Rome then, America now: What I told a 7th grader

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Rome then, America now: What I told a 7th grader

(‘76 Editor) The other day I had got an unusual email from a young student whom I don’t know. Nor do I know how she happened to write me. The email said this:

My name is Margaret and I’m a 7th grader at

[name omitted] middle school in Ohio. I am doing a research project on violent protests in ancient Rome, versus our world today. I would like to ask for your [thoughts] on four things I had questions about.

1- Are people protesting violently against tax raises on the middle class?

2- Is political correctness becoming a big enough issue in our country to spark a protest, or some kind of strike?

3- Are state and local government doing anything to keep protests from happening in their areas? If so, do you know what they are doing?

4- How big of an issue is religion becoming?

My answer went this way:

Margaret, I hope I can be of some help. There are a number of troubling analogies between Rome in the period 50BC-400AD and America today.

In both countries the erosion of civic virtue weakened the republican form of government where free citizens actually chose their leaders and rule of law operated to restrain the impulse that might makes right. Rome degraded from a republic into imperial rule and ultimately fell to its enemies.

Americans still have it in our power to prevent that, but we have to rise up and do much better than we are at present. My generation (that of your grandparents) and my children’s generation (that of your parents) have not done our part. It will be up to your generation to help save our beloved country—and an important first step is for you to get a good education through assignments like this one.

With that introduction, I answer your 4 questions as follows:

1- Taxes on the middle class are somewhat heavier, but not a lot heavier, because so much of what government now spends is paid for with borrowed money, not tax revenues. But there is a sense of alarm among the middle class even so, fearing the country will either go broke or reduce benefits on which so many people have come to depend.. Since 2009 this alarm has taken form in protest movements from the right (Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street), but with almost no violence.

2- Political correctness is a severe and worsening obstacle to a) clear, honest learning and questioning in our schools and colleges, b) accurate reporting and analysis in our news media, c) freedom of expression in our political debates, and d) freedom of religion in the spiritual life of our people. But because it operates so subtly and gradually, and because it imposes a self-censoring climate against those trying to disagree with political correctness itself, there is now, and likely will not be, any significant protest activity opposing it. It’s like a fatal disease in the body politic that few Americans even know we have.

3- The main reason protests in America today are almost never disruptive or violent is that our form of government—federal, state, and local—is generally so open to criticism and disagreement and so responsive to citizens’ demand for change via peaceful mass movements, lobbying of public officials, and replacement of public officials via elections. But as noted under #2, political correctness—sometimes called “group think”—is one very dangerous drag on this overall climate of openness and responsiveness.

4- The religious convictions of many Americans—especially Christians and Jews—are a vital source of protection and renewal for our constitutional republican form of government and the democratic process. This is an advantage ancient Rome did not have as its civic virtue began to decline. But the threat to religious freedom from some people’s desire to replace God with government—and from political correctness, which puts tolerance ahead of truth—is getting worse by the year. I don’t see this leading to violence, but it could become horribly divisive as people of faith begin to feel more and more oppressed.

This too is a difficult challenge your generation will face in the next 10-20 years, maybe sooner. I hope that you personally, Margaret, are being taught as you grow up that God is real, the only true source of authority and happiness in our lives, and that it’s God, not government, from whom our rights of life, liberty, and property originate.

Thanks for the opportunity to send you these thoughts. I hope they are helpful. May God bless you with success in this school assignment and in your entire education as a young American.

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