The Anti-Ovid President | Ινστιτούτο Διεθνών, Ευρωπαϊκών & Αμυντικών Αναλύσεων

The Anti-Ovid President

Αναλύσεις | 12/01/2020

K. E. Fleming, NYU Provost, Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization in the Dept. of History at NYU*

Cui peccare licet, peccat minus

He who is allowed to sin, sins less…

Thus wrote the great Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 AD), in his AmoresAs Ovid argued, the person who is given latitude to take the wrong decisions and to make mistakes – that is, to “sin” (“sin” being a concept that admittedly has fallen out of favor in these modern times) – is less likely to do so.  This is a recurrent theme in Ovid’s work. “We are ever striving for what is forbidden,” he wrote, “and coveting what is denied us.” Anyone who has parented or cared for a child knows the basis psychological proposition behind Ovid’s sentiment: from responsibility will come maturity; from freedom will come discipline. In short, let them have a little fun, and it won’t seem so much fun after all. 

The president of the United States of America appears interested in challenging Ovid’s proposition.  He has been given every possible permission to take the wrong decisions, and this seems only to have whet his appetite to take more of them.  Every possible brash statement has been allowed – only for each one to be followed by yet another. This is the man who unabashedly said of his own daughter: “She does have a very nice figure.  If Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her.”  The greatest possible responsibility has been given him, yet even the slightest incremental maturation or evolution is imperceptible.  No matter how naughty, transgressive, reckless or just plain stupid we allow him to be, he only seems to become more naughty, transgressive, reckless and stupid.

While it is difficult to choose the very most unbelievable of his very, very many unbelievable statements, one in particular stood out when he first uttered it, at a campaign rally in Iowa in January of 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he declared, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”  The then-candidate, now president was speaking of the loyalty of his supporters. Nothing, he claimed, absolutely nothing that he could do would make them turn away from him.  Vis-a-vis his loyal followers, he had every possible latitude to take the wrong decisions and to make mistakes – and, yes, to sin.  

The comment was jarring for the violent image it invoked, particularly in a country – the USA – that is far too familiar with guns and shootings and to random death.  Indeed just four hours ago (from the time of writing) someone was shot and killed on Eighth Avenue if not on Fifth), and on average 85 people die of gunshot injuries each day in the United States.  But in the wake of the peremptory killing of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the comment now seems to have implied something not just about the loyalty of Trump’s “base,” but also about the impetuousness of the person who made it. To be sure, Suleimani was hardly a random person walking down Fifth Avenue. Much can be said about Suleimani and his past actions, but it is not my current purpose to say it here. What I’m interested in instead is the jarring brazenness of the act, the apparent reckless disregard for its potential repercussions, the massive confidence of the American “Commander in Chief” that it was the unquestionably correct thing to do.  And I note the fact that, indeed, it will not lose him any voters. If anything, it will gain him more support. 

Since 9/11 the USA has turned much of the world into a battlefield for a murky war called “counterterrorism”.  The war powers of American presidents have expanded dramatically since the downing of the Twin Towers, with Obama building significantly on the already-expanded powers wielded by his predecessor Bush.  Trump is the beneficiary. 

The USA entered World War II – now 80 years behind us – avowing that that war was fundamentally about the “Four Freedoms” – the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  For decades much of the world could believe that US interventions overseas had those freedoms as their ultimate root. But now eight decades on, that reputation has long since faded. And we would do well to remember another of Ovid’s aphorisms, namely that “Anything cracked will shatter at a touch.”  

K.E. Fleming, NYU

January 10, 2020

*In 2017 the University of Macedonia, Dept. of International and European Studies awarded Professor Fleming an honorary doctorate in recognition of outstanding scholarship and contributions to the study of Greek history.