ROME — When Gary Johnson had his Aleppo moment a week ago, I was among those who could not believe his absolute incompetence. I understand that Libertarians generally take an isolationist position when it comes to foreign affairs (and now all the offended Libertarians are going to flood my inbox with insulting comments along the lines of, “Aleppo this, you harridan”), but it was incredibly troubling to see someone who thinks he is fit to lead this country show such a lack of interest and inquisitiveness.
As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.”
Of course, Johnson might not know who Donne is, either, and in any event, he’s unlikely to get on the debate stage, so his Sarah Palin, “I read everything they put in front of me,” moment is ultimately unimportant.
Except to the extent it is.
I wrote this week’s column from a cafe in Piazza Barberini. After the Aleppo incident, I will not assume everyone knows that Piazza Barberini, at least the most famous one, is in Rome (and just so we’re totally clear, that would be Rome, Italy). It took me twice as long to write this week because in Italy, Wi-Fi apparently stands for, “Where in the F is” the signal?
Nonetheless, I was able to happily watch illuminated waters dance in a great stone fountain, and a cup of frozen velvet, otherwise known as gelato, made me not care that I kept having to reboot my tablet. There was an entire world’s worth of languages swirling around me, and not one of the voices was talking about Ryan Lochte’s lies, Miss Missouri’s sexual orientation or whether Donald Trump deliberately gave Hillary Clinton pneumonia. I can bet you, though, that the people around me as I typed know what Aleppo is.
I’m not sitting here all snooty expat making fun of America. I’m not ashamed of my pedigree, my flag and anthem (sit on this, Colin Kaepernick), or my history. I’m a little embarrassed about the cesspool that swallowed our presidential campaign, but that isn’t what America is ultimately about.
And now you’re saying, “OK, here we go, sister preachy-mouth is going to tell us all about what America really is, as if that (fill-in-the-blank) knows.” And you would be right, because this is my column and as long as I have Wi-Fi I’m going to do it my way.
I spent many hours walking through the Roman ruins. I toured the perimeter of the Colosseum and wandered around the Circus Maximus, conjuring Charlton Heston and his white stallions in my mind. (By the way, I could have saved the producers of that remake a lot of money if they’d just asked. They didn’t, to the tune of an embarrassing cinematic dud.)
But the thing that almost brought me to my knees in awe and appreciation was the Forum. I spent an hour and a half waiting under a metal-melting sun to buy an entry ticket, and then spent another half hour in another line waiting to pass a security checkpoint that would put the TSA to shame before I was admitted to the sacred ground. I call it sacred, even though it doesn’t conjure images of God and the afterlife and promises no reward for virtue or punishment for evil.
The reason I call that ground, those hallowed and dusty ruins, sacred is because of what it represents — and promises. Rome was once the mightiest empire of all, calling most of the known world its property and subjugating the greatest democracy — Greece — through martial power.
And yet it wasn’t Rome’s legions or military strategies that saved her for posterity. It wasn’t the victories on battlefields, the courage of its soldiers or even the brilliant, deadly manipulations of its Caesars. What saved Rome were its laws and its lawmakers, men like Marcus Aurelius, Cato, and my personal hero, Cicero. As I walked through the Forum, the idea that Cicero had put his feet on the same stones and raised his voice in defense of democracy in the same airspace and criticized despots in the shadow of the same statues and arches made me shudder. It was 95 degrees in the afternoon sun, and I had chills.
By this point you might be saying, “What does any of this have to do with Aleppo, or our presidential elections, or logic?” You might even take issue with the fact that law saved Rome, because we all know what happened when the Visigoths came to town.
But if you think it through, there is reason in my seemingly random thoughts. Rome is gone yet lives on. Laws are still modeled after those enacted two millennia ago, and the principles of virtue, excellence, honesty, humanity and even harsh-but-appropriate punishment flowed from the work and philosophies of the men who still, in memory, haunt the ancient ruins.
As I wandered around lost in my thoughts, I realized that no matter how bad it gets, democracy is resilient. We are not going to win or lose civilization based on the personality we elevate to office. Caesar was assassinated, as were his assassins, and we still attribute great things to him. Cicero was murdered for dissenting, and he is considered the greatest writer of any generation. For this quote alone, he should be adjudged the greatest: “It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.” We can and do try mightily to destroy the better parts of what we have created in this world, this Western legacy of a civilization left in rubble and reincarnated in the laws and philosophies of its descendants, but we ultimately can’t kill it.
I guess the reason I was overcome with emotion at the Forum was this sense that neither Clinton nor Trump, flawed and unworthy as each might be, can destroy what is eternal about us, democracy and civic virtue. I will weep no matter who wins (although I will be heaving hysterical sobs in the unlikely event Mr. “And what is Aleppo?” wins), but I am not so myopic as to believe that if either of those horrible, toxic people take office it will be the end of the world as we know it.
It took a trip outside of my country to see that, something Gary Johnson wouldn’t appreciate. It took a consideration of dynasties rotting from within or thugs and bullies running amok to see that one human being is ultimately incapable of killing democracy. Clinton and a Trump can figure out what that means.
All that matters is that, through suffering and struggle, democracy ultimately survives.
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Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at [email protected]