Let Me ‘Splain…

No, it is too much. Let me sum up:

Let me explain (With images) | Princess bride quotes ...

I’m an amateur, not going to lie. But I do have a few what seem to me obvious generalizations about history, things you can’t not notice once you’ve noticed them:

The default state for us humans is something like a tribe. We will fall back into this state unless diligent effort is made to prevent it.

For today’s discussion this means: we see tribal membership as primary to survival, for the simple reason that, during the last few million years of evolution, it was. No lone man was likely to long survive, and, if he remained a lone man, he didn’t leave many offspring. You want to play the natural selection game? Better stick with the group , where breeding opportunities exist and children have a decent shot at surviving, too.

Tribes have leaders. While it is nice to imagine small tribes working things out democratically, the reality is that tribal peoples are (despite the endless propaganda to the contrary) typically very violent. The Mauri, the Yanomami, The Iroquois – sure, they may have plenty of redeeming qualities, but you want to see cultures where they would just as soon kill you as say hello? So, in such a setting:

Tribal leaders tend to act like Mafia leaders. When the Roman Republic fell, to take one example, they had a centuries old culture of trying to work things out, and had largely avoided internal political violence for a couple centuries. (Three long wars with Carthage also put internal issues on the back burner.) When it finally fell, leaders in the Senate had Tiberius Gracchi, who threatened their power, clubbed to death along with 300 of his followers – first significant political violence in a couple centuries.

It quickly went to hell. The resulting regimes looked a lot like a mafia sans the titles: Caesars were the people who the muscle would follow; turf wars/civil wars – tomato/tomahto; as far as they could manage it, everybody paid their protection money, and nobody got to do any business without clearing it with the local rep – who got a cut. Etc.

Even in Republican times, life in the Roman countryside (where 90% of the people lived) looked like this: a patriarch had his estate(s), everyone who did anything at all on his turf had to come pay him honor. You would regularly show up to share a graciously-provided meal at the patriarch’s estate, or people would check on why you didn’t. If you ran a business, it was because he let you run a business – and he took a cut. Fail to comply, and people do stuff.

A key feature: all the other clients are desperate for you to go along. To them, the local patrician *is* the government – he’s police, he’s the judge, he’s the one who settles disputes. If he were to murder you, a commoner, there’s no one around to do anything about it. And just like mafia dons, when things are going according to plan, you’re not whacking anybody. The sheep are therefore invested in not rocking the boat. You can play the ‘somebody has to maintain order around here’ card – you’re not exploiting people, you’re *protecting* them!

The transition from lawful government to mafia just isn’t much of a transition. You may have noticed that mafias do a lot of the stuff that governments do: collect taxes, enforce behaviors, ‘regulate’ businesses, ‘police’ their turf. It has long been said that, when the mob more overtly controlled Vegas, crime was all but non-existent there. There was no trial or warrants or any of that nonsense – you do crime on there turf, and there’s a few thousand square miles of god-forsaken desert nearby in which a body can be dumped and will quickly disappear.

Aaaand – that’s the way the tourists liked it! Sure, mom, dad, and the kids from Des Moines were not thinking about how Vegas was so safe – but they counted on it. I’ve heard – not going to research it – there’s more crime now that the mob runs things at arm’s length. All that law and order stuff getting in way of just, you know, solving the problem.

Did you all see the Daniel Day-Lewis movie Lincoln? * It is of course hagiography with a subtle message: Lincoln is shown early telling a story about when he was a lawyer, helping a (very sympathetic) murderer escape. Ignoring the law and his duty as a lawyer to uphold it, he does the ‘right thing’. Later, he tells his henchmen to do whatever needs doing to get the 13th Amendment passed, but don’t tell him about it – plausible deniability, you know. The film follows his team as they cut dubious deal, threaten, bribe, and bully enough votes to get it through.

The movie most definitely does not invite us to spare a thought about how Lincoln was behaving indistinguishably from a mafia don. Instead, we are to simply wipe a sympathetic tear from our eye and nod in agreement with the idea that our Greatest President ™ can ignore the law if he really, really needs to, to do the right thing. What, you want the poor beaten wife to get hanged for killing her abuser? You don’t want the slaves freed? All because of a pedantic belief that public officials should obey the law? YOU MONSTER!

Some of my beloved readers, in a perfectly understandable reaction, may think from my last post that I’m claiming Vinny the Neck has got his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office. Nope, nope, nope! Rather, what I think is that, after the manner of Lincoln as portrayed in the movie above, stuff needed to get done for all sorts of really really good reasons, way bigger reasons than obeying the letter of the law, and so people say things, people do things, and stuff happens. THEN: we reach a state of MAD: if I go down, you go down. Did Lincoln specifically tell thugs to go crack some heads? Did he buy the murderer a ticket out of town? NO! He merely stated his earnest desires – ‘will no on ride me of this meddlesome priest?’ style – and left it up to his underlings to get it done.

To conclude, this is why I don’t think it requires anything like a literal conspiracy for the election to have been stolen. There wasn’t a Democratic official anywhere in America who didn’t know that the Evil Orange Man needed to be defeated no matter what. They’re not waiting around for explicit instructions, which were never going to happen. Instead, they are seeing the same thing on the news we were seeing: Trump ‘inexplicably’ ahead in 5 states they needed. Nobody needed to order the locals to do something about it – they could figure that out on their own. And they’re unlikely to ever discuss it, before or after. What would Vinny the Neck want them to do? Are they getting a nod and wink next time they see him, or a frown of doom?

Hopes this helps.

* That it came out while O was running for a second term makes me laugh.

Stealing Elections: Unheard Of?

I’m beginning to agree with those who think American Exceptionalism is deplorable, but, as usual in our Orwell topsy-turvy land, it’s another case of Goebbels’s rule: always accuse your enemies of what you’re doing. For some people seem to really believe that, unlike every other country that’s tried Democracy of any sort for any length of time in history, our fair land is immune to the obvious temptation for any who’ve gained power through democratic means: use that power to make sure you never get unelected, and to get your buddies elected.

In this respect, America is not exceptional. Our fine leaders are every bit as likely to see free, open elections not as a sacred blessing to be preserved and defended, but as a problem to be solved, as any number of the other illustrious leaders of democracies history puts before us.

Let’s take one example, one of many, one I’ve mentioned before: Fred Roti. Born in 1920, Roti was the son of a Chicago grocery store owner, one of 11 children. Roti began his public service career in road repair, shoveling asphalt, and went on to serve as a machine gunner on a boat in France in WWII. In 1950, Roti, in the words of the Oracle Wikipedia, “was tapped by the Democratic Party organization to run for Illinois state senator from the 1st District.” He won, and served until redistricting broke up his district in 1956.

Going back to his public service roots, he then took a job as a drain inspector, while staying active in Democratic politics as a precinct captain. In 1968, he was again “tapped” by the Democratic Party to run for Chicago Alderman. He won handily, and won reelection handily until he left office in 1993. Over his 25 years in office, he was well known for helping others get their start in government work and elected office.

So, another heart-warming American success story? A few other details: Fred’s father was Bruno “The Bomber” Roti, a capo under Al Capone and a Mafia hitman. That grocery store where he was born was a few blocks down the street from Capone’s headquarters. Bruno managed to get all 11 of his children jobs in government. Fred, the youngest and the runt of the litter, rose to the most prominence.

Fred’s side interests were very profitable. He was estimated to be one of the richest men in America in the 1970s, despite having held only a number of what one would assume were full-time government jobs. He used his wealth and influence to become a major player, although a low-profile one, in state and national Democratic politics. He was a close friend, at least (FBI said: made man), of the Chicago Outfit, a mafia gang that controls much business in the Midwest, with fingers in pies from Florida to California, to this day.

Fred was known as a ‘fixer’ – if you got in trouble with the law, Roti could fix it for you. He managed this via continuing a long-standing Chicago tradition of having police chiefs and judges vetted by the Mob; e.g., “Roti was instrumental in the appointment of William Hanhardt as Chief of Detectives of the Chicago Police Department. Hanhardt was the Chicago Outfit’s main plant, was convicted in 2001 of masterminding multi-million-dollar jewelry thefts, and served 10 years in prison.” (Wikipedia, again. Being a bit lazy this morning.) A good fixer also has his people in the state law enforcement and the FBI. Roti certainly did.

Roti worked closely with Richard Daly and other Chicago mayors. Whenever an important vote came up in city council, all the other aldermen would – out of deep respect, no doubt – let Roti vote first. Then, they would all vote whichever way he did.

Roti won reelection all but unopposed all those years. Would you want to campaign in the first district, put your face and name on campaign signs to run against a guy whose daddy and friends killed people for a living, knowing that, if you were wronged, you would need to go through the police whose leadership Roti controlled, then before judges Roti got appointed? Once this level of power is obtained, you no longer need to do anything so crass as throw ballot boxes in the river or have dead people vote. You win by default.

So, when the FBI finally caught up with Roti, and managed, Al Capone style, to get him on some comparatively minor charges, there was a great purge of all his appointees and associates from all Chicago, state, and national positions of power as good American citizens were horrified that all these people were not already in jail.

Ha ha ha. I slay me. Nope, Roti took a bullet for the team. No one else was convicted, no one else lost their job, all those people he had helped get government jobs and elected office kept right on running things.

They still do.

The national Democratic party paid no price for having had a mafia don in their inner circle for decades. In fact, the team Roti put in place and their protégés got to “tap” a Presidential candidate only 14 years after Fred went to jail. Yes, sports fans, these are the people who discovered and nurtured Barack Obama’s career, grooming him for high office. These are the people on the Lightbringer’s team.

These are the people who ran the country for 8 years.

You may have noticed nothing much happened during the Barry’s reign, except the attempt to place 1/6th of the economy – medical care – under the mob’s indirect management. Gotta get your skim. But that’s because the true work was more subtle: Barack – well, his team, he was an absolute figurehead – got to be “fixers” on a national level. Instead of vetting chief inspectors and local judges, they got to vet FBI directors and Supreme Court justices.

For 8 years.

This is why I always told people that claims that Trump wasn’t moving fast enough misunderstood the situation: he had to replace enough of Obama’s team’s people at the FBI, regulatory agencies, military, judges, and so on and on – you couldn’t get to be federal equivalent of dog catcher unless O’s team knew they could control you.

Now with complete control of the FBI, the Chicago team could use it to research and intimidate anybody who had somehow gotten into office without their approval. If they fail to squash some investigation they didn’t like, they can make sure cases against their people get put before their judges. A Flynn, for one example, must be crushed – as the Dread Pirate Robert says: “Once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and then it’s nothing but workworkwork, all the time.” 

Almost as an afterthought: You want to run a news organization, or even work as a reporter? These same mechanisms are in place. You want to do that devastating expose against people who know how your kids get to school? So, effectively, cutting out the middle men, our press has been vetted by the mob. (Note: this does not mean the press isn’t also a nest of Marxists and their useful idiots. The two are hardly mutually exclusive, as history amply shows.)

This is what Trump was up against, and why they were terrified of him and hated him. That’s why they’re loosing their sh*t right now. Chips are being called in, people are being reminded of certain dirt they’d rather not have see the light of day. Anything but complete compliance means your career, and possibly life, are over. It’s frankly a miracle anyone in office is still standing with the President.

Of course, Roti was just a piece in a bigger story. Crime makes what at first might look like strange bedfellows. Marxists and mobsters agree: the police should be defunded. Unions and mobsters agree: businesses need to be brought under out control. Critical Theorists and mobsters agree: right and wrong are all a matter of how you look at it.

For our purposes here, we should note that mobsters fall under C.S. Lewis’s general rule: they just want money and power, and so are willing to let people alone at least some of the time. Therefore, they are not the ultimate threat here. It’s the people who believe that they, in their state of glorious enlightenment, need to fix (or destroy) any who don’t get with their program that will get us killed. Sooner, I mean.

On the plus side, when push comes to shove in the inevitable power struggle and purge, my money is on the mob. In America, at least, that seems more likely.

William Thompson won election as Chicago’s mayor in 1927, the last non-Democrat to hold the office. He had very good relations with Capone. Once he was gone, the Chicago Democratic Party refined its controls of elections, such that no non-Democrat has stood a snowball’s chance of getting elected ever since. Consider: Chicago has –

  • The highest paid teachers in America – AND the worst schools
  • An extensive set of Progressive social programs – AND endemic areas of poverty and despair
  • Some of the tightest gun control in the nation – AND an appalling amount of gun violence

BUT – for 90 years, no one has ever successfully been able to mount any alternative. Nope, the good people of Chicago just keep electing the same old people to keep doing the same old stuff. Chicago must be a paradise. Guess they’re just the most politically contented people on earth.

Boston, Philly, New York, LA, San Francisco, etc. – similar story: demonstrably terrible local governments that, somehow, keep getting reelected, year after year, almost always all but unopposed. At first, as a baby step, you might have to do stuff in actual elections – Roti was a precinct captain, after all – but, once you’ve got it refined, actual outside challenges are simply not allowed to happen.

So, in this light, is stealing a national election some sort of unheard-of crazy conspiracy theory? Or just the next logical step?

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Just too bad my family and I – and you and yours – get to live through it.

From Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:

(From a comment I left at John C. Wright’s blog.)

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope ~ fervently do we pray ~ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

We are the land of abortion, and of many other sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance. Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, hallowed be Thy Name. Trembling, we today plead that You remember Your promise of mercy, a promise You made to Abraham and his children forever, a promise fulfilled in Your Son. Do not hold our sins against us, for, then, who could stand? Instead, for the sake of Thy Holy Name, for the glory of Thy Son, in the power of Thy Spirit, send Your heavenly host, lead by Holy Michael, commanded by their Holy Queen, flaming swords drawn, to cast Satan and his foul minions out of our fair and blessed nation, back into the pit. Strengthen us for battle, for whatever part Your Holy Will would have us do.

Thy Will be done. Amen.

Gracchi and the Optimates, Marius and Sulla, and the Reichstag Fire

Today’s dip of the toe in history involves 3 stories:

First up: The Gracchi Brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, each served as Tribune of the Plebs in second century B.C. Rome. They received an excellent Greek education (always a dangerous thing), and, dreaming of democracy, tried to take land and power away from the aristocracy, know as the Optimates. Much land in Republican Rome had been seized as spoils in their victories. To those who have, much is given, it seems: the aristocracy took it all. Roman commoners who had fought to win those wars were left with nothing. Laws were already on the books to give the land to the commoners, but they simply got ignored.

Tiberius made his name as a hero in the Third Punic War, and was elected Tribune of the Plebs in 133 BC. Once it became clear he intended to take ‘their’ land away from them, the Optimates tried every trick in the book to stop him. Finally, the Optimates had him and about 300 of his supporters clubbed to death. This was the first use of murder to ‘solve’ a political problem in centuries, but it set the precedent for the rest of Rome’s life.

Gaius, a somewhat more practical politician, then took up the program, and again had some success. In 122 BC, the Optimates incited a mob to kill him; seeing the writing on the wall he killed himself rather than fall into their hands. Subsequently, several thousand of his followers were arrested and executed.

This ruthless suppression of the Gracchi put a damper on uppity commoners for a while.

Next up, Gaius Marius was a much more sophisticated politician, had few, if any, ideals getting in the way of his desire for power, and was a great general. He was not so intent on actually delivering what he promised to the plebs, except insofar as it furthered his ambitions. He was elected Consul for a record – and tradition-destroying – 7 terms.

He was opposed by another great general, Sulla, and took the ill-fated policy of trying to undermine Sulla’s power from Rome while Sulla was on campaign in Greece. Things got ugly. Following the precedent above, when given the chance, Marius had Sulla’s supporters murdered and their heads put on display.

Unfortunately for him, Sulla also broke tradition and took his army to Rome. While Marius himself lucked out and died of old age in his bed, when Sulla got to Rome, it was a bloodbath. Italians with reason and opportunity to seek revenge are scary.

Now the precedent was changed: you cannot rule in Rome unless you have an army loyal to you.

The escalation from putting out hits, as it were, on your political enemies, to inciting riots and then using the police and courts to having your enemies executed, to waging civil war took under 50 years in Rome. Things were a lot slower back then.

Next up, we have the curious phenomenon of Reichstag Fire. In 1933, Hitler’s Nazi Party had achieved power, but only had a plurality in the German Parliament. Conveniently, somebody (modern historians say: the Nazis themselves) started a fire that burned down the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

Communists were blamed, a scapegoat found, and marshal law declared. Hitler then used his new power to arrest all the Communists members of Parliament, which – surprise! – then gave the Nazis a simple majority.

The rest is, as they say, History.

Which is largely being repeated. Again.

With that in mind, here’s that timeline:

  • Reichstag Fire: Monday 27 February 1933
  • Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler took out his competitors within his own coalition: June 30 to July 2, 1934. This is the part I’m anticipating with grim appreciation.
  • Took 5 more years to invade Poland.

Or one could use other examples. Perhaps the French Revolution is more apt. But I’m not a real historian, I leave it up to the pros to come up with best fit precedent.

Teaching History

So I, an enthusiastic amateur, have now taught one semester of history to 6 8th graders and 4 9th graders. These are homeschooled Catholic kids, so it’s a lot better than teaching Prussian-schooled kids. What I’m teaching them:

An important guy.
  1. Always ask: How would anybody know that? I put questions about this on every test. I don’t want them to be radically skeptical – that is the road to madness – but don’t want them to just swallow whatever the texts (or, indeed, I) tell them.
  2. Conversely, don’t reflexively dismiss myth. As often as not, myths are historically true at least in general outline. They found Troy right where it was supposed to be; they found mead halls right where the Poet of Beowulf said they should be. And the Scythians buried their kings exactly as it was described to Herodotus. Some myths are wacky, or contain wacky stuff, but all tell you something important about the cultures that passed them on.
  3. Great Men and Long Term Factors. An Alexander the Great, a Charlemagne, or even a Savonarola really can change things, currents of History be damned. Macedonia is and was a relatively poor backwater – that produced a conqueror who spread Greek culture everywhere he went. Anybody who says they saw that coming is a liar. Apart from his immediate ancestors, Pepin and Charles Martel, Charlemagne was preceded and followed by comparative mediocrities – yet he made something great out of Franks, who were way toward the ‘barbaric’ end of the pool. Chaos before, chaos after, and a century of Carolingian Renaissance in the middle. Yet Egypt is the gift of the Nile, and various little ice ages crushed any number of civilizations despite how good or bad their leaders were. It’s both/and.
  4. Until very recently, 80-90% of everybody in any civilization farmed or otherwise worked to produce food. I’ve introduced them to the idea that populations are usually ‘harvest sensitive’ (as one English historian put it).
  5. The guys that imagined and built Viking longboats were as important to history as any king. For example. In general, we overrate the kings and generals and underrate the craftsmen and traders. We remember Columbus and Henry the VIII, appropriately enough, but don’t know much about the endless streams of brave (and greedy) souls who opened and traveled all the trade routes that brought, for example, silk to England and Roman coins to Japan; or, more important still, spread Mesopotamian grasses such as barely and wheat to every corner of the temperate northern hemisphere. And a million other things through a million hands. Those were important people, much more important than a run of the mill king.

And some names and dates. I tell them you need enough names and dates to organize your thoughts about history, but that’s about it. There will always be more history than can be learned in any number of lifetimes, and they keep making more. Better to establish an apporach and get an outline than to memorize a bunch of names and dates that don’t mean anything to you.

Viking Longships: Trades and Raids - BaviPower Blog
This is a truly beautiful piece of technology, involving advanced ironwork, fancy lapstrake construction, and a ton of empirical engineering, With these, brave men can go anywhere the world’s oceans and seas can take them.

In Further Praise of Gilgamesh

Read this ancient epic with a bunch of 8th graders, in a slightly scrubbed version as discussed here. We read the first half 2 weeks ago, and the second half last week.

Gilgamesh, Enkidu, lions, and some cuneiform text.. Or so I’m told by Wikipedia.

I had to share with these very bright kids the wisdom of one Robert Bart, a tutor (professor) at St. John’s College: Great books are not children’s books. He was saying this to a bunch of 18 year olds (I being one at the time. Printing had been invented, just barely). I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to reread much of the Great Books in the intervening years, and can confirm: while you have to start somewhere, there’s a reason Aristotle recommended (but, of course, did not follow) that one delays the study of philosophy until age 50. Same goes for epics and classics of all sorts. Get a lifetime under your belt, and the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, the Book of Job, Dante, and all the others are a LOT different experience.

The kids were universally disappointed with the way Gilgamesh ended. I tried to tell them that, at +/- 13 years old, grasping how life looks to an old man is going to be – difficult. I, on the other hand, was almost brought to tears.

Both the solemnity and wackiness of the adventures are taken up several notches after Enkidu dies on Tablet 5. The mythic pair of wild man (Enkidu) and over-civilized man (Gilgamesh) took on classic forces of nature and heaven, defeating the monster guarding the forest with the help of the gods, then killing the Bull of Heaven sent as vengeance. The pair shook, as it were, a manly and even kingly fist at the eternal forces – and so had to pay the price. The wild man loves civilization, but must die for city living to continue. The civilized man has lost what he most loved, that aspect of manhood that provided the test and vigor to his life. After inordinate morning – the body of Enkidu is allowed to corrupt well past its bury-by date so that Gilgamesh can mourn over it -he is willing to abandon the city so as not to suffer the same fate as his friend. He seeks the secret of immortality from the one man – Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim – to whom the gods have granted it. He lives now forever on the other side of the Waters of Death.

On his journey, he confronts nature at its wildest and most beautiful – a pride of lions – and slays them all, and wears a skin as a cloak. The skin of the king of beasts merely hides a civilized man trying to escape, without passing on to him any of Nature’s native power or glory.

He must pass through darkness, after getting past the scorpion men, a bizarre human/creature blend who bar his way at first, then let him pass. Twelve leagues of the deepest darkness later, he passes through the Garden of the Gods.

When he reaches the coast, the theme of women/bread/wine as the gateway to civilization first encountered with the literal seduction of Enkidu by Shamhat followed by the wild man’s introduction to the signature victuals of civilization – fruit of the earth and vine, the work of human hands. Gilgamesh, however, does not encounter the beautiful and brave temple prostitute, but rather a giant barmaid – Siduri, who flees from the wasted wreck that mourning and hardship have made of Gilgamesh. She eventually warms to him, serves him some very civilized food – and tells him to give up on seeking immortality, and instead seize the day. He should return home, get married, and raise some kids.

Unlike Enkidu, Gilgamesh doesn’t need the comfort of women to civilize him, but rather their wisdom. Which he promptly rejects. He wants to know how to get across the Waters of Death. He’s passing out through the gateway of civilization – wine, women, and song, as it were – and into the afterlife, or at least trying to.

Siduri directs him to the Sumerian Charon, Urshanabi the Ferryman. Gilgamesh finds him painting his boat on the shore, and attacks the ferry, as if it needed to be defeated.

The boat is death, it is what happens to souls at the end of life. By attacking and damaging the boat, he makes his quest to cross over the Waters of Death much more difficult. Gilgamesh has destroyed the magic that guides and propels the soul from this life to eternity.

After crossing the Waters of Death to Paradise Shore, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim and his wife, who are languid: what’s the hurry when one gets to live forever? He tells our hero he gained immortality after saving creation from the great flood. The creator god Enlil found people too noisy, and decided to drown them and all creatures right out. Through the machinations of a lesser god, Utnapishtim is instructed to turn his house into a huge square ark and thus saves creation. Eternal life is his (and his wife’s) reward. He repeats the advise Gilgamesh has repeatedly received on his journey: accept your mortal lot, go get married and father some children.

There’s an adventure where Gilgamesh retrieves and then loses a seaweed that grants youth to 100 o0ld men, but that’s a lost consolation prize. The message to him from beings natural, unnatural, and supernatural remains: it is your lot to die. Do great and memorable things, marry and father children – that’s the best you can do.

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a different man. He finds the people have done just fine without him, and realizes their dread of his wars and building projects. He softens some. He does marry, and his first child completes his transformation into a truly civilized man.

A great story. A perfect example of what I was trying to get across to the kids: myths are how a people explain the world and themselves to themselves. The Sumerians had carved out a handful of towns and cities in a land that could be both generous and harsh. Nature could and routinely did wipe out what they had so painstakingly built, flooding and washing away their farms and villages. Further, they were surrounded by wilder peoples who wanted what they had. Finally, death was always there, ready to take you without warning.

Gilgamesh must deal with all these issues, and answer what it is that makes a man civilized.

(Aside: as long as I can remember, I’ve pronounced – in my head, because who says such words aloud? – ‘cuneiform’ “CUE-neh-form.” Now I hear, on some of the videos I’ve watched prepping for this class, ‘coo-NAY-eh-form’. To MAY to, to MAH to. I think I like my way better, but, while I sometimes argue (tongue in cheek, mostly) for multiple orthodox orthographies, using Chaucer as my hero, not sure I want to do the same for pronunciation. Communication being the goal and all.)

In Praise of Gilgamesh

Sure I read this epic way back, but only vaguely remembered it. Today, with my 8th graders, we read the first half of it in conjunction with our studying of Sumer and the succeeding cultures. At the suggestion of the two moms who make up the curriculum committee, we used a version slightly cleaned up for younger readers – Gilgamesh the Hero – where Shamhat merely kisses and caresses Enkidu, and untangles the knots in his (body covering) hair – not the 6 days and 7 nights of lovemaking described in the original(s). Also skates around the whole issue of Gilgamesh’s use of the young women of Uruk, which figures in the sources as a complaint of the people against him.

But not too far off the sources. Since we’re reading translations from languages and cultures distant from us in more than just time, anything is going to be somewhat of an interpretation. It was sufficient.

What struck me this time, after we had just begun studying Sumer, is how perfectly the epic illustrates what I’ve been telling the kids about the fundamental role of mythology: myths are the stories we tell to explain the world and ourselves to ourselves. Consider:

Gilgamesh the historical figure traces back to the original 7 cities of Sumer, around 3200 BC. They were surrounded by Nature in its less cuddly forms.

Enkidu might as well have been an Akkadian: one of the wild men who lived on the borders of Sumer, who built cities of their own in imitation, and conquered it – and were in turn conquered by its culture. It was one of those very common cases in history where less civilized peoples conquer a higher civilization, but then, in turn, absorb and are conquers by it. When the Akkadian empire reverted to the control of Sumerians, did anybody much notice?

Shamhat is the bravest character in the story, sitting naked and beckoning to Enkidu, then ‘civilizing’ him through lots of sex and sympathy (our version emphasized the sympathy, of course -and the two things – sex and sympathy – might not have been all that different in the minds of Sumerians).

Then Nature and barbarism – the two things Sumer knew from experience to fear – embodied by Enkidu, fight the cruelty of of Gilgamesh, who is the corrupted civilized man. Gilgamesh is without any sympathy -he takes the young men of Uruk and spends them like arrows from his quiver, and uses the young women without remorse. But the newly civilized and sympathetic Enkidu – raised to that state by the concubine/temple prostitute Shamhat – fights him to a standoff, and becomes his first and best friend. Their epic tussle destroys much of Uruk, which seems to get reconstructed off screen – at least, it is there to be largely destroyed again by the Bull of Heaven a few tablets later.

So the civilized man by birth, becoming friends with the recently civilized wild man, tempers his excesses, even if unconsciously. The people rejoice because, enraptured by his new friendship, Gilgamesh lays off the wars and rape that have so drained his subjects.

Sumer was built of three materials: mud bricks – very common; fired bricks – less common; and stone – imported at great expense. The locally available timber was meagre, and hardly suited to major projects. So the epic takes our hero and his new friend over to what later becomes known as Lebanon, where suitably epic cedars grow.

With the help of the sun god, they defeat the monstrous spirit who guards the forest. They then chop down the largest tree in the forest, to be used to make city gates for Uruk, and a temple for the sun god. Again, what is more important to or symbolic of an ancient Sumerian city than its walls and gates? Nature is not conquered so much as civilized in an almost comically literal sense.

And so on. We only covered the first half of the story this week, saving the second half for next. All this is very much in keeping with the actual history of Sumer and its surrounding peoples. I imagine it as a Sumerian bedtime story, the sort of tale every kid would learn from infancy. The fatalistic, if not tragic, ending is the only one possible to a people like the Sumerians.

But we’ll get to that next week.

History: Here in the Shallow End…

I just assigned a 16 page (Ariel, 12-point, standard margins) reading from Belloc’s Europe and the Faith to a bunch of 9th graders.

If you were a 9th grader, and some teacher assigned this:

A generic term has been invented by these modern and false historians whose version I am here giving; the vigorous, young, uncorrupt, and virtuous tribes which are imagined to have broken through the boundaries of the effete Empire and to have rejuvenated it, are grouped together as “Teutonic:” a German strain very strong numerically, superior also to what was left of Roman civilization in virile power, is said to have come in and to have taken over the handling of affairs. One great body of these Germans, the Franks, are said to have taken over Gaul; another (the Goths in their various branches) Italy and Spain. But most complete, most fruitful, and most satisfactory of all (they tell us) was the eruption of these vigorous and healthy pagans into the outlying province of Britain, which they wholly conquered, exterminating its original inhabitants and colonizing it with their superior stock.

There went with this strange way of rewriting history a flood of wild hypotheses presented as fact. Thus Parliaments (till lately admired) were imagined — and therefore stated — to be Teutonic, non-Roman, therefore non-Catholic in origin. The gradual decline of slavery was attributed to the same miraculous power in the northern pagans; and in general whatever thing was good in itself or was consonant with modern ideas, was referred back to this original source of good in the business of Europe : the German tribes. 

Meanwhile the religious hatred these false historians had of civilization, that is, of Roman tradition and the Church, showed itself in a hundred other ways: the conquest of Spain by the Mohammedans was represented by them as the victory of a superior people over a degraded and contemptible one: the Reconquest of Spain by our race over the Asiatics as a disaster: its final triumphant instrument, the Inquisition, which saved Spain from a Moorish ravage was made out a monstrosity. Every revolt, however obscure, against the unity of European civilization in the Middle Ages (notably the worst revolt of all, the Albigensian), was presented as a worthy uplifting of the human mind against conditions of bondage. Most remarkable of all, the actual daily life of Catholic Europe, the habit, way of thought and manner of men, during the period of unity — from, say, the eighth century to the fifteenth — was simply omitted!

Europe and the Faith, Hillaire Belloc, CH 3

… would you be overwhelmed by it? Hate it? Love it? I’d forgotten how sophisticated Belloc’s prose is. Given the dumbed-down texts these kids are likely to have read up till now, even though homeschooling does give them a leg up on the horrifying depths to which public school has sunk, is it going to be too hard? Guess I’ll find out. (As a 9th grader, I could have handled it, but I’m a weirdo from way back.)

Also assigned were a couple pages from the beginning of Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, but, by comparison to Belloc, that’s easy stuff.

Finally, I’m in the process of picking out some Lafferty, from his Fall of Rome, as yet another perspective. He is a scream:

“The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous.”

Lafferty, the Fall of Rome

Don’t think I’d have gotten that joke when I was 15. I want to find his descriptions of Alaric and Stilicho, and his narrative of the events that lead up to the sacking of Rome. In outline of the raw events, he of course agrees with Belloc; yet he assigns much greater, as in a dominant part, to the continued loyalties and emotions of many of the players, specifically, to Alaric and his men.

This book – how much is it worth to you?

Lafferty is of course not strictly writing history, in the sense that he’s relying on a contemporary poem as his main source for what makes his account different. We know what the Greeks thought about poets. 1

Aside: that book lists for over $800 on Amazon, with used copies running over $50. I’ve bought a couple copies over the years at nothing like those prices, but now…? Somebody somewhere need to reprint all of Lafferty – he’s too good to languish behind impossibly expensive out of print books.

  1. Plato: “Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” OTOH, Aristotle: “Homer has taught all other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.”

The Many versus the Few: Who Do We Trust as Guardians of Liberty

Preliminary thoughts:

In Chapter V of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, he asks the above question: is it better to have the aristocracy or the commoners act as guardians of liberty? His answer: a good case can be made for either. Reason gives one answer – the commoners – while experience seems to favor the aristocracy. His examples for having the aristocracy guard liberty are Sparta and Venice, while the common people guarded it in Rome. Since the liberty of both Sparta and Venice lasted longer than the liberty of Rome, experience favors that approach. But if you want a more active government, one not merely concerned with protecting the liberty of a single city-state but of a larger republic and, eventually, an empire, then the people are the better guardians.

So says Machiavelli. The reader will wonder, I suppose, in what sense liberty under Sparta, Venice, and Rome are the same thing. I certainly do, and note that, if forced to choose, I’d take my liberty under Rome or, maybe, Venice, way before I would take whatever is considered liberty under Sparta.

What liberty means here is a huge question I don’t intend to consider at moment. Instead, let’s look at Machiavelli’s reasons:

As touching reasons, it may be pleaded for the Roman method, that they are most fit to have charge of a thing, who least desire to pervert it to their own ends. And, doubtless, if we examine the aims which the nobles and the commons respectively set before them, we shall find in the former a great desire to dominate, in the latter merely a desire not to be dominated over, and hence a greater attachment to freedom, since they have less to gain than the others by destroying it. Wherefore, when the commons are put forward as the defenders of liberty, they may be expected to take better care of it, and, as they have no desire to tamper with it themselves, to be less apt to suffer others to do so.

So, Machiavelli asserts that we commons have “merely a desire not to be dominated over” and thus won’t be tempted to use our guardianship of liberty to lord it over others. Hmmm.

When I look in the mirror, I do see a guy who mostly wants the government to leave him alone. I don’t want any power over others, and I wish no one, as much as reasonably possible, to have power over me. I fully recognize the necessity and even goodness of laws, and the need, therefore, of those with the power to execute them. But, after Thomas and Aristotle, I want those laws to be few, known by all, and an expression of our best understanding of the will of God (or the natural aspirations of the good man, in Aristotle’s case).

All this had me contemplating our own government at its founding. Jefferson had a copy of the Discourses in his library, and it seems he and the drafters of the Constitution did, in fact, intend to make the commoners the guardians of liberty after the fashion of the Romans. At first, the Roman Senate, backed into a corner, granted merely the veto to the plebs. Eventually, an inch at a time, most offices and honors were open to the little people. But this opening up to the commoners of the opportunity to have for themselves the same roles as the aristocracy seems more a safety valve than a safeguard of liberty: it’s an early version of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the recognition that ambitious men of achievement can arise anywhere. By allowing ambitious and talented commoners to satisfy their desire for honor and achievement, the Romans – and us, I suppose – channel ambition in a constructive, or at least, a less destructive, course.

But for the rest of us, who desire nothing more from our role in government than to be left in peace, what we want, or should want, is merely the veto, as it were, merely the ability to say ‘no’ to the ambitions of the aristocracy, whether it is natural or inherited.

I think that’s how we should view the House, and that’s why Senators, Electors, and Presidents were not to be elected by popular vote. It’s accepting the humility of ambitions that should go along with the humility of goals: if all we really want is to be left in peace, then we shouldn’t be voting on the basis of foreign policy or military strategy or any other complex issue we can’t possibly be expected to have any understanding of, given that we vote every two years at the most, and hardly discuss these matters in between elections, and don’t even get election day off from work!

If we merely said: I want one of us there, to keep an eye on these ambitious jokers, and so I’ll focus my duty on just picking some person for the local House seat who will yell veto when the time comes. I don’t even want to get involved in the big issues I have no time, talent, or inclination to study enough to begin to understand them.

Because these two goals are incompatible: to be responsible for the election of executives and aristocrats based on issues we have no hope or interest in understanding, and wanting to be left in peace.

We meddle, they meddle. Mostly, they meddle by incessant demagoguery. We can hardly complain that they aren’t leaving us alone.

Political Stupidity

One often hears or thinks, when being afflicted by the latest ‘news’: just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse… Implied here is some floor, some level of stupid or bad beyond which any more stupidity or badness is simply unthinkable. Well, I’m here to break the bad news: We’re not close yet. Things can get just a whole lot more stupid and evil.

To illustrate – and, I’m doing this from memory and am not going to look it up, because I’m just going for the general outline here – let’s look at the events leading up to Alaric’s sacking of Rome, as told by R. A. Lafferty in his book The Fall of Rome (reviewed here).

First, start with some very shrewd politics – what one might expect from the Roman empire: the practice of hostage exchanges. You, the Roman Emperor, would arrange to send ‘exchange students’ as it were, to the courts of the leaders of your allies who supply your ‘auxiliary’ troops; they send you some as well, to live at your court. These hostages were the roughly teenage sons of the leading families.

Golden coin depicting man with diadem facing right
Honorius. Manages to look like a goof
on his own coin.

Thus, the Romans had natural spies – a 15 year old Roman nobleman had most likely already been sent on diplomatic missions by his patrician father, and in any event had been raised from the cradle to be a Roman, with all the discipline and focus that ideal entails. Meanwhile, the barbarian noble boys were sent to Rome (or Constantinople) to be overawed by Roman greatness and to be made into Romans as much as possible.

The Romans would get back detailed reports on their ‘allies’ while sending back young men who, it was hoped, had learned to fear, admire, and yearn for Rome.

It even kind of worked.

Now, around 390, Theodosius has at his court a group of Goth and Vandal boys to train up – and makes, according to Lafferty, the extraordinary decision to train them up to be true leaders, going so far as to tell them that any one of them could end up Master General or even emperor, and thus needed to be prepared to lead and rule.

Stilicho, Theodosius’s Master General and one of history’s most impressive characters, had some part in this. He was a one-man advertisement for the greatness and goodness of the Empire: a Vandal lord, yet more Roman than Caesar and more Catholic than the Pope. He was the kind of man who could step into a room full of hardened soldiers and silence them with a glance. His will was iron, and his bravery and prowess the stuff of legend. He and the emperor shared the belief that the Empire was the chosen tool of God to preserve and propagate the Faith, and knew they had to bring the barbarians into the process for it to succeed.

Awesome, and not stupid or evil. It’s what happens next that establishes my personal ‘how bad can it get?’ floor:

Theodosius had two sons, and the Empire was split between them upon his death in 394. Honorius got the Western half, and got Stilicho as his guardian and major general. As one might imagine, the Vandal lord kept a lid on things and held the Empire together for as long as he could. One problem: Honorius had also inherited an advisor named Olympius, who makes Heath Leger’s Joker look like a well adjusted man.

Olympius was evidently very shrewd and good at his job, after a fashion. He was evidently also a sociopath, and the father of intrigues that, according to Lafferty, were so convoluted and involved we moderns couldn’t begin to follow them. Olympius’s goals seemed to be destroying his enemies and seeing how far he could take it. He doesn’t seem to have had or even cared about an end game.

Thus, when he go the chance, he destroyed Stilicho. He had the manifestly incompetent emperor call the master general to court in Ravenna to answer some charges. Stilicho’s friends, seeing an obvious plot, implored him to simply declare himself emperor – he had the army behind him, was clearly being set up, and the emperor was clearly incompetent and being manipulated. Better to save himself and the Empire!

Instead, Stilicho obeyed the emperor’s command, as he had done his whole life. Olympius had him and his family murdered, thus removing the one man who had the will and power to preserve the Empire.

But – and here’s where the evil/stupid becomes incomprehensible: the Visigoths, who, under Alaric and his relatives, made up a critical piece of Rome’s army, had, under the influence of the training they had received as hostages, become, in their own minds, Romans. They spoke Latin, and many of the commanders and soldiers had settled their families in Italy.

Olympius first murders the one man the Visigoths, an armed force in his own land, feared and respected. Then murders his family. Then allowed, and most likely encouraged, the murder of all the Visigoth families living in Italy. Rome for the Romans! the murders cried, not admitting that Rome was still Roman at least in part because the Visigoths had fought to preserve it!

So now you have 30,000 battle-hardened troops in your own country who you’ve incited to very understandable murderous rage while at the same time having murdered the one man with any chance of defeating them – because? Ravenna itself was both impossibly well defended – not that Alaric didn’t try, but the land all about the city was a swampy mess- and well-supplied by ship with grain from Africa.

How did Olympius think this was going to play out? He’s now stuck in Ravenna, everybody with the possible exception of the emperor hating his guts for having gotten them into this situation, with an enraged army at his gates. Did he expect the murder of the Visigoth women and children to blow over, somehow? It’s incomprehensible.

So Alaric, enraged but still a shrewd general, decides he needs to go to Africa, defeat the general there in charge of sending food to Ravenna, and then return to besiege the city to starve Olympius out.

But he needed cash to get the ships.

The Eternal City had cash, and was hardly on the Visigoths’ good side at this point.

Thus Alaric, who had earlier come to think of himself as a Roman and a defender of Rome, who had risked death and lead armies in the defense of the Empire, found himself leading an army to destroy Rome.

The Visigoths did sack Rome, and then headed toward the southern coast to get their ships – and then Alaric died. Honorius also soon died, and his successors promptly had Olympius clubbed to death. The Visigoths, their blood-lust slaked somewhat with the sacking of Rome and death of Olympius, were essentially bough off with Spain, where they settled and became farmers.

Olympius is my floor for stupid/evil politics.

We’re not there yet. I wish I were confident we’re not headed in that direction.

Anybody got a lower floor? I’m afraid to hear it…