“When asked where he came from, he said, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’”
ἐρωτηθεὶς πόθεν εἴη, “κοσμοπολίτης,” ἔφη.
Diogenes Laertius, 6.63
One could not with any propriety call what Victor Davis Hanson does “essay writing.” His preferred mode now appears to be something between posting on Twitter and old man yells at cloud. In his latest piece of sputtering semi-literacy, Hanson writes:
It is eerie how such current American retribalization resembles the collapse of Rome, as Goths, Huns, and Vandals all squabbled among themselves over what was left of 1,200 years of Roman citizenship — eager to destroy what they could neither create nor emulate.
Eerie, eh? This guy needs to slow his fucking roll, because it’s not even October yet and he apparently already has Monster Mash playing an endless loop in his head. But seriously – we wouldn’t let a freshman in an introductory survey class get away with such an egregious whopper as this. Collapse is a rather dramatic word for gradual decentralization of power. Hanson conveniently elides the difference between 1,200 years of citizenship and 1,200 years of imperial rule imposed by the sword. Many people living within the borders of Roman-controlled territory were not, legally speaking, citizens at all. Moreover, it is not clear that the concept of citizenship is even meaningful for the inhabitants of the more far-flung regions of any extensive empire, and one would be hard pressed to believe that the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 made any immediate substantial difference in the lives of most people outside the senate or the army.
This would not be a VDH article if he didn’t mount some kind of concerted attack on his old enemy:
Multiculturalism has reduced the idea of e pluribus unum to a regressive tribalism. Americans often seem to owe their first allegiance to those who look like they do. Citizens cannot even agree over once-hallowed and shared national holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July.
“Tribalism” is quite the fashionable word among conservatives today, the kind of thing that would inspire David Brooks’ wettest dreams. It signals that its user is dispassionate, objective, and serenely rational – a fount of reasonable analysis unclouded by dogma, ideology, or emotion. At the same time, we know what it is meant to evoke: the grim specter of the tribal, the uncivilized, the savage. That is, the word tribalism has become like so many other parts of conservative discourse just another racist dog whistle. Men like Hanson were at least astute enough to realize that glasses and an ill-fitting suit will capture a much wider audience than a white hood and robe, and so we see a parade of villains like Hanson, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Richard Spenser, and the rest getting written up in “papers of record” as “intellectuals” while old David Duke has to rest content with a mere presidential endorsement. [As a side note: what the hell does he mean about citizens disagreeing over Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth? I have never witnessed a “disagreement about” these holidays. This guy has gone totally off the rails.]
Hanson here mentions the Goths, Huns, and Vandals to invoke dread among the other old white men reading The National Review because each of those ethnonyms has been received in our own language as a symbol for a violent and destructive behavior. The administrative talents of Gothic generals like Stilicho helped to keep the rotten corpse of the empire animated, and even Attila the Hun (the scourge of God himself) spared Rome at Leo I’s urging.
It is singularly disingenuous to invoke the fear of these peoples and their role in the fragmentation of Rome’s empire without considering the atrocities which the Romans perpetrated in acquiring it in the first place. Of course, a reactionary like Hanson has a fair amount of practice in this form of smug hypocrisy, since he seems to think that God himself drew the map of the U.S. without an ounce of suffering paid. It follows as a natural consequence of this curious admixture of Calvinism and Manifest Destiny that anyone born here would be in possession of a singular privilege which ought to be denied to everyone else.
Any narrative which frames the “collapse” of the Roman Empire as a bad thing is so deeply imperialist that it is hard to find a way to argue against it productively. Gibbon’s dark legacy was bequeathing to us a worldview in which the Roman Empire represented humanity’s most spectacular governmental achievement. Indeed, Gibbon himself fixed the period from Nerva’s reign to the death of Marcus Aurelius as the happiest in human history. Barbarians come in for their share of blame in Gibbon, but any perceptive reader of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire knows that Gibbon chiefly blamed the corruption and decadence of the emperors themselves for much of the empire’s decline. Amidst his broader reflections upon the human propensity for vice and degradation when given absolute power, he rails on at length against venal flatterers and courtiers – the type who might write An Encomium to Shitler. The supreme irony of Hanson’s hard-on for Roman imperialism is his scorn for the EU – the only organization, other than the Catholic Church, to have exerted a unifying influence over Europe similar to that of Roman conquest.
Because he is credentialed as a Classicist (though we all know that he clearly hasn’t read Greek or Latin in decades), Hanson’s point about the collapse of Rome is the most notable of his blunders, but it is also the only moderately coherent point he makes throughout the entire write-up. The rest is composed of strange ravings: people disagreeing about holidays, Brett Kavanaugh being bullied, people being denied their human rights because it was difficult to purchase ammo at Wal-Mart.
In a globalized world, the concept of citizenship is just one of a million bureaucratic fictions which we reify out of some admixture of habitual and hostile behavior. The most serious problems which face any individual country today are those which threaten humanity as a whole. We live in an age of global threats, an age in which human life will either be rendered wholly meaningless or wholly nonexistent by technology and greed. Arguing over lines on maps and turning them into actual physical barriers should automatically disqualify someone from contributing to discussions about the problems of today. Moreover, (and I wish that I could put this more eloquently), you have to be a vile piece of shit for the accident of someone’s birthplace to affect your ability to feel compassion for them. But perhaps it is time that we get off of Hanson’s lawn and leave him to continue his conversation with the clouds.