known as Carthage. Those two wars are known today as the Punic Wars. Victory over Carthage brought Rome the same access to empire, wealth and power that have come to the United States in our own time.

The victory in those generations of warfare brought both republics great wealth and power, but that same wealth and power was also the source of deep conflict within those republics. The conservative and old virtues of the culture warred against the new ways and changes brought about by what had happened. As the name of a popular song in the United States after World War I noted, “How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they seen Paree (Paris)”.

How indeed are young men going to be satisfied with the simple pleasures of farm life when they have sampled the hedonism of cosmopolitan Paris. The young men who saw Paris in WWI drove the swinging culture of the Jazz Age in the years following their return. The Great Depression tamped their exuberance down, but the successful conclusion of WWII gave the United States a renewed opportunity to explode onto the world stage.

As for the United States the world wars against Germany, so were the Punic Wars for Rome. Carthage, an African city that oversaw a great trading empire stretching across the Mediterranean and into Europe crossed swords with Rome. After two wars across 50 years that were mind stretching in the sacrifice that they required of her, Rome was undisputed master of the Mediterranean world. As for Carthage, she was no more. During those 50 years, the citizens of Rome had gone places and done things that were undreamt of before those wars.

They had made sacrifices and endured hardship during those wars that make us draw back in unbelief. As an example, consider that the bloodiest day in the history of our United States was at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. On that day, an estimated 3,650 men wearing Union blue or Rebel gray were killed in battle. Contrast that with the experience of Rome at the Battle of Cannae, during Punic War II. A Roman army of 80,000 men was annihilated in one day, with an estimated 70,000 killed. Cannae was the final battle in a closely spaced series of battles, Trebia and Lake Trasimene. When those two actions are added, the Romans had lost 110,000 dead. Imagine that in the context of a population at the time being around five million.

Two percent of their population was dead in three separate days of battle. It is an insightful look at who they were as a people by learning the fate of the 10,000 men who did not die at Cannae. One might think that they would be welcomed back into the city, sympathized with and put on the walls to defend a suddenly defenseless city. According to Livy the historian, that was not the case at all. Instead they were reviled by their own people, their own families, because they had not also died on the battlefield.  It was the fate of those 10,000 survivors to be sent into exile on the island of Sicily.

One is reminded of the Book of Daniel in the Bible. Daniel makes a series of prophesies about a series of world empires to come after that of Babylon. One of the empires foretold is that of the Romans. Daniel tells us that they would be a people made of iron, a hard and unyielding metal. During the Punic Wars, the Romans showed themselves to be made of iron again and again and again. The story of Rome and the Punic Wars has always stood as a proof to me of the Bible’s truth.

Money changes things. Travel changes things. Opportunity changes things. It goes without saying that when things change, there are winners and there are losers. People with nothing to lose want changes. People with something to lose are fearful of change. People with a lot to lose fight change. It is the way of the world.

The Romans of the Republic were so much like us that it can be unnerving. But over a period of just a few short decades, they changed from a people made of iron into the Romans of the Empire. When we think of Rome today, it is the Romans of the Empire that we remember. Their very success ensured that they would continue to be a successful people, at least for a while. But they were no longer the people of the republic. They were now a different people, a sophisticated and cosmopolitan people. Where once they had valued their independence and freedoms as individuals, they came to value instead the comfort and security that an all powerful and paternal government could provide. Many of them at the time noticed that the comfort and security had come at the cost of their independence and freedom, but they dared not speak too loudly.

Where once voices had been raised in open debate, conformity now reigned. Where once men had spoken honestly, they became politically correct. Where once public office was seen as a public service and duty, it was now a path to wealth. Those who held the wrong opinions or spoke too openly of the past sometimes just disappeared. The common folk of that time wanted it the way it was and were happy with their bargain. Grain from Egypt and North Africa fed them, whether they worked or not. The elite kept them busy with entertainment at the arena or the racetrack. Almost any imaginable vice was available, and affordable.

Once it had been their duty, their pride, to serve in the legions. In the past, no one of any consequence in society had shirked his duty to serve. The legions still existed, at the frontiers of the empire protecting them from the uncivilized barbarians in the north or the alien civilization in the Middle East. But in the time of the Roman Empire, no one of any consequence in society served in the legions, or knew anybody that served in them. Unsophisticated country boys from Spain who still had old-fashioned ideas or German mercenaries seeking easy money instead manned the legions and the frontier.

Historians of today, in looking back to the period of the Roman Empire, sometimes refer to it as the Pax Romana. The Pax Romana or Roman Peace is seen as a time of peaceful co-existence. In fact, many of those historians have said this was a Golden Age for humanity. There were few wars and there was plenty to eat with lots of entertainment. The common people were free to get on with things and enjoy their lives. That is unless they said the wrong things or believed the wrong things.

Life was good. Unless you were a believer in that new cult that thought Jesus was the Son of God. Unless you were a Jew and thought the Temple was sacred. But since only crazy people did those things, nobody really cared all that much. What normal person would risk three square meals a day and a comfortable life for an idea?

Life was good. Unless the Emperor took a fancy to your wife and you objected. Unless you owned a business or piece of farmland that an official coveted. Unless you were seen smiling when the Emperor declared himself a god. But since only ambitious or rich people ever found themselves in those situations, nobody really cared all that much. Most folks were comfortable living in their government-supplied apartment house, doing some odd jobs and gambling at the racetrack. The good solid citizens of the Roman Empire just couldn’t see why anyone on earth would want to buck the system.

In a very short time, historically speaking, the Romans who were iron became the Romans who lived on the dole. It all made sense at the time. It was just good business on the one hand and compassion on the other. It was cheaper to use slaves to work the fields and man the construction crews. It was cheaper to get the grain in Egypt and North Africa. When the people displaced by the slaves were put out of work, a compassionate government saw to it that they were given food and a place to live. It all made sense at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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