Doug Ross posts, in an article titled, "Change! 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed", a cartoon from TobyToons. If you don’t want to click those links, the image is of an elephant (symbolising a Republican) talking about sensible matters in a measured manner, followed by a donkey (symbolising a Democrat) raving about ludicrous matters in a crazed manner.
I will admit that I was initially shocked to see a Republican accusing a Democrat of infantilising political discourse, when Europeans are generally used to seeing it come from sources like Fox News, and then mocked by John Stewart and his ilk. It was a surprise, for that brief moment, that the Elephant would consider the Donkeys on the other side of the coin to be made up of raging maniacs1, but I quickly got over it when I remembered that this incident is only further evidence of the aforementioned coin metaphor: Republicans and Democrats have become, if they weren't always, the Judean People's Front and People's Front of Judea, the opposing factions in Monty Python's Life of Brian who, while ostensibly having the same goal of expulsing the Romans, instead spend most of their time squabbling over minute and irrelevant ideological differences.
In the cartoon, there are screams of, "$ilver $poons! War on hoodies! War on dogs! War on contraception!" All exclamation marks accompanying the Democratic mascot, while the Republican has only periods and a single incident of ellipses; thus, the artist sees only what's wrong with that other faction, the "wars" they wage while ignoring the inconvenience of his own faction's idiocy. Things such as bombing another nation for reasons American intelligence analysts themselves refute2 3. Or defending one's sponsorship of a bill that allows medical institutions to cite religious reasons4 for denying women certain medical services with: "My father's a veterinarian." Or the made-up controversy of Barack Obama's birth certificate Or the made-up controversy5 of Barack Obama’s socialist agenda. Or the made-up controversy of Barack Obama’s nonexistent Islamism. Or criticising John F. Kennedy for sharing a certain belief6 with Thomas Jefferson. Or, say, the famed death panels.
To their counterparts, it is the Elephant playing the role of comic foil, and so turns the wheel. How does neither side see that, regardless of sex, race, or any other superficial identifier, every person they vote into power is a mere variation of the Old White Guy prototype? For one, they are too close to see the big picture, but more importantly, it's because with that very myopia, the big picture is not what they perceive it to be.
Between 106 BCE and 43 BCE7, Cicero said8: "The budget should be balanced. Public debt should be reduced. The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome become bankrupt." Two millenia later, we can apply this quote to a modern setting and see how it fits in our world, almost as a form of satirical reflection, and read it in a vacuum. But when he said it, Cicero was a living, breathing person, facing real-world problems as dire and important as those Americans and the peoples of other countries face today: Rome was at a turning point, making its ruinous descent from upstart republic to world-conquering empire in an age where the democratic ideals and traditionalist virtues of a Cato the Younger were fast becoming archaic and unpragmatic.
Power concentrated on the few who came from families of high standing, then those with money, and then a mere three men; a corrupt court system in which money and the best lawyers, not the truth, decided a case; a senate that was weakened by years of hand-picking by the puppet-seeking, influential minority, and thinned by the constant, unscrupulous, and at times bloodthirsty, competition for ever-decreasing slivers of power; politicians who were indentured by virtue of the cost of running for election, and who refused to pass reforms that would help the state out of fear that their adversaries would look more successful than them in the eyes of the public, were they to pass; wars of aggression, some of them disastrous, that were waged by the powerful despite the protestations of Romans9. On their own, these problems may have been assailable, but when they were combined with a focus on individual prosperity over societal prosperity, and, thus, an unwillingness to fix the cracks in the system, the results were, for the few conservatives attempting to stem the tide of imperial progress, deadly.
Cato fought valiantly10, but without the hindsight of future generations, even he could not see things as they really were, because his mind, as our own today, wrapped itself around the societal functions of the final century of BCE Rome. He was driven by the morality, ambition, and prejudice dictated to him by the world around him and his view of the world around him as dictated by those who taught him to see11. For all of Cato’s incorruptibly (which was remarkable, both in the context of then and now) there was no small amount of cynicism behind his decision to evoke Cato the Elder, his great-grandfather, in his manners, and his decision to steadfastly oppose the reforms proposed by the Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus Triumvirate, even when they would have benefitted the people of Rome and the state itself. Cato may have understood12 that Rome was on the decline; against the triple-headed colossus, understanding was not enough.
United States, CE
"The budget should be balanced. Public debt should be reduced. The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest [the United States] become bankrupt.”
Looking forward, one would certainly be remiss to make sweeping predictions based on this knowledge of the ancient past, but there is no doubt that, if not all of that quote works, some parts do. The U.S. has been declining since 194513, but the only time you hear one of your rulers come close to talking about that is between them talking about the “greatest country on Earth” and blaming everything that’s wrong on the current guy, all twirled within pleads to vote for me, or else! It is true that politicians with at least a modicum of sincerity when they discuss reform exist; the most prominent of them, in terms of publicity, is Ron Paul, the only candidate with any chance (however slight) of becoming president that served in the military and, coincidentally, is the only candidate who believes peace isn’t wrought by invading sovereign nations.
Against the backdrop of celebrity politics, dumbed-down talking points, and “Hispandering”, Paul seems like the only person interested in staying consistent with his message and then consistently sticking to talking about that message instead of attempting to distract the electorate with trinkets14. While everyone else sticks their thumb out and babbles about the opposing party’s War on Whatever, Paul dispenses with these inanities and redirects attention toward what actually matters; and however you feel about his stance on things like the Federal Reserve, Social Security, the military, and individual liberty, which are very polarising, one has to credit him with at least trying to get the public to talk about these important polarising issues, rather than the inane ones, regardless of their own stance on them. Acknowledging a problem is the first step toward solving it.
Unfortunately, however, much like Cato, things do not and will not go beyond that. There is little chance that Paul will win the Republican nomination, and whether he will run as an independent depends largely on how effective a deterrent the Republican Party’s threat to sabotage his son’s political career if he does run is: according to Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008, leaving the party to run as an independent “would have a crushing effect on his son’s political career in the Republican Party and would be ruinous to any chance of a serious national campaign under the Republican banner.” The Democratic Party, too, has little interest in seeing Paul get any serious amount of attention, for, while questionable elements of his past would make it easy for Obama & Co. to attack his credibility into oblivion, the added exposure may crash the gravy train they have going with carriages loaded and nary a kink in sight.
Unification in Corruption
The current system works. The duopoly fools the population into believing a true democracy exists by manufacturing volatility while they quietly chip off your right to vote for anyone but their favoured sons and daughters. And as long as everyone continues to buy into the myths of socialist infiltrators and imminent terror, the status quo stays in place. What incentives do the Democrats and Republicans have to change that, when lobbyists happily drop sacks of gold into their waiting hands and voters that are openly dissatisfied with a candidate are also openly clear that they will still vote for them regardless15? None whatsoever. In fact, these are only greater incentives for them to oppose change, which is why, in the larger picture, there is very little different16 between presidents, and, indeed, parties and party ideology.
That change, in the end, and returning to that article by Doug Ross, does not come from Barack Obama. Neither would it have come from John McCain and Sarah Palin, as much as Ross or any other Republican voter may wish it. It will never come from any politician who accepts money from the corporations, unions, or political action committees who have an interest in passing legislation that benefits them but not you. Taking that further, it will never come from a system in which an ever-increasing amount of money is required just to getneedto accept money from exploitive benefactors, lest they find themselves in too much debt (or, in Ted Kennedy’s case, requiring to mortgage his home, as Mitt Romney is fond of reminding people); in which money, then, as corrupting as power, plays a greater role in politics than ethics, the common good, or democracy itself; and in which the accrued experience of centuries of precedents and legislative edits and additions, and lessons learned from predecessors’ failures (as it was with Caesar)17 have allowed corrupt politicians to manipulate the rules with more ease than ever before.
It will have to come from the people themselves, who, though perhaps unable to match the lobbies monetarily, can certainly match them with their vote (or, if they really want to, revolutionary will). If the people of the United States want true change, they will have to vote for candidates who aren’t making future promises to private parties, which means instead of taking their information from advertisements and superficial, sound-bite-laden debates, they will have to gather it themselves, or at least accept it from more credible sources, which aren’t themselves run by the lobbyist-funding magnates who silently encourage an appropriately-biased approach to the news. In other words, if you want to fix your problems, you’ll have to stop being lazy and do the work to fix it.
Unfortunately, in any large society, the majority always appears more concerned with its immediate future than the long-term (with good reason, sometimes, I concede), preferring to gorge on the nutrition-light fast food served up by their instant-fix media outlets and leave the time-consuming philosophising to those with longer lunch breaks. That is how politicians are given the room to snake devious sentences into innocuous bills. For political change, a fundamental change in society is required. That was true in Rome, and it is the same here.
Things are not, and never will be exactly the same. History only rhymes. But, while the façade of human progress has changed how we live, we still are who we were. What happened in Rome, though Cicero did not know it, is a reminder that humanity has been here before, many times, and that the lessons of the past are very much worth memorising. Americans will have to stop indulging the politicians who believe bullying other nations without repercussions is an ethical foreign policy; they will have to stop blaming, and bickering with, the other side of the coin, and they will have to shed the veil that their leadership has draped over their eyes. Otherwise, the United States will fail, sooner or later. Kicking, screaming, clinging to its nonsensical war between Donkeys and Elephants as it drags as many of the rest of us as it can, all the way down.
1 Quote "raging maniacs" is a reference to Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden, Saturday Night Live season 34, episode 4: "God love him, but he's a raging maniac... and a dear, dear friend."
2 In this 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (.pdf): "We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015."
3 According to the linked New York Times article, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, stated in a Senate testimony that "American officials believe that Iran is preserving its options for a nuclear weapon, but said there was no evidence that it had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon," while adding that C.I.A. director David H. Petraeus "concurred with that view at the same hearing", and that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panett and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey have also made similar statements. (Emphasis is mine.)
4 When does religion enter a doctor's medical vocabulary?
5 According to linked NewsFlavor article: "[T]he whole point of the auto bailout was to help protect the private companies [as opposed to making them fully owned by the government and then giving out cars as needed]. It helped protect tax payer loans to the auto-makers and actually preserve capitalism." Article also quotes Bill Wharton, the co-chair of the Socialist Part USA, who says, "Obama isn’t a socialist. He’s not even a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat — one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies."
6 In fact, if Kennedy's statement that he "believe[s] in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" makes Rick Santorum almost throw up, one has to wonder what would come out of the knowledge that Jefferson is responsible for creating the phrase in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
It is common knowledge, in any case, that while modern politicians like to hark back to the Founding Fathers, they have very little in common with them, in both mind and spirit.
It is common knowledge, in any case, that while modern politicians like to hark back to the Founding Fathers, they have very little in common with them, in both mind and spirit.
7 The exact date, to my knowledge (and please correct me if I'm wrong), is not known. One source is as vague as "nearly four decades before the birth of Christ", another simply cites his birth- to death-date, 106-42 BCE (sic), while another says the exact date is 40 BCE, three years after he died. Assuming he said it (if he did at all) while alive (he may very well have said it in 40 BCE as a ghost – or not), I will conclude that those words, or a variation thereof, were uttered some time between 106 BCE and 43 BCE.
8 The exact quote also varies. A variation is, “The budget should be balanced, public debt should be reduced, the treasury should be rebuilt, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.”
9 Dan Carlin, Death Throes of the Republic VI.
10 Plutarch, The Parallel Lives.
11 By which I mean that during his formative years, the years in which one is most likely to adopt life-changing ideas with the least amount of mental resistance, Cato would have adopted at least parts of his tutor, Sarpedon’s, opinions, as well as forming his own. One sees the world not with their eyes, but their brain, for that is what tells them what they are seeing means. We only know that oranges are orange because we’ve been told that they’re supposed to be orange, and that “orange” is a shade between yellow and red. In a different universe, orange may still be orange, but it may be called “blue”. One could also reference colour blindness, the sufferers of which are unable to perceive certain colours, and therefore perceive reality in a way uniquely different from those with normal vision.
12 The Parallel Lives, p. 289. Plutarch refers to Cato as saying of Caesar that, “[H]e was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity…” (It is also possible that Plutarch was adding his own observation of what Rome was like at that point.)
14 Vile, hypocritical trinkets, one might add. No comment from either candidate on what Christianity has to say about thanking God for someone dying (“thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker”).
15 I can’t find the exact link, but this discussion comes up often on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, particularly on Wednesdays, when they discuss the election.
16 See also Glenn Greenwald, “Obama takes Bush’s secrecy games one step further”
17 In his Common Sense show, Dan Carlin uses the analogy of an old actress attempting to hold onto former glory through cosmetic surgery, and in the process of looking younger, looks nothing like she used to.
18 Images are from Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (Dictionary of French Architecture from the 11th to 16th Century), found at commons.wikimedia.org. They are modified versions.
19 I want to briefly apologise for not bringing this to No. 0 sooner. Life gets in the way, sometimes. Some of the facts (such as Ron Paul's viability as a candidate for the Republican nomination, which is impossible instead of implausible, now) are outdated, but the point nevertheless remains. Thanks for reading this far.