The Latin Right
I was alerted by a helpful Twitter friend to the fact that Thierry Baudet, the newly elected Dutch right-wing, anti-EU member of parliament, began his maiden speech in Latin. He started off, according to the transcript, with the words drawn from, and adapting, the opening of Cicero’s first speech against Catiline:
Quousque tandem factionem cartellum et officiorum machina patentia nostra abutitur dum navis pretoria resurrectionis ad profi(cis)cendum parata est.
This is supposed to mean, I think: ‘How long will the party cartel and the job machine (…?) abuse our patience while the flagship of renaissance is ready to launch’.
In fact, it is hard to translate because the grammar makes it close to incomprehensible. Why is ‘factionem cartellum’ in the accusative, while ‘machina’ is a nominative? Why is ‘abutitur’ in the present tense? And so on?
Some of my colleagues often complain now about how the classical world has got hi-jacked by the political right. In one way, I suspect that there is nothing we on the other side can do about that (nobody owns the past). But in another way, we can point out how wrong (…and I mean WRONG here, not just misinterpreted) they get it. Anyone who thinks this bit of garbled Latin reflects well on the bloke who is trying to bask in a bit of Ciceronian Latin should think again. And frankly, I wouldn’t trust a politician with anything who knew so little that he didn’t realise that he should get this rubbish checked by someone who had some grip on the Latin language. Rule number one is always, don’t quote Latin if you don’t know it!
In rather the same vein, my friend Tony Birley told me that the alt-Right Richard Spencer had given a speech which included unattributed a more or less direct quote from Cicero’s Pro Murena 51, quoting the terrorist/revolutionary/radical Catiline on the two bodies of the state (one — the elite — was frail with a weak head, the other — the plebs — was strong with no head at all; and he, Catiline, would become the head of that). Spencer likewise was to take the role of the head.
It is uncertain if he knew any of the implications of what he was saying, or if he knew what Catiline stood for or how unsuccessfully he ended up. (Anyone who knew the outcome wouldn’t go round spouting the two heads line!)
But I did come to feel that we probably don’t need to worry too much about these alt-Right guys hi-jacking Classics if they make such a mess of it. We just need to keep on pointing out the howlers.