Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Problem

"The Romans, it is true, say that the many virtues of Crassus were obscured by his sole vice of avarice; and it is likely that the one vice which became stronger than all the others in him weakened the rest. The chief proofs of his avarice are found in the way he got his property and in the amount of it . . . when he made a private inventory of his property before his Parthian expedition, he found that it had a value of seventy-one hundred talents. The greatest part of this, if one must tell the scandalous truth, he got together out of fire and war, making the public calamities his greatest source of revenue.
"For when Sulla took the city and sold the property of those whom he had put to death, considering it and calling it spoil of war, and wishing to defile with his crime as many and as influential men as he could, Crassus was never tired of accepting or of buying it.  And besides this, observing how natural and familiar at Rome were such fatalities as the conflagration and collapse of buildings, owing to their being too massive and close together, he proceeded to buy slaves who were architects and builders. Then, when he had over five hundred of these, he would buy houses that were afire, and houses which adjoined those that were afire, and these their owners would let go at a trifling price owing to their fear and uncertainty. In this way the largest part of Rome came into his possession."
from the Life of Crassus, Plutarch 

I've always thought Marcus Licinius Crassus was interesting.  He's largely unknown (except as the chief villain in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus).  His little habit of having a private fire department that would show up at your home when it was on fire, buy it from you at a cheap price, then proceed to put out the fire has been copied in other centuries (until it was made illegal in our era) was a great way to get rich.  Crassus was a wholly greedy son-of-a-bitch.

Crassus had, at various times, risen to the 'presidency' of Rome - the consulship.  At once point he was one of what was called a 'triumvirate' with Gnaeus Pompey and Julius Caesar, a sort of dictators' alliance.  Caesar got Gaul and central Europe, Pompey got Hispania and Mauritania and Crassus got the Eastern Mediteranean and Near East, what the Romans called "Syria," consisting of Egypt, Judea, Armenia (when it was in season) and Cappadocia (among other assorted provinces).  It only proves that a rich, greedy, pompous, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting fathead can rise to the highest place in an empire (though they were still calling it a 'republic' on paper at the time, this being 59 BC).

What matters is what happened to Crassus.  It's a long tale, wherein Crassus makes error after error getting his army into a very bad situation in a combat with the Parthians.  Plutarch patiently describes every detail - how Crassus marches straight in, how the Parthians out-think him, how the men get more and more desperate and weak, feeble and unable to manage the Parthian tactics . . .until Crassus himself is despondent.  At this point a number of his men up and desert the army - and the remainder are fallen upon and hacked to pieces.

Yet Crassus makes his escape from this; he tries to make an agreement with the Parthians but this falls apart and he flees with five hundred horsemen (there's a nice line about the moon moving from Scorpius into Sagittarius, where Crassus says he fears the archer more than the scorpion).  But Crassus and his men are surrounded on a hill by the Parthians.  The Parthians offer them terms and the men eagerly accept the proposal: but Crassus does not.  He has to be harangued by his men to go make an agreement with the Parthians, which he finally consents to do.  However, after some agreements are made, there is some talk, then there is business with a horse (that makes Crassus look like a coward), then a fight breaks out at the conference and Crassus is killed in the scuffle.

I am really skipping over parts here.  The wikipedia entry is not quite right; according to Plutarch, Crassus clearly does not have a horse until he arrives at the peace negotiation: he is offered a horse by Surena, leader of the Parthians.  But no matter.  It is fairly plain from Plutarch's biography that Crassus was, well, a bit of an idiot where his greed and his arrogance could not save him or his men.

Yes, I am drawing the parallel.  Greed and arrogance are great power-getters.  They appeal to a certain kind of disgruntled, unthinking majority and the practice of these arts produces a mysticism where it comes to pundits and theoreticians.  But like I have said already: for those who are reading endless newstories of how such and such might win and how these people are just angry and looking for a voice to lead them, the gentle American readers must ask themselves:  Was the American System designed better than other systems where it comes to protecting the country and the people from despotism?

And if your American answer is "maybe," then clearly it hasn't.  If all the propaganda about greatness and pledges of allegiance haven't served to convince you that you're fine, then you're not.  You're in big, big trouble.

I believe this is the most telling issue of the present Unpleasantness.  Not who is running or who is trusted; not whether racism or plutocracy is the real runner of the game; and certainly not a measure of today's players in the particular drama played out this summer - but the cold, clear, unsettling comprehension that the System itself has played itself out.  That this dumbshow will be followed by another in 2020 and another in 2024, ad nauseum, because the best of 18th century philosophy has met its match in the internet and actual personal and sexual freedom that is at the core of all this discontent.

If there is an iota of doubt about your country's greatness in your soul, O Dear American, then you've had a glimmer of the perspective that all the rest of us have had being on the outside looking in.  We, too, have heard all the propaganda and the pledges; we have suffered from the agenda; we have witnessed the acts in the arena; and we are quite content to use the words, "There goes a broken system."

Your first step begins with acknowledging the problem.  And no, the problem isn't that America isn't as great as it used to be.  It's that 'America' was never great.  It was just lucky.

Like Trump, if some other entity had been founded on the exact same land it would have done as well.  The soil was rich, the resources plentiful, the enemies far away and general access comparatively easy.  Even misogynistic, imperialist, greedy, abusive, slave-owning racist warmongering assholes with a persecution complex would have made that investment pay off.

Oh, right.  They did.

2 comments:

azmountaintroll said...

"Like Trump, if some other entity had been founded on the exact same land it would have done as well."

So that would explain the vast wealth of the Native North American Empire, and how their mighty armies utterly crushed the European settlers before they even made it off the beaches.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I knew that some 'troll' would bring that up.

Classic derail. Conveniently ignores that the post discussed a given Roman's attitude and compared that with the American 'improvement' on the care and maintenance of government for the betterment of personal liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. Also fails to note that most of the critical genocide of natives in North American Empire occurred in the three centuries prior to the declaration of American independence (thereafter, the Americans who continued the genocide had the benefit of numbers).

Further, it ignores that the technology, culture and political philosophy necessary to both commit the genocide and exploit the resources in North America were ALSO invented long, long before the great American experiment.

Finally, in true trollish fashion, the proposed disagreement applies to only one sentence of the entire post, deliberately discounting the context that produces that sentence.

These last few weeks I've been pointing out these internet strategies, because it highlights so well the corruption of intellectual discourse - that which is designed to change minds. Snark, so called, seeks none of that; it imagines it can dispense with any argument with the theory that a single thread can be pulled out of the fabric, cut in half with an axe, with the expectation that the whole garment will now be made unwearable.

It is rather ridiculous that these little creatures think this; and all the more marvelous that they somehow find their way to this blog, of all the internet. It must be said that trolls are like water on pavement: they find every nook and cranny.

Was a pity for the Native North American Empire, that got here some 15,000 years ago. No doubt, no doubt, at some point there was some unity . . . but after so many generations, they took to infighting among themselves, Cree against Ojibway, Tenochtitlan against Tarascan, Incan against Chimor - old peoples killing old peoples in the same old way. The same silliness that the American Constitution was supposed to exist as a bulwark against - but naturally some silly retired military doof in North Florida rushing to defend the sanctity of his empire by citing the people it committed genocide against completely misses this point - rather, formidably making the case for what it was that made Crassus so possible some 21 centuries ago.

My, my, my, haven't we gotten better? I repeat: if you are convinced that either A) Donald Trump is exactly what the Declaration of Independence was designed to produce or B) that the Declaration of Independence created an America that will crush Donald Trump under its boot, you have NOTHING to worry about as an American.

But if neither of those seem true to you . . . well, now you know what the Problem is.