Historical Analogies

I have just finished the gargantuan tome, Roma by Steven Saylor, which I blogged about when I first started reading a little over a week ago.  At the very end of the book, Saylor discusses the sources he used to write the novel and reminds his readers that so many of the larger issues from the book are historical fact, even if many of the details are fiction.

For example, one of the overriding elements in Rome’s history is the centuries long struggle between the patricians (the wealthy, old families with money and power) and the plebians (everyone else).  Over time, plebians gained substantially more political clout than they had in the early days of the Roman Kingdom (rougly 753 BC to the 400s BC), but the patricians remained the true stakeholders.

One of the ways in which patricians maintained the illusion of power was by reminding the populace that the gods had favored the Romans for centuries, had allowed her to become the greatest power in the world.  If the patricians yielded too much power to the plebians, power that had not been tested or approved of by the gods, who is to say how the gods would react.  Perhaps they would approve, but more likely they would prefer to see things stay the same.

I think we can all agree that this was an ingenius and shifty way of allowing the already rich and powerful to maintain their stature.  As long as the plebians feared angering the gods and thereby ruining Rome, the patricians could abstractly make such a claim.

I thought of this as I was reading Yglesias’s blog on a completely unrelated topic: the confirmation of Eric Holder as Obama’s Attorney General.  If you hadn’t heard, James Comey, a deputy AG under Bush, has endorsed Holder’s appointment and said he should be forgiven for any role he played in the pardon of Marc Rich (an issue that Senate Republicans have decided is going to be the center their inane opposition to Holder’s confirmation).

Mitch McConnell and his ilk will probably disregard Comey’s endorsement, mostly because it is at odds with their own crazy plan, but also because Comey famously left the Justice Department when then-AG John Ashcroft was in the hospital and he balked at the idea of approving the Administration’s warrantless wire-tapping.  As Yglesias says, in jest, Comey’s opinion should be discounted because his radical belief in the rule of law “will swiftly lead to the destruction of the country.”

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good.  Over the past eight years, Republicans have made this claim to being “tough” on national security.  They’ve assured the American people that torture and wiretapping and Guatanamo Bay have all been tools necessarily to fight the threat of “Islamic Extremism”.  We shouldn’t question the use of those tools — if we do we risk being attacked. We shouldn’t get upset that we give up virtually all of our rights to board an airplane — that’s the price you pay to prevent an attack on this country.

To do otherwise is to risk angering the gods who have so far smiled upon the favor of the United States.

Thankfully we seem to have rejected this story for now, but it is really amazing that some things about human nature just never change.


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