Rome and Us
You say there was an almost fatal parochialism among the Romans. Are we in danger of duplicating it?
I was looking the other day at one of the new Pew Center polls about "what Americans know." Have you noticed how these polls never seem to bring good news? Americans in general aren't that interested in, or aware of, the outside world, and increasingly even our elites don't seem to put much stock in that kind of knowledge either.Four years into the Iraq war we still don't have anything close to the number of Arabic-speakers we should have had when we started. The number of American newspaper correspondents in foreign capitals continues to shrink.The Boston Globe just shut down its last foreign bureaus. This summer the Washington Post is withdrawing its correspondent from our largest trading partner, Canada. This indifference toward the wider world has a Roman antecedent. Compared to the Greeks, the Romans were not passionately interested in the outside world in any sort of anthropological way. And they were often taken by surprise. The great disaster suffered by Varus in Germany in 9 A.D., when three entire Roman legions were annihilated, stemmed partly from ignorance about the tribes they were up against, and also from a general tendency to underestimate outsiders. One contemporary, Velleius Paterculus, wrote that the Romans had thought they could just "breeze right in," bringing the benefits of civilization. I wonder what he would have made of the Green Zone.
How do we reverse our own tendencies toward decline?
Let me say, first, that I'm not interested in improving the prospects for a powerful American empire. I'm interested in the prospects for a healthy American societya place where people's lives get gradually better and where we can continue to experiment with the best parts of what has been called "the American idea" I'm always skeptical when people come forward with grand radical schemes, and I don't have one. I do have a few thoughts about steps we should take. One is to instill in younger Americans an appreciation of the outside world. That includes encouraging people to learn at least one foreign language. Every educated Roman was bilingual. In a globalizing world, educated Americans need to be. Second, stop treating governmentas a necessary evil and start taking pride in what government can do welland give government the means to keep doing it. Third, let's try to see immigration as a source of strength, and play to it. America, like Rome, is an assimilation machine. The culture, the opportunity, the vitalityin America as in Rome, these things are so powerful that they reliably turn outsiders into insiders. The key is to keep ourselveshealthy at home: to be sure that our homegrown institutionseducation, healthcare, social servicesare in good working order and available to newcomers. And then, fourth, we have to take some weight off the American military, which means we need to stop giving it so many missions.
There's one final thing, and that's remembering who we are. The Roman elites were an incredibly tiny part of the population, and very complacent. They were not looking to improve life for the vast majority of the Romans, and for themselves their own motto could have been, "It doesn't get any better than this." Americans, particularly the middle class, which is a class Rome didn't really have at all, are not like that. Americans believe in self-betterment, in the possibility of improvement for everybody. They have an abiding faith in this, though it may be eroding. That ethic is our saving grace: it's the empire of possibility.