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Archive for October, 2011

Rehabilitating Caligula

[ 64 ] October 30, 2011 |

Is Caligula misunderstood? Scott Mclemee reviews Aloys Winterling’s efforts in this regard:

But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane — his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?

In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography

But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”

In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling’s interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power — and, even more, for the senators themselves.

Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.

So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel — to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.

It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor’s death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.

Interesting, but here’s why I’m not convinced. Every early emperor (and really, every emperor) endured roughly the same political structure as Caligula, in the sense of struggling with plots from the Senate and having to deal with an unspecified power responsibilities.* Yet not every emperor has a reputation for insanity; some emperors were relatively well regarded by contemporaries, others regarded as cruel but effective, etc. Maybe Winterling explains how Caligula’s political maneuvering so enraged the contemporary elite (and let’s be clear, Suetonius is not a contemporary, suggesting that the perception of Caligula’s insanity was enduring) that they decided to depict him as more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar, or maybe he was actually more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar.  Given that he was outlasted in that position by such prizes as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, I’m inclined toward the latter interpretation.  But then I haven’t read the book, so take with many grains of salt etc. etc.

It’s also worth noting that to the extent the Brass/Guccione/Vidal film has a political perspective on Caligula’s career, it mirrors Winterling’s argument; McDowell’s Caligula is crazy, but his craziness is a reaction to/accommodation of the paranoia and corruption of the contemporary Roman elite.  Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever), but to the best of my recollection we’re supposed to sympathize with Caligula at the end.

*This may deserve a post of its own, but the occasional comment over the years has made it necessary to point out that a monarchy and a dictatorship are not the same thing; the latter represents a much more direct relationship between head of state and political power than the former, which should really be understood as a mechanism for managing intra-elite relations in a feudal, pre-feudal, and quasi-feudal societies. Monarchies attempt (with often middling success) to minimize the impact of any given head of state, while dictatorships (in their 20th century form) attempt to maximize the individual power of the autocrat. The key virtue of a hereditary monarchy is to ameliorate problems of succession, which it does by creating a presumptive heir and by situating that heir within a traditional system of formal and informal limits on his power.  The latter is necessary to managing the “blithering idiot” problem sometimes produced by the former.  Obviously, monarchies historically often failed to deliver on one or the other of these promises, but the system nevertheless represents an effort to solve serious problems of political authority.  In Rome, it was ideologically (and for a time constitutionally)  impossible to maintain a true monarchy, even thought many emperors did hand off power in a quasi-hereditary fashion. However, I think it’s almost certainly true that a true monarchy, with a regularized system of transferring power and a set of formal and informal limits on the power of the emperor, would have been superior to the imperial system, which obviously failed to solve the “blithering idiot” problem on its own terms.

I think that this becomes clear when comparing “undergraduate textbook” discussions of Eastern monarchies versus European monarchies.  Discussion of European dynastic history are even at this late date very personalistic, featuring discussion of the personal qualities of whatever Peter, Henry, Frederick, John et al happens to be the monarch in question, while backgrounding discussion of contextual dynastic issues.  Undergraduate textbook versions of Chinese and Japanese history, however, are almost remarkable in the absence of actual individual monarchs, with the exception of a few dynastic founders.  Rather, the emphasis in on the Qin, Han, Tang et al dynasties in the Chinese case, and the various imperial periods in the Japanese.  This emphasizes that each dynasty/period was actually a system of governance with formal and informal rules, rather than simply a succession of hereditary monarchs.  I think that historians can get away with this in the Asian context because undergraduates (not to mention reviewers, etc.) are far less familiar with the personalities in Asia than they are in Europe, and so don’t rage when the textbook excludes detailed discussion of the foibles of Richard the Lion Hearted et al.


The Minnesota Madoff

[ 12 ] October 30, 2011 |

Mariah Blake’s article about Tom Petters is fascinating stuff. Petters used a Ponzi scheme funded largely by hedge funds, investors known to Petters and his associates through Christian groups, and the purchase of failing legitimate businesses to finance the classic lifestyle of the conservative wealthy-and-tasteless (high stakes slot machines! Yacht cruises with prostitutes, interns selected as potential sex partners, and cocktails involving Red Bull and citrus vodka!) All throughout this, he sought to get a pardon for his past crimes with the help of political backers ranging from Fritz Mondale to Michele Bachmann.

Among many other things, the Petters tale is an object lesson of the value inherent in being a responsible looking white guy in a suit. While Maddoff’s Ponzi scheme at least grew out of a legitimate operation, Petters was never anything but a con artist. And in the beginning, not a very sophisticated one — his basic strategy was to sell things he didn’t own and keep the money. And, yet. he was able to get away with a more elaborate and lucrative fraud for more than two decades, while accruing many of the markers of social respectability up to and including many powerful friends. There are too many examples of our fundamental regulatory failures to count, but this one is a doozy.

Drew Westen on Politics

[ 25 ] October 29, 2011 |

Speaking of things that rarely end well…

…as a couple commenters have pointed out, I agree that there’s one flaw in John’s generally astute analysis. Looking only at final vote tallies obscures some elements of dissent, and misses some of the ways in which the Democtartic caucus is less coherent. If you look at the Senate vote on the ACA, for example, it looks like the caucuses are equally unified. But every Republican stuck to the leadership line of “nothing,” while conservative Democrats had a huge impact on shaping the legislation and made it worse than the House bill. My problem with Westen here is that, as always, he ignores fundamental institutional structures of American politics and instead engages in unproductive psychological speculation. The more-unified Republican caucus isn’t primarily a result of their “attitude toward authority and hierarchy” but of the fact that because conservative regions of the country are massively overrrepresented in Congress Republicans need fewer ideological outliers to put majorities together. After all, if you buy Westen’s framework, then Blue Dog and conservative Senate Democtats should be the most receptive to taking “marching orders” from the leadership, but of course the reverse is true.

Shifting Attitudes Towards the Military in Guatemala and Haiti?

[ 27 ] October 29, 2011 |

Interesting pair of articles on Latin American military institutions.  First Guatemala:

They burned villages, killed children and, just a winding road away from here in 1982, the Guatemalan military also massacred hundreds of Mayan peasants, after torturing old men and raping young women. But now, all across these highlands once ravaged by a 36-year civil war, the region’s bloodiest anti-Communist conflict, Guatemalans are demanding the unthinkable — a strong military, back in their communities.

That is how desperate this country has become as gangs and Mexican drug cartels run fever-wild, capturing territory and corrupting institutions so that Guatemala will remain a safe haven for cocaine, guns, money laundering and new recruits…

Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday could represent a turning point. The three top contenders have all called for a stronger, crime-fighting military, borrowing heavily from the Mexican model of attacking the drug cartels head-on, even though that strategy has claimed more than 40,000 lives without yielding peace.

Then Haiti:

The military was disbanded over human rights abuses in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after years of political turmoil, making Haiti one of a handful of countries without an army.

But now President Michel Martelly is pledging to revive it, pressing forward with a plan to reconstitute the Haitian military as a kind of national guard or civil defense force to supplement the weak national police.

His $95 million proposal calls for an initial force of 3,500 personnel to patrol the border, help put down civil unrest and provide badly needed employment to legions of young people. It sets aside $15 million to compensate former soldiers who have long complained they are owed a pension.

I don’t know a ton about either case, but a couple thoughts. First, the stance of the United States matters for concerns about military intervention in politics. During the Cold War, the US explicitly valued friendly regimes over democratic regimes, and rightist military officers responded to either direct suasion or plentiful hints. Now, the US is considerably less friendly to direct military intervention in politics, even if (as in Honduras) the US response is relatively tepid. Broadly speaking, this means that the threat of a politicized military doesn’t loom as large as it did in the1980s.

Second, global norms of appropriate military behavior have shifted in the direction of deference to civilian control since the 1980s, in a development that’s not unrelated to the end of the Cold War. This has tended to make coups less common and less bloody, and also means that concerns about the having the military play a direct role in politics and law enforcement may not raise as many red flags as it once did. In the Haitian context, it probably does make sense to rebuild a military institution capable of reacting more capably than the police to disasters, and so forth.

All that said, it’s appropriate to be concerned about direct military intervention in a drug war, because of course the military may become inclined to employ the same method that drug cartels use. Moreover, it hardly seems impossible that the military will develop an interest in a piece of the action through the process of becoming familiar with the trade, attacking cartels, and so forth. I can appreciate the frustration that Guatemalans feel regarding the cartels, but asking for greater intervention from the military seems to be a recipe for trouble.

Reagan–Our Pro-Apartheid President

[ 56 ] October 29, 2011 |

The death of Howard Wolpe, the congressman from Michigan who sponsored bills in the 80s to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa should remind us that Ronald Reagan, who vetoed the bill twice, was for all intents and purposes pro-apartheid. As of course was Dick Cheney, who voted against the bill as a congressman from Wyoming.

Our New Robot Overlords Need Pets Too

[ 1 ] October 29, 2011 |

Someone is trying to get in good with our robot overloads by developing robot cats they can pet.

Sign Fail

[ 21 ] October 29, 2011 |

This is, obviously, appalling. See Patrick Nielson Hayden and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It’s possible, of course, that some prosecutions of rank-and-file cops for ticket-fixing can be plausibly described as less than ideal prosecutorial practice; if they’re under orders to do it, everyone does it, and they prosecutors are happy to prosecute the rank-and-file cops and aren’t making an effort to go up the ladder, they’ve caught a legitimately bad break, and some sense of sympathy and perhaps expressions of solidarity might be reasonable. Obviously, the behavior of the police described in the story goes well beyond anything that might be reasonably described as a reasonable and appropriate expression of solidarity.

I would also encourage whoever’s behind those signs to contemplate a) why the phrase ‘just following orders’ resonates in the public consciousness, and if they really want to associate with it in such a manner, and b) if “its been going on since the time of the Egyptians” is really something they want to treat as a sufficient condition for non-prosecution.

The Three Authoritarian Stooges

[ 11 ] October 29, 2011 |

When Lieberman, Lindsay, and St. McCain get together and develop detainee policy, I want to run screaming in the other direction.

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[ 98 ] October 28, 2011 |

Congrats to the Cardinals  — just amazing considering where they were in August.   It’s too bad that there wasn’t a follow-up to the a classic Game 6 like 1975, but still an excellent World Series.  Couple points:

  • The Rangers have a right to bitch about the pivotal Molina walk.  But that’s why you don’t walk the bases loaded.   There are ways you have to manage differently in the post-season, but there are ways you shouldn’t.   Washington is stingy with the IW during the regular season, and there’s no reason to abandon that in the playoffs.
  • The Kinsler pickoff in the first inning was a huge play.   Not just for the out and baserunner in themselves, but Carpenter had nothing in the 1st inning and LaRussa would have had a quick hook.   Could have had a huge impact on the game.
  • Is LaRussa the best manager since Stengel?  McCarthy?   He’s in the conversation, anyway.
  • Bud needs a script to announce the MVP?  Christ.


Game 7!

[ 62 ] October 28, 2011 |

I don’t see the Rangers recovering from last night, but then lots of unlikely things have happened in this Series.  Consider this an open thread for game seven of the World Series.

…[SL]:  I’d like to think that this would discredit the IW-the-bases-loaded play, but nothing ever does.

Friday Links

[ 40 ] October 28, 2011 |

Change: Never Good

[ 57 ] October 28, 2011 |


Centuries of British royal discrimination came to an end Friday after Commonwealth leaders agreed to drop rules that give sons precedence as heir to the throne and bar anyone in line for the crown from marrying a Roman Catholic.

The 16 countries that have Queen Elizabeth as their monarch agreed to the changes put forward by Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called the rules of succession outdated.

“The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic, this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we’ve all become,” Cameron told reporters.

Might as well just hand the country over to the Irish right now.

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