Crying Uncle

A Short History of Applause

Posted Dec 15, 2013

Last week, the Korean Central News Agency released a 2700 word document that announced the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the 67-year-old uncle of supreme leader Kim Jong Un. A womanizer who led “a dissolute and depraved life,” a “despicable human scum” who was worse than a dog, he’d “perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state.” His arrogant and insolent malfeasances included “unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping” when the supreme leader showed up.

Supreme leaders are often quick to take offense; and lesser mortals tend to give themselves away when they don't cheer loud enough. As late as the 18th century on the Lower Mississippi, Natchez overlords had the power of life and death over their subjects, and were never approached without being howled at. “They do the same when they retire, and they retire walking backward,” remembered the Jesuit missionary Pierre de Charlevoix. In 19th-century Fiji, the Methodist missionary Joseph Waterhouse reported that betters were warmly addressed: “Clapping of hands is usual after a person of rank has partaken of refreshment, smoked a cigar, or sneezed;” because after all, “Fijians have been slain for disrespectful approach to chiefs.” And in the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about a party conference held in honor of Josef Stalin, with “stormy applause rising to an ovation” by an exhausted audience that was afraid to be quiet. After 11 minutes, the director of a local paper factory had the nerve to sit down; he was arrested that night. “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding,” were his interrogator’s words.

2057 years ago, just before spring began, Julius Caesar was put to death by members of the Roman senate. They were offended that he’d accepted a list of excessive honors—a life dictatorship, a perpetual censorship, a Father of his Country tag, and a golden throne. But they hated him most of all because, when they presented him with his honors list, he didn’t bother to get up. As the civil servant, Suetonius Tranquillus, elaborated: “According to some accounts he would have risen had not Cornelius Balbus prevented him; according to others, he made no such move and grimaced angrily at Gaius Trebatius who suggested this courtesy.” So more than 60 conspirators banded together against him, and 23 daggers found their way into his flesh. That blow was struck for the republic.

But eventually, the empire struck back. Caesar’s principal conspirators, Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus, were slaughtered on a field at Philippi by Caesar’s heir. Every one of his successors eviscerated the senate; and the last member of his dynasty, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was appreciated for it. As Suetonius told the story: "So captivated was he by the rhythmic applause of a crowd of Alexandrians from a fleet which had just put in, that he sent to Alexandria for more.  He also chose some young knights, and more than 5000 sturdy ordinary youths, whom he divided into large groups to learn the Alexandrian method of applause."  They were known as his "Bricks," or "Rooftiles," or "Bees." 

Colonies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, produce about 10 queens. But the first of those queens to emerge searches out the others and kills them, or is killed herself. Afterwards, the survivor’s tens of thousands of sterile workers clean cells, feed brood, store nectar, forage for pollen, and defend the hive–sacrificing their viscera, and their lives, with their barbed stings. But the queen–who grows up to twice their length, and lives up to 50 times as long–specializes as an egg-laying machine.  To whom deference is due.




Seeley, Thomas.  1995.  The Wisdom of the Hive.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Betzig, Laura.  2010.  The end of the republic.  In P. Kappler and J. Silk, Mind the Gap: Primate Behavior and Human Universals, pp. 153-168.  Berlin: Springer.