Is that the ethical choice facing Americans today: political automaton or billiard ball?

— Photo by Matt Collamer
A man named Michael holding this sign in a Boston subway station told photographer Matt Collamer that human kindness meant giving without expecting anything in return.

If we use the final days of the Roman Republic as historical precedent, or cultural backdrop cum mirror, to understand what’s taking place in the United States today — politically and socially — honesty forces us to conclude that the Republic of the United States, as happened to Rome, is done for.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news but the similarities between the two Republics are overwhelming, especially when it comes to the violence and deceit associated with elections toward their end. And anyone who dismisses the parallel because Rome was way back in B. C., is a fool. Theodor Mommsen’s five-volume “The History of Rome” says why.

In early summer 2021 A. D., turn on the TV any time of day, listen to the radio, read the papers or what’s posted on social media: There is an endless flood of fearful cries foreboding the end of U. S. democracy, the demise of the Republic, while a violence-driven faction — even inside the government — spews trash-talk against the “collective” and creates legislation and propaganda networks that hack away at the social bonds a republic needs to stay alive.

A republic is not just a type of government, it’s a community where people bind themselves through mutual aid, knowing well that such an ethic is the first step toward preserving collective social life.

And the capitalist economy that runs through America’s veins like plasma in the blood, is hastening the demise of the Republic as its richest people propagandize that to be rich you cannot contribute to the collective; paying taxes is a waste of personal funds.

Indeed a few years ago, a former president of the United States, a billionaire, got on television and told the American people that anyone who contributes to the collective by paying taxes is a damn fool. He said it grinning with satisfaction, calling collectivists suckers. He said he beat the system and that’s how he stays rich.

Indeed, through the support of the rich, a tax code exists that ensures that they — and those of their ilk — remain above socio-political upheaval, untouched by the volatile ups-and-downs that invade the lives of the poloi.

Such engineering masks the connection between the “collective” and repaired roads, collected garbage, van drivers taking old and lonely seniors to the doctor, dog-control officers, and new desks for a rural elementary school that just might spark a child to take his studies seriously.

Part of the deep-seated animosity that exists in American society today arose when a significant number of Americans adopted the anthem of the rich but failed to achieve what it promised — and became infected with a virulent hate. On Jan. 6, 2021, that hate became lethal through an armed insurrection. Of course the country’s Capitol building was overrun but what was stormed as well was the bastille of community, of mutual-aid-based relationships, of a Republic that says the well-being of every citizen deserves equal attention.

By storming the Capitol, therefore, the rioters were also hacking at the life of the municipal minimum-wage van driver who takes old folks to the doctor, helps them out of the van, walks them up the steps to the office, insures that they get logged in, helps them settle in the waiting room, and then goes out to the van to wait until the appointment is over.

He then goes back in and collects his charge, asks the receptionist if there’s anything they need to know, walks the 93-year-old Widow Vanderpool back to the van, eases her into a seat, and chats with her on the way home, the only real conversation she had all week.

Understandably a happy van driver makes all the difference in how a mother is treated when her son can’t get off work to drive her himself. And the people carted in the van might not be old but have mental problems, a leg in a cast, or no one else in life to take them.

The community van-driver — metaphorically and actually — earns “nothing” because he is an expression of the collective, of community life where citizens provide for each other, as in taking the Widow Vanderpool to the doctor because she had no one else to call upon.

I’ve found nothing so far that says Bezos, Buffet, Trump, and others on their rung funnel funds to towns and villages to provide rides and services for people in need. And, as the Republic disintegrates, the number of people falling through the cracks of needs-unmet keeps growing.

A woke person might say disregard for the collective is a form of violence (at a distance), which an economist can make a case for with numbers. And those who war against collectivity are successful because they propagandize with an ideology of scarcity, a gospel of fear, that says there’s not enough to go around — and a horde of dirty Mexicans is hurtling toward the trough. Eat that dog before he eats you.

Because of such thinking and the hate it rewards, the United States is dying not from a heart attack — as was the case in B. C. Rome — but from congestive heart failure; the Tin Man of Oz, who finally found a heart, is watching it die before him.

When I hear the jeremiads on cable news saying the Republic is done for, I hear the voice of Cato the Younger — the Stoic philosopher who became a Roman senator to resist monarchy — and that of Rome’s most famous barrister, Marcus Tullius Cicero, both decrying the power-based hustle and violence that autocrats like Caesar championed. That nation inflicted death upon itself that a modern-day coroner would call suicide.

Look at the texts; in the early Fifties (B. C.) candidates running for office in Rome campaigned with gangs by their side, commanded paramilitary units who engaged the opposition on the street.

Things got so wild in 52 that no consul was elected. In the United States, that’s like saying social upheaval was so severe no president was elected.

The Roman senate called in Pompey the Great — the adulescentulus carnifex, the boy butcher — who got the name because he knew how to handle problems. The senate made him sole consul and provided him with an army to keep things under control.

The Greek-born historian Plutarch says, during elections, candidates presented themselves “not with votes, but with bows and arrows, swords, and slings.” He said they in fact, “would defile the rostra with blood and corpses before they separated, leaving the city to anarchy like a ship drifting about without a steersman.”

After a while, Plutarch says, “such madness and so great a tempest” wore people down so they were ready for a dictator to calm things. Being a political automaton — forget republican citizen — was better than being a billiard ball careening against the cushions of fractured social life.

Is that the ethical choice facing Americans today: political automaton or billiard ball? Years ago Robert Putnam, in his classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” said America’s greatest fear was folks living in isolation; today that isolation has morphed into confused and hate-driven souls spraying the collective with AK-47’s — 247 times in 2021, and the year is hardly half done.