As it fragments into various camps, the
country is being held together by a common popular culture.
By A.D. 200,
the Roman Republic was a distant memory. Few citizens of the global Roman
Empire even knew of their illustrious ancestors like Scipio or Cicero. Millions
no longer spoke Latin. Italian emperors were a rarity. There were no national
Rome endured as a global power for three more centuries. What held it together?
stubborn common popular culture and the prosperity of Mediterranean-wide
standardization kept things going. The Egyptian, the Numidian, the Iberian, and
the Greek assumed that everything from Roman clay lamps and glass to good roads
and plentiful grain was available to millions throughout the Mediterranean
as the sea was free of pirates, thieves were cleared from the roads, and
merchants were allowed to profit, few cared whether the lawless Caracalla or
the unhinged Elagabalus was emperor in distant Rome.
likewise both depressing and encouraging is happening to the United States. Few
Americans seem to worry that our present leaders have lied to or misled
Congress and the American people without consequences.
young people cannot distinguish the First Amendment from the Fourth Amendment —
and do not worry about the fact that they cannot. Washington, Jefferson, and
Lincoln are mere names of grammar schools, otherwise unidentifiable to most.
is believed to bring dividends. Here in California, universities conduct
separate graduation ceremonies predicated on race — sometimes difficult given
the increasingly mixed ancestry of Americans.
Rome, there is a vast disconnect between the elites and the people. Almost half
of Americans receive some sort of public assistance, and almost half pay no
federal income tax. About one-seventh of Americans are on food stamps.
housing prices in elite enclaves — Manhattan, Cambridge, Santa Monica, Palo
Alto — are soaring. The wealthy like to cocoon themselves in Roman-like villas,
safe from the real-life ramifications of their own utopian ideology.
government and the media do their best to spread the ideals of radical
egalitarianism while avoiding offense to anyone. There is no official War on
Terror or against radical Islamism. Instead, in “overseas contingency
operations,” we fight “man-caused disasters,” while at home, we deal with
stories that involve crimes with divisive racial themes, the media frequently
paper over information about the perpetrators. But that noble restraint only
seems to incite readers. In reckless fashion they often post the most
inflammatory online comments about such liberal censorship. Officially, America
celebrates diversity; privately, America is fragmenting into racial, political,
and ideological camps.
is the United States not experiencing something like the rioting in Turkey or
Brazil, or the murder of thousands in Mexico? How are we able to avoid the
bloody chaos of Syria, the harsh dictatorships of Russia and China, the
implosion of Egypt, or the economic hopelessness now endemic in southern Europe?
half of America and many of its institutions operate as they always have.
Caltech and MIT are still serious. Neither interjects race, class, and gender
studies into its engineering or physics curricula. Most in the IRS, unlike some
of their bosses, are not corrupt. For the well driller, the power-plant
operator, and the wheat farmer, the lies in Washington are still mostly an
at 5:30 A.M. and you’ll see that your local freeways are jammed with
hard-working commuters. They go to work every day, support their families, pay
their taxes, and avoid arrest — so that millions of others do not have to do
the same. The U.S. military still more closely resembles our heroes from World
War II than it resembles the culture of the Kardashians.
diverse citizens of imperial Rome, we are united in some fashion by shared
popular tastes and mass consumerism. The cell phones and cars of the poor offer
more computing power and better transportation than the rich enjoyed just 20 years
of all races and backgrounds in lockstep fiddle with their cell phones as they
walk about. Jeans are an unspoken American uniform — both for Wall Street
grandees and for the homeless on the sidewalks. Left, right, liberal,
conservative, professor, and ditch digger have similar-looking Facebook
quieted the people with public spectacles and cheap grain from the provinces,
so too Americans of all classes keep glued to favorite video games and
reality-TV shows. Fast food is both cheap and tasty. All that for now is
preferable to rioting and revolt.
Rome, America apparently can coast for a long time on the fumes of its
wonderful political heritage and economic dynamism — even if both are little
understood or appreciated by most who still benefit from them.