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Works and Days

Mediterranean Reflections on What Went Wrong

July 30th, 2009 - 5:19 am

Italy…

I have been traveling as a lecturer on a Hillsdale College Byzantium Cruise (from Venice to Athens, with several stops in the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean) for the last few days, and here are some eccentric reflections on civilizations of the past.

 

Venice

I spent yesterday in Venice—hot, humid, and crowded, as I had never quite seen it before. So much for the global recession that has supposedly curtailed world tourism.

Venice was not a classical city, and one can see why. It was malarial, without natural harbors or any readily identifiable deep ports or surrounding cliffs. It is instead a conglomeration of over 100 islands in the swamps of an Adriatic lagoon. Yet between 1200 and 1600, Venice was in many ways the preeminent city of the world. People—not oil, coal, timber, or farmland—matter most.

You can see the Lion of St. Mark cut into almost any fortification wall anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean—Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, or Nauplion. For over three centuries the galleys of the republic kept the central and Western Mediterranean safe from Islam, while making a fortune as the go-between for Indian and Chinese imports from ports on the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe. By 1400 some  3,000 Venetian galleys and commercial ships brought into  St. Mark’s Square loot from around the world. The elegant villas and palazzos show it. Venice was the best proof of the power of republican government when married to capitalism, as a rather small city without any natural resources soon created a renaissance from nothing other than political stability and market entrepreneurship.

What brought down Venice—by 1700 it had receded into a provincial city—was not periodic plague, or even the rise of Islam (checked in 1571 at Lepanto). But rather the ascendance of the Atlantic port maritime states of Western Europe—England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain—that soon bypassed the Asian land routes and shipped in Chinese and Indian goods without going thought the Mediterranean or dealing with the Ottomans. And with the discovery of the New World, and the rise of the great sailing ships, Venice was doomed as a key international city. (That said, how such a small out-of-the-way polis ever remained preeminent is the real story, rather than its logical decline).

Venice missed out entirely on the fabulous wealth and commerce from the Americas. But more importantly, its republicanism eroded, and with it so too went the entrepreneurship which otherwise might have encouraged a more westward view.

Irony, But Lessons too

A great deal of irony here: while Venice became legendarily wealthy from eastern trade, mastered the galley, and held at bay the rise of the Ottomans from Western Europe, it was insidiously becoming irrelevant. (Lepanto was the last large galley battle in history). Sometimes great states become obsessed with the immediate enemy, and forget the more creeping dangers on the horizon. Had Venice applied a fraction of its genius to trans-Atlantic shipbuilding and looked westward beyond Gibraltar rather than eastward to Istanbul, it might well have rivaled Portugal and Spain well into the eighteenth century.

In our own case, we are bickering over how to spend some $3.5 trillion ($2 trillion in borrow money)—millions for the Palestinians, billions to conduct two wars, trillions to redistribute in new social programs. But meanwhile other states are saving, investing, and improving their educational systems. The notion that the average American youth—20 hrs a week before the video game or TV console, a product of a therapeutic education that seeks to ensure that he is sensitive rather than educated—will inherit the lifestyle of his fathers seems to me dubious.

 

Our Tenth Hour

Our great wealth in the 20th century was in part predicated on natural bounty—farmland, oil, coal, iron ores, timber, etc.—under the aegis of a wonderfully stable constitution. The 21st will adjudicate whether our prior success was also predicated on superior intellect, law, and culture, inasmuch as our resources are now not so singular on the world stage. America to remain exceptional more than ever is going to have to have unusual citizens that are as lawful as they are creative.

Unless we return to a meritocracy, emphasize science, math, liberal arts, and engineering—rather than the plague of ‘studies’ courses (as in environmental-, leisure-, gender-, Latino-, black-, Asia-, Chicano-, community-, feminist-studies, etc.)—we simply will not match the Chinese and Indians in this century.

The American people are waiting for a leader bold enough to balance budgets, restore meritocracy, end the therapeutic mushy sentimentality in our educational system, and insist on the rule of law, free markets, and limit government.

Otherwise we know the ultimate end of the present road: a vast bureaucracy of non-taxpaying incompetents, damning the estranged few for not producing ever more to be taxed, convinced that they are geniuses—and only due to some sort of unfairness have been surpassed by others.

The Chinese are rough, competent people and have no such delusions. In about 10 years their enormous financial power will begin to translate into military sophistication, and I don’t think their foreign policy will either have much to do with human rights or care much about what we have to say about them.

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