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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Antony

“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government”*…

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it…

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 

An excerpt from an essay by Scott Galloway (@profgalloway): “Institutions,” eminently worth reading in full. Indeed, this piece is a slightly-abridged version of “Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions” in The Economist (but behind their paywall).

See also the apposite (but differently-focused) piece by Scott’s NYU colleague, Davis Stasavage: “Lessons from all democracies.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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As we seek a middle path, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE, that Casca and Cassius decided that Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) should not be killed with his ally Julius Caesar in the assassination planned for the next day; rather, that he should be waylaid so as not be in Senate at the time. It was the conspirators’ undoing.

They believed Caesar’s death would restore the Republic. But Caesar had been immensely popular with the Roman middle and lower classes, who became enraged upon learning a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, as the sole consul, soon took the initiative and seized the state treasury. Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, presented him with Caesar’s personal papers and custody of his extensive property, clearly marking him as Caesar’s heir and leader of the Caesarian faction. Antony negotiated a crafty compromise with the conspirators… then, on March 20th, gave his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral– which ended with Antony’s brandishing of Caesar’s blood-satined toga… Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, most of the conspirators fled Italy. The few remaining– including Brutus and Cassius– were assigned distant (and relatively menial) posts in Sicily and Asia by Antony “for their own protection”; insulted, they fled instead to Greece.

George Edward Robertson, “Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral”

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“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

770px-Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit

Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

 

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”*…

 

In July, Harvard scientists used a gene-editing technology first developed in 2013 to programme bacteria to do something astounding: play back an animation of a galloping horse.

The GIF animation was generated from an iconic image series created in 1878 by the motion-picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.

The breakthrough involved the scientists translating image pixels into genetic code, which they fed to the cells one frame at a time. The bacteria incorporated and reproduced the sequence in their DNA, demonstrating the possibility of using living cells as information recording and storage devices.

The tech world was, predictably, agog. But beyond the hype, scientists’ goal of applying the technique to human cells has deep philosophical implications.

A future in which our bodies are used as hard drives could, in effect, change the entire way we conceive of human history and perceive life.

Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without history: from the vast array of chronicles housed in the world’s libraries to the countless traces of the past accumulating in the data farms that support the digital cloud, history surrounds us.

But it wasn’t always this way. Starting around 4000 BCE, the rise and spread of city-states, from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece, radically changed the relationship between humans and our physical world…

How history is– and may in the future be– “made,” and what that might mean: “Will whoever controls gene editing control historical memory?

* Winston Churchill

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As we think in time, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE that Cicero delivered the first of his oratorical attacks, Philippicae,  on Mark Antony. He went on to make 14 of them over the next several months. Modeled on Demosthenes‘ Philippic (Ad Atticus, 2.1.3, leveled by the Greek orator against Philip of Macedon), the Philippicae attacked Antony both for his leadership in Julius Caesar’s assassination and for other offenses against the realm.  While Cicero had been sympathetic with the conspirators who acted on the Ides of March, he favored Julius’ adopted son and heir, Octavian as the next leader.

While Octavian ultimately prevailed, Cicero’s effort to force out Antony failed.  Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed a Triumvirate to rule; and Cicero was “proscribed”– made an enemy of the state.  He fled, but was captured and ultimately beheaded. Antony requested that the hands that wrote the Philippics also be removed; his head and hands were publicly displayed in the Roman Forum to discourage any who would oppose the new Triumvirate.

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Written by LW

September 2, 2017 at 8:28 am

“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”*…

 

Terror attacks, Zika, Brexit, police shootings, Syria, Trump, record-hot temperatures, the losses of Prince and David Bowie—this has been one unrelenting turn around the calendar. Have terrifying events truly piled up on each other in 2016, in a way they didn’t in any other year in human history? Or is it impossible to judge the awfulness of a year while it’s still unfolding? Do we just notice negative happenings more these days because of our high levels of connectivity? And what does “worst year” even mean—“worst year” for Americans, for humanity, for the planet?…

In an effort to understand how to determine a “worst year” in history, Rebecca Onion asked ten historians to nominate their own “worst years” and to reflect on what constitutes a “really bad year.” Explore the bottom of the barrel at “Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?

* Shakespeare, King Lear

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As we hold our heads in our hands, we might spare a thought for Mark Antony; on this date in 30 BC– pretty surely his worst year ever– he won a minor victory over the forces of Octavian (Augustus) in the Battle of Alexandria.  But most of Antony’s army, cowed by the Roman forces, subsequently deserted, leading to his suicide.

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Written by LW

July 31, 2016 at 1:01 am

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality”*…

https://i1.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8242458991_b4eebedba0_o.gif “Enough of symbolism and these escapist themes of purity and innocence.”    8½ (1963)

From If We Don’t, Remember Me, “a gallery of living movie stills”…

https://i1.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8487/8243529928_b21532dff4_o.gif “I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers.”     Ghost World (2001)

* Alfred Stieglitz

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As we find our inner stillness, we might recall that it was on this date in 43 BCE that Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero was executed (his head and hands were amputated) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Mark Antony and calling for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor.

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

Written by LW

December 7, 2012 at 1:01 am

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