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Wednesday, November 5

A Modern Cicero? 

Many months ago, I wrote about US Senator Byrd. Little did I know then that he had already composed a slim volume entitled, "The Senate of the Roman Republic".  In it, according to the blurb:
"Senator Byrd sees ample parallels between the willingness of Roman senators to hand over powers of the purse to usurping executives and the compliant attitude of United States senators in responding to presidential urging for a similar grant of powers in a line-item veto constitutional amendment."
Given that it came out in 1995, he must be feeling even more prescient than I normally do!  

He appears again in the news because, again, he stood out as the sole voice of reason in the US Senate.  He was the only one to speak in opposition to the recent bill granting an additional $87 Billion to Iraq.  Given that he was against the war from the beginning, his stance is not surprising.  And given the nature of the current Senate, the outcome of the vote was equally predictable.  What the media has failed to stress, however, and what is truly shocking, is that only six Senators bothered to even show up to vote.  The other 413 votes were cast in absentia, without engaging in public debate.

Byrd's speech was, as always, moving, intelligent, and eloquent.  Yet it is increasingly clear that he is speaking for posterity.  The Senate does not care to debate, and the media is uninterested in publicizing his view.  As Studs Terkel explained in a recent interview:
It's as though a coup has already been accomplished. The coup that began with the November election of the year 2000. You have one voice- and this is ironic, the conservative Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. The one eloquent voice, by the way, who throughout has been talking about the dangers of a coup, the dangers of no longer being this country that is so proud of its democratic spirit and openness...

I'm looking at The New York Times right now, and I thought there would be a headline, "Robert Byrd, Senior Senator, Conservative West Virginia and his very eloquent speech." I find it obscene. It had nothing in it about that ...  so how come the New York Times ain't got his speeches or headlines. I'm talking about the so-called best paper in the country. Other papers, too. This is the big question, isn't it? How the intelligence of the American people as well as sense of decency is being so assaulted by the senatorial cave, as it is at this moment.
And indeed, a quick survey of the news proves his point.  This is not a story the mainstream media wants to tell.  It is not a debate almost anyone wants to enter.  In keeping with the trend of Roman analogies, the editor of Harper's claimed that Byrd was like Cicero:
The analogy isn't perfect, but Cicero also saw himself as the principal defender of the Senate as institutional bulwark against a military usurper. Eight days before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Antony, as tribune, had vetoed a Senate proposal to declare Caesar a public enemy if he refused to disband his army...

Antony had Cicero murdered for his defiance. I fear that Byrd and his ilk are being killed by silence.
But his analogy puts the emperor in a much less stable position than I fear is the case.  Consider history.  Cicero was killed during the chaotic years before the emperor Augustus was either an emperor or "Augustus," when he was merely one of the three men (the trium viri) granted almost absolute power for five years.  Their task was allegedly to rebuild the state after the chaos following Julius Caesar's rise and fall.  In fact, all three were trying to win power for themselves, and none of their powers were rescinded when the specified term was complete.  This was a period of chaos for Rome, when the laws were no longer held in abeyance and massive proscriptions terrified the prominent (killing men such as Cicero) while enriching the triumvirs.  No one was under any illusion that this was life as usual.  Even the triumvirs would not have tried to argue such an insane point.

Life "as usual" was said to begin once Augustus succeeded in ousting his two rivals.  Then the Senate announced that the job of righting the state that they had created the triumvirs to address was finally accomplished.  Then the Senate officially gave Augustus his title of Augustus (which had not been his name prior), and began granting him all the powers of a dictator (although he always shied away from the title, which had led to Julius Caesar's assassination).  Then everyone began saying how good it was that everything was back as it should be, and no one said anything against Augustus, or his policies, or the fact that the senate no longer had any real power.

As I've said before, it is precisely this kind of silent acquiescence to the wishes of the emperor, this refusal to openly question or oppose him, that was the root of imperial power.  In theory, the republic was still very much alive under Augustus and his successors.  The Senate met and chose to do everything that the Emperor wanted, more or less.  And so it is today.  The silence that is "killing" Byrd is the same silence that blanketed the Roman empire once the imperial position was firmly established.  

For the American Empire is not just now emerging, it has quietly grown and developed for years.  We are seeing it in its full flower.  Lucky us.