The Dangers of Using History for Political Purposes
You can rest assured that when you hear someone proclaim that "history shows us..." you are about to get a lecture backed by little more than one person's opinion. Sometimes it's said in those words, sometimes it's implied, but it all amounts to the same thing. Since most folks don't know much more than the broad outlines of history, these assertions are meant to lend an air of objective gravitas to one's subjective poppycock.
At a minimum, this is an unintentional misuse of history by those who don't know any better and don't know that they don't know any better. That's most of us. At its worst, however, plucking wickedly complicated historical events out of context and then plopping them down to fit a contemporary narrative is reckless and sloppy. This doubly applies to those of us who have read just enough history to be dangerous to ourselves and others.
About That Urge to Compare Today's Culture to the Roman Empire
Enter American Conservative editor Rod Dreher, whose book The Benedict Option I reviewed in a previous post earlier this year. Dreher is a guy who could find a Decline & Fall metaphor in a bowl of melting ice cream. For anyone who has read his writing, the theme is familiar: our godless civilization is in terminal decline, condemned to collapse as Rome did for its unholy decadence. And good riddance! Only after the final collapse takes place and the filth-clogged toilet that is our modern culture is flushed away can we get back in touch with the sacred without all those gays and social justice warriors ruining it for everyone.
He was at it again during a vacation in the Azores a few years back. While standing near the old Spanish fortress guarding the harbor, Dreher waxed philosophical about the inevitable rise and fall of empires. He was merely setting the scene to begin comparing the recent refugee crisis in Europe with, you guessed it, the collapse of the Roman Empire. According to him, European liberal elites have their head in the sand about the coming wave of migrants from Africa who threaten to destroy a rich cultural heritage. Apparently, Europe's leaders are far too soft, politically correct, and clueless to defend their continent against the dark-skinned waves coming from the south, all because of a squishy liberal ideology that prioritizes human empathy at all costs over maintaining any sense of a common European cultural identity. He tells us that,
"...the challenges the US faces are relatively small compared to the massive problems coming hard and fast at Europe, in the form of African migration. Where are those Africans going to go? They’re going toward Europe, which is depopulating. Miguel said that given the geography of the Mediterranean, it’s going to be very, very hard for Europe to keep African migrants from entering. I suggested that given the unwillingness of European elites to confront the hard facts of what’s happening, in part because it conflicts with their liberal ideology, this will make the inevitable reckoning even more violent and traumatic than it would otherwise be."
Josephine Livingstone from the New Republic made an excellent point about Dreher's selective use of history.
"Dreher is not interested in the material facts of the late stages of Roman dominance in the region; if he was, he might be interested in what the Romans’ habit of enslaving people did to the agrarian economy. Instead, he is interested in drawing a parallel between some idealized and biased vision of the Mediterranean past and the importance of his own anti-immigration beliefs in the contemporary world."
I disagree in part with her assessment. Dreher is interested in material facts, but one gets the impression that his reading is done mainly to confirm his 'West-in-decline' thesis from the Benedict Option. Consequently, it often feels as if he is cherry-picking his history to help validate his beliefs. That is, in part, that the West should not be ashamed of its heritage (I agree) and should do what it can to protect itself, including strict control of the borders to keep outsiders and potential threats to the cultural status quo out. If this is not done, he tells us, we'll end up suffering the same fate as Rome. And here comes Rome:
"The massive migration of barbarians into the Roman Empire, in the 4th through 6th centuries, changed European civilization permanently. They caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and centuries later, the rise of a new civilization there, based on the descendants of old Roman stock and Christianized Germanic tribes. Will the latter-day descendants of those Europeans be able to hold back the “barbarian invasions” from Africa in the 21st century? Or will they have to do as the Romans did and absorb the strangers, and, over centuries, create a new civilization? These are the stakes."
This is one of those "history shows us" moments where we're getting one person's ideological spin to fit a preferred narrative. Yes, it is true that barbarian migrations rocked the Roman world in the fifth century. But to say the Western Empire "fell" is misleading, which I'll get to below. Blaming uncontrolled immigration for the Empire's miserable fifth century ignores a whole host of other interrelated factors. Not only that, but Dreher is on very shaky ground making comparisons between migration today and that which took place 1,600 years ago. For every apparent similarity, there are other explanations that I can think of that factored in more than an unsuccessful immigration policy.
Immigration Did Not Destroy the Roman Empire
First, the Roman Empire from its founding had always absorbed and integrated other ethnicities and cultures, some highly civilized like the Greeks and Egyptians, others quite primitive by comparison like the Britons. This did not weaken or destroy Rome's power. In addition to Romans, there were cultured Greeks, Egyptians, Spaniards, Punics, Celts, Jews, Armenians, Gauls, Britons, Germans, Dacians, Illyrians, Macedonians, and many more, all living in relative harmony, despite enormous cultural differences. "Romanness" as a unifying ideal was more abstract the further one traveled from the Italian peninsula. And yet the Empire managed to stay glued together for centuries.
Second, the Empire had seen its wealth and resources pissed away in recurring civil wars for over two centuries that had little to do with barbarian pressures, at least not at first. As one civil war bled into another, political legitimacy in the Roman world gradually eroded to the point that the last western emperors in the fifth century were mere shadow puppets, all but unknown to history because they were so powerless.
Third, the late Roman bureaucracy was corrupt and parasitic to the core and had been since the late third century. Rapacious is a great word to describe it. After over a century of this misrule, the German arrivals must have seemed a more benevolent option to the over-taxed citizens of the western provinces. Consider this: There was never any revolt against the German invaders in Gaul or Spain, never any clamoring for a return of Roman rule. No, most of the western provinces went quietly once the Roman center could not protect them.
Finally, as Christianity came to dominate the late Empire, it turned wealthy Romans and their riches away from unrewarding civic engagement and inward toward more ecclesiastical pursuits. The more the Roman reality sucked for its non-elites, the more Romans bought into the Christian message that the next world would be better than this one. Better to focus on that instead, many concluded. Christianity also rapidly converted the German invaders as well, gradually creating a common Christian culture that replaced the exhausted Roman one.
The list could go on, but you get the point: History is really complicated when you leave the broad generalizations aside and get into the details.
And What Exactly Fell in the Roman Empire?
Dreher's imagery of a Western Roman Empire "falling" is a thoroughly modern invention and now considered anachronistic. Rome had not been the political capital of the Empire since the third century. It still held great symbolic value, but the real power centers had moved to the north and east. Territory was lost in the West, yes, but the state endured. The Roman polity reinvented itself and existed for another thousand years in its wealthier, more ethnically and culturally diverse eastern half.
The citizens of the eastern provinces considered themselves "Romans" for centuries after the western provinces were lost. Former citizens in the lost western provinces moved on. Recent historical scholarship talks less about a catastrophic collapse event taking place all at once and more about a centuries-long transition from one culture to another, from polytheism to monotheism, and from a united empire encompassing the entire Mediterranean to a patchwork quilt of kingdoms all eventually settling into a sort of equilibrium.
The Dangers of Using History in the Culture Wars
Finally, Dreher laments "the loss of historical consciousness in the contemporary West." A loss of historical consciousness is one thing, but a lack of historical perspective is another and in my mind more dangerous issue, leading people to dubious conclusions based on an ideologically motivated reading of the past.
I'd argue that the selective use of history to win ground in today's culture wars is a far more dangerous phenomenon. It's also doubly hard to counter. Clever people using clever words can spin any bit of historical nonsense into a just-so story that people are willing to embrace. That's how mythologies are created. Our own American history is itself a grand mythology of progress, winning, and exceptionalism. But for whom, one might quietly ask? And at what cost?
The sad truth is that if you dig deep enough down into any myth, you may eventually find a mass grave. Dreher is trying to create his own myth of the West's inevitable decline and fall to explain away a society that no longer pays homage to his traditional conception of God. He can't ever hope to get that lost world back until the current one is overthrown. Thus, a myth to give the true believers hope that someday, somehow, it will all work out. You see, "History shows us."
That said, I don't want to discourage people from reading and discussing history. Please do! Just be careful. Always caveat what you think you know with the humble knowledge that what you don't know is always going to be orders of magnitude greater. And even what you do know may lead you astray. Then proceed with caution and have fun with it - history is endlessly fascinating - but be ready to shift directions when the facts change.