With Friends Like These: America, Israel and Palestinian Statehood

For all his lofty sentiments of a year ago Barack Obama, like
every American President since Dwight Eisenhower, has caved in completely to Israel.  He may well feel for the Palestinians and he
certainly despises Benjamin Netanyahu, but like all the rest he wants to be
reelected, and the conventional wisdom says you will lose the Jewish vote if
you do not give unqualified support to Israel.
With American Jews, especially the
Reformed, losing faith in an increasingly right-wing Israel, that wisdom may no
longer be completely true, but American politicians will nevertheless continue
to pander to a state that more or less spits in our face.  A new twist is Christian Zionism, espoused by
evangelical politicians like Rick Perry, who are setting new standards in
channeling Tel Aviv.  Their support is of
course warmly welcomed by the Israeli government, even though their only
apparent interest in Jews is that they be converted or slaughtered on Judgment
Day.

Obama showed
his true colors when the US
vetoed the UN resolution condemning the Israeli separation wall, which
manifestly violates the international law that we have sworn to uphold.  The promised veto of the Palestinian bid for
UN recognized statehood, however, is perhaps a new high in American hypocrisy
regarding Palestine.  After repeatedly asserting his support for a
Palestinian state and after twenty years of failed peace negotiations he
intends to prevent a symbolic step in that direction, claiming this move will
only cause violence.  Knowing full well that
the current administration in Israel
has absolutely no intention of seriously negotiating and is in fact pumping a
steady stream of colonists into the West Bank, he
blithely claims that face-to-face negotiations are the only road to peace.  The self-serving deceit is breathtaking.

America
expresses “disappointment” at the settlements (the standard euphemism
for “colonies”), but has never taken any action whatsoever on the
issue, even when we are slapped in the face with them, as during the Vice
President’s visit to Israel.  As for the clear violations of accepted
international law, no American administration has dared even mention the topic,
and even the media, whether liberal or conservative, never refers to this
illegal behavior.  Americans of course
are highly suspicious of the United Nations and international agreements, which
are seen as dangerous to our sovereignty and restrictive of our freedom to do
whatever we please around the world.  The
irony – and demonstration of our cynicism and lack of principle -is that in the
wake of WW II we emphasized international conventions and created the UN, which
under American leadership then created the state of Israel,
an act legitimized by the supposed support of the international community.

Most of that
international community is now clearly fed up with Israel,
which continually ignores resolutions of the very body that established it and
is protected against any serious measures by the American veto in the Security
Council.  While railing against other countries
for human rights violations, the White House and Congress consistently ignore Israel’s
behavior in the Occupied Territories.  Our favorite ally has violated or continues
to violate approximately thirty articles of the Fourth Hague Convention, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, the Convention Against Torture and
the Fourth Geneva Convention, which we ourselves are violating by refusing to
take action against Israel
as we are required to do as a High Contracting Party.  Indeed, protected by the US,
Israeli has ignored or violated more UN resolutions than any other state in the
region, including Saddam Hussein’sIraq.

The most
egregious and basic infractions are those typically associated with the
totalitarian states of the twentieth century: annexation of land and planting
of settlements in territory gained through military conquest.  Yet Israel
apparently gets a pass because much of the occupied territory was once part of
ancient Israel,
obtained through conquest but also given them by their god.  Two millennia later this hardly justifies an
exemption from well-established norms of international behavior, but given the
importance of Israel in the emergence of Christianity, many Americans are
willing to accept this, despite the fact that this is a questionable precedent
for people who themselves live on land relatively recently seized from
others.

The Israelis
in fact at times seem to be emulating the acknowledged masters of international
bad behavior, the Nazis.  Granted, they are
not carrying out mass executions, but Israeli policy in the West
Bank seems strikingly like German plans for Poland,
Belarus and the
Ukraine:
creating fortified enclaves of colonists and reducing the local population to
an impoverished pool of laborers lacking any rights.  And the “freeing” of Gaza
has locked almost a half million Palestinians into what can only be called a
ghetto, albeit one of unprecedented size.
Domestically, even the most generous analysis can only describe the
twenty percent of the population who are not Jewish as economically and
socially disabled, right-wing Israelis seeing no contradiction in calling their
state both “Jewish” and “democratic.”  Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the
former bouncer from Moldava, has in fact publicly called for the expulsion of
all non-Jews; at least he is honest about it.

Israel
might simply be an historical oddity, a curious and ironic betrayal of
traditional Jewish liberalism were it not for the fact that virtually
unqualified American diplomatic, economic and military support has inextricably
bound our national reputation to that of this increasingly pariah state.  In return Israel
has treated us with contempt, spied on us, resold our weaponry and even
deliberately attacked us (the USS Liberty in 1967), confident the
incident would be covered up, which it was.
Our alliance with Israel
has become the kind of “passionate attachment” that George Washington
warned the country about in his Farewell Address, but given the leverage
the Zionist lobby has in our elections, that attachment is unlikely to
change.  Meanwhile, we suffer on the
international stage and the Palestinians just suffer.

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Stuff from Way Back #4: Olympic Games

The
founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, summed up the ideal
of the games in a well-known statement: “The  important thing in the Olympic Games is not
to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the
triumph but the struggle.  The essential
thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”  This is a fine sentiment, central to our
notions of amateur athletics, sportsmanship and the Olympics, but it in fact
has about as much to do with the Greeks and the original games as modern
timepieces and computer-designed equipment.

Very
few societies have valued individual athletic competition as much as the
Greeks, and the reason is easy to find: competition was at the heart of the polis
(“city-state”, plur. poleis) society.  Agōn, the need to struggle, to compete,
was far and away the strongest component of the Greek character and manifested
itself in every aspect of their life, from sporting events to drama contests to
constant political upheaval.  Even sex
was viewed as a competition, in which there was a male winner and a female
loser.

One
of the results of this irresistible urge to competition was the fragmentation
of Greece into hundreds of independent and narcissistic little political units, the
poleis, which warred endlessly with one another.  All life revolved around the highly
politicized polis community, which provided the Greek with his primary
identity.  You were an Athenian or a
Corinthian or a Theban, not a Greek, and you would willingly go to war and even
cooperate with foreign powers, like the Persians, to demonstrate the
superiority of your city.  Everything you
did reflected upon the city, which in turn meant that everything you did had a
political aspect.

Sport
was no exception to this, and the ancient Olympic games were consequently
highly politicized, probably more so than their modern successors.  Long before Berlin and Moscow and Washington, places like Epidauros and Chios and Argos had discovered the public relations value of athletic triumphs, and as
national heroes and political symbols, ancient Olympic victors fell short of
their twentieth century counterparts only in their lack of flags in which to
wrap themselves.  And as far as lionizing
our sports figures goes, how many mothers now pray to Wilma Rudolph or Greg
Louganis to cure a sick child?

The
ancient Olympians were also manifestly not the disinterested amateurs who
figured so prominently in the vision of de Coubertin, Avery Brundage and other
leaders of the modern movement.  By the
last quarter of the fifth century BC professionals were already dominating the
games, which were rapidly evolving into pure spectator sport.  These were men who devoted all their time to
athletic training, increasingly for a single event, either living off their
winnings or supported by an individual or even a city, which expected to reap
glory and gain from their victories.  In
fact, a common (and frequently derided) practice was for a city to employ
ringers, paying a successful athlete (and even granting him the jealously
guarded citizenship) to compete as one of their own and thus enhance its
“medal count.”

Even
before the emergence of these professionals, however, the Olympics fell
considerably short of de Coubertin’s dream of pure sport.  The competitors were indeed amateurs, but
hardly in it just for the thrill of competition: they expected serious material
gain from their victories.  Most contests
offered valuable prizes, and although the great festivals at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia provided only wreaths, those victors could expect
substantial material awards from their cities.
Since classical civilization failed to discover the key concept of
product endorsement, these awards came in the form of money, valuable goods,
tax breaks, public support and even political preferences, all of which
immediately calls to mind the “amateur” Olympians of the former East
Block countries, with their cars, apartments and special access to western
goods.

It
is also clear from the ancient evidence that Greek athletes were less inclined
to de Coubertin’s noble idea than to Coach Lombardi’s famous dictum:
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Greek society had little sympathy for life’s
losers or for those who tried their best and failed, and consequently while
winning meant honor, adulation and material reward, losing brought dishonor and
even public disgrace.  Consider the
epitaph of the athlete Agathos Daimon, buried at Olympia: “He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for
the crown or for death.  Aged 35.
Farewell.”

For
all the pressure to win, however, we know of remarkably few instances of
cheating in the thousand year history of the ancient games.  The major reason for this is undoubtedly the
fact that the Olympic games were first and foremost a religious festival, one
that honored Zeus, the chief god in the Greek pantheon.  Cheating thus meant not only the risk of
discovery and censure by a committee of officials, but also the certainty that
an angry Zeus would sooner or later be on your case.

In
practice the ancient Olympic games were clearly more like the modern variety
than all those who complain about politicization and commercialization realize.
True, the ancient games were not marketed like the modern ones, but that is
only because the classical world did not have a mass market economy.  If they had, I am convinced Greek businessmen
would have vied for the right to sell the official tunic or kylix or whatever
of the Olympics and would very likely have surpassed us in bad taste.

In
spirit, however, the Greek Olympics were equally clearly different from ours,
celebrating victory and gain rather than simple participation and effort.  They also lacked the universalism of the
modern games, being limited to able-bodied males (the Greeks would find our
Special Olympics an obscene joke) and until the Romans took over, Greeks.  The Greek games may have involved less hype
and hypocrisy, but the internationalism of the modern Olympics takes them a
step towards something greater than those quadrennial competitions held in Elis
some two millennia ago.

Were the Leftists Right? The Crisis of Capitalism

Presidential candidate Ron Paul recently stated that we
should eliminate, as a costly waste, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a
completely inane pronouncement that underscores the extremes to which the
libertarian and small government types are willing to go.  Libertarian ideas certainly resonate with
those of us who oppose the nanny state and government attempts to determine
citizen behavior, but there is a limit, especially regarding the economy.  Back in the eighties I met the Libertarian
presidential  candidate and suggested
that without government regulation the Seven Sisters (big oil) would control
the country within 48 hours.  His reply
was that the consumers would refuse to buy their product until they acted
reasonably, which struck me as naive to point of stupidity.  How do consumers go without oil or power or
food?

And now Republicans and Tea
Party types are adopting these extremist views, suggesting, it seems, that the
only legitimate functions of the federal government are fighting wars, keeping
close watch on the citizenry and prohibiting recreational drugs.  These people appear to inhabit a world where
poverty is always the result of personal failure and the market forces really
do work to solve all problems, where only good Christians are truly virtuous
and science is always suspect.  This is a
dream America,
one that has never existed, even in those halcyon days of the nineteenth
century when a (white Christian) man was a man and businessmen were free to
build America
unencumbered by silly government regulations.

With 312
million people and the largest economy on an increasingly interconnected planet
the United States
is a very complicated place, a social and economic structure of a complexity
that is seemingly beyond the intellectual capabilities of many on the
right.  This is no longer a nation of
small farmers and a predominantly white Protestant citizenry, and we have long
since moved beyond the village economy where the forces of supply and demand
operated more or less freely.  Yes, the
free marketplace has traditionally regulated itself, but in the long run
and with complete disregard for the welfare of the humans involved.  American growth in the nineteenth century was
spectacular, but it was paid for with the emergence of an economically
marginalized class of industrial workers and an endless cycle of boom and
bust.  And now the evolution of the
financial markets in the twenty-first century is threatening capitalism’s
ability to right itself even in the long run.

Unregulated
capitalism, whatever its touted dynamism, has historically produced a number of
effects deleterious to society as a whole.
First, and most obvious from American history since the Industrial
Revolution, there is the inevitable emergence of monopolistic practices, which
skew the marketplace and deprive the consumers of the basic benefits of
competition: lower prices and innovation.
This development is most dramatically displayed by the Robber Barons of
the nineteenth century, but despite more than a century of anti-trust
legislation the problem remains, particularly in the energy, banking and
information industries.

Second, and
plain to see around the planet, untrammeled capitalism has no regard for the
environment, no matter what industry public relations say.  There are of course those who feel that
economic growth justifies a little smog and the odd patch of scarred terrain,
but now in the twenty-first century the potential magnitude of such pollution
undercuts the growth excuse.  It is no
longer just a question of unsightly landscapes or a few people poisoned by
toxins in the earth or water; rather it is oil spills that injure the lives of
millions and destroy huge habitats and air pollution so serious that we are
actually affecting the climate and threatening a global catastrophe.

Finally, the
market place is dumb.  Even if supply
actually freely followed demand, which is unlikely on the large scale, the
market would be responding to the short-term desires of the consumer and the
typically short-term profit motives of the producer.  Such is generally conducive to neither the
most efficient use of resources nor the best long-term interests of the society.  An auto company would, for example, have
absolutely no reason to market a more efficient engine if consumers were
content with the current price of fuel, even if it was perfectly clear that
fuel was disappearing.  The market spurs
innovation for immediate profit not to solve future problems or for the
betterment of society.  It can in fact
injure the interests of society: if more money can be made by growing sugar
cane for ethanol instead of grain for food, concerns about hunger are not
likely to prevent the switch.  To put it
another way: the proper purpose of business is to make money, not to
demonstrate any regard for humanity.

The history
of deregulation in America
during the last 30 years would appear to underscore these concerns.  Deregulating the airlines has in fact
generated some lower prices, but has also sent the industry into such chaos
that airline companies come and go with depressing regularity and it is
increasingly unclear who actually owns the plane you are flying on.  Deregulating the savings and loan industry of
course led to a spectacular collapse and cost the taxpayers almost $90 billion.  When allowed to, states that chose to opt out
of regulating their power companies have seen the price of electricity rise and
service and reliability drop.  Check your
cable bill for the impact of “free competition” in that market.  The free market and human greed are a toxic
mix, less likely to create jobs, as the free marketeers  claim, and more likely to create misery.

All this,
however, pales before the threat of a non-regulated financial sector in the
twenty-first century, as the recent economic collapse makes very clear.  A relative handful of greedy men brought the
global economy to the brink and thereby threatened the lives of virtually
everyone on the planet.  Hedge funds and
private equity firms did not even exist when the banking industry was brought
under control in the 1930s, and their arcane workings have helped shield them
from government attention.  As late as
1985, when serious deregulation began, profits made by socially useless
financial institutions were at most 16% of the profits of all American
companies; they now constitute more than 40%.
These are not “job-creators,” to use the new Republican term
for the wealthy; they create absolutely nothing, essentially using the economy
as a giant casino.  For all that they
treated their workers like chattel, the Robber Barons actually produced goods
and services and helped build the country and economy.  The new lords of Wall Street do nothing but
injure the economy, all the while enriching themselves to a degree that would
impress even the Morgans and Rockefellers.

It should
now be perfectly clear to all but the densest conservatives that these masters
of financial manipulation and legerdemain with their arcane and opaque
instruments are far more serious a threat to our country than any group of
traditional terrorists.  Anybody can blow
up a building; blowing up a national economy, now that’s something.  Yet even in the wake of the collapse of 2008 nothing
effective has been done to bring these clever greedy people under control, and America’s
new flirtation with the extreme right and our fervent embrace of stupidity
fairly guarantees that nothing will be done.

The
realization that serious money can be made from economic downturns leads
inevitably – as it has – to the emergence of a coterie of
“businessmen” who have zero interest in the state of the economy,
because money can be made regardless of that state.  This is incredibly novel since traditional
industrialists and businessmen always preferred a prospering economy; you made
more money by selling more stuff and expanding your business.  If, on the other hand, you will make huge
profits through bond manipulation if the Greek economy completely tanks, you
will obviously hope for such an Hellenic bankruptcy, regardless of the economic
devastation that could result.  You in
fact will help bring it about: as the markets learn serious investors are
betting on Greek insolvency, Greek credit ratings will suffer further and
reluctance to extend more bailout money will grow.

But why stop
at hurting single countries when it is actually possible to hurt everyone on
earth?  The hedgers have discovered there
are huge profits to be made in playing with commodities on a global scale, and
one of those commodities is food.  This
is unbelievably pernicious.  A recent UN
study reveals that while speculation in food stocks has nothing to do with
actually producing and delivering goods, it does indeed impact the real world
by creating prices that have nothing at all to do with supply and demand.  And those artificial prices are inevitably
higher than real market forces would determine.
In a one year period running from 2010 to 2011 world food costs rose
39%, two critical commodities, grain and cooking oil/fats, rising by some 70%,
and virtually all this increase was due to trading in agricultural securities
rather than shortages.  There is plenty
of food in the world, yet millions are starving.  Some miniscule part of the problem is due to
inefficient distribution, but for the most part it is because prices are too
high, all because people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the food
industry are making billions manipulating it.

Confronted
with this global outrage, Alan Knuckman, one of the new stars of commodity
investment, replied: “The age of cheap food is over,” seemingly
oblivious to what that bald statement means to most of the people around the
globe.  Or perhaps he does: he added
“Most Americans eat too much, anyway.”  Well, there are in fact some Americans who do
not get enough to eat, but more important, there are several billion poor souls
around the world who must spend an average of three quarters of their income on
food.  For them the higher prices generated
by Knuckman and friends are not an inconvenience but a matter of life and
death.  And meanwhile this loathsome
creature is making millions, essentially by making life more miserable for
humanity.

These people
are hurting humanity in a way that sundry terrorists can only dream of, and
they have it in their power to bring the global economy to collapse.  Yet little is being done to protect us from
these predators, who make BP and Exxon Mobil look like socially responsible
companies.  The European Union and United
States are aware of the threat but finding
it difficult to produce regulations that are effective, especially since the
financial industry is globally interconnected and to a degree can dodge the
restrictions of any single country.  The US
has prohibited banks from engaging in dangerous speculation, but the
speculators simply left the banks for other venues.  A measure of the lack of progress: in the US
the “shadow banks,” as the hedge funds and private equity
institutions are known, hold $16 trillion in debt, while traditional commercial
banks hold only $13 trillion.  This is a
financial weapon of mass destruction just waiting to go off.

And while we
all wait helplessly for the next crisis, a novel question is now being debated,
at least in Europe:
Were the leftists right about capitalism after all?  With the economic failure of the Soviet
Union and the emergence of capitalist enterprise in China
collectivism as an economic system seemed to be finally and utterly discredited
and the free market economy triumphant, but now it seems that some of the
traditional cracks in the capitalist edifice are becoming fissures that could
bring the whole structure down.
Ironically, however, collapse of the system will not arise from oppression
of the working class by industrial magnates, as predicted, but from something
that Marx and Lenin could hardly have foreseen.
It will not be brigades of angry workers in the streets but clever young
men surrounded by computer screens in dark rooms.

 

9/11: Who Won?

A decade
after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there have been no subsequent successful
operations in the US,
al-Qaida in Afghanistan-Pakistan has been decimated and the evil Grecian
Formula mastermind has been eliminated.
It would appear that we have won.
I wonder.

While
spectacular and horrific, in the cold and callous great scheme of things the
destruction wrought ten years ago was hardly a material blow to our country and
certainly did not threaten national security.
Terrorism is, literally, a bloody nuisance, and even a terrorist with a
nuclear weapon is a far less serious threat to America
than running trillion dollar deficits or tolerating an unregulated financial
sector.  The real damage of 9/11 was to
the American psyche, an unexpected blow to our self-confidence that produced a
level of national fear and anger not seen since Pearl Harbor.  And unlike the Norwegians, we allowed that
emotion, especially the fear, to undermine our principles, and in the end we
defeated ourselves.

The
immediate retaliation against Afghanistan
was certainly justified, but the decision to somehow guarantee our security by creating
a united and democratic Afghanistan,
a plainly impossible task, has been a catastrophe, contributing immensely to
our current fiscal woes.  Popular fear
and Congressional cowardice in the face of that fear then allowed the Executive
branch to launch an utterly unjustified and costly invasion of Iraq
that has brought us absolutely no benefit and has enhanced the position of Iran.  A fearful citizenry is always more inclined
to unquestioning acceptance of policy, and it is a rare government that does
not take advantage of this fact.

The result
of this emotional rush to judgment and absence of reasoned deliberation was two
very expensive wars (6000 American lives and $3 trillion – so far)  and the complete and rapid evaporation of the global
goodwill that followed upon that September day.
Our apparent carelessness with Arab lives and property, the frequent and
readily obvious employment of torture and humiliation and that still festering
wound to American principles, Guantanamo,
all conspired to tarnish our image around the world and eliminate what little
credibility we had in the Middle East after 30 years of
unqualified and self-destructive support of Israel.  Hellfire missiles and our hesitant
involvement in the Arab Spring certainly make our trumpeting of freedom and
democracy ring a bit hollow.

What we have
done to ourselves is the most serious outcome of 9/11.  When frightened, humans are easily convinced
to surrender freedoms in exchange for security or even the appearance of
security.  So cowed were we that a
Presidential press secretary could publicly state that “Americans need to
watch what they say,” and nary an eyebrow was raised (I think he was
talking about me).  And with all the independence
and resolve of a flock of sheep Congress passed the Patriot Act, the greatest
assault on our civil liberties since the McCarthy era.  They then erected perhaps the most towering
edifice of bureaucratic silliness ever, the Department of Homeland Security,
whose very name evokes images of authoritarian societies.

9/11 was of
course the mother lode for the military, whose budget nearly doubled in the
ensuing decade, though it is a bit unclear against whom we will be using those
attack submarines and advanced aircraft.
Our inclination to solve international problems with violence rather
than diplomacy, already robust, received a shot of steroids, and now even the
CIA, nominally an intelligence agency, has access to and the freedom to use
sophisticated military hardware like drones and missiles.  We now find ourselves in a strange world
where a missile that kills twenty Pakistani civilians is labeled a
“precision weapon,” while a home-made car bomb in Times Square is a
“weapon of mass destruction,” as if the identity of the shooter
determined the nature of the munition.

Though we
did much to shape it and as High Signatories are bound to defend it, our regard
for international law has become extremely ragged, especially in defense of Israel.  For the first time in our history we attacked
a country with absolutely no affirmable cause and now regularly and openly
violate the sovereignty of other nations, particularly Pakistan,
something our government at least tried to keep secret during the Vietnam war.  In the name of security, and with no little
arrogance, we routinely treat other nations in ways that would bring howls of
anger and indignation were we on the receiving end.  We regularly insist that nations heed the
resolutions of the UN Security Council, but promptly ignore them if they are
contrary to our interests; consider our record of vetoes of resolutions
critical of Israel.

Our very
Constitution is being threatened by this government-encouraged mania of fear
and the attendant xenophobia.  Apart from
serious issues concerning the policing powers allowed by the Patriot Act there
is also a threatening growth in the power and autonomy of some federal
entities, most notably the CIA.  Whether
or not death from above is effective (many innocents are killed), the notion
that anonymous individuals in the military and CIA have the authority to judge
who is a terrorist and execute him is a bit disturbing.  And it is now our intention to assassinate an
American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, if he can be found.  Perhaps this is the only way to deal with
this loathsome creature, but we nevertheless thereby place ourselves on a
frightening slippery slope of expediency over principle.

The 9/11
terrorists certainly demonstrated that fear can profoundly affect a society: a
frightened populace is inevitably more willing, even enthusiastic, to grant
government more authority, which will be eagerly accepted by any government,
whatever its nature.  All political entities seek to defend and increase their
powers, and the American Presidency is no exception, its vaguely defined
Constitutional powers constantly expanded and supplemented, especially since
World War II. And once granted,

power will not be easily relinquished; for all its promises the new
administration has kept intact the emergency arrangements of the last.  Power is power, whatever your ideological
stripe.

America
is still here, but it is not quite the same.
The terrorists destroyed two buildings and thousands of lives, but it is
we who changed our country, and not for the better.

Stuff from Way Back #3: Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Sardines in the tin

Many people have acquired much of their knowledge of history
from Hollywood, obviously a dubious
source.  This is especially true
regarding antiquity, an area of history generally poorly known and understood,
even by many historians, and apart from the Bible (another dubious source) the
movies have been the major font of information about the ancient world for
many.  Unfortunately, more often than not
that information is wrong.

Perhaps the
most pervasive historical myth promulgated by tinsel town is that of the galley
slave, Charlton Heston chained at his oar, rowing to the beat of a drum and the
crack of a whip in a Roman galley.  This
made for great cinema in
Ben Hur
, but it is in fact complete nonsense.  Galley slaves were a feature of the Italian
and Turkish navies of the Renaissance era, but by then Mediterranean warship
architecture had changed greatly from antiquity and facilitated the use of
slaves.  The navies of Persia,
Greece, Rome and Carthage were rowed by free
men, who were paid for their efforts.

The primary
warship of the Greeks before the death of Alexander was the trireme, the
fastest significant human-powered vessel ever produced.  The trireme was tiny, more a racing scull
than a ship: 120 to 135 feet in length, 10 to 13 feet wide amidships (18 with
the outrigger) and a draught of only 3 to 4 feet.  Into this space were packed a crew of perhaps
a dozen sailors and 170 rowers, arranged in three banks in the hull.  With an underwater ram protruding from the
bows the trireme itself was the weapon, though those with less naval skill, like the Macedonians and the Romans, could use closing and boarding tactics instead of ramming. Cheap to build, the
vessel was fragile, unseaworthy, lacking in cargo space and expensive to
maintain. It was a precision instrument,
sacrificing everything for speed.

Such a
vessel can not be rowed by untrained slaves.
In the 1980s the Greeks and British built the first trireme since the Roman
Empire, the Olympias, and found that a crew of college
students (including some with sculling experience) needed to be trained for
weeks just to be able to row slowly in a straight line. With so many rowers in such a small space
coordination must be absolutely perfect or the oars, which come in three sizes
and enter the water at different angles, will be instantly fouled. To perform any maneuvers – turning sharply,
changing speeds, backing water – the crew must be very well trained, and that
training could clearly mean the difference between life and death in a
battle. And while being chained to the
ship is a great motivation to keep the ship afloat, the history of warfare has
constantly demonstrated that positive inducements are far better motivators
than fear.

Incidentally,
forget the guy pounding time with a drum.
That sort of low frequency sound is drowned out by the noise of the
oars, and the Olympias used whistles, which is what the sources
mention. In fact, forget everything
about the Ben Hur fleet. The
standard warship of the Roman Republic,
the quinquerime, was heavier, slightly broader and stood higher out of the
water, but this was still a far cry from the roomy vessel served by Judah
ben Hur. 300 rowers in three banks (some
oars had two men) filled the hull of the quinquereme, leaving room for a central
gangway but certainly none for some overseer to crack a whip. Further, during the Empire the standard vessels
were much smaller than a quinquereme, the major occupation of the imperial
fleet being pirate chasing.

Finally,
these are delicate vessels, certainly the smaller trireme. So light is the ship that a few men walking
about the deck could upset the trim enough that oars would miss the water or
strike too deeply, leading to immediate fouling. In fact, the Athenians manned the decks of
their triremes with javelineers who could throw from a seated position. The quinquereme provided a much more stable
platform for marines and even mounted ballistae (giant crossbows), but the
notion of a sea-borne catapult, as in Ben Hur, is still a stretch. Try hitting anything with a catapult mounted
on a lifeboat.