Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when I was a kid permanently deformed my prose style so I suppose I have an excuse for abusing the memory of Edward Gibbon by trotting out the following quotation for the millionth time: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” My motive in resurrecting this Lazarus is not to attack the religious right, however. In fact, as even a brief Google search verifies, the fundamentalists frequently quote it approvingly themselves and demonstrate in the process a better understanding of what Gibbon meant than the average village atheist. Gibbon wasn’t writing about the spiritual and political atmosphere of the decline, but explaining the rationale of the consistent tolerance followed by the Empire at its height. Gibbon, who was both a philosopher and a magistrate, doubtless approved of Antiquity’s version of multiculturalism. The American theocrats just as obviously despise it along with its contemporary avatars. They are, however, talking about the same thing.

In fact, one could hardly apply Gibbon’s quote justly to either the 5th Century or the 21st. The intellectual classes of late Antiquity, even the remaining Pagans, were deeply superstitious. They may have despised the coarser practices of the Many, but they commonly embraced the notion of reincarnation, poured over horoscopes, practiced magic, and summoned spirits. Even their serious philosophy was theosophy. The erstwhile freethinkers of our own times are no less susceptible to the appeal of irrational religious ideas. Business for alternative forms of medicine, astrology, and memory regression is always good in University towns. The dry and sober rationalism of high antiquity is not much in evidence. Meanwhile, just as the magistrates of the era of the Decline found that fanaticism had political uses, the politicians of our times have rediscovered the motive power of true belief.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Neap, Spring, Ebb, Flood

Time, one hears, is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. If that’s true, it must have gotten the position as a political favor from Karl Rove because it hasn’t been doing a very good job lately. The present situation is hard to address either analytically or politically because what’s important about it relates simultaneously to so many trends and cycles, each of which has a different scale and rhythm. Thus the Bush regime, which in many ways reprises the familiar program of other corrupt American administrations (Grant, Harding, Reagan), practices its entrepreneurial politics at a time when the consequences of looting the nation have far greater consequences, not only domestically in a nation with far less margin for error than before but abroad, too, since the gears of the conservative machine mesh with the operation of the whole world. Ideological stupidity and political criminality that once has largely local consequences becomes something quite different when it takes place at or near the inflection point of so many fundamental historical trends including the end of cheap oil and the demographic transition of the human population and at a time when the planet itself is undergoing an ecological, meteorological, and even chemical revolution. And that’s not to factor in the spiritual and civilizational fits underway in the realm of culture, the migration vast numbers of people across the globe, and the incalculable prospect of the wild cards dealt into the game at random intervals by the scientists. What we’re dealing with here is the motorized version of Russian dolls— “their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel” (Ezekiel 1:16). Or maybe the Mayans, whose conception of time featured a whole set of nested cycles, were right in understanding that calamity or creation naturally occur when all the digits of the cosmic odometer turn over at once, as, by the way, they are scheduled to do when the Long Count begins again on December 21, 2012.

As the acronym SNAFU indicates, problems are not anomalies and normally provide no occasion for panic. Indeed, managing, like walking, is essential a controlled stumble. What we’re dealing with, unfortunately, is a reduplication of crises, a crisis crisis, which the public mind is especially ill suited to comprehend since of all the cycles in play, the narrowest is the news cycle.