Barbarians

This year has been somewhat of a situation best described as the “Politics of Inaction” in the United States government. There was Sequestration earlier this year, a government shutdown just this week and now the looming debt ceiling problem where the federal government will probably default on its loans. I don’t really wish to discuss the politics themselves as it has become my belief that both Democrats & Republicans are both to blame for their inaction in doing their jobs which they were elected to do. It’s all about spin and one-upmanship with politicians and you can’t believe half of what any of them say anyway. What I would like to do is bring attention to some verse by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. At the turn of the 20th century he wrote a poem called “Waiting for the Barbarians” that seems relevant to todays political and societal environment. Like many poems, it is open to multiple interpretations. It also frames the theme with classical references too, which may have their modern day analogies. That’s part of what makes the poem so interesting too. Anyway, the poem is structured as a question and answer dialog. The society and government seems to be in some state of decay or inaction and the questions are answered that the ‘Barbarians’ are coming, which are never specifically identified and open to many avenues of thought I suppose. I won’t try to analyze the poem too much from my perspective and let you the reader take it in the context of what it may mean to you. I am certainly open to discussing it, however, and here is the poem:

Waiting for the barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

~ C.P. Cavafy (1904)

You can explore various interpretations and analysis of this poem by searching yourself online. One interesting one is done in the Kenyon Review, in which the poet Robert Pinsky is quoted in describing the poem the following way:

“In this cunning, amusing poem, with its punch line that never wears out, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy penetrates deep into the nature of political life. The atmosphere of civic pride and civic hypocrisy, the mingled air of awe and contempt toward governmental institutions, rings not the bell of cliché but many eerie tintinnabulations: the gongs and chimes of public life, the distinct sounds of what we say, what we know we mean and what we don’t know we mean.”

Continuing in this train of thought in a critique of political systems, politicians and the populace, I appreciated a monologue by Bob Schieffer that he gave at the end of the news program Face the Nation on September 29, 2013.

(CBS News) I had a dream the other night. The Ghost of Congress Future took me on a flying tour of Capitol Hill. I couldn’t believe what I saw down there — both Houses of Congress were filled with members. There were lively, spirited, informed debates going on.

“I’m used to seeing members speak to an empty chamber — what’s going on?” I said.

“Oh,” the Ghost said, “the people threw out the whole bunch you knew after one of those shut-down-the-government debacles and the people demanded new rules.

“We pay Congress by the hour now, like most of the other government employees, and they don’t get paid any more unless they’re legislating.”

“But it’s Friday afternoon,” I said, “Why aren’t they back in their districts?”

“Because the people stopped paying their travel expenses,” the ghost said. “They get one round-trip bus ticket back to their districts a year, so most of them stay here and work. They’ve actually gotten to know each other, and it goes a lot smoother now”

“Well, you must pay them well,” I said.

“Actually we cut their pay,” he said. “The people decided a public office shouldn’t be the most lucrative job someone ever had.

“We pay them about what school teachers and people at non profits make — it’s amazing! We’re getting a whole different class of candidates now, folks who do it for the same reason teachers teach. They want to help others.”

Then I was awakened by a noise — some guy was on TV reciting talking points.

In Washington, the nightmares don’t come when you’re asleep, but more often when you’re awake.

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The ultimate question maybe to ask is the following. Can we really blame politicians for their ineptness and politics of inaction? After all, we elect them to govern for us, and are ultimately responsible for what we get when they don’t do the job they were elected to do. This doesn’t just apply to the United States government, but all governments where officials are elected to legislate on our behalf and improve the greater good of the populace with devotion to their duty. Unfortunately, the reality is that most politicians are not doing the will of the people, but take care of their own special interests, lobbyists and other influences who help keep them in power to get them re-elected term after term. It’s the money that keeps these politicians, mostly elite rich people anyway, in power. They govern us and supposedly are doing the will of the people, but the reality is that it is all smoke and mirrors. The politicians in charge have their own agenda and it has little to do with the man on the street and bettering his life I am afraid. Are we Waiting for the Barbarians as depicted in the Cavafy’s poem? Or is the real dilemma inside societies and a willingness to put up with the Politics of Inaction? Maybe the world of future governing will be like Bob Shieffer said and politicians will really work for the people…

images  hmmm?

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