Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Suppose you were an idiot...

...and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself." --Mark Twain

My daughters watched Congress on C-Span for a while this afternoon.  They are braver than I am; but then again, I'm already sick to my stomach and don't need any additional inducements to nausea.

They found the proceedings pretty appalling.  From their perspective, the members of each party took turns standing up to blame the other party for the government shutdown while casting themselves in the guise of the innocent victims in all of this.  They also used creative language to call each other idiots and insinuate that this or that group of constituents ('cause we have all the power...) is really pulling the Congressional strings and forcing the shutdown to happen.

I didn't have much to tell them except that this is how it always has been and always will be.

Here's an example from history, in a speech given by Cicero concerning a new agrarian law (this is the William Jennings Bryan translation):
The first clause in this agrarian law is one by which, as they think, you are a little proved, to see with what feelings you can bear a diminution of your liberty. For it orders “the tribune of the people who has passed this law to create ten decemvirs by the votes of seventeen tribes, so that whomsoever a majority consisting of nine tribes elects, shall be a decemvir.” On this I ask, on what account the framer of this law has commenced his law and his measures in such a manner as to deprive the Roman people of its right of voting? As often as agrarian laws have been passed, commissioners, and triumvirs, and quinquevirs, and decemvirs have been appointed. I ask this tribune of the people, who is so attached to the people, whether they were ever created except by the whole thirty-five tribes? In truth, as it is proper for every power, and every command, and every charge which is committed to any one, to proceed from the entire Roman people, so especially ought those to do so, which are established for any use and advantage of the Roman people; as that is a case in which they all together choose the man who they think will most study the advantage of the Roman people, and in which also each individual among them by his own zeal and his own vote assists to make a road by which he may obtain some individual benefit for himself. This is the tribune to whom it has occurred above all others to deprive the Roman people of their suffrages, and to invite a few tribes, not by any fixed condition of law, but by the kindness of lots drawn, and by chance, to usurp the liberties belonging to all.
  Who passed the law? Rullus. 2 Who prevented the greater portion of the people from having a vote? Rullus. Who presided over the comitia? Who summoned to the election whatever tribes he pleased, having drawn the lots for them without any witness being present to see fair play? Who appointed whatever decemvirs he chose? This same Rullus. Whom did he appoint chief of the decemvirs? Rullus. I hardly believe that he could induce his own slaves to approve of this; much less you, who are the masters of all nations. Therefore, the most excellent laws will be repealed by this law without the least suspicion of the fact. He will seek for a commission for himself by virtue of his own law; he will hold comitia, tho the greater portion of the people is stripped of their votes; he will appoint whomsoever he pleases, and himself among them; and forsooth he will not reject his own colleags—the backers of this agrarian law; by whom the first place in the unpopularity which may possibly arise from drawing the law, and from having his name at the head of it, has indeed been conceded to him, but the profit from the whole business, they, who in the hope of it are placed in this position, reserve to themselves in equal shares with him. [...]


Besides all this, he gives the decemvirs authority pretorian in name, but kingly in reality. He describes their power, as a power for five years; but he makes it perpetual. For he strengthens it with such bulwarks and defenses that it will be quite impossible to deprive them of it against their own consent. Then he adorns them with apparitors, and secretaries, and clerks, and criers, and architects; besides that, with mules, and tents, and centuries, and all sorts of furniture; he draws money for their expenses from the treasury; he supplies them with more money from the allies; he appoints them two hundred surveyors from the equestrian body every year as their personal attendants, and also as ministers and satellites of their power. You have now, O Romans, the form and very appearance of tyrants; you see all the ensigns of power, but not yet the power itself. For, perhaps, some one may say, “Well, what harm do all those men, secretary, lictor, crier, and chicken-feeder do me?” I will tell you. These things are of such a nature that the man who has them without their being conferred by your vote, must seem either a monarch with intolerable power, or if he assumes them as a private individual, a madman. 
The language is far more stirring, and the rhetoric soars to much better heights than anything you will see on C-Span, but there's a kind of familiarity here, isn't there?

I guess my point here is just that when people complain about "politics as usual," we tend to forget just how long "politics as usual" has been around.



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