Barbarians at the Gate, Then and Now

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire happened a long time ago, but it still seems to show up in the news often. What with the obvious decline and seemingly imminent fall of America and the rest of western civilization so far underway, the analogies are too hard to resist.
Everyone has his favorite theory about the causes of Rome’s demise, of course, with each person’s preference always neatly coinciding with his views on the current scene. The modern-day isolationists blame imperial overreach for that long ago decline and fall, while those who favor a more robust foreign policy point to the lack of attention paid to seemingly unimportant outposts in the empire. The cultural conservatives like to cite the legendary moral decadence of those final days, and the more liberal sorts have a notion that it was because of income inequality or some chemical in the pots they were cooking with that only went undetected due to the lack of a fully-funded Roman Consumer Protection Agency. A very smart fellow over at the American Spectator has written a most intriguing article about Europe’s recent immigration crisis, with obvious implications for our own problems with the matter, and he also posits an analogy to the fall of Rome.
His interpretation of classical history and its lessons for today is more persuasive than most, largely because he cites Edward Gibbons’ “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the little-read but widely accepted as authoritative book on the subject. The passages he quotes, describing the mass migration of Goths into the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th Century, also have an eerily familiar ring.
“The Barbarians still wore an angry and hostile aspect; but the experience of past times might encourage the hope that they would acquire the habits of industry and obedience; that their manners would be polished by time, education, and the influence of Christianity; and their posterity would insensibly blend with the great body of the Roman people,” Gibbons wrote. He added that, “Notwithstanding these specious arguments, and these sanguine expectations, it was apparent to every discerning eye, that the Goths would long remain the enemies, and might soon become the conquerors of the Roman Empire. Their rude and insolent behavior expressed their contempt of the citizens and the provincials, whom they insulted with impunity.”
The European press has been reluctant to admit it, preferring to focus on the heartbreaking photos of dead Syrian children washing ashore on the beaches of a Europe that is somehow responsible for the mess that Middle Easterners have made of the Middle East, and of course the same old specious arguments and sanguine expectations about industry and obedience and good manners, but the current wave of refugees closely resemble those conquering Goths. The more democratic “social media” on the continent have been providing videotape of the refugees who are swamping the continent as they attack police, scornfully toss away the food and water that are generously provided them, and make demands for immediate transit to the jurisdictions with the most lavishly funded welfare states, and they also note how an inordinate number of these refugees from the Syrian conflict seem to be young and male and able-bodied and and unmarried and not from Syria, and how their rude and insolent behavior expresses their contempt of the citizens and provincials of modern day Europe.
Any American with a discerning eye has by now noticed such rudeness and insolence and contempt of the citizenry among a troublesome portion of this country’s gate-crashers, and especially among such advocacy groups as La Raza, with its nakedly racialist and suddenly plausible ambition for a reconquista of the southwest quadrant of this formerly anglophone country, but here, as in modern Europe and ancient Rome, the prevailing impulse is for specious arguments and sanguine expectations. Even such an able historian as Gibbons probably overlooked the economic arguments that were made in ancient Rome, about Goths doing the work that Romans wouldn’t do and all that, and there’s reason to believe that Germany’s plummeting fertility rates are driving Germany’s suddenly welcoming attitude toward hundreds of thousands of non-German-speaking and illiterate-in-their-own-language refugees from lands where the most stern sort of Islam is practiced, but now as in retrospect such specious arguments and sanguine expectations cannot explain the current madness.
We’ve always been inclined toward the theories about Rome falling due to a lack of attention paid to the far-away and politically troublesome chores of a Pax Romana and gradually slide into moral degeneracy, which fits neatly with our views on foreign policy and to a lesser extent our views on the social issues, and of course we understand that the latter is largely responsible for the former, but at the present moment we’re liking this idea about a lack of border enforcement being the cause of it all. Allowing the allegorical Barbarians into the gate, and then providing them with subsidies and various legal protections, proved a bad strategy back in the day and seems to prove just as futile this time around.
This time around the specious arguments and sanguine expectations are offered in all sincerity, and we suspect that even such a discerning eye as Edward Gibbons’ would concede that the ancient Romans had similarly good intentions, but they are no more convincing. Rarely do we disagree with anything that in appears in City Journal, the publication of the oh-so-intellectual yet right-wing Manhattan Institute, but we were even unswayed by a very well-written argument that at least the most authentic of these “refugees” deserve the compassion of America and the rest of western civilization. The author’s argument not only earns respect by its appeal to the values of western civilization, but also from the fact that his father once feed the horrors of the holocaust in Nazi Germany and survived only by joining a beleaguered French Resistance in the snowy Pyrenees after being turned away by the western democracies, and we do not take it lightly. Still, we reject his argument that his father was no different from the men who so openly express contempt for the nations they hope to inhabit and live of its productivity, and we’d think it a most tragic result of history if Europe were atone for the Holocaust by ceding the continent to people who proudly pine to finish the job.
Here and in Europe, though, the next few epochs of history could go in any direction. Throughout what used to be called “western civilization” there are rules of etiquette that insist on the specious arguments and sanguine expectations about industry and obedience and all the rest of it, but the social media and Donald Trump and all those nativist parties popping up in European countries suggests that will meet some resistance.

— Bud Norman


One response

  1. Significantly, Latinos aren’t out to destroy the US. They might accomplish it anyway, but this difference in intent throws a wrench in the historical parallel. Conservative Muslims arguably *are* out to destroy Europe, so the analogy might hold there.

    With Trump, we risk the fundamental tenets of conservatism for the sake of a chance at solving the immigration problem. I think this is foolhardy.

    And my first idea of “sanguine” was far less pleasant than the definition. I was thinking of sanguinary[1].

    1. cheerful and confident; optimistic

    4. an obsolete word for sanguinary[2]

    1. accompanied by much bloodshed
    2. bloodthirsty
    3. consisting of, flowing, or stained with blood

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