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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Pashas, Sultans, Shahs, And Emperors - And Democracy's Sorry Sequel

Ritter Jones had never dreamed that he would become a politician.  Politicians just happened, he thought, like prophets who never chose to be the Lord's anointed but were tapped for the job.  A politician was not like a doctor or lawyer, accredited professionals with graduate degrees, internships, and residencies. A politician today can rely solely on ambition, performance, and some sense of entitlement. 

Housewives, grandchildren of slaves, hicks, rubes, and gangsters all can now throw their hat in the ring and have a go.  Identity politics gives easy, simple constituency - black for black is much easier than a more complex, studied relationship of governing and governed. 

Alexander Hamilton understood the nature of electoral process and knew that some buffer between the hacks who made their way to Congress and federal governance was absolutely necessary and argued for an American version of the British House of Lords - an august body of well educated, patrician, wealthy men who had no need to dig for gold and could therefore act in the public interest; and so it was that the Senate was created. 


Hamilton was right in principle, but he badly missed the boat on politicians' higher-leanings.  While the gentlemen from Beacon Hill, Madison Avenue, Rittenhouse Square, and Richmond might have had some sense of noblesse oblige and a spirit of stewardship, it wasn't long before the Senate was no different from the House of Representatives - barroom brawlers, hucksters, snake oil salesmen, and shell game tricksters.  How could they be otherwise, Tocqueville asked when he wrote about democracy in America? A country of fast-talking hustlers and con men would quite naturally elected representatives who would be like them. 

So, we get what we deserve as unsatisfying as it often seems.  How could a nation hewn from the same timber as Great Britain - land of class and character - and cultural heirs to the kings, queens, and courtiers of Europe and the greatness of Western civilization have settled for so little? 

'A significant advance in political culture', said historians of the emergence of democracy in Europe.  Forget about the guillotine, Robespierre, and the Reign of Terror; and put in context the Restoration after the mess made by Oliver Cromwell or the centuries of Roman Empire overshadowing the few decades of Republicanism.  Democracy they felt, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it, 'Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all others'. 

Yet as Americans look at the vaudeville of American politics - Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy tomfoolery - and look with not a little nostalgia the glory of empire - the Palace of Versailles, its formal gardens, the Hall of Mirrors, the elegance and sophistication of court, and the spread of art, culture, literature and science.  Or before that Persepolis, the powerful, influential dynasties of China, the rule of the Guptas and the Mauryas, and the Tsars of Russia.  Power, elegance, cultural, stability, and unified rule. 


The idea of monarchy and empire, however, is anathema to today's political liberals.  Empire was no less than a territorial occupation, a predatory, dehumanizing, corrupt use of power.  Empires were built to sustain an elite class, an inbred bloodline of hereditary rulers.  Yet these critics overlook the civilizing nature of empire - the spread of language, art, and ideas. Revisionist historians are quick to criticize empire – exploitive, racist, self-serving, and often brutal – but neglect to mention the spread of civilization for which it was responsible. 

 The Roman Empire covered most of the known world and under its governance less-developed regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe adopted Roman systems of civil management, laws, language, science, and the arts.

Roman roads opened colonies to commerce and trade.  Aqueducts brought water for irrigation.  The concentration of wealth in urban areas facilitated the construction of public architecture (e.g. amphitheaters) and temples, and cities from the Eastern Mediterranean to England grew in size and importance.

Image result for images roman aqueducts

The Persian Empire was no less impressive and like the later Roman Empire covered a vast territory from India to Greece. 

Under the Persian Empire trade was increased throughout the kingdom. Weights were standardized weights, official coinage minted, and universal laws implemented.
The Persian leaders…imposed a 20 percent tax on all agriculture and manufacturing. They also taxed religious institutions, which despite their wealth had previously not been taxed.
The Persian kings — especially Cyrus and, later, Darius I developed a model for the administration of a large empire… Justice was administered fairly and evenly among all diverse subject peoples….
Cyrus built the foundations of a courier, or mail, system. Darius I built a communication network that connected most of the empire. A 1,600-mile-long royal road was built from Sardis to Susa, one of the administrative capitals. Along this road, were numerous places for lodging, where royal couriers could obtain fresh horses and supplies

The British Empire, while less extensive than either the Roman or Persian Empires, was no less influential.  India alone benefited from the legacy of a British Civil Service, systems of laws, and an extensive physical and communications infrastructure.  The Indian Railways were extensive, well-run, and essential for both the management and growth of the country.   The United States, Canada, and Australia were based on English jurisprudence and system of governance and principles of the English Enlightenment.

In India the Maurya, Gupta, and Chola Empires were responsible for bringing or consolidating elements of civilization – social structure, language, religion, philosophy, science, art, and architecture to rural populations.

Image result for images ashoka sculpture

The Roman Empire expanded civilization and culture to areas of Europe still ruled by tribal chieftains and customs.  The Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD signaled the end of English pre-history and ushered in a new, modern, civilized culture.  Far earlier in 222 BC Roman armies conquered Gaul and ruled for six centuries. Spain and its Carthaginian rulers were defeated by Rome in 206 BC.  In a relatively short time Roman hegemony had spread throughout Europe.

The Roman Empire is perhaps best remembered for its administration and management of conquered lands.  The Pax Romana, a period of almost 200 years from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius was a tribute to Rome’s unparalleled ability to govern pacified lands in a way which was mutually beneficial to both.  The Empire was both highly structured and hierarchal, but considerable autonomy was given to the Roman governors of conquered provinces.  During this period was a flowering of language, art, architecture, literature, and culture whose influences spread throughout the Empire.

Image result for images map roman empire at its height

Societies have always been divided by class and status - the rulers and the governed, labor and capital, elite and plebeian, wealthy and poor - and only in America has a formerly, well-ordered class-based society become a chaotic peasant stew. 

So Ritter Jones was off to the races, an ordinary American who saw how with a silver tongue, a notebook of nostrums, a willingness to blow with the wind, and an unmitigated, amoral ambition, the legislature, statehouse, and Congress could be within easy reach. 

Of course he had competition.  He wasn't the only one who saw fame and fortune ahead on a yellow brick road; but he had a canny sense of opportunity.  He had antennae that could feel the vibes of the people, soft fingers which could take its pulse, and a good nose for the scent of money.  Besides, he loved the very Americanism of it all - the dirty fighting, the infighting, the brawling machismo.  

His political confreres fought over everything, more of this, more of that, a bigger piece of land, pie, and city block.  None of them had any sense of polis, community, or nation. Invoke these principles as they did in every speech, they cared little for them.  They were no different from the banners, festoons, and party hats worn at conventions and rallies. 

Not one of his fellow politicians ever rose above the lowest common denominator, where the votes were. Not one of them had a vision broader than their district.  There would be no civilizing mission on their watch. 

So it is no wonder that the American masses feel let down, disappointed, and discouraged by the politicians who represent them.  As uneducated as they might be and as ignorant of all kings, queens, and courtiers except perhaps Henry VIII and his wives and maybe Queen Elizabeth, let alone Suleiman or Alexander the Great, these people wanted a way out of the niggling, petty, politics of Washington.  Perhaps they might never be a Peter the Great or Henry V, but they would be happy to serve at their banquet tables, knowing their place and proud of it. 

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