Rome speaks to us. Their example can inspire us to avoid their fate.
Summary: A the American polity rots, we follow a path well-worn by previous Republics. Our society’s observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) has broken, with each stage become dysfunctional. We cannot accept this, so cognitive dissonance (see Wikipedia) dominates our mental processes. Rather than communicate values, information and analysis, our political speech increasingly serves to disguise our bleak situation.
Our Founders looked to the Rome for inspiration and lessons. We can, too. See this excerpt from “It was satire” by Mary Beard, London Review of Books, 26 April 2012 — A review of Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterlingj. We can look at Rome and see ourselves, a warning of what lies ahead.
The focus of his book is the dissimulation and hypocrisy that lay at the heart of Roman imperial politics, and had in a sense been the foundation of the governmental system established by Augustus. In making one-man rule work successfully at Rome, after almost half a millennium of (more or less) democracy, and establishing a ‘workable entente’ between the old aristocracy and the new autocracy, Augustus resorted to a game of smoke and mirrors in which everyone, it seems, was play-acting.
‘The senators had to act as if they still possessed a degree of power that they no longer had, while the emperor had to exercise his power in such a way as to dissemble his possession of it.’ As others too have recently emphasised (in particular Shadi Bartsch in Actors in the Audience), the politics of the empire were founded on double-speak: no one said exactly what they meant, or meant exactly what they said. It is no surprise that, on his deathbed, Augustus is supposed to have quoted a line, in Greek, from a comic drama, comparing his own role to an actor’s: ‘If I’ve played my part well, clap your hands – and send me off the stage with applause.’
On Winterling’s model, successful emperors after Augustus were those who managed to exploit the double-speak, and turn it to their advantage; the unsuccessful were those who fought against it.
Alan Greenspan’s time as Fed Chairman, perhaps the second most powerful US official, provides a clear example of our worshipful attitude toward our leaders. Greenspan had a poor record as a forecaster, and often made up theories — which Wall Street economists would then treat as revealed gospel. Echoing the above excerpt, see this splendid example of a Senator describing one of our leaders as a God:
“I would not only reappoint Mr. Greenspan. If Mr. Greenspan should happen to die – God forbid — I would do like was did in the movie Weekend at Bernie’s. I’d prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as we could.”
— Senator McCain speaking at a debate of GOP Presidential candidates on 2 December 1999 (from the CNN transcript). Greenspan was then 73.
For a different perspective on our inability to speak clearly, see “Politics and the English Language“, George Orwell, Horizon, April 1946:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
For more about our similarities to Rome
For more information about our broken OODA loop
- The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
- Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
- The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
- Attention fellow sheep: let’s open our eyes and see the walls of our pen, 16 October 2009
- Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011