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Thursday, May 29

Those uppity provinces! 

The Roman Empire consisted of both territories that has been militarily conquered by Rome and also kingdoms that Rome dominated, such as Bithynia-Pontus (in modern-day Turkey).  The latter sometimes had kings of their own (at least for a time), and almost all the provinces had their own local languages and legal codes, religious practices and customs.  There were local senates, with members drawn from the local elites, who dealt with local matters.  It was rare that the Roman governor, there to oversee the interests and rights of Romans in the province (since provincials were not usually, again at first, Roman citizens), actually interceeded. It was even rarer for the Emperor to intervene himself.  Why did the Empire requre so little political oversight?  Obviously the reasons are complex (and by the third century of the principiate, that is after the destruction of the Republic, local problems increasingly became imperial problems), but one of the major factors in the apparent lack of formal control was that the provinces, and their local governments, went along with what the Emperor wanted.  There is little sign of dissent, although, from time to time, there were murmerings of discontent (and there were almost certainly more of these than the Roman records record).  

There have been some murmers this week in the American Empire, from the peaceful province of Canada.  

There's a tempest brewing over the recent remarks by Prime Minister Chretien of Canada.  On the way to the G8 summit in Greece he had the gall to explain that he (and by association his government) has different priorities from those of Bush Jr.  Oh the horror!  Now Chretien is getting lambasted by the Canadian media.  Online polls want to know whether Canadians approve of the way he "deals with the Bush administration" (and as of posting 58% of those who care strongly enough to vote don't).

What is strange about all this is that Chretien said nothing that was not common knowledge.  Yes, he and Bush have different views about abortion.  Yes they have opposing positions on capital punishment and gun control.  These are hardly secrets.  They are hardly news.  

Moreover, Chretien's comments were made in the context of explaining that he also differs with the Bush administration's current fisical policy.  He does not believe that deliberately running a deficit (by cutting taxes) is wise, and his own government has gone to great trouble to eliminate the deficit -- an achievement of which he is proud.  Given that the Prime Minister was traveling to the G8 expressly to discuss strategies for economic development, his views on the economy are hardly out of place.  Why then the uproar?

Because he dared to speak openly.  He dared to say what was true, and what is common knowledge, that everyone does not agree with the American Empire's ways.  That is the problem.  Unrepentant, Chretien responded:
"People want a prime minister of Canada who speaks his mind on some issues, that's what I've been elected for and I've not been known to shut up because I do my job the best I can and I've been doing that since 40 years now."
I only wish that this claim were true.  In fact it is not only the media who has leapt in horror at the Prime Minister's bluntness in dealing with the Empire to the South.  Chretien's bravado paints a false picture, for he is reaching the end of his tenure in power and he knows it.  Chretien has been forced to conceed that he will step down from leading the governing Liberal party at the end of this term (and some speculate that he may allow a new election even earlier), in part because his former finance minister, Paul Martin, has developed a strong power base in Chretien's party and is set to oppose him.  
On May 2, 2003, Martin outlined his foreign policy plans, saying Canada has to spend more on its military and develop a "more sophisticated" relationship with the U.S...  He said that as prime minister he would join Washington's controversial missile defence program, which some say would turn North America into a fortress. (from CBC overview)
Like Senator Byrd in the US, Chretien can speak out because he has nothing to lose.  But what of his successor, be it Paul Martin or another?  Will he or she dare to criticize the American Empire?

Wednesday, May 28

Relentless march of progress 

We like to feel superior to people from the past.  Anyone who studies classical civilization can say, "Well, that's all very nice, but they had slaves!  And what about women?  They had an awful time of it."  And that's pretty accurate.  If modern civilization can feel smug about anything, formulating a belief in essential human rights should occupy a top spot.  The idea that all human beings, regardless of gender, or economic status, or ethnic and geographic origins ought to possess certain rights is a very new idea.  And its a damn good idea, even if it has yet to be evenly applied in the world.

So we should feel pretty good about ourselves, right?  Well...

According to Amnesty International, human rights violations are on the rise.  Why?  The "War on Terror" has diverted attention from human rights in the US, and elsewhere too.

The Blogosphere is ringing with accusations that the US is supporting an administration that is famed for its use of torture, namely Uzbekistan.  To be fair, this is hardly the first time that the US has turned a blind eye to human rights violations in its allies (one has only to think of the history of US involvement in Latin America).  What is more telling are the US's own actions, both at home and in Guantanamo Bay (which Amnesty International includes in its condemnation).  

And what is even sadder is that countries like Canada, who have better histories of upholding human rights, are following the lead of the American Empire in their handling of potential "Terror Threats."  

Tuesday, May 27

Quiet on the Western front 

These are strange times.  The cover of this week's New Yorker ("the house of cards") alludes to the speech Senator Byrd gave recently.  It was a rousing critique of the actions of the current administration, similar to several others that he has made this year.  Given his voting record he is an unlikely liberal hero.  The Washington Post points out:

As a young man, he briefly belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. As a senator, he filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, speaking for 14 hours...  In 1989, Byrd became chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a post that enabled him to channel several billion federal dollars to projects in West Virginia. Critics mocked him as the "prince of pork..."

So why has he begun to stand up and criticize the current administration in such strong terms?  And perhaps more importantly, why is he almost alone in doing so?  Surely he cannot be the only person in power to feel that the US is following a dangerous and unwise course?  (True, Krugman has been expressing his fears twice a week in the NYT, yet while his words may carry far, he himself is neither a politician or a policymaker, however much I wish he were.)

Perhaps Senator Byrd can stand up and shout because he is 85 years old and may not run for another term -- because he has little to lose.  He can afford to risk alienating voters, and the even more necessary special interests who fund his campaigns.  Personally, I do not doubt that his sentiments are heartfelt, and I suspect that there are many other senators and congressmen who are privately alarmed by the way in which the nation is developing under the leadership of Bush Jr.  Yet even those democrats who hope to run against Bush Jr. in the next election do not seem to dare oppose him openly.  

About two thousand years ago, when Augustus Caesar consolidated the power of imperial Rome around him, historians, artists, and even the senators lauded him to the skies.  There were those who opposed his unprecidented rise to almost absolute power (for there were plots against him), but those voices were effectively silenced -- they barely appear in the records.  How did this self-censorship come about?  Consider the fate of the most famous orator in the Roman senate, Cicero.  Although he had initially supported Augustus, fearing the tyranny of Marc Antony, Augustus later had him killed, and his property confiscated.  The message was far from subtle.  

Historians have described the hold that Augustus, and his successors, exercised on their empire as "State Terror."  Locally, (and also in the provinces -- but that is another topic),  individuals did not dare oppose the regime.  Criticism was veiled, or muted until a regime change made an attack upon the former ruler acceptable.  (Some argue that this is why the descriptions of the emperors depict them as either heroes or monsters, since criticism of them was either repressed or encouraged by the current regime).  Yet at no point was the imperial system seriously criticized -- the longing for  the old republic, so romantically portrayed in the blockbuster "Gladiator," never was acceptable.  

Are Americans succumbing to a subtly imposed "State Terror?"  True, few would argue that senators who speak out need fear for their lives (although the sudden death of Senator Wellstone in an airplane accident, after he announced he would "vote against any plan to allow the United States to launch unilateral strikes against Iraq," leaves some room for some doubt).  Yet much of the pressure to remain silent is more subtle, or at least less deadly.  

Consider the example of the Dixie Chicks, whom Clear Channel Radio banned for their criticism of Bush Jr.  Investigation shows that they were pulled from the radio conglomerates, not in response to public outrage, but rather in response to requests from the Republicans.  Clear Channel engineered outrage, and are now about to be rewarded by the administration -- for they will stand to benefit enormously from the proposed changes to FCC regulation (changes opposed by folks on both the left and the right).  This kind of patronage (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) would have been very familiar to Augustus, or to any of his successors.  

None of which is to say that dissent has been silenced in the US.  Yet.  Nevertheless it seems that, according to the New York Times, complainers are growing increasingly unacceptable in American society.  Those few voices that do speak up, like Byrd, like Krugman, have been subjected to vitriolic attacks (like this).  The administration is allowed to openly lie, and yet there is almost no one in positions of power who dares to challenge them.

There is so much talk of the Pax Americana (although surprisingly little Pax has accompanied it), yet most of the talk is of the outward forms of empire, the military interventions, the economic domination... The US is not Rome, but she is growing more like her all the time.