February, 2013

“Sic Semper Tyrannis” or Obama and His Opponents

February 16, 2013 @ 11:53 am · Filed under Culture, Reality

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” – Karl Marx


One of the things that makes the fall of the Roman Republic so tragic is that most of the crises that destroyed it were wholly unnecessary. But, at every opportunity for compromise, the political opponents of Caesar instead inflamed the situation. A strange mix of idealistic zealots and privileged aristocrats, Caesar’s opponents couldn’t compromise their principles, or rise above their pettiness. Surrounded by a society increasingly divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, a vanishing middle-class, and a political system corrupted by an irreversible connection between office and riches, the champions of the Republic lived in denial. The result was a depressing mix of unrealistic idealism combined with a corrupt determination to hang onto old privileges.

In contrast, Caesar, and later Augustus, are brutal pragmatists. They understand that times have changed, the political system is broken, and that their task is to restore it to stability. Their bows to the traditions of the past are strictly rhetorical. In practice, if the traditions of the Republic prevent the functioning of the state, they intend to do away with them. To them, no other course is realistic: the government of the past cannot be restored under the current condition of the state. This had clearly been demonstrated by Sulla, whose drastic attempts to strengthen the government of the Republic had only weakened it further.

As a pragmatist, Caesar was clearly willing to compromise with his opponents rather than risk the chances of all-out warfare, but his opponents were not. Cato’s unswerving and principled determination to prosecute Caesar when his governorship of Gaul was over led directly to the Civil War. In turn, Brutus’s and Cassius’s sincere conviction that Caesar wanted to be King led directly to the establishment of the Empire The opponents of Caesar saw any compromise of principle as a crime, while the wealth of their aristocratic supporters gave them a false conviction of their strength. Their contemporaries, and History, has recognized the purity of their motives, but the results of this purity were disastrous. By rejecting compromise, they rapidly brought about the end of the Republic, when more far-seeing politicians could have extended it’s life for many years.


Which brings us to the present day. In general, I would acknowledge that James Madison was a far smarter man than myself or his contemporaries. By now though, it is clear that his anti-federalist opponents were correct about the dangers of a large republic. As one wrote in Brutus #1:

“History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States. The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans. Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world”

Stripped of the hyperbole, Brutus argues that empires inevitably require large governments and a central concentration of power. This process has been long underway in the United States, and it is futile at this time to attempt to return to the highly limited government of the past. Regardless of the platform upon which they are elected, once in office, external events, the extent of their power and the need to reward their supporters will inevitably corrupt any officeholder. This was clearly demonstrated by George Bush, who was elected on a conservative platform promising a “humble foreign policy,” and who instead ended up fighting wars all over the world and justifying torture by executive fiat. And, this rapid extension of executive power has only accelerated under Obama.

Yet, while I believe many of Obama’s policies are both wrong-headed, and destructive of our Civil Liberties, he’s been blessed with enemies who seem determined to prove Marx’s aphorism about history true. Indeed, Newt Gingrich in the role of Cicero, and Karl Rove as Crassus makes a farce inevitable. More importantly, overwrought denunciations of Obama as a socialist, a budding tyrant, and an empty suit are both incoherent (how can he be all of them?) and worse than useless. Obama has proven throughout his life that he prefers to get along with everyone, and is willing to compromise. As such, the times call for measured resistance to specific policies, not hysterical opposition to every initiative. Even a rational opposition will probably not be enough to make a difference in the long-term trajectory of the United States, but the current tactics only ensure a quick failure.

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Pope Benedict the Sixteenth

February 11, 2013 @ 12:34 pm · Filed under Culture, Reality

Pope Benedict has resigned. As a theologian he showed seeds of greatness. As a Pope, he wasn’t particularly successful,. Part of that was due to the times in which he reigned, but most of the responsibility falls on him. The real failure of his papacy was his inability to govern the church in a way that reflected the humbling conclusions of his scholarship. Benedict’s thinking was shaped, as everyone’s is, by his upbringing. Born amid the disillusionment of post-WWI Europe, he was raised in a regime that insisted that traditional conceptions of good and evil did not exist, and that Christian morality was a dangerous illusion. Although he outlived that regime, he spent the remainder of his career in a increasingly atheistic Europe that, while rejecting the tenets of Nazism and Stalinism, also rejected Christianity. What is most striking about Pope Benedict’s writings is that he acknowledged this rejection, and understood that the Church was in a period of decline. In 1995, he stated:

“We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.” [In Salz der Erde, Im Gespraech mit P Seewald (Christentum und katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende Stuttgart, DVA Verlag, 1996]

Yet, in the end there was a yawning chasm between Benedict’s understanding of his times and his policies. His Papacy was noted for his defiant defense of traditional Church doctrine: a doctrine that had led to a shrinking of the church that continued on his watch. A policy more in tune with his writings might have led to a Church with more humility. He could have focused his energies on recruiting priests from among elder laymen, ensuring the continued existence of religious orders, and on religious education. Benedict had the opportunity to shape the Church and prepare it for the coming abeyance of influence he expected. He failed to do so. It seems a strange condemnation of him to say that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, but, in the end, that must be my conclusion.

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