Postscript to “Cassandra’s Voices in 2016”
by Don Webb
On November 7, 2016, on the eve of the U.S. presidential election of that year, we published in issue 690 “Cassandra’s Voices in 2016.” It was a retrospective to the collection “Cassandra’s Voices: Warnings to the Modern Age.” Surely it needs to be updated and embellished in light of the past four years and the election pending on November 3, 2020, right?
Yes, things have happened, but has anything in the past four years come as a surprise? Perhaps the pandemic; it’s a far more contagious relative of the SARS and MERS outbreaks of earlier years. Otherwise, have there been any changes in a situation that some say resembles earlier crisis points in history? Perhaps this very condensed reiteration of the 2016 article will give new readers reasons to go back to it and look more deeply into history.
What about the environment? The megadrought and massive migrations recounted in Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed have analogues today in many parts of the world. We’ve had no earthquake storm, thankfully, but surely we can substitute massive wildfires, lengthy hurricane seasons, and glacial melt under levels of carbon dioxide that match only those of previous geological epochs. A world war or a larger series of regional wars might complete the comparison with the end of the Bronze Age.
James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire tells of the emperor Justinian’s contributions. Justinian’s rule followed that of Theoderic, whose reign from 493 to 526 CE brought a unity, peace and prosperity that Italy would not see again for another fourteen centuries. However, Theoderic was a Goth, which was an ethnicity frowned upon by the xenophobes among Roman citizens.
Justinian was a talented showman and made Constantinople “an imperial theme park.” The bubonic plague of 541-549 CE killed about a fifth of the population of Constantinople. Justinian himself caught the plague but recovered, thus emerging publicly as a strongman who was also a strong man. Reactionary policies and “wrong turns” brought about the Dark Age in Europe.
Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God defines the mentality of religious “fundamentalism,” which also permeates world politics today. Her description of true believers is admirably succinct:
Even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state.
Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead takes a view of politics and urban design that is many decades in length. Among other trends, she identifies tacitly encouraged monopolistic practices as well as cities built for automobiles rather than people. A summary of the consequences could hardly be more prophetic:
Communities are carved up and stifled. Family incomes are stretched beyond the breaking point to earn enough for shelter and transportation, and families, deprived of communities, are themselves gradually replaced by another, utterly authoritarian household: the prison. Consensus cannot form, and political discourse degenerates into sectarian hostility. Democracy itself can no longer legitimize government: those who have the means become rulers, and the professions, corrupted, become their servants. Centuries later, starving peasants scrabble for roots in the shadow of ruins.
Does American democracy have what Jane Jacobs calls a “guardian institution” that might ensure its peaceful survival? Symptoms of disorder have been heard since 2016 in talk of such things as “rigged elections” and “coups” and even “third term.”
John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire, a later addition to “Cassandra’s Voices,” suggests that democracies and republics may be ill-prepared to defend themselves:
No teacher ever emphasized twin facts that now seem to me the two most important lessons of a classical education. Greece, having invented democratic rule, warns us that we can have a democracy or an empire but not both at the same time — or at least not for long. Rome, having invented republican rule, warns us that we can have a republic or an empire, but not both at the same time — or not for long.
Democracy and empire are irreconcilable states of mind. Democracy asks, “What kind of country do we want to live in? What can we do to make it better?” The imperialist says, “I know what’s best, and I’ll tell you what it is.” The choice is very old; it ought to come as no surprise.
Time is change, and history measures how well or poorly people and cultures foresaw and adapted to changing conditions. This postscript to 2016 says, “Situation normal. Whatever the new year brings, we ought not to be surprised.”
Copyright © 2020 by Don Webb