While I am no fan of Robert Hughes, I think very highly if Ingrid Rowland. She reminds me that there are still a few souls out there who value scholarship. Furthermore, since her work has led to expatriate life in Rome, she tends to be as reliable a narrator of contemporary life there as she is in her Renaissance studies.
Thus, while I am always cautious about Hughes tendency to go on rants for the sake of attracting eyeballs, I figured I could accept any verdict from Rowland regarding his latest book, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. (For the record that includes the fact that Hughes has never actually lived in Rome and therefore lacks Rowland’s “insider,” albeit as an expatriate, status.) Ultimately, this all comes down for her endorsement of Hughes’ summing-up of his findings:
As he says at the very end of Rome: “For all its glories, and for all the legacy it left in art, thought, and politics, Greek civilization did perish. That of Rome is still somewhat with us.” And the reasons for Rome’s staying power, he argues, have to do with the city’s eternal crassness, as intrinsic to Roman grandeur as majesty, beauty, and spiritual transcendence.
One way to appreciate that staying power is through the joint effort of HBO and the BBC to produce the Rome miniseries. Not only was that crassness never short-changed but also there were any number of ways in which contemporary Americans (and, presumably, contemporary British) could see themselves in the character developments, particularly the “incidental” roles. By way of contrast, consider how the character portrayals of Oliver Stone’s film about Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander floundered. Consider how few efforts there have been to dramatize any episode from the life of Socrates, including the trial that led to his death. (Can you even remotely imagine a conversation between Socrates and Harry Korn?)
Since I am a devout Darwinist, this leads me to wonder whether or not there is some kind of “civilization survival factor” in crassness. One way to consider this is by speculating about the contrary: Subtlety and refined reasoning can take you only so far and only with respect to your peers, which makes for a rather limited population sector. The rest of the population is likely to side with Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts when it comes to normative practices of settling differences through argumentation:
He was beginning to make sense, so I hit him.
Another approach would be to invoke my favorite corollary of Murphy’s Law:
If brute force is unsuccessfully applied, that just means you are not applying enough of it.
This is often expressed in even simpler language:
When in doubt, use a bigger hammer.
It goes without saying that this approach to “survival factors” applies particularly well to politics. Republicans never seem to be shy about going for the lowest common denominator without ever worrying about being accused of being too crass. (Newt Gingrich is likely to be a major test of this proposition. If he prevails over Mitt Romney, the reason may well be Romney’s reluctance to descend into crassness. Remember when Ed Muskie’s career was ruined because he responded to an attack from the Manchester Union Leader with tears, rather than two-fisted aggression.) Barack Obama thought he could hold himself above such base behavior, but doing so may end up working against his prospects for reelection. He should be spending more time watching Boss to reconnect with the sort of crassness that is essential when it comes to gaining, exercising, and maintaining power, whether in the Mayor’s Office of Chicago or the White House.