Friday, May 09, 2008

SPQR III: Tribunus plebis

Our primary ballots came in the mail this week.

Somehow the august solemnity of exercising the Franchise seems sorely diminished when its accomplished by hastily augering pencil marks in paper ovals amid the shoved-aside litter on a dining room table surrounded by rioting children. Somewhere in the back of my head I recalled an apocryphal tale of early Federal New England where the act of voting was surrounded by the stern dignity of classical republicanism to include the town selectman tolling the bell and announcing "James Otis has now voted!"

I'll be quite open and tell you I voted for Obama.As I discussed earlier, I have little or no illusion of where we stand in the process of desuetude of our Republic, and I don't have any real hopes that any current office holder or aspirant will reverse the ever-steeper descent into autocracy.

I'm just tired of "Democrats" who think that Jim Carville is the Ideal they should aspire to. Democrats whose philosophy is that they need to become more like, well, Republicans in order to get elected. It wasn't the ludicrous "massacre of Sarajevo" lies or the gas tax pandering or the generic Clinton air of having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. I'm tired of Clintonist triangulation. After eight years of corruption, mendacity, crony capitalism and plutocracy I want a Democratic candidate that treats the GOP like the treacherous, ci-devant hillbilly-aristos they are; lovers of authoritarian and religious conformity, torturers and enablers of torture, war-lovers and bankruptors of the public purse. Traitors to the Revolution, the anathema of everything the Constitution and the Bill of Rights stand for. I want a Democratic leader who will treat the Coulter/Limbaugh/Cheneyites like a Provo, and an armed one at that.

I don't have one of them, but Obama is the closest I could find.

And that in itself is perhaps the best place to start a discussion of the wretched state of American politics.

It's not difficult, really, to understand what is needed for a sound Republic.

Peace, first and foremost, because in war the first demand is for force and leadership, and from the the demand for the Leader. Authoritarian, monarchical principles have always advanced further during wartime than any other time in American history.

Prosperity, then. Specifically, the broad-spread prosperity of a wide and deep middle class. Smallholders, freeholders, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, farmers. People owning their own land, their own homes, their own lives. Beholden to no master, not wage-slaves, fearful and insecure, but proud and in dependant. Not poverty-defeated. The poor, insecure and fearful make bad defenders of their own freedoms.

Knowledge, too. Knowledge of the world and the matters of gravity in it. The ability to discuss and debate, reason and argue these matters.

Ignorance is the toxin of liberty.

Civility and respect, for ourselves and each other and the nation that we make up. A nation that has no civic virtue - public virtue as distinct from private - cannot maintain civil independence.

And yet, look at what our "leadership" has overseen, and through its actions, engineered.

Wars, in particular overseas wars, in pursuit of chimeric enemies and dubious victories. In fact, a permanent war footing, with a monstrous "defence" construct larger than anything in human history. Internal "wars" like the so-called "war on drugs" and the war on illegal immigrants, created and funded to billions, creating a vast population of voteless, hopeless felons without a single debate on the efficacy of their campaigns or the victory conditions of these "wars".

The systematic hollowing of the nation's manufacturing base, offshoring, the creation of an economy based on service jobs and consumer spending. Fiscal policy crafted around not the creation of goods but the creation of "wealth" that has resulted in a succession of bubble economies, each bursting in a coruscation of public bailout cash and leaving behind yet another soap-scum of enriched malefactors of great wealth. The concentration of agriculture into immense corporations of great economic and political power and few moral and political scruples.

I hope I need not detail the decline of public knowledge that has returned us to the days of the yellow pressand the scandal sheet, where Fox "News" is considered, well, news and the public press spends more time discussing haircuts, bimbos, lapel pins and preachers than it does what our political leadership actually does.
And civility...Despite what is sold to the public, this drive to the bottom, this coarsening and deadening of the public soul hasn't been demanded by the People, which, in its lazy and inchoate way, seems to want something more inspirational, more adult, more challenging. Not enough to demand it, mind you. But enough to thrash feebly, like a salted slug, under the ceaseless lashing of moronic punditry and celebrity gossip that passes for public comment in the fora of 2008. We sense, in our dim insulation between "American Idol" and worrying about our household finances, that our "leaders" are not doing anything beyond posturing and posing, bound by their debts to wealthy contributors and their promises to powerful lobbyists. The recent Crocker/Petraeus hearings on Iraq were the perfect example. Given the record to date of lies, mistakes, stupidity and egotism you would have expected the legislators to have hammered on the representatives of our current pointless tactical-victory-and-strategic-confusion "plans" in that benighted land like Jove of the Thunders.Instead we watched as our representatives of the People in Congress behaved like the Tribunes of the Plebs of the title. No one was hurled from the Tarpean Rock. Instead our elected nobility postured. They puffed and wheezed and in the end neither we nor they learned anything more, anything really useful, to help us make informed choices about what our nation is doing in our names or planning for our patrimony.

And that is the perfect position for a Potemkin Government. They don't care because they don't have to. It's not about us, or what's happening in the World. What matters to our "leaders" is who is the Alpha Cheney, who gets what and how much inside the Beltway. The Senate is arguing precedence and patronage as the barbarians howl outside the frontiers and the citizens fall into servility and fear.

And I confidently predict that we will not - until we are willing to abandon our comforts and stake our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor - receive anything better.

Our national history has been a record of give and take between what our President would call "my base: the haves and have-mores" - that combination of wealthy and well-connected that desire most their own enrichment - and those whose desire it is to spread power and wealth as far amongst the people as possible. The have-nots pushed in the 1840s, the have-mores pushed back after the Civil War (to the apogee of the Gilded Age). The excesses and corruption of that era saw the rise of the progressives and the muckrakers...but it was only the Crash and Depression that saw the plutocrats exiled for a generation, as programs like the New Deal and the GI Bill helped leaven American society.

In the past thirty years we have seen this cycle turn again, with the rich and the well-born shoving cash and influence into the system. The gap between rich and poor in this country are as wide and deep as any time since the 1890s.This is not a coincidence. It has been engineered by those we have elected, as surely as Cicero engineered the emasculation of the Senate and the People of Rome. And, like Cicero, those doing this surgery are sure that they are doing what is best for themselves and their country, since what is good for the Waltons, the Koches, the Bushes and the Walkers IS good for the country.

I only wish that this was news. It's not even new to the blogosphere: Fabius Maximus (as always), got here two years ago and said it better. Our system of government, designed for a small agrarian republic, is failing under the weight of size, wealth and power. I don't think we can reverse this cycle, this time. I think the system has broken down, overwhelmed by lucre, by fear and greed and cynicism. I think the American people have lost their zeal for liberty. I think that we are fated to decline into an increasingly turbulent diminution. I think that my children's lives will be more difficult than mine, and theirs more difficult still.And like the Roman century left at the last frontier milecastle, sacrificed by our Emperor and ignored by our Senate, we can only hope to do our best to go down as slow as possible, die as hard as practical, before the fall of the gathering dark.

Update 5/12: Just in case you thought I was exaggerating when I accused our legislators of bought-and-paid-for whores for their big contributors who spend much of their time in precious Beltway kabuki theatre instead of addressing real issues there comes a news item too insane to have been invented. And here it is.

We Are Truly So, So Fucked.


Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding piece of work, you really should write a book.

I've got two arguments for you; one minor, one major.

1. (Minor) You argue for "The ability to discuss and debate, reason and argue these matters." This is absolutely true up to a point. Remember Adam on Intel-Dump who used to tie up the legal types for hundreds of posts with ingenious little legalistic bombs. There needs to be a way to cut off debate and get some action. Doing something, even the wrong things, is usually better than doing nothing.

2. (Major) While I agree that the Roman model is a good representation of what is happening in the US, there are some major flaws with the end-game of your view of what's happening.

Warning: I'm not a scholar and I'm going to gloss over a lot of important details.

Rome fell primarily because the mode of government that it was using (military superpower cramming things down people's throats for the enrichment of a fairly small group of people) didn't provide enough benefit to enough people. The same thing is happening right now even though we use different means to get to the same result.

The situation that followed wasn't exactly a walk in the rose garden but lots of good things happened. I'll give you a generic example, the Roman government tended to limit the spread of new farming techniques because the old collective farming techniques that the Romans had used for so long gave the super-rich elite more control over the peasants.

Similarly, the Europeans and Asians are WAY ahead of us in wireless and internet technology for the same reason.

Yes, barring a major miracle, the US is doomed. Although I still predict that we will still honor the elected Caeser in the national capital for another 50-100 years to go before the final fall, the power vaccuum in the capital has already forced the governors to start taking more action and they are going to become more and more independent as new states form in the wreckage of the old.

For example, you can quite clearly see that California, Las Vegas, and most of Arizona are forming a proto-state. So are the technocrats of Seattle (I've very much on the fence as to whether Oregon will join Seattle, California, or go their own way. What do you think?)

New England is beginning to go that way, centered on Boston.

Michigan and Ohio are already essentially their own countries by virtue of the fact that nobody else wants to get involved in the mini-depression going on in those states.

Florida is breaking away from the rest of the South.

I could go on but I think you get the idea. If you are really concerned about this situation and view it as inevitable, do something to save yourself.

I did an exercise a few years ago selecting the attributes of the region of the world I wanted to live in. I came up with the following in descending order of importance:
1. The region produces more food than it consumes. Its bad when the lights go out and stay out but its worse when there's not enough to eat and never will be.
2. A good education system. This is partly for my kids and partly so there will be doctors for me when I'm old.
3. A sustainable technology base. If the region can't make spare parts for stuff that wears out I don't want to be there. Hawaii fell off the list based on this.
4. Some sort of energy resources. Food is more important than electricity but that doesn't mean electricity isn't valuable.
5. Local politics are half-way sane. Leaders that are elected because people are interested in seeing how they will fail are not useful in the coming years. Leaders who are elected solely based on whom they are related to or based on their ferverent religeous beliefs are equally bad choices.
6. English is the primary language. This is solely because I'm lazy.

I could only find two good regions in the world based on those criteria (also needed to factor in possible global warming issues). Much to my astonishment, I discovered that I was already living in one of those two regions.

Now I participate in local and state elections with much more interest and hope that I will accomplish something that my children can build on.

Anonymous said...

P.S. - Since I know you're a sci-fi fan, have you read "The General" series by Drake and Stirling? Some of it is war porn, a lot of it (especially the cover art) is there for juveniles (regardless of actual age) but the rest is VERY solid.

Anonymous said...

"After eight years of corruption, mendacity, crony capitalism and plutocracy I want a Democratic candidate that treats the GOP like the treacherous, ci-devant hillbilly-aristos they are; lovers of authoritarian and religious conformity, torturers and enablers of torture, war-lovers and bankruptors of the public purse. Traitors to the Revolution, the anathema of everything the Constitution and the Bill of Rights stand for. I want a Democratic leader who will treat the Coulter/Limbaugh/Cheneyites like a Provo, and an armed one at that."

Agreed, and that is why I was turned off by Obama trying to suck up to the Ronnie-Reagan-lovers, and why I voted for Clinton. Looks like you picked the presumptive nominee though. I just hope that he can win in November. His sucking-up and his unite-the-country message did not work. The Republican slime machine is now after him a lot worse than it went after Kerry and Gore. It will reach a crescendo in October. Unfortunately, his more rabid supporters blame Clinton for it.

FDChief said...

Pluto: 1. Good point. I'd agree that there is a terminus ad quem to discussion, too, and we have lost sight of that. Adam. Good God, yes...

2. Oh, no argument that this country is "too big to fail" - I don't expect anything like a Rwanda-like implosion. More like a Seventeenth Century Spain, where the cumulative poor poitical choices, economic malaise and military overextension combine to slowly grind the imperial machnery to a halt. The country survives as a ramshackle entity, still pretending to be the empire it aws while fraying into regional autonomies.

So, yes, I believe there will be an American Caesar strutting and fretting his or her hour upon the stage a half century from now. But I think the act will be a LOT more threadbare and the audience a lot less cordial...

Mike: as I argued before, there is no element of blame needed here. My estimation - and that of many Democrats (and, hopefully, Americans in general) is that the politics of the 90s don't work anymore. The GOP has become so toxic that believing - as the Carville/DLC wing sems to for reasons I can't fathom - that the only way for a Democrat to win is as a "Republican Lite" is madness.

Hillary is a good campaigner with some good issues. She has made a fetish, however, of things like dissing Obama for "not being ready at 3 a.m." to nuke Iran. OK, that's nuts. First, why would we WANT to nuke Iran for nuking Israel? That's not in the U.S. best interest. And, second, if that's one of Hillary's big selling points, well, why isn't Straight-Talk McCain the even BETTER choice, if that's the criterion for a President.

Yes, there's a lot I don't like about Obama. Yes, I'm pissed off that he and she are the best the Dems can do (for all the reasons contained in my post above).

But at the end of the day, while Hillary is furlongs better than the Straight Talker, both of them are products of and players in the Old Game, the Reagan/Gingrich/Cheney game. And it's time for a new game. Obama's not the best, far from it, but he's further from the WORST than his two main competitors.

And, again, at the end of the day I don't see it much mattering. But I'm not willing to just give up without a fight.

Lisa said...

Sadly, I'm with you Chief on the decline of the U.S. empire. To my eyes it was inevitable a while ago. We've had a good 200+ yr. run.

I agree with what's needed-- "Prosperity, then. Specifically, the broad-spread prosperity of a wide and deep middle class," peace, knowledge, civility, etc. Your image of the hoi polloi as salted slugs was painful but spot-on.

We are led by whores and pimps, as you mention at the end--not a good business model for a healthy union.