On The Steps of the Capitol
Should you find yourself in the sunny, Shi’a south of Iraq, go visit the Great Ziggarat of Ur. Granted it’s not really open the public, in in the middle of a Air Force base. Back in the day, Saddam Hussein (correctly) assumed that the West would never smash the oldest surviving building on the plant to bits. So I didn’t really sneak onto the base as ask a local doctor to help con me onto it.
People have been there for about 6,000 years, which is getting us damn close to the dawn of anything we’d call civilization. While it is a crumbled ruin these days, what it left of the structure is testament to the fact that even in those early days, someone had talked himself into being a royal. While Ur was a bit rough by today’s standards, but it wasn’t a bad place to rule in its heyday: Ur was the largest city in the world with a peak population of some 65,000 and the center of the known world in the bargain. Its wealth largely came from being a major port and surrounded by marshes and beautiful farmland made fertile by flooding from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. True this is hard to visualize in the middle of the desert, but climates can change.
By the Third Dynasty of Ur, some 4,100 years ago, King Ur-Nammu had written down and enacted the Code of Ur-Nammu (which you probably haven’t heard of) because to keep a population of that size in line you need a little more than threats to pull the car over. The code predates the Code of Hammurabi (which you really should have heard of) by some 300 years. These weren’t just criminal codes, the government got into weights and measures and even price controls despite not having a hard currency to control. It was a barter economy with standardized pricing: According to contemporary legal documents, a beer was a certain measure of barley, and a shag with the prostitute hanging around outside the tavern was a piglet. So the people of Ur knew what the score was when they saw the fellas out on the town with their pockets bulging with barley and a piglet under their arm.
Once that was organized, Ur-Nammu decided that the place needed was a great whacking Ziggurat in honor of the city’s patron deity, the moon god Nanna (or Sīn depending who you asked). If there was ever a litmus test for the prosperity of civilization throughout the mists of time, it’s that if a government can enact a public works project of such staggering uselessness, they must be doing alright.
The Great Ziggurat is a great stepped pyramid, the original height of which is a mystery. It was a crumbling ruin by the 6th century BC, and today only the base survives. “Originally,” the doctor told me, “It was like a stepstool for Nanna, so he could step down from the heavens to the earth.” While Ur-Nammu was on the subject of the gods, he had himself declared one to spare himself the indignity of going up to the heavens in the service elevator.
So, there I stood atop Ur-Nammu’s Bronze Age boondoggle eye-balling a gathering sandstorm and thinking that, noxious though it is, we need government to provide some stability if we are going to be something other than mere scavengers. While the rule of law is the single most important factor in civilization, it does not make civilization permanent.
By the Third Dynasty, Ur had started its decline. Upriver the port town of Babylon began to hit its stride. It’s famous king enacted the Code of Hammurabi, which states that the gods have “called by name me, Hammarabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak.” Pretty self-serving, but it did create the circumstances needed for real civilization to take root.
Before we get too high and mighty, Frans de Waal, a primatologist (studies monkeys and apes), observed a little less grandly: “Without agreement on rank and certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat can well agree.”
True enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that humans are greasy little stinkers and will abuse both law and authority to their advantage if given half a chance. Consider that the same politician who is exempt from the social security that gets wrung out of your paycheck is also exempt from the Affordable Care Act, Freedom of Information and a raft of other laws they benignly hang around your neck so that “the strong shouldn’t harm the weak.” We have ditched kings and a titled aristocracy and farmed out all that foolishness to a new breed prince, princess, and pasha: those vaguely likable but oily kids who stayed awake in social studies class and joined the Young Democrats or Republicans. You know the ones, the sort who’d show up at Kevin’s “My Parents are in Aspen” kegger even though no one could figure out just who in the hell had invited them. None of whom will ever be so dedicated to public service that they’ll give up their perks and salary – just yours.
We’ve always had government in one form or another, and we’ve never quite trusted it. History tells us we really shouldn’t. For most of human history said authority meant some thug who was mean and strong enough to take from others. He grew rich enough to feed a private army of thugs to go out and rob a lot more suckers in the middle of next spring. For most of human history, in short, life really sucked for the common man. The fact remains, however, that civilizations need governments to maintain themselves. And civilization is better that the lack thereof.
Still, that one man should be king and another not, is grating to men. I suspect that it is a lot more grating to women, who weren’t really in the running. It’s no surprise that kings have used “God wills it” to establish the legitimacy of their rule almost from the beginning. What is surprising is how long we used the same ridiculous argument given the number of kings who’ve been deposed by their own people. It is hard to argue that either the rulers or the ruled really ever bought the argument. Surely it serves some purpose, or it wouldn’t have worked so well for so long. The why likely rests in that “God wills it” is so much easier for the hoi polloi to swallow than the more honest, but off-putting: “I’m going to kill you.” To which the masses will have to entertain the disconcerting thought, “Yeah, he probably will,”
That’s no way to build team spirit.
While the Great Ziggaraut of Ur may have been a vanity project, it did serve a real political purpose, namely to make the priests look really good and feel important. This was important because they were the ones saying that monarchy itself was a gift from the gods above who’d taken pity on the wild and disordered humans, tormented by demons in the wilderness.
In short, civilization and its symbols, are better that the lack thereof. The strength of the democratic process in strong republic – and the late prickly election wasn’t a sign of weakness so much as a testament to its stability – is that we don’t need the “God wills it” wheeze to make it work. Where it gets dodgy is that we know the house cat we elected to office really is a grease ball.
Adapted from the upcoming Pothole of the Gods