During the many lulls in inaugural coverage, CNN knew what would dazzle ‘em. They had their satellite image of everyone standing around in the cold waiting for The Moment – the time when Obama would formally be worn in. Huddled around giant screens you could see the black specs, which the CNN crew dutifully told us “look just like ants!” Yes, from a distance, we are small, but doesn’t that miss the point just a little? It seems to me that when the great Wheel of History appears to be turning, we have one day where we should not be focusing on where we are on the rim, but on the progress of the great Wheel itself.
That’s why I started rummaging though all the ancient texts in my library.
It didn’t take me too long to come to one of my favorites, a quotation from the 16th century Tunisian Ibn Khaldun. His perspective always had a feel of the eternal in it, a touch of the connections of spirit made by a people who had to carve their own sense of civilization out of the place where the sands met the lush Mediterranean.
In the early stages of the state, taxes are light in their incidence, but fetch in a large revenue. .. As time passes and kings succeed each other, they lose their tribal habits in favor of more civilized ones. Their needs and exigencies grow … owing to the luxury in which they have been brought up. Hence they impose fresh taxes on their subjects … [and] sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield … But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For business men are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes … Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation.
This is often used to justify the Laffer Curve, but that’s never seemed to me to be the story. What he is describing is the strange process by which Empires seem to rise and fall and how technologies that appear to provide a tremendous advantage gradually become a burden to the people who are dependent on them. The infrastructure and the demands constantly increase to the point where they cannot be met; replace ‘taxes’ with ‘debt’ and you’re there. Certainly, it doesn’t appear to be inevitable, but Khaldun describes the process by which many empires have fallen.
I propose that what is happening right now is that we are charged with proving that a Democracy can break the old cycles of Empires and remain stable and prosperous.
There are other examples of this working out, certainly. Anyone from the UK will tell you that post-Imperial Britain is not a bad place at all. Some would even argue that my own calls for another New Deal show that we’ve already demonstrated that we can do it.
I agree that there’s a lot of reason to think this will work out. But the American Empire has always been a bit strange as Empires go, given how deeply the roots of Democracy ran in the nation that created it. Many of you have told me that it’s hyperbole to say we were an Empire at all, and I agree that it’s stretching the point a bit. Yet we certainly have functioned like an Empire to the people we have bossed around and shot at, even if it didn’t feel like one at home.
The way forward is, as can expect on the great wheel of history, very much like the way back. We have in us and around us all that we need to succeed. It’s a matter of understanding what’s happening not just here and now, but across the globe and across time.
We look like ants from the satelite, but up close many of those people looked nothing more than sleepless and worn down from all the giddiness. If we insist that we have to focus on ourselves, let’s start with that. What makes us so weary? I think Ibn Khaldun has a good answer.