Juvenal’s Ghost Asks: Who Is Watching the Watcher?
With each day the ghost of Juvenal looms larger. This famed Roman satirist sought to capture the Emperor Domitian’s vice-infested culture, in the gloomy years ending the first century. The more people tried to censor him the more merciless his tongue became.
Trump’s America should study his incisive texts, including this famous passage often translated as “who is watching the watcher?” See:
Hey there, you
Who do you think you’re fooling [with] this masquerade…
I know the advice my old friends would give—“Lock her up
And bar the doors.” But who is to keep guard
Over the guards themselves? They get paid in common coin
To forget their mistress’s randy little adventures;
Both sides have something to hide. Any sensible wife,
Planning ahead, will first turn the heat on them.
--Juvenal’s Sixth Satire
(Trans. Peter Green. In Juvenal, Sixteen Satires (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 140.)
Through laughter he taught readers about fake news and kangaroo courts. The simple message in Satire VI, known as his diatribe on women, is this: See who’s paying the investigator, and you’ll know what general falsehoods the investigator is likely to come up with. Caveat Priebus.
Culture in the third phase
Three periods of the Roman Empire’s culture stand out. Just before and after the birth of Christ, Virgil’s Aeneid and Horace’s gentle satires trumpeted an Augustan “Romanitas” (or “Roman virtue”) for jittery citizens who survived decades of civil war to become the most powerful people in the whole world. Call this the “winsome phase.”
Mid-century, just after the end of Paul’s ministry, a generation of writers including Petronius (Satyricon) and Lucan (Pharsalia) reacted to the excesses of Nero’s reign by penning epic-length narratives full of viscera and gore. Call this the “gross phase.”
Over a century after Virgil’s Aeneid, in a third phase, Juvenal emerged as a new voice of satire. He felt neither inspired to offer virtuous stories nor compelled to use grotesquerie to mourn virtues lost. Call this the “crass phase.”
For Juvenal’s generation, all that remained was sarcastic exposés on the utter crudeness of a self-righteous but decadent society. He was perhaps like Bill Maher, only a social conservative. (His second satire, on sodomy, has already gotten him banned from Classics syllabi on politically correct campuses!)
Trump’s America is Juvenal’s Rome
Perhaps the Oscars’-night loss of La La Land to the politically contrived Moonlight points to where America now stands. Postwar musicals delivered wholesomeness to an aspiring empire led by a World War II general. Our winsome phased ended with Shirley Jones’s winks and nods to Harold Hill in the cinematic version of 1962’s Music Man. Then for Phase II we had Linda Lovelace and Texas Chainsaw Massacre shocking the 1970s. Now we are living in Juvenal’s Rome and the crass phase. Neither Eisenhowerian innocence nor Nixonian outrage can compete with the allure of simple apathy and sass.
Why bother caring when we know the system is rigged and everyone claiming to be outraged is really just running another scam on us?
But we are not Rome! We cannot let go of our principles yet, because whereas Rome simply had to worry about Visigoths and Parthians, we face the far more dangerous Democrats. Maybe a barbarian might raid a far-flung outpost, but Democrats will invade our private lives, projecting homosexual fairy tales into our homes through Netflix, and force our daughters to look at naked men when they need to use the toilet. If they steal our democracy, they won’t simply overthrow the president they don’t like. They will impose their decadent and inhumane way of life on us. (This is why I have refocused my energies on local fights like Texas’s battle over sexually excessive grade school curriculum.)
What to make of treason charges?
In 2017 Juvenalian farce writes itself, making actual satirists unnecessary. (Roland Barthes envisioned “the Death of the Author” in 1968, but probably had no clue how prescient he was.)
On March 2, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would recuse himself from investigations into Russian cyberespionage in the U.S. This could confirm or reverse Juvenal’s ancient warning -- “Who’s watching the watcher?” -- depending on how you look at it. Mr. Sessions is literally saying he will not keep watch over the people keeping watch over him. Perhaps that is good, since in principle the watcher should not be the one being investigated. But on the other hand, if he isn’t watching the watchers, then who is? Anybody else overseeing the oversight is likely to be even worse.
Let us review this: Jeff Sessions met with a Russian ambassador. Hysteria reigns left of center over claims that “Russians hacked the election,” which means, within this strain of thought, that people whose names we don’t know in American intelligence reported in secret meetings to American journalists that they engaged in secret analysis and concluded that people we don’t know somewhere in Russia wanted Trump to win the election, so they hacked into email accounts to… embarrass the Democrats by not allowing them to keep their vicious emails secret? Transparency is a rather elusive good in all this, making the “watching” a strange game indeed.
The basis for such an investigation is, to put it charitably, quite strained to begin with. Why we need watchers for this issue, when we already have, ostensibly, commissions in every state to keep watch over the balloting in every district in America, remains rather unpersuasive.
This apoplexy over Russian hackers escalates each day while nobody has yet made serious gestures to investigate what happened in California. Two very suspicious electoral results there keep pestering me.
First, why did the margin of Hillary Clinton’s win expand by such an enormous factor in the weeks after the polls closed, mushrooming from barely 500,000 to now, as Trump-haters repeat, “close to three million”? Almost all of this strangely blooming margin comes from California, a state run by the party opposed to Donald J. Trump, and where somehow their own election workers missed millions of ballots by November 8, which, when rediscovered after a highly incendiary election result, swung overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton. Who was watching the election watchers out there?
Strangely too, in a state with an enormous Latino population and a much smaller African American population, two Democrats ran against each other for a Senate seat. Somehow the well-known and popular Latina, Ms. Sanchez, coming from the far more populous southern California, lost by millions of votes to Kamala Harris. Ms. Harris hails from the less populous northern California, did not have decades of being elected to popular office, and had as her sole advantage the fact that the old guard of white liberals like Jerry Brown really liked her. Between two Democrats, Ms. Harris, who wreaks of snooty Bay Area snobbery, trounced the Latina home girl by over twenty percentage points?
Who’s watching the watchers out there, and why are we worried about Russians exposing Democrats’ secrets and whether Jeff Sessions had a meeting with an ambassador who has met with half of Congress?
Yet those who call for more investigations and costly intelligence assessments persist. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Sessions responded to a vague (could it be anything other than vague?) question from Sen. Al Franken (a comedian who wrote the weighty tome Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot) by saying that though he was a “surrogate” for Trump he did not “communicate” with the Russians. The press called this a lie and pressure mounted to force Mr. Sessions to recuse himself. Suddenly Mr. Sessions’ left-of-center critics are moral purists. They believe that if someone responds to a vague question about a vain issue based on suggestive speculation without recalling, on the spot, every possible detail that his detractors might use to shoe-horn an ethics charge on him, then the person is not honest enough to oversee a wild goose chase after the elected president who appointed him.
All signs indicate that a network of people with unclear motivations opposes Mr. Trump. The network has gathered complicated plans to thwart, sabotage, and ruin his presidency. Their tactics appear to consist of slander, innuendo, and manipulation of both judicial bureaucracy and popular opinion. Their ranks unite anti-Trump moles throughout the civil service, lowly trolls in the gutters of cyberspace, street thugs, and reputable public figures. The pedigreed intellectuals and statesmen involved in this seem willing to stake their reputation on the hopes that they can emerge from a mud-storm without their good names entirely sullied.
This represents a severe threat to our democracy far worse than the famous conspiracy of Catiline. Whether the plotters can succeed in overthrowing a president and reimposing undemocratic policies that voters rejected depends on the public’s stamina. If we deplorables get tired too quickly, the devil’s minions will hack away at Trump’s administration until it collapses. If we can stay alert and counter every fraud, fake charge, slander, smear, and whisper campaign, we may roll back the subterfuge and help Trump make America great again.
There’s nothing left but satire
This historical moment demands we give up niceties and cuteness. If we feel outraged, the only way to convey it is by ruthlessly deflating the seriousness of the ridiculous political maneuvers that have outraged us. That is why, in looking for a title of my most recent book, I chose not to call it something high-minded and diplomatic. I called it Wackos Thugs & Perverts. This is Juvenal’s age. Stay vigilant and keep watch -- and sharpen your tongue.