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Power without Moral Compass: Caligula, Trump, Pius XIII, and Machiavelli

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Smoking is ok if the Pope does it” –Pius XIII in “The Young Pope” “If the President does it, it is not illegal” –President Nixon during his impeachment

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]t is practically impossible to watch the latest rage on cable TV, the serial ten episode narration of a future Pope, Pius XIII, and not be struck by the uncanny parallels between it and the ancient political situation under emperor Caligula of the Roman Empire, as well as the present political landscape in the Atlantic Alliance under President Trump.

The movie is directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino, who knows well ancient Roman history and more recent Italian history, the Italy of Berlusconi, Pius X, Pius XII, as well as Hitler, Mussolini and other madmen of the times.

Critics have accused the film of being a caricature of the Papacy, a gossipy reality show of the Vatican who portrays an interesting character (the mad Pope) but not a real-to-life personality; a Vatican melodrama glittering with pomp and circumstances of the Vatican; but that is a misinterpretation, a superficial rendition of the content of the film,

Right from the first episode we are alerted that the real issue of the film is the issue of political power on which both Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis Bacon meditated so deeply. Machiavelli said that in politics “the end justifies the means.” Francis Bacon said that “knowledge is power” and they said a mouthful. The ancient idea was that knowledge is virtue; now, within enlightened modernity knowledge is power to be seizes and held at any cost.

The movie is, in fact, about the intricacies of power, temporal power, at the heart of Catholicism; something that has gone on now for some 17 centuries, since Constantine allegedly donated one third of Italy to the Pope thus creating the Papal temporal power and initiating the problematic mixing the transcendent and the temporal within Christianity. Dante places three popes in hell because of that improper mixing.

The issue of power is perhaps the main idea explored in the series, and this right from the first episode where we witness this intriguing conversation between the newly elected young American Pope, Lenny, and the cardinal Secretary of State, his aide in the administration of the Vatican. During the conversation what comes through is that the new Pope has been elected by the cardinals because of his youth and inexperience in the intricacies of power which will render him easy to manipulate and control.

For the cardinals immersed in the Byzantine intrigues of the Vatican, good disciples of Machiavelli and Bacon that they are, power is knowledge and knowledge is power. During the conversation the Cardinal Secretary asks “Do you know why all the good souls of this world rage against power?” “Why, Your Eminence?” “Because they simply don’t know what it is.” “What is it?” “Power is knowledge.” There you have it. That short exchange contains the key of the narrative: the issue of power, of power devoid of a moral compass.

While the new pope understands the importance of knowledge in order to obtain and maintain power, he also understands it in a very instinctive emotional way. He feels that he is the Pope not because of his abilities, or his faith, or his compassion, but because it is his destiny. Power, as understood by the new Pope, trumps (pun intended) tradition, law, and even truth. When the Pope starts smoking in the papal palace we witness the following exchange: “Holy Father, Holy Father, smoking is not allowed in the papal palace!” “Is that so? Who decided that?” “John Paul II.” “The Pope?” “Yes, the Pope.” “There’s a new Pope now.” “True.”

But why have the cardinals chosen an unbalanced sociopath? Well, they thought that he would be easy to manipulate, an easy to market moderate Pope, a rather naïve person, as most Americans supposedly are. They are to be greatly disappointed. Lenny is not your average Pope. What they got is Caligula who installs as his closest adviser Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) as his advisor, violates the sanctity of the confessional (to get to the secrets which he will blackmail, compromise and yield power over the cardinals), questions even the existence of God.

How can one not see the similarities between Caligula, the sociopathic emperor, Pius XIII, the sociopathic Pope, and Trump, the sociopathic President? They are all pathological narcissists; the universe revolves around them; they are gods, unpredictable, disdainful of common people in general, especially tourists, like to see them humiliated, have little respect for conventional moral principles. They all repudiate the tradition of their predecessors. The Pope wants to make the Catholic Church Great Again. If it sounds familiar, it is. In short Pius XIII is a version of Donald Trump. Both men, one in fiction one in reality (reality show) have tapped into the wave of discontent sweeping the world which has given rise to extreme right movements culminating in Brexit and the potential break-up of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO).

This Young Pope is so appealing not as a person that in fact does not exist at the moment, but because of his complex contradictions and his character. All narcissists and madmen are complex appealing characters, but not in any positive mode. At the start of the episodes the Pope defines himself as a contradiction: “I am a contradiction, like God.” What is pathological is that he thinks of himself not as God’s representative or witness on earth, but as a god, the way a Caligula did, the way a Trump does.

These people are compelling not because thy are in any way admirable, but because we just can’t stop talking about them. We keep asking in wonderment: why do people accept the bullying, why all that rudeness. Why the lack of challenge? Most importantly, what is it about power, about the bully culture of “might makes right” that turns people into monsters?

Some tentative answers can be supplied by a comparison between Trump and Young Pope. Like the Pope who says that smoking is OK in the Vatican palace if the Pope does it, (and nobody else), Trump seems to have gone back to the famous Nixon quip “if the President does it, it is not illegal.” This is scary stuff for the survival of democracy. Both man lack a clear moral policy agenda for their institutions. What is clear is the Machiavellian goal of asserting power and making sure that nobody dares to challenge it. They are out to get what they want, no matter how petty. They rule by creating dissensions and confusion and establishing capricious priorities, like that of buying back the papal tiara from the basilica in Washington and wear it as he is carried about in the “sedia gestatoria,” as a saint of heaven, a tradition long in disuse.

Power, shock and awe is the goal to be grasped as an end in itself and in whose name all means are acceptable. As the young Pope says: “Power is domination, control and therefore a very selective form of truth, which is a lie.” One needs to create one’s alternative facts to keep one’s enemies down, humiliate them and destroy them. At the same time one needs to keep the people entertained with showmanship. Make them wonder, whom they are really dealing with; be ready to punish any one who dares tell the truth and declare the emperor naked.

Ultimately, the two deranged characters, one fictitious, the other real, while declaring themselves demi-gods, do not believe in any god at all. They believe in power. As the young deranged Pope tells his confessor” God, my conscience does not accuse me, because you do not believe I am capable of repenting, and therefore, I do not believe in you. I do not believe you are capable of saving me from myself.” When the confessor is outraged by the statement, the Pope replies that it was just a joke.

So, what we have are two nine year olds desperately looking for love and understanding while their pathologies place the whole world in peril. This is surrealistic stuff of high quality, a reality show worthy of a Fellini movie, entertaining, fascinating, but also frightening and disquieting. An American Pope who does not believe in God, and an American President who does not believe in democracy and the constitution.

But the best of the reality show may still be coming.

Author’s note: this essay, in a slightly modified form, has already appeared in Ovi magazine on February 11, 2017.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Americas

Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners

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“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.

Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.

Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.

Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.

Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?

There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.

Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.

The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.

Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.

South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.

South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.

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Political Violence and Elections: Should We Care?

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The next Sunday 6th of June, the Chamber of Deputies along with 15 out of the 32 governorships will be up for grabs in Mexico’s mid-term elections. These elections will be a crucial test for the popularity of the president and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). They currently hold majority in the Lower Chamber of the national Congress, and these elections could challenge this.

Recent national polls indicate that the ruling party, MORENA, is still the most popular political force in Mexico, and they are poised to win not only several governorships, but also several municipalities. They are also expected to maintain control of the Lower  Chamber, although with a loss of a few seats. In order to ensure MORENA keeps its current majority in the Congress, they have decided to pursue an electoral alliance with the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labout Party (PT). It is expected that with this move, they will be able to ensure the majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress.

There is, however, another aspect that is making the headlines in this current electoral process: The high levels of political and electoral violence, The current electoral process is the second most violent since 2000. The number of candidates that have been assassinated is close to 30% higher than the mid-term electoral process of 2015. More than 79 candidates have been killed so far all across the country.

Insecurity in Mexico has been an ongoing issue that has continued to deteriorate during the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO has continually criticised his predecessors and the valid problems of their approaches to insecurity in Mexico along with the War on Drugs policy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited. During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. He believed that to successfully tackle the worsening crisis of insecurity, the structural conditions that forced people to commit crimes had to be addressed first: Namely inequality, poverty, low salaries, lack of access to employment etc. To date, insecurity in Mexico continues to worsen, and this had become evident during the current electoral process.

This nonsensical approach to insecurity has resulted in the first three years of his government reaching over 100,000 murders, along with the nearly 225,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic.

What should be particularly worrying in this spiral of violence, is the prevalence of political and electoral violence during the current process. Political violence represents not only a direct attack on democratic institutions and democracy itself, but it also compromises the independence, autonomy, and integrity of those currently in power, and those competing for positions of power. It affects democracy also because political violence offers a way for candidates to gain power through violent means against opposition, and this also allows organised crime to infiltrate the state apparatus.

Political violence is a phenomenon that hurts all citizens and actors in a democracy. It represents a breeding ground for authoritarianism, and impunity at all levels of government. This limits the freedoms and rights of citizens and other actors as it extinguishes any sort of democratic coexistence between those currently holding political power and those aspiring to achieve it. Political violence also obstructs the development of democracy as it discredits anyone with critical views to those in power. This is worrying when we consider that 49% of those assassinated belong to opposition parties. This increase in political violence has also highlighted AMLO´s inability to curtail organised crime and related violence.

Assassination of candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Organised criminal groups have also infiltrated politics through financing of political campaigns. Most of electoral and political violence tends to happen an municipal levels, where it is easier for criminal groups to exert more pressure and influence in the hope of securing protection, and perpetuate impunity, or securing control over drug trafficking routes. This should be especially worrisome when there is close too government control in certain areas of the country, and there is a serious risk of state erosion at municipal level in several states.

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