The Perversions of the Byronic Left

As I marvel at the thought of Nobel Prize winner Barack Obama threatening a bizarre bombing of Damascus, I recall some famous lines I've read about Syria.

These verses come from a play by George Gordon Byron, called Sardanapalus.

The play recounts the ancient myth of a gender-confused, utopian libertine who rules over ancient Assyria.  The king, Sardanapalus, first claims he has no intention to be brutal and war-like (as Nimrod, his supposed ancestor, was).

But surrounded on all sides by armed enemies, undermined by palace intrigues, and infected with a pansexual dissipation that makes the whole city incapable of self-governance, Nineveh has no Jonah to come save its inhabitants.  The people devolve into chaos as the war finally consumes the city itself.

Sardanapalus dramatically dies inside the burning palace as his nation ceases to exist.  In the version made famous by Eugène Delacroix, now hanging gloriously in the Louvre, Sardanapalus reclines indifferently on his bed, watching as soldiers slash the necks of naked women and their horses trample his heirlooms.

At least in Byron's dramatic version, the king evacuates Nineveh.  But the image of progressivism transformed into sadomasochism is just as rich in British literature as it is in French art.  Too bad no American has rendered the story in our cultural sensibility.

The characters speak countless breakout lines that make me think of Obama confronted with striking fast-food workers, war in Syria, his collapsing health care plan, Snowden, Hasan, Manning (both Bradley and Chelsea), gay weddings, swirling government debts, Sandra Fluke's contraception mandate, and a black community he's done absolutely nothing to help.

Sardanapalus calls in the cupbearer, demanding to drink from "the golden goblet thick with gems, which bears the name of Nimrod's chalice" (15).  He decides to hold a banquet.  Rather than an Assyrian orgy, Obama suggests a "closed-door" session in Washington to talk about bisexuality with the fancy money-bundlers of the Human Rights Campaign.

Sardanapalus's career has been built on disavowing the past violence of his city's earlier rulers, including "my ancestor Semiramis, a sort of semi-glorious human master" (16).  Yet when warned by his brother-in-law that the people of Nineveh are ready to rebel because Sardanapalus has failed to protect them from invaders, Sardanapalus's superficial love for his people turns quickly to contempt:

The ungrateful and ungracious slaves! They murmur
Because I have not shed their blood, nor led them
To dry into the desert's dust by myriads
Or whiten with their bones the banks of the Ganges
Nor decimated them with savage laws
Nor sweated them to build up pyramids [...]


For my trophies I have founded cities. (18)

The advisors warn the king that the sacrifices he denigrates are "more worthy of a people and their prince / than songs, and lutes, and feasts, and concubines / and lavish'd treasures, and contemned virtues" (18).  Picture Miley Cyrus channeling Lady Gaga minus the elegance, and Perez Hilton moving to New York City with the rosy-faced son he acquired with a creepy surrogacy contract.  A pornographic regime can't concentrate on governing.

The king is deaf to advice that he must ready his people for sacrifice and reign with tough love.  Otherwise, hordes from without are going to descend upon Assyria and obliterate all that his ancestors built.  In Sardanapalus's defense, at least he didn't suggest amnesty for eleven million Babylonians to move into Nineveh when the Afro-Akkadian unemployment rate was 14%.

Sardanapalus is convinced that his own ideology is best.  As he describes it: "a disposition / to love and be merciful, to pardon / the follies of my species and (that's human) / to be indulgent to my own" (19).  This is the ancient version of all the pro-gay pacifists proclaiming "No H8" as they sue Christian photographers and cake-bakers, then engage in a massive cover-up about the homosexual rape problem in the military that's been exacerbated by the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.  When people say "it's all about love," run for the hills.

While seemingly idealistic, this ideology quickly turns to sadism and tyranny.  "Let them be arrested" (20), says Sardanapalus upon hearing vague hints that someone in his retinue is unhappy with the economic turmoil, violence, and sexual chaos of his reign.  Call in the seventeen agencies of the Intelligence Community and rev up the drones.  We've got some "haters" to blow up.

At hints that his feminine clothing and unmanly presentation might imply he is weak, Sardanapalus quickly spews vain claims that he is tough enough to take anybody on: "if it must be so, and these rash slaves / will not be ruled with less, I'll use the sword / till they'll wish it turn'd into a distaff" (21).  Let's launch Tomahawks.  Cameron and the U.N. be damned!

The king says, "I hate all pain, given or received" (22).  Still, he calls his own people "this vile herd, grown insolent with feeding" (21).  His advisor says, "their hearts are something" in protest.  Here is the king's response:

So my dogs are;
And better, as more faithful [...]
I have, by Baal, done all I could to soothe them,
I made no wars, I added no imposts,
I interfered not with their civic lives,
I let them pass their days as best might suit them
Passing my own as suited me. (22)


If then they hate me, 'tis because I hate not
If they rebel,  it is because I oppress not. (24)

No Hellenophile as well-read as Lord Byron would fail to insert a Greek character to act as a countervailing voice of reason.  And no, I don't mean Arianna Huffington.

This comes in the form of Myrrha, Sardanapalus's Greek mistress, who pleads with the king to cancel the banquets and lavish orgies, to speak of virtue and behave seriously.  Myrrha tells her royal lover: "Alas! My lord, with common men / There needs too oft the show of war to keep / the substance of sweet peace; and for a king / tis sometimes better to be fear'd than loved."  When he says that he has never wanted to be feared, Myrrha tells him that by his fault, now, he is neither (28).  She delivers perhaps the wisest lines of the play:

I speak of civic popular love, self love,
Which means that men are kept in awe and law,
Yet not oppress'd - at least they must not think so;
Or if they think so, deem it necessary,
To word off worse oppression, their own passions. (29)

Myrrha's notion -- people's unrestrained passions oppress them worse than would a king who calls them to virtue and sacrifice -- is as valid as it was in the days of America's founding.  In 1776 John Adams wrote, "All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue" (qtd. in Kirk 99).

All I can think is, "duh."  The framers of the Constitution foresaw this.  No people can remain free if they are not virtuous.  Sorry to S.E. Cupp and all the sophisticated atheists, but this means honoring a higher power and observing taboos, setting limits.  It is no coincidence that the first president to support gay marriage while in office is the same president who has overseen the disasters in Libya and Egypt, and now threatens a potentially catastrophic war in Sardanapalus's old stomping grounds.

We cannot remain free if we abandon virtue and betray the moral frameworks of our origins.  It is one thing to coexist with fornication, sodomy, pornography, and dissipation as vices to be dealt with -- it is another thing to finance them with government money and foist the sexual anomie that goes along with them onto our schools, our military, and even our churches.  The myriad "tapping out" conservatives jettisoning moral issues in order to curry the favor of young, hip voters will soon find themselves repeating Sardanapalus's words: "If they hate me, 'tis because I hate not."  People aren't grateful when you kill them by giving them what they think they want.

Many have wondered of the present American left, "Who are these people?"  They are Byronic.  Comfortable with cognitive dissonance, they have learned to preach love to masses whom they hold in contempt, in the name of repudiating ancestors whose greatness they despise, all for the thrill of notoriety.  The multitudinous "isms" and subcategories of leftist philosophy boil down to this simple speech given by Sardanapalus in his last moments, as he jumps into his own arson, in the middle of a capital he drove to complete ruination with his feckless policies:

Time shall quench full many
A people's records, and a hero's acts;
Sweep empire after empire, like this first
Of empires, into nothing; but even then
Shall spare this deed of mine, and hold it up
A problem few dare imitate, and none
Despise. (117)

The Byronic Left thinks that it can beat history and go down in a blaze of glory -- no pun intended, really.

Robert Oscar Lopez edits English Manif.



Byron, Lord George Gordon. Sardanapalus: A Tragedy. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1822.

Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. Seventh Revised Edition. Washington: Regnery, 2001.