The arc of our politics — sound and fury, signifying nothing

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“The Fall of Rome,” by Thomas Cole

Do you recall the great fight between Tiberius Gracchus and the Senate? The Revolt of the Ciompi? The Iberian Union? The Sepoy Rebellion?

No? Not surprising. These events, while critical turning points in the world powers of the day of Rome, Florence, Spain, Portugal and Britain, are mostly forgotten to history. And, so too will our impeachment of this president, though it may seem of great importance now, soon pass into obscurity.

Don’t get me wrong. An impeachment can alter the course of a republic. But, altered or not, all great powers rise and inevitably fall, replaced by others that rise, and inevitably fall. All great powers made by humans will wither and fade. That is inescapable.

Looking back on these once-great powers, we don’t remember individual events that, in their imminence, seemed tremendous, but in the haze of history are nothing more than a thread in the tapestry. What we do remember is the general arc of things — an arc that has, inevitably, for every great world power there ever was, ended in decline, decay and dismantling.

And in the midst of each of them, the people said with all earnestness: “It could never happen to us.”

But such things don’t happen overnight, so as to be noticeable. They happen in increments, in small measures of rot that eventually leave little strength in the core of a once-grand republic. Those small increments add up, over time, unseen by a populace consumed by the immediacy of “me now.”

That was the case for Rome. Their once-great republic, defined by order and virtue, was, by the time Augustus made himself Caesar, defined by corruption, political violence, abject dysfunction and an all-powerful oligarchy that centered power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

How could a once-free people subject themselves to such tyranny? Journalist and historian Becky Little sums it up well: “Augustus told Romans he was the only one who could save Rome. And they believed him.”

What Augustus promised them, what they latched onto, was the opportunity to call themselves Roman without having to bother with all the work of preserving their republic. They could, with much greater ease, hold onto the old idea of Rome, content to be Roman even if that had lost all its original intent and meaning.

In other words, Romans were content to live under tyranny as long as they could hold fast to their old pride of being Roman. To them, to be Roman was more important than being free. To be Roman was more important to them than the conditions under which they lived, the abject immorality of their political leaders and the grim future to which they were consigning their children. Give me the glory of Rome today, and damn the future – that was their creed.

This should sound pitifully familiar to any casual observer of American society and politics over the last half century – no, it did not begin with this president, or this Congress. It began with us — the content citizenry. In truth, we care little for the ideals on which our republic was founded. We are content, as were the Romans, to dismiss both the ideals of our past and the potential for our children’s future, in favor of reveling in partisan and nationalist pride today. Give me the glory of America, or at least, the glory of me, now, and damn the future — that is our creed, regardless of party.

Our Constitution was beautifully written to stave off this kind of rot. But, by inattention and abject laziness, we’ve allowed the power of corporations and oligarchs to surpass that great document’s ability to restrain them. Individual freedom and the inherent worth of human life now are supplanted by the interests of a handful of oligarchs and the large corporations through which they amass and wield power.

This arc, like Rome’s before us, has an inglorious end. And this fight between our two dysfunctional parties, between the current president and his opponents, will be nothing more than a footnote in the long trajectory of our nation’s descent into impotence, corruption and demise. Mind you, the end will not be obvious. Like the Romans, we likely have a long, proud history ahead of us, of tyranny, corruption and violence, all wrapped in the flag and sold to us as the true meaning of our greatness.

If we want to change that arc for the better, we cannot leave fate in the hands of career politicians and oligarchs. Nor can we rely on Republican and Democratic apparatchiks to do our thinking for us. If our republic is to be sustained, or if something better is to be born atop its rotten corpse, it must begin with individuals taking custody of and responsibility not only for their own liberty, but for the liberty and well-being of their neighbor.

Can we do less? Absolutely, and with great ease. But, I fear, if we do not measure up to this task, our history, in its final analysis, will be little better than Macbeth’s outlook on life: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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