Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Carthage Deleted, the Tea Party and UKIP

Imagine a distant ancestor of the present US Tea Party, in flowing toga and discourse, before the Roman Senate. He’s just reached the end of an impassioned speech in favour of small government, and therefore in opposition to the bill on today’s order paper, “Port of Ostia: main sewer (Finance) Enablement Bill”.

“The people of Ostia have lived for generations without an improved sewer. They deserve to spend their hard-earned money how they want and not see it used to boost the egos of the Consults. Besides, Ostia is famous for its distinctive smell and we don’t want it to lose that attraction.”

Before he sits down, however, he has one last thought to share.

“Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”, he proclaims.

Wikipedia rather boringly translates that statement as “I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”. What it really means is: “oh, by the way, let me just add that Carthage needs to be destroyed.”

Or, since he used the word “delenda”, we might even say “deleted.”

Rather like the Tea Party today, that senator’s faction, led by Cato the Elder, got its way in the end, by dint of repeating those words whether they were relevant or not to the matter in hand. Military power was deployed to destructive purpose and Carthage copped it. 

Only traces remain of what was once the grandeur of Carthage
Outline of streets – but note the Roman pillars marching across them
Carthage, the great sea power centred near present-day Tunis, had become Queen of the Western Mediterranean and a painful thorn in Rome’s side. Indeed, had a couple of battles gone the other way, we might have seen a Carthaginian Empire instead of a Roman one. Deluded figures like the British journalist Toby Young wouldn’t be insisting that kids be taught Latin in his harebrained “Free School”, but Phoenician.

Carthage had fought three wars with Rome and demonstrated a nasty way of bouncing back from each defeat: raising some more cash, recruiting some more men, deploying another army. Cato wasn’t going to have any more of that. This time the Roman army swept into North Africa, won several battles and finally sacked the city.

And when I say sack, I mean sack. Those whom they could they massacred in the streets; the rest they got by setting fire to the houses. Then, the legend assures us, they tore brick from brick and ploughed salt into the ruins. The kind of thing that Hitler would have approved of as a “final solution.”

Having visited the remains of the old city of Carthage today, I can testify that they did a thorough job. The ploughing of the salt bit, to stop anything growing back, has run its course: I saw poppies and buttercups growing on some Carthaginian tombs, but still, all that could be seen was the outline of tombs. At the citadel, there are some remnants of house walls, indicating the layout of a few metres of streets, but that’s about it.

The ploughed salt has gone: poppies and buttercups flourish
in these traces of tombs from ruined Carthage
Fortunately, we try not to do things quite that destructively these days, even if it means pulling out of Afghanistan without the Taliban being beaten and, indeed, with every prospect of its coming back to power within a couple of years. The idea of tearing down Kandahar brick brick and ploughing salt into the ruins isn’t one we generally favour, I’m glad to say, though I’m not sure that the Taliban might not do it if the tables were turned.

What has survived to our days is the politician’s habit of repeating the same old formula over and over again until, perhaps by the soporific effect of repetition, voters are lulled into thinking that it makes sense.

For example, in Britain today we have the spectacle of Nigel Farage of the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party who refuses to state a policy on any matter whatsoever bar one. The party’s 2010 manifesto? He hasn’t read it and he doesn’t agree with it. His economic policy? His tax policy? He has nothing to say about anything so dull. Why, even on immigration he has no concrete proposal: he just doesn’t like it.

So Farage has gone one better even than Cato the Elder. He doesn’t merely tack the same formula on to all other statements of policy: as an economy, he dispenses with the statements of policy and just sticks to the formula: “it’s time to delete the EU.” Or at least Britain’s part in it.

Just like Cato, it’s a policy that’s wholly destructive. Unlike Cato’s policy, it’s unlikely to achieve the party’s aim: far from giving the UK independence, since it would make Britain still more dependent on the US. But like Cato’s monotonous refrain, it’s sadly gaining traction in certain quarters, with UKIP at 30% in the polls for the forthcoming European elections.

Proving that a widespread inability to see through a demagogue is another trait that has survived in good form down the ages. Unlike poor old Carthage.


Anonymous said...

Enjoy your holiday and forget Farage and Toby.


David Beeson said...

How far from Farage, eh?