Let’s Play at Being Cicero

Or let’s not. It often seems to have ended badly: civil unrest, war, death – including Cicero’s, in the end.

This may be my favourite news story of the week (hat tip to @hapaxlegoman for the link):

with President Obama expected to announce a series of actions on immigration Thursday night, and with Cruz having long sought to frame Obama as being imperial, Cruz took to the floor of the Senate to deliver a speech worthy of the great Roman orator Cicero to criticize Obama’s behavior.

And when we say “worthy of Cicero,” it is meant literally. Cruz actually took a speech from Cicero from 63 B.C., changed references to murder and revolution into ones about the IRS and the Constitution, and hammed his way through.

The video is here:

It is AMAZE. His face is so sad. I’d bet Cicero wasn’t so long-faced. He’d have been rowdier. Also, he wouldn’t have yielded the floor politely, he would have damn well owned the floor, and you would have known all about it.

Also, I am not at all baffled by the fact that Cruz leaves out Ahala saving the Republic in favour of the IRS destroying the Republic.  Like, that’s not a replacement that works. The example isn’t supposed to be an example Catiline/Obama’s villainy, it’s supposed to lead into an exhortation to the Senate to authorise (possibly illegally, depending on your perspective on what makes a law legal…) the exile and destruction of a Roman citizen for allegedy plotting to ‘overthrow the Republic’. I kinda want to give Cruz credit for not going there with the President of the United States, but can I do that and tweak him for blowing his rhetoric?

I once gave a paper on Cicero’s exclusionary rhetoric, and its dangers. I was looking at the Philippics, but the Catilinarians work on the same principles. Perhaps more importantly – more scarily – they actually worked. Because when the rhetoric works you don’t see the political dangers of it so easily – you just see a plot that was defeated, a clear villain, and a clear hero (I love Cicero, but boy does he go on about it…), and life goes on. But something – something – changes. Lines are drawn, antagonisms get further coded in, and it becomes gradually harder and harder to disagree without getting labelled a traitor.

The political tensions and instability that this causes becomes clearer if you follow Cicero through the Philippics, where he’s trying to get Mark Anthony drummed out of Rome in a similar way, attacking his morals and his politics as unRoman, and sees it all blowing up in his face. Antony is forced out, but he has a better, stronger army than Catiline ever had, and so you get civil war. Throw the young Octavian and his ambition into the mix (and others as well) so that you have more than two sides trying to manoeuvre and fight their way to their preferred outcome, and you get a complicated multi-way civil war that ultimately drags on for most of the next decade, until Octavian ‘becomes’ Augustus – with Cicero and his dream of the Republic getting knocked out in Round One, labelled as a traitor by Antony, and killed, with his head and hands put on display in the Roman Forum. Whatever you think about Augustus and the principate as a system, ten years of civil war and lots of lots of death doesn’t seem like a great example to follow.

I mean, the Republican Party doing this with Obama is nothing new. They’ve been doing it since he started running for President. It rolls out every time someone calls him Barack Hussein Obama or tries to code him as an Angry Black Man.

They’re far less good at it than Cicero (most people are far less good at rhetoric than Cicero, to be fair). They’re also – perhaps unless they embrace the idea of staging a coup d’etat – probably not going to win. They’re just going to dig the US even deeper into a mire of political yelling past each other, where it takes far longer to get things done than it should, and a lot of people really really don’t like a lot of other people. It’s just not going to end well, for anyone.

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