Green Eggs and Cicero

I was of course surprised to discover that US Senator Ted Cruz was a cum laude graduate of Princeton University; he must have missed the class on rational thought.  Remember, this is the man who read all of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster.  In any case, in a recent speech he balanced this, I suppose, by paraphrasing an oration of M. Tullius Cicero, the In Catilinam (Against Catiline), delivered before the Roman Senate in 63 BC.  Cruz quotes the opening passage (I.1-3) of the first of the four Catiline speeches, adding and removing words in order to modify the oration into an attack on President Obama, whom he believes is threatening the American Senate and the Constitution.

T. Tullius Cruz

T. Tullius Cruz

M. Tullius Cicero

M. Tullius Cicero

L. Sergius Catilina (c.108-63 BC) was a familiar denizen of the Late Republic, politically ambitious and an increasingly desperate extremist.  The almost five hundred year old Roman Republic was in its death throes, and little more than three decades after Catiline it would finally give way to the Principate, the military autocracy established by Octavian/Augustus (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything).  These are the final days of the Roman Revolution, which had begun in 133 BC with the attempted reforms of Senator T. Sempronius Gracchus, who understood that in the wake of the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC) and the rapid expansion into the wealthy Greek east Italy had undergone massive demographic change that required reform.  Unfortunately, the Senate had become corrupted and resisted any challenge to their authority, even the relatively minor changes proposed by Gracchus.

The result was the Revolution.  Gracchus resorted to more revolutionary – perfectly legal but unprecedented – tactics by appealing directly to the citizen assemblies, which had generally been content to ratify anything the Senate recommended.  His success drove the Senate to more radical resistance, and Gracchus and his supporters ended up dead in a “riot.”  But they had demonstrated it was possible to challenge the Senate, and as the struggle continued, reform was forgotten as politically ambitious individuals entered the fray on both sides for their own reasons.  Within a half century violence had become endemic in the political arena and was finally formalized by the entrance of the legions, and Rome experienced her first civil war in 83-82 BC, resulting in the effective dictatorship of L. Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla actually retired after destroying the opposition and strengthening the position of the Senate, but he himself was the perfect role model for new men seeking power.  Seemingly restored, the Republic was already dead, and the second half of the revolution, though still witnessing political battles centered in the Senate, was essentially a contest among incredibly powerful men and ultimately their armies.  In the 60s BC those men were Cn. Pompeius Magnus, riding an inflated military reputation, and M. Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and political patron of the up and coming C. Julius Caesar.  In 60 BC the three would form a coalition to dominate the state, the First Triumvirate, which would lead to a civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 49-46 BC.

Catiline was one of the minor losers in this environment.  In 63 BC he failed in his second bid for the consulship (the two annually elected consuls were the highest state officials, able to command troops), and seriously in debt and apparently abandoned by Crassus, he was now desperate enough to form a conspiracy to seize control of Rome.  While his associates in the city created chaos and murdered prominent leaders, including Cicero, he would raise a populist revolt in Italy and march on Rome.  This plan was doomed from the start, since even had he succeeded, the inevitable result would be the return of Pompey from the east with his army to restore order, something Crassus and Caesar certainly did not want to see.

L. Sergius Catilina

L. Sergius Catilina

As it happened, the conspiracy was discovered, and Cicero, one of the two consuls, persuaded the Senate to pass the consultum ultimum (“last decree”), a controversial mechanism that in effect declared a state of emergency and directed the consuls to take extraordinary measures to protect the Republic.  Catiline fled to muster his insurgents in Etruria, while his co-conspirators in Rome were arrested, which led to a hot debate in the Senate regarding their fate.  For his own political reasons Caesar argued that as Roman citizens they could not be put to death without a trial, a constitutional point that swayed the Senate, but up popped M. Porcius Cato Uticensis (the Younger), a man so conservative that even most Romans considered him off the deep end.  (The Cato Institute is well named.)  He argued that the conspirators, who were obviously guilty, were no longer citizens because they had plotted against the government and the Senate had to take bold action to nip any insurrection in the bud.  The Senate was persuaded, and the prisoners were executed.

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger

Cicero before the Senate

Cicero before the Senate

Cato was of course wrong.  Catiline by now had taken up arms against the state and could be legally killed, but the others had taken no action.  In following the advice of the Senate, which he was not bound to do, Cicero had grossly violated basic laws of the Republic.  The news of the executions, however, caused Catiline’s troops to begin melting away, and he was easily defeated by the other consul, C. Antonius Hybrida.  Catiline fought to the death.

Thus, Cruz takes the role of Cicero, defending the Republic, that is, the Congress and Constitution, from Obama, an American Catiline who is threatening the state, not with an army and murder but with executive action.  Paraphrasing a speech of Cicero, the great orator and defender of the Republic, is clever on Cruz’ part, but the analogy is stretched past the breaking point.  Granted Catiline was a populist, seeking to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with inept Senatorial rule, but he intended to assassinate members of the Senate and seize Rome by military force, hardly in the same league with an executive action.  Cruz argues that the action would be unconstitutional because Obama would be creating law, yet George W. Bush did the same thing, tinkering with the existing situation, just as Obama claims to be doing.

And it must be remembered that the Republic that Cicero was defending in 63 BC was already dead, and the Senate had become a corrupt body, filled with toadies belonging to Pompey and Crassus.  Perhaps here the analogy is correct, since Cruz is defending a Senate filled with members beholden to corporate financiers.  Further, in the interests of expediency this Senate was willing to violate a basic constitutional right (though the Republic had no written constitution) of Roman citizens in the interests of national security, something of course that resonates with the entire American government.

Though an incredibly vain man, Cicero was eloquent, extremely intelligent and a patriot who preferred to die with the Republic rather than flee.  Ted Cruz is a joke, a man of little dignity.  It is impossible to imagine Cicero tying up the Roman Senate with an extended reading of Viridia ova atque perna.

viridia ova atque perna

viridia ova atque perna

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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!”