Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lessons from Empires

The Untied States has learned the lessons of the end of empires excellently... to a point.
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Being Euro-centric, we understand, and have mainly avoided, the overreach issues that brought an end to the Roman and British Empires.  We have avoided the overreach which helped to bring down the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Nazi regimens.
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But it probably behooves us to also look past Europe for our lessons.  After all, in many ways we look more like the ancient Muslim or Chinese Empires - unrivaled locally.  It is interesting to see what lessons are there that we should be aware of.
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First China.
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In the 15 Century China was much more able - and probable -  to rule the world, than Europe was.  They had gun-power, printing presses and multiple cities with millions of people.**
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Chinese Fleets sailed through the world probably even to the Americas.  The brought home maps, livestock, wild animals for show and the great tales of the world.  All three of Colombus' ships would fit onto 1 Chinese explorer vessel - and the ships ran in great fleets.
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So what happened (and more over - what lessons can we learn)?  The Chinese ruling classes were uninterested in the world.  There was nothing to engage them, and nothing to be learned, (apart from giraffes, which they did love), and so they closed the doors to the world.  Not just immigrants, but ideas.  And while we (the US) haven't closed ourselves off the world, we do have a tin ear about listening to others.  Good ideas can't possibly come from "socialist" Europe or "backward" Latin America.  Of course, our businesses (more nimble and less worried about elections) take advantage of ideas from these "backward" places all the time.
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As for the other great empire, the Muslim Empires (the Caliphates and the Ottoman Empire).  They too began decline when turning inward.  The Cordoba Caliphate (in Spain) had some of the greatest institutions in the world.  Muslims invented numbering systems, and algebra, tracked the stars and spread knowledge equally among people.  Until they reached the zenith of their power, and looked only inward.  Study of the Koran joined, and then replaced the study of anything else.
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We can see the beginnings of this in the United States.  The objective study of the natural world is scoffed at as the "elites" out to "brainwash" our children.
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Personally, I think we can learn the lessons to avoid from these Empires, just as we have from the British and Roman Empires.  We are not yet into a cycle of decline, much less locked into the cycle, with no hope of exit.  But it is important to remember that the world is a big place.  And to assume we have all the answers now, or they can all be gleamed from the Bible or the Vatican is a recipe for eventual decline.
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It is not to say there are not wonderful things to be learned internally, or from religion.  You aren't going to learn a lot about morality by studying rain patterns.  Modern life requires an open mind, a zest for living and an optimistic world view.  (Look at me, "optimistic" isn't the first word you think of is it?  Clearly that would be strikingly handsome - followed by charming, only then by "unrelentingly optimistic" - followed quickly by sarcastic.)
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**One example of our historical Eurocentricity is the well published (but wrong) fact "that from anicent Rome to London in the 1800's there wasn't a city on Earth of over a million people".  In fact, China had several.
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ps - I woke up at 2:43AM thinking about this.  I hate the way my brain works sometimes!

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