Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori… That’s the line from one of Horace’s Odes – a bit of sing-song that’s one of the first things the Latin Master at Eton or Harrow has his first-form students memorize, and parrot back, because it’s easy. “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
It is? Yeah, well, whatever. Latin is something those kids used to endure, if they could, and then quickly forgot, and hardly anyone teaches that language any longer, anywhere. The last generation of British schoolboys who had their heads filled with bits and bobs of catchy Latin aphorisms went off to fight in the trenches in France in the First World War, and few of them came back. One of those was Wilfred Owen, famous for his poem Dulce et Decorum Est – the nasty one about the guys dying horrible deaths in those trenches from the German poison-gas attacks. There was nothing sweet about that. There was nothing fitting, and soon Wilfred Owen was dead too, killed in action. The news of his death, on November 4, 1918, arrived at his parents’ house in Shrewsbury on Armistice Day. So he had been right about Horace. That long-dead Roman guy had been lying. Many generations of schoolboys had been duped, or maybe only those who took their Latin lessons seriously.
It was all over after that. The First World War had been so catastrophically stupid that it had effectively killed patriotism. In fact, it killed faith in all sorts of institutions, not just political institutions. No one believed in much of anything anymore. Maybe God was dead too. That’s why, a few years after the war, in Paris, Gertrude Stein turned to Ernest Hemingway and told him that he and all the people who fought in that war were a lost generation – in essence, nothing could be sweet and fitting for them now. Those young men took it as a given that there was nothing they could believe in, if they were honest about things. And that meant that the task for every individual, now, was to find out, for themselves, on their own, what is sweet and fitting, as cramped and meager and wholly personal as that might be. Hemingway went off and wrote a novel about that – The Sun Also Rises – where his hero, Jake Barnes, finally decides for himself what is honorable, and thus what is fitting. It’s not much – grace under pressure – but it will have to do.
Not everyone agrees with that. The Project for the New American Century might not have been any kind of Horatian ode, but it might as well have been. We had seen the End of History and had come out on top, the sole remaining superpower, so we could do what we wanted and could simply remake the world into what it was supposed to be, and we should, by force. This would be OUR century. After all, no nation has ever had the power we have now, exclusive power, really, and we could do some good in the world with it, spreading that fine Western liberal democracy stuff, the best thing that ever was, as shown by the process of elimination. Dick Cheney was a founding member of the group that produced that manifesto, this carefully detailed project paper, and he found himself a pliable young president, without much intellectual capability, to get things underway, and it didn’t work out. There was nothing sweet and fitting about going to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, to remove a guy who had nothing to do with 9/11 and was hated by al-Qaeda, and it was not sweet and fitting that nearly five thousand of our troops died for that, and not exactly for their country. The guys that thought this up should be glad there’s no cotemporary Wilfred Owen, not that anyone reads poetry these days.
That’s too bad, because all the echoes of Horace – the snappy aphorisms about what’s fitting and proper for anyone who loves his or her country – keep bouncing around. There are rules for what is right. One doesn’t just make things up as one goes along. There is decorum, the word we drive from Horace’s Latin. There are certain things one doesn’t do, like shake hands with the wrong people:
President Barack Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service – the first time the leaders of the two countries long at odds have had any contact.
The handshake between the two came as Obama made his way to the podium, moving across the VIP seating section of the soccer stadium. Castro appeared to speak to Obama, who acknowledged him, leaving Castro beaming, even as Obama moved over to warmly greet Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff with a kiss on the cheek.
Obama was being courteous at the celebration of a great man’s life, but this caused no end of trouble:
President Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday was met with a mostly muted reaction from conservatives and Republicans. Invoking memories of the Munich Agreement, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) broke the right’s silence with a harsh assessment of the gesture.
“It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that’s all,” McCain said of the handshake between the two world leaders that took place at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
When asked if Obama should have extended his hand, McCain was quick to respond.
“Of course not,” the senator said. “Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?”
Then, after a slight pause, McCain went there.
“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” he added.
It seems there are rules about such things, and Marco Rubio chimed in:
President Obama could have at least squeezed in a brief lecture on human rights when he extended his hand to the leader of a longtime adversary, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said Tuesday.
Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, was complaining about Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, a brief interaction that took place at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa.
“If he was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” Rubio told ABC News.
This didn’t matter:
Obama actually did make reference to authoritarian leaders during his eulogy for Mandela.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” Obama said.
It seems the handshake was more important than the words, although there’s William Wolfrum:
All I’m saying is that Obama should have punched Castro in the mouth, screamed “Capitalism!!” and then eaten a Big Mac.
What was Obama supposed to do? Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this:
The right is going to howl, but all that means is that the right will have temporarily substituted “Obama Kowtows to Commie” for “Obama Wants to Kill Us All with Socialized Medicine and Benghazi.” As for the Obama base — well, there was that 2011 Pew poll in which poor people, African-Americans and the young had more positive feelings about socialism than capitalism. This was probably just a reflection of how little capitalism has done for all of those groups lately, but it does say that, among these groups, shaking hands with a communist isn’t going to be seen as horrifying; it will certainly be seen as a gesture of reconciliation in the spirit of Mandela.
The problem is the middle – not the Fox/Limbaugh audience, but the audience for Washington Post pundits and CNN bloviators. This will be discussed Very, Very seriously for a day or two by all of these people. It will play on endless loops…
It’s not going to be read by the middle as Obama goes Bill Ayers!!! – but it is going to be read as Obama reaches out to scary evil foreigners, which plays into a couple of messages the center finds at least somewhat credible: that Obama focuses on other issues when he should be focusing on the economy, and that the Obama foreign policy isn’t always steady and stable and thus exposes America to danger. The right may not have gotten the middle to shriek about “BENGHAZI! BENGHAZI! BENGHAZI!” every day but the middle now regards Obama foreign policy efforts warily.
Steve M points out that strategy is actually working pretty well:
The White House and Iran face an uphill selling job to convince Americans to embrace the interim nuclear pact negotiated with Tehran last month, a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds.
In the survey, taken Tuesday through Sunday, 32% approve of the agreement and 43% disapprove. One in four either refuses to answer or say they don’t know enough to have an opinion.
By more than 2-1, 62%-29%, those who have heard something about the accord say Iranian leaders aren’t serious about addressing international concerns about their country’s nuclear program….
Too many people in the middle will regard the handshake as more ill-advised outreach. We’ll forget all about it in couple of days, but it won’t play well – largely because centrist pundits will make it into a bigger deal than it is, and will talk about a mere gesture as if it’s a major diplomatic initiative. Oh, by the way: Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel in 2000. America survived.
Yes, it did, and so did Cuba, in spite of our half-century of sanctions and the trade embargo. We could have been smoking Cuban cigars, and had we flooded Cuba with Starbucks and Wal-Mart, with a McDonalds or Kentucky Fred Chicken or Burger King on every corner, they’d not now be one of the few remaining countries in the world, along with North Korea, pretending that communism works just fine. Ah, but some things just aren’t fitting. Horace says so – but then Hemingway lived in Cuba for many years. It’s a fine place. The Cuban people aren’t monsters, and it is possible to win national elections without the Cuban-American vote in and around Miami. Obama was breaking old rules that never did make much sense, and it was only a handshake. Maybe Obama should have just punched this Castro guy in the face, but this was not the time or the place. Decorum, what’s proper and fitting, matters here too, in another way.
Oh well, it was something to talk about, and another way to tell everyone Obama is a coward and a fool and probably a communist, and it sure beat talking about the other big event of the day:
House and Senate budget negotiators reached agreement Tuesday on a budget deal that would raise military and domestic spending over the next two years, shifting the pain of across-the-board cuts to other programs over the coming decade and raising fees on airline tickets to pay for airport security.
The deal, while modest in scope, amounts to a cease-fire in the budget wars that have debilitated Washington since 2011 and gives lawmakers breathing room to try to address the real drivers of federal spending – health care and entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security – and to reshape the tax code.
For a Capitol used to paralyzing partisan gridlock, the accord between Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, was a reminder that even fierce political combatants can find common ground. Ryan praised the deal in the most elementary terms as a way to “get our government functioning at its very basic levels.”
Both negotiators promised an end to uncertainty and the lurching from crisis to crisis, at least for a year.
That’s the positive spin, and the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus de-spins the deal:
Here’s what counts as success in Washington these days: a budget deal that almost everyone hates and that doesn’t solve any of the country’s major problems.
The spending bill that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled Tuesday evening has something for everyone to dislike. It won’t cut federal spending or shrink the national debt, so conservative Republicans don’t like it. It won’t restore much money for domestic programs or extend unemployment insurance, so Democrats don’t like it either.
Its main virtue is that it will spare members of Congress from worrying about a government shutdown during their long Christmas break.
No one should be cheering:
After a series of fiscal train wrecks, culminating in the 16-day government shutdown this fall (a shutdown that accomplished exactly nothing), the idea of a staunch conservative and an equally staunch liberal forging a bipartisan, bicameral compromise seems almost charming.
Let’s be clear, though. The deal isn’t a grand bargain – at best it’s a mini-bargain. All the Murray-Ryan deal would do, in essence, is split the difference between House and Senate spending proposals, give federal agencies a little more flexibility to adjust to the budget cuts imposed by the sequester, and – the main thing – avoid the prospect of another government shutdown on Jan. 15.
It won’t reduce the national debt, something both parties say they want. It won’t reform the tax code. It won’t even end the Sequester’s meat-cleaver method of indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts.
It won’t do much, and it’s already in trouble:
By Tuesday afternoon, even before Murray and Ryan had a chance to unveil their handiwork, the well-funded pressure groups of the tea party right were swinging into action, warning Republicans in the House of Representatives that if they voted for Paul Ryan’s deal – Paul Ryan’s! – they’d be branded as big spenders.
“Congressional Republicans are joining liberal Democrats in breaking their word to the American people to finally begin reining in government overspending,” thundered Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded partly by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. “Politicians choosing to go back on their promise will be held accountable for their actions.”
As those unsubtle threats rattled across the right side of the Internet, at least 30 conservative members of the House signed a letter rejecting the deal. And yes, the signers included many of the same Tea Party members who strong-armed House Speaker John A. Boehner into forcing the government shutdown last fall, a gambit that drove the Republican Party’s standing to a record low and briefly made President Obama popular again.
McManus sees another shutdown coming:
It’s easy to see why Tea Party members of Congress don’t like the deal. It increases federal spending by almost 5% above the level set by the sequester law next year. It starts to dismantle the sequester – a budget tool conservatives have decided they want to keep even though they originally opposed it. And it increases federal revenue by raising “security fees” on airline passengers – not technically a tax, but awfully close.
Democrats don’t like the deal much either. It won’t add any serious money for their favorite projects such as infrastructure spending. It doesn’t close any of the tax loopholes they’ve been trying to close. And it doesn’t include an extension of federal emergency benefits for the long-term unemployed, meaning 1.3 million jobless people will take a hit just after Christmas.
That means something else is going on here:
Boehner and his Republicans want to spend 2014 talking about the failings of Obamacare, campaigning for a GOP takeover in the Senate and, above all, avoiding a repeat of last year’s shutdown debacle.
Reid and his Democrats want to focus on Obama’s populist economic agenda, including a proposal to increase the minimum wage and other measures to attack inequality. And they want to focus on defending their vulnerable seats against the GOP. A government shutdown would hurt Republicans, but it wouldn’t do Democratic incumbents much good either.
“The key thing is to keep the train on the track,” GOP pollster David Winston told me. “The Murray-Ryan deal doesn’t solve any big problems, but it allows everything else to move forward.”
Does that qualify as success?
Maybe, but it will never pass the House, with its dug-in Tea Party folks, who know what’s fitting and proper – dolce and decorum, if they knew Latin – and that would be cutting spending, no matter what the consequences.
Slate’s David Weigel has an interesting take on who is having a harder time explaining how this deal is fitting and proper:
This was easy for Murray: Her Democrats had prevented any cuts to Social Security or Medicare, the sort of entitlement reforms that the pundit class had been crying for and crying for.
Ryan had a tougher time of it. “In divided government, you don’t always get what you want,” he said. “We eliminate waste. We stop sending checks to criminals. We cut corporate welfare. We start making real changes to these autopilot programs that are the real drivers of our debt.” Twice, he was asked how he would defend the plan to Republicans in the House and to conservative groups.
Answer one: “As a conservative, I think this is a step in the right direction. The deficit will go down more if we pass this than if we did nothing.”
Answer two: “As a conservative, I deal with the situation as it exists. I deal with the way things are, not the way I may want them to be. I’m not going to go a mile in the direction I want to go, but I’ll take a few steps.”
Ryan wouldn’t promise or predict the support of his whole party, or even 217 members of it.
Others say what is sweet and fitting, so to speak, so Ryan needs to be careful. He might shake the wrong hand along the way. He actually shook Patty Murray’s hand, right there on camera as they announced the deal, and is she much different than Raul Castro in the minds of the Tea Party folks? Dulce et decorum est pro patria… something. Paul Ryan is still trying to figure what verb goes there these days.
As for Obama shaking Raul Castro’s hand, Obama, and a whole lot of people, probably think that was the right thing to do, as a matter of politeness and common decency. Some even think it might do some good. Maybe that handshake was what Hemingway once called grace under pressure – and no one reads Horace anymore.