“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx
One of the things that makes the fall of the Roman Republic so tragic is that most of the crises that destroyed it were wholly unnecessary. But, at every opportunity for compromise, the political opponents of Caesar instead inflamed the situation. A strange mix of idealistic zealots and privileged aristocrats, Caesar’s opponents couldn’t compromise their principles, or rise above their pettiness. Surrounded by a society increasingly divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a vanishing middle-class, and a political system corrupted by an irreversible connection between office and riches, the champions of the Republic lived in denial. The result was a depressing mix of unrealistic idealism combined with a corrupt determination to hang onto old privileges.
In contrast, Caesar, and later Augustus, are brutal pragmatists. They understand that times have changed, the political system is broken, and that their task is to restore it to stability. Their bows to the traditions of the past are strictly rhetorical. In practice, if the traditions of the Republic prevent the functioning of the state, they intend to do away with them. To them, no other course is realistic: the government of the past cannot be restored under the current condition of the state. This had clearly been demonstrated by Sulla, whose drastic attempts to strengthen the government of the Republic had only weakened it further.
As a pragmatist, Caesar was clearly willing to compromise with his opponents rather than risk the chances of all-out warfare, but his opponents were not. Cato’s unswerving and principled determination to prosecute Caesar when his governorship of Gaul was over led directly to the Civil War. In turn, Brutus’s and Cassius’s sincere conviction that Caesar wanted to be King led directly to the establishment of the Empire The opponents of Caesar saw any compromise of principle as a crime, while the wealth of their aristocratic supporters gave them a false conviction of their strength. Their contemporaries, and History, has recognized the purity of their motives, but the results of this purity were disastrous. By rejecting compromise, they rapidly brought about the end of the Republic, when more far-seeing politicians could have extended it’s life for many years.
Which brings us to the present day. In general, I would acknowledge that James Madison was a far smarter man than myself or his contemporaries. By now though, it is clear that his anti-federalist opponents were correct about the dangers of a large republic. As one wrote in Brutus #1:
“History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world”
Stripped of the hyperbole, Brutus argues that empires inevitably require large governments and a central concentration of power. This process has been long underway in the United States, and it is futile at this time to attempt to return to the highly limited government of the past. Regardless of the platform upon which they are elected, once in office, external events, the extent of their power and the need to reward their supporters will inevitably corrupt any officeholder. This was clearly demonstrated by George Bush, who was elected on a conservative platform promising a “humble foreign policy,” and who instead ended up fighting wars all over the world and justifying torture by executive fiat. And, this rapid extension of executive power has only accelerated under Obama.
Yet, while I believe many of Obama’s policies are both wrong-headed, and destructive of our Civil Liberties, he’s been blessed with enemies who seem determined to prove Marx’s aphorism about history true. Indeed, Newt Gingrich in the role of Cicero, and Karl Rove as Crassus makes a farce inevitable. More importantly, overwrought denunciations of Obama as a socialist, a budding tyrant, and an empty suit are both incoherent (how can he be all of them?) and worse than useless. Obama has proven throughout his life that he prefers to get along with everyone, and is willing to compromise. As such, the times call for measured resistance to specific policies, not hysterical opposition to every initiative. Even a rational opposition will probably not be enough to make a difference in the long-term trajectory of the United States, but the current tactics only ensure a quick failure.
Pope Benedict has resigned. As a theologian he showed seeds of greatness. As a Pope, he wasn’t particularly successful,. Part of that was due to the times in which he reigned, but most of the responsibility falls on him. The real failure of his papacy was his inability to govern the church in a way that reflected the humbling conclusions of his scholarship. Benedict’s thinking was shaped, as everyone’s is, by his upbringing. Born amid the disillusionment of post-WWI Europe, he was raised in a regime that insisted that traditional conceptions of good and evil did not exist, and that Christian morality was a dangerous illusion. Although he outlived that regime, he spent the remainder of his career in a increasingly atheistic Europe that, while rejecting the tenets of Nazism and Stalinism, also rejected Christianity. What is most striking about Pope Benedict’s writings is that he acknowledged this rejection, and understood that the Church was in a period of decline. In 1995, he stated:
“We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.” [In Salz der Erde, Im Gespraech mit P Seewald (Christentum und katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende Stuttgart, DVA Verlag, 1996]
Yet, in the end, there was a yawning chasm between Benedict’s understanding of his times and his policies. His Papacy was noted for his defiant defense of traditional Church doctrine: a doctrine that had led to a shrinking of the church that continued on his watch. A policy more in tune with his writings might have led to a Church with more humility. He could have focused his energies on recruiting priests from among elder laymen, ensuring the continued existence of religious orders, and on religious education. Benedict had the opportunity to shape the Church and prepare it for the coming abeyance of influence he expected. He failed to do so. It seems a strange condemnation of him to say that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, but, in the end, that must be my conclusion.
In 2008, I wrote a post entitled Why This Election Doesn’t Matter. In it, I argued that despite the substantive differences between Obama and McCain, that once a nation was in decline, the policies of individual statesmen, no matter how skilled, made little difference. Looking back over the last four years, I think events have confirmed my prediction. We are still mired in a war in Afghanistan, the deficit is still setting records, and there has been no real economic reform or recovery. The trajectory continued uninterrupted. So, I’m reprinting my post from 2008 with only the substitution of the word Romney for McCain:
Only a fool would say that there are not substantive differences between Barack Obama and MItt Romney. Yet, in the end, these differences are irrelevant to the fate of the United States. Once an empire begins to decline; reversal is almost impossible. This is particularly true, when financial engineering has replaced real achievement. When a nation reaches that point, then there are few real sources of wealth available to it. As Kevin Phillips has pointed out:
On the edge of decline the Spanish had gloried in their New World gold and silver; the Dutch, in their investment income and lending to princes and czarinas; and the British, in their banks, brokers, and global financial network. In none of these situations, however, could financial services succeed in upholding the national preeminence that had been earlier built by explorers, conquistadores, maritime skills, innovative science and engineering, the first railroads, electrical dynamos, and great iron and steel works. Invariably, power and greatness passed to new explorers, innovators and industrialists.
Each of those declining empires had skilled statesmen who appreciated the true situation of their countries and tried to restore its preeminence. In every case they failed, because the power of existing political factions to defend their own interests was too great. Consider that Spain was far richer and more powerful than the U.S. in the 16th Century. And yet, it fell very swiftly. If the Count-Duke of Olivares couldn’t save Spain, who would bet that Mitt Romney or Barack Obama can save the United States?
In an interview posted at Real Clear Politics, Ron Paul states what everyone knows, but won’t acknowledge:
“Default is coming. The only argument that’s going on now is how to default, not send the checks out or just print the money. In all countries our size, they always print the money,” … They’re going to raise the debt limit, and then they’re going to print the money, and then they’ll default by inflation, and that’s much more dangerous than facing up to the facts of what’s happening today.”
See the video here.
It’s been about 9 months since I started weightlifting again after a long, long layoff. Since I’ve started, my weights on “pull” exercises have doubled, while my weight increase on “push” exercises has been far less. This difference has nothing to do with how hard I work on each kind of exercise. It’s totally a result of my genetics. As a (relatively) skinny guy with long, skinny arms and legs, I find “pull” exercises like rows a lot easier than “push” exercises like bench presses. I’m just built better for them. Similarly, I find deadlifts a lot easier than squats. When I was in college, I had a roommate who had short, massive arms. Not surprisingly, he could bench huge amounts that I couldn’t even touch, because he was built for it. When it comes to exercise, you should always start by looking at what your body is built to do, and then working to maximize your potential. In the end, you can’t beat genetics.
In my opinion, the greatest haiku poet ever was Kobayashi Issa. Here are two of my favorite poems by him:
This world of Dew
Is but a world of Dew
And yet …
about new snow for the rich
is not art
You can learn more about Issa at the Kobayashi Issa Museum.
There’s been a lot of buzz this morning about a possible link-up between Nokia and Microsoft, a combination that Om Malik likens to a “desperate hookup.” I agree completely. It’s clear that Microsoft has blown any reasonable chance it had of gaining significant market share in smartphones. An agreement with Nokia won’t change that, and it won’t help Nokia, either. There is simply no room for another significant player in the smartphone space beyond Apple, Google (Android) and RIM. That’s why, instead of pouring more money into Windows Phone, Microsoft should just buy RIM. RIM’s Blackberry is so closely linked to the enterprise, and so integrated with Microsoft’s Exchange, that it is already the default Microsoft phone, anyway. By buying RIM, Microsoft could leverage that integration, and reinforce their grip on the enterprise space which is already under assault by Google. However much it costs to buy RIM, it’s still better than pouring billions down the rathole that is Windows Phone.
UPDATE: Microsoft has revealed the sales figures for Windows Phone 7 so far. They just emphasize that Windows Phone 7 is toast!
I was a judge at the recent Cloudstock Hackathon. Cloudstock was an event held as part of Dreamforce, and the hackathon required entries to use two apis from the sponsors of Cloudstock. I had a great time, and I was really impressed by the imaginative entries.