Ancient and modern politics

Preserving antiquities is important not just for culture and tourism. The ancient world is a reminder of the fleeting nature of human events.

ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS/FILE
A TOURIST WALKS AN ANCIENT ROMAN STREET AT POMPEII, A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.

Antiquity is a time machine. We tourists get to walk through the past, marveling at the grand structures, imagining the great rulers but also glimpsing, here and there, the lives of our ancient counterparts, the people cutting the stone, raising families, wondering about life, and feeling the same sunshine we feel.

Sure, it’s impressive to look out from the commanding heights of the Acropolis or Machu Picchu, but it’s also interesting to walk through the middle-class streets in Pompeii and imagine shopping for dinner or chatting with a neighbor on an August day in AD 79.

Ancient places keep us honest. They are object lessons in the fleeting nature of glory and the enduring pluck of humanity. Today’s movers and shakers, after all, are busily building the ruins of the future – gilded skyscrapers, sprawling estates, colossal stadiums – through which future generations will wander, perhaps hearing a distant echo of Ozymandias’s hollow command, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” They will be reminded that their successes and failures, the clashes of culture and politics in their world, will pass – as they will in ours.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Lee Lawrence shows how preservation warriors, armed with the latest technology, are racing to save cultural sites from looting, environmental degradation, and the vandalism of cults such as Islamic State and the Taliban. There’s a reason zealots sledgehammer the past – and it is not just to purge the world of forgotten idols. As a Jordanian official notes, “History delegitimizes terrorists.” The relics of the past prove that a rainbow of cultures have trodden our earth, had their day in the sun, and slipped into history. There has never been just one way humans live or believe. Which is why preserving the ancient world preserves ours.

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A Monitor Focus story looks at Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who will be the Senate minority leader. Why is he the politician to watch? Majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will hold more power in the upper chamber. But because of the tight majority the Republicans have, Mr. Schumer could be crucial in legislative fights to come.

As Francine Kiefer notes, Schumer is a dealmaker, much like fellow New Yorker Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean the two will come to terms on big issues such as the Affordable Care Act, immigration policy, tax cuts, or the current Supreme Court vacancy. But stranger things have happened, especially in this strange political year. 

The president-elect is, you might have noticed, unpredictable. He took apart the Republican Party in his quest for the nomination and has upended American politics with his presidential victory. He is bringing an eclectic agenda to Washington. Many Democrats are alarmed. But so are some Republicans. His $1 trillion infrastructure program, his Russia shift – he is not in sync with traditional Republicanism. “I’m a conservative,” Mr. Trump said during the primary, “but don’t forget: This is called the ‘Republican Party,’ not the ‘conservative party.’ ” 

Trumpism might need unexpected allies.

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