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  • April 15, 2021

    Lessons from the Past

    Events of the past few years in the U.S. bear a disturbing resemblance to events of the Roman Empire before its fall, says Myron LaRowe, including polarized politics and civil unrest. What are the lessons to learn from the past?

    Myron E. LaRowe

    During the past few years, I – along with most people I know – have seen and heard things that we never thought we would see in our lifetime.

    To name a few, let’s start with the spectacle of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Here we saw images of Neo-Nazis marching in the streets. There were violent clashes between “alt-right” protestors and counter-protestors. That “Unite the Right” rally turned deadly when a young man accelerated his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring others. There were white nationalists holding tiki torches, marching through the streets, chanting a Nazi associated phrase “blood and soil.”

    Really? I could hardly believe it. I kept asking myself “What is happening here?” and “How did we get to this point in our democracy?”

    Disturbing events kept happening. It wasn’t long before we were watching images on TV and social media of a police officer holding his knee on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, for several minutes, causing his death.

    Again, how could this be happening? This was not an isolated event. There was the killing of an innocent Black medical worker sleeping in her apartment by police officers executing a no-knock warrant for a drug arrest. Then there was the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging through a residential neighborhood. There were other killings of Black people by police as well.

    Myron E. LaRowe Myron E. LaRowe, U.W. 1965 retired, is a founding partner of LaRowe Gerlach Taggart, LLPReedsburg and Sauk City. He is a former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and is president of the State Bar Senior Lawyers Division.

    However, the killing of George Floyd was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement that instantly swept over the country. That movement brought to our attention a systemic social bias that had been lurking below the surface of our consciousness for years.

    While these events were happening, any number of phrases, acronyms, and abbreviations slowly seeped into our everyday discourse. The Black Lives Matter movement became “BLM.” Terms like “cancel culture,” domestic terrorism,” white supremacy,” “antifa,” and “tribalism” became common. They appeared almost daily in social media, television, and during our everyday conversations.

    Politics became so polarized that it became almost impossible to have a discussion with our neighbors or friends. The ideas of “truth matters” and “facts matter,” two of the basics of our democracy, were being replaced by misinformation, conspiracy theories, and absolute falsehoods. The 2020 elections became the “Big Lie” repeated constantly by those who lost the election. Again, I found myself asking “What is happening here?” and “How did we get to this point in our democracy?”

    Last, but not least, was the armed assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. We all watched this in real time on our TVs in disbelief. What we were watching was an all-too-graphic reminder of how fragile our democracy is when we lose sight of the truth and distort the facts.

    Shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, I visited with a good friend of mine, a retired educator and history teacher. During our conversation I kept asking him, “What is going on here?” and “How can these things happen?”

    His response was: “Myron, just think of the Roman Empire. It was the richest and most powerful nation on the Earth. No one ever defeated the Romans – they destroyed themselves from within.”

    There were many causes for the fall of the Roman Empire, including political polarization of competing groups seeking power, high unemployment of the working class, a failing economy, the decline of ethics and values, disregarding customs and institutions, natural disasters such as plagues, flooding and earthquakes, and civil disobedience, just to name a few. The similarities between the Roman Empire and the U.S. today are numerous.

    Shortly after my conversation with my friend, I came across an article in The New York TimesAncient Rome has an Urgent Warning for Us.” The author, Dr. Kyle Harper, discusses how a pandemic played a role in the demise of the empire. In comparing the past to the present, he states that “the way we understand the past inevitably shapes how we understand the present.”

    The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I submit that, as a nation, we must heed the lessons of the past – but more importantly, we must adhere to the certitude that facts and truth matter.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyers Division Blog of Experience. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Senior Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.

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