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Fiddling While Rome Burns
Recently Michael Crichton wrote a widely-published article disclaiming the disaster theories of past, and encouraging us, his readers, to consider any present thought of cataclysm to be illusion. He dissected proclamations of radicals from the past who bemoaned overpopulation, oil crises, comet crashes and other radical forms of doom. He's part right: for a large entity, doom rarely comes in a single stroke, or from outside at all.
When Rome was being sacked by rampaging Vandals, its emperor was occupied with playing a musical instrument, and had no intention of being disturbed, since his personal guard held the gates and while destruction crashed around him, he was having a fine evening. From our modern view, looking back at one of the final moments of a great civilization, our impulse is to howl in protest at his disregard. Upon further contemplation, however, we can both see his point of view and realize how his actions were symptomatic, not causal.
Differentiating between cause and effect ("symptom") is not an easy process, even in relatively simple situations. If the individual is blighted with a hacking cough, we might say "oh, it's the flu," because we recognize that cough is a sign of the flu. But the symbol is not always the reality: the patient has lung cancer. Thus we have to keep constantly aware that what we recognize as the flu isn't the flu, but visible evidence of what could be the flu or any number of other causes.
In the case of our Roman emperor, we may recognize the signs of a man more concerned with his own welfare than that of his citizens, but perhaps his sage unconscious saw that already Rome was so far internally divided by selfishness that even the most drastic action couldn't help.
Consider this scenario: he gets together his army, who are accustomed to easy duty, and drives them toward the battlefield, where evenly half desert or join the enemy. When he needs weapons, the citizens who make them start bargaining for higher prices, and tell him "it's company policy" he gets them in two weeks and no sooner. Outside the city, Julius Q. Publicus is busy selling provisions to the invaders, and when they need a route into the city, he offers to lead them in "the back way" - for a finder's fee.
Even worse, among the working class of the city, who feel resentment toward a wealthy population that uses them and tosses them aside, since it has been "every man for himself" in the Roman economy for decades, there is talk of revolt. The invaders promise safe passage for anyone who fights, not to mention a share of the plunder in the wealthy Parcus Avenue houses; well, who wouldn't fight for the Vandals? These people made fortunes off the sweat of your brows, so now claim what's yours!
The situation worsens as soon as the emperor takes charge of the city and directs a segment of the population to leave for the safety of the east. His biggest campaign contributors want to go first, and to be able to move their entire households of possessions, and the groundlings who have been the first generation in their families to have homes in the perimeter, naturally, are resisting any command to leave their homes. Several people have filed discrimination lawsuits, and the women's group Isis is asserting that he is not doing enough to prevent rape, while the coalition of disabled are concerned there aren't wheelchair ramps out of the city. Chaos ensues.
Despair sinks in as he realizes that the middle class, who have lived and suffered under a bureaucracy which penalizes them for rich and poor alike, are viewing this attack as another political bungle which is not going to radically change their lives. Neighborhoods are drawing up contracts with the attackers so they can keep business as usual from being interrupted, as with even two weeks of downtime, they're out of money and are in hock up to their eyebrows. His army is devoid of professional warriors, who are busy getting double pay in Ethiopia to beat up on invading Arab tribes.
The emperor realizes quickly that no matter what he does, the infrastructure of Rome has already collapsed, and thus while he might repel the first attack, subsequent waves will turn his entire population against him. So: head to the country home with a detachment of soldiers, and wait out the chaos. Many of his people will be killed or raped, but they had no allegiance to him, so why should he care? At least three-quarters will remain and he can rebuild his personal wealth with them, creating a small fiefdom which will last for the rest of his days and perhaps those of his children. Problem solved.
Sudden loss of wealth, or source of energy, or an apocalyptic event did not cause Rome to fall. In healthy days, repulsing these Vandals, capturing their leader and raping their women would have been no big deal. But the illness was within, and he can't do a thing to stop it. A similar situation exists in our current time, where since the vast assertion of the individual in the 1950s and 1960s, America and Europe have divided against themselves and lack the consensus to repel even a slight parasite. It is similar to how in old age, it may be a cold or an allergy that finally carries away the soul, but what killed it was advanced years and declining overall health.
In our current time, the symptoms might be peak oil, or invading Chinese, or the whole population strung out on drugs, but what casts in stone the failure of this civilization is its lack of consensus. We can only agree on lowest common denominator ideas, which are of the broadest and most inconclusive sort. We want to have families, jobs and homes, and good intentions toward others, but when this gets translated into government, it becomes a strong bureaucracy mostly castrated by enforcing "do gooder" programs while the "every man for himself" rule allows those who aren't insane to buy their way out of the mess. This has no long-term future.
Of course, even blaming the current situation would be failing to differentiate symptom from cause. The roots of this problem have existed for over a thousand years, and relate to not a single entity or external force, but to a change in attitudes in the West. This article speaks to the West because the writers are based in America and are of European descent. Our belief is that other cultures must not be meddled with, and will find their own paths according to their own values, and imposition of our own values upon them is destructive.
Initially, Western culture was based upon praising that which was great and aiming for greater heights all the time. Our music, literature, art and philosophy emphasized heroic ideals, and achieving great things, in the way that those rising above the low-expectation cultures of the past might be. Now that humanity has mastered agriculture, the thinking went, it's not enough to have a roof over your head; you must create, and create something great and powerful.
This philosophy requires people willing to sacrifice some of their own comfort and wealth to reinvest in the future, both in their children and in establishing a collective environment that values education and heroism and praising those who rise above at the possible expense of others. In this view, even if most of us do not become greats, it is to our collective benefit to have a society which can produce great composers, writers, thinkers, artists and military heroes, and that there is no disgrace in not being a great, but one is not as valuable to all of us thus shouldn't breed as much, consume as many resources, or have the same political power as those that are great.
Although this type of society requires us to set aside our ego (an assessment of self-worth as seen from externally, usually by a hypothetical undifferentiated crowd of people in our minds) it guarantees that each future generation will be stronger than the last, and it produces leaders with the complexity of mind and character to do what is right, not what is convenient. It means we have to give up comfortable personal realities, and set aside the issues (such as "lifestyle choices") which we feel make us stand out as individuals. Instead, individualism is fulfilled through achievement and pride in family, land, and culture.
Naturally, this type of society isn't popular with the undifferentiated crowd, who are accustomed to an adversarial "every man for himself" environment, and thus distrust others and fear that, if there is any ability for some to rise above others, they will be left behind. In our culture, the origin of what became socialism was a public goodwill that functioned as a guarantee that no one would be left out, but would have sustenance and comfortable living so that those who rose above could be promoted above that level. Unlike Social Darwinism, which surmises that the best among us will be possessed of a desire to earn more money than others, this functions much like nature in which the strongest animals breed the most and thus strengthen each succeeding generation.
Over the last thousand years, but beginning much before, Western society has undergone a shift from promoting the best to ensuring the satisfaction and comfort of all at the expense of the best. Money is ultimately an equalizing factor, because there are many ways to get it and, if one does not mind spending one's time chasing after material goods, almost anyone can become relatively wealthy and join the privileged "classes" of society. Further, making money is not contingent upon doing the best job; if you are selling chairs, and find one that appeals to the inner moron in most people, and thus convince them to buy it, you will make more money than a craftsman who creates excellent chairs that will last a century or more.
This was followed by the populist impulses of Christianity and liberalism. Christianity as practiced by the vast majority of people is a religion of pity; it sees those who are less capable as an opportunity for the more capable to demonstrate their compassion for others by raising the less capable externally, independent of their own will and effort, to a higher stature in a society - and this of course requires a linear measurement like money. Unlike the esoteric religions before it, which had a "knowledge comes to those who seek it" philosophy, Christianity distilled its beliefs into a one size fits all normative orthodoxy. Every person is equal in the eyes of God, because each has a soul, and if they are willing to affirm Christ as savior they're part of the club; this is the nature of exoteric, or populist, religions.
Liberalism had grand beginnings but rapidly evolved into the same form of pity. Originally a celebration of the human form, and what humans could achieve, the Renaissance birthed nascent humanism, which exhalted human existence over all else. This short cycle mirrored the larger cycle of society, in which an initial system of praising greatness became a system of praising membership in the club. Liberalism as it stands is thus equivalent to the original Christianity, and has changed civilization to fit its doctrine; even "conservative" groups embrace its basic values. And who wouldn't? It's good for business to make sure every consumer has spending power to buy products and services from others.
By placing emphasis on the individual over any collective goal, especially over any ambition to rise above the commonly accepted, this new impulse in the West reversed the course of its society and, over the past thousand years, resulted in increasingly bureaucratic practices. When there is no consensus, or common agreement on what must be done outside of the individual, bureaucracy is what intervenes, because it is a form of hierarchical central control. Once bureaucracy occurs, resentment follows, because distant leaders give commands in utter lack of awareness of the specifics of local situation. Thus by its very nature, bureaucracy is normative: one size fits all.
At this point, rules become more important than a shared belief in doing what is right. "Right" in this context isn't absolute; like an individual might say "this course in life is right for me," right applies to a certain civilization and its goals. In civilizations which are rising and refining themselves, "right" is known among the people, like religion and culture and art, and is not something one looks up on an indexed page to find an answer with which one "proves" a point to another person. Once that stage is reached, the Vandals are already at the gate, gnashing teeth with an awareness of the impending victory once the hard shell of a decayed civilization is pierced, leaving only rich soft meat for the raiding.
In this kind of situation, one might as well fiddle as Rome burns, as there is no infrastructure except people using one another for individual gratification. Whatever finally carries off the aged and infirm society is of no matter, as surely something will: "nature abhors a vacuum" goes a saying, and it is natural that something weak be decomposed and the saprophytes have their feast until the momentum that provided the wealth is lost, causing what is left of civilization to devolve into simple agrarian living with no higher aspirations. Earth is littered with such saprophytic civilizations and, more ominously, the ruined buildings of others which opted to self-destruct before such an ignominious end could consume them.
Crichton is thus correct, in that our disaster warnings are most likely wrong; we are looking for an external apocalypse to distract from the poison already in our veins, the disease behind the cough which cannot be fought directly. In decaying civilizations, you cannot pick up a sword and force people to organize toward something more constructive, because the nature of needing to use force means that consensus is being lost. The only possible salvation is in breaking away that which is healthy and giving it room to ascend if it can, and giving no aid to the rest, trusting natural decay to carry it quickly to the most rudimentary level.
This brings us to our current society, all of which is fiddling while the fire builds within. Any society in which it is more important to own things, and to have a comfortable life escaping from the vast horde of miserable people eking out miniscule ignorant existences as chattel servants for the investments of the ultra-wealthy, in its organizing principle, is incapable of rising above the disaster within it. Those who might transcend and continue civilization building are by the nature of populism dragged down to equality in the misery, as the crowd hates nothing more than those who succeed where the average person cannot, and thus make such behaviors unprofitable.
Since there is no motive except the lowest common denominator, personal profit, the unprofitable are weeded out in a perverse Social Darwinism which rewards the small-minded. There is no culture, although one may, after a full day of making money, opt to look up some cultural remnants in indexed books and try to apply them discoordinately to a personal life almost completely controlled by the needs of the crowd. There is no escape from such a system, if one wishes to remain within the system. When this truth is recognized, a positive future can be established: breaking away from a dying society allows the re-creation of ascendant civilization.
In this light, to fiddle while this Rome burns is no longer evasion, but a recognition of reality through self-preservation so that, when the fires burn cold, something new can be started away from the thoughtless mass whose acquisition of internal power brought about the downfall of this civilization. They will not unite to fight the invaders, because consensus has been lost; for this reason, a new consensus must be found. And what better way to welcome it than with music?
As a wise Norwegian once said, "The next thousand years - are ours."
December 10, 2004