An American Satyricon
Our elites would be right at home in Petronius’s world of debauchery and bored melodrama.

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke perform at the 2013 VMAs.


Victor Davis Hanson

Likewise, in our version, what does a $200,000 Ivy League education or a graduate degree really get you any more? In the sophisticated world of our political and highly credentialed elites, there are 57 states. Atlantic Coast cities are said to lie along the Gulf of Mexico; after all, they are down there somewhere in the South. The Malvinas become the Maldives — Ma- with an s at the end seems close enough. Corps-men serve in the military (as zombies?). Medgar Evans was a civil-rights icon, but you know whom we mean. President Roosevelt addressed the nation on television after the stock-market crash in 1929 — well, he would have, had he been president then and if only Americans had had televisions in their homes. And how are we to know that what we read from celebrity authors is not just made up or plagiarized, whether a Maureen Dowd column or a Doris Kearns Goodwin book?

The famously nouveau-riche Trimalchio’s guests drop the names of the rich and powerful, mostly to remind one another that they are now among the plutocracy that is replacing the old bankrupt aristocracy. We too are seeing something like that metamorphosis. It is hard to guess on any given summer weekend which populist progressive family — the Obamas, the Clintons, the Kerrys, the Gores — will be ensconced on what particular Hamptons, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard beach, rubbing shoulders with just the sort of Silicon Valley or Wall Street new zillionaires who during work hours are supposed to be the evil “1 percent” and “fat cats” who need to be forced to pay their “fair share.”

Al Gore, like Trimalchio, does not mutter a word without revealing his ignorance — or hypocrisy. Over the last 15 years, the planet has not heated up, and the science of global warming is not established, which is why the nomenclature had to change from global warming to climate change to climate chaos in order to account for too much bothersome wet, snowy, and cold weather. The reconciler, who became a near-billionaire both hyping global warming and selling medieval-style indulgences as antidotes, now claims those who disagree with him are comparable to fascists and racists. All this comes from a wheeler-dealer who made big money damning fossil fuels only to sell a failing cable station to an anti-Semitic, anti-American fascistic enterprise, fueled by the millions garnered from the vast export of oil and gas from the Arabian peninsula. And to complete Gore’s Trimalchian man-of-the-people profile, he rushed the sale in hopes of beating the new, higher capital-gains taxes that he had been urging for lesser folk — sort of like progressive John Kerry buying and berthing his grand new yacht in Rhode Island to avoid the high excise and sales taxes in his home state of Massachusetts.

Farce and psychodrama pass for entertainment in the Satyricon. A country that once lost 600 legionnaires a minute at Cannae is reduced to gossiping about precious jewelry, exotic food, and sick gladiatorial games in the arena. Our elites go through some of the same bored melodrama. Withdrawal dates, red lines, deadlines, and leading from behind form our new rhetorical military. While Trimalchio parties in Pompeii on stuffed boar and sparrows (sort of like wagyu beef on a bed of arugula), somewhere to the unmentioned north legionnaires keep back the “barbarians” on the Rhine and the Danube. But they are as out of sight and mind as those who are camped out tonight in the Afghan highlands, or the “at this point, what difference does it make?” Americans killed in Benghazi, or the SEAL teams who dropped in on bin Laden while the president was playing card games with staffers.

Civil rights once meant an existential struggle between the oppressed and villains like Bull Connor with his dogs and fire hoses. Now Oprah is miffed over being treating rudely while eyeing a $38,000 purse in Switzerland; the NAACP wants sensitivity training for a rodeo clown with an Obama mask; American Idol’s failed contestants sue for “cruel and inhuman treatment”; near-billionaire rapper Jay-Z warns that the have-nots may riot; and a depressed former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was reduced to spending $750,000 of other people’s money on essentials like stuffed elk heads and Michael Jackson’s old fedora.

Just as Petronius’s world went on for another 400 years, ours may too.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.