F&M Stories

Professor's Book Examines Government's 'Communities of Strangers'

For more than two decades, Dean Hammer lectured and wrote about democracies in ancient Rome and Greece, but now he tackles American democracy in comparison to Rome.

"I'm really proud of this book," Franklin & Marshall College's John W. Wetzel Professor of Government said. "It is my sixth book and serves as a culmination of some different strands of my research program over my career."

Recently published by Cambridge University Press, "Rome and America: Communities of Strangers, Spectacles of Belonging" explores the founding myths in the cultural imagination of the two societies.

The range of topics Hammer pulls together for his argument includes American Western movies; bare-knuckle boxing; Native American policy, and the writings of Noah Webster, Charles Eastman, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

"Ultimately, American democracy, like the Roman republic, is confronted with a crisis of a government of strangers, in which consensus is shirked and dissensus [widespread dissent] celebrated," Hammer writes.

In three questions, Hammer shared some of his views on republics, democracy and his advice to students who aspire to an academic career.

1) In the final chapter, "The Experience of Politics and the Crises of Two Republics," you write about how the Roman republic collapsed. Do you see a similar occurrence in the United States?

I do. I first wrote about this danger years before it became fashionable. Every time I went back to work on the chapter, I realized that claims I had made that seemed alarmist at the time now seemed downright muted. In particular, I saw some early signs of how violence had seeped into our thinking as an acceptable or necessary aspect of our politics and culture. I'm not talking about fringe groups. I'm talking about how we talk about each other on social media, the increasing threats to government officials and election workers, the rising hate speech directed at each other, the hate-based vandalism and killings, the acts of violence that erupted in the midst of peaceful protests, the acts of overt violence against peaceful protestors, and, of course, the events of Jan. 6. But what is alarming is the frighteningly broad acceptance, and polls bear this out, that violence might be necessary, or that it is OK and can be excused. A democracy cannot survive when citizens see each other as enemies.

2) Is the "community of strangers" in the two republics that you write about the reason that democracy thrives or the reason it dies?

The notion of a community of strangers cuts in two ways. The Roman and American shared founding myths are exceptional in imagining a community formed through the continual incorporation of potentially anyone. They are communities that are not premised on any traditional markers of identity such as race, ethnicity, religion, genealogy, or land. That has the possibility of contributing to the openness and vibrancy of a healthy democracy.

But there is a lingering question that underlies a community of strangers: If everyone can potentially be us, then who are we? The book explores different attempts to answer this question by turning what we all share—that we began as strangers—into a claim about who really belongs and who remains the threatening stranger. As Rome saw in the final decades of the republic and we are witnessing in our own politics, democracies are imperiled when the community divides into strangers who cannot understand, do not trust, and see as dangerous each other.

3) What book-writing advice would you give students interested in an academic career?

Here's my advice to anyone writing. Write as a practice. I often joke that I am like a farmer plowing a field. I wake up every morning and I write for a certain amount of time. I do not set a particular goal for the day. I rarely end up where I thought I would. I have ups and downs about how I judge my own writing. And the finished product takes shape only after many iterations.

I have a second piece of advice. Get a colleague or colleagues who give you honest feedback. It is others who are in a position to help us clarify our own thinking.

I wake up every morning and I write for a certain amount of time. I have ups and downs about how I judge my own writing. And the finished product takes shape only after many iterations.
Dean Hammer, the John Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government and don of New College House, introduces Robert Diggs '13 as the leader of the house government as President Porterfield looks on.
Professor Dean Hammer

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