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History Lessons

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In her recent speech at the Conference on World Affairs, Rachel Maddow cited James Madison's warning about the unitary executive: The propensity of an unchecked executive branch to lean toward war in opposition to a legislature more likely to debate the issue before moving toward conflict.

Maddow's supposition, that the Bush administration's seeming incompetence, its torture memos, its rush to war -- Bush and Cheney's direct effort to shift power to the executive and, thereby, to shift the entire country to a more warlike stance -- does have historical precedence.

I'm not referring to Madison, though he did warn of this, or Jefferson, who raised prescient concern about undue influence, but earlier in history to the systems that Madison and Jefferson used as the inspiration for their grand experiment: the Roman Republic of Caesar's time and the Greek democracy of Solon.

This is not to say that George W. Bush is Julius Caesar or that any of his lawgivers (like the ones who approved that torture memo) are Solon. But there are interesting parallels to the way that Caesar and his contemporaries used war to further wealth and political ambition, as well as to the actions that Solon's contemporaries took to undermine codified law.

Need a better seat in the Roman Senate? Get yourself posted to Hispania (Spain). Need funds to run a campaign for consul (president) or junior consul (vice-president)? Go to war with Gaul (France).

Need to prove yourself in an ill-timed, ill-thought out adventure in Parthia (Syria, Iraq, Iran)? Be like Crassus and attack preemptively and get your army decimated in the process.

For Solon, the author of democracy? Have a law that your opponents don't like? Make it good for ten years after you leave office. Solon did that with laws we'd likely support (limiting unfair financial practices toward the poor...). Bush? Tax cuts for the rich. Which would have been fine with the corporate interests in Greece (known as oligarchs -- that's where the word comes from), who made sure Solon's attempts at fairness wouldn't last by overthrowing his protege, Pisistratus, leading to long periods of instability broken only by the need for the people came together to fight a common enemy (interchangeable between Persia, the Peloponnesians, Philip of Macedonia...).

Alexander and his successors put a stop to that (for a while), after which, Rome reduced Greece to a province in their march to rule the world. But the struggles between the wide ideals of democracy and the narrow interests of oligarchy have never gone away. Indeed, it should be familiar to those who look askance at the hundreds of millions of dollars required to run a presidential campaign and are now (finally) questioning how the common interests of the people could have any meaning in such an environment.

Maddow reminded us, in her speech, that John McCain's warlike stance, his 'bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann", is the logical extension of the Bush administration's signing statements and his lawyers that look to their own ideology to interpret the law to their liking -- the unitary executive that has been signed and codified in the back rooms of the White House.

Her warning, that the nation itself has become inured to war, bears witness to the fact that we're in two wars simultaneously, and, if (not the maverick he claims to be) McCain has his way, will enter a third (Iran), no doubt with our already over-stretched military marching to the tune of 'bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' after the bombing itself has served to turn a proud population of ordinary Iranians -- who, for the most part, admire Americans (they just don't like our or their government) -- into fervent nationalists hell-bent on defending their ancient land.

Rome fell under its own weight of over-extension in war and occupation after their leadership had become increasingly out of touch with their population, after they had neglected real enemies in favor of chosen ones who's been misperceived as easy conquests, after a widening between upper and lower classes that had stressed their merchant (middle) class to the point where they were relying more upon slaves (I am Spartacus) than their own ingenuity, resulting in a tax base no longer able to afford a bloated government that had given its power over to emperors who filled their armies with foreign mercenaries, increased their debt to an impossible level and bled their own provinces dry until there was nothing left but the enemies they'd created all over the world.

The old adage: we can learn from history or we can repeat it. For the last seven years, we've been repeating the worst of history. The upcoming election will be an opportunity to rewrite our own future history in one of two ways -- either as an inspiration for generations to come or a continuation of our own indifference to history that has resulted in the outcome we see today.

More on this topic at The Environmentalist.