Towards a really conservative view

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted April 16, 2001
Wealth lies upon us like a vampire
Avenging the captive nations we brought to heel.
- Juvenal, circa the year 100, Rome.
Amerian world hegemony was achieved by the strong right arm and moral virtue of the World War II generation, rendering America the most successful, the most powerful, the wealthiest Empire in the history of humankind. For a thousand generations tales of our times will be told. All national policies and predicaments may be viewed in this light and weighed by this measure.

If you shuffle back through the classics, you'll find that many of America's problems and paradoxes are not new. I take a lot of political solace from the writings of Juvenal (55 ? C.E. - 140 C.E.).

Juvenal was sort of the George Carlin cum Hunter S. Thompson cum P.J. O'Rourke of the relatively free-spoken Flavian Rome which followed the death of Domitian, the last of the 12 Caesarian emperors, around 90 C.E.. It was a heady time, a prosperous time: the last of the Flavians, Hadrian, planted his walls in mid-Britain. Rome's enemies were in retreat and confusion.

Written in that glittering era, Juvenal's sixteen Satires, all that survive centuries of Imperial and later Church censorship, sound totally modern:

It's harder not to write satires
How else to survive this City!?
What was Juvenal's complaint? His verse is at once scintillating and callous. Juvenal prodded aggressively the shibboleths of his audience, an audience he delighted in shocking as much as the aforementioned modern American humorists do. He was, in a word, politically incorrect.

He scorned the Greeks, the doctors and lawyers, wealthy freedmen whose parents had come as slaves to Rome in the previous centuries. The Caesars, aristocratic insurgents on behalf of the commons against the aristocracy itself, had promoted Greek freedmen by merit into important government posts.

He scorned the Jews, whose miserable defeat under Titus in 70 C.E. heralded the era of the Diaspora. Jews had become the gypsies of Italy, telling fortunes, performing as go-betweens in love affairs, camping in tents on the commons and leading a separate existence.

He scorned the Egyptians with their hermaphroditic religious cults. Pehaps Rabindrath Tagore had Juvenal in mind when in the 19th century he described Sri Caitanya, founder of the Krishna movement, as "he who castrated the Bengal". But as regards Egypt, Juvenal may have had a personal misprise of that nation: he had been exiled to the Upper Nile under the guise of a government appointment by Domitian himself. The exile itself was a sign of high regard for Juvenal's ability or perhaps his popularity: Domitian habitually killed anyone who crossed him in the slightest. When Juvenal returned 13 years later to Rome, he versified that

Henceforth I will satirize dead Caesars, not living ones
It's much safer.
He didn't like gays, who had achieved toleration and held high office under imperial government. Juvenal taunted the law-and-order cliques of these out-of-the-closet officials with the words:
If the government is intent on restoring old laws
Let's start with the Sodomy Law
He mocked the rich and effete lawyers.
What are we to make of the law, when
The plaintiff's lawyer strides into the courtroom, wearing
Chiffon so thin you can see his nipples?
he says in a satire of which Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant Massacree is somewhat reminiscent.

Again, it is easy to dismiss Juvenal as coarse in content almost beyond the redemption of his skill at epigram. When challenged, he pointed to the the influx  into Rome of luxury goods:

The nervous millionaire supports a vast bucket brigade, but
The tub of the naked Diogenes the Cynic never caught fire.
and bemoaned the concomitant degradation of ancient Roman mores. Juvenal depicts female sexual predators in terms explicit enough to shock if posted to today's Internet. Let's merely quote his philosophic conclusion:
In the old days poverty
Kept Latin women chaste.
Consider Juvenal's warning about wealth, found at the head of this article. Here's a more complete and correct translation of that verse, from translator Peter Green (The Sixteen Satires, Penguin Classics, 1967):
Now we are suffering
The evils of too-long peace. Luxury, deadlier
Than any armed invader, lies like an incubus
Upon us still, avenging the world we brought to heel
Since Roman poverty perished, no visitation
Of crime or lust has been spared us.
I think that sums up a lot of the true American conservative point of view. Television is an open sewer into the home. Our national institutions retain but a fig leaf covering their lack of integrity. Respect for law is at an all-time low, even if one considers only the automobile driving habits of the average American. America seems to be becoming a giddoudamyway society, a ¡vivo yo! society, without much dignity or civility remaining in public behavior or partisan discourse.

Nothing seems to help. Hectoring our youth towards a virtue we never achieved in our own youth leads only to the bewildering spectacle of children taking automatic weapons to other children in the schoolhalls. The 2000 election seems to indicate Americans have become almost incapable of choosing our national leaders. Under such circumstances, can Caesarianism tarry long?

Nothing exceeds like excess. Empire has been very hard on the Republic. The encroachments by the federal government upon state prerogative and civil liberties have come with the best of intentions, that of preserving public safety, the safety of a wealthy middle class very self-conscious of their prerogatives and somewhat less conscious of their duties.

We have no enemies of the public order quite like unto ourselves, the heirs of American empire.

Jack Woehr is a computer programmer whose political avocation is apparently destined either to make him the Benjamin Disraeli or the Harold Stassen of Jefferson County, Colorado.

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