Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
On New Year’s Eve, 192 A.D., the tyrannical emperor Commodus, last of the Antonines, drank poison from the hand of his mistress Marcia. But he threw up the poison. So the Praetorian Guards who conspired against him brought in a wrestler named, appropriately or not, Narcissus, who strangled him in the bath.
The Praetorians invested the purple in an elder statesman named Pertinax, one of the last surviving associates of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. But they could not abide by his attempt to reform the Roman state. So 86 days after they made him emperor, the Praetorian Guards murdered Pertinax. Edward Gibbon described the scene of the crime: “His head separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince.”
What happened next was one of the most remarkable and repugnant (as if political assassinations weren’t bad enough) episodes of not only Roman history but the history of any government anywhere. The Praetorian Guards “ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction.”
Yesterday Hungarians held a referendum on the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees in Europe, which of course has been a subject of great and often ugly controversy.
History may not repeat itself exactly, but it rhymes. The Romans dealt with a refugee crisis once, and it almost destroyed the empire. In fact, in a way it did, indirectly leading to the final downfall of the Western Empire in 476.
The real beginning of the story, according to Edward Gibbon, happened on the borders of China. At the end of the First Century A.D., after many years of war, the Chinese finally defeated the Huns. This was the event that led the subject of my book, Gan Ying, a veteran of the Hunnic wars, to depart on a mission to Rome. But the same event also caused many of the Huns to begin migrating westward.
Eventually one group of Huns, “a race savage beyond all parallel” according to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, marched into the territory of the Goths in what is now southern Russia and Eastern Europe and defeated them. The Goths fled their homeland and, in 376, amassed on the banks of the Danube River, the border of the Roman Empire. Here,
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."