The most popular Augustan delusion (from Mar. 8, 2005)

We have many different political traditions from which we draw a sense of communal meaning, and in relation to which, specific historical acts resonate as embodying or flouting those values. For some, the most important, defining American image is that of a collection of individuals rising up against a tyrant in the name of individual freedom. This image seems to play unusually well among those “market fundamentalists” referred to, who tend to see the hand of George III in their every tax bill. For others, the image of an army sweeping over the lands of the Slave Power, breaking the chains of a subjugated people–this image, interestingly, causes me to free associate to the image of a principled judiciary stepping in to defend a lone individual from being subjected to treatment which otherwise seems to express the will of some majority. For others, a radio address, a voice telling us we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and the power of a great governmental engine harnessed to stamp out hunger and disadvantage. The Washington image does seem to be one which does not resonate with us anymore at all. So what?

So this: I find it interesting that when I began watching our government’s transformation post-9/11, though I could find many voices pro and con, the con voices always focused on the Patriot Act and the danger of the gradual erosion of the speaker’s individual liberty, a concern intriguingly near to the kinds of concerns that animate the market fundamentalist. I kept harping on separation of powers, the troubling precedents of tribunals whose judges work for the executive, the increasing deference of Congress to the White House, and the coup de grace, the judiciary’s thinly veiled acquiescence to these trends in Hamdi likening the criminal procedure protections of the Fifth Amendment to bureaucratic procedures for the termination of social security benefits (roundly and stupidly championed by the media as a great victory for opponents of the administration, which now has to get a note from teacher [from itself actually] before locking someone up and throwing away the key). I kept ranting about a new Caesarism, of which impulsive warmaking seemed but a key criterial symptom. I wondered if anyone read Roman history anymore.

Interestingly, among my conservative friends, there seemed little cause for concern: have you, personally been detained? How many people have been detained? (I chalk that up to market fundamentalism too: whose freedom should matter to me but my own?) Among my liberal friends, the fact of a failure of separation of powers seemed vastly overshadowed by (1) the fact that their own personal library records might very well be read by law enforcement officers, and (2) the sheer fact of war, because as we all know, war is always wrong (see V.I. Lenin for the detailed explanation of why, apparently).

A voice in the wilderness. We no longer value civic republicanism because we simply no longer have the slightest clue what it is. The most popular Augustan delusion was that the empire was still a republic. Happily for us, we don’t even know what that means, and so the slow progress towards ceasing to be one that was the twentieth century has transpired without anyone noticing what was lost. Lucky us.

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