The Lost Member of Spinal Tap

One of the amazing things about Brother Leader Moamar Qaddafiy of Libya is just how dissolute and seedy he looks. I described him earlier as looking like a schizophrenic homeless man. But he also looks like a washed-up and perpetually stoned rocker from the early 1970s. Especially in this poster, which looks more Haight-Ashbury 1972 than Hopey-Changey 2008:


I see a fourth-rate Keith Richard and Bob Dylan in that face. I see no creative energy in that face. I see aging headbanger, someone who always turned his amp up to 11, never saw a line of blow he didn’t snort, never saw a nubile young groupie he didn’t grope, never slept in a hotel room he didn’t trash, and who stopped mattering round about 1977 when he could no longer musically cope with disco and new wave. Maybe his career was briefly rejuvenated in the late 1980s, playing rhythm guitar for the unpainted Kiss, but he’s spent his life mostly in a drug-induced fog, playing the same four minor early-1970s hits over and over and over again with the same band of mates for aging fans and confused kids in small clubs and county fairs and watermelon festivals from Poznan to Portland.

Pity he couldn’t have overdosed on something substantial in 1973.

The Reach and Limit of the Law in Antiquity

I have sporadically (when I’ve not been writing and singing songs, leading worship, or watching al-Jazeera on the latest events in Libya) been reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It’s a fascinating and challenging read. Leithart so far has not so much “defended” the arrangement between the Church and the Roman state that Constantine made as he has explained what it really was. Which is helpful.

He also takes as a basis for his narrative the fact that Constantine really was a Christian. The question then, for Leithart, is what kind of Christian Constantine was.

The Roman state, by the time of Diocletian, had long been a religious state. Pagan sacrifice was the core of the empire’s regular devotional practice. There are some passages about sacrifice which I meant to blog on earlier, and will get to later. Because this is a posting about the law.

In 324, Constantine (according to Eusebius) issued a degree that was “intended to restrain the idolatrous abominations which in time past had been practiced in every city and country; and it provided that no one should erect images, or practice divination and other false and foolish arts, or offer sacrifice in any way” (p. 127, quoting Eusebius’ Life of Constantine). He ended the practice of state officials offering regular sacrifices, and was himself militantly opposed to sacrifice. Not long after Constantine died, his son Constans reinforced this with a decree making sacrifice a punishable offense. According to Leithart, this is the point where Christianity could be seen to be the official, established religion of the state, at least in the eastern part of the empire. (Again, Leithart is citing Eusebius here.)

However, Constantine also allowed broad “freedom of conscience” within the empire. Leithart asks how can these two ideas — the ban on sacrifice and freedom of conscience for pagan worship — be reconciled? Because of the nature of the law in antiquity. Leithart writes:

Imperial edicts always depended on enforcement by provincial or local officials, who might be too lazy or busy to carry out the emperor’s business. A provincial governor surrounded by convinced pagans would be hesitant to bear down. More important, emperors “never expected or intended that their anti-pagan legislation be enforced.” [Quotation from Scott Bardbury’s “Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice,” p. 134.] Leafing through the codices, one gets the impression that the decrees of the early Christian emperors were concise and legally framed legislation, but when we examine the full of text of certain decrees in Eusebius, we find that the legislative portion is fairly minor and often concludes a prolix moral lecture. The Codex Theodosianus consists of excerpts from Constantine and his immediate successors, but excerpting changes the genre and tone. In its original setting, much imperial legislation functioned more as mere moral appeal than as law [italics mine] in our modern sense of the term. Given the nature of the “law” in Constantine’s empire, there was no necessary contradiction between his “We wholly forbid the existence of gladiators” and his permission to an Umbrian town to honor the emperor with combats. Nor was there any necessary contradiction between a decree suppressing sacrifice and continued toleration of sacrifice. 

Constantine cannot keep himself from preaching. He did it in court, and when he issued decrees in his official capacity he was still the mission-minded preacher. Eschewing sacrifice entirely was the best way to go, so he prohibited sacrifice; yet everyone should be free to follow conscience, so he did not enforce prohibition. He was a politician-preacher … [and h]is legislation created an “atmosphere” in which sacrifice gradually faded way. (p. 128-129)

The law as moral appeal rather than legislation. This is interesting. It appears to understand the limits of both law and state, something modernity does not appear to grasp (because it wants the law omnipotent and omnipresent, much like modernity wants the state). To an extent, the people of antiquity appear to grasp — at least in this example (and assuming Leithart and his sources, whose conclusions he draws from, are correct) — the limits of power and ability. It may even be that the law’s primary use is as moral exhortation rather than enforced limit on human activity.

This is not to say law or decree were not taken seriously in antiquity, were not viewed as having real power, or were not expected to be obeyed. Otherwise, no one would take seriously the decree of Augustus that becomes the reason in Luke’s Gospel for Mary and Joseph to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophesy. (In Matthew, the move is the other way around, from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and then only because the wrong people rule Judea.) Nor would the Tanakh conclude with the two books of Chronicles, the final of words of which are the decree from King Cyrus of Persia to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem. Powerful words that move people to act, and change the world.

But it seems to me as well part of the power is in their proclamation. If Constantine saw himself as a preacher, then he was exhorting people to act rather than compelling them. Perhaps the distinction is blurry in antiquity between exhortation and compulsion, but it may be there is less an element of raw power (and the modern state, especially the state in the 20th century, seems to be grounded much more on the exercise of raw power) in the state of antiquity because while the people who did rule were conscious of the extent of their power over others, they may also have been much conscious of the limits of their power.

It would be like — to use a bad but probably appropriate example — the United Nations. Sometimes, the Security Council (the UN’s executive) is truly seized of its power, such as its response to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990. Mostly, however, the UN Security Council engages in moral hectoring more than legislating or enforcing (however edifying or annoying that may be). Which may explain why many UN Security Council resolutions read the way they do.

However, we moderns expect the law to be enforced, to be impartial, and to be fair. We have come to believe the law is almost (or should be) mechanical. Perhaps because the law has always held out that promise. But it can’t be, and never will be, for the reason Leithart states. It is a human act, and perhaps it is better to consciously live with the tension that the law is better as moral appeal than code of behavior, knowing that it will always be enforced capriciously regardless.

On Aging Revolutionaries and Irrelevant Liberation Theologies

Well, it had to be somebody. So it might as well have been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega:

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega yesterday confirmed that he spoke with Libya’s Col. Muammar El Qaddafi and expressed his support to him and his government during the current political tensions in Libya. “I have been communicating by telephone with him. I’ve been talking to him, and logically he is fighting yet another great battle in the many battles Qaddafi has had to endure… and under these circumstances they have been looking for ways to engage in dialogue while defending the unity of the country in order to avoid its disintegration and prevent anarchy,” said President Ortega. “I relayed the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people to him and the Libyan people, the solidarity of Nicaraguan Sandinistas to him and the Libyan people, and that we were confident that that problem can be resolved… that it is a difficult situation and, God willing, that that situation can be resolved and be overcome.” Mr. Ortega delivered his remarks at an event in Managua commemorating Nicaraguan revolutionary hero Augusto César Sandino.

Ortega and Qaddafiy are among the last two of a dying breed of 1970s revolutionaries. Qaddafiy hasn’t aged well, looking (and sounding) more like a mentally ill homeless man in need of a decent meal, a quiet place to sleep and a refilled bottle of thorazine (as opposed to the crack cocaine he self-medicates with) than the leader of an actual nation-state. Time has not been kind to Qaddafiy. It has been kind to Ortega. But maybe that’s because he wasn’t allowed to be Chairman of the Central Committee/Leader of the Revolution/President-for-Life. No, unlike Qaddafiy, Ortega had to take a few years off and then win a real, live, free election. Maybe that’s kept him so youthful looking — being out of power for a while.

There aren’t many of Ortega’s and Qaddafiy’s pseudo-revolutionary swaggering ilk left around. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe comes to mind, and he and Qaddafiy make quite a pair — brutal kelptocrats in need of two more for a proper round of no-holds-barred Texas Hold ‘Em. (“Loser of the hand has to take the revolver with one bullet, spin the chamber, put it to his head, and pull the trigger!” Oh, it must have made meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement so much fun!) Yasser Arafat is long dead, Omar Torrijos even longer dead. Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seiko are are deposed and dead and long disappeared. Julius Nyerere discredited and dead. There are more, I’m sure, swaggering leaders of third world “revolutions” (sic) who strutted onto the stage in the late 1960s and 1970s and promised bold new tomorrows full of liberation and progress, only to bury the people they governed under penury and oppression and bloodshed. And the occasional war.

(They couldn’t all be Nelson Mandela…)

So I’m glad that Qaddafiy, in what may be his last days or hours on earth, has one old “friend” he can find some consolation in. Because the rest are all gone. As he will soon be too. And eventually Daniel Ortega will be something Qaddafiy can never be — a retired, living ex-leader, drawing a pension and making speeches on the umpteenth anniversary of some Augusto Sandino or Sandinista-related activity. Perhaps even something of an elder statesman.

There was a time, and I want to say not so long ago, but 25 years is long ago, when Ortega was hot. Nicaragua was the Kingdom of God breaking in upon the world, and the Sandinista Revolution was the herald of that kingdom for a certain kind of liberation theologian who mistook the predictions of Marx with the prophetic promises of the Gospel, and the pseudo-revolutionaries of the 1960 and 1970s for prophets and saviors. I would ask what those liberation theologians would make of the leader of God’s revolution giving comfort to Qaddafiy as he is fighting “yet another great battle” — because it is ever so heroic to order planes to strafe unarmed people — but even condemned sinners deserve some comfort, and need confession and absolution. And Ortega, and his revolution, really are irrelevant now. Especially outside Nicaragua. I suspect most liberation theologians today wouldn’t know a Sandinista from a sacrament.

And no, they never were the same thing.

Obama the Neocon

Renegade historian Thaddeus Russell about Barack Obama in an interview in Reason, and why he became attracted to libertarianism:

It began with anti-imperialism. That’s what first caught my attention. Particularly during the Obama campaign, I felt like I was on a raft in a vast ocean. I was just the only person I knew in my whole world who felt that Obama was basically a neocon and just terribly reactionary in every single way. There’s not one thing I like about him. He represents every negative strain in American history that I write about.

I think what I like most about libertarians is that they are perpetually oppositional. They never merge their identities with the sovereign power. When speaking of the nation-state, they don’t say “we.”

It was Russell who edited Historians Against War, and it this reminding that got him expelled from the website. Because Democrats aren’t imperialist warmongers, you know. They espouse change we can believe in.

Conversations With Diplomats

The events in Libya in the last week or so reminds of something that happened when I was working as a reporter at the United Nations in mid-2001.

I was an energy correspondent working for BridgeNews, and my job at the UN was to cover the Iraq Food-for-Oil Program (can I say Food-4-Oil?). At the time, before the attacks of September 11, there was some movement toward a “smart sanctions” arrangement to deal with Iraq, something similar to the technology controls that the Western nations had imposed on some imports to what was once the Warsaw Pact and its allies. I wasn’t at the UN often, but I was there for Security Council meetings (sat in on one once) about Iraq, and did get a couple of scoops by cornering Iraqi UN ambassador Mohammed al-Douri and chatting him up in Arabic, something no other American reporters seemed to be doing. In fact, few reporters seemed interested in the opinions of non-permanent members, and they were an interesting font of information.

(Al-Douri was a seedy little man with one bad eye who wore a shiny suit and a very bad comb-over, always fondling his prayer beads, and he reminded me a lot of Larry Storch.)

At any rate, one day, between sessions and stake outs outside the Security Council chamber, I decided to hang out in the diplomats lounge at the UN. The UN is a fascinating building, and it has that wonderful late 1940s feel of progress to it, with the grays and the wood and the frosted glass office doors. (All it needed was ductwork and it would be Brazil.) It was a bit run down, and CNN International was everywhere (this was about a year, I think, after Ted Turner committed his billion), and that’s where I learned that CNN International was as good as CNN was bad. I got an overpriced coffee and sat with my book. And watched people go by.

A junior Iraqi diplomat, someone I’d regularly seen with al-Douri as part of his entourage (I don’t remember his name, sorry), saw me, said hello in Arabic and asked if he could join me. We chit-chatted a bit — small talk, I think — where I learned Arabic and how long I’d been a reporter, how long he’d been at the UN. That kind of thing. Somehow, the conversation turned to medieval Islamic history, and as he and I were talking, we were joined by a man who identified himself as a member of the Libyan delegation. (Had a junior diplomat from Syria joined us, we’d of had our fourth for bridge.) The three of us talked for a bit, about Islamic history of course, but somehow, the discussion veered in the direction of government in the Arab world. The talk started, I think, with the problem of modern Arab governments and how they aren’t terribly representative of the will of their people. I responded something to the effect of, “yes, but that kind of thing is true here in the United States too.”

“Yes,” replied the Libyan a little more quietly. “But it is much, much worse in our countries.”

The Iraqi nodded his agreement and then the conversation got silent for a second as the two diplomats looked at each other. The talk then veered in another direction, toward small-talk, and then it became clear we all had places to go and things to do. I think an alarm may have sounded that the Security Council was going back into session.

I never saw the Libyan diplomat again. The Iraqi diplomat I saw later that summer after a member of the Iraqi delegation reportedly defected. He was dealing angrily with the the reporters following him around — including me — and not answering our questions. I stopped covering the UN in August, when BridgeNews ceased to be a real news agency. And after September 11, 2001, there was no talk of lifting sanctions on Iraq and replacing them something else.

That conversation stood out in my mind for a long time. I wonder what kind of courage it took for junior diplomats to say what they said about their own governments, given the kinds of governments they worked for? And I wonder what happened to both of them? Where are they now? What are they doing? I hope they are both okay. I hope they and their families are both well.

It doesn’t shock me that so many Libyan diplomats have abandoned their government, especially the junior ones. Both the Iraqi and the Libyan were bright, personable, professional, and well-educated. I suspect Libya’s current UN ambassador is probably tied up somewhere and locked in a closet.

Here’s to the people of Libya as they fight to overthrow their regime. Here’s to the Iraqis as they struggle with winning their independence from dictatorship and Americans. I hope that sometime, in the lifetime of both men who sat and shared a short conversation with at the United Nations almost 10 years ago, that it will stop being much, much worse in their countries. I pray and hope that soon it is better. Much, much better.

Some Mixed Feelings

I’m an anarchist, and as a general rule, I am all in favor of protests. The more, the better. (I don’t even mind the occasional riot, having started one once.) If those protests can actually accomplish something (like bring a government down), then so much the better.

So, on one hand, I am all in favor of what’s going on in Wisconsin — strikes and protests and a goodly portion of the state assembly absconding to parts unknown to prevent a vote is not a bad thing. I don’t like chaos per se, but so long as it keeps government from governing, well, let’s have more of it, please.

On the other hand, I can’t really say I’m all that sympathetic to the demands of this group of protesters. I believe unions are important and necessary, but I have serious problems with the very idea of public employee unions. There is something that doesn’t feel right about people paid by the taxpayers lobbying tax-funded government to tax even more to provide more government. Especially when it comes to bargaining for wages and benefits — it feels too much like a small group of people holding guns to the heads of all taxpayers. “Gimme more or else!

I have special problems with police officer and prison guard unions, who have been very successful in the last three decades at lobbying government for more government. Police officers and prison guards should definitely not be allowed to unionize. But teachers have been good at this too. I like most of the teachers I’ve known, but I have a very special spot of white-hot hate in my heart for the system of incarceration and abuse we rather strangely call “public schools.” Defund it all. Yesterday if possible.

So, I guess I’m not really rooting for anyone in Wisconsin. I suspect the governor will eventually win — even if that means the state police hauling assembly members to Madison in irons (now there’s a vision with some appeal!).

UPDATE: Having learned that police officers, firefighters and prison guards are not included in the Wisconsin governor’s proposal, my feelings are much less mixed. Go protesters!

The Power of Music

It’s time for a cute little blog entry. Today will be a long day, filled with much seriousness. So, time for something not so serious…

I’m a Madness fan. There is no good explanation for this. I just love the way their music sounds, and I love how it is put together. I’ve seen the band live once, in 1986 in San Francisco during the Mad Not Mad tour, and they were far better live than I expected. I’m not entirely sure why or how their music speaks to me, but I know it does. 
Anyway, I was listening to “The Sun and the Rain” this morning (from the U.S. version of their 1984 CD Keep Moving) and was somewhat stunned to realize than even after 25 years, the string arrangement for this song still has the power to make my neck hairs stand on end. Oh, to write something like that! If only once!
I’m now going to go splash some very cold puddles outside!