Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it will likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries but minus the Christianity, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our society, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.

Liberty in Spanish Florida

I was perusing books on early America. It’s one of my favorite topics, as it involves so many issues and influences. There were many interesting books I found, of course. But one in particular grabbed my attention. It is Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers. Here is the synopsis:

The first extensive study of the African American community under colonial Spanish rule, “Black Society in Spanish Florida” provides a vital counterweight to the better-known dynamics of the Anglo slave South. Jane Landers draws on a wealth of untapped primary sources, opening a new vista on the black experience in America and enriching our understanding of the powerful links between race relations and cultural custom. Blacks under Spanish rule in Florida lived not in cotton rows or tobacco patches but in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and a powerful and diverse Indian hinterland. Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition. European-African unions were common and accepted in Florida, with families of African descent developing important community connections through marriage, concubinage, and godparent choices. Assisted by the corporate nature of Spanish society, Spain’s medieval tradition of integration and assimilation, and the almost constant threat to Spanish sovereignty in Florida, multiple generations of Africans leveraged linguistic, military, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights. In this remote Spanish outpost, where they could become homesteaders, property owners, and entrepreneurs, blacks enjoyed more legal and social protection than they would again until almost two hundred years of Anglo history had passed.

One part stood out to me. It is the statement that, “Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition.”

That touches upon a key difference between English and Spanish societies. It is a difference, as pointed out, that is ancient. Spanish culture and legal traditions were more influenced by the Roman Empire. England was more mixed in its influences, but a major influence was Germanic tribes. (I’ve written about this before.)

This demonstrates the power of ideas, as something beyond mere abstractions and ideals. Ideas are rooted in entire social orders and worldviews. In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.

Thinking about it that way, it seems obvious that being born free is better. But there is a dark side to this. If you aren’t born as a free member of a free society, then your freedom is as if non-existent. In Roman and Romanized societies, even if born a slave, it wasn’t necessarily a permanent state. Many regular citizens would find themselves temporarily enslaved, which was more along the lines of indentured servitude. Even a captured prisoner of war could work their way out of slavery.

The English in adopting a Germanic view of freedom also inherited the opposite side of the coin. To be a slave was a permanent condition you were born into. Even if you were enslaved as an adult, it was assumed that there was something inferior about you and your people that allowed you to be enslaved. It was conveniently ignored, of course, that Europeans were being enslaved at the same time by non-Europeans )(e.g., Arabs).

So, in Spanish Florida, an African-American would find more hope in a society more fully based on the social norm of liberty. Simply being of African ancestry wasn’t considered a mark against your inherent moral worth and character. You’d likely still experience prejudice, but it still allowed more opportunities.

This isn’t about just the past. The Anglo-Saxon view of freedom is still being used to justify prejudice and oppression of African-Americans. Every generation of racists and racialists, bigots and supremacists comes up with new rationalizations. There are new reasons that are popular today, but it is the same basic justification of racial hierarchy. Instead of being marked by God as the descendants of Cain or whatever, the permanent underclass of minorities is assumed to have inferior genetics or culture.

Many white Americans, especially right-wingers, talk about liberty. But they don’t really believe in it. Yes, in its original form, liberty did arise out of a slave society. Yet it wasn’t one of a racial hierarchy. Being enslaved didn’t inevitably imply anything about you as an individual or your people. That is different today. No matter how an African-American may struggle to get out of poverty, they can never escape their blackness and all that it symbolizes. It is a permanent yoke around their neck.

To Be Ruled By Engineers

“Some of the sources of Chinese success and American decay are not entirely mysterious. As it happens, the typical professional background of a member of China’s political elite is engineering; they were taught to build things. Meanwhile, a remarkable fraction of America’s political leadership class attended law school, where they were trained to argue effectively and to manipulate. Thus, we should not be greatly surprised that while China’s leaders tend to build, America’s leaders seem to prefer endless manipulation, whether of words, money, or people.”
~ Ron Unz, China’s Rise, America’s Fall

This made me think of two things.

First, American poitics isn’t just dominated by lawyers and legal experts. It is also dominated by business managers.

The legal types are great at rhetoric and persuasion. They are the sophists of the modern age. They play at being statesmen, but law school doesn’t prepare them for what is needed to be statesmen. They are experts in legalese and so they create more of it, with bills so complex that even they can’t understand it all. Obfuscation is a large part of the game, clever minds trying to outwit other clever minds, and yet none of them as clever as they think they are. They get so lost in words and abstractions that they forget a democracy is supposed to be about the people.

The business types, however, have a different but equally problematic mindset. They see the government and the population as something to be managed. They are the technocrats who see themselves as a meritocratic plutocracy of pragmatic problem-solvers. They will get things done, democracy be damned, but they don’t actually know how to get things done because a democratic government is about as opposite as one can get from a for-profit corporation. The only way for them to succeed according to their skill set is to make government into an extension of business. That is how we ended up with what some call soft fascism, corporatism, or inverted totalitarianism.

These are the twin forces of bureaucracy. Neither type is trained for building things. They aren’t engineers. They don’t even have the training to deal with objective reality, as neither are they scientists. Far fewer have any kind of experience that would connect them to the larger world, especially to the lives and experience of most Americans.

They exist in a bubble. As I recall, in recent history, all presidents, vice presidents, and every major party candidate for those positions have come from one of two Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale. Many of them belonged to the same fraternities and clubs, socialize among the same people at the same events, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, send their children to the same private schools, and get the basically same info from the same sources.

I’m not saying the Chinese political elite don’t also live in a bubble. But at least they have real world knowledge about building things. Is it any wonder that the American infrastructure is not being maintained and most definitely not being expanded? Americans once built great things. That is no longer the case.

I don’t see it as a mere coincidence that American mainstream society used to revere engineers and scientists. At one time, there was a great push to get American kids into these fields. The engineers and scientists were highly respected. They were the hereoes during an era when we were competing against first Nazi engineers and scientists and then later against Soviet engineers and scientists. With the ending of the Cold War, Americans have lost their edge and even China’s challenging our power has only been met with apathy and cynicism. Now Americans attack scientists as anti-American and, since the Space Race ended, don’t give much thought at all to engineers.

The Chinese aspire toward power and greatness. Whether or not they will succeed, that is their vision as a society, especially among the ruling elite. They do make major mistakes in thei engineering schemes, as they seek to socially engineer an entire society, but at least they are trying to improve themselves. We Americans, on the other hand, rest on our laurels. Too much success and power has made us lazy and self-satisfied.

The second thing I was reminded of is Rome. Americans inherited the European love of comparing themselves to Rome. The Roman Empire is the touchstone for Western Civilization. In that light, I offer the following:

“Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.”
 ~ Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

That quote touched upon something that come up in a recent conversation. I forget the context, but the point made was about the contrast between the early and late Roman Empire. Romans didn’t start out as a ruling elite operating a bureaucratic empire. What allowed them to become an empire in the first place was that they were great engineers. They built things better than other people did, from roads to aqueducts.

Importantly, Romans weren’t even the most innovative society. The Greeks produced greater thinkers. It was the Romans who were better at building armies and waging war, and hence they defeated the Greeks. But once victorious, Romans were only able to build their great society by borrowing from the great thinkers of other societies, such as the Greeks.

That resonates with today. Many Americans will say admit that the Chinese are smarter and maybe are better at building things. However, we are supposed to believe that America will always come out ahead because we are innovative. Chinese are better taught in terms of the rote memory that is necessary for science and engineering, but Americans have more patents and nobel prizes. Ignoring that much of America’s innovation comes from immigrants, I’m not sure innovation by itself will keep us on top, assuming we want to stay on top.

The ancient Greeks boasted of having had a great society. Without Hellenism, Rome as we know it wouldn’t be possible. Still, I doubt it comforted those defeated Greeks that at least their culture lived on in the Roman Empire. As the US declines, should Americans comfort themselves that American culture has left a permanent mark on the world.

There was something that once made this country unique.

“When Thomas Huxley, a famous British biologist, visited America in 1876, he asked, as the ship approached the New York harbor, what were the tower and the tall building with a cupola – then the city’s most conspicuous structures. When he was told that they were the Tribune newspaper and the Western Union Telegraph buildings, he replied, “Ah, that is interesting; that is American. In the Old World the first thing you see as you approach a great city are [church] steeples; here you see first, centers of intelligence.””
 ~ Andrew Friend, A Bell Curve, Kindle Location 763

Now, as we look at growing US cities, what are the buildings that dominate the skyline?

Here in my local community, the tallest or one of the tallest buildings in the downtown used to be for a tech industry company. However, the most recent tallest buildings built are high-rise apartment buildings for the super wealthy and they are smack dab in the center of town, dominating not just the skyline but also towering over the public space of the pedestrian mall (one part of the pedestrian mall has for all intents and purposes been made into the front yard for one of these high-rises). That symbolically shows who dominates and rules this town.

In other places, the tallest buildings are increasingly finance-oriented. Many have noted the increasing financializatioin of the US economy. It should, of course, be noted that this financialization is propped up by the US dollar which is in turn propped up by debt the US owes China.

The US once could have been compared to the Greek Alexandrian Empire, but now the closer comparison is the late Roman Empire. Signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Yet our military might remains immense. We could hobble along like this for a few more generations. Or we could choose to not repeat history and instead take a different path.

The Early Roman Catholic Church

Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries took the carrot and stick approach of the Roman Empire, but applied it to more dogmatic ends.  Rome was ruthless to its enemies, and yet a conquered people if they were willing to submit gained great prosperity and stability by becoming a part of the Empire.  Within the Empire, there were profound moral and spiritual philosophies which were carryovers from the Hellenism of the Alexandrian Age.  However, the Empire was built upon conquest and slavery. 

Then Constantine legalized Christianity.  Carrying on the moral tradition of Stoicism (Natural Law), Christians began to counter some of the atrocities of Roman culture, but not very quickly and adding some of their own atrocities in the process.  In the immediate, all the Catholics did was exchange a Roman elite for a church orthodoxy elite, and the politics were no less treacherous.  Still, many Christian preachers spoke of ideals that were very attractive to the common person (even though the church often didn’t live up to those ideals). 

Christians turned out to be very bad administrators of the Roman Empire and they (along with destabilizing influx of Germans) helped run it into the ground, but for the common person life was in some ways easier with Roman authority waning.  The Christians eventually replaced slavery with serfdom which was moderately better, and more importantly they ended the gladiatorial fights.  In the Christianized  Middle Ages, life was relatively good as long as you were cautiously submissive to those who ruled over you and never questioned orthodoxy.  The intellectual, scientific, and religious greatness of Rome was gone, but the simple agrarian life of serfdom wasn’t too bad except for the constant warring of the fiefdoms. 

Despite Christianity’s idealizations of God’s love and grace, the Catholic church was often more brutally intolerant than was the Pagan Roman Empire.  For certain, the Pagan Romans never came close to persecuting Christians to the degree that the Catholic church did.  The Catholic Church had less power than the Roman Empire and so they had to use what power they had more forcefully.  A Roman citizen had great freedom, but absolute conformity was demanded of the Catholic.  It wasn’t an age of morality…. not what we’d call morality in the modern world.  Any means were considered justified if they served the ends demanded by the church.  Many of the early church fathers admitted to and advocated lying and deceit if it would help to convert people and help maintain the authority of the church.  Of course, lying and deceit were the least worse activities the church was involved with.

One seeming advantage of the Fall of the Roman Empire was the return to city-states.  Greek thought arose out of city-states and out of that Hellenism was born.  Later on in Europe, the Italian city-states for instance led to a renewed cultural creativity.  Maybe imperialism is always untenable in the long run, but sadly when if fails it leads to truly oppressive regimes such as the Catholic church.  The one truly good thing the Romans gave was systematization of Hellenistic philosophies.  It was because Rome spread Hellenistic ideas so widely that the Catholic church wasn’t able to entirely wipe it all out.

The strange thing is that Hellenism survived in the Eastern Empire much longer.  I’m not sure why that was.  Was the Eastern Orthodox church less oppressive or just less powerful?  What makes the Catholic church so unique in its early brutality?  Greek thought arose out of a diversity of thinking.  The Alexandrian Age brought that diversity into an even larger context of cultures.  Even the Romans, despite their legalistic systematizing, encouraged great diversity in the early centuries of their rule.  Why did that diversity start to wane and why did this encourage a social system like that of Catholicism in the fourth and fifth centuries?  How could the greatness of a thousand years of Graeco-Roman brilliance fall under the ignorant tyranny of the early Catholic church?

The funny thing is that Christians were ruling the Empire when Rome was sacked and it was sacked by Christians.  The Catholic church had started to get heavy-handed in its persecutions near the end of the fourth century.  One of the heresies was Arianism.  The German Visigoths had been converted to Arianism and they came in and kicked the Catholic Empire in the balls.  When you think about it, the German Christians kept on causing problems for many centuries to come.  Its interesting that Protestantism later arose where the heretical Christians last took refuge.  And what is even more interesting is the era of the return of the popularity of heretical thought starting around the twelfth century which led to the Reformation and the Renaissance.  Diversity and cultural creativity decreased as the power of Catholicism increased, and then diversity and cultural creativity increased as the power of Catholicism decreased.