Interviews June 2007

As the Romans Did

Cullen Murphy, the author of Are We Rome?, talks about the American empire's parallels with the ancient republic and how we can learn from the caesars' mistakes.

Do you think there are any public issues that could rally people in that direction?

There are two issues where I think you might be able to generate enough national will and vision to turn the clock back in the other direction.

One is healthcare. More Americans think that you need the government to step in here and do something than their politicians realize. This is one of the big-ticket items where if you have the right vision and the right political skills you can sell Americans on the fact that we need government to step in and play a big role. Only government can do it, and only taxes can pay for it. Let’s get on board here.

The second idea would be some kind of national service. It would require a significant amount of money and management, but it would be a big step in the other direction—a non-privatizing force. I think that there’s more of a constituency for something like that now than there has been in a long time.

So those are two things that could represent a real digging in of the heels and saying, “No, wait! We need to act as a people to accomplish certain things for the whole nation. And here are two ways we can do this.”

When you say national service, do you envision something entirely different from military service?

I’m sympathetic to the argument that only a draft will actually reconnect Americans with the consequences of our foreign policy. I see the draft as a liberal reform, much as Charles Rangel would see it. Campus radicals, if they took their views seriously, should be demonstrating to bring back the draft; that would be a marvelous thing to see.

But when I think of national service, I do think of something civilian. In the book I don’t get into policy details about this subject, but I think if you pressed me I would say some overarching form of service would be required from everybody, and it would take either the form of military service or some other kind of national service.

How has your book been received in political circles, given the current polarized political climate? Has there been much reaction or resistance?

The reviews on the right have not been sympathetic, which isn’t surprising. I’m not pursuing some ideological agenda with a meat cleaver, but at the same time, my sympathies certainly don’t lie with the current administration or with the way America is going. But it’s not written as an anti-Bush tract. And a lot of the concerns I have are about trends that pre-date Bush, even if they deepened during his administration.

One of your other long-term journalistic interests has been the intersection of religion and culture. There’s a constituency who would say the primary parallel between Rome and America is that of once-great civilizations brought into decline by godlessness and decadence. What do you say to that argument?

I don’t understand the parallel, frankly. Rome certainly had its moments of great decadence, but in its last couple of centuries in the West, Rome was an increasingly Christian place. By the end, Christianity was the state religion in the West. And so the moments of Rome’s greatest decadence were also at the moments of its greatest power. Someone like Gibbon would argue that it was really Christianity that brought Rome down rather than decadence.

I find the religious situation in the two entities just much too complicated for me to make any kind of easy comparison. As a result, I explicitly left it out of my book.

At the close of Are We Rome? you offer some prescriptions for change, one of which is that for its own well being, the U.S. government should start thinking in terms of centuries. Given factors like the short-term exigencies of reelection, what do you think offers our best chance of bringing that about?

People understand in their own lives that if you lay the groundwork in certain fundamental ways—with education, for instance—there will be a big payoff down the road. They know it in their own lives, and therefore they understand it socially. So I don’t think this is something that Americans don’t understand. Yes, in Washington, everybody has their eyes on the short-term windfalls, and that’s one of the terrible things about Washington.

But I’m not one of those cynics who thinks that Americans won’t understand if you appeal to them on a handful of issues saying, “Well, if we make a steady investment starting right now, we’re not going to make a big difference in your specific life in the next thirty years, but it’s going to make a big difference down the road.” We used to know how to talk in those terms. If you go back to the early part of the American Republic, people were always talking about planting the seeds now, because we could harvest them in a century. Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act—this revolutionary notion of putting some land aside, the proceeds of which would pay for universities—and now look at what we’ve got! That’s imperial thinking in a good sense. We need that. The place where I think this kind of thinking would pay off the most has to do with energy.

There are thousands of wonderful ideas having to do with energy technology. The reaction of some people to these ideas is, “That’s not going to make any difference. That can’t solve our problem.” And of course, no one of these is going to solve our problem, and none of them will even come close to making a contribution in the short term. But if you push enough of these things ahead with enough enthusiasm for a long enough period of time you’re going to emerge into the light of day a century from now with a radically different way of running the country. But if you don’t start on it, you never will. Energy policy in particular is a great candidate for thinking in the long term.

Toward the end of the book you say, “I’m not sure America possesses one quality that Rome had in abundance: the stubborn urge, the absolute need, to persevere—to prevail at all costs in any undertaking, whatever the moral and human price might be.” What do you mean by that, and why do you draw that conclusion?  

First of all, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing. To be able to give up and stop some endeavor rather that seeing it through to the bitter end may be a virtue at times. The Romans were ruthless. Look at the way they “pacified” Palestine after the Jewish revolt. Look at the way they dealt with the Spartacus revolt, or the way they dealt with Carthage. They would not tolerate people being in their way, and if they wanted something, they went after it. There were very few examples in Roman history when they said, “Whoa! We’ve had enough. We’d better change our ways!”

Americans aren’t like that. It sometimes means we don’t embark on certain activities, or we give up too quickly because we think, “That’s not working.” That’s the downside of it. The upside of it is that it also means we don’t necessarily persist in activities just in order to see them through. 

It’s the reason we got out of Vietnam. It’s the reason we’ll probably get out of Iraq. It’s the reason we don’t pursue policies in Iraq the way the Romans would, which is to be utterly ruthless and conduct reprisals. We don’t behave the way the insurgency behaves, whereas, the Romans would. That's a pretty big difference in sensibility and behavior, and it's the sort of difference that gives me heart.

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Gina Hahn, a former Atlantic staff editor, is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.

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