Sunday, May 17, 2009

Divvus Claudius

The Roman emperor Claudius is somewhat an enigmatic figure.

What we know of him comes principally from that delightfully scurrilous work "De vita Caesarum", better known as "The Twelve Caesars" by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.

Suetonius, as he is better known, wrote about Julius and the next eleven emperors in the early 2nd Century CE, almost a century or more after the men themselves had lived. He is said to have had access to many official records, and historical accounts contemporary to the men he wrote of, but has also been accused of delighting in backstairs gossip and never neglecting a good story even when it clashed with other, more reliable, accounts.

In Claudius' case this is fairly crucial, since the coverage of this period in the other primary source, the Annals of Tacitus, has been lost. So we're left with the Claudius of Suetonius; a pantaloon, foolish and distracted, a greedy, lustful, stupid, cowardly moron who was largely ruled by his wives (a pretty unsavory lot themselves) and his freedmen. In the absence of any first-person account of the man and his life, we are left mostly with the Suetonius' dirty-doings-in-high-life version.As Rumsfeld of Ephesus would have said; the absence of evidence is not always the evidence of absence. The problem with this National Enquirer version of the fourth Caesar is that it is often at odds with the physical accomplishments of the man, who finished the Julian conquest of Britain, commissioned several notable public works, reformed and refined the public administration and is considered purely on those grounds to have been a relatively effective ruler. His extant writing is lucid, its reasoning as sophisticated as a well-educated Roman of his class should have displayed. The portrait that emerges from the bits of the man we can find outside the histories is more than a little at odds with the idiot within them.

This paradox enabled Robert Graves, the British translator and author, the freedom to construct an entirely reconstructed Claudius for his two-volume work of historical fiction, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God". He limns the emperor as a survivor; cunning and intelligent, feigning his incapacity for self-defense and then for political advantage.

In his most fascinating (and historically unlikely) diversion, he imagines Claudius as a secret republican. Disgusted with the arbitrary and capricious rule of his imperial peers, he wishes to divest himself of the purple, to revive the Senate and invigorate the People of Rome, returning the state to the less placid but more energetic condition of a Republic.

Why am I thinking of some dead and gone Roman, even if that Roman is an emperor?

Perhaps it's just the hint of madness wafting around our foreign adventurism?Nah. We jumped the "What-the-fuck-batshit-crazy-idea-is-this" Great White Shark of foreign policy lunacy back when we invaded the Middle East because Osama bin Laden dared us to.Is it because we're actually debating - debating - the notion that we should be hiding things from our own public that our enemies already know (because, y'know, we, like, DID them to them) because it would be bad for us to actually see the things that our leaders ordered our soldiers to do in our name?

Or doing things like making war on people who live in countries we are "allied with" without a warrant? Or sending 30,000 new solders into a land war in central Asia without a clue what our objective is?

Nah. Shit, anyone who thought we are still the smart guy in the white hat in the Middle East had spent waaaayyyy too much time hanging out with the "Small Wars Journal" and "Abu Muquwama" crowd.

[And as a sidenote, anyone remember the guy who called himself "MSR Roadkill" (and later, "soldiernolongerinIraq") from the old Intel Dump? Smart guy, good correspondent, but the man had a...mmmm...let's call it a certain blind spot for some aspects of American history. I'm thinking of the time he termed the American colonization of the Philippines an "exercise in tutelary democracy". The conquest of the Philippines was a lot of things, but teaching Filipinos about democracy it was not. That may have happened along the way (along with a hell of a lot of death, concentration camps and waterboarding) but only in the way that a burglar helps you enjoy a nice cross-ventilation by breaking your windows out. We may end up doing the Iraqis and the Afghans a favor or two in the end, but I suspect that if you asked them, they'd gladly give that little helping hand a pass, thanks.]

Is it, as now appears apparent, that our national political leadership is, for the most part, fully bought and paid for by the medical, insurance, pharmaceutical, financial and banking industries?Hmmm. That gets closer to it.

Because the first couple of issues troubling though they are, are "foreign policy" and by definition, largely about foreigners. Americans have trouble picturing foreigners as "people", and as a result we often treat them as though they were not but something pesky and annoying, like jock itch. Americans have trouble seeing through their Yankee Doodle beer goggles at things that deal with what we do to foreigners, and so the results can be sui generis, like the dry-gulching and murder of Cheyenne women and children in "winter campaigns", the napalming of villages for the mistake of being there or the interment of innocent American citizens for the crime of being Japanese (and they were all slanty-eyed and kinda brown so they were LIKE foreigners).

But the last is a gen-u-wine red-blooded, born-on-the-Fourth-of-July kind of American problem. The figures don't lie; our nation has been getting more divided between rich and poor with the rich getting more of the riches, less secure, less provident for those of us still working for a living. Deregulation, or NONregulation, in the case of things like credit-default swaps (which the regulators didn't even understand, let alone know how to parse) has led to a bubble economy which benefited the rentier class and the financial geniuses that designed and ran the Ponzi scheme until some other fucking genius figured out that real estate doesn't just increase in value, every day, forever. While the manufacturing and agricultural jobs - people making and growing stuff - continue to flee, leaving us increasingly at the mercy of the people who drill and produce our fuel, grow our crops, make our steel and autos and televisions.

And health care?

Please! If you sat down and thought about it with both hands you couldn't come up with a system designed to produce a worse outcome in the long run that insurance and health care for profit! Think about it. Both have relatively fixed costs for the basic services. So how do you make more money if you're selling medicine (or insurance) to sick people? How does any business make money?

You sell less for more, of course. Or you sell the same, only charge more. Or you charge the same but provide less.

You wonder why your insurance company fights you for every claim? Why that hospital Motrin cost you $29.50?


And the outcry? The sullen storm of wrath of the American people? Sick of being lied to, sick of being cheated? Sick of being led by people whose only real, central belief is in their own power, power at any price?


Near the end of "Claudius the God", Graves has the aging Claudius engineer several plots to return his Rome to a republic. They all fail. Graves' point to this, which has no basis in history or what we know of the actual man's beliefs or career, is to emphasize that when a formerly free nation has accepted servitude for too long, it cannot be returned to self-rule. The people have lost not just the ability, but the desire, to play an active part in their own destinies. Politically, they are dead men walking.

Claudius himself speaks Graves' words: "by dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy".

In a sense there is a "happy" ending to the story of Claudius. His empire lived prosperously for several hundred more years. It produced masterworks of art and literature, architecture and governance. As, in the end, we may be remembered for as well.

But I fear that if we cannot muster the outrage now, today, at the combination of foolishness abroad and venality and greed at home, we may walk beneath the shadow of the statue of Claudius and peep about, to find ourselves dishonorable graves.


Ael said...

Yes, these problems are all real and dire.

I, however, am optimistic. Solutions to these problems come from to talking to each other and "working stuff out".

It is sometimes hard to remember that we are in the early stages of an information revolution at least as great as that caused by the development of the printing press.

Your blog is a small "proof by example" of the power and reach of this revolution.

FDChief said...

Ael: I agree that change is possible, and I hope it is practical.

However, part of the same "information revolution" is the ability of the powers that be (those same political elites, insurance CEOs, health care megacorps, etc.) to broadcast 24/7 the messages they want to pacify the proles: "War is Peace. Obedience is Freedom". You know the drill and so did Orwell.

I fear that we have become a nation of steers, that our wealth and complacency have performed a republican orchidectomy.

I'm starting to think that our country is a) too large and b) too placid for republican rule. I think the best thing that could happen to us would be to devolve into a congeries of regional polities, each one about the size of a European country. California could become the Bear Flag Republic south of the Plaid Confederacy of the Pacific Northwest...a Northwest Territories in the upper Midwest...the Old Confederacy in the deep southeast. The Rust Belt States in the NE...

My concern is that the last ten years have shown that our nation as presently constituted can be led into confusion and inaction but not into intelligent action. Witness eight years of Republican rule based on the notion that the point of being in power was to do nothing competently.

I think we need a serious shock to reinvigorate us. The coming Second Great Depression may be it. I don't know.

basilbeast said...

I would argue that Rome, no matter the time period, was never really free, except for the politically connected and well-to-do. I think it's always been that if you got the bucks, you've got the bang.

That hasn't changed much through recorded human history.

The promise of America, IMO, has always been the egalitarian concept of one person ( since 1920 anyway ) one vote. But we sell it easily enough to whoever promises us the most, and we wind up suffering in various ways the most, and let those with the bucks parade the acceptable candidates before us.

The "thousand cuts" kind.

I just saw on Marshall's TPM that Bob Reich is reporting that Obama and the Dems. are caving on health care, like they did on "cramdown" for mortgages, and most likely on credit cards too.

Doesn't this note from a commenter on the story make you wonder a bit?

Just a note:
I live in Spain where we have socialized medicine. It works like this: if you are a Homo sapiens, or closely resemble one, and you are taken ill while on Spanish soil, you will be given the best health care (tests, operations) possible, free of charge. If you are over 65 or disabled, all medicines are totally free, otherwise you have to pay practically nothing even for the most expensive ones.

Anything else than this is not a health plan it is just a scam.

Spain compared to the USA is a very poor country, but somehow it can give its citizens all this.

I advise seeing Michael Moore's film "Sicko" to get some idea how poorly the USA compares to other developed countries. IMO this is just a case of political corruption.

Posted by David Seaton
There is political pressure building. Here in the M of N W Kansas, vehicle dealerships have suddenly just popped into oblivion. In the small rural towns here, those dealerships represent a huge chunk of business and tax revenue. And gosh darn, where will our Little Leaguers get their uniforms now?

Last Straw?


I do not know how all this will work out, how the building societal pressure will eventually express itself.

One thing our greatest country on God's Green Earth does have in abundance, and God help those who try to take them from us, is guns.

What will a pissed off populace do that's armed to the teeth?

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, "What a country!"


Pluto said...

I very reluctantly have to disagree with everybody so far.

Ael is very right that we are at the beginning of an incredibly large information revolution that has already modified how most people think and governments act.

Unfortunately, as the Chief as pointed out, this is a two-edged sword and the propagandists are winning right now. It will only be when the propagandists realize that they are becoming victims of their own propaganda that this will change. I don't know how long it will take but I'm not holding my breath.

While I agree with the Chief that smaller, more nimble governments (who KNOW they don't have the resources to survive their own stupidity for too long) are likely to be better than the current situation, unfortunately I've got proof that this doesn't necessarily guarantee good government.

The Minnesota State Legislature is in the process of failing to pass a state budget. Because of the curious way the state constitution works, this means that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (he of national aspirations) has effectively neutralized the Legislature for at least one year, maybe two, and can rule by fiat.

The general consensus here is that we're about to be made into an example of how right-thinking Republicans can govern a state better than the Democrats can govern a nation. Pity us.

We went through a similar raw deal in 2001 and it was a fiasco of the first rank. We saw vicious slashing of state aid to the poor, a massive increase in property taxes (mine tripled in three years), funding for all sorts of Republican pet projects, and financial hanky panky than we thought was either legal or possible. We're just recovering from the last mess as Gov. Timmie is pitching us into another one.

The sad thing is that the Democrats correctly identified the budget shortfall as a systemic issue that needs to be addressed in the near-future and came up with a fairly large number of ways to combat the problem but couldn't combine the elements into a single reasonable plan and the legislature Republican have clung to Gov. ("no new taxes or ideas allowed") Pawlenty like he's the Second Coming.

Pawlenty has frequently mistaken smart political maneuvering for well-reasoned policy and I suspect that in a couple of years we're going to be a household name for bad government (kind of like Louisiana after Katrina).

I'm just sick at my stomach from watching the local Democrats squander a wonderful opportunity to govern well. My only consolations are that the Democrats now have another year to get their party in order and Pawlenty will probably doom his national dreams by publicly messing up.

Basilbeast is quite right that we've got an unhealthy abundance of guns and that the population is getting increasingly concerned about the direction that both political parties are taking us.

But the guns have to be pointed at the right targets to do any good and with all the confusion caused by the propagandists, I think I can safely state that the real perpetrators of the current mess will be the last to suffer.

I'm sorry if I sound even gloomier than usual but this current local budget mess is really sucking up all my optimism.

FDChief said...

basil: No argument on Rome. The capti censi would have agreed with you there. Roman "liberty" was for those with the wealth and power to grab it.

Our situation has always been similar. We never underwent a real proletarian revolution; we've always been ruled by the wealthy and powerful. I would say that the difference was that in the past the elites had to hide or at least pretend to cater to the public's will. The last twenty years has shown that it doesn't matter what the public wants, so long as it can be pulled apart and neutered so that the elites can rule.

This isn't new either - the country finctioned in much this fashion from 1865 to the Depression. But the combination of muckraking, trustbusting and the "good government" ideals of the Republicans (people like T.R.), the appalling scandals of the Teens and Twenties like Teapot Dome and, of course, the Crash of '29, made it impossible for the old elites to muddle through.

But they're back. And we'll see if the nation has the gumption to throw them off a second time. I'm not so sure, myself.

Pluto: First, I'm sorry to hear the bad news about your state.

But, in a sense, the states are serving as a laboratory for the dysfunction that's now overtaken the feds. I remember watching California self-destruct with Prop 13 and similar "no new taxes" nonsense twenty years ago. Now the rot has reached the head. Sadly, states like yours prove that, as Will Durant said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large nation.

Or a midwestern state.

Lisa said...

"orchiectomy" -- a new one for me! (though I can't say I'm unfamiliar with observing its effects.)

The balkanization of our country into "congeries of regional polities" is a very interesting concept. I can totally see this happening.

You Oregonians would do quite well and be quite industrious, forming mandatory neighborhood greenways and gardens, and zero-emission days and alternate forms of transportation.

The South would hunker down into their private arsenals, and I'm not sure what they would do if their Dixie Lily white flour products ran out. . .