America the Revolutionary

Never underestimate American ingenuity. America is the most revolutionary country in the history of the world, but we have managed to tame that rapacious beast that tore apart France, Russia, China and many others. We turned revolution into a docile domestic animal that turns out revolutionary change with monotonous regularity and causes little disruption.

Our system retools the most destructive revolutionaries. As soon as they develop useful skills, our society provides them opportunities beyond lopping off bourgeois heads or massacring peasants. In the modern U.S., Robespierre would be a personal injury lawyer. Lenin could find work as financial planner. Mao would sell “countryside” real estate and Castro would manage a bush league baseball team.

As a result, our modern American revolutions achieve practical results without piling up bodies or destroying lots of property.

We have experienced several revolutions in our lifetimes. The revolution in Civil Rights leaps to mind. Everybody noticed that one. It was not without bloodshed or violence, but Felix Dzerzhinsky ordered more murders on a single slow day of red terror and no good came out of anything the Cheka did. Many of us did not even notice the thoroughgoing restructuring of American industry and wholesale change in management practice during the 1980s, but it produced more far reaching and much better results than Lenin’s ephemeral New Economic Plan or Mao’s deadly & misguided Great Leap Forward.

We are currently in the midst of a green revolution as firms are radically reorienting themselves to be more environmentally friendly in their products and practices. The extent of this really hit me when I recently attended a forestry conference. Speakers talked about the need to harvest and process forest products in a sustainable fashion, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because firms increasingly will demand it in the products they sell. Wal-Mart - yes, Wal-Mart - was mentioned several times as one of the drivers of this new green outlook. Consumers, BTW, want to be green as long as it is not too much trouble, but as green products begin to become mainstream, they will become ordinary parts of the lifestyle.

As with so many other things, the free market & American ingenuity has made revolution safe for ordinary middle class people to enjoy. They can sing the songs and chant the slogans in the comfort of their homes while enjoying the benefits of revolutionary change w/o the sojourn in a concentration camp. The only downside is that we sometimes do not know we have been through a revolution or when it is done. You do not get the satisfaction from not suffering when you do not first suffer. The survivors of Mao, Lenin, Hitler or Robespierre knew they had been through a horrendous revolutionary experience and appreciated just being alive at the end of it. So try this.

Imagine you lost everything you have. Now imagine you got it back. How happy are you now? Life is good, tovarisch. You really do not need to suffer through a revolution to understand that.

Posted by Jack at April 25, 2007 8:08 PM
Comment #218471

Nice Jack

I do smell a bit of actual conciounce involved also.I hope that WM also starts having some thoughts for its workers also. Big problem between conservatives and radicals is progress is too slow. Often conservatives are right. Moving too quickly leads to unintended results. On the otherhand moving too slow causes great suffering to real people.Can the planet and workers wait for the market to determine our future?Do we have a peaceful choice?Such is revolution.One hopes for haste. Ahh! America.

Posted by: BillS at April 25, 2007 11:27 PM
Comment #218472

Jack, the English Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton often complained of just this phenomenon.

Revolution is impossible in the West, especially America, because as soon as somebody rises up and strongly challenges the status quo, they end up provoking the engines of capitalism… to put them in jail, to censor, to exile them? No, to reward them with fat gobs of cash, book or record deals, endowed chairs at universities, fame and fortune. Look at the left-over icons of rebellion from the 1960s—today a bunch of millionaires.

The Green Revolution you mention? Get in now. You’ll make a fortune.

Posted by: Loyal Opposition at April 25, 2007 11:28 PM
Comment #218473

Castro would be a chief administrative officer for a self riotious HMO.

Posted by: BillS at April 25, 2007 11:29 PM
Comment #218474

Inthe most part you are right. Jefferson would shudder. Green “revolution”. Mostly just common sense and wise use. The big revolution is the realization that resorces are finite and their use has results. surprise..surprise. There is always better ways to do things. Another surprise?

Posted by: BillS at April 25, 2007 11:43 PM
Comment #218481

I have no problem with the Corporations being quick to jump on the green bandwagon. I just hope it’s more than mere marketing, that these people take it seriously, and don’t just say this to get people off their backs.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 26, 2007 12:11 AM
Comment #218483

On the subjects of revolutions in general, I’d like to make this comment. The obvious cause of any revolution is tension reaching the breaking point over some political issue. What’s not so obvious are all the small things and attitudes that add up to them.

One big advantage of a Democracy is that you let off the steam on grievances before they become a threat to peace and stability in the country.

With that in mind, a word of advice to the Republicans: Democracies punish those on the wrong side of such a tension. The hardline resistance of Republicans to different policies is putting them right smack in the middle of such a problem. I can understand the sentiments of some concerning Iraq, so I have a suggestion.

My suggestion is this: if you can’t get what you want in Iraq, figure out what’s the next best approach, figure out the other issues. What the Republicans need is to become, once again, reasonable and helpful in the eyes of their fellow Americans.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 26, 2007 12:21 AM
Comment #218487

My, My, Jack, but you sure do a lot of revisionist history in your first paragraph. Are you forgetting our second Revolutionary War, more commonly referred to as our Civil War?

Are you forgetting our troops killing unarmed protesters in the South during the height of the Civil Rights era, in S. Carolina, Kent State, and other locales? Are you forgetting the Ok. Federal Building? Or the lynchings in the during the first 60 years of our last century, or the murder of 3 civil rights workers by the Police?

America has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world of modern nations. And we have had numerous assassinations or attempts upon presidents, judges, and other government official over the years beginning with JFK.

Yes, it must be blissful to turn such a blind eye to the history that contradicts one’s view. But, then, turning a blind eye to reality seems to fairly common these days. The chasm between the ideals of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the reality of our history is analagous to that great canyon in Arizona.

But, to acknowledge that chasm would mean having to do more to close it. So, I guess it is understandable that so many would prefer to just deny the reality and buy into the patriotism that dictates we are the greatest and anyone who finds fault is unpatriotic or an enemy. So much lazier to be selectively ignorant, and so much harder to turn promise into reality.

As many are fond of saying, ideals can never be achieved so don’t break a sweat over working for the impossible. We were the nation with the greatest promise - so great as to be referred to as the shining light and beacon for the rest of the world. Then Republicans got control of government and the light dimmed and the beacon ceased to beckon to 100’s of millions who used to be called to it.

Our ability to recover is not assured. The divisiveness in our nation has reached far broader dimensions than at anytime since the 1960’s. And it likely precludes the kind of consensus and whole nation sacrifice and effort that will be required to recover from this period of Republican control.

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 26, 2007 1:27 AM
Comment #218492


Our Civil War was sectional. It was not revolutionary in any of the traditional senses. Beyond that, think of how it ended in April 1865. Can you in your wildest imagination believe that someone like Robert E. Lee, as well as so many others, would have been permitted to live in Russia, China or France in their revolutionary periods?

The other things you mention need to be put in the perspective. The red terror literally killed more people in a couple days than died in 30 years of the civil rights movement. The Chinese great leap forward and cultural revolution may have killed as many people as lived in the whole U.S. in 1861 (for the Civil War analogy).

I think that the modern U.S. is remarkably good at avoiding the kinds of revolutionary pressures that have caused so much damage and death in other places all the time using constructive change.

We have tamed revolution in the U.S. - turned it from a wild wolf to a docile sheep dog. It still does some of the same things, but it only chews up the furniture when it is a puppy and it never attacks the livestock.

Posted by: Jack at April 26, 2007 7:39 AM
Comment #218494

Jack, c’mon, man. If the South had won, it would have been a revolution. Hence, it was our 2nd Revolutionary War. The revolt against the UNITED states failed, hence, we call it a civil war, not a revolutionary war. Only difference was the outcome. A semantic difference only except for the outcome.

Timothy McVeigh did more than chew the furniture. Then there was SDS, and the 1967, 69 riots in our cities. Man, your references lack historical familiarity.

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 26, 2007 7:50 AM
Comment #218495

As a self styled liberal, I differentiate myself from radicals by recognizing that change is disruptive. For it to work out, change needs to occur over a period of time. On the other hand there are also radical conservatives who want to go backwards. But I agree with you that taming the pace of revolution is a good thing.

Posted by: John Boy at April 26, 2007 8:14 AM
Comment #218499

There is one problem with allowing corporate America to drive the “green revolution”: their first concern is with immediate profits, not with long term results. So instead of getting more government backing of small organic industries, you have the lowering of standards. When revolutions, even ones as tame as ours, start from the elite, they rarely accomplish much, since the elite have the most to lose from change.


Posted by: leatherankh at April 26, 2007 8:54 AM
Comment #218502

Jack - interesting piece. While I’m generally opposed to total free market economics, and particularly self-regulation, you do make some interesting points. Greenbacks have always signified profit, and now backing greens might mean the same thing. One notable example is Exxon Mobil, which notched up $40 billion in profit last year. Exxon’s commitment to green policy is utterly non-existent - indeed, their chairman’s take on the green revolution is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with him and his shareholders. Exxon’s belief is that oil will remain king for many, many years and that even if they start late, there will be no penalty for entering the green arena in 2025. Or later.

Interesting as I say, because Exxon’s return on capital is significantly greater than any of their competitors. In fact, much greater. Essentially their shareholders are deriving more benefit than those of their competitors, despite (or because of?) Exxon’s complete refusal to divert any funds at all toward green policy.

Free markets are exactly that. Choice resides with the consumer, in theory. Let’s see what the consumer thinks about Exxon, versus, say, BP - which is making concerted efforts toward green policies.

Posted by: Jon Rice at April 26, 2007 11:31 AM
Comment #218508

Hurray for America!

Posted by: American Pundit at April 26, 2007 12:31 PM
Comment #218509


Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I often swell with pride when I think about all the good things the US has for its own citizens and the opportunities it affords for the majority. You can’t help but marvel on a daily basis at what the middle class American has relative to their counterparts in undeveloped and developing nations.

I guess that’s what drives me: to make this bounty available to more people. It’s also why I despair when I see all the increase in wealth being sucked up by those that already have it, and why I want to figure out a way to make sure the increases in wealth go to the widest group of people in a way that doesn’t harm the existing benefits of our capitalist system. I think a mind like yours could be instrumental in such an effort, were you to take it on.

And again, I appreciate this insightful essay.

Posted by: mental wimp at April 26, 2007 12:40 PM
Comment #218511
“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.”

M.L.King Jr.
April 4, 1967

If there continues to be a growing disconnect between productivity and fair and equitable remuneration in this country for the working classes, if there continues to be an accelerating chasm between the haves and the have nots and a further deterioration of the social compact that we are in this together as inculcated in the social saftey net of affordable healthcare for every working person and the ability to retire in reasonable comfort, if there continues to be an all-out assault by the powerful and the wealthy to privatize the profits and socialize the risks and the costs of maintaining this country, if this democracy continues to limp along pretending to mirror the will of the people while at the same time ridicule the people behind closed doors, the same closed doors that hide corrupt legislation written by corporate lawyers and lobbyists and partisan quackery that not only obstructs justice, but refuses to act for justice, if the country’s politicians continue to placate and enable corporate greed and imperial hubris—this sheepdog of body politic is going to become very, very unfriendly indeed.

Not unlike the officers on the bridge of the Titanic at eleven p.m. that fateful April night, secure in the wonders of human ingenuity and technology, and confident in their abilities to ‘manage’ any unforseen circumstances, the corporate and political leaders of this country are oblivious to the real challenges this ship of state is facing. They steadfastly refuse to take into account the recklessness of their policies, and the consequences of their arrogance. Just as Lenin claimed in 1917 that the Russian armies were ‘voting with their feet’ in deserting the war in huge numbers, the increasing non-participation of Americans in their government is a silent but tacit barometer of their loss of faith in that government to effect anything positive or constructive in their lives.

I place you, Jack, firmly on that bridge, peering into the night. You are an apologist for what, to my mind, (and I suspect millions of people who will be forced to pick up the pieces of this economic, social, environmental, and political holocaust that is baring down on us), is essentially, a criminal enterprise, masquerading as an enlightened Republic.

I’m going to say something here that I’ve have fought against saying at Watchblog for some time now—because, frankly, I think it doesn’t serve the spirit of what this site is set up to do. But I feel it to be the truth, unfortunately.

I think, ultimately, the challenges, the economic, environmental and politcal issues that face this country now, today, April 26th, 2007, the issues that threaten it’s very existence as a republic, will not be dealt with in time to prevent a major economic and social upheaval—perhaps even a nuclear war. We have neither the vision, the courage, the imagination, or the humility as a nation, to step away from our collective greed, anger and hubris; to step away from destructive environmental, economic and inhuman policies that have shanghied a once great nation. We no longer have it in us to do the ‘right’ thing, for our nation, for our children and grandchildren, for the planet, for each other.

This is a terrible thing to admit. I do not do it lightly, believe me. But as each day goes by, the window, the door to a rational, compassionate, equitable solution to our life-threatening problems as a nation, and as a species, closes a little more. I honestly do not see how we can effect enough changes and institute crash plans in enough time to prevent the loss of tens of millions, and the end to our political experiment.

Just as the Titanic’s captain, urged on by the ship’s owners to make record time to New York, ignored the dangers and the warnings based on years of experience, we as a nation will not be able to stop on a dime to save ourselves from our rashness.

We have done remarkable things as a nation, we as a people have wielded a technology that has made the world marvel. We have ‘sailed the moon’, changed the face of agriculture, the arts, medicine, revolutionized transportation, communications and commerce. But at what cost? We have attacked life like a randy adolescent, with plenty of verve and muscle, but very little wisdom, restraint, compassion. The bill has come due, friends.

Now, someone tell me I’m just be hysterical, and someone else sing a hymn to the efficacy of hope, that nothing will change if you don’t try.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 26, 2007 1:01 PM
Comment #218535

Tim Crow,

What a very negative viewpoint you have expressed, but I find I must commend you for expressing it. If we do not learn from the mistakes of Greece, Egypt,Rome, Great Britain, Spain, France, Italy, and the like, we are likely to suffer the same consequences they have.

The dole system, (welfare);

lack of good basic, honest leadership,(also the problem of any form of dictatorship);

over-whelming expansion, (prior to learning how to handle the growth);

attempts to treat everyone as clones of one another,(instead of reconizing the good and bad differences in each other);

poorly educated citizens;

apathy among citizens;

last but not least,(and one of my favorites)
the attempts to rule by theology.

Each of these deficients, as well as many more have served to bring down great, wonderful, innovative countries.

These are the things I fear will bring our great nation to its feet. History is and always has been our greatest teacher, however, like Cassandra of Greece, I fear know no one will listen until it’s too late.

Jack, put these in your pipe and smoke then for a while. We have not tamed revolutions, we are merely unprepared for the Great One. If we continue to become complacent, we will lose this GREAT nation.

Posted by: Linda H. at April 26, 2007 4:44 PM
Comment #218541

Yes, the plan for government worked out by the Founding Fathers thus far has been effective. Revolutions, if you will, take place within a Consititutional framework. This framework is all, and true lovers of our country must be vigilant in the preservation of it. When in the Roman Republic exceptions to law and custom began to be made — for example, allowing Consuls to serve consecutive years, or not respecting the 10-year time limit between Consuls running for office again —, that and similar breaches led to the eventual loss of the Republic.

Our framework is the Constitution, and when we see officeholders violate the Constitution, they threaten our very form of government. We may not see the results immediately, but if we can imagine ourselves in the future a few hundred years, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to determine that this lack of respect for our framework was a chief factor in the loss of our democracy.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 26, 2007 5:42 PM
Comment #218586

Most people have no idea what is coming, most people did not have family inside what we now call the USA 100 YEARS AGO, Most people do not really understand what this Nation is and is not, I understand why thing’s are happening right.

some of us understand the facts of this nation and it was never made for the fools that are living here now.
Hey Boys my people came in 1635 and we did the work to make it work! now we have the fools who will stop its dead and make it into a nation like Mexico or china or some other third world hell but some of us will fight that coming evil act’s of fools and political pigs.

Posted by: Fred Dawes at April 27, 2007 8:33 AM
Comment #218589

Jack. Excellent post. Hopefully we are at the beginnings of a “green revolution” by the corporatist and not in the midst of one. Hopefully its not just another cheap marketing ploy but actually has some meat on its bones. Im glad the business community has finally decided to exploit the green revolution for its own benefit with the byproduct being a better world. I hope its enough but I would suggest we leave the door open for Governmental action to continue just in case the market is unable to go it alone, what with the late start and all. We should take the lessons learned during the depression era and move forward before it is to late irregardless of ideology. Again, excellent post.

Posted by: j2t2 at April 27, 2007 9:18 AM
Comment #218593


Sometimes you cannot do things until they are practical to do. Many of the types of products we now use just were not practical until the technologies are available to support them. Idealist sometimes perform a useful service in pointing the direction to a better possibility. But it takes a practical sort to make it happen and sometimes it is not as fast or easy as the big idea guys think is possible.

Linda H

America is not exempt from the laws of history, although we have done an excellent job of taming and institutionalizing change. The list of historical examples you give is very broad and includes almost all the triumphs and tragedies you can think of. To be useful, we need to tease out the particular lessons.

We like to flatter or castigate ourselves by comparing our country to Rome. President Reagan used to say that the Empire’s economy collapsed when they tried to impose price controls. He had a point. The biggest problem, however, was succession, a problem our founders wisely solved in part taking the Roman lesson. You might also recall that despite all its problems, the Roman Republic endured 500 years and the empire in the west hung on for another 500. If you count the east you can add almost another 1000 years. You can still feel the Roman influence today in every country of the world. A short walk around Washington, London, Vienna or most other capitals would make you wonder if the empire was not still around. 2000 years of existence and hundreds of years of world dominance is not a bad record. We probably can learn from them.


Living in the privileged world as I do, I do not see all these things. My travels around the country and the world also do not lead me to embrace your conclusion. The fact that some people are poor and some are rich is not in itself an indication of anything. Most of the poor would have a lot more to lose from a revolution and they know it. As I wrote in my post - life is good, tovarisch. When most poor people own cars & VCRs and almost everybody has a home with electricity, clean water etc, it is hard to get revolutionary. But the biggest reason we do not have revolutions is that we give opportunity to everybody. Those with ambition, intelligence and gumption do all right. They become rhetorical revolutionaries, Rosie revolutionaries. They talk a lot and well.

Posted by: Jack at April 27, 2007 10:53 AM
Comment #218594


Thank you for your response.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 27, 2007 11:00 AM
Comment #218599


“Our framework is the Constitution, and when we see officeholders violate the Constitution, they threaten our very form of government.”

I concur. It is difficult for any rational human being to put faith in a system that is regularly compromised and undermined by the very caretakers ostensibly elected to maintain and protect it.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 27, 2007 11:41 AM
Comment #218608


We have the right, no, the duty, to stage a revolution every election cycle.
How many systems of government can make that claim?
Americans are fat, dumb, and happy, and there are none of the factors present that would make for a meaningful revolution.
Disgust and disillusionment can, and should be dealt with at the ballot box.
Where is the oppression?
Where is the squalor?
Where is the populous ripe for change?
It’s hard to feel oppressed with a full stomach, and with barely 40% of the electorate participating, it’s hard to see when, or even if, any changes could soon take place.

Posted by: Rocky at April 27, 2007 12:48 PM
Comment #218621



Posted by: Tim Crow at April 27, 2007 2:26 PM
Comment #218622

Rather, acknowledged—sorry.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 27, 2007 2:27 PM
Comment #218647

“Its hard to get a man to fight when he has a pork chop in his hand”

A well known Carpenters Union BA

Posted by: bills at April 27, 2007 10:10 PM
Comment #218660
You might also recall that despite all its problems, the Roman Republic endured 500 years and the empire in the west hung on for another 500. If you count the east you can add almost another 1000 years. You can still feel the Roman influence today in every country of the world. … 2000 years of existence and hundreds of years of world dominance is not a bad record. We probably can learn from them.

When American democracy falls, there will still exist American government. What lesson are we to learn from the Romans? That after the fall of our Democracy we can still count on authortative rule to control our people and project our influence over the world? You say the problem of dictatorial succession lead to the downfall of the Empire. That’s certainly a factor, but I don’t see how that observation is on point, unless we have already given up on Democracy.

Had the Third Reich achieved 1,000 years of domination, many would, of course, praise it for its longevity.

The greatest threat to our Democracy has always been within.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 9:22 AM
Comment #218662

The greatest threat to democracy always is internal. In the Roman case (a republic - BTW - not a democracy), clever leaders used the mob to intimidate legitimate government. They promised bread and circuses, sort of like politicians do now by promising unearned benefits through the political system. It depends on how far it goes and how much politicians can promise.

Posted by: Jack at April 28, 2007 10:04 AM
Comment #218664

By Democracy, I meant our democracy. The Roman Republic, while having some democratic elements (the various assemblies, the plebian tribunes, etc.), was designed to perserve the interests of the aristocracy, not the public at large. Voting system were designed to minimize the influence of the masses. As in the Greek city states, aristocrats would occasionally champion popular causes (land reform, etc) to secure their own bases (the so-called popularis) in their struggles against those more obviously serving the interests of the aristocrats (the optimates).

Because the Republic had no police force, politicians of all stripes used armed gangs to influence assemblies and even the Senate (the members of which were not elected, but appointed, and did not represent particular districts).

Free corn was first given to the people of Rome during the last decades of the Republic. Under a system whereby the aristocracy received virtually all the surplus, giving the public this basic form of welfare was used by politicians to secure influence. Partly because of the massive slave population, good employment for those with little means could be difficult to attain. The spectactles to distract the masses, while certainly existing in the Republic, didn’t really hit Rome in a huge way until after the loss of the Republic.

I’d say the Republic did not fall because of free food disribution. I’d say it fell because it became dysfunctional. The entire system was designed for two main purposes: to perserve the entitlements of the aristocracy and, in to serve that purpose, to prevent any one man from attaining to much power and thus threaten the aristocracy. However, when the Republic started achieving huge victories in Asia and Gaul (I’m thinking Pompey and Caesar), certain men did gain enormous influence and money and used these to secure extraordinary concessions from the Senate (they were allowed to rule superprovinces, they received long term “governorships, ” etc.

The fall of the Republic had much to do with the success of military campaigns. It also had much to do with a falling away from the customs and traditions limiting the attainment of personal power. Intimidating and bribing voters, of course, was extremely common, even during the heyday of the Republic. I don’t see distribution of free corn as a primary cause of the fall of the Republic. And if we are talking about “unearned benefits,” the greatest receivers of unearned benefits in the Republic were not, of course, the masses, but the elite, whose common practice was to illegally acquire vast wealth through exploitation of the provinces they governed. Run up massive campaign debts through paying bribes to secure a Consulship, and then afterwards when granted a province bled it as much as possible. (For all his faults, Cato was one of the few who didn’t pig out that way.)

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 10:41 AM
Comment #218670


I know you probably think the U.S. is like Rome, but you just managed to list all the ways it is not. You do not find exact parallels in history, only general lessons.

The Roman empire was worlds away from us in various ways of organization and technologies. There were some very interesting gaps in Roman knowledge. Despite their impressive skills, they had absolutely no concept of statistics or probability and none of the concepts we use to assess risk were available to them.

We have to place them in their historical context. When I mention the Roman example, it is just to point out that it is not an example of failure any more than a man who lives a healthy life and dies when he is 90 years old is an example of wasted life.

When Americans compare our country to the Roman Empire, I am not sure what they mean by it. I think most of the time they are implicitly using on Gibbon’s interpretation of decline and fall and taking on his prejudices w/o most of them having ever read the book or even know of its existence.

Since you seem to be interested in Romans, I hope you do not mind the digression. I studied Greek and Latin in college. I never went on the PhD, but I thought about a thesis topic. It was why there was no industrial revolution in the ancient world. Most of the factors seemed to be in place, but it just did not happen. There are lots of explanations. The most prominent is that slavery provided too much free labor and poisoned innovation, much as it did even in our own South before he Civil War. I think there is a more prosaic explanation. All of the factors were NOT in place. The ancients w/o concepts of risk analysis and other technologies of thought developed later, just did not have the capacity for sustained innovation required to make the jump into industrialization.

I think history often turns on such “little” things that nobody can see at the time because they do not even know they are looking.

In any case, the U.S. is like the Roman Empire in some aspects of our power and in the ancestry of many of our institutions. We have tried to copy their successful example while avoiding some of their failings and applying it to a very different reality and culture. That is one of the uses of history. So far, it has been an effective strategy for us.

BTW - I am sure you have seen that very good HBO series “Rome”. As far as I know, the first season has just become available in DVD. I am usually disappointed by historical adaptions, but this is a good series. I just got it last week and watched the whole thing.

Posted by: Jack at April 28, 2007 1:19 PM
Comment #218672


Actually I don’t think the United States is much like Rome. As you say, plumping history for parallels is fraught with peril. My only point is that the Republic began to fail when it broke away from the laws and customs that served as its framework, and that similarly our Democracry will begin to fail if we are not vigilant in perserving our framework, the Constitution.

Our advantage, I think, is what you say, that the Fathers did learn form the Romans and established strong institutions. As you known, the Republic didn’t have a Constitution, just laws, customs, and traditions. Keeping the military under civilian rule is huge, too.

Gibbons I’ve read some over the years, but by no means all. I resist the moral decline theory, though, and I don’t blame Christianity. I won’t know why the empire fell — continued pressure from migrating “barbarians,” an unwieldy bureacracy, the centuries-old tendency of generals to assert their power, the fact that the barbarians learned and copied from the Romans, the fact that wealthy landowners sought to perserve their holders by accomodating invaders — all of this contributed, I guess. By the late empire, the barbarians and the Romans were often indistinguishable, as you know. But like you I wince at easy explanations referring to the lack of morality, as if our notions of morality were really in play through much of Roman history, anyway.


Re: your dissertation idea. Yes, that’s an interesting question. We can ask it of the Greeks, too. They developed many of the concepts later used in “industry,” but tended to manifest them in toys and novelties. Archimedes’ “screw” was an exception. I’m thinking of, for example, Heron’s steam toys, or some of the gimmicks used solely to impress, such as devices to make statues weep, etc. I don’t know why an industrial revolution didn’t take place. As you say, slave labor was common. There was also the problem of properly machining parts to the extremely high precisions required for many machines. I dunno. The Romans were excellent engineers; a legion could build a very good and sturdy bridge across the Rhine in mind-boggling short time, and they constructed excellent siege engines and other devices of warfare. But as you say, the ancients didn’t take the next step. Your thesis sounds interesting, to say the least.

I enjoy “Rome,” too. Oh, I wince at some of the historical inaccuracies, but I understand the producers are creating a history-based drama. I wish Cicero had been killed as history says and not the way the series had it. Still, it’s a great show, with excellent casting. I thought they nailed the character of Marc Antony extremely well. You’ll really enjoy seeing in the second season Antony in Egypt.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 2:00 PM
Comment #218684

“As you say, plumping history for parallels is fraught with peril.”

Damn, wish I had said that!

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 28, 2007 4:31 PM
Comment #218688


And I wish I hadn’t. I thought at first you misquoted me, but you didn’t. I meant “plumbing.” Even so, “trawling” would have been better.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 6:44 PM
Comment #218689

When I read ‘plumping’, my mind envisioned ‘larding up’, in a partisan, idological way. I also saw ‘plumping up a pillow’ image—to make any nap of convenience more comfortable. As in sleeping through a national crisis.

Well, if you’re going to deny ‘plumping’… nevermind.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 28, 2007 7:18 PM
Comment #218692


Thanks. I do not have HBO so I have to wait until I can get the DVDs.

There is a good book called “Against the Gods”. It traces the seemingly boring history of statistics and risk analysis. The thing that comes through very well is that these techniques didn’t even start getting invented until around 400 years ago. Before that, there was no probability, calculus etc. Other important innovations included insurance to spread risk and limited liablility to allow investments. W/o these prosaic things, we cannot have a functioning modern society. Of course, that does not even begin to take into account all the overlooked innovations, double entry accounting, for example.

Many of us go through an epiphany of education when we realize that some acquired knowledge changes the way we see the world and the quality of our analysis. This happens with whole cultures. Imagine a whole society that just cannot calculate risk in any meaningful manner.

We can see and touch physical technologies. We know a man with a big earthmoving machine can do the work of 100 men with shovels. As important are technologies of the mind. A man equipped with the tools of analysis can do the thinking of 100 men equipped with only their intuition. That is one reason why development is so much harder than it seems it should be.

I also think that is the why Greeks and Romans just made those toys you are talking about. They lacked the fundamental technologies of the mind that we just take for granted. They really could not think clearly about risk or probability.

Posted by: Jack at April 28, 2007 8:07 PM
Comment #218693


Yeah, when I’m good, it’s by accident ;)

Anyway, back to the topic. I read with interest your post. I can be pessimistic too, but I wonder if your standards are too great for this world. I wonder if at any point in America’s history the country lived up to your ideal — and I respect that ideal. But history, heck life, is always a tension between conflicting interests. Do you think the tension now between the various factions of society is greater than it was in the past? We do live in a society in which class mobility is possible. Compared to world historical terms, the individual U.S. citizen has enormous potential to change his lot.

I’m not saying things are perfect by any means, but if use an ideal as a source of despair instead of inspiration, then … well, I dunno.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 8:12 PM
Comment #218694


I’ll look for the book. Offhand what you say makes sense. Huge projects such as the pyramids or the Roman road system were possible because of state resources, of course, as were some innovations in military warfare. One senses that not a lot of the kind of analysis you are talking about took place, just relatively simple manpower and resource calculations. As I said, it’s an interesting thesis. Clearly the math and physical theory was available centuries earlier for much of what we saw in the industrial revolution, so you may be on to something.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 28, 2007 8:20 PM
Comment #218701


“I wonder if your standards are too great for this world. I wonder if at any point in America’s history the country lived up to your ideal — and I respect that ideal.”

I don’t think any country can live up to ideals fully—they are ideals, after all—but what I’m beginning to discern is an unwillingness from crucial factions of society to even try, hell, to even fake it! What is worse, there is a delusional aspect of not even honestly critiqing our efforts to meet those ideals. As an example, the media, I believe, have failed the ideals of informing the citizenry about costly and corrupt policies that ill-serve the country. Deregulation of crucial industries (including the media), the inability or unwillingness to investigate statements by officials and governmental assertions of facts and figures (the real effects of supply-side economics for example) the unfolding misrepresentations regarding Iraqi policy, the true costs and impact of globalization on working Americans, the increasing appointments of ideological hacks and political operatives in crucial governmental oversight agencies—FEMA, FCC, NLRB, the CIA, and the Justice Department, to name a few.

We can’t, as an example, even be honest about what really constitutes poverty in income numbers. They are predicated on outdated stats that would insult any thinking person— $19,700 for a family of four? With a forty percent rise in housing costs since 2001, and an even larger increase in energy costs?! This is intellectually dishonest—and morally unconscionable.

There as been a quantum disregard for constitutional law and principles in the past 10-20 years, (which has accelerated under the Bush administration), with dramatic errosion of individual rights of privacy (NSA spying on American citizens—which is unprescedented), due process of law (the Military Commissions Act and the denial of habeas corpus), signing statements by the executive which undermines seperation of powers and checks and balances included in the Constitution.

These are just some of the problems which any historian would agree are unprecedented in their scope and timing—yes, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, yes, FDR locked up Japanese-Americans—but we have never seen this level of compromising of liberties in our history.

All of this has been accompanied by an increasing opaqness in governmental accountability and openness; suspension, however temporary, of the
Freedon of Information Act, the classifying of government documents by the Bush administration that have been declassified for twenty, even thirty years, the classifying of Presidential papers included. Further, the government simply stops compiling and tracking information when it is inconvenient or embarrassing; to wit, after promising that NAFTA would create jobs, and after only finding that treaty had created only 1,500 jobs in the US (and lost over 200,000 in the first five years of implimentation), it stopped issuing reports. Ditto terrorism reports. In 2003, the government trumpeted a decline in terrorist incidents world-wide (on dubious data and methodology). In 2004, terrorism sky-rocketed. As those facts were inconvenient in a presidential election year, the government stopped issuing them. Problem solved.

On top of that, I believe that there is a dramatically increasing polarization of political, cultural, economic and environmental thinking in this country that precludes compromise and reasoned debate. Much of America has been ‘radicalized’ by sloppy thinking, misrepresentation, prevarication and ideology.

Additionally, there is an eerie and irrational belief in technology, with a steadfast ignoring of what the costs of that technology are—and indeed, what the limits are. There is an underlying unwillingness by our leaders to honestly explore and assess where we are going as a nation, and where we stand as a species.

“Do you think the tension now between the various factions of society is greater than it was in the past?”

I believe the tensions are probably greater than at any point in my lifetime. When you include the tensions of the Cold War in the fifties, (if indeed my appraisal is correct), that is a sobering observation. As I stated earlier in this thread, the stakes are higher now, and the margin of error for stupid policy and corrupt partisanship is narrowing. We have less time, less resources, and, I believe, less will, to challenge our destructive behaviors and put all the facts ‘on the table’ to enable an honest assessment of our environmental issues, the endangering of our security from peak-oil, and an honest assessment of dwindling resources such as water, oil, arrible land and population pressures.

“We do live in a society in which class mobility is possible. Compared to world historical terms, the individual U.S. citizen has enormous potential to change his lot.”

You know, 20, even 15 years ago, I would have agreed with this statement. But for all of the reasons I’ve enumerated above, and for several I haven’t mentioned, much of that mobility, much of that potential, has been significantly erroded. It is becoming increasingly clear that the opportunities for citizens starting out in life are becoming more and more dependent on who your parents are. And those opportunites are becoming increasingly stratified by class and income. The Middle Class, that great political animal with which everyone seems to geneflect, has been losing ground—wages and real buying power, after inflation, have been essentially stagnate since 1973 or so, families need two incomes just to stay even now, and the promise of long-term employment with one company with concomitant benefits, pensions etc, are being jettisoned by the capitalist oligarchy in an increasing frenzy to ‘plump’ the bottom line, if you will. Additionally, higher education is more and more placing our nation’s young people under a crushing debt that many spend at least half of their working lives to pay off.

In short, things are getting uglier and more cut-throat, thanks to free market capitalism and deregulation, more isolated for workers, because of the virulent campaign of corporate America to savage unions. And now, all of this has an added patina of Christian morality to lull the country into a sense that this is just what was meant to be—truly inevitable, unarguable, and for the best. But for whom?

What concerns me the most though is peak oil. We do not have the mechanisms in place to really ameliorate any of the looming realities that the end of cheap oil presents. In fact, it could be argued that the US is in dire straits because of its heavy dependence on Happy Motoring. We have gutted mass transportation, our rail system rivals Bulgaria in decrepitude, and we have paved over some of the finest agricultural land on the globe in celebration of the suburbs, a dead-end lifestyle if ever there was one. Picture those thirty and forty story skyscrapers in Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta and Miami—without air conditioning. In fact, because of the end of cheap oil, the coming bust in the Sunbelt may be a perfect karmic reverse of it’s previous 30 year rise. And, as I have said before, this economic and social carnage that peak oil represents, is exacerbated by the very fact that this country’s citizenry is armed to the teeth, and fully loaded with a notion of divine exceptionalism and rugged individualism which will ill-serve it under such circumstances.

The world, at the beginning of the oil era, had around 1-1.5 billion people (1859). We are now rapidly approaching 7 billion people, by 2020, eleven billion. All of this growth has been possible because of the one of the most precious legacies this world has been bequeathed—oil. Agriculture, transportation, medicine, communications, sanitation, everything that makes modern life possible is dependent on it. And there is no source of energy that is waiting in the wings, none, that will enable a smooth, uninterrupted transition to our ‘non-negotiable’ lifestyle.

I apologize for the length of this post—but you had to ask.
We are partying on our grandchildren’s legacy. We will be the first generation of Americans that will hand off to our progeny, a nation in worse shape than when we recieved it.

I am not minimizing inspiration. I am all for hope, optimism and the indomitability of the human spirit. Perhaps we will find some technological solutions for some of our problems (although those solutions will, in true Rube Golberg fashion, create fourteen more unforseen ones), we will adapt and innovate to be sure. Whether it will be enough to keep all of us here in the fashion we have grown accustomed to, is extremely debatable.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 28, 2007 11:56 PM
Comment #218788


I don’t disagree with much of what you say. I don’t have the time for the type of lengthy response your post deserves, but I will say that I was speaking in world historical terms, and in those terms, we live in an age with unprecedented access to information, unprecedented equality, unprecedented freedom to choose our own paths. Is our nation in decline now? I don’t know. It’s easier to look backwards and make such judgments than to judge our own times.

Has this current administration treated the Constitution like wastepaper? Yes. Does big money influence elections to the detriment of our country? Yes. Is 45 million uninsured (or whatever the number is now) a travesty? Yes. Is big media the lapdog of governmental and capitalistic interests? Often, though I always like to remind people that we have unprecedented access to information from lots of sources outside of big media and it’s our job as citizens to take responsiblity to informed. Is oil a problem? Manifestly, though I’m more optimistic (at the moment, anyway,) than you about this country’s ability to wean itself from the oil teat (the world in general is a different matter).

It may well be that Americans are too self-indlugent and complacent to take responsibility and use the power invested in them to prevent this country from sliding to disaster. But I think the jury is still out on that.

One of the problems with democracy is demogoguery; whenever a society has power invested in more than a few, that always occurs. Heck, look at this site. If our democracy goes down the tubes, it will be the people’s fault.

Posted by: Gerrold at April 30, 2007 8:53 AM
Comment #218804


Thanks for your thoughtful response.

“It may well be that Americans are too self-indlugent and complacent to take responsibility and use the power invested in them to prevent this country from sliding to disaster. But I think the jury is still out on that.”

Perhaps. My long-winded responses were my clumsy way of saying “The jury is filing back into the courtroom, and the looks on their faces has me very concerned.”

“One of the problems with democracy is demogoguery; whenever a society has power invested in more than a few, that always occurs. Heck, look at this site. “

Indeed. The Founding Fathers went to great lengths to incorporate tendencies in governence that would short-circuit mob rule. Virtually all of them were the elites of society. But as an example, the errosion of journalistic independence, and the attacks on that independence by free-market forces—in other words, increasingly consolidated media in fewer and fewer hands that serve profitability and the shareholders to the detriment of fully informing the electorate—is extremely dangerous. It is contributing to a dumbing down (along with decline in educational standards) of the electorate. I can’t think of anything more fundamentally dangerous to democracy.

I will look for your posts in the future.

Posted by: Tim Crow at April 30, 2007 1:41 PM
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