Down the coast Ravenna is a strange place. The modern port is quite ugly or perhaps “bustling” is the better word. It is part of the muscular Italian north—smelting, petrochemicals, industrial trade—that explains why Italy is far wealthier than we usually suppose when we head to the more touristy south. If we wonder why all those quaint shops in Syracuse, Naples, Rome or Florence have nice glass, steel, and aluminum fixtures, come to Milan or Ravenna.
The city was the Byzantines’ last effort to keep Roman civilization safe a while longer from the so-called barbarians of the north. I spent the day walking alone to the city’s various churches and tombs—the great Basilica di San Vitale, the Battistero Neoniano, the little Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, and weird Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. Ravenna was the Western capital from the late fifth to eight century, a final effort to preserve Roman culture. One can see the results in the beautiful mosaics, and octagonal and brick Byzantine church designs.
The city, like Venice, is on a lagoon, but the canals were in large part long ago covered. Other than the monuments, it is a rather depressing modern industrial city, though parts of the old inner urban core are still quite beautiful, very clean and well preserved. One gets a tinge of sadness—and warning— when entering these monumental churches, studying the mosaics that are among the best in the world. Civilization of a thousand years was collapsing, and yet somehow the old guard was able to marshal manpower and capital to created churches of enormous size, sophistication and beauty, a sort of last gasp as it were to keep art, learning and scholarship alive for yet another generation.
Our own Ravenna
Here too, there are warnings. In California we are spending hundreds of billions on prisons, in which killers and thugs sue constantly for expanded rights, while universities lay off professors (though rarely nonacademic apparatchiks and administrators), and turn away students. Ravenna invested in thousands of hours of sculpture, we in thousands of hours of legal work in appeals and writs. Our cynical intellectual elites are becoming ever more postmodern even as the undereducated majority becomes premodern.
The state spends more and more on redistributive entitlements, less and less on infrastructure. Its population is bifurcating. A small, highly taxed elite supports museums, the arts, and gives to universities, a growing underclass swarms the emergency rooms, criminal justice system, and welfare roles.
The utopianism of the shrinking elite wants the Saturday night felon to have sophisticated jurisprudence when he is arrested, the best brain surgeon when a .44 magnum enters his skull in a gang dust-up, and humane day care, health care, and counseling—and yet now has no way any longer either to pay for it, or how to convince the growing underclass to become better educated and more productive. (To do so would demand a tragic diction and mindset).
One percent of Californians pays over 40% of our income taxes, perhaps as few as 360,000 out of some 36 million in the state. Each time one of these golden gooses flies east to no-tax Nevada, we lose about $50,000-80,000 in state taxes—or the money to keep a felon in the Corcoran prison house fed, housed, medicated, and counseled for a year. Do the math: one small businessman escapes to Tahoe or Reno, one lifer has no support.
The World Outside
But the system, like Ravenna abound 500, is in collapse (so we are letting out felons onto the streets as our tax-paying elites leave). A high school teacher of history in 1950 in the Los Angeles public school system would not recognize the curriculum of today. But he would recognize parts of the 101—about the same in many places, with about 10 times the traffic.
The Ravenna effect of trying to create lasting art and beauty at the eleventh hour as the world disintegrates is harrowing to experience. Looking up at the domes of these great churches, and factoring in the engineering brilliance and artistic genius that produced them, while the entire infrastructure of Roman society was disintegrating, is again eerie. For all the vigor of the Visigoths or Lombards, or Huns, there was little there of the Roman genius for architecture, art, or engineering.
While exploring the Basilica di San Vitale today, I was reminded of the news from America. An entire nation is obsessed with the silly Henry Louis Gates affair. A supposedly premier intellectual, who is a professor of African-American grievance, gets into a spat with a cop, purportedly evokes his “mama” in slurs, warns the cop whom he is “messin’” with, and then gets affirmation from the President—and we are supposed to think this is some sort of cosmic “teachable moment” in between trying to borrow another trillion dollars to socialize medicine in the manner of the Department of Motor Vehicles?
Just as there is no logic in ruining the American medical system, so too there is no longer an elite class when its best and brightest scream slurs like “mama” and “messin’ ”, or condemn an entire police force as acting “stupidly” when it is trying to keep the rule of law.
Yes, parts of the United States are becoming like the collapsing world outside the sanctum of San Vitale.
(I’ll try to get off this Spenglerian gloom before writing from a gloomy Santa Sophia in Constantinople next week.)
More on Corfu and the Eastern Mediterranean next posting.