Stuff from Way Back # 21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?

tony and Cleopatra are perhaps the most famous romantic couple in history, thanks to Augustan propaganda, Shakespeare and Hollywood, and consequently the actual people and their lives have been seriously distorted.  At the same time, Octavian, the winner of the civil war and first emperor, who was in fact far more important to history than the happy couple, has been relegated to relative obscurity and a distinctly unromantic role.  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played Antony and Cleopatra; Octavian was portrayed by Roddy McDowall.

Octavian/Augustus

Octavian/Augustus

Marc Antony

Marc Antony

Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII

Marcus Antonius was born into as noble family, most likely in 83, (all dates are BC) and was said to have spent his youth in dissipation.  He grew up in the later stages of the Roman Revolution (133-30), the hundred year descent of the Republic into political instability and ultimately civil war.  In 54 he joined the military staff of one of the major contenders for sole power, his mother’s cousin Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44), and quickly demonstrated his military talents during the course of the Gallic wars.  The two men became fast friends, and Caesar supported Antony in his political career, the younger man becoming the proconsul’s right hand man in Rome.  In 49 Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, initiating a civil war between him and Pompey the Great (106-48), who was defeated in 48 and fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated by an officer of the boy king Ptolemy XIII (62-47).

Pursuing Pompey, Caesar arrived in Alexandria and supported Cleopatra VII (69-30) in the civil war between her and her younger brother.  Ptolemy was killed, and Caesar installed Cleopatra as co-ruler with another brother, Ptolemy XIV (60-44).  He dallied a while with the queen and had an illegitimate son, Caesarion.  He then went off to defeat the remaining Pompeian forces and return to Rome, where he was joined by Cleopatra, Ptolemy and Caesarion in 46.  Two years later Caesar fell to the knives of the assassins, and Cleopatra, who was not popular with the Roman crowd, returned to Egypt, where she killed Ptolemy and made Caesarion her co-ruler.

Meanwhile, back in Rome Antony was primed to step into Caesar’s sandals, rousing the mob against the conspirators, who ultimately fled to Greece and began raising an army.  Unfortunately for Antony, Caesar had in his will posthumously adopted as his son his closest legitimate male heir, his grandnephew Octavian, to whom he left his considerable personal fortune.  But Octavian was only eighteen, in Greece and completely unknown to the Roman public, and Antony began spending the inheritance and public funds to raise troops.  Octavian was dismissed as the “boy,” about whom Cicero said “the boy is to be praised, to be honored, to be set aside.”  But the boy had two assets: he had a political talent completely unmatched by his opponents and he had the name of Caesar, something with which he could conjure.  Very quickly Caesarian legions and veterans were flocking to his side, to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the son of the soon to be deified Caesar.  He was not to be set aside.

the boy

the boy

the chick magnet

the chick magnet

For the moment Antony and Octavian needed each other, and in 43 the Second Triumvirate was formed with another of Caesar’s officers, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.  Lepidus was, however, a lightweight, and he would be retired by Octavian in 36, when he tried to assert his independence.  Essentially, Octavian ruled over the western half of the Empire, while Antony went off to the wealthier, though now drained, east to launch an invasion of Parthia, the kingdom currently occupying Mesopotamia and Persia.  He was looking for glory, money and most important, a veteran and loyal army to use in the inevitable showdown with Octavian.  All Octavian got was an Italy that was financially exhausted and in social turmoil and a surviving son of Pompey who seized Sicily and threatened Rome with starvation.  On the other hand, though Gaul had been assigned to Antony, he had the immediate access the legions stationed there, and he surely realized that for all its current problems Italy was the key in the struggle inasmuch as it was the source of men for the legions.

Antony had met Cleopatra after the defeat of the conspirators in 42 at Philippi in Greece and confirmed her position as queen of Egypt, but he had to immediately hasten back to Rome.  When he returned to the east, he rejoined Cleopatra and possibly married her in 36, creating an awkward situation since he was already married to Octavian’s sister Octavia.  But this made him king of Egypt and provided access to the bulging treasuries of the kingdom, which money he certainly needed.  In 36 he began his assault on Parthia, but his ally the Armenian king deserted him, and he was forced to retire to Syria, his military reputation undermined rather than enhanced.  A successful expedition to punish Armenia in 34 restored his prestige and was followed by what was the biggest news to come out of the east: the Donations of Alexandria.  By virtue of the proconsular power he possessed as a Triumvir Antony gave to Cleopatra and her children Cyprus, Cyrene, Syria-Palestine, Cilicia and Armenia, all but the last being Roman controlled areas.

The Donations provoked a crisis, and in 32 Antony’s supporters fled east and in the following year Octavian obtained a declaration of war against Cleopatra.  Antony divorced Octavia, collected his scattered troop and began shipping them to Greece.  The two forces met near Actium on the east coast of Greece, and after a long delay Antony engaged Octavian’s fleet, only to flee with Cleopatra to Egypt when his men began to mutiny.  By the middle of 30 Antony finally accepted that the game was over and committed suicide, while Cleopatra awaited Octavian and the chance to beguile the new ruler of the Roman world.  But the future emperor had other plans, and Cleopatra took the noble way out (the asp is a fiction).  Rome appropriated Egypt.

The age-old story that Antony fell head over heels in love with the incredibly beautiful Cleopatra and was seduced into betraying Rome and his own interests is essentially the creation of Octavian’s propaganda.  The “boy” turned out to be a master of public relations and in his struggle with Antony launched the first national propaganda campaign in history.  The conflict was not with Antony, who was a good Roman, but with the foreign queen who had seduced him, just as Dido had captivated Aeneas.  So this was not a civil war but a war against the seductress, who with poor Antony’s help was going to seize the Roman Empire and rule it from Alexandria.  The Donations of Alexandria of course played right into Octavian’s hands.  This traditional tale is mostly rubbish.

the real queen

the real queen

idealized portrait?

idealized portrait?

Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra was certainly not based on her looks.  As the coin portraits and statuary reveal, she was at best a plain woman and may have had a sizable honker.  And after all, Caesar and Antony could have any pretty face they desired, if that was their game.  No, it was her mind that attracted these powerful men.  She was a full-blooded Macedonia Greek, well educated, charming and possessing a formidable wit; she was the only Ptolemaic ruler to learn Egyptian.  To be sure, they produced three children, but the relationship was founded on the fact each had something the other desperately wanted.  Antony needed money, lots of it, to pay his troops, and Ptolemaic Egypt was extremely wealthy.  He could of course march in and simply take it, but even though Cleopatra’s mercenary army would have no chance whatsoever, there might be complications that Octavian could take advantage of.  Better to have the queen give it to him, which for her own reasons she was willing to do.

the last Ptolemy

the last Ptolemy

 

Cleo tetradrachm

Cleo tetradrachm

What Cleopatra wanted and what Antony could supply was to recreate the Ptolemaic empire and return to her control territories from which she could recruit the all-important Greek soldiers.  She was shrewd enough to realize her kingdom could only continue to exist through the sufferance of Rome, and first Caesar, then Antony were the tickets to that sufferance.  What Antony required – we will never know exactly how he felt about Cleopatra – was Egypt’s treasury, and the idea that he intended to rule Rome from Alexandria with his Ptolemaic queen is nonsense.  Not only was Italy the only source of recruits for the legions, but more compelling, Antony was a Roman.  He would accept nothing less than ruling Rome, and he knew the Roman people would accept nothing else.  His fatal mistake was allowing Cleopatra, who was probably afraid of losing him, to accompany him to Actium, since she was very unpopular with his troops, who began to believe Octavian’s propaganda.

In the end, if Plutarch and Cassius Dio are to be believed, Cleopatra showed her true feelings.  When it was clear that Antony’s remaining troops were deserting and his position was hopeless, she had word sent to him that she had committed suicide, and he fell on his sword.  With the loser gone, she awaited the winner.

Cleopatra VII was a fitting end to the Ptolemaic dynasty, its finest ruler since the first three kings.  Finally, though Antony was the far more colorful and romantic character, there is no reason to believe that he – or anyone else – could have had anywhere near the success that Octavian would have in facilitating Rome’s transition from republic to military autocracy.  If Antony was romance, Octavian/Augustus was history.

the winner and new emperor

the winner and new emperor

Advertisements

The NSA Goes Kosher

Thanks to Edward Snowden, the entire world now knows that it is being watched, or at least listened to, by the US National Security Agency, which along with some of our allies, such as the United Kingdom, is monitoring an ever increasing amount of electronic communications.  This includes collecting information on Americans, which activity constitutes the most blatant and extensive violation of the Fourth Amendment ever witnessed in this country.  The “oversight” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a clear sham, since virtually every aspect of this mechanism is classified and there is no provision for advocates arguing against the NSA.  That the court is simply a rubber stamp is strongly suggested by the statistics: over the entire 33-year period of its existence the FISA court has granted 33,942 warrants and denied 11.  One would have to believe that America is filled with terrorists, spies and wreckers, like the USSR under Stalin.

"Crush the spies  and counterrevolutionaries."

“Crush the spies and counterrevolutionaries.”

whistleblower

whistleblower

In addition to compelling communications companies by secret warrants to turn over their data and say nothing about it, the NSA has also been bugging foreign embassies and offices of the European Union, acts which can hardly be justified by the eternal war on terrorism.  Unfortunately, many foreign governments, such as Germany, whose privacy laws are certainly being violated, are loathe to offend the United States.  Governments inevitably like other governments, especially when it comes to angry citizens in the streets.

Snowden is quite clearly a whistleblower, but as an embarrassment to the government, even a government touted, ironically, to be the most transparent ever, he must be punished, for which President Obama has been using with great enthusiasm the Espionage Act of 1917.  Odd, I thought that espionage involved an enemy, a foreign government to whom the secrets are given, though I imagine every government considers the press to be an enemy.  Even more odd, all this raw data being collected by the NSA is in fact being turned over to a foreign government – by the NSA itself.  Would that not make the NSA more open to a charge of espionage than Snowden, who leaked no information to any foreign government, made no money and is now seriously in danger of losing his freedom and perhaps his life?

The foreign country so privileged to receive all this information, including masses of data about American citizens?  Why, Israel of course.  Our “special relationship” with Israel has cost the American taxpayer billions, has injured our national interests and embarrassed us before the world for decades, and now we discover that Israeli intelligence agencies are in possession of huge amounts of information about everyday Americans who have committed no crimes.  But let’s be fair.  We do get something in return: an Israeli company, Narus, has been supplying the NSA with new technology that helps facilitate the collection all this vital data.  Further, part of the agreement to share all this intelligence is a request that Israel “destroy upon recognition” any communications involving American government officials.  Apparently ordinary Americans do not matter.

And if you actually believe Israel will honor this request, you put yourself right in the company of the thoughtful people who deny the Holocaust, think there is no global warming and consider the American health care system to be the best in the world.  Why would the Light unto the Nations ignore any of this information when they are already recognized by our own government to be running one of the most aggressive espionage campaigns against the US, putting them in the same league as Russia and China?   Remember Jonathon Pollard, whose paid espionage was so extensive that even the normally compliant US government has resisted Israeli pressure for his release?  The FBI and counterintelligence agents have publically stated that the Israeli network in the US is one of the most extensive and damaging.  “But everyone does it.”  No, not to this extent they don’t.  Corporations may be spying on one another around the world, but our other important allies are satisfied with the mutual sharing of intelligence.  Simply put, Israel spies on us.  But then, we are spying on everyone on the planet, including ourselves, so perhaps we have something in common with our special friend in the Near East?

Israeli spy

Israeli spy

Finally, spying can be juicy.  In 1997 the Washington Post and others reported that the NSA had caught a phone conversation between a Mossad (Israel’s CIA) agent at the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Mossad chief in Tel Aviv.  The agent spoke of a mole high in the Clinton administration, which triggered an FBI probe, which in turn brought on a reaction from Mossad when they discovered they had been overheard.  A bugging team was sent to Washington, and among the targets was Monica Lewinsky, who subsequently provided some 30 steamy chats with our nation’s horniest President.  Israel threatened to leak the tapes if the FBI search for the mole continued.  No more is heard of the affair, and no mole was ever revealed.  We mortals will probably never know for certain if all this actually happened, but the known history of Mossad is filled with such spy thriller operations, and Israel knows exactly how much it can get away with fin the US, which is a lot.

Mossad agent?

Mossad agent?

This is yet another example of what happens when domestic politics are allowed to determine foreign policy.

Stuff from Way Back #20: We hold these truths to be self-evident…

(Writing about Washington at the moment leads only to bewilderment, disgust, anger and obscenities, so time off for some very relevant history stuff.)

The Greek enlightenment of the sixth century (all dates are BC), which had discovered rationalism, continued into the fifth century and produced a new group of rationalists who were less interested in the nature of the universe than in the nature of man and society.  These men, who might be considered the first sociologists or political scientists, are called the sophists (from sophia, “wisdom”).

The term sophist as used by the Greeks referred to the teachers who began appearing in the first half of the fifth century.  These were men who for a fee would teach you whatever there was to know, but most especially rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking.  The appearance and multiplication of these teachers is hardly surprising; they served a vital function in a society that had no public education or institutions of learning whatsoever.  If you wanted to know something beyond what your parents taught you, you went to a sophist.  The subject of rhetoric was particularly in demand, since in an age blessed with the absence of the professional attorney the ability to speak persuasively was utterly important to your ability to defend or prosecute a case in the courts.  And if you lived in a democracy like Athens, rhetorical skills were an important tool for exerting influence in the assembly.

So for the Greeks the sophist was a kind of traveling tutor.  For the modern historian, however, the sophists are of considerable interest chiefly because of their examination of man and society.  These thinkers inherited the skepticism of the Ionian rationalists and applied it to human affairs, ultimately producing disastrous social consequences.  The whole structure of law and morality in the polis would be undermined and traditional sources of authority called into question.  By the last quarter of the fifth century sophists were openly attacking the polis (city-state), and sophistic ideas were providing justification for the Athenian Empire and contributing to the breakdown of Athenian society.  This was serious business.

Central to sophistic thought is the distinction made between nomos and physis, literally the Greek words for “law” and “nature.”  For the sophist nomos is man-made law, that is, all the rules made by society, whatever form they take: unwritten customs, decrees of a king, legislated statutes, whatever.  It is obviously mutable, changing from place to place and from one time to another.  Physis, on the other hand, is understood to be completely unchanging and to consist of universal absolutes imposed by the nature of things, including the nature of human beings, and it is thus contrasted with man-made nomos.  Most commonly physis referred to a body of natural law that served as a basis for behavior and morality, a basis rooted in nature rather than a particular human society and thus universally valid and compelling.  It is a manifestation, it seems, of the instinctive feeling on the part of all normal humans that there are some things that are always right, like protecting a child, and some that are always wrong, like sleeping with your sister or taking a life without good reason.  Today natural law is generally understood to be a body of moral absolutes and is frequently connected to a deity (e.g., “Thou shall not kill.”), but a god is not necessary.  Whether you call it natural law or god’s law or the law of the gods or higher law or conscience, it is all the same – physis.

An immediate question arises: What if nomos and physis are in conflict?  What do you do if your vision of natural law is contradicted by some man-made law of your society?  Antigone faces this problem in Sophocles’ (c. 496-406) play Antigone.  King Creon of Thebes has decreed that Antigone’s brother Polyneices may not be given the burial rites the Greeks considered the absolute right of every Greek corpse.  Antigone violates this order, which is nomos, and defends her action by appealing to physis, which she defines as “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.”  She justifies her violation of man-made law with an appeal to natural law, just as twenty-five hundred years later those who because of the war in Vietnam burned draft files, obstructed the government or in some way broke the law justified their actions with the same appeal.  Antigone calls it “the laws of the gods” and Jerry Rubin and Daniel Elsberg called it “conscience” or “higher law,” but they all refer to the same thing – physis.

Antigone and Polyneices

Antigone and Polyneices

Grouping the sophists according to their views on the nature of the polis and the relationship between law and morality is particularly convenient for examining the evolution of sophistic thought.  The Greeks traditionally believed that the polis had a positive moral purpose, that is, the state, through the mechanism of its laws, should produce virtuous citizens.  We have some limited experience of this with our laws against prostitution, gambling and other “immoral” activities, but essentially this idea is alien to our concept of the state, which views the law as being morally neutral.  We hope our laws coincide with our notions of morality, but they are not the source of those notions; religion is.  For the Greeks, however, the state and its laws had a positive moral role, and they consequently accepted a close relationship in society between law and morality.

The first category of sophists accepted this traditional view, despite their general skepticism.  Men like Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420) recognized the existence of natural law, but felt that it was compatible with the changeable, man-made laws of society.  Skeptics that they were, they no longer accepted that the polis had a divine origin, but because they believed nomos and physis to be complementary, they did view the state as natural, a product of physis.  They thus accepted the traditional notion that the state had a moral function and that its laws should create virtue.

Others were not so sure, and the second group of sophists asserted that the polis and its laws had no positive moral purpose.  Law was simply a body of morally neutral, expedient measures that allowed society to function.  It might by chance happen to reflect true morality, which was embodied in natural law, but essentially it was irrelevant to morality.  The state was therefore not natural, but rather an artificial creation, a product of nomos.  This is in essence the modern western view: the law is a neutral agent, which the society hopes reflects its moral values, which are derived from religion.  A representative of this category of sophists is Antiphon (c. 480-411), who felt that the laws of the polis were artificial, established by human convention and thus not as critically important to the individual as natural law was.  Laws might be necessary to society and the state, but not to life, which in fact might be hindered by them.  True morality was independent of nomos and could be found instead in physis.  In a word, man-made law was irrelevant.  Antiphon and his friends thus rejected two essential facets of the traditional concept of the polis: that it had a divine or natural basis and that its laws were positive moral agents.  For these sophists the polis was an artificial construction, the result of a kind of social compact, and its laws were morally neutral.

The sophists of category two challenged the very nature of the classical polis, but they tolerated its existence.  It was left to the final group, the radical sophists, to carry the thinking to the logical extreme and openly and directly attack the polis.  These characters felt that the state, as it existed, interfered with and impeded true morality, that the state was in fact immoral.  A spokesman for this position is Critias (c. 460-403), leader of the oligarchic Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens for a brief period after her defeat by Sparta in 404.  According to him, the state was not based upon divine or natural sanction (Group 1 and the traditional view), nor upon a compact (Group 2 and our view), but upon fraud, and law was thus an agent causing men to act immorally.  This of course was a very convenient point of view for Critias, whose terror-filled regime openly flouted the laws and traditions of the Athenian polis.  Another member of this group, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. c. 430-400), spells it out exactly: “That is what I mean when I say that right (or justice) is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established ruling class; and this ruling class is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that right (or justice) is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.” (Plato, Republic 339A, trans. by H.P.D. Lee)  In other words, might makes right.  This is the ultimate destination of sophistic skepticism: ethical nihilism.

Critias

Critias

Thrasymachus

Thrasymachus

Actually, Callicles (historicity disputed), who appears in Plato’s Gorgias, takes the line of thinking a bit further.  Thrasymachus says that the acts of certain extraordinary men who have power are beyond accepted standards of justice and are not subject to normal moral judgment; their might makes right.  Callicles pulls out all the stops and proclaims that the actions of the superior man in fact constitute a superior form of justice; his might is right.  And who are these superior men?  Simply put, they are those who are clever and strong enough to seize power and hold on to it.  For Callicles it is a fact of physis, a dictate of natural law that these individuals should rule and should enjoy complete satisfaction of all their desires, completely free of the restraints customarily imposed by nomos.  This kind of thinking is a moral justification for even the most brutal sort of rule and can lead to disastrous social results, as for example in Germany in the 1930s.

Thus, when the newly discovered skepticism of the sixth  century scientists was applied by the sophists to the subject of man and society it led rapidly to the definition and examination of perhaps the most basic social question – the relationship between law and morality.  Is morality rooted in man-made law, nomos, as the Greeks traditionally believed?  Or are our moral standards to be found in natural law, physis?  And if this is so, who is to define physis?  Suppose there is conflict between nomos and physis?  How should society deal with those individuals whose vision of physis and resulting morality is radically at odds with that of the majority?

The Athenians had to deal with these questions, and so must we.  Since the collapse of the classical world the west has derived its morality from a particular understanding of physis, hanging its basic system of moral values from the metaphysical peg of the Judeo-Christian god and attempting to varying degrees to bring nomos into line with these values.  This has not always been very successful, especially under the No Fun God of Christianity, since human desires and expediency are in constant conflict with our notions of morality.  Further, the moral standards required of individuals seem always to be incompatible with those applied to nations, and human beings are easily led to do as a group things they absolutely shun as individuals.  The problem associated with attaching an ethical system to a particular view of natural law of course is getting everyone in the society to accept that view.  If an individual does not accept the existence of the Christian god, the moral precepts of that deity can hardly be of any great weight.  And even if by some totalitarian miracle the entire community accepts the metaphysical standard, the inherently relative nature of all value judgments will quickly reveal itself.  Take what is probably the most basic moral absolute: thou shall not kill.  Inasmuch as most human beings will grant that there are circumstances, such as self-defense, that may require one to kill, the prohibition is more accurately stated as thou shall not kill without good reason.  But what exactly constitutes a good reason?  Killing someone whom you believe is about to attack you?  Assassinating a tyrant?  The moral absolutes are never so absolute.

And those “self-evident truths” (physis) are never really self-evident to everyone, which leads to the most fundamental problem arising from a consideration of nomos and physis – what if they conflict?  What if the morality of the community, as expressed in its laws, and the morality of the individual, which springs from his own mind, do not match?  Of course the society must protect its members from physical harm, so that the man whose definition of physis involves god telling him to shoot certain people must be forced to follow the nomos of the community.  But what about the most obvious manifestation of the potential nomosphysis conflict, civil disobedience?  This is a tough one.  Civil disobedience has clearly resulted in great social progress in American society, especially in the area of civil rights, but it must be remembered that a very dangerous principle is being entertained here.

Civil disobedience is the open and nonviolent violation of nomos justified by an appeal to physis and the intention of bettering society.  It is at heart a political-social expression of the notion that the end justifies the means, and this is always a dangerous proposition, especially in the absence of any precise definition of valid ends and acceptable means.  Since the justifying goal here depends upon the individual’s vision of physis there can be no definition of valid ends, and the door to chaos is open.  An illegal demonstration by Blacks in favor of integration and one by the Klan in favor of segregation are in essence the same, since each group will justify its breaking of human law with its particular definition of natural law.  (And ironically both groups would see physis embodied in the same Christian god.)  Therein lies the problem: physis is defined by the individual, whether he dreams it up himself or takes it ready-made through an inherited religion.  Critias and Thrasymachus felt that justice or right was what was in the interest of the strong, whereas singer Joan Baez violated the tax laws because her view of physis indicated that for the strong to dominate the weak was wrong and unjust.  Neither vision of natural law is more or less valid than the other.  Both are quite correct or quite incorrect, depending upon your point of view.  For society to allow any group, no matter how apparently noble its cause, to selectively violate the laws is thus to court disaster.

police response to civil disobedience

police response to civil disobedience

What then do you do if according to your values a law or policy is immoral and legal means to change it fail?  Only you can decide that, but when you consider that decision remember that you are standing in a line that stretches back to fifth century Athens and men like Critias.

American Exceptionalism #1: The Government Shutdown

Some of our foreign friends may be wondering what this “government shutdown” in America is all about.  After all, even many Americans do not have a clue.  So, here is a primer on one of the stranger practices of the US government.

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown occurs when Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) fails to authorize money for the operation of the federal government or fails to overcome the President’s veto of a funding bill.  This situation is virtually unique to the United States, with its separation of powers.  It simply cannot happen in a parliamentary system, and in most countries with a presidential system the executive is strong enough to keep the government going.  Only “essential” services are maintained, which of course includes the active core of all the military, security and intelligence agencies – and Congress.  While hundreds of thousands of federal employees are left with no paychecks, and the American people, especially those of lower income, are left without all those “nonessential” services, which include such things as food inspectors and virtually every program serving the poor, the Congressmen, who are responsible for this fiasco and individually well off, continue to receive their pay.

Why does a government shutdown happen?

Basically, a shutdown occurs because the politicians in Congress are more interested in their own agendas than the welfare of the country, and holding the government hostage is viewed as an excellent mechanism for getting one’s own way.  Part of the game of course is to insure that the other party receives the blame from an outraged electorate.  In this case it is the Republican extremists who represent the Tea Party and its obsession with resisting Obamacare at all costs, and apparently that includes national suicide.

What is the Tea Party?

The Tea Party is a collection of anti-government extremists, who are at the least ignorant and in many cases actually stupid.  They feel that the only legitimate functions of the federal government are external and internal security and preventing the people from engaging in fun activities, like sex.  They oppose any credible health care system because of the inherent “socialism,” a concept that most of them would be hard pressed to explain accurately.  These fanatics have no interest in the opinions of the American people.  Their latest leader is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and while he is not the stupidest person in Congress (that would be Rep. Michele Bachmann, though the competition is fierce), for the moment he is certainly the biggest buffoon.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party stalwart

Tea Party stalwart

Why is that these minority extremists have such power?

I really have no idea.  You will have to ask John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, who seemingly fears for his job more than the fate of the republic.

Why are these self-interested airheads reelected to Congress?

They are in office, like most of Congress, because of more than a century of gerrymandering voting districts, that is, reshaping congressional districts to contain a majority of voters of one party or the other, thus guaranteeing reelection.  This results in the American equivalent of a rotten borough and tenure for life; in the eighties there was more turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.  Second, they typically have wealthy patrons who, for whatever strange reasons – usually payback in the form of political favors – fund the candidate’s campaign.  Finally, there is the shallowness of the American voter, who apparently votes for the person who bombards him with the most ads.

That there are only two, and apparently permanent, parties aids and abets this corruption, since there is little difference between the two when it comes to self-interest and contempt for the people.  There is of course an ideological divide, but that only matters when it comes to secondary interests, such as governing the country.  In the areas that really matter – rewarding your contributors, feathering your own next, guaranteeing reelection – there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Instead of the lists of government approved candidates traditionally provided in dictatorships Americans essentially get lists of candidates approved by either of the two parties.

Who gets hurt during a government shutdown?

This is easy: the people, especially those in the lower income groups.  The American economy is injured, and the global economy also takes a shot, which seems unfair insomuch as a handful of jerks in the United States can negatively impact people who never had the (somewhat dubious) privilege of voting for them.  Well, this is the story of civilization, and throughout history most of humanity has been at the mercy of incompetent and/or malicious elites.  The difference now is because of the global economy and America’s staggering economic and military power, the bozos in the US government can potentially screw up the lives of everyone on the planet.  That’s power.

Why is this allowed to happen?

See all of the above.  The government shutdown may be seen as another manifestation of America’s new “exceptionalism,” which is pretty much all negative.

What will happen next?

If the pattern holds true, growing popular outrage will compel the responsible party, in this case the Republicans, to reign in their extremist minority, but only after squandering hundreds of millions of tax dollars and causing needless suffering for a lot of people.  Then they move on to refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and Americans and the rest of humanity enjoy the excitement of possible return to a global recession.

What will happen in the longer run?

We will reelect most of these people or be presented with others like them, and the game will go on.  Coincidentally, as I was finishing this I heard house Speaker Boehner proclaim with appropriate indignation “This is not a damn game!”  Well, certainly not for all the ordinary people who are being hurt, but for Boehner and his political colleagues it sure is, and they will play it over and over.

"This isn't some damn game!"

“This isn’t some damn game!”