Sep 25, 2011 - Political Science    2 Comments

When in Rome…

Confession time: I’m a total news junkie, and politics are the top of the list. World politics, national politics, issue politics — doesn’t matter. Find that vein, stick it, and give me a mainline 24/7.

I went to college intending to get double degrees in French and journalism, and spend the rest of my life dashing from one global hotspot to the next, sending home breaking stories of crucial importance. But I had a come-to-Jesus-type moment about the depth of my twin history and teaching vocations in the manuscript library, and with that came the conviction that I couldn’t concentrate on telling the stories unfolding now as long as I knew that so many stories from our past lay still untold.

That doesn’t mean I still don’t long for those credentials. And, until Rachel Maddow came along, I thought I was the only one who did a little butt dance in her chair when the network election music played. I love the whole messy, unpredictable, thrilling, hair-tearing, nail-biting, eye-rolling, stranger-hugging, flag-waving, bumper-sticking, petition-signing process.

But this presidential race is already testing my limits. I make no bones about being a total, dedicated, activist, bleeding heart, crackpot, commie pinko liberal. At the same time, I believe in the spectrum, and I believe wholeheartedly and — however paradoxically — almost militantly in the decorum and civility of public service. The minute you care about scoring points, or filling your war chest, or denying the “other side” some victory more than helping all of your constituents? Out of the pool, bucko.

And yes, Washington is dysfunctional. And yes, Obama the president and Obama the candidate are further apart than anyone would’ve hoped. And yes, the array of characters on stage at the GOP debates look like a cross between an Edward Gorey illustration and one of Jim Henson’s darker menageries. But the most ghoulish, terrifying thing so far in this campaign has been the audiences at these debates.

America’s had a problem for a little while now with its growing resemblance to the Roman Empire. Let’s leave alone for a moment the 500K+ troops in more than 20 countries around the world, and practices like stop-loss and use of mercenary contractors, at the same time as we lack enough National Guard troops and equipment to dig out from natural disasters at home. And this isn’t the time to get into the culture of consumption that clogs our ports with empty shipping containers, our bodies with empty calories, our economy with empty promises.

(By the way, that thing I just did there, where I brought things up by saying I’d be skipping over them? That’s an awesome Roman rhetorical device, called praeteritio. Cicero used it all the time. It’s my favorite. Now you can use it too!)

I thought our appetite for reality TV was the way our Colosseum-audience attitudes would manifest, but then came that rousing round of applause for Rick Perry’s execution record at the GOP debate in California. Perry’s answer that he’d never lost a night of sleep over the possibility that he’d ever put an innocent man to death– an extremely high probability, in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, which hopefully enters the discussion soon — came as an only slightly-more-soulless afterthought.

The next debate crowd may as well have been wearing tunics and stolae, because when Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what should happen to a 30-something uninsured man who is stricken with sudden catastrophic illness, several audience members actually called out, “Let him die!” Other attendees applauded that sentiment vigorously, since no one had briefed them on the use of the proper thumb gesture to indicate their favor (it’s actually a thumbs-up to vote for death*).

I’m hoping the booing of an active-duty soldier, who hid an essential part of his identity for the “privilege” of shipping out to serve in Iraq, will be where everyone draws the line. Defense is a pretty sacred cow for Republicans, and while the crowd’s actions were repellent, the candidates’ cowardly silence was truly shocking.

In the meantime, the media needs to act the grown-up for once, and reinstate the strict audience rules which governed political debates for so long. Sure, those long silent exchanges feel stilted and awkward, but it’s got to be better than debasing ourselves another notch. And while I think the clappers and yellers and booers in those crowds were aware of what they were doing, it’s worth remembering that even the Romans knew that crowds lost their consciences a lot faster than individuals.

Augustine of Hippo wrote of a former student who was addicted to the arena spectacles. The effect on the crowd in that ancient stadium seems to describe what took hold of those audiences in California and Florida:

“… [T]he entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty… He was not now the person who      had come in, but just one of the crowd which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought      him. What should I add? He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it            urged him to return not only with those by whom he had originally been drawn there, but even more than them,      taking others with him.” (Confessions VI. viii (13))

The great thing about history is that we know how it ended. Our discomfort with the Roman comparison surely stems in part from the last hour of that particular film. There are certainly lots of ways we aren’t like the Romans, for the better, and lots of ways we can avoid that particular exit ramp. But maybe a good place to start is to leave the bloodthirsty crowd behavior in the arena.


*No, really! Read more:



  • I say the answer to our woes is we hire more Germanic mercenaries!

    • I hear Fox is launching a new reality show: “Germania’s Got Mercs!” 🙂

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