Just over a month ago, the United States Capitol Building, the seat of American democracy, was attacked by a vicious mob, unbelievably encouraged by the (now former) U.S. President Donald Trump. By now, most of us are familiar with the basic details of this event. As an immigrant from America, I retain close emotional ties to the country of my birth.
I was stressed and anxious, worrying that something of this nature might occur since the week before the 3 November election. Since 6 January, I’ve been in varying states of shock. How did the world’s oldest modern democracy reach this point?
America’s founders were not deities without faults, they were products of their time. However, they lead the way out of a framework of imperial colonialism on a trajectory towards the creation of a new liberal world order. It was meant to be an order where power and sovereignty was located in the individual and enshrined in institutions made up of representatives chosen by the citizenry. The main purpose of government institutions was upholding Constitutional guarantees of individual rights, rather than what conservative thinker George Will calls upholding hereditary and authoritarian institutions of throne and church. A further goal achieved through fits and starts was to use diplomacy when possible to promote and strengthen liberal democracies across the globe through using communication to pursue mutual benefits.
In creating a political revolution, the founders looked to historical texts drawing on the best thinkers of antiquity not just of Greece and Rome, but also drawing what was known at the time of Near Eastern and biblical wisdom. These are just three key examples illustrating the close relationship between studying history and pursuing liberty.
Alexander Hamilton did not begin life as a member of the elite classes, but as an orphan who was self-educated through memorizing the writings of classical authors, before entering the university, while most modern students would still be in high school. Although he never held high political office, Hamilton was an aide and speech writer for George Washington, an architect of the new union through authoring many of The Federalist Papers, used to defend and underpin the Constitution, and establishing the US Treasury Department and financial system.
Among the many ancient texts studied by Thomas Jefferson who is most known for writing the Declaration of Independence, was the Cyropaedia. The Cyropaedia is a partly fictionalized biography of the Persian King, Cyrus the Great as ideal ruler, by the Athenian historian, Xenophon. It was drawn on for wise rulership by everyone from Alexander to Machiavelli. Thomas Jefferson owned at least two copies of it. It’s known for inspiring the formation of alliances and promoting just treatment for the many cultures under his rule. A later document, the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder found in 1879 in Mesopotamia is a royal inscription recounting Cyrus’ deeds including his repatriation of deported people and allowing freedom of religion. It re-enforces the messages of the Cyropaedia and the cylinder’s fame is so great that it has been celebrated by all of the diverse political and religious regimes of Iran, and it recently toured the world to great fanfare. Jefferson was also known to have read the Koran as part of his curiosity for understanding world religions, and all of the Founders were well-versed in the biblical texts. Today these are too often ignored as important historical and philosophical documents by people conflating their study with religious belief.
George Washington was a surveyor rather than a scholar, yet he was also learned. He famously repeated a passage nearly fifty times from the book of Micah 4:4: they shall sit in safety, every man under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid. Washington extracted many meanings from this text. It was meant as an expression of guaranteeing the same rule of law to all, to extol the virtues of a simple life, and most famously in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island to stress his belief in freedom of religion for all.
The Capitol riots demonstrate both the fragility of liberal democracy and that we neglect the lessons of the Enlightenment at our peril. These lessons include critical reasoning, studying the humanities, reading history, and enlarging the promise of freedom and democracy to all. QAnon shaman and other mob-attackers, are not just people in funny costumes. Many receiving the most serious charges belonged to right wing militia groups such as the Proud Boys (also active in Australia) and the Oath Keepers. Many were also trained military veterans and were “loaded for bear” as the saying goes. Whether they wore a fur hat, brandished a flag as a spear, or were kitted out in full “tacticool” with guns and wrist restraints, the mob shared one thing in common: substituting blind allegiance to an autocrat and his lies calling for a violent overthrow of a free election, for reasoned thinking and research. Fighting out of blind loyalty to a demagogue replaced fighting for independence and ideas.
Most of them have embraced an insidious mythology in the form of age-old conspiracy theories combined with pop culture longing for secret knowledge and amplified by the Chinese whispers and memes of the internet. Elements of anti-Semitism and scapegoating of Jews and migrants form a central component in most if not all conspiracy theories going back to the Medieval period, and perhaps even to the Roman period where Christians were scapegoated as baby killers in place of Jews. New conspiracy theories are already emerging out of QAnon, melding the irrational and anti-scientific belief in mind-control through vaccination in concert with a “New World Order” of mysterious elites that will control us.
The ancients dealt swiftly and harshly with any individual that might threaten order by becoming too important, ostracizing even the Athenian general Themistokles, perhaps the most famous example of cancel culture. His fate was better than that of Socrates, executed for corrupting the youth, both innocents such as Xenophon and already radicalized elites like the outrageous Alcibiades.
Knowing history can empower each and every one of us to think clearly about these recent events and how they endanger all societies by promoting a rise of populist authoritarianism around the world. Each of us has a responsibility learn enough about our political system to jealously guard our way of life as important to our well-being as every other aspect of our life. Education began early for the American founders, starting university in their early teens or surrounded by those who had, steeped in a classical education, and impatiently working to make a new world.
Professor Louise A. Hitchcock is a Professor in Archaeology Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne has written for many academic and non-academic publications on Ancient Civilisations. She has extensive archaeological experience in the Mediterranean as Parsons Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and as a Fulbright Fellow at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Cyprus.