The Late Roman Republic

The century from 130 to 30 BC marks the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire – that is, a polity ruled by an actual emperor, not just a large collection of territories, which it was already. In fact, Rome’s expansion to rule the entire Mediterranean basin outshot its ability to change its constitution peacefully. Eventually the constitution did get changed, but only after a century of intermittent civil war, and mostly as an expedient: Augustus held ultimate power, because that was better than chaos. Of course, Augustus’s rhetoric was that he “restored the republic,” but that was one of those statements that everyone had to publicly agree to, while simultaneously acting as though the reverse was true. If the President were to hold his office for life, and simultaneously act as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also for life, no one would think that the United States was still a republic in any meaningful sense, because there would no longer be any separation of powers.

At one point most educated people knew about the decline of the Roman Republic. It is an epic tale anyway, but it also provided instructive examples for subsequent generations. The biggest one, I think, is the notion that republics are inherently unstable, that in order to function properly they are too dependent on the personal integrity of their public servants, and it is only a matter of time before they break down into faction and civil war as human nature reasserts itself. It took a long time before people were willing to take a risk on republicanism again, at which time republican Rome served as an example of certain things to avoid: it is generally a bad idea that politicians should simultaneously act as military officers, for the obvious reason that they will be too tempted to use their armies to further their political ambitions. In the United States, you can seek a political career after a military one, but you have to resign your commission first.

But that was not the case in the first century BC. The days of Cincinnatus were long gone. The Senate called Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) out of retirement and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with a crisis. Cincinnatus did so with dispatch, and immediately resigned, even though he could have stayed on for the remainder of his six-month term. His name thereafter became a byword for civic virtue – a shining example of someone who served because it was his duty, and not because he was hoping to profit from the office. George Washington, because he resigned his command of the Continental Army, and because he resigned the presidency after two terms, is naturally known as the American Cincinnatus. A club for revolutionary war officers and their descendants took the name the Society of the Cincinnati in honor of Cincinnatus; the city in Ohio takes its name from this group.

Amazon.com.

But how can you compel politicians to act like this? Well, you can’t. All you can do is praise the people you would like to serve as models, and even then the narcissists and sociopaths who are attracted to power won’t care a toss about any “virtue.” It is very difficult anyway, over the long run, to enforce the custom of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Eventually it gets really old, both for individuals and for societies.

Thus, by 130 BC, the people who did very well out of the wars against Carthage and Macedonia were quite enjoying their power and wealth, thank you very much, and were not interested in giving it up. Some of them bought up land in Italy and worked it with huge gangs of slaves. There is no way that the independent yeoman farmer could compete with this, rather as America’s small-town mom-and-pop stores cannot possibly compete with Walmart and other big-box retailers. What could a plebeian do but sell out to the latifundia (as these plantations were called), move to the big city, and try to find some form of work there? Rome’s population ballooned during this time, mostly on account of poor people taking up residence in the slums of the city – a phenomenon noticeable in the Third World today.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius (d. 133) and Gaius (d. 121), deplored this situation and sought to arrest it. They both served as tribune – an office created in the early fifth century to act as a “voice of the people” against the patricians who dominated the Senate and all the other offices of state. Tribunes were licensed to “speak truth to power” and thus possessed sacrosanctity, a kind of diplomatic immunity: anyone harming a tribune could be instantly killed. This is why so many newspapers call themselves “tribune” – they are hoping that their readers will think of them as a fearless voice of the people against powerful interests.

The brothers Gracchi both promoted land reform. Generally, they wanted to limit the size of the latifundia, and redistribute the surplus to veterans, so that these people who had served Rome would at least have something to live on in their retirement. But the senators did not really appreciate this return of old Rome, the Rome of the independent plebeian farmer, and so contrived to have them both killed. Killed! Despite their sacrosanctity. This sad episode marks the beginning of a cycle political violence that was to plague Rome for a long time to come. It also reminds me of the story of Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala 1951-54. Árbenz also proposed land reform – the government would buy up some of the extensive holdings of the United Fruit Company and redistribute it to landless Guatemalan peasants, compensating the company for the value of the land as it had been reported for tax purposes. Of course, the land was worth much more than that, and the United Fruit Company lobbied the US State Department to oppose the policy, on the principle that this was Communism! (“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”) The CIA then fomented a military coup, which installed Carlos Castillo Armas as president, who obligingly ended the proposed land reforms. Árbenz was not killed in the coup, but he died drunk and in exile in 1971, and Central America was made safe for American capitalism. This episode is not well known in America, but it is very well known south of the Rio Grande, along with all the other instances of American meddling in Latin America over the course of the twentieth century, for fundamentally selfish reasons.

One of the problems of the Roman latifundia is the same problem faced by all slave economies: the slaves represent a security risk. Naturally, they resent their condition, and if they outnumber their owners, they will take any chance they get to rebel. One of the most famous slave rebellions in history was that of Spartacus (d. 71 BC), a gladiator who organized his fellow gladiators at their school in Capua, who rose up and killed the owners, escaped from the school, and spent the next two years ravaging southern Italy, freeing latifundia slaves and killing anyone who opposed them, and amassing an ever-greater army. Eventually this force was defeated by Pompey and Crassus, two Roman generals who had been tasked with doing so. The body of Spartacus was never found, but some six thousand slaves were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to survivors never to try such a thing again. Nevertheless, Spartacus became a hugely inspirational figure for slaves throughout history: Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was sometimes called the Black Spartacus, as was Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.

Amazon.com.

Communists were also inspired by Spartacus, on the principle that industrial workers were basically slaves. Thus we have Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League, a post-Great War Marxist revolutionary movement in Germany, the Soviet athletic club Spartak, and the Spartakiad, a communist answer the Olympic Games.

Wikipedia.

Of course, we also got a great sword-and-sandal movie out of it, and a more recent television series. The scene at the end of the movie, when all the slaves in turn proclaimed “I’m Spartacus!” in order to protect the real Spartacus, has been inspirational to subsequent films and to US Senators.

Pompey and Crassus subsequently dominated Rome as members of the First Triumvirate. The third member was of course Julius Caesar, a man of overwhelming ambition who was in the process of subduing Gaul and making sure that everyone knew about it. He would send reports of his exploits back to Rome to be read in the Forum; collected, these reports comprise Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic text for Latin instruction. Pompey and Crassus doubtlessly felt that an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit. But Crassus was killed fighting Mithridates of Pontus, and Pompey, in Rome, grew suspicious of Caesar’s popularity and so recalled him from Gaul. Caesar did return, but at the head of his army. He had command of Legio XIII in Gaul, but not in Italy, so when he crossed the Rubicon River, which formed the boundary between the two provinces, he was in essence declaring war on the Roman state. Thus has “crossing the Rubicon” come to indicate an irrevocable decision, for which the only results can be death or glory. “Alea iacta est,” Caesar is alleged to have said as he entered Italy: “the die is cast” (“die” as singular of “dice,” and “cast” as in “rolled” – it’s not a reference to casting bronze or iron in a mould, as some people believe).

The HBO television series Rome at one point has Caesar’s lieutenant Marc Antony telling his boss that “some would call it hubris.” “It’s only hubris if I fail,” replies Caesar – and it’s true, ultimately Caesar won, against Pompey, against the forces of Ptolemy XIII in Egypt, and against Mithridates of Pontus, a victory that was so easy that Caesar coined the memorable Laconic phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” to commemorate it. (“I came, I saw, I conquered” gets referenced every now and then, including in the movie Ghostbusters and by Hillary Clinton.) Caesar, it seems, was a master of rolling the dice.

Back in Rome, Caesar aggrandized himself. He contrived to get the Senate to name him dictator for life, and he put his portrait on coins and named a month after himself (previously, only gods got such treatment). His relationship with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra did not help on this front. Naturally, there was a great deal of alarm over this extremely un-Roman behavior, which led to a senatorial conspiracy to oust him. Since they couldn’t vote him out of office, murder was the only option. And so on March 15, 44 BC, in the Theater of Pompey, Caesar received 23 stab wounds from at least as many Senators, who hoped to prevent the republic from reverting to a monarchy. One of the conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, felt he had a reputation to live up to, since his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had taken a leading role in the overthrow of the original Roman monarchy in 509 BC. “Sic semper tyrannis!” Brutus is alleged to have cried as he stabbed Caesar, a line recycled for the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, with George III in the role of the “tyrant.”

Amazon.com.

“Brutus” has thus become a byword for “assassin,” for either noble or base motives. Perhaps the most famous example in American history, after Lee Harvey Oswald, is John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Booth is alleged to have shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he shot Lincoln in the back of his head as he watched the play Our American Cousin from his box. Booth himself had acted in Julius Caesar the previous year, although not in the role of Brutus.

Wikipedia.

The most well-known representation of this historical episode in English is William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar, a work that is responsible for the popularization of the expression “the Ides of March.” The “ides” of a given month occurred halfway through it, i.e. the fifteenth on average. “Beware the Ides of March!” warns a soothsayer in Julius Caesar, advice that Caesar should have heeded, since eventually everyone’s luck runs out. The coin pictured above was issued by Brutus in the autumn of 44 BC, with a cap of liberty between two daggers, and the legend EID[IBUS] MAR[TIIS], “on the Ides of March,” a rather bold statement on his part.

But as it turns out, Brutus and Cassius did not have quite the support that they had hoped for. Caesar may have been a dictator, but he was a dictator with whom a lot of people agreed. An American might be conditioned to respond positively to the word “republic,” but in Roman terms “republic” meant “aristocratic control.” Caesar, for his part, was allied with the Populares, a party favoring the cause of the plebeians, as the Gracchi brothers originally were. So Caesar was a dictator who supposedly acted on behalf of the little guy. To illustrate this, Shakespeare has Marc Antony publicly reading Caesar’s will, which promises a certain amount of money to every Roman citizen, and which bequeathes his private parks for public use. Public opinion then turns decisively against the assassins. Historically, Marc Antony, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, and the general Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, which defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

American Greatness.

One cannot help but think that current American politics are a distant echo of the conflict between the Senate and Caesar. When President Trump declared this week that the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency, more than one of my Facebook friends specifically compared him to Caesar acting the dictator. This comparison is superficially true – Trump is certainly an ambitious egomaniac with Petronian tastes who has set himself up as an opponent of career politicians and other agents of the “deep state,” and who thus enjoys a great deal of support in flyover country on the supposition that he’s standing up for the ordinary people who live there. His emergency declaration, however, is well within recent constitutional history – indeed, according to the article from which the image above is taken, “Trump Is Bad at Being a Tyrant.” He deserves to be watched, of course, but in general his offensiveness seems far more aesthetic than legal.

In the 30s BC, the Second Triumvirate suffered the same fate as the First: one member (Lepidus) was sidelined, and the remaining two fell out with each other. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian’s general Marcus Agrippa defeated the forces of Marc Antony and of Cleopatra, with whom Marc Antony had taken up. Octavian chased them to Egypt, where they both committed suicide, Marc Antony by falling on his sword, and Cleopatra by venom from an asp.

Wikipedia.

Cleopatra has not served as much of an “example” for subsequent generations but she is one of the most fascinating figures of this period of history, and has been portrayed many times on canvas, stage, and screen, including in another play by Shakespeare.

Octavian, the last man standing, was still fairly young, and continued to rule for over forty years, finally dying in AD 14. Known to history as Augustus (meaning “revered,” a title bestowed on him by the Senate), he succeeded where Julius Caesar had failed. By holding several republican offices at once, and in perpetuity, by making sure that the Senate was packed with his supporters, and by having his Praetorian guard take out any potential troublemakers, he consolidated power for himself, and established a new arrangement for ruling the vast territories that Rome had acquired, an arrangement that was passed on to his groomed successor Tiberius. The shift from republic to empire is deplored in the extended Star Wars narrative, in which the Galactic Republic ruled by the Jedi is good, but the Empire that displaces it is very bad indeed. However, Augustus was not entirely self-serving in pulling a similar move, and enjoyed a certain amount of support in carrying it out, because at least he brought peace. He also had an eye for public relations: like his mentor Julius Caesar, he cultivated a certain image (in his case, as a “family values” candidate). He was also lucky in that his reign coincided with Latin coming into its own as a literary language. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid, composed between 29 and 19 BC, which not only glorifies Rome as such, but also specifically praises Augustus. When you set your story in the past, you can have your characters make very accurate predictions about the future, and when Aeneas visits the underworld in Book 6, the Cumaean Sybil tells him:

Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Caesar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old…

Shakespeare uses this technique in Macbeth, written to celebrate the accession of James I to the throne of England in 1603. Set in the eleventh century, the play nonetheless shows Banquo’s descendants with “two-fold balls and treble scepters” – a reference to the fact that James was king of Scotland and England (and by extension Ireland).

I hope this post serves as a demonstration of the double importance of history. The original events are important in themselves, and they also serve as a prism though which subsequent generations understand the events of their own times. So in studying the late Roman republic, not only will you learn about the republic itself, you’ll learn about the English Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, twentieth-century Communism, and even the present day.

“B is for Beria (and Bering Strait)”

Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

On this day in 1953, LAVRENTIY BERIA met his end. Stalin himself had died nine months earlier, and his chief henchmen were turning against each other. Beria, Stalin’s chief of the secret police (NKVD), was arrested on charges of treason and tried in secret.  And then shot.

It’s not easy to work up sympathy for such a bloodthirsty killer. But the rest of the story is truly bizarre. Less than a month later, the Soviet Encyclopedia sent a notice to subscribers enclosing new pages.  In translation, it said the following:

The State Scientific Publishing House of the large Soviet Encyclopedia recommends that pages 21, 22, 23, and 24 be removed from Volume 5 as well as the portrait [of Beria] between pages 22 and 23 to replace which the pages of the new text are enclosed.

The aforementioned pages should be cut out with scissors or blade, leaving inside a margin on which the new pages can be pasted.

The substitute pages were an article on the otherwise obscure Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholtz and pictures of the Bering Strait.

Subscribers dutifully cut Bering out of the encyclopedia.  Failing to do so would be dangerous.

Death in Australia

Something I just discovered: Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia from early 1966 until late 1967, disappeared while swimming near Melbourne on December 17, 1967. His body was never recovered, leading to a conspiracy theory that he was abducted by a Chinese submarine. John McEwan succeeded him as Prime Minister.

This is rather the opposite of another famous Australian death: the Tamam Shud case, for which there was a body, but no identity. An unidentified man was found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide on December 1, 1948. He carried nothing that revealed who he was, and even the tags on his clothing had been removed. An autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death. The mystery deepened when on January 14, 1949, a suitcase likely belonging to the man was recovered from the Adelaide railway station, which contained a number of things, none of which could help establish who he was. Shortly after that, a tiny piece of rolled-up paper was found in a fob pocket in the man’s trousers. It had been cut out of a book and bore the words “Tamam Shud” – Persian for “ended” or “finished,” the final words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Following a public appeal, the edition from which the paper had been excised was found – along with indentations from handwriting on the inside of the back cover reading:

WRGOABABD
MLIAOI
WTBIMPANETP
MLIABOAIAQC
ITTMTSAMSTGAB

What this means has never been satisfactorily explained, and the identify of the Somerton Man and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

George Bush

(I refer to him as he was referred to at the time of his presidency. Having to insert “H.W.” as his middle initials is proleptic.)

In our culture, one does not speak ill of the dead, but public figures usually merit some sort of even-handed evaluation. However, most of the obituaries I have read about George Bush, 41st President of the United States (1989-1993), have been rather hagiographic in tone, praising Bush’s class, civility, and devotion to public service. This is, of course, a deliberate and pointed jab at the current administration, whose leader is the cultural antithesis of the patrician Bush, and who has made a lot of enemies through his abrasive boorishness. But by no means was Bush praised for his class when he was in office! Back then, he was the Skull and Bones son of privilege, out of touch with how ordinary Americans actually lived. I thought of this as recently as July, when during one of his rallies President Trump said:

You know all the rhetoric you see here, the “thousand points of light” – what the hell was that, by the way? The “thousand points of light.” What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: “Make America Great Again” we understand. “Thousand points of light” – I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? Ay. And it was put out by a Republican.

Some earnest CNN talking heads took issue with that, saying that it was about volunteerism and civic mindedness, obviously, and who could have a problem with these most American of values? They were shocked that Trump would run down a fellow Republican and war hero. And I was reminded how, when in power, Republicans are evil incarnate, but when they’re no longer in power, they become respected elder statesmen. For I remember the “Thousand Points of Light,” and how, to Doonesbury at least, it was a disturbing abdication of responsibility. Since Republicans hate poor people, you see, they gut social programs and then offload the function to private charity, which is a weak substitute with no guarantee that anything will be delivered. But the CNN folks apparently forgot that critique.

(It’s obvious to me what Trump was doing: signaling that it’s not the Bushes’ party anymore! In addition to pointing out that his slogan is more straightforward, and thus more inspiring, than Bush’s “poetic” one, Trump was simply playing to the base that elected him, and that had been disaffected by establishment Republicanism, most notably over the issue of illegal immigration.)

So I must say that I appreciated this article on The Intercept, shared by a couple of Facebook friends, about Bush’s legacy, even if I disagree with some of it. For instance, I fail to comprehend what was so bad about the Willie Horton ad. But his actual role in the Iran-Contra scandal, his pardoning of some of the perpetrators, and the dishonest case his administration made for the war against Iraq, all deserved to be remembered. (Along with the ADA and NAFTA of course.)

I do like revisiting the time when he overcame the “wimp factor” with Dan Rather in 1988:

I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41% of the people are supporting me. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge a whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York. Would you like that? I have respect for you but I don’t have respect for what you’re doing here tonight.

But he wasn’t always so deadly with his words. Everyone knows about George W. Bush’s “they misunderestimated me” or “Is our children learning?”; people tend to forget that Bush himself committed a few verbal infelicities, e.g.:

“For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex – uh – setbacks.” —in 1988

“We’re enjoying sluggish times, and not enjoying them very much.” —in 1992

“I just am not one who – who flamboyantly believes in throwing a lot of words around.” —in 1990

“Please don’t ask me to do that which I’ve just said I’m not going to do, because you’re burning up time. The meter is running through the sand on you, and I am now filibustering.” —in 1989

“I put confidence in the American people, in their ability to sort through what is fair and what is unfair, what is ugly and what is unugly.” –in 1989

“You cannot be President of the United States if you don’t have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for – don’t cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care.” —speaking to employees of an insurance company during the 1992 New Hampshire primary

“I’m not the most articulate emotionalist.” –in 1989

“It has been said by some cynic, maybe it was a former president, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.’ Well, we took them literally—that advice—as you know. But I didn’t need that because I have Barbara Bush.” —in 1989

“Please just don’t look at the part of the glass, the part that is only less than half full.” –in 1991

November 5

On November 5, 1605, the House of Lords was supposed to have been blown up by a group of Roman Catholic conspirators who were disappointed that the newly-crowned King James had not relaxed the anti-Catholic policies of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth. Had the plot succeeded, James would have been killed at the State Opening of Parliament, along with a good many other English grandees. But the plot was exposed, and the principal conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, who was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in the House of Lords, were all arrested, convicted, and executed.

“A late 17th or early 18th-century report of the plot.” Wikipedia.

Since that time, the Fifth of November has been celebrated as a triumph of British Protestantism against the wicked forces of papistry. To this day, it serves an excuse to throw a stuffed “Guy” (or even a pope) onto a bonfire, or at least set off fireworks (I lived in London once, and can attest to this). I assume that the anti-Catholicism of the celebration has been downplayed in recent years, and that the fifth of November is simply the British equivalent of Hallowe’en – an occasion of autumn revelry.

“A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and Tresham.” Wikipedia.

I have always been curious why the Fifth of November fell out of favor in the American colonies. Why don’t we celebrate it here anymore? Why did the Irish custom of Hallowe’en take off in from the nineteenth century? Apparently George Washington found it embarrassing. As he wrote in 1775:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

Alas, such consideration was not enough to win the French colonists to the cause of Revolution (thus does Canada exist today!), but apparently it had a permanent effect.

But as I wrote before, the casting of Guy Fawkes as a sort of anarchist freedom fighter has been one of the more remarkable transformations I’ve ever witnessed.

Medievalism

In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Amy S. Kaufman of the Public Medievalist blog writes in the Washington Post:

Chivalry isn’t dead. But it should be. The medieval defense of Brett Kavanaugh

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been fueled by deep rage among conservatives, who think his position in the American nobility guarantees his fitness for the job. Wayne Allyn Root, for instance, defended Kavanaugh as “a great man” by comparing their pedigrees: “Brett Kavanaugh graduated near the top of his class in his high school while starring in sports. I graduated number one in my high school while starring in sports. Then he went on to Yale. I went on to Columbia.” Kavanaugh himself dodged Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) questions about college drinking by responding, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country.”

Supporters not only pointed to Kavanaugh’s elite credentials to defend his nomination, they also have extolled his chivalry, from parading around the young girls he coaches to sharing support from women who knew him in his prep school days. Kavanaugh stressed his chastity and his care for women in an interview with Fox News: “Just ask the moms,” he said. Heather Mac Donald touted Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record of treating women with respect” to argue that even if the attack on accuser Christine Blasey Ford happened, it would be “feminist narcissism to put an uncharacteristic instance of adolescent, never-repeated sexual aggression ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law.”

These medieval defenses of Kavanaugh’s nobility and chivalry seem out of place. After all, Americans pride themselves on their modern, meritocratic culture. Moreover, the notion of a chivalrous Kavanaugh seems tenuous: As accounts of hazing, sexual assault and drunken violence in his social circle keep emerging, we’re getting the picture of a man who exhibits anything but modesty, restraint and respect for women. And yet in that sense, very little has changed between the Middle Ages and today: Medieval chivalry also was a fiction that masked aristocratic violence.

Chivalry, which has always been more literary than real, has been called a “protection racket,” because it forces women to rely on men to protect them from other men. Even then, chivalry protects only certain women. The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, famous for his chivalric romances, explained that if a noblewoman or her lady in waiting traveled alone, a knight could “no more treat her with dishonor than cut his own throat.” But if he fought another knight for her and won, he could “do with her as he pleased.” Lower-class women didn’t warrant a mention in Troyes’s chivalric code.

Read the whole thing. (If you’ve run out of Washington Post articles for the month, just hit the “stop loading” button after the text has appeared but before the entire page is loaded – that should allow you to read it.)

Ms. Kaufman raises several points in this piece, many of which, I confess, I disagree with. It only makes sense that Kavanaugh would invoke his “chivalry” towards women, given that he was accused of attempted rape – he was trying to establish that his general attitude toward women was positive, not abusive – and I put chivalry in quotation marks because mentoring women law students and coaching girls’ sports is fundamentally different from the “protection racket” that medieval chivalry apparently was. Teaching women some (masculine) skill acknowledges their potential for independent action, something generally lacking from medieval romance. I suppose that Kaufman is suggesting that Christine Blasey Ford is playing the role of the lower-class woman who gets no mention in Chrétien’s code, although Ford went to a tonier prep school than Kavanaugh did, and for Kavanaugh to mess around with someone like that would have been playing with fire (one reason to be skeptical of the accusation leveled against him).

I wish that Kavanaugh had not invoked his Yale education to deflect stories about his high school social life, as in:

-Were you a party animal in high school?
-I was first in my class and got into Yale!

This does not answer the question, of course. It is perfectly possible to compartmentalize one’s hard work from one’s hard partying; I knew plenty of people like this. But I reject Kaufman’s designation of Kavanaugh’s educational career as a “pedigree” – or rather, I think that Kavanaugh’s hard work in high school to get into Yale is a perfect example of America’s “modern, meritocratic culture.” I reckon that there were plenty of people from Georgetown Prep who tried to get into Yale and didn’t, and plenty of Yalies who tried to get into YLS and didn’t, because their grades weren’t good enough.

But in defense of chivalry: that women must place themselves under the protection of men, whether their fathers, brothers, or husbands, who are then obliged to defend them, is not anything “medieval”; it is the human condition. Medieval chivalry, even if it was just a literary conceit, was an attempt at universalizing this protection. That women as such were entitled to knightly consideration, I would argue, was a step toward gender equality. (And Chretien de Troyes was not the only arbiter of chivalry – I am unaware of any other authors claiming that men could do whatever they wanted to the women they had “won”). Sure, maybe you had to be a classy lady before you could attract the service of a knight – but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good – one must start somewhere

On the contrary, if there’s anything medieval about the Kavanaugh hearings it’s the notion that we must believe all women unconditionally, that we are not allowed to subject their claims to critical scrutiny, that an accusation and a conviction are essentially the same thing. There’s some “chivalry” for you! Leap to it, white knights, and defend the honor of your lady! And insofar as the Middle Ages are cast as an irrational, pre-Enlightenment time, the #MeToo movement can certainly be seen as a return to this.

This is why l liked Lindsay Graham’s riposte to some protestors. When pressed why they weren’t demanding that Kavanaugh take a polygraph, the senator responded “You’ve humiliated this guy enough and there seems to be no bottom for some of you.” When the protesters continued to talk, Graham asked rhetorically: “Why don’t we dunk him in the water and see if he floats?”

Trial by ordeal! Something also putatively medieval.

New Names

• I only just noticed that Swaziland, since April, has officially been the “Kingdom of Eswatini.”

• The Republic of Macedonia, formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is voting today on whether to change its name to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” to end its dispute with Greece over the name. Greece insists that “Macedonia” is much larger than the RoM, and mostly possessed by Greece, as illustrated by this map:

Wikipedia.

Jon McNaughton

I first became aware of the artist Jon McNaughton in 2011, when on a summer road trip we ate lunch in a Christian-patriotic themed diner in Towanda, Pennsylvania. On the wall was a reproduction of McNaughton’s painting One Nation Under God. Please click the link to view the image as I do not want to violate copyright by reprinting it here. At the center of the action is a figure of Jesus… holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States! Behind him, our ancestors look down on us in judgment. To Jesus’ right, and facing him, are good, honest citizens – and to Jesus’ left, facing away from him, are such folks as a lawyer counting a pile of bills, a “liberal news reporter,” and a college professor clutching a copy of The Origin of Species to his breast, all under the inspiration of Satan. More details, and explanations, may be found at the One Nation Under God interactive page.

As I wrote at the time: all that is missing is a crying Statue of Liberty from The Onion.

I see that McNaughton’s work The Forgotten Man (2010) has earned itself a Wikipedia entry. I guess I can reprint this one:

As you can see, McNaughton is not just patriotic, but partisan. All presidents prior to Barack Obama are gathered on a lawn in front of the White House. The cooler ones are beseeching Obama to remember the “forgotten man,” who sits slumped over on a park bench in despair. The less cool ones (in particular, those who added substantially to the national debt) are applauding Obama – who himself is trampling the Constitution underfoot! (And see One Nation Under Socialism, in which he’s actually burning it.) Apparently this painting was inspired by the passage of the Affordable Care Act – unconstitutionally and at great expense, according to our artist – although you’d think the young man might be happy for some health care, at least.

The Forgotten Man also has an interactive page. It was roundly mocked by Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert around the time it was created, the reason for its appearance on Wikipedia.

As you can probably imagine, McNaughton is a big fan of Donald Trump, and his latest painting depicts Trump, his wife, daughter, and various cabinet officials, dressed in hunting camouflage, riding a boat through a swamp, and repelling alligators, all arranged like the figures in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. This one was noticed by the Never Trump Weekly Standard, which called it “angry kitsch” and “pure id art.” I think it’s an interesting image but Trump does not seem to be draining the swamp, as he promised. And how much longer before this painting is out of date, rendered obsolete by a resignation or firing? (This is the trouble with all topical art, especially art that is essentially a political cartoon.)

It would be easy enough to condemn the lack of subtlety and sophistication of McNaughton’s oeuvre, and to take issue with his political bias, but I celebrate the originality of his vision and courage in sticking to it, even if I disagree – somewhat like the art of Jack T. Chick (third item). I do find his efforts at conflating church and state to be most interesting (not just Jesus and the Constitution, but Moses and the Supreme Court, and congressmen jeering Jesus out of the House of Representatives – even though the motto “In God We Trust” is clearly engraved on the entablature). Are Mormons especially susceptible to the idea that America is a new Israel, with a sacred covenant with God?

A Good One

From the University of Ulster’s Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) project, about attempts to find a compromise solution to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (emphasis added):

Two attempts to set up devolved institutions were initiated by two Northern Ireland secretaries of state, Roy Mason and Humphrey Atkins [in 1977-78 and 1980]. Neither got to first base. They were opposed, for different reasons, by the SDLP and the UUP, but both simply petered out. As a measure of the cultural gap between the two sides, two bars were set up in Stormont during the Atkins talks of 1980, one serving only non-alcoholic beverages. Students of national stereotyping may guess which bar was designed for which political parties.

I find it odd to read a baseball metaphor in a description of Irish politics.