Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Lessons of Recent History

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

In his essay on Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar”, W.H. Auden observed that theatrical directors throughout the 30's found it quite natural to make of Caesar a great fascist dictator, more like Mussolini than Hitler. The conspirators, he claimed, were “liberals”. Up to date analogies are irresistible. For a brief period not long before Iraq fell into utter chaos, it could be said that George W. Bush had “...crossed the Rubicon”. There are better analogies to be made.

In 1947, Auden would say of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that it had “great relevance to our time”. That is still true, though Auden believed that Julius Caesar was about the society of ancient Rome on the very edge of doom. Auden did not believe that to be true of Western Civilization in 1947. But is it true of the US, Britain, and Western Civilization today? Are we perched on the edge of doom?

Historically, Octavian would “ride the storm” eventually prevailing at Actium, and, assuming the title “Augustus”. He would give to Rome another 400 years. One suspects that Octavian's prospects were not nearly as gloomy as those we face today.

Auden would write of the post Roman-Hellenic world that it collapsed of a spiritual failure, a lack of nerve, an inability to make sense of what was going on. This is the analogy that is to be made with the present. It is not surprising that a far flung war begun upon a pack of malicious and deliberate lies would drag on for four years. It did so because few in power understood the “story” behind the day-to-day news. The BBC stated flatly: the Iraq war has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East that will be felt for a generation. That is, in fact, an optimistic assessment.

There was yet another layer of complication. It had to do with the sense of community found lacking in America and, perhaps, to a lesser degree elsewhere. Auden makes much of the manner in which Shakespeare begins his plays. “First things in Shakespeare are always important”, he writes. It is, therefore, significant that Julius Caesar begins with a crowd scene. It is just as significant that Bush Jr seized the White House following a “stolen election” and the very worst Supreme Court decision (Bush v Gore) since Dred-Scott.

A “crowd” is always one of three important types: societies, communities, and crowds. One belongs to a society in which the individual has a function or to which one contributes in one way or another. Communities are composed of people who share a common love, goal or culture. Crowds, by contrast, are composed of members who neither belong nor join. Members of crowds are mere numerical additions to the crowd. The crowd, Auden writes, has no function. That cannot be said of the “criminal gang” that attacked vote re-counters in Florida.

Crowds arise when communities break down, when individuals for various reasons cannot share a common culture, love or enthusiasm with others. Education, says Auden, has little to do with it. Knowledgeable, highly educated people often become members of crowds for various reasons and thus help drive the enigma of fascism.

An over-simplification is tempting. Crowds are fertile ground, nurturing fascism and other forms of authoritarian governments and regimes. This was witnessed in Germany as A. Hitler rose to power. If the manner in which Shakespeare begins his plays is important, then it must be pointed out that Julius Caesar begins with a crowd scene and ends with the loss of Republic.

A crowd is most often ugly, fickle, angry yet manipulable. Kierkegaard would write of the public as merely a large crowd, “...a Roman emperor, a large well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter.” He would call the “press” the “public's dog” that is often set upon the truly great. Thus, the crowd, manipulated by demagogues and charlatans, becomes a mob.

I submit that the increasingly isolated, suburban nature of American society, in the midst of plenty, devolved into islands of isolation. The word community merely attached to a soulless suburb does not make a real community. It's only a sub-division at best. At worst –a dormitory. An affluent America became a nation of crowds, a public only loosely held together, isolated by the science of demographics whose very purpose is separation and analysis.

Given those conditions, the events of 911 were exploitable. America became an angry mob. The conditions were ripe for a would-be dictator to seize “the crown”, vowing as he did to “...export death and destruction to the four corners of the earth.” This would-be Caesar was hardly swept into office with a genuine popular mandate. Many say the election was stolen. I am among those who believe that. Certainly, Gore received more popular votes in Florida. But for 911, Bush might have been retired.

By the time Bush had survived a full term, there was little hope that a new Congress would force a positive change. I was always hesitant to believe that Congress truly knew what was going on. Until America finds its soul, its sense of real community, it will remain like a latter-day Roman-Hellenic world on the edge of doom. There is no Octavian in the wings. There is little hope that our nation will survive another 400 years or so.
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