Raymond Ramirez | Monday, February 6, 2017
For some reason that I cannot grasp, George Orwell’s name has been in the news much lately. Apparently this has something to do with “1984,” his 1948 (see what he did there?) novel of a future dystopian Britain (completed in 1948, first published in June 1949, for you English majors in the crowd). This followed his earlier work, “Animal Farm,” which recast totalitarian rulers and subjects as animal protagonists. While popularly known for these literary works, Orwell was a working journalist, and wrote a number of perceptive essays and reviews for the Observer (not this one, but rather the British weekly newspaper).
In giving advice to aspiring journalists, Orwell championed clarity of thought and precision in writing: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” What would Orwell think about a world shaped by clickbait, soundbites and Twitter storms?
Orwell also took that whole “speak truth to authority” aspect of journalism seriously and summed it up in a famous quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” While there is a place for public relations, journalists who ‘blunt their pencils’ to maintain access or avoid a nasty tweet are falling short of their professional standards. If someone, say as a spokesman for the party in power, were to lash out at journalists as constituting “the opposition party,” then as heralds of truth, the journalists should bear such a title with pride and accordingly note the strained relationship of the accuser to the truth.
Another name that has popped up recently is that of the Roman senator Incitatus. According to the historian Suetonius, Incitatus lived a privileged life in a home crafted of marble, and slept in an ivory bedroom with purple blankets. Roman historians savored additional details of Incitatus’ luxurious lifestyle: Suetonius related that the senator wore an elaborate jeweled collar, and Cassius Dio revealed that Incitatus ate meals mixed with gold leaf. These details might be enough to shock us with the profligate display of wealth and bad taste among Rome’s upper classes, but there is an additional aspect of this story that has amazed even casual students of Roman history — Incitatus was a horse.
Incitatus has two notable appearances in Roman history, and the first may be of even more current resonance than his turn as a senator. Thrasyllus of Mendes was a mystic who served in the court of the Roman emperor Tiberius. He infamously prophesied that Tiberius’ great nephew Caligula had no more chance of becoming emperor “than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae.” Caligula ascended the blood-drenched throne as consul and emperor in 37 A.D. Soon thereafter, he ordered a line of grain barges to be moored alongside each other in the Bay of Baiae between the cities of Baiae and Puteoli. Engineers laid a bridge on the barges spanning the two-mile wide inlet (undoubtedly to cries of “build the bridge, build the bridge”). Caligula could not swim, so he rode Incitatus across the bridge while wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great, putting his doubters in their place in an over-the-top show of power. He proclaimed himself a god and placed himself above all earthly laws.
Caligula also did not think much of the Roman government. In order to show his contempt for the Roman Senate, especially its efforts to limit his power, Caligula named Incitatus to the Senate. Senators pointed to this action, and Caligula’s further plan to appoint Incitatus as co-consul, as proof of Caligula’s insanity. As a result of this outrageous act, and well-known incidents of personal debauchery, Caligula’s reign was cut short. History has labeled Caligula one of the worst rulers of all times, but for all his bombast and claims of divinity, his time on the throne amounted to but four terrifying years.
Caligula’s action in making a senator of Incitatus, whose name means “at full gallop,” is emblematic of the damage that an individual with unchecked power can inflict on institutions and a nation. Caligula’s provocative actions, made at full gallop with the sole goal of demonstrating his authority and contempt for anyone who sought to limit his power, have echoed through centuries as the surest sign of the despot. Today, we look to institutions with constitutional charters and protections — the courts, congress, the press — to reign in galloping leaders who serve their own dreams of glory rather than the nation’s citizens. If we fail to restrain such chaos, then any claims of greatness are as appealing as the glitter in Incitatus’ poop.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.