In a republic this rule ought to be observed: that the majority should not have the predominant power.
I’ve now re-read Conspirata, the second in Robert Harris’ historical fiction trilogy covering the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero. When I first purchased this book, nearly five years ago, I had a terrible time finding it. The reason is because the title, Conspirata, was only used in the United States and in Italy. Elsewhere, the book was sold under its original title, Lustrum. The book, at that time about six years beyond its publishing date, seemed nowhere to be found I was convinced it was out of print. It is not; it can easily be found, here, just under its American name.
The original title, Lustrum, is the Latin term for a half-a-decade, the period of the census in the Roman Republic*. The taking of the census also had religious trappings, so the Romans associated the word with sacred rituals. Within the story, its use specifically refers to Caesar’s securing of a 5-year military command in Gaul at a time when terms were limited to a single year (although they were renewable) . Someone at the publisher, apparently, decided that this was a bit too obscure for the American consumer and went with a title that more obviously references he Catiline Conspiracy. Conspirata/Lustrum begins where the previous volume left off, with Cicero as Consul. We follow through Cicero’s discovery and foiling of Catiline’s plans as well as the fallout in the years thereafter.
Having simultaneously read Conspirata and watched Good Night, and Good Luck, I got to thinking about what these two historical events have to tell us about American politics in the here and now. The last shall be first.
The excesses of Joseph McCarthy’s hearings are a defining characteristic of the modern body politic. For as long as I have been alive, all Americans, no matter their political leanings, agree that the “witch hunt” of McCarthyism is a dark mark on our democracy. Particularly in the mid-to-late 1950s, the consensus of America was decidedly anti-communist, but it was also decidedly anti-McCarthyism. It was a living example of ends not justifying the means. Generations grew up with The Crucible being taught in schools and the imagery of colonial Salem’s court and McCarthy’s hearing room being tied together.
What does this mean today? For George Clooney** in 2005, he saw shadows of the 50s in the media and politics of that present day. Jump ahead fifteen years, and I have to wonder how much that context has changed in a rather short time. Clooney, quoting Edward R. Murrow, raises the issue of the responsibility of television and, by extension, film to not just entertain, but to inform. In the case of Murrow, with his direct criticism of McCarthy, he was pushing an envelope – framing newsworthy events of the day within editorializing opinion. From Clooney’s standpoint, one might assume, this duty to inform includes separating right opinions from wrong opinions when “reporting” the news.
But now we are fifteen years into the future of Good Night‘s present. The likes of CBS are no longer leaders in terms of informing the American public. People get their news from a variety of sources and trust in major media*** is low. The old networks, for that matter, can barely hang on to their role as entertainers much less use their bully pulpit to cultivate, convince, and cajole.
Consider also whether a “witch hunt” atmosphere pervades our society today today (or, at least, is on the rise). Assuming it is even possible, try to see past the othering and objectively consider from whence restrictions on speech and restrictions on thought come. This isn’t the 1950s, so using the pressure of “the system” to control political dissent doesn’t seem to be possible anymore – if it was even then. Instead, the phrase “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” is used to justify an enforcement of conformity without, ostensibly, restricting speech or using the power of the state to suppress dissent. Is driving a cake-maker out of business really any less onerous than seeing that a newsreader or screenwriter can no longer find employment in the industry? Is there much difference?
So perhaps America is condemned to repeat our periodic witch trials, in one form or another, because the impulses that lead to them are so ingrained in our nature. Furthermore, we’ve proven we can survive it; even thrive. A defining characteristic of the McCarthy period is, despite an overwhelming anti-communist consensus, we rapidly integrated into our national self-image that the freedom of speech and freedom of conscience which our nation protects is more important than the political consensus du jour. Thus far, we’ve always come out of it alright, albeit occasionally at great cost. We are not, after all, like the late Roman Republic, where bribery, murder, intimidation, and might-makes-right were considered politics-as-usual? Are we?
The Catiline Conspiracy is a lesser-known incident in the tumultuous period leading up to the end of the ancient Republic. In popular culture it is overshadowed by Plutarch-cum-Shakespeare and our focus on the life of Julius Caesar. It is Cataline, not Caesar, however who would seem a little more at home in the current election cycle.
Cataline, or Lucius Sergius Catilina, was understood to be descendant from Sergestus, a figure who had come with Aeneas to Italy following the Trojan War. His family name was synonymous with old money and old power, although it lacked the clout that it wielded as well as the wealth that so often is required to back up power. On top of his ancestry, Cataline had distinguished himself with his military service during tumultous times. Amazingly, he also avoiding becoming entangled in Sulla’s civil war. While he supported Sulla in the end, he also had marital ties to Marius. With his reputation and name, he expected to eventually rise to the consulship of Rome.
He wasn’t all solemnity and service, however, as it was well known he had his dark side and more than few skeletons in his closet. Cataline was accused of killing his brother-in-law and suspected of killing his first wife and son (so that he could remarry more favorably). He was brought to trial for defiling a Vestal Virgin, which was then a capital crime. Although he was acquitted, it more likely due his his political connections than his actual innocence. Conspirata portrays him as slightly mad and more than a bit homicidal.
Misbehavior while Governor of Africa resulted in delaying his run for Consul (Senators on trial could not stand for the consulship). The result of the delay was that he found himself running against the ambitious Cicero, rather than the unremarkable Gaius Marcius Figulus. While Cataline’s campaign had massive financial backing from dark money (again, relying on Harris as my source), Cicero was able to secure the unlikely support of the “old guard.” A key plank of Cataline’s platform was a blanket forgiveness of
student (oops, wrong millennium) debt. Cataline lost and blamed Cicero for stealing an election for the office which was his destiny.
By the following election, when Cataline ran a second time, an alliance between Cataline and Julius Caesar had become evident. The two Senators advocated the combination of debt cancellation and distribution of free land to the poor as a vote-grabbing, populist platform. While Caesar was, himself, too young to stand for Consul, he managed to secure the position of Pontifex Maximus – ruffling more than a few feathers. Cataline began to be seen as Caesar’s proxy in the Consul’s seat. Appreciating the threat, (again****, we’ll rely on Harris’ narrative), Cicero conspired with the patrician establishment and wealthy general Lucius Licinius Lucullus to block Cataline from the office. As Consul, Cicero proposed to hold a triumph for Lucullus concurrent to the next election. A legionnaires traveled from distance provinces to celebrate within Rome’s walls voting would be titled toward’s Lucullus’ lieutenent Lucius Licinius Murena, another candidate for the office. Murena won, but it was a dirty election even by Roman standards.
Outright bribery aside (which was both frowned upon and condoned simultaneously), the annual election season was expected to be accompanied by lavish spending by the candidates. Frustrated by the obvious corruption, Cato (the younger) with consular candidate Servius Sulpicius Rufus (a student and friend of Cicero, thrown under the bus to foil Cataline) proposed a law which declared the hosting of banquets and games to be bribery, prosecutable***** under the law.
Up until this point, I feel like it would only take some minor adjustments to match today’s political environment to Cataline’s story. What is also missing is the dark forces behind the scenes that were funding it all. One must assume that the populist leanings of Cataline, Caesar, and the likes of Publius Clodius Pulcher were merely the means to power, not an end unto themselves. Similarly the money and backing of Crassus and Pompey, critical to any conspiracy, was invested according to the self-interest of the investor. Do the politics of today similarly have a unifying purpose behind them all? Or is that sort of thing just the fantasies of the far-flung partisan commentators. What about what happened next in Rome? Could anything like it happen in the here and now?
After losing the election to Murena and Decimus Junius Silanus, Cataline felt that he had been robbed by his birthright not once, but twice, by Cicero. Feeling he had no other recourse, he plotted the murder of Cicero and the armed overthrow of the Roman Republic. Although originally to be an expression of the will of the people over corrupt, moneyed interests, his proposed tactics began turning ugly (again****). He planned to kill not only Cicero, but other Senators who represented Rome’s ancient nobility. His forces would burn Rome and sow destruction and chaos. He even proposed augmenting his army by instigating a slave uprising and taking the side of their revolution.
For Cataline, the defense of freedom was too important to let tradition, law, order, or much of anything stand in the way of removing the illegitimate politicians from power. For most of Rome, he had taken it too far.
So where are we, now, on this timeline?
*The primary reason for the census was to determine the number of men eligible for military service.
**I’ve long been aware of the fame of Clooney’s aunt. I did not realize that his father was a network anchorman and a (failed) candidate for the U.S. House. Dad, need I say, is a Democrat. But Clooney first attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps by majoring in journalism before he found a career as an actor.
***Identification of big media as biased or “fake news” is nearly universal if one allows that the culprit is restricted to those on the other side of the political divide from one’s self.
****The heavily politicized environment means there are two sides to each of these stories. Cataline was considered a reformer and a friend to the common man by many and one must assume that any of the evils of which he stands accused by history may well have been exaggerated or even fabricated by those who were against him.
*****In the Roman Republic, there were no public prosecutions. Instead, prosecutions were done by private individuals. After losing the consular election it was Servius Sulpicius Rufus and Cato who prosecuted the winning candidate for bribery.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.
The word Imperium, in Latin, means the political power or authority that is held by an individual. It is also the name of the first book in a trilogy by Robert Harris which follows the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero through historical fiction.
Coincidentally, the Cicero Update is the first major overhaul of the the Paradox game of the ancient world, Imperator: Rome. I’ll return to this and a few other of the more recent developments at the tail end of this post.
But first, the serendipity of all this has made me decide it is time to do another comparative gaming exercise for the ancients PC games. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on the Strategic/Operational level. I’ll take on Operational/Tactical separately so as not to compare olives to pomegranates within these overlapping scopes.
Before I get into my current explorations, I want to make an honorable mention. Of all the games I’ve played, the one that has come the closest to getting the decline of the Roman Republic right (especially internal politics) is Pax Romana. So close and yet so far.
The Old Republic
Pax Romana was a 2002 title, created by a French company called Galiléa, founded by game designer Philippe Thibaut. Thibaut is the designer for the board game Europa Universalis, a 1993 title. At the end of the 90s, Thibaut worked on the Paradox team that brought the initial iteration of Europa Universalis to life on the PC. Following the completion of EU/EU2, Thibaut separated from Paradox and the turmoil surrounding collapse of Strategy First to develop a PC game based on the Roman Republic.
With the benefit of hindsight, one might see the seeds of Pax Romana‘s ultimate failure from the very beginning. Pax Romana is a computer version of the board game Republic of Rome, published by Avalon Hill in 1990. The game has been described as exemplifying some of the best and some of the worst of board gaming circa 30 years ago. Republic of Rome sports a thick rulebook, often inscrutable as a result of heavy cross referencing and vague specification. Decades of errata and user discussion have resolved most of the issues (and resulted in a reprint in 2009), leaving a game that rates pretty highly among its fans.
For a board game conversion, some things are easy and some are hard. For graphics, Thibaut had his EU experience, which had built an effective grand-strategy interface (compare the Pax Romana and EU2-era EU:Rome screenshots). Tables, charts, and die rolls all get handled by the computer and tracking the details becomes much easier. You are no longer limited 1-or-2 step armies designated by cardboard counters. Unit strengths, senatorial support, provincial income can all be tallied as fine-grained as desired without any additional computing effort. The resulting complexity growth may even be an advantage. You reach a point where a weak computer AI can derive some advantage simply by accounting for equations that are too complex for a player to follow.
What an AI is going to be disastrous at, however, is the social aspect of a game. Yet it is this, according to many, that is really the key to Republic of Rome gameplay. RoR is a six-player game where each controls a faction within the Roman Republic. Players try to increase their own power and glory with an end-game goal being to claim the role taken by Caesar thereby creating the Roman Empire. At the same time, the players must also cooperate to keep Rome from falling to ruin or being defeated by foreign forces. Over the course of the game it will be necessary to cooperate with some players in order to compete with others. Negotiation is key. The rule book says that anything is on the table, as long as it doesn’t break the rules. Deals can be public or secret with the advantage of public deals being that they are binding.
This sets up an impossible goal for the PC version programmer. The computer is never going to get the human aspects (bluffing, goodwill, etc.) of negotiation right. Furthermore, it is impossible for a computer to “think outside the box.” Negotiation with computer players all-but-requires selecting options from a finite list. Getting this balanced right was going to be difficult to impossible. Add to that the feature creep inevitable in the conversion and you’d begin to doubt that such a game could ever be completed.
Pax Romana was released in pretty rough condition. Several patches improved upon the game, but the economics of fixing a failed release is a losing one. If I recall, the CD also shipped with the hated StarForce copy protection, which I have to believe further hurt its prospects. With the project coming apart economically, a final “unofficial” patch came out of the development team. Even with that patch applied, bugs remain. Furthermore, a comparison between the manual and the gameplay demonstrates there are features of the game that were intended but never implemented. Yet, event in this fragmented state, the vision of the developer can be glimpsed through the fog. Were it all to work, this might have been the ultimate game of the Roman Republic.
But That I Loved Rome More
Back at Paradox, EU had spun off its family of strategy games; Hearts of Iron, Victoria, and Crusader Kings. The success was enough* to create a new-engine version of their line, starting with Europa Universalis III. In 2008, one year after EU3, Paradox released Europa Universalis: Rome. At the time, I was none too pleased with EU3 and, with it, Paradox. I also thought that EU: Rome looked like a cheap grab at more sales by shoehorning Roman uniforms onto the EU3 sprites. What I didn’t realize at the time was that EU: Rome was also a kind of Crusader Kings 1.5. That is, along with taking the EU format back in time it also built upon the Crusader Kings system of dynastic-based play to model the cursus honorum of the Roman Republic.
When I played the Punic Wars in EU: Rome, I found it to be a reasonable match for the period, at least at the start. Early on in her fight against Carthage, Rome demonstrated the ability to bounce back from massive losses. Even in the face of total disaster, Rome could raise new legions, build new ships, and appoint new generals so as to continue the fight. EU‘s combined economic/military simulation which allows semi-free construction of armies worked fairly well.
Loading the Roman Civil Wars scenario, though, I find it doesn’t work so well. The scenario opens with Caesar poised to cross the Rubicon, as he should be historically, but with Pompey’s armies across the river defending the “front.” Shortly after starting, I am engaged in three major battles, spread roughly across the southern border of Gaul, pitting similarly-sized armies against each other. While it’s better to win, of course, losers still live to fight another day while winners feel the toll from closely-fought combat. Unlike newer iterations of this series, depleted units do not refit in the field. To bring a damaged unit back to full strength, one must merge it with other units of the same type. Thus, the Roman Civil War quickly turns into an economic war. Caesar uses the economic power and manpower of Gaul to feed the meat grinder while (the AI) Pompey does the same using his territories. It does not feel like an accurate representation of history
The Cast of Die-hards
After the failure of Galiléa, Thibaut began afresh with AgeOD and the creation of the game Birth of America. This was one solution** to the problems of the continuous-time, grand-strategy predecessors. I’ve likened the first generation of EU and Crusader Kings to a computer version of Whack-a-Mole. Run at normal speed, the game grew tedious as one waited for something significant to happen. At high speed, the screen was bombarded by alert messages. Dismissal require quickly hitting the right button on the right message before the next one popped up. Failure to keep up meant you might race by something requiring your attention. Birth of America, to contrast, was implemented as a turn-based game. Orders are given between turns and then executed without any player intervention. The game also added innovative gameplay in terms of leader management and logistics as well as presenting a fresh-looking graphical interface.
In the years that followed, Thibaut had a hand in a number of Birth of America spin-offs. In 2012, AgeOD took the engine to ancient Rome in the form of Alea Jacta Est, a release did not seem to include the technical involvement of Thibaut.
As I stated at the beginning, when I looked at the game in the contexts of the Pyrrhic War and the Second Punic War, I was not particularly pleased with the Alea Jacta Est treatment (technically via its expansion/add-on The Birth of Rome). I found the game stuck in the dull center between the two ends that fire a gamer’s imagination about the Roman Republic. It abstracts away the strategic decisions and the politics, which Pax Romana tried to capture. It also automates the tactical details of battle. For the Pyrrhic War, the operational control armies in Southern Italy seemed like too little and too constrained to make for an entertaining game. In the Punic War, the operational nature of the game lost the connection with the decisive battles that made the campaign against Hannibal so dramatic.
For the Roman Civil War, the focus of Alea Jacta Est seems far more appropriate. When playing as Caesar or Pompey, I don’t think we want to be distracted by the details of Roman politics. Alea Jacta Est still factors in national morale and the economy, but reduces their management to a handful of major decisions (scripted so as to retain a historical connection) rather than ongoing, attention-demanding simulation. At the same time, the battlefield spans the entire Mediterranean, and so the broad, operational movement of forces is more interesting than in either the previous two examples.
The game starts, as shown in the first screenshot in this section, with Caesar poised to cross the Rubicon. The introductory text stresses the importance of taking Rome. Upon doing so, events are triggered that divide the Roman territories between the two fighting factions along historical lines. As Caesar, you then must decide whether to point your initial thrust west toward Spain or head east toward Egypt and the Levant. Again, the scenario notes helpfully explain this.
I suspect the key to enjoying this game, much like its Paradox predecessors, lies in learning to ignore what should be ignored. The initial flood of messages as Caesar seizes control of Rome are entertaining and informative. Thirty-to-fifty new messages on each and every turn are considerable less so. What I found was that, a year or so into the scenario, most of the notices have no meaning to me as I play. At the game’s start, I needed to figure out what units are available and get them organized into command structures. After that, while the alerts do involve impacts to morale and logistics, it seems better concentrate on what I am trying to do. I know where my forces are and I kind of know from whence they are threatened. Turns can then move by pretty quickly.
Each turn is one month. During execution, turns are broken down and evaluated day-by-day. Because logistics and other details are taken into account, conquering enemy territory is a multi-turn (i.e. multi-month) prospect. To take a city, a nearby unit must be active (less commanders aren’t always available) and be superior to any enemy armies waiting to defend. After your army moves, and assuming they win any initial battles, they then must lay siege to the enemy-controlled city. After (sometimes) many months of siege, the defenses may be breached allowing an all-out assault on the city. Launching an assault too soon could reap unnecessary losses. Waiting to long means the turns tick by without making any meaningful progress toward scenario victory. After a battle/siege/assault cycle, the attacking army is likely depleted in terms of supplies and fighting power. A turn or two of refitting might be prudent to get them ready for the next operation.
Ignoring the details, as I’ve settled into doing, probably means that I’m mismanaging my logistics; either the economic acquisition of resources or the resupply process. Many a time I’ve spent months looking at an underfed army, waiting for them to refresh themselves, wondering if the reason the process is slow is because I’m not doing it right. yet, most of the time a common sense approach seems to work. Control a connected string off provinces and supplies seem to flow.
I’ve yet to complete the scenario and I feel I’m moving too slowly to gain a victory. It took me a year or two to get a reasonable balance of size and number of armies. I made the choice have Caesar, supported by a second army, take Spain. Marc Antony, with his own full army, got the responsibility of running Pompey out of Italy. This he managed to accomplish despite Pompey having the numbers. One saving grace is that, throughout the game, scripts trigger to advance the historical narrative. You’re not left entirely to the mercy of the game engine.
As with the Second Punic War, the game tends bog down in the tedium of the siege process and chasing around enemy nuisance stacks. It fails to tell a story through the iconic battles of the war. This is less of an issue, however, in a war where the iconic battles aren’t quite so iconic.
The Memory of the Living
Returning now to Robert Harris’ Imperium, now on its second reading, wherein I found clear satisfaction to contrast with the mixed results of my gaming. The novel is a thing of beauty that I’ve enjoyed on many different levels.
They basic idea behind the novel is this. Cicero had a slave, Tiro, who accompanied him from the beginning of his political career. Tiro was an accomplished figure in his own right having, for example, developed a shorthand system (features of which are still used today) for recording speeches verbatim. Tiro was eventually freed by Cicero and lived many years after Cicero’s death when, among other occupations, he became a writer and a publisher. He put together the collected works of Cicero and penned at least four books himself. One of those was was a “biography***” of Cicero, which has not survived in any form but is referenced by Plutarch and others. Harris’ book, therefore, pretends to be that biography of Tiro’s. It is divided into “scrolls” rather than chapters and uses Tiro in first-person voice. It is also written in contemporary language.
The first book starts (some background aside) with Cicero’s entry into politics. It features three main events. Cicero’s prosecution of Gaius Verres, the installation of Pompey as supreme Roman commander, and Cicero’s election to Consul. Major events and Cicero’s speeches are preserved in scholarly history so Harris just needs to fill in the blanks with solid historical fiction. In his afterward he writes about his intent: For everything that is in the historical record, those events are accurately described in his novel. Where something is unknown to history, his version is at least plausible. In no case, he hopes, is his version of events refutable by actual, recorded history.
If nothing else, the book it is a great history-lite for those of us who want to understand the life and importance of Cicero, but don’t want to wade through dry history books or difficult-to-read Senate speeches. Also, by placing 2000+ year-old events into current language, the book takes on meaning for our current times.
Both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were marked by a return to classical scholarship. One result is that the structure of the Enlightenment-inspired U.S. government (and that of the several States) was based on the government of Rome in many important ways. It actually took me this second read-through to realize something important about the Roman Senate. The Senate of Rome was not a legislative body; it was an executive body. Its closest relative in modern American might be the small-town New England Board of Selectmen. The Senate of Rome had the power of the executive (typical of an American Governor or a President or, of course, a Board of Selectmen) as well as the power of the purse (usually the House in a bicameral Legislative structure). They did not, however, have the power to make laws; that right was reserved to the people in a method more akin to Constitutional amendments.
That said, Harris’ Cicero has a lot to say that is applicable to modern legistlating, politicking, and electioneering. He also has criticisms for the “Deep State” and the bankruptcy inherent giving free stuff away to win political support. In some of these cases, I wish I knew what were actual Cicero quotations versus fictive speculation; I’d hate to go around quoting Harris and claiming it to be the words of Cicero. In addition to the timeless truths, I also recognize modern personalities in these ancient personae. Despite the massive differences in the surrounding culture, I have in my head a handful of actual people from the local political scene who match very well with the book. Uncannily so, in some cases.
Cicero’s political strategy also makes me yearn for a game like Pax Romana, but one that gets it right. Military service was often critical to political success in Rome, but there were exceptions. Cicero is one. His military service was the bare minimum for a Senator and later in his career he forwent the glory that many politicians sought through military command. In fact, he tried not to leave the city of Rome if at all possible, not wanting to get too far from the halls of power. The methods and outcomes of chasing and exercising political Imperium can be just as fascinating as Rome’s military campaigns. Pax Romana and its board game ilk tantalize us with the gaming possibilities.
Having reread the book at the same time I started in with Season 2 of Roman Empire: Reign of Blood., I find myself even more disappointing with the latter than I was before. The novel and S2:E1 cover almost exactly the same time frame, with the show focused on Julius Caesar rather than Marcus Cicero. I’m glad I looked at the two side-by-side as it makes it all the more obvious how off the rails the Netflix production has gone. Cicero (and Harris’ Tiro) are witness to the rise of Caesar in politics and the formation of the first triumvirate (not yet extant when Cicero was consul) which closes Episode 1. Harris reveals Caesar’s role to be defining despite also being subtle, conducted behind the scenes. In Roman Empire, the second season is in some ways a little better quality than the first. There is less narrative repetition and more content in the acted-out portions of the show. The accuracy of those reenactments, however, has taken a turn for the worse. On screen we have Caesar leading one of Crassus’ legions to defeat Spartacus. Caesar then resolves the conflict over credit for that victory via a back-alley deal (literally a back alley meeting is portrayed on screen) to divide power between them. One wonders what’s the point of including obviously inaccurate details. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy (and just as dramatic) to be accurate?
To Be Continued
More to come as I continue on with both the Harris trilogy and, with trepidation,the second season of Roman Empire. I’ll also want to look at some of the Operational/Tactical games that cover this same period of warfare.
Beyond that, there are also some games I want to mention. While they fit in with those above, I haven’t played them in this go around. I’ve deliberately left out the various incarnations of Rome: Total War. The newest Rome 2 (already more than six years old) did update the political aspects of the game. Rome (Carthage as well) has three factions with which a Roman player must compete. However, when I’ve decided to dig out a Total War game for a historical experience, I am typically left disappointed. This time, I pass.
For me, the most obvious omission is the “sequel” to EU:Rome, Imperator: Rome. As EU:Rome was a practice run for Crusader Kings II, so Imperator: Rome appears to be a prelude to the release of Crusader Kings III. Imperator adds a new 64-bit component to the Crusader Kings II/EU4/HoI4 engine and, presumably, adds new style and functionality to the previous generation of games. However, like the Crusader Kings II initial release, the Imperator seems to have been pushed out in an unsatisfactory state. The original version prompted many complaints about both bugs and play issues. After some major updates, the buzz is that the game is far more stable and sensible, but still lacks the breadth and depth that one would expect from a Crusader Kings cousin. Someday, I expect to get this but that day is not today. When I do, I fully expect there will be a Roman Civil War scenario**** that will make a nice substitute for my EU:Rome section, above. I hope and expect that my verdict will be better with the newer game.
Following shortly after the release of Paradox’s Imperator: Rome, AgeOD’s challenger Field of Glory: Empires hit the streets. This one had a much better initial reception and I, in fact, have already purchased it but not got in much in the way of play. FoG: Empires is in something of an upgrade to the Alea Jacta Est family, almost seeming to respond to my original criticism of that game. It de-emphisizes the operational/logistics focus of the older series and adds layers both above and below. There is more of the grand strategy of empire building as you must manage the culture and finances of your nation. FoG: Empires also adds the ability to export battles into the Field of Glory II for a tactical resolution. In addition to that, it adds in another feature taken from my above history-of-the-genre.
After Philippe Thibaut was, more or less, forced away from the development of Pax Romana by the various business pressures, he focused on a sequel. Instead of the focusing on the creation of the Roman Empire, moved on to its fall. Great Invasions was in may ways similar to Pax Romana, but the focus was on the many “barbarian” nations that chipped away at Rome’s power. One unique feature was that the rise and collapse of these factions was part and parcel of the game. In nearly any other grand-strategic game, you needed to lead your nation (be it Greece, Rome, or the Visigoths) to world domination and cause it to “stand the test of time.” In Great Invasions, by contrast, the scoring took into account that most of the warring tribes of Europe were destined to fall into obscurity. Similarly, Field of Glory: Empires adapts a version of this natural course of an empire within its game mechanics.
I also note that Field of Glory: Empires ships with a Pyrrhic War scenario in addition to its grand campaign start point. One of these days I’ve really got to compare and contrast it to my earlier ancients lineup. Beyond those two, however, Field of Glory: Empires lacks any focused scenarios. It would surprise me if either the developers or fans don’t, someday soon, create a series of scenarios based upon interesting periods of Roman history. As of yet, though, nothing appears close to available (on the forums, there is a Europa Barbarorum total conversion, a reference to the Total War version of Great Invasions). Were there a Roman Civil War scenario for Field of Glory: Empires, it would be a great comparison to the above. But, alas, there is not.
On the near horizon, newish developer Avalon Digital is about to release a computer version of the Columbia block-game Julius Caesar. Although the game is targeted for release within the next few days, I don’t see myself purchasing it in the very near term. If I had it, it would make a great contrast to Alea Jacta Est. The games are at a nearly identical scale but the block version strips away all the numbers and complexity. In this version of the war you get right down to moving your armies and fighting your battles. Clean and to the point.
Coincidentally, Avalon Digital has a handful of both digital and board games in development, often launching them via Kickstarter campaigns. Among their list of existing products, they sell Pax Romana as a download for just 1 Euro. Besides the problems I mention above, they point out that the game doesn’t work on any system newer than Windows 7. So for anyone wishing to kick the tires on that old title, there is another strike against it.
The board games at the Avalon link are sold through what appears to be a sister company, Wisdom Owl. Philippe Thibaut, via Kickstarter and Wisdom Owl, is taking his Great Invasions into the land of cardboard. I don’t see any listing of the management behind the Avalon and Wisdom Owl effort but something tells me that Thibaut must be a key player.
So much seems to be going on in the penumbra of a dead, 17-year-old game.
*Hearts of Iron II released before EU3. While the first of the “sequels” (not counting the mostly-similar EU/EU2), it was created in parallel with but not on top of the new Clausewitz Engine.
**Pax Romana also attempted to work around the same flaw. While most of the year executed in a continuous-time mode, much the same as EU, election time was different. When it came time to take action in the Senate, you were kicked out of the “real time” mode and into more of a turn-based paradigm.
***In Roman time, a biography was a specific form of literature. While it told the life story of its subject, it was not a scholarly work. It was written for a more mass consumption and typically featured gossip as well as facts. The expression of this biography in contemporary English makes more sense in this context.
****Already, a Punic Wars DLC is on the near horizon and is intended to be offered for no extra charge.
It was nearly three years ago to the day that I was enticed into watching Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, a Netflix orginal. Having made it most of the way through the first episode, I was not tempted to watch any more.
In the time since, Netflix has added two more seasons, hyping them to me as each came out. It made me question my initial, negative impression. Obviously, the show to be in some way successful to Netflix. Could I be failing to appreciate a reasonably-solid offering? Since Netflix streaming does not have user ratings or user-written reviews, it is difficult to sanity check myself. Netflix, in its algorithmic wisdom, declared I had an 83% chance* of digging Roman Empire, but a match gives no indication as to quality. I finally decided I’d have to use IMDB, which has user rankings, although I’ve only found those useful for identifying the truly awful stuff (if it’s got 2.5/10 on IMDB, its gonna be worse than bad). IMDB gives Roman Empire a 6.9 (at least when I checked) and has a moderately positive review. Perhaps I have been to harsh on this one.
My second motivator is that I’ve got a hankering for a light review of the life of Julius Caesar. The other day, I reminded myself that in 2003 I watched a show called, simply Julius Caesar. It was a TNT mini-series that I watched when it originally aired on cable. It was big budget (by TV standards) and starred many top-name actors (by TV standards). Jeremy Sisto portrayed Caesar himself with Richard Harris as Sulla, Christopher Walken as Cato the Elder, Chris Noth as Pompey, and Rain Man supporting actress Valeria Golino as Caesar’ wife**. Unfortunately, if memory serves, despite the big names and some rather expensive sets, it still had too much of a “mini-series” feel to it. I’d watch it again, but it seems to be entirely unavailable. Also, for what its worth, it has 6.7 stars on IMDB.
Now, the second season of Roman Empire is a biography of Caesar. It would seem that this would be a reasonable substitute and, better yet, it is available and free (or shall I say, included). That’s enough to push me into giving it another go. The part of me that likes to be organized decided that I should really finish the first season (the Seasons are 6, 5, and 4 episodes long, respectively, so this isn’t that much of a commitment) which covers the death of Marcus Aurelius and his succession by his son Commodus. So I picked up right where I left off, with Season 1, Ep. 2.
By the immortal gods, this show is awful.
Now, I’ll grant this to Netflix – I’m quite sure there are far worse shows out there. There are even worse shows on Netflix, but I’m not watching most of them. This show earns its unique scorn by its combination of poor quality and the fact that I, nevertheless, keep watching it.
It is structured on the History Channel formula. Stock footage is interspersed with the lead actors posing, pacing (sometimes in slow motion), or just looking anguished. Tying it together, the narrator (the show sprang for Sean Bean) slowly moves forward through the historical arc, although mostly be repeating the same phrases over and over (“the fate of Rome now hung in the balance!”). Very occasionally, key plot elements (or just those that involve boobies) are acted out rather than narrated. Well, the narration usually follows, sometimes more than once, just to make sure we all got it. Each episode ends as a cliff hanger, so while nothing may have happened for the 45 minutes you spent watching, you are promised that something momentous will be occurring when the next episode opens.
The repetition elevates the little cost-cutting details to major annoyances. The first time I saw the CGI-reconstructed buildings of ancient Rome, I admired the effort if not the end result. Reusing those same half-dozen images ruined that good will. There is another reused live-action scene that consists of an overhead view of a market stall. There are two groups of people, walking in opposing circles around a central booth. From the first time it was shown, I could see it was a quick-and-dirty background shot. Maybe it shouldn’t have been so quick, so dirty given the number of times they’ve reused it in the show.
Wikipedia further suggests that some of that stock footage is actually taken from a similar BBC production that came out 10 years earlier. That show doesn’t seem to be easily accessible, although one would hope the Beeb didn’t it a little better (8.0 on IMDB!). Although I can’t identify the reused footage, I can identify some of the Netflix-original “stock” shots. In Roman Empire, there are a surprising number of citizens of Rome that bear south-pacific islander features. Roman Empire was shot in New Zealand as opposed to Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire‘s Eastern Europe and Africa. It’s nice to see the production didn’t discriminate racially in the hiring of extras, but can be jarring to see Italians who don’t at all resemble Italians.
I’ll grant the show this one (albeit backhanded) compliment. At a time in my life when I feel like time is rushing by me, Roman Empire makes its 40-some minute running time feel like hours.
Season 1 of the series ends with the death of Commodus at the hands of Narcissus. In contrast to the first five episodes, it focuses mostly on reenacted scenes rather than narrated ones. In doing so, it compresses the last year or two of Commodus’ reign into what appears to be about 3 days of story, distorting historical details in the process. Let’s acknowledge that this show never claimed to be a documentary or an educational piece. We frequently allow for twisted history in the interest of story and entertainment. Is it so wrong in this context? Compare and contrast with the movie Gladiator, which sometimes seems to get everything wrong but Commodus’ name, but ends up being an engaging and successful (made 100s of millions and won Best Picture). Which take offends us, we amateur history buffs, more?
*Or at least I think they did. Netflix seems to have done away with that percent-match system of rating streaming content (to which I respond “good riddance”) and I don’t recall exactly how much or why they thought I’d like it.
**I really wouldn’t have known Valeria Golino, but I was sorely tempted to make a joke about how she must be above suspicion, or something like that. Unfortunately, Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia, does not seem to have been portrayed. Golino plays third wife, Calpurnia.
Hovering on the edge of my consciousness, there was a buzz about Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang in some way voicing support for “permanent Democratic majorities everywhere.” While every candidate and political activists sure dreams of sweeping the entire nation, this phrasing sounds a little sinister.
Now, I’m going to stick in here a caveat that I’m not quoting Candidate Yang himself and I don’t know what he actually said. Without naming names, I think we can stipulate that there is a good chunk of the Democratic Party that believes that the march of progress has bowled over Conservatives/Republicans and that a Progressive/Democratic/Socialistic ascendancy is inevitable.
I think they’re wrong. I think they are wrong a number of accounts, each with their own reasons. I think they’re wrong in their math and I think they’re wrong on moral/ethical grounds, but I’ll wait and dwell on this in a future article. My real criticism here is I think that the very concept of wiping out your political opponent is antithetical to modern Democracy – at least where that phrase has meaning.
My impression of history when it comes to democracy (especially in republican forms of government) is just that, an impression. I don’t claim this backed up by fact or research. Generalizing about democracy is further flummoxed by data from most European democracies. A multi-party, parliamentary system won’t behave in the same way as a two-party system. Further, the single-party systems that are tightly controlled may have, on paper, a viable opposition but with the vote manipulated for the sole purpose of giving the ruling party legitimacy. Filtering out all the exceptions, what remains as examples* of functioning “two party” democracies is hard to quantify. Once you’ve identified such an animal, however, I’d say that it functions striving to remain in rough equilibrium.
For slow societal change, this means a gradual shift in the demographics and principles of the parties. When the party holding temporary majority abandons a constituency to take on a new issue, it is natural for that constituency to drift to the other party. Over the long term, this could result in a near reversal of supported policy. For example, post-Civil War, the Republicans were the party of black Americans with the Democrats offering a thinly veiled, de-facto return to slavery. Fast forward 100 years and you find an extraordinarily high correlation between black identity and voting Democrat while the Republicans becoming associated with the more traditional South. Why? Because the issue of slavery, once the defining issue of American politics, simply disappeared. Nobody** in the 1970s supported slavery and the two-party system morphed so as to bring itself back into balance.
More rapid societal change can manifest itself with the formation of “third” parties and the eventual replacement of the minority part with a new, more viable alternative. Again, the potent issue of slavery sidelined the American Whig party and put the Republican party, a mere 6 years after its founding, into the majority all across the government. Instructive in this case is that the Democrats, with their “permanent majority,” were no longer able to hold that majority together. Lincoln won the electoral college to become President, but had a mere 40% of the popular vote.
The historical lesson might suggest that I should simply laugh at the hubris of a party that claims to have a permanent majority and I would, but for my counter examples above. Russia’s Communists, Germany’s National Socialists, and countless banana republic dictatorships demonstrate how a fleeting majority can be turned into long-term, one-party rule by applying some judicious oppression. Even our own “positive” example, above, was far from it. By the time the Republicans took over the government, the issue of slavery, succession, and federal/state balance of power had grown so contentious that the solution came, not through persuasive politics and voting contests, but through a massive, bloody 4-year civil war.
Ironically, the example of slavery suggests that the fastest way to put an end to a decisive majority may be to use that majority to enforce a “voter mandate.” It was the clear electoral majority voting to preserve slavery in the face of a passionate opposition that caused the Democratic Party to splinter and the Republicans to take control of the levers of governance. That, in turn, led to a perceived inability to pursue any solution within the framework of a political system, which led to open warfare.
It further hurts the moral basis behind a quest for permanent majority that part of its achievement involves politically changing the electoral game to your advantage. This involves tried-and-true methods such as control State legislatures in redistricting years through fidgeting with voter eligibility laws through wholesale restructuring of election processes (e.g. eliminate the electoral college, changing U.S. Senate structure). In our example, it involved designating “free” and “slave” States to engineer particular national outcomes. These methods make each election feel all that more apocalyptic as losing perhaps even one time might cripple your ability to ever win again going forward.
Yet, it is possible to make massive cultural change through consensus. Social Security, Medicaid, and, yes, even the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s received broad support across the political spectrum. Buy-in from the opponents of new policy, even if it a begrudging buy-in, will temper the feeling that the new is being forced upon an unwitting and unwilling populace. The current fashion for declaring that one’s own party represents the “common sense” opinion of the vast majority of people in spite of clear and vigorous opposition seems to simply be a way of perverting the tradition of consensus (assuming such really did exist as tradition). If electoral victory means ramming, along party lines, your favored policy through over the objections of the minority, this is a recipe for amplifying the nation’s political divide. If it is truly possible to make that electoral victory “permanent,” this leads to a best-case scenario of a descent into tyranny-of-the-majority. The worst-case scenario is too terrible to contemplate.
*Using Wikipedia as a guide, they propose that Great Britain and its former colonies are generally two-party governments although many have viable third parties. Latin America has, for the most part, adopted a U.S.-like political system. South Korea, while not really a two-party government, is often described as behaving like one.
**Well, never say never. While one must admit there were always be some segment of the population who hang onto fringe views, I’d say is fair to discount such ideology when talking politics and elections.
I don’t care for musicals.
I’m not enamoured with Broadway productions and generally avoid the films that are based upon them. Perhaps part of my problem was being inundated with a particular form of the genre when I was young. An unnerving number of Disney films, and thus “kid fare,” were made as musicals in the 1960s and 70s. At the same time, many of the “classics” of Broadway theater seemed to be making their way onto film at the time. At some point, I just could take no more.
Cabaret, therefore, never made it onto my lists of films I wanted to see. In some ways, it promised to be not only a “typical” early 1970s musical but might have been considered the archetypal Broadway musical. Doesn’t every Broadway actor, male or female, aspire to be Liza Minnelli? How many productions must imitate Joel Gray’s over-emoting? Perhaps my avoidance of the whole lot means that I over-weight some of these vague impressions I’ve developed on little evidence. So while I don’t know how influential Cabaret actually is on what came after it, it sure seems to me like a road map for how to perform show tunes on the stage and on the screen.
It took a one/two punch for me to finally decide to watch it. First, I read a review in the Wall St. Journal of a summer staging of Cabaret at, of all places, the Ogunquit Playhouse in the Maine resort town (for we who don’t indulge in expensive vacations, it is the fictional home of Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder in The Stand). The Ogunquit production of the musical is based on the Sam Mendes 1993 London revival, which I also haven’t seen, but it was described as a “lewd, pitch-black production.” Punch number two is that Netflix removed Cabaret from streaming at the end of September. Finally, as I was wavering (a bunch of interesting stuff disappeared September 30th, all vying for my viewing attention), someone posted the beer hall clip from the film. The scene features a young Nazi leading revelers young and old in singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The social media post drew a connection between the teen-aged “Hitler Youth” and celebrity du jour Greta Thunberg. I had to watch now.
First of all, even when I wasn’t enjoying the film, I was admiring it. It is a technical masterpiece. It is no accident that it earned five technical Academy Awards (cinematography, art direction, sound, film editing, and score). Watching the camera work in the night-club scenes would make many of today’s directors wish they could go back to film school. This is not to say that the film was unenjoyable, just that some parts were better than others. One out-of-place example has Fritz Wepper, playing the secretly Jewish confidence man Fritz Wendel, acting the Borsch-belt fool opposite the elegant and straight Marisa Berenson’s teenage* heiress Natalia Landauer. It’s not that its bad; it is just not consistently engaging.
In contrast to most musicals of the time, characters don’t spontaneously break out into song as a way of expressing themselves. Musical numbers are either in the context of a night-club performance or background music played on a Victrola. The one standout, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, is all the more powerful a scene in that it does have characters standing up and spontaneously singing, although still in a plausible context (I’ve been known to start singing in beer halls at the slightest provocation, myself).
The source material of this film, the various Broadway musicals, and a 1950s musical/film interpretation called I Am a Camera, is a collection of short stories called Goodbye to Berlin** by English author Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood wrote the stories based, roughly, on his time in Berlin in the early 1930s and published them in 1939. It was a contemporary account lived, written, and published all before the full and horrible impact of the Nazi takeover of Germany was realized. George Orwell contemporaneously described the work as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay.***” I’ll come back to this analysis after working my way backwards through time.
The urgency of this story in the contemporary is obvious and, although less obviously, universal. From the left, we see a story about recognizing or, perhaps, failing to recognize evil as it is growing strong. I’m going to assume, without any evidence whatsoever, that the minds behind the Ogunquit staging see their performance as a tale about Trump’s America and the need to, as Michael York’s Brian Roberts rather unproductive does, punch a Nazi. On the right, folks hear the shrill, absolutest ragings issuing from the mouths of babes echoed in the strains of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Check the young lady at 2:07 for some righteous anger.
The context of 1972 is probably similarly obvious. Several years after the Stonewall Riots, the movement for gay rights was changing into one demanding open acceptance and normalcy within larger society. This heralded a new integration and, perhaps, power for the gay community but would also provoke a backlash. In 1972, that backlash could be easily compared to the early support for Nazism; perhaps harmless enough as it existed but capable of growing into something terrible.
What’s not entirely obvious to me is Orwell’s point in 1939 (assuming he made it contemporaneously with the book’s publication). Surely the “society in decay” refers to the emerging Nazism, which had clearly become and uncontrollable force by 1939. Could it also refer to the decadence and hedonism of the early-30s Berlin? Is there a connection between the collapse of traditional morality and the rise of authoritarianism? Besides the red armbands and petty thuggery, what early warning signs do we see in Cabaret that would foreshadow the coming storm. What warning signs might we be seeing right now, today?
Das eine Mal als Tragödie, das andere Mal als Farce
Watching the film in 2019 invokes very different reactions that it would have in 1972. In terms of actual “adult content,” it is on-the-whole rather mild. There is no outright depiction sexual acts. There is a level of casual nudity that, while it was becoming acceptable in the early 70s, is a tad bold by today’s standards. At the same time, the implied sexual content is perhaps more intense than expected. Homosexuality and bisexuality, while not portrayed on the screen, are key elements of the plot. Sexual congress results in an unplanned pregnancy which prompts an abortion. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching Glee and other times it’s A Clockwork Orange.
While the topless scenes may have seemed simply artistic in the 70s, the sexual undercurrents were not considered mainstream. The film initially received an X rating (albeit at a time before X was synonymous with pornography) in the U.S. and the U.K., although these ratings were later revised.
Anger over the content was not restricted to those who were concerned about its subversion of traditional morals. Tomorrow Belongs to Me caused quite a stir as people objected to the glorified use of a “Nazi song” in the film. In point of fact, the song was an original composition, as were all the music numbers, by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Both composers are Jewish. Yet, the misconception and anger were enough to have the song cut from the film when it was first shown in West Berlin. As with the rating reconsideration, however, the deleted number was later restored.
Another Kander/Ebb song also drew anger from the left. If You Could See Her begins a scene with an extremely large woman on a scale and Joel Gray expounds:
“I know what you’re thinking. You wonder why I chose her […] If you could see her thru my eyes, you wouldn’t wonder at all.” The woman then turns around and is revealed to be a chimpanzee. Gray’s character continues to sing of her hidden virtues, finally ending with the line, “But if you could see her thru my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”
This last twist, again, upset many at the time, seeing it as an expression of antisemitism. It’s a comparison that echos in modern controversies where any juxtaposition of animals and ethnic minorities is bound to be called out as hate speech, regardless of intent. Furthermore, the contemporary explanation (in Wikipedia) says that the song “reveals the growing acceptance of anti-Semitism.” Apparently, the inability of an audience to discern satire from contempt remains unchanged from the 30s through the 70s into the twenty-teens.
It seems to me that our collective inability to recognize subtlety – whether in art, literature, or even the daily news – will continue to define us. The importance of this work (encompassing everything from the short stories, the films, and the theatrical productions) is its portrayal of an early and outsider’s view of the rise of one of the most destructive forces of the 20th century. In reading it, we wonder if we could have anticipated the violence and death that sprung from Nazism. We wonder if we will spot it the next time arises. However, if we’re all only looking out for anti-homosexual bigotry coming from blonde kids wearing red armbands, I think we’ve missed the point.
*The actors and actresses are all their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s, which seems consistent with the source material. An exception is the character of Natalia, who in the original book is a teenager.
**Published, also, in a combined volume with the novel Mr Norris Changes Trains and called The Berlin Stories. This more extensive packaging also seems to be the cheaper option, if you happen to be looking to read it for yourself.
***This publishers blurb is quoted in all the sale-oriented reviews but, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, without context.
Nothing great can be accomplished politically, and nothing can last, without the presence of men whose brilliance, character and determination inspire, rally and channel the energies of a people.
Everything falls apart when weak protagonists succeed one another at the head of the State. Unity breaks down when greatness falls away.
from the prologue of Quand un Roi perd la France.
I grew up in a small town. Not a really, really small town, but a medium-sized suburb of a small, ruralish city. As such, I was fairly disconnected from the cutting edge-culture of my time. It might be a phenomenon that you need to live to fully understand. In some, critical ways the culture of “the 80s” that I experienced when I was younger would have looked, to someone from New York or Los Angeles, about five years out of date.
Years later, shortly after watching Napoleon Dynamite, I was part of an argument about anachronisms within that film. In some ways, the films seems to be taking place in the early 80s. At the same time, there are clearly contemporary artifacts within the film that some have felt were included in error. It hit me that there is a gag there, one that highlights that phenomenon I had experienced myself. The jest of Napoleon Dynamite is that “I went back to my home town as an adult, and it was still stuck in 1981.”
As a kid from New York City, or L.A., or even Chicago or New Orleans for that matter, you’d be exposed to the (young) adult culture of your time. In 1981, at least, growing up in rural or even remote-suburban America meant restricting one’s cultural influence to the big-three TV networks and other mass media. Decades down the road, I’ve paused to think about the message contained in that media. How biased was it? How influential was it? How pervasive was it?
As a case in point, look at the film Footloose. No, not the new one, the original. The 1984 movie was inspired by real events from 1981 where a high school class petitioned the school board for permission to hold a prom, circumventing an ordinance that had been on the books since the foundation of the town (82 years earlier). The school board took jurisdiction, stating that a prom was not the still-forbidden “public dancing” but, instead, a private function not covered by law. The reality was not quite as dramatic as the film version, but the rough elements of the tale (including church-driven objection to public dance) was transformed into a wildly successful and very popular film.
For the film, the location was moved from Elmore City, Oklahoma to a more ominously-religious sounding Bomont, Utah. Ren, Kevin Bacon’s character, is an amalgamation of class officers Rex Kennedy and Leonard Coffee (Rex and Len = Ren). And while Coffee had only come to Elmer City in the sixth grade, he was hardly the too-cool-for-Utah Ren from the big city of Chicago. The personal drama that loss-of-innocence lead-female Ariel experienced, having recently lost a sibling in an drunk-driving related crash, seams entirely unmatched by the class officer and daughter-of-the-school-board-Chairman Mary Ann Temple, whose father actually cast the deciding vote in the prom’s favor.
Set aside for the moment that, John Hughes films notwithstanding, Chicago is barely better than flyover country to the denizens from New York and L.A. Is an intended message of this film to show how backwards American is outside of the major urban areas? Can the only salvation for the hinterlands come when someone like Ren comes and brings with him modernity? This does seem to be a message that was reinforced by television, film, and music nearly everywhere when I was young.
By the time I was a college-aged, I had heard that message loud and clear. I was eager to escape my mildly-rural roots and only considered employment in top-10, coastal urban centers. Disdain for the vast rural center of the country was high despite a lifetime of without having experienced any of the repressive culture that the media assured me was pervasive. I just knew that cultish, religious extremists awaited me if I ever lost sight of the ocean in my rambles.
Only after getting old did I begin to value affordable housing and quiet, open space. Living outside the dome, I can see the mistakes in the shared prejudice of the urban elites*. Those people from “nowhere” that are less wealthy, less educated, and less cosmopolitan than you aren’t less intelligent or less informed. In fact, my sense (and this is born out by recent studies) is that it is the opposite. In the vast red fill of the United States, a conservative still is bombarded with the progressive viewpoints that pervade our culture. If he likes Trump, he does so hearing, on an almost daily basis, how awful Trump is. If you work in a Manhattan law firm, on the other hand, your protective bubble is nearly impervious.
If you accept that the portrayal of the bulk of America as being populated by closed-minded, bigoted, uneducated morons is more than a bit unfair, the question I have is, was the misdirection intentional? I’d be willing to state with confidence that there has been a concerted effort to push this country out of its “traditional” mindset. In some cases, that has been a good thing. I think we all can appreciate the reduction in racism and sexism that has taken place over the last century and acknowledge that some of that was accomplished as a top-down effort. In other cases, folks passionately take sides as to whether the “new” is really an improvement over the “old.”
It is certainly possible that it was unintentional. Writers and directors tend to live in New York or Los Angeles and their own world-view is bound to make its way into their creations. Similarly, many a generation of teenager longs to get away from the little place they grew up to go see the world and it would be inevitable for this message to make its way into the songs and other entertainment of the young and for the young. Until very recently, my take would have simply been one of art imitating life.
I do wonder, however, if the push isn’t a little too one-side, a little too profound to be accidental. Go back about a century, for contrast. I was always struck by the sappiness in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The film extols the virtues of country living, family and friends, and a little place to call home in a way that seems artificial. The creators of that piece were also from New York and California, but they seem to feel compelled to speak to their potential audience, an audience who populated the vast middle of the country, in a sentimentality that goes far beyond their source material. The films of the 80s and 90s would rather ridicule their suburban audiences, and in a way that was no more natural than The Wizard‘s sound-stage countryside.
Ironically, the progressive left needs to rewrite the narrative yet again.
When I grew up, “the fifties” was an epithet to rival “small town” in terms of explaining what was wrong with America. Before the Summer of Love and the Sexual Revolution, we were told, America was stifled by rigid conformity imposed by corporate overlords. The hippie revolution preached the need to free oneself from “The Man” through a back-to-basics, do-it-yourself spirit that would live comfortably among today’s right-leaning preppers. Throw off that tie and starched, button-down shirt and be free.
Those fifties were, in some ways, the height of America’s cultural power. We had emerged victorious from the Second World War with nearly all our potential competition in international trade either having been defeated or, at the very least, devastated by that war. While America’s orientation toward free enterprise continued** to drive our successes, the unprecedented economic explosion and resulting world economic hegemony should not be discounted. For the generation that includes several from the upcoming crop of Presidential candidates, those post-war decades appear to be the baseline – that which existing before any intervening political, cultural, and economic changes took place. In that context, one can easily project one’s own values on this success and the fall from grace. Just as I have given credit to economic liberty, someone else might cite the labor movement and the New Deal as the primary factors creating the 1950s successes and, conversely, the drift away from America’s socialist experimentation as causing the end of our economic domination of the world.
Bernie Sanders is on record making statements to this effect, although I think I’ve read the reference before it came from his mouth. In his case, I wonder if it is his age showing. From the point of view of Bernie’s generation, he is turning the values of his opponents to his advantage. For a young Bernie majoring in political science in Brooklyn, his “moral majority” opponents would have been, figurative speaking, “living in the 50s.” To him, perhaps, those to the right of him politically still are. However, does what, to him, looks like brilliant strike in the cultural war instead appear, to most of us alive today, like he’s fighting a battle that was over and done before we were even born? Nostalgia for a better time is an extremely powerful factor in politics. It’s bound to be a winning strategy, but the nostalgia must exist of its own accord. Bernie can’t manufacture something that isn’t there.
Or maybe I’m just taking a silly, pop-culture movie way too seriously. There’s nothing wrong, after all, with a little bit of dancing.
*Although, to this day, I find it impossible to rectify how that Alabama man with the Gomer Pyle accent was one of the world’s top rocket designers.
**America’s role as the “arsenal of democracy,” itself, sprung from our traditions of economic freedom. I would argue that this, itself, was a significant factor in allowing us emerge triumphant from the war.
The powers that be,
that force us to live like we do,
bring me to my knees.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
knowing that, deep in my heart,
they’ll fall to ruin one day.