Monday, July 14, 2003


I watched 'The English Patient' again tonight... I watch it a few times a year. When the film came out I didn't want to see it... the movies I tend to watch don't get alot of hype, and people wouldn't shut the hell up about this film, so I figured it must suck. ('American Beauty' is another film that I didn't see at first due to the hype... an excellent film). Luckily I was wrong.

The movie turned me on to the book, and more importantly turned me on to the writings of Herodotus, who I had never even heard of. I've read 'The Histories' about a dozen times now, and it continues to amaze me. 2500 years ago this fellow wrote down a description of the world as he saw it... politics and geography and war stories and rumors (lies, some historians say... a bit too vehemently in my opinion).

I think it is notable that this is pretty much the last comprehensive history of 'the world' (as known to the Greeks) before the Roman Empire and later the 'Holy' Roman Empire got into the business of marketing selectively modified histories that justified their imperial expansions. It looks to me like Herodotus' biggest fault (in the eyes of historians) is that he was not plugged in to the consensus narrative of the times that followed, the narrative that later became the 'true' history of that time.

There is a pleasant naivete in Herodotus' writings, and a unique perspective. While we tend to think of the world in terms of countries, land masses that are bounded by waters, Herodotus saw the world as the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by a fringe of land. When he speaks of regions further away from that sea, his writings take on a real 'Here be dragons' sort of tone. His travels led him into the farthest regions of the known world, which is to say very shallowly into what we now know as northern Africa and southern Europe.

He writes quite a bit about the myriad groups of Greeks, the almost mathematical permutations of a people that spread throughout the Mediterranean in a manner very different from the empires that followed them. I was taught nothing of these people in school. I was taught that the Romans were the model empire, the precursor to our own (not that many people admit that our culture is in fact an empire). They built roads that spanned their empire (most people of my generation don't seem to know that the American interstate highways were only built in the 1950s, and that the post-war boom is what made it all possible), aqueducts that delivered water to remote places (one system had a 50 mile run that was nearly perfectly straight and only sloped 6 inches downwards over the entire distance), and among many other signs of their excesses, they killed slaves for entertainment. What a great role model. Think it doesn't apply to us? Go turn on the news.

But maybe they are a great role model, or at least a great example of the rise and fall of an empire. Reading Herodotus got me thinking about empires, and why they do the things they do. Clearly land and resources are desirable, and we are territorial creatures, so inevitably there will be conflicts. But just as clearly the recent expansionist activities of the American empire have little to do with a need for resources. I look around at my country and I see people buying SUVs that get single-digit miles per gallon in the city, just for status. We throw away more resources than most countries have to start with. Our landfills have gotten so large that we just cover them with topsoil from the clearcut hills, and build little tract houses on the rolling hills of garbage. Poor people buy $4 packs of cigarettes each day, and don't even realize that they were essentially programmed to do so by the tobacco and film industries. Endless miles of condos dump millions of gallons of water and chemicals on their green grass lawns, onto which hardly anyone ever sets foot. I remember when we had a drought, and the local government would fine you if you watered your lawn... some people chose to pay the fines, while others quietly deployed their gardenhoses in the middle of the night. There was a limited supply of the water they drink, and they chose to pour it out on their lawns rather than suffer the shame of violating some white-picket-fence Ozzie-and-Harriet meme that was implanted in their parents heads in the 50s. The 'green lawn' meme was so strong that for awhile there you could make alot of money painting peoples lawns green. Holy fucking hell are we ever doomed.

My old workmate Brian, whom I have mentioned before, feels that the reason other countries don't like America is because they are jealous of us... in his mind, we never do anything wrong, so it must be the only reason. I suspect that the reality of the situation is that they are not jealous of us, they are simply embarassed and irritated when they look out their windows and see America reveling in our ignorance and our Caligulesque dreams of empire, with the twisted remains of democracy and freedom up on cinder-blocks on our front lawn.