The Roman emperor Nero is famously said to have fiddled while Rome burned, a bad thing, the story goes, and the predictor of the decline of a great empire.
I had an experience yesterday, though, that made me wonder if when we hear the phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" we really ought to be more concerned with the quality of the fiddling than with the decline of imperial power.
I was invited to a lunch yesterday with the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach. It was a small event--the other people at the table were all major figures in Utah's civic life--3 university presidents (Westminster's President couldn't be there hence my presence representing both the college and the UHC board), leaders from the media, state government, religious leaders.
Chairman Leach is in the middle of a 50-state civility tour, in which he is trying to turn the focus of public attention to the decline of our public life. He spoke at the Utah Humanities Council's 35th anniversary gala, and is the commencement speaker at Westminster's graduation today.
As you might imagine, the conversation around the table was strongly supportive of the view that our civic conversations are coarser, less friendly, and less productive than ever before. After all, the people there are people whose presence immediately messes with the group dynamic of a crowd. They were nearly all lightning rods, certain to bring out both adulation and scorn in any audience.
The conversation sought explanations (the internet, uncertainty in the economy, a polarized political system, Glen Beck and his left-wing counterparts) but the tone was nostalgic--hearkening back to a better time, when public discourse was kinder, more polite, people trusted their public officials, and those officials could cooperate more easily. Most acknowledged that there had been times in the past when discourse had been as bad or worse (including the very recent past, truth be told--remember the culture wars?), but the story still seems to be that we are entering a dark age. Rome is burning.
It all left me wondering about fiddling. After all, the humanities are not just supposed to inform public debate. That may in fact be one of the least of their roles. Instead, they are to help sustain intellect, community, thought, creativity, and passion outside of the public sphere as well. And this seems to be happening in at a scale greater than at any time in the history of the world. Any casual viewer of YouTube videos sees thousands of amateur musicians plying their crafts. Visit etsy.com to see thousands of crafters plying their crafts. Blogs are but memoirs in draft form. Spirituality is burgeoning even while organized religions lose their hold on the public mind. Book clubs continue in the hundreds of thousands around the world. A global youth culture built on hip-hop, fashion, and sports (fueled by Red Bull to be sure) means young people everywhere can begin a conversation. Millions of people have taken control of their own learning, taking advantage of opportunities to learn and content to learn about available everywhere. And people around the globe can turn their altruism to the public good--funding micro-loans, donating to disaster relief, and chatting about a million different things (only some of which are coarse...)
The story about Nero fiddling while Rome burns implies causation--Nero's distraction with music, gluttony, and vice led him to simply watch while politics degraded. Or argued more forcefully, the degradation of Rome's politics was due to Nero's vice. But there are other ways to tell that story today. It may in fact be the case that the rescue of our public life will come from the fiddlers--from people who are wise enough and distracted enough to realize that the political isn't the most important aspect of our lives.
I don't mean to suggest that the massive problems facing the world (war, starvation, poverty, environmental degradation) will be solved by the humanities. But Rome (by which of course I mean Washington DC, London, the UN, and the other hubs of the global political economy) will face vast temptations to be inhumane as it tries to deal with these problems. The world could do much worse than hope that those hubs have will have picked up some of the perspective, good will, amateurism, thirst for learning and quirky passion of the world's fiddlers.