Saturday, April 19, 2008

SPQR II: O tempora! O mores!

Missed my deadline for the Friday "think piece" - got home, had dinner, played with little peeps and within fifteen minutes of getting the older one into his high bed I was pounding my ear. Ah, sleep. Sleep is good.

But I have been following the news and thinking about...not so much the individual news items but what our headlines and the national interests they purport to represent are telling me about the State of our Union.

Domestically our economy continues to misfire in an ominous fashion, but the principal public response seems to be no more than a nervous glance or three. Certainly the so-called "stimulus" tax giveaway seems to be a ridiculous sop to a credulous public, as useless a tool for halting the deflation of the retail bubble as a tampon in a typhoon.

In fact, no one in power seems to be particularly concerned about the frailty of an economy driven mostly by retail spending this mess exposes. Ah, well.And our foreign policy remains mathematically compounded of "ambition, distraction, uglification and derision". Given the feeble mix of Congressional self-importance and inanity on display at the Petraeus-Crocker hearings we can now rest assured that our pilgrim's progress in the Middle East will remain on track to do to the incoming President and the 111th Congress what in the Army we used to call "putting the turd in your pocket."

So. Rather than flog these motionless geldings, I thought I'd talk a little about something I ran across on a China adoption bulletin board.

Last week one of the correspondents - let's call her "A" for short - wrote this:

Someone just set off an M-80 in a stairwell at my stepson's high school. No one was injured, but the school was evacuated and all the nearby schools are on lockdown.

Apparently a few kids where quite shaken up. Today is the anniversary of Virginia Tech, various schools have been either closed or locked down in Chicago with week with different threats, and the NIU shootings 2 months ago are still very fresh in everyone's mind around here. A couple of the students in that shooting were from our
immediate area.

I don't know what the answer is to this. Schools are incredibly vulnerable, and most of the safety procedures in place can't prevent things like what happened at Andrew's school today.

Now first, let me explain that "A" is neither foolish, credulous nor a hysteric. Her posts have constantly shown her to be a bright, capable person with a full compliment of morals. She is probably in the 90th percentile for civility, the sort of person that the republican system of government was practically designed for.

And yet, here she is, shaken and almost panicked ("schools are incredibly vulnerable") because of a firecracker.

Last summer I wrote a long essay on the fall of the Roman Republic. I promised that in Part 2 I'd talk about how the present United States reflects these same failings. And this panic-in-the-classroom is where I want to start.

Fabius Maximus has a good discussion of his opinion of the two most dangerous enemies the U.S. faces: paranoia and hubris. We'll leave hubris for next time. Let's talk about fear.

Think about the fear expressed in "A"'s post. The evacuation and lockdown of her stepson's school. Virgina Tech. NIU. School shootings. Incredibly vulnerable. Safety procedures. This is the language of a city under siege, or a dangerous frontier. The underlying sentiment is a dangerous, frighteningly out-of-control world, where violent death is an everpresent danger and "safety precautions" are imperative to prevent the faceless but powerful enemies from harming us.

And is this conclusion surprising? Visit your local news channel. Watch a snipbit of the morning infotainment - sandwiched amid the celebrity gossip and the live-from-the-local-animal-shelter-adorable-pet segment most of the news is about fires, murders and assorted domestic horrors - many of them far from your local area. A shooting in Tumwater. Child killer in Bethesda. Home invasion in Los Angeles.
Given the relative sizes of our populations, 21st Century America is a fantastically peaceful nation. We have no Mongol Invasions, no Black Death, no Servile Wars. As an American citizen of middle class aspirations and late middle age, circa 2008, I have about the same ridiculously tiny, statistically insignificant chance of being: immolated in aerial bombardment, ventilated by a crazed gunman, perishing of a pandemic plague, being crucified by rebel armies or getting lucky with Lucy Liu.But you'd never know this if you didn't venture outside television news and newspaper articles.

OK, you'd get the "Lucy Liu" thing if you've seen my pictures. Sigh.

But our principal sources of information are dominated by death and violence to the point where I suspect that most Americans truly believe that we live in the most perilous times that have every been.Whether your terror is Islamofascism, global warming, invading Meskins...I believe that many, many citizens of my country are hypersensitized to fear. I find it hard to believe, for example, that America in 2008 is truly more brutish and violent than America in 1808 or 1888, what with the earlier combinations of frontier war and raid, lynching, easy access to weapons and liquor, poor hygiene and rudimentary medical care and little or no access to nonlethal redress in the form of courts, newspapers, mediators, Judge Judy and Montel Williams.

The difference? The madman who butchered six strangers and himself over in the next county was, at most, the subject of distant gossip in 1808 or 1888. What happened the next state over was ancient news, the next country? Wild rumor. We weren't hammered with images and sounds of carnage. We didn't have CNN - we had Goya.

So here's why I see this as a problem. Let's take "A"'s school. First, any bodyguard will tell you that if some jerk wants to hurt you and doesn't care about paying for it, he can. So the ONLY way to prevent the sort of violent disturbances in schools is to provide them with the kind of security we now reserve for prisons and airline terminals.And - if we are convinced that the world is so frightening and vile that the ONLY choice we have is the level of this protection we will provide - we will end up seeking and spending more for all kinds of expensive gadgets up to and including weaponry to defend them.

Or to attack. And so we pursue ever increasingly expensive solutions for ever less critical problems - foreign wars, antimissile systems, F-22 fighters and metal detectors for schools - while closing our eyes and ears to things that can truly harm us: a dysfunctional economy, foreigners furious with foreign occupation, graduating poorly educated kids - usually minority kids - with just enough marginal skills enough to fail in a technological society, thus insuring a semi-permanent underclass and a widening gap between those wealthy enough to succeed, prosper and rule and those who are not.

"What kind of a crisis was it in which it was not Roman society that fell apart, but Roman reality - the sense of shared security in an order that was essentially unquestioned?" Christian Meier, Caesar (1982)

It is in this way that great nations decline. But the foolishness, fear and ignorance of the plebians isn't enough. Greed and pandering of the popular press isn't enough. There must be stupidity, blindness and greed amongst the equestrians and the senators.

Next time: SPQR III: Tribunes of the Plebs


pluto said...

I think your comments are pretty much on the mark but I'd like to add a little bit to them.

One of the many challenges our society is facing is the rate of technological change, which has been rapidly increasing over the last 50 years. As you point out, 100 years ago if a man that killed 6 people and then himself in the next county, people would have troubles knowing about it. Now, because of technology, it is the leading story in the local news. In 20 more years, it may be the leading story in the national news, unless something even more scary happened somewhere else...

The point of news programs is to communicate the unusual bad things that happened in your local environment so you can adapt to them. The only problem with this idea is that the constant barrage of bad news tends to make people more and more paranoid. The other problem is that news shows have now become some form of sick entertainment, sort of like the colleseum in ancient Rome.

A lot of people around me were shocked by 9/11 and I had several extended conversations with these people to understand what upset them about 9/11. I was surprised by the uniformity of their responses.

First they couldn't understand why OBL and AQ wanted to attack America. When I explained OBL's reasons (such as they were), my fellow Americans admitted that they didn't really want to know about the reasons, they just wanted the problem (AQ) to go away and were willing to pay any price to avoid repetition of the event.

I suspect that the person in your comments, "A," had similar feelings. They have a nice quiet safe little world that they understand and then somebody rips a jagged hole in their world for no apparent reason and exposes them to something harsh, foreign, and unexpected and they just wilt in response. Any attempt to educate them or to get them to deal with the problem just causes them more pain and they are willing to do anything to end it regardless of the cost.

One of the great disadvantages of our current rapid rate of technological advance is that people need to be mature enough to deal with the consequences. Even though I work in the technology field, I am something of a Luddite and will not use new technology unless I feel that it is cost-effective and that it really adds something new and of value to my life. I get razzed about this a lot at work but I'm not the person who spends hours and hundreds of dollars trying to get their latest widget to actually work as advertised...

Your comment about the security in Prisons and Airport Terminals led to another line of thought. Airport and Prison security have both shown themselves to be pretty ineffective. The problem is that the guards need to be vigilant at all times and the bad guys can pick their moment to attack. Airports, in particular, are very chaotic places so there is a large number of false alarms occuring at all times and while security may look good but it is pretty much useless. TSA studies have shown that there isn't an airport in the country that couldn't be successfully attacked. No amount of money and effort that can never overcome a sufficiently motivated human mind. In short, whatever we build we can destroy.

Finally, I want to say that the only way I substantially disagree with your argument is that I believe we're going to skip the Empire stage and jump straight to the dissolution of the United States into a bunch of smaller proto-states, similar to what we now laughingly call the "Dark Ages." Many of the same circumstances that drove apart the Romans are now at work on us and I don't see any reason for the results to be substantially different.

Fabius Maximus said...

Excellent article!

I too have written about "Caesar" and its relevance to our time. The Roman people had grown tired of governing themselves -- and there were no shortage of volunteers to take on the burden.

Lisa said...

Re. your last triumvirate necessary for empire dissolution: we've got 'em all, baby!