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Are We Rome? We Are Rome.

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Message Lawrence Velvel

Dear Colleagues:


            Two weeks ago I returned from a three week trip to Alaska and Canada, (during which I wrote no blogs), and I still haven’t completely dug out of the blizzard of documents, memos, books, tasks, etc. that await one upon return. 


The trip itself was in some ways terrific:  The approximately one week cruise of the gorgeous, so-called inland passage in a small ship with 100 or so people was great.  So was a later three day stay in Vancouver, which rivals or conceivably exceeds San Francisco as the most beautiful city in North America.  An overland trip in Alaska, with extensive time on trains and buses, one can do without, however. 


One of the unusual aspects of the trip was the company.  Five couples went together.  Three of the men have known each other since pledging the same fraternity in Ann Arbor in the early fall of 1956.  That was 51 years ago.  All five of the men have known each other since entering law school in Ann Arbor in September, 1960 -- that’s “only” 47 years ago.  The wives -- all the couples have stayed married, for a combined total of about 235 years of experience -- have all known each other for the same amount of time as the men (give or take a year or two in a couple of cases), since the couples were dating and got married while in Ann Arbor.  The other people on the small cruise ship considered it extraordinary that we all have known each other and stayed friends for all these years, and indeed have remained friendly even when life’s scattering to the winds caused some of us not to see each other for years on end.


The other four guys, classmates of mine in college, law school or both, are highly accomplished professionally.  One started a major law firm, started two banks, started a major sports league, was president of the country’s largest bar association -- and I’ll quit here because otherwise the list would be too long.  A second is a mover and shaker, both legally and civically, in the Midwestern city where he lives.  He is more less Mr. (name of city).  A third created a law firm, is one of the country’s leading tax and real estate lawyers and was a very big deal in the Tax Section of the American Bar Association.  The fourth has for decades been one of the country’s leading antitrust and international trade lawyers, and has been a partner in two of Wall Street’s major firms.  I have written about all of them, under fictitious names, in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam; they and their also-accomplished wives were an interesting, fun group to travel with.


During the course of the trip I read a book whose author will appear on our school’s one hour long book TV show called Books of Our Time.  The book is Are We Rome?  The Fall of Rome And The Fate Of America, by Cullen Murphy, who for more than two decades was the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly.  Murphy’s book has gotten a fair amount of press.  It deserves it.  Murphy bends over backwards to be fair on the question he raises, to present both reasons that make us like Rome and reasons which differentiate us from it.  But at the end of the day, one cannot help but worry that there is far too much in common between the Roman Empire that fell and the United States of today.  I shall not deal in this blog with more than a few of the pertinent points, which I am sure will be addressed in greater number and more depth in the outline yet to be drafted for the TV program and by Murphy himself on the program.  But I shall summarize some of the more pertinent parallels, parallels that to some extent can be startling, at least to someone whose knowledge of Roman history is pretty minimal at best. 


$          The Romans were arrogant.  They considered themselves the center of the universe.  They considered others to be inferior, didn’t have good information on what others thought -- sometimes had exactly wrong information -- and seemed to believe the world existed for the benefit of Rome and that all should do as Rome did.  They didn’t learn from their mistakes, were contemptuous of opponents, and would plunge in where only fools would tread, which I gather accounted for defeats at the hands of Hannibal and for the now increasingly famous destruction of fully three legions -- ten percent of the Roman army -- by the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest.


This sounds a lot like the post 1989 United States, doesn’t it?  We think others are inferior -- the Viet Namese were “gooks,” the Arabs are “ragheads,” and the French contemptible.  We think -- at least our criminal and traitorous leaders in the Republican party in Washington and their fellow travelers think -- that America is the centerpiece of the world.  We don’t much care what other people think, and think that the world is here for our benefit.  This is evidenced by our demands for America-benefiting globalization, our leaders' belief that all should follow our capitalist system, and their crazed idea that there can be democracy everywhere, especially everywhere in the Middle East.  


We have little or very bad information about other countries and contempt for others’ military capacities.  On the basis of vast misinformation and contempt, we plunge into disastrous wars against others.  Viz. Viet Nam and Iraq.  Nor do we learn from our mistakes -- as shown by the amazing fact that after the debacle of Viet Nam we got embroiled in Iraq.


$          Rome’s imperial adventures caused it to have bases everywhere, and created a need for more men than were available for the work force and the army.  So the Romans extensively used “barbarians” in the army (and slaves in the work force, just as America did before the Civil War).  As well, government needs were farmed out to private contractors -- were privatized. 


Does all this ring a bell?  We have over 700 military bases -- some think it’s over a thousand, and nobody seems to know for sure.  With armed forces that are supposed to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously, while we are stuck in Iraq no less, we need far more military men and women than we have had or are willing to support.  So America has had to rely on groups other than the American military to perform military tasks, including tasks that have involved serious combat.  We have had as many or almost as many, private contractor personnel as soldiers in Iraq.  All kinds of jobs have been farmed out to private contracting organizations, including jobs that cause us to have created a huge home grown cadre of military mercenaries -- who now are beginning to be used for internal American police work too (just as they have been used to run jails).  It is hard to imagine anything more dangerous than the rise of mercenaries, which led to disaster for Rome when barbarians were the mercenaries and facilitated war upon war in the middle ages and afterwards.


$          The Romans were paranoid after the disaster in the Teutoburg forest.  Where would the Germans strike next?  What else was at risk?  The Romans took far reaching steps to ward off possible problems.  America has been paranoid with regard to Viet Nam and Iraq.  Paranoia got us into those wars and paranoia kept us from getting out:  “if we leave, we’ll have to fight the commies and the terrorists in San Francisco” has been the mantra. 


$          In Rome everything throughout society was a question of money.  Vast systems of patronage and favors existed for this, justice was for sale, the top leaders, the (wealthy) “privileged elite”, “were exempt from many judicial penalties”, influence and public position depended on and were ways to make money, etc.  Does this sound remarkably different from America in the last part of the 20th Century (as in the Gilded Age too)?  Are we not a country where the almighty buck rules all, where money buys political decisions and lack of money means one is left in the lurch politically, where justice is expensive and takes money, where the “privileged elite” - - the Kissingers, Bushes, Cheneys, etc. - - are exempted from punishment for horrid crimes, where who you know, systems of favoritism, not to mention defacto payoffs, are usually far more important than competence? 


$     In Rome the inequalities of wealth were staggering.  Is it any different in the United States?  True, unlike Rome we have a large middle class -- we have been a middle class society.  But inequality is nonetheless rising, it seems to be becoming ever harder to lead a middle class life, and we plainly have a plutocratic class just like the Romans did.


$          In Rome the aristocratic political class that ran the empire did not care what the great     mass of people, the plebians, thought.  Our political class could likewise care less about what the electorate thinks.  The plebians in effect voted to get out of Iraq in November 2006, but those in power don’t give a damn.  Not to mention the gulf between the plebians and the pols on little things like health care, the environment, voting systems, etc. 


Cullen also brings out points of difference between America and Rome.  The U.S. still is a middle class society despite growing inequality.  We promote vast and speedy technological change.  We are entrepreneurs.  We no longer use slaves.  We aim at gender equality instead of suppression of women.  Yet it would seem to me that even some of the differences sometimes promote the similarities, e.g., we use technological change, entrepreneurial companies and women in the military to aid us in trying to, in effect, rule the world.  In any event, one has only to read Murphy’s book to worry that the similarities between the Rome that fell and the United States are too close and too extensive for comfort, especially the similarities in mindsets, in attitudes.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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