Michelle Bachmann claims that Hurricane Irene was God’s way of telling American politicians to cut spending—her way, of course.
Bachmann is not alone in her Delphic ability to read divine will through natural phenomena. She follows in the footsteps of another former presidential candidate, Pat Robertson, who claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was the fault of a “pact with the devil” and that flying a rainbow flag would cause, among other disasters, tornadoes.
As an ancient history buff, I can’t help but think that Bachmann and Robertson are actually nothing more than superstitious ancient Romans in modern dress.
Put a toga on ‘em and the Romans would’ve completely “gotten” them (except for the female part, but that’s another post). After all, the ancient Romans also believed that the gods spoke to humans through strange “signs” from nature. And, more importantly, that only certain “privileged” and/or “wealthy” human beings had the right to interpret those signs.
Oh, and the fact that their interpretations always pointed in their favor? Pure coincidence!
Watch kids expressions in history when you tell them that Romans disengaged from battle if chickens were “off their feed,” or if lightning struck a statue. Watch their head-shaking, smirking sense of disbelief when you tell them that the Roman Senate put the final nail in the coffin of freedom thanks to a guy in a wool shawl who swore he saw a strange cloud form over a funeral pyre.*
And yet here we have a presidential candidate doing the very same thing! She and her ilk are dressing up ancient superstitions and putting them on TV. Our inability to laugh her out of town is exactly why it’s so important to study history. Analyzing what happened in other eras when people swore that a natural phenomenon "meant" something political allows us to pause for a moment and examine our own behavior. It holds up a mirror so that we can see the many ways in which irrational thinking persists in modern politics.
The point is this: if we can roll our eyes and smirk at the crazy, fear-based leaps in logic the ancients made, perhaps we can call out our own politicians trying to manipulate us in the same way.
Even better, perhaps we can convince ourselves to stop listening to them at all.
*I am referring to how the Romans voted to deify Augustus after his death because one guy saw a cloud emerging into the heavens from his pyre (which is, um, what smoke clouds do, right?), forever closing the door to a return to a more democratic/Republic form of government.