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Waiting for the barbarians

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Title: Waiting for the barbarians Author: Morris Berman Publication: The Guardian Date: Friday 5 October 2001 URL: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/06/books.guardianreview5 Word Count: 1725

When I wrote my recent book, The Twilight of American Culture, my focus was on what might be called "inner" barbarism, the structural factors endemic to American society that were, I believed, bringing about its disintegration. The contemporary American situation could be compared to that of Rome in the Late Empire period, and the factors involved in the process of decline in each case are pretty much the same: a steadily widening gap between rich and poor; declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organisational solutions to socioeconomic problems (in the US, dwindling funds for social security and medicare); rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness; and what might be called "spiritual death": apathy, cynicism, political corruption, loss of public spirit, and the repackaging of cultural content (eg "democracy") as slogans and formulas. What I overlooked, however, was perhaps the most obvious point of comparison; obvious, at least, with the benefit of hindsight. This is the factor of external barbarism, destruction from without. The events of September 11 brought that possibility home, in stark relief. In the case of Rome, the historical outline is clear enough. The Goths began pressing against the border of the Roman empire from the late third century, and scored a decisive victory in AD 378, when Roman legions were resoundingly defeated at Adrianople.

America can expect something similar. and they kept coming back. In the case of Adrianople. banking systems. is committed to a war to the finish. or crippling economic sanctions against. As American military personnel have recently suggested. the Romans had no understanding of non civilisation: of different values. "did more than expose the weakness of Rome to the barbarians and encourage them to return to the attack again and again. and also. But there are many more concrete similarities between the invasion of Rome and the attack on America. The city was further sacked by the Vandals in 455.which some would say is a formula for permanent war. things were never the same thereafter. America views Islamic terrorism as completely irrational. America. Similarly. and finally captured and sacked Rome in 410. (Note also that just as the barbarians used Rome's excellent network of roads to mount their invasions. for never afterward did they leave Roman soil". the destruction of the WTC showed that America is not invincible.) The response of the empire is to regard the attackers as the ultimate Other. a host . now has barbarians at the gates. The US can expect further terrorist attacks on its soil. It. The sharks smelled blood. More poignant. One photograph of the shell of the World Trade Centre eerily resembles pictures of the Roman Coliseum. defined by President Bush as the point at which there are no longer any terrorist organisations capable of international reach .) In the main. internet accessibility and the like to mount theirs. so did the terrorists of September 11 use America's aviation schools. and in 476 barbarian mercenaries deposed the last Roman emperor and put the Germanic chieftain Odoacer on the throne. that those who couldn't speak Greek just uttered strange sounds . within them."bar bar" . "total victory"."The battle". it would seem. siege and potential invasion became facts of Roman life.that didn't amount to a real language. The Visigoth leader Alaric invaded Italy in 401. too. From that time on. there is no understanding of the political context of this activity. a context of American military attack on. nomadic ways of life. comes from an ancient Greek anecdote. wrote historian Solomon Katz. too. making him king of the western empire. ("Barbarian". September 11 is not likely to be the end of it.

global corporate consumerism . the legacy of Greek culture. and believes that everybody needs to come on board. "evil". if not much before. "progress". it would have been if the terrorists had selected instead the Jefferson memorial and Columbia University. reinforcing interaction between internal decadence and instability on the one hand. What is likely to happen. between its internal decay and its susceptibility to invasion. we have a military and economic empire that views the world as one big happy market. and was effectively existing for the sake of military and administrative purposes. and the Pentagon (although the White House was apparently the original target in this case). Most historians see a relationship. health . creating a huge standing army and a bloated military budget. even bizarre. If the "barbarians" fail to share this vision. is increasing budgetary appropriations for military expenditures. and the enemy is "evil itself". the rebuilding of cities. in the case of Rome. the enemy is characterised as "jealous of our way of life". I n the case of the United States. "hateful of freedom".that is. the military operation was initially called "Infinite Justice". running sore. Hence President Bush. By the fourth century. the middle class began to disappear. As it overextended itself. and so on. no less than the Islamic terrorists. leaving (in the American case) fewer and fewer funds for education. and external vulnerability on the other. and there was a reciprocal. In the American case. We . Instead. Along with this is the belief that the pax Romana/Americana is the only "reasonable" way to live. Consider how remarkable.are the future. if they resist.of Arab nations . But the latter no longer represent the United States. but rather for military-political hegemony and the total commodification of life. they are "medieval". the nation no longer stands for the enlightenment tradition. as obtained in the case of Rome. It is hardly an accident that the terrorists' targets were the WTC. Wall Street does. uses the language of religious war: we are on a "crusade". Rome had lost its central value.with unilateral support for Israel constituting the central. symbol of American global finance.

In addition. the new "intellectual" efforts were designed to cater to the masses. By the third century. which had a silver content of 92% in Nero's reign (AD 54-68) was down to 43% silver by the early third century. one based on religion. "The main phenomenon which underlies the process of decline. The standing army rose from 300. and other Arab nations will sow the seeds of more intifadas. which we call the barbarisation of the ancient world. and intellectual life. "is the gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses and the consequent simplification of all the functions of political. there was an attitude among many Christians that education . and as soon as that gets flattened into a mass phenomenon. was the most conspicuous feature in the development of the ancient world during the imperial age: primitive forms of life finally drowning out the higher ones. Afghanistan. The third century saw even greater increases in the size of the army and the government bureaucracy. By the third century. according to the great historian of Rome. economic. as in contemporary America. nearly every Roman denarius collected in taxes was going into military and administrative maintenance. Spiritual and intellectual collapse were unavoidable in such a demoralised context. this could eventually bleed the country morally and financially. Rome was an empire in name only. By the time the fifth century rolled around. For civilisation is impossible without a hierarchy of quality. MI Rostovtzeff. For centuries. social. the aim had been to hellenise or romanise the rest of the population . its days are numbered.000 troops in AD 235 to about 600.000 a mere 70 years later.to pass on the learning and ideals of Greco-Roman civilisation. As in the case of American involvement in Vietnam." wrote Rostovtzeff. to the point that the state was drifting towards bankruptcy. But as the economic crisis deepened.care and social welfare. The denarius. This. expecially because the economic life of the cities was virtually destroyed. followed by further debasement of the coinage and enormous inflation." Religion played a critical role in these developments. until intellectual life was brought down to the lowest common denominator. a new mentality arose among the masses. military action versus Iraq. if not before. In addition. which was hostile to the achievements of higher culture.

one might say). After centuries of stagnation. Charles Radding.was not relevant to salvation. writes Radding. ignorance. however. That. however. the possibility that for the remainder of the new century. argues that the cognitive ability of comparing different viewpoints or perspectives (quite evident in Augustine's Confessions. thanks to the medieval monasteries. It is a chilling thought. and they make a kind of spiritual death apathy and classicist formalism . and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value (an early version of Forrest Gump. he says. In terms of the current American situation. Only a warped version of the classical culture of antiquity remained. Even by the fourth century.ultimately unavoidable. what little that had survived from Greek and Roman philosophy was confused with magic and superstition (much as we see in today's new age beliefs or in the so-called philosophy section of many bookstores). ." And so the proverbial lights went out in western Europe. is a whole other story. The phrase "Twilight of American Culture". America will be waiting for the barbarians. the culture of the Latin west became a viable option once more. for example) had disappeared by the sixth century. potential bankruptcy and extreme social inequality are overwhelming. Without such an understanding. and at some point we are going to emerge from our contemporary twilight and future darkness. The factors of hype. The United States does not seem to grasp the impact of its current foreign policy on the have-nots of this world. recovery at the external level probably depends on a reconsideration of American foreign policy but also a reconsideration of internal purposes. which began to stow away nuggets of intellectual achievement from Roman civilisation. implies an eventual dawn. especially Irish ones. "a more complete collapse of a classical civilisation is hard to imagine. if only because no historical configuration is the end of history. The parallels with contemporary America are not identical. "Short of the mass destruction of the libraries". in A World Made By Men. and a condition of endless siege. but they do seem disturbing. an Israeli-style scenario would seem to be inevitable: a garrison state. The third century saw a sharp increase in mysticism and a belief in knowledge by revelation.