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National swagger and whistling in the dark

December 21, 2007

A correspondent best known for penning the infamous “Letter to Dr. Laura” sent me this brief review of a new book yesterday:


I just finished a new book that I must enthusiastically recommend:
Are We Rome?” by Cullen Murphy. It’s a sobering comparison of the USA and the Roman Empire in its latter stages. Just a few of his observations:

  • Roman leaders had a mindset that Rome was invincible, and refused to visualize military defeat by “inferior” forces.

  • Romans saw themselves as the center of the Universe, with no need to understand other cultures.
  • Over the years, the Roman government, and in particular its military services, became increasingly privatized, resulting in lack of oversight and an epidemic of corruption.
  • In Rome, the economic disparity between the numerically tiny ruling class and the majority working class greatly increased over the course of its history.
  • Rome began as a secular republic and ended as an empire with an official state religion.

It’s food for thought when we contemplate the best direction for the United States.

- Kent

This is exactly why I am more afraid of preening, ignorant, pious, tough-talking, denialist politicians than of our country’s enemies.  It has never seemed likely to me that America could be brought down by an outside enemy without mutual destruction by superpowers.  But our situation is more analogous to cancer.

Categories: Books, Reviews
  1. December 21, 2007 at 12:29 | #1

    That is a pretty disturbing quote… I might have to check out that book.

  2. Ted
    December 21, 2007 at 12:36 | #2

    We constantly try to analogize, because we are looking for a logical/math formulaic explanation of why the things are.

    The problem with that is that the flow of the river (time) is wide and perception is limited to us pulling a teaspoon worth out and divining from there things that support our biases.

    History is a fun diversion, but so full of biases and micro-views (how many Roman views are represented in our knowledge of Rome?) as to be anecdotal and limited in view. It’s fun, it’s amusing, but to draw valid analogies is to map out their zeitgeist with ours and then decide that neurons and synapses are compatible hardware. That we’d act like they’d act.

    Let me remind that current liberals and conservatives have differently formed neurocircuitry that is largely incompatible; and we live within the same zeitgeist. To compare our circuitry to those of our kin, roughly 2400 years ago is I think incompatible. Interface differences and all. It’s like comparing the performance of a Mac and an Intel based business PC. Speak roughly the same language, suitable to a subgroup, but not compatible.

    John Hodgman is my hero.

    It has never seemed likely to me that America could be brought down by an outside enemy without mutual destruction by superpowers.

    Don’t discount the (fear of) fifth columnists.

  3. December 21, 2007 at 20:39 | #3

    Well it certainly is possible to have a bizarrely twisted view of history but I’m not sure that human nature society changes all that much from one age to the next.  We still act an awful lot like monkeys.

  4. December 21, 2007 at 22:22 | #4

    Ted:  Wow.  That’s the most incredible exercise in denial I’ve witnessed in a long time.  Not that you might disagree with the book or the review of it, but that you make such incongruous and puzzling (to me) analogies.

    The “history ia a fun diversion” statement is hilarious, with all due respect.

  5. Ted
    December 21, 2007 at 23:06 | #5

    We still act an awful lot like monkeys.

    Really? What percentage of activities do we have in common with monkeys? Just a round guess will do—School? University? Jobs? Childrearing? Human rights? Government? Weapons? Money? Transportation? Grooming habits?

    I have cats, (disgusting creatures btw, but I still like them), and I routinely anthropomorphize their behavior. They sleep in a particular room, and one of them talks back continuously as I escort her to bed every night. Another speaks on command. The way they pose their ears tells me their mood and I assign annoyance, happiness, interest, etc.

    WeeDram, history is a fun diversion. We live in the present of instant communication, of Wikipedia, of travel and migration, of technology, of medicine that did not exist 2400 years ago, we live longer, we have massive amounts of information available. Our republic is not much like theirs (although we like to analogize), our military not much like theirs (except in name), etc. We have no slaves. We don’t use lead in our water pipes. We have refrigeration and air conditioning. And so on.

    These types of books are interesting, but I bet you’re critical/skeptical of concepts that don’t comport with your view (at least I am, so I assume others are), but also, when things fit into my own bias, I like to ask myself, “Am I seeing a pattern because there is one, or because I want to see it there at the willful exclusion of other facts?”

    My view is that we think differently than the people from 2400 years ago and as a consequence the options apparent to us are different. I believe we think differently based on cultural components too—why are some cultures more open to change and novel ideas and others are not? I think it’s because culture reflects neural wiring.

    I’m not insisting on this and it just may be my reality, so YMMV.

  6. December 22, 2007 at 08:48 | #6

    A quote from Blog around the clock:

    “It was both odd and unjust…a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-a-vis the future.”

    - Daniel Kehlmann, in ‘Measuring the World’ (hat-tip: Benjamin Cohen)

    (The BATC blogger, ‘Coturnix’, is a chronobiologist who apparently has an interest in the rhythms of history as well)

  7. Ted
    January 18, 2008 at 15:42 | #7

    Me in December:

    I believe we think differently based on cultural components too—why are some cultures more open to change and novel ideas and others are not? I think it’s because culture reflects neural wiring.

    Well, lookee here in January:

    Cultural differences alter brain’s hard-wiring

    New research finds that social perspective influences how we see the world

    It’s no secret culture influences your food preferences and taste in music. But now scientists say it impacts the hard-wiring of your brain.

    New research shows that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve basic perceptual tasks. …

    I think I’ll stick with my “We’re not the Romans view”.

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