Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bachmann and Her Ilk = Crazy Romans in Modern Dress

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 thingShe 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.


Robyn Lucas said...

Great post. I hate it when politicians/zealots try to twist natural occurrences for their benefit.

I remember how sickened I was when Robertson made that horrible comment right after the Haitian earthquake.

I think what made me even more appalled were the people who listened to him.

Unknown said...

I have to agree. Susan B Anthony said "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

Using deception for your own means is sickening and despicable. Not the kind of qualities I want in a leader.

We need to wake up as a people and take the earplugs out. We have rights!!!

On a happier note, I won your book! YAY!!!!!

Narukami said...

An excellent post Vicky, and well observed.

However, I do think the door on the Roman Republic was firmly shut long before Augustus was deified or even before the first dagger was thrust into Gaius Julius, but your larger point is well and fairly taken.

I only hope our own "door" is not closing.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Cloud of gray smoke at Augustus' pyre? It was totally an EAGLE flying up to heaven!

But seriously, you're totally right that human nature hasn't changed. We just cloak it in different terms and a different guise.

Must go now. Flock of starlings wheeling to the left...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks, guys.

@Robyn: I agree, I don't know who is more despicable--the people who make these claims or the people who believe them.

@ Allison: Thanks for the great quote by Susan B. Anthony!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@David, I agree that the door to the Republic was long shut before Augustus' death--however, deifying was the last nail on the already shut coffin. There was still, I think, I glimmer of hope if the right person had stepped up. But with his deification, went the last chance.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Caroline, Suetonius says a Senator saw his form rise up into the heavens which I've read translated as smoke.

In I, Cladius, he says Livia tried to have an eagle released but it eventually had to be freed. What perfect imagery though if it had worked!

Kristin Lenz said...

Love this - great comparison - and good to hear some frank and logical political observations.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

The more things change - the more they stay the same! Argh! e