Sometime in the mid-first century a.d., an otherwise little known consular official, Gaius Petronius, wrote a brilliant satirical novel about the gross and pretentious new Roman-imperial elite. The Satyricon is an often-cruel parody about how the Roman agrarian republic of old had degenerated into a wealth-obsessed, empty society of wannabe new elites, flush with money, and both obsessed with and bored with sex. Most of the Satyricon is lost. But in its longest surviving chapter — “Dinner with Trimalchio” — Petronius might as well have been describing our own 21st-century nomenklatura.
For the buffoonish libertine guests of the host Trimalchio, food and sex are in such surfeit that they have to be repackaged in bizarre and repulsive ways. Think of someone like the feminist mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, who once railed about the need to enforce sexual-harassment laws, now only to discover ever creepier ways to grope, pat, grab, squeeze, pinch, and slobber on 18 co-workers and veritable strangers, whether in their 20s or over 60. Unfortunately, the sexual luridness does not necessarily end with Filner’s resignation; one of his would-be replacements is already under attack by his opponents on allegations that as a city councilman he was caught masturbating in the city-hall restroom between public meetings.
In good Petronian fashion, the narcissist Anthony Weiner sent pictures of his own genitalia to near-strangers, under the Latinate pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Was Eliot Spitzer any better? As the governor of New York, he preferred anonymous numbers — “Client #9” — to false names, real to virtual sex, very young to mature women, and buying rather than romancing his partners. Is there some Petronian prerequisite in our age that our ascendant politicians must be perverts?
Transvestitism and sexual ambiguity are likewise Petronian themes; in our day, the controversy rages over whether convicted felon Bradley Manning is now a woman because he says he is. The politically correct term “transgendered” trumps biology; and if you doubt that, you are a homophobe or worse. As in the Roman Satyricon, our popular culture also displays a sick fascination with images of teen sex. So how does one trump the now-boring sexual shamelessness of Lady Gaga — still squirming about in a skimpy thong — at an MTV awards ceremony? Bring out former Disney teenage star Miley Cyrus in a vinyl bikini, wearing some sort of huge foam finger on her hand to simulate lewd sex acts.
The orgies at Trimalchio’s cool Pompeii estate (think Malibu) suggest that in imperial-Roman society Kardashian-style displays of wealth and Clintonian influence-peddling were matter-of-fact rather than shocking. Note that in our real version of the novel’s theme, Mayor Filner was not bothered by his exposure, and finally had to be nearly dragged out of office. Carlos Danger would have been mayor of New York, but the liberal press finally became worried over its embarrassment: Apparently two or three sexting episodes were tolerable, but another four or five, replete with more lies, risked parody.
Spitzer is again running for office — comptroller of New York City — and may well win. After all, Bill Clinton, feminist champion, protector of female subordinate employees from workplace harassers, survived Monicagate. John Edwards might have saved his political career had the tabloid National Enquirer not caught him red-handed with his mistress during the 2008 campaign, while his wife was dying of cancer. To an unimpressed masseuse, Al Gore appeared as a “crazed sex poodle.” That sobriquet did no more damage to Gore’s green empire than Trimalchio’s randy escapades imperiled his latifundia.
Another farce in the Satyricon involves the nonchalant ignorance of Trimalchio and his guests. The wannabes equate influence and money with status and learning and so pontificate about current events, with made-up mythologies and half-educated references to history. When Trimalchio and his banqueters begin to sermonize on literature, almost everything that follows turns out to be wrong — as Petronius reminds us how high learning has become as inane a commodity as food or sex, and only sort of half consumed, rather like the 2008 campaign of faux Greek columns and Vero possumus, which were supposed to convey gravitas.
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.