The Republic Is in Trouble

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I have been wrestling with a piece on the election, but it is difficult to get my mind around it all inasmuch as our President-elect is so deficient and offensive in so many ways. And his initial appointments inspire little hope: a racist southern Senator who believes the NAACP and ACLU are communist as Attorney General; a dismissed general who considers Islam a political ideology masquerading as religion as National Security Advisor; a Kansas Representative who believes in torture as CIA Director; an avowed white supremacist who celebrates the “Dark Side” (?) as Chief Strategist.  If he is indeed “draining the swamp,” it is to reveal and hire loathsome creatures lurking in the muck.

An ignorant misogynistic bully with the attention span of a five year old is now President of the United States and a piece of Slovenian arm candy is the First Lady.  We have seen the usual down side of democracy: an ignorant electorate swayed by emotion rather than reason.  The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College to prevent dangerous populists and demagogues being elected President (and to satisfy the slave-owning states), but in this instance it served to allow a dangerous populist and (incredibly vulgar) demagogue to take the White House though losing the popular vote by more than a million and a half.

This Presidency will surely test our political system and our safeguards against tyranny, corruption and violation of citizen rights.  I do not expect Trump’s personality – his truly staggering ego and narcissism and his absolute inability to accept criticism – or his undisciplined and largely empty mind to change in the next four years.  For the first time in my seven decades I fully expect the President to be impeached, despite his party’s control of Congress.

And his neckties are too long. fasc

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Stuff from Way Back #25: Athens in Vietnam

(This is a fairly long piece about a war most people have never heard of, but there is a wonderful lesson of history here.  For more on the sophists see Stuff from Way Back #20.  The dates are BC.)

 

“Now we can see it clearly – like the light at the end of a tunnel.”

General Henri Navarre

commander of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu

History can often be hauntingly familiar, even across the 2500 year divide that separates classical Athens from America in the second half of the twentieth century.  A case in point is the catastrophic Peloponnesian War (431-404) between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League, a conflict that to a great extent ruined the Greek world.

 

The Athenian Empire was naval based, taking in virtually all the island and coastal city-states of the Aegean, and constituted a wealthy trading block.  Though progressive and inclined to support democratic governments, Athens nevertheless maintained tight control over her “allies,” taxing them to pay for her powerful fleet (and the beautiful buildings upon the Acropolis).  Encompassing most of the rest of the Greek states, the so-called Peloponnesian League was land based and included most of the Peloponnesus and central Greece.  It was dominated, but not absolutely controlled by Sparta, which supplied the semi-professional core of the huge army, some 35,000 heavy infantry, that the League could field.  Sparta was the most reactionary state in Greece, and her small citizen body of perhaps 8000 was supported by an immense number of unfree serfs (helots).  Semi-socialist and nominally democratic, Spartan society was essentially authoritarian, and she favored oligarchic governments.

A divided Greece

A divided Greece

Athens began the war with immense advantages.  Her control of the sea was virtually absolute, which meant that the enemy was going to have a hell of time just getting at her and her allies.  The completion of the long walls linking the city with the port of Piraeus had turned Athens into a kind of artificial island, rendering her immune to the traditional strategy of laying waste the enemy’s territory and forcing them to come out and fight.  Offensively, the navy provided the Athenians with a big edge in rapid troop deployment and threatened the Peloponnesians with surprise raids on their coastal areas.  Athens also had unprecedented economic resources from her imperial income and her trade and went into the conflict with something unheard of in Greece: a  financial  reserve.  And finally there was the open and democratic nature of Athenian society, which had already made her preeminent in human resources, out-producing other cities in leadership, talent and imagination.

 

The Peloponnesians had but a single advantage over the Athenians – they were overwhelmingly powerful on land.  In every other respect they were hurting.  Any fleet they might scrape together would be dramatically outnumbered and out-rowed (the main pool of skilled rowers was within the Athenian empire), and the alliance was financially unprepared to launch and maintain many more ships.  And under the leadership of the Spartans, who did not even use coined money, that financial picture was not likely to change in the near future.  A further big disadvantage for the Peloponnesians: Spartan leadership.  A system geared to the status quo and limited mental horizons only rarely produces leaders of more than plodding ability, and Sparta’s traditional insularity and policy-bending paranoia about the helots might also be expected to hamper the war effort.  But blinding many to these serious weaknesses was the centuries old Spartan reputation as the alpha male of Greece, and there was widespread belief that ships and money and newfangled ideas would not save Athens from the juggernaut of the Spartan led Peloponnesian levy.

 

Pericles, the Athenian leader, knew better, and he intended to fight a new kind of war, one for which only Athens was in any way prepared – a war of attrition.  He was concerned simply with the preservation of Athenian interests, not the utter defeat of Sparta, which meant that Athens could achieve her victory by remaining on the defensive.  This he proposed to do by evacuating the population to the Athens-Piraeus fortress and temporarily abandoning Attica, the territory controlled by the city, whenever the Peloponnesians invaded.  Supplied from the sea, Athens could theoretically hold out indefinitely, while the fleet conducted raids on the enemy coasts to remind them of the price of war.  Pericles figured that after a few years of spending their summers in Attica and accomplishing nothing most of the Peloponnesians would lose whatever little interest they had in the first place, and the war would fizzle to an end.

Pericles aka "Old Squill Head"

Pericles aka “Old Squill Head”

Would the plan have worked?  Probably.  In the first several years of the war the Peloponnesian levy ravaged Attica and absolutely nothing happened.  Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet conducted hit and run operations against the coastal towns of the Peloponnesus, and it is hard to see how Sparta could sustain interest, especially among her already unenthusiastic allies, in a war that was making no real headway and bringing Athenian raids down on their territory.  Athens had even survived the devastating “plague” of 430 (probably epidemic typhus or cholera), which had carried off as much as a quarter of the city’s population.

 

But we will never know, because in 429 Pericles died from the contagion, and without his restraining hand Athens’ strength, her democracy, gradually became her downfall.  The cautious defensive strategy steadily evolved into an offensive one, and the goal of the war became the defeat of Sparta and the expansion of the empire.  This would have been dangerous enough, but the democracy itself began to undermine the war effort.  The traditional political leadership had been provided by the annually elected board of ten “generals,” so called because they were the men who actually led Athenian forces if needed; Pericles had been reelected to the board for thirty years.  The war now produced a new kind of politician, the demagogues, men of mostly limited abilities who wielded power not by holding office but by manipulating the citizen assembly, which in the unlimited democracy of Athens was the ultimate seat of power and could not be challenged.  They rode to  power on their rhetorical abilities and by advocating a war of conquest.  This led to a growing number of bad decisions and ill-considered strategies and created threatening divisions in Athenian society, as the increasingly radical democracy struggled to manage a people becoming intoxicated with their own power.

 

The first phase of the conflict, from 431 to 421, saw a steady departure from Pericles’ defensive strategy after his death.  In 425 the Athenians almost accidentally captured a unit of Spartans, which lead to peace overtures from Sparta, but the Athenians went on a roll and launched a land campaign in central Greece, a complete reversal of Pericles’ policy.  It was a disastrous failure and was followed by the loss of Amphipolis, an utterly vital city on the north Aegean shore.  Athens was ready for peace.

 

The Peace of Nicias, signed in 421, had about as much chance of success as the Munich agreement of AD 1938, and in 418 an Athenian supported coalition in the Peloponnesus was defeated by Sparta.  Meanwhile, a war-weary Athens was becoming more and more divided.  The older generation in particular was getting fed up, while the younger was increasingly enthusiastic for more military adventures.  The hawks got the upper hand, and in 415 a huge force was sent to Sicily to attack Syracuse and seize the entire island, an act of incredible imperial hubris.  Primarily because of divided leadership, a result of the political situation at home, the expedition failed, and in 413 it and a large relief force were essentially annihilated.  The Spartans decided to reopen the war and invaded Attica that same year, beginning the second phase of the war, from 413 to 404.

 

All hell broke loose for Athens.  In 412 her allies began revolting in droves, and even worse, Sparta signed an alliance with the Persia Empire, which meant money for a Peloponnesian fleet, which meant in turn a spread of the revolt and a threat to the security of Athens itself.  Back home extremist conservatives launched a coup in 411, setting up a narrow oligarchy of 400 and driving the Athenians to the brink of a civil war.  Athens was now at war with virtually everyone in the Greek world, including herself, but the people were not about to give in.  The democracy was restored in 410, and by 407 the Athenian position in the Aegean had been almost fully restored.  But the Athenians seemed bent on self-destruction, and in the next several years they turned down several peace offers from Sparta.  In 405 they lost their last fleet and were forced to surrender in 404, losing all their possessions, their walls and even their democratic government.

 

The Athenian democracy had failed.  Despite an immense superiority in resources and talent Athens had found herself unable to put an end to the war and after twenty-seven years of struggle had lost everything.  How could this happen?  For Thucydides, the Athenian historian of the war, the answer is clear.  The way of life fostered by the democracy was a source of powerful forces, but it took a capable leader to control and direct these forces, to restrain the people and channel their energies towards realistic ends.  Pericles was of course this kind of leader, able and patriotic, and Athens’ misfortune was that after his death the democracy found no one who combined these two qualities.  The prosecution of the war, the foreign policy of the state became more and more a reflection of internal politics, as Athens became the prey of the demagogues.  Time and again the Athenians passed up opportunities to end the conflict as winners in order to try instead for a vastly greater victory.  And time and again these attempts to grasp more were ruined not by the strength of the enemy, but by the Athenians themselves, as the political feuding created dangerous cracks in the democracy.  This domestic disunity was bad enough, leading ultimately to oligarchic revolution, but the cracks also showed themselves in the conduct of the war, in divided leadership of campaigns, inadequate support of expeditions and sudden reversals of policy.

Thucydides

Thucydides

I am inclined to agree with Thucydides.  Athens in the second half of the fifth century was simply under too much stress and faced with too many temptations to survive without the restraining hand of a leader like Pericles.  And it was clearly a question only of guidance, for the democracy – the common people who voted every important policy decision – constantly showed itself to be perhaps the most aware and able body politic in history.  It was after all Athens that lost the war, not Sparta that won it.  Their own worst enemy, the Athenians bounced back again and again after each new disaster, revealing the nature of the human resources shaped by a democratic society.   The Athenians and their experiences in the Peloponnesian War are a powerful testament to both the weaknesses and strengths of democratic government.

 

While suffering the political difficulties, the Athenian democracy also underwent during the war a moral crisis, which was both cause and result of the political trials.  This was the period when the radical sophists, extremist political thinkers, were attacking the democracy and its egalitarian notions.  Instead of the people they would see as rulers those who were by nature suited to rule – the “superior men” – and in place of the democracy they would have a narrow oligarchy.  Well, after the disasters of the latter part of the war people began to listen to these characters.  Reasonable and moderate men were losing faith in the democracy and becoming more attentive to these characters at the other end of the political spectrum.  Germany in the twenties and thirties saw a similar development, as moderate middle class Germans reacted to the perceived failures of the Weimar government and the threat from the left by paying greater heed to the far right.

 

The ideas of these sophists on the nature of justice – that might made right – fit perfectly with the growing will to power and empire among the Athenians.  As the war continued the means slowly became the end for the Athenian people, as demagogic factionalism and the temptations of power combined to drive them to extremes.  Pericles’ simple defense of the empire was forgotten, and victory gradually became instead the grasping of more, the expansion of power and the total defeat of Sparta.  Rather than what they might bring, success and power themselves became the real goal of the Athenians.  At the same time the continuation of the war produced among the Athenians a growing sense of frustration because of their seeming inability to bring it to an end.  When they were losing, the quality and strength of their national character compelled them to fight their way back, and when they were winning, that same character seduced them into reaching for more.  Athens had the power and the resources to carry on the war, even after a disaster like Sicily, but she could not stop it.  And this frustration further aggravated the problem, driving the Athenian people to seek even more urgently that light at the end of the tunnel, that final victory that would solve all their problems.  It might be fair to label the response of Athens to this frustration, her continued and amplified operations of war, as acts of collective hysteria.  This is the tragedy of a people being destroyed by their own greatness.

 

All of these things – the political turmoil, the frustrations, the national hysteria – were accompanied, perhaps inevitably, by a steady moral disintegration.  As the war dragged on there was a growing loss of respect for authority and the moral traditions of the community, indications of a loss of faith in the society as a whole.  The war certainly contributed to this moral breakdown, especially through the psychic conditions – the uncertainties, the alternating hopes and fears, the frustrations – it imposed on the Athenians, but the far more important cause was sophism.  Part of the impact of sophistic skepticism was the general erosion of accepted tradition and its authority.  If, as the sophists said, man-made law is all relative anyway, why necessarily accept that of your fathers?  Their values and standards of behavior may not be pertinent to your situation, and perhaps you should look instead to your own definitions.  This of course can be mighty dangerous for the social fabric.

 

Finally, there is an aspect of the Athenian moral crisis that should be familiar to late twentieth century America – the development of something like a generation gap.  Athenian society during the Peloponnesian War gave rise to what appears to be the first serious challenge of one generation by another in history.  As with America in the sixties it was precisely the young, primarily young aristocrats, who were the focal point of the moral crisis in Athens, although their reaction was hardly one of protesting the war and using controlled substances.  In fact it was generally the younger generation who were in favor of greater imperialist adventures.  But Athenian youth of the period of the Peloponnesian War were like many young Americans of the Vietnam era in that the morality of their fathers, the inherited ethos of the society, was not necessarily valid for them.  The extent of this challenge should not be exaggerated, being apparently essentially limited to aristocratic youth, but it did exist.

 

A generation gap had never occurred before this for the simple reason that only now had the ascendancy of the state and the individual so undermined the strength of the family that the ties binding one generation to the next had been loosened.  With the stage thus set by the general social development of the Greek state conditions particular to Athens then prompted the generational challenge.  First of all there was the democracy, which itself involved a certain rejection of tradition.  The egalitarianism that was fundamental to democratic society eroded the authority of parents, of the previous generation, by stressing the importance of the individual and the equality of all.  As an eighteen year old Athenian male, you are a full political person, with a vote in the assembly equal to that of your father, and in the assembly you might even become more influential than he.  So why should you then obey him when the two of you differ back at home?  Political freedom is not conducive to the passive acceptance of traditional authority.

 

Nor is an emphasis on reason, which only naturally tends to devalue authority based on tradition, and the growing respect for reason in fifth century Athens was causing many to question and sometimes reject traditional values.  The focus of this was of course the sophists, whose rationalism was especially zeroed in on an attack on tradition.  It was not just their hostility to tradition, but also the simple fact that they existed, breaking the monopoly parents had held in the education of the younger generation.  It is hardly surprising that the Baby Boom generation that was the first to seriously challenge traditional American values was also the first to go to college in massive numbers.  Reason and doubt are deadly to knowledge based only on faith and acceptance.

 

The final factor contributing to this generational phenomenon was the social and political failure of the democracy during the war and the loss of faith in the established order that it incurred.  We need only to look five decades into our own past to see the effect of such a failure on the young of society.

 

(An additional note: included in the ranks of the neocons, who played an instrumental role in leading the United States into its pointless and costly war with Iraq, are at least two classical historians, and it is said that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is a sort of bible for them.  Apparently they neglected to read the chapters on the Sicilian expedition.)

Stuff from Way Back #22: Power Corrupts

(This piece must serve for two weeks since I will be out of town. All dates are BC and translations of Thucydides are by Rex Warner. My thanks to Donald Kagan, who taught me this long, long ago.)

 

 

Defending the ludicrous attempts to establish democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of US politicians have stated that apart from being the right thing to do (regardless of what the locals think), this policy enhances the prospects for peace because “democracies do not attack their neighbors.” One need not look further than our own recent history to see what nonsense this is: Grenada, Panama, Iraq and drone strikes, which are in fact acts of war. Israel has begun numerous conflicts not entirely justified by a credible threat. And democratic states in classical Greece, including the granddaddy of all democracies, Athens, continually attacked their neighbors.

 
Indeed, Athens (along with the US) provides a shining example of democracy acting badly. That power is corrupting is a commonplace, and the presidency of Barack Obama appears to be a demonstration of this notion. Prior to being elected President Obama was a progressive, espousing more open government, dismantling the war and terror apparatus of the Bush administration and promising peace. Instead, he is pursuing a concentrated assault on journalists, defending the Constitutionally dubious powers of the Patriot act, aggressively spying on the American people and our allies and killing innocents by the hundreds with his drones. He underlines the idea that no government, whatever its nature, will voluntarily surrender any power. And if subordinating everything to the quest for reelection and trading favors for campaign funds is corruption, the Congress is a cesspool.

 
In antiquity the ruling elite of the Roman Republic provide a classic example of corruption. Having served the best interests of the state and the Roman people for almost four hundred years, the Senatorial class was corrupted by the powers accumulated in Rome’s wars and especially by the flood of wealth that came in the wake of the conquest of the Greek east. The result was an utterly self-interested Senate and the ultimate collapse of the Republic into military autocracy.

 
But it is Athens that provides a compelling study in the corrupting influence of power, especially in the pressure cooker of war. The moral collapse of the Athenian people, the real rulers in the radical democracy of the later fifth century, is beautifully detailed by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), the showdown between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League. Thucydides is the first modern historian, not only because of his attempt to provide an entirely factual narrative, but also because of his analysis of the broad currents flowing through that narrative. He was himself an Athenian and was present in Athens during the events examined below, giving credibility to the substance of the statements he records.

 
Athens emerged from the Persian Wars (490, 480-479) immensely powerful, particularly at sea, where her fleet was larger than all the other Greek navies combined. Liberating the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast and preventing a resurgence of Persian power required a permanent Aegean alliance, and in 478 Athens organized the Delian League, a voluntary association of most of the island and coastal cities. Recognizing Athens’ huge military contribution, the member states granted her a dominant role in the League, almost guaranteeing the emergence of Athenian supremacy. The evolution from league to empire began with Athens taking military action to prevent members from leaving the alliance, an understandable measure, and gradually the ship-contributing allies were transformed into tribute paying allies. Within a generation of the creation of the League there were besides Athens only three ship contributing allies left – the wealthy islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. The remaining allies all paid tribute and supplied troops, and of these a large number were subject and so more directly controlled. By the fifties Athens had suspended meetings of the League assembly, and in 454 the League treasury was moved from Delos to the Athenian acropolis, where Athena henceforth received a rake of one sixtieth.

 
The Athenian organization was a light touch compared to the average empire, at least until the pressures of the great war with Sparta. The tribute was reassessed every four years, and the allied state could appeal if it thought the amount was too high. In return for their money the allies got the Athenian fleet, which not only protected them from the Persians and from their own neighbors, but also suppressed the normally endemic piracy, probably the most appreciated benefit of the empire. The obligation to supply troops was a burden, but perhaps better the allied hoplites should be defending and expanding the empire than fighting one another, which is what they would otherwise be doing. Because of the strong feelings the Greeks had about the autonomy of the polis, however, the empire was probably generally resented and Athenian meddling in the internal affairs of the subject allies certainly was, but it could have been worse. After all, Athenian interference was primarily concerned with maintaining democratic governments, which by definition involved the majority of the locals ruling themselves. (At least by the Greek definition, which required direct participation; representative government readily allows the creation of sham democracies.) And in fact, it would be worse: when Sparta took over the empire after Athens’ defeat in 404, she ruled it through oppressive little ten man oligarchies.

 
Athens had her ups and downs with her allies, but it was the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 that really turned the empire sour. Initially there was little problem, since Pericles pursued a purely defensive strategy, which made very small demands upon the allies, especially in terms of troops. But old Squill Head died in 429, and Athenian policy became increasingly aggressive and expansionist, putting heavier and heavier demands on the allies. For example, in 425, the seventh year of the war, Athens more than doubled the tribute demanded of the allies. The empire became an increasing burden on the allies, wasting their resources and lives in dubious operations and providing no discernible benefits in return. In 412, prompted by Athenian losses in Sicily and Spartan promises of aid, almost all the allies revolted and went over to the enemy camp. In the next few years the energetic Athenians would reconquer most of their former dependents, but a few years after that they would lose the war and with it the empire. Then the allies would get a taste of empire Spartan style.

 
War brutalizes a society, and Athens’ decaying relationship with her allies in the course of the war fully demonstrates this moral decline, which is neatly reflected in her own changing view of the empire and foreign relations in general. In the famous Funeral Oration given at the end of the first year of the war Pericles alludes to the relatively benign imperialism practiced by Athens: “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them…When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on free liberality.” (Thucydides 2.40.4-5) Well, the reality of the empire was of course far from this ideal, but Athenian imperialism was almost a gentle presence compared to the heavy-handed Spartan brand, which had virtually enslaved the southern part of the Peloponnesus. In any case, it is the ideal we are interested in, how Athens viewed herself and her relations with other states.

 
Only one year later the tone has already changed. In a speech given by Pericles at the end of the second year of the war the will to power is now clearly apparent:
“The whole world before our eyes can be divided into two parts, the land and the sea, each of which is valuable and useful to man. Of the whole of one of these parts you are in control – not only of the area at present in your power, but elsewhere too, if you want to go further. With your navy as it is today there is no power on earth –not the King of Persia nor any people under the sun – which can stop you from sailing where you wish…And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery; there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred we have incurred while administering it…In fact you now hold your empire down by force: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” (Thucydides 2.62.2, 63.1-2)
After only two years of war the friendly, mutual aid concept of empire expressed in the Funeral Oration has given way to a more realistic appraisal of the empire as a kind of tyranny. But the empire cannot be given up now, and justification of it can be found in the mere fact that it exists. Further, in his description of Athenian naval strength Pericles defines a power that has no limit and suggests that Athenian ambitions might not be contained within the confines of the present empire.

 
In 428 Mytilene, the chief city on the island of Lesbos, revolted from Athens and was crushed the following year. In a fit of emotion the Athenian assembly voted to put to death the entire male population and enslave the women and children, a rare and extreme form of punishment that was unfortunately becoming less rare as the war progressed. The harshness of the reaction is a vivid sign of the brutalizing effects of the war, but what happened next is also revealing of the changing Athenian attitude towards the empire. The day after the decision was made cooler heads prevailed, and an extraordinary second meeting of the assembly was called to debate the issue again. The demagogue and radical imperialist Cleon (d. 422) argued that the heavy punishment was necessary to set an example and that policy could not take a back seat to irrelevant humanitarian concerns. The opposition, led by the moderate Diodotus, countered with the argument that the slaughter would not serve as a deterrent, but rather would cause those who did revolt to fight to the death, since that would be all they could expect anyway. Moreover, Mytilene was an oligarchy and the people had been compelled to go along with the revolt, so punishing them would only disaffect the democratic factions in other states.

 
The penalty was repealed and the Mytilenians were saved at the last minute, but look at the arguments delivered in their defense. Nowhere does Diodotus say anything about justice or what is right or what Mytilene deserves. His arguments are based entirely on expediency, on what course of action would be best for imperial Athens, and he comes right out and says so: “But this is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” (Thucydides 3.44.4) Whatever Diodotus may have felt about the inhumanity of the punishment and the plight of the Mytilenians, he understood that the Athenian people would only be moved by a cold appeal to their imperial self-interest. As the war dragged on, Athens’ concept of empire was clearly growing harsher. And Athens was not alone in the growing brutality. In 427 Plataea surrendered to the Spartans after a two year siege, and despite the city’s role in the Hellenic victory of 479, it was razed to the ground. Prompted by the Thebans, the Spartans acted in a particularly nasty fashion. Each defender was asked if had done anything of service to the Spartans and their allies in the war, and when each answered no (what else?), he was executed.

 
The moral rock bottom came in 416, when the Athenians attacked the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean. The Melians had not joined the original Delian League and had managed to escape the attention of the Athenians in the following years. At the outbreak of the war the island was neutral, although her sympathies were with Sparta, since she had been colonized from there. She resisted an Athenian invitation to join the empire and because of this uncooperative stance was in 426 the object of an unsuccessful Athenian attack. Now, ten years later the Athenians extended their invitation again, and once again the Melians refused. This time, however, the Athenians captured the city and killed all the males and enslaved the women and children. Actually, this was the second occasion that such drastic measures were taken; Athens had already inflicted this same terrible fate upon her ally Scione after an unsuccessful revolt in 421. But in the case of Scione the Athenians could at least claim, rightly or wrongly, just desserts for an ingrate ally, whereas Melos quite obviously involved nothing more than naked and brutal aggression.

 
And indeed the Athenians made no claim that there was anything more. In their dialogue with the Melians before investing the city they boldly state their reasons for pressuring the island: “If we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power…So that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire. We rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.” (Thucydides 5.95, 97) When the Melians protest that what is happening to them is hardly just, the Athenians reply with one of the most cynical statements of foreign policy principles in history:
“You know as well as we do that, when matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept…Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it a general and necessary law of nature (physis) to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.” (Thucydides 5.89, 105.2)
Such honesty in foreign affairs is certainly refreshing, but it cannot obscure the total moral bankruptcy of Athenian policy. It has come to this for the Athenians – might makes right. They have abandoned the normal standards of civilized behavior and justified their violation of accepted standards of international law (nomos or man made law) by appealing to a brutally defined “natural law” (or god’s law, law of the gods, conscience, higher law), as many a great power would do in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, precisely as Thucydides predicted.

 
America of course officially justifies her increasingly abominable behavior on the world stage with an appeal to national security rather than some law of nature, but so pervasive has the security argument become that it takes on the character of a natural law. And there are many conservative Christians who in fact do believe our actions are supported by natural law, in this case the Christian god, who had earlier justified our conquest of the North America. The “war” on terror touches ordinary Americans in only the most peripheral way, yet we are still being brutalized, accepting lower standards of international conduct as acceptable and even normal. Besides, as our leaders say regarding America’s pervasive snooping, everyone does it. No, only the powerful do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must – at least until they become the powerful.

The Egyptian Demos Speaks (and Louder Than Ours)

Is it or is it not a military coup in Egypt?  This semantic game is, predictably, being played out among the talking heads, and hardly surprising, the answer depends a great deal upon the political convictions of the speaker.  Yes, the military has entered the political arena and ousted the sitting government, which is certainly coup-like.  On the other hand, although the military is looking after its own interest, it is nevertheless responding to an unprecedented demonstration of discontent with an increasingly unresponsive and autocratic government.  So, call it a military coup, but one with incredibly broad popular support.

Of course, governments, even those that could not stomach Morsi and his Muslem Brotherhood, are bemoaning the fact that the Egyptian army has removed a legitimate, freely elected, if obnoxious, administration.  Naturally, this has less to do with any deep commitment to constitutional process than with the simple fact that governments like other governments far better than people in the streets.  Recall the consternation in Washington when the Wall came down: we understood the behavior of that nasty DDR government and could deal with it, but people pouring in to the streets demanding freedom?  Where will that end?  And military dictatorships are the best, because they tend to be more stable and consistent in their policies.

The “deep concern” over dumping the legitimately elected government of Morsi rings a bit hollow, especially where the US is concerned.  We refuse to recognize Hamas in Gaza, and they were legitimately elected.  When the Algerian military suspended elections in 1992 because the Islamic Front was winning in the early rounds, we had no problem supporting the new dictatorship.  In 1973 we actually aided in the overthrow of the freely elected President, Salvador Allende.  How about the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh?  We engineered a coup against him in 1953 and installed the not so freely elected Shah.  Certainly the US would like to see military rule in Egypt, so long as they provide stability and do not mess with Israel.

Distrust of the common people protesting in the streets inevitably evokes the label of “mob rule,” which suggests violence and illegality and behavior distasteful to civilized democratic folk.  But one might suggest that democracy is simply polite and orderly mob rule.  Aristotle in fact distinguished between “democracy,” rule of the demos or people, and “ochlocracy,” rule of the ochlos or mob, yet the distinction was not based on the venue – the streets or the assembly hall – or the political mechanism – throwing rocks or voting – but on the aim of the group.  If the citizens in the sovereign assembly carried on in the best long term interests of the society, they constituted a democracy; if they sought only short term benefit for themselves, they were instead an ochlocracy.  According to Aristotle, then, what we have in Washington is mob rule.

Allowing Morsi to finish out his term and then be turned out of office by the voters strikes me as risky business.  Like his colleague in Turkey, Prime Minster Recep Erdoğan, Morsi betrayed his deep lack of understanding of democratic rule by assuming that once elected by a majority one can do anything one wants and ignore and punish opposition forces.  His increasingly autocratic behavior and blatant favoring of one minority group does not immediately suggest a peaceful and democratic change of power when his term ended.  More likely would be elections rigged by a Muslem Brotherhood now in secure control of the mechanisms of government.

In a state such as Egypt with virtually no practice in democratic rule deposing a plainly incompetent and nefarious ruler by mass demonstrations and the help of the military might be considered a democratic act of a  more rough and ready nature.  After all, how free are our elections?  We have two entrenched parties, who enjoy almost complete control over who runs for office, and given that elections are essentially an exercise in mass marketing rather than political debate, these contests are easily manipulated by the economic powers in the society.  Absent term limits, an elected official can pretty much hold his office for life because of the incumbent’s access to the big money and the results of two centuries of gerrymandering of districts.  And let us not forget the ignorance and passivity of the American electorate.  What has happened in Egypt appears in many ways far more democratic than what goes on here according to the rules.

I praise the Egyptian people for not putting up with the governmental crap that we routinely do.

Incidentally, Hitler was legitimately elected.

Ryan Shrugged

Paul Ryan was clearly selected as his Vice Presidential candidate by Romney in order to appeal to the Tea Party and other denizens of the extreme right, territory that the moderate Romney is, to his credit, unfamiliar with.  The briefest look at Ryan’s political career will immediately illustrate just how extreme he is, but his self-serving and uncaring approach to life is summed up in two words: Ayn Rand.

The Little Objectivist

Most educated people consider Rand’s philosophy, “objectivism,” to be intellectually shallow and in its rejection of social responsibility morally bankrupt.  I always considered it something that young college students espoused and then rejected when they were more mature and better educated.  Not Paul Ryan.  Several months ago, in response to criticism from the Catholic Church regarding his fiscal policies he asserted that he did not follow Rand, whose philosophy was atheistic and contrary to his Catholic beliefs and his hero Thomas Aquinas.  This is quite a turn-around, considering that only three years ago he was touting objectivism in his campaign ads, and his sincerity is in question since he has also claimed that the notion that he was ever a Rand follower is an “urban legend.”  I guess that is some other Paul Ryan in those videos.Actually, there is a certain thruthiness in his denials, since while he adopted the socially ruthless and self-serving parts of objectivism, he rejected Rand’s social libertarianism, presumably because that would conflict with one of his core convictions – that a woman should not have complete control over her own body.  In this regard he is the same sort of hypocrite as the Pauls, the father and son libertarians, who feel that the government should stay out of just about everything, except a woman’s reproductive system.  For this reason the Ayn Rand Institute has declared that Ryan is not a follower of their beloved mentor.

A very silly woman

Well, whatever his lies (don’t these people realize that everything they say in public is recorded?), three years ago at least he was out-Randing Rand.  He praises her for doing the best job ever in “building a moral case for capitalism,” that is, the “democratic capitalism” that helps secure the individual and his freedom from the attacks of “collectivist government,” as personified by the Obama administration.  The idea that unregulated capitalism has a moral quality is already approaching National Socialism on the nonsense meter, but he goes further and equates this simpleton and self-centered philosophy with the “moral foundation” of America.  This is somewhat of a surprise since the writings of the Founding Fathers (and they deserve capitalization in order to distinguish them from the bozos we now elect) constantly emphasize the importance of social responsibility as a facet of individual freedom.

Ryan is one of those social Darwinists who believe that the glory of America is that the competent individual can succeed in the capitalist system, while those who do not are by definition losers, and they of course do not deserve any social safety net at the expense of the winners.  And thus the purity of capitalism cannot be sullied by regulation, the conspiracy of losers looking to limit freedom and undermine American values.  Let business do its thing and the general welfare will improve.

This is of course absolute destructive nonsense that one should not have to argue against, but apparently more than ever the electorate responds to nonsense if it is aligned with their beliefs, even to the point of declaring false what the rest of the planet accepts as scientific fact, such a climate change.  It is absolutely and perfectly clear from the last century and a half of American history that unregulated capitalism DOES NOT contribute to the general welfare and is in fact ultimately destructive to it, inevitably widening the gap between rich and poor.  And if the invisible hand of the market actually exists outside of textbooks, uncontrolled capitalism will inevitably produce monopolies and conglomerates that will do whatever they please in the marketplace.  This is especially true in the world of a global economy and a computer-driven financial industry, where unregulated capitalism can actually compromise the entire world economy in order that a handful of people profit.

This is not a judgment call.  The economic history of the modern world clearly demonstrates that even regulated capitalism is dangerous.  Thus, one has to conclude that Paul Ryan – and all those like him – is either incredibly ignorant or, more likely, beholden to the businessmen and corporations that support his campaigns.  His own Church did not criticize him because it is anti-business, but because his policy positions are ruthlessly harsh on the weaker members of the flock.  But that is objectivism.  To label any of this “moral” is a gross insult to the intelligence of every voter, but then many, many voters seemingly are not intelligent enough to recognize this.  Is there anything so pathetic as a non-wealthy person supporting such policies, which ultimately mean that this person and his family will suffer?

Of course, none of this really matters, since if Mitt Romney is elected President, the global economy is likely to collapse and all of us suffer, making the actions of the little objectivist irrelevant.

Marketing Our Democracy

In the
Constitution the Founding Fathers created an amazingly flexible charter, able
to accommodate the social, economic and technological changes of the next
couple centuries, yet one difficult enough to change that it has been largely
protected from the fleeting whims of society.
But something the convention delegates could not imagine, even standing
at the door to the Industrial Revolution, something that two hundred and fifty
years later has dramatically undermined our democracy is marketing.  Economic power is political power, and
history has amply demonstrated that any economically powerful group must gain
access to the political apparatus or revolution will result.  Traditionally that has meant that the
economic elite are in fact identical to the political elite, but modern
corporations and nations, particularly the democracies, have opened the door to
indirect access to and control of the political system.  Rather than actually occupying the seats of
power, wealth can simply manage those who do.

Bribing or
buying politicians, functionaries and princes has of course been around since
the birth of civilization, but it is marketing, itself little more than a
century old, that has institutionalized such corruption and carried it to
undreamed of levels in the industrial democracies.  Having money has always helped in attaining
political office, but when campaigning essentially comprised personal
appearances, speeches, debates and pamphlets, getting elected could be achieved
on a very tiny budget.  The geographic
growth of our country made electioneering more difficult and expensive,
especially for national office, but men of modest and even humble backgrounds
could still be viable candidates for state houses, Congress and even the White
House.  And party supporters could help
cover those train rides, rented halls and newspaper ads.

This began
to change dramatically with the development of radio and television and the
concomitant burgeoning of mass marketing.
Access to air time rapidly became the key to a successful campaign,
dwarfing even the character and competence of the candidate himself.  It became clear that you could market a
candidate as easily as you could market a detergent and that the approach was
essentially the same: hammer the voter over and over with a simple
message.  This has resulted in two very
pernicious developments, a continuing and staggering increase in the cost of
election and a continuing and often staggering decline in the quality of
candidates.

Foolish or
stupid candidates are certainly nothing new in American politics, but marketing
now makes it far easier for these people to get elected, which can only
encourage more intellectually unfit candidates.
A candidate can mostly avoid the personal exchange and debate that would
reveal ignorance and instead bombard the voter with slogans and images.  This situation is not helped by the
precipitous decline in American education, which exacerbates the inherent flaw
in democracy: that high school dropout with his pants around his knees has a
vote equal to yours.  Democracy rises and
falls with the educational level of the electorate, and we seem now to be
considering for office some very ignorant and consequently dangerous
individuals.

Having
stupid politicians is bad enough, but having politicians, stupid or otherwise,
who are essentially controlled by the economic powers in the society must be
ultimately fatal to the democracy.  And
this is the price of marketing.  The
incredible cost of a serious campaign, especially on the national level,
absolutely demands that the candidate be funded by others, by the corporations,
banks, unions, organized lobbies and wealthy individuals that constitute the
economic muscle in and increasingly, out of the country.  And their protests notwithstanding, these
donors all expect something in return, and the potential office-holder is
already compromised.  His protests also
notwithstanding, he has been bought.  This is all nothing less than legalized
corruption.

The two
major candidates in the 2008 Presidential election together spent a billion
dollars, most of it on air time.  The
average voter simply can not compete for political leverage in such a fiscal
environment.  All he can hope to buy with
his contribution is the election of his candidate, while the big donors are
buying influence over the candidate once he is elected, which influence
typically pulls the official away from what the voters were led to expect.  The so-called “soft” money
contributed to the party rather than an individual candidate follows the same
rules, the two major parties being concerned less with ideology than electing
their candidates.  Reelection, the
apparent goal of virtually every politician, means the collection of money does
not stop on election night, and the big money sources can thus continue to
pressure the office holder, who in turn gains an advantage as the incumbent,
since unlike the challenger he can offer action instead of promises.   With no term limits the office thus tends to
become a life-time job and the incumbent part of a very slowly changing
political oligarchy.  The American Senate
has become almost a mirror of the Roman Senate, whose members served for
life.  Indeed, during the 1980s there was
greater turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.

These huge
amounts of money are also one of the reasons that two parties, the Republicans
and the Democrats, have managed to monopolize the political process and become
virtually extensions of our political structure.  Party organization has always provided an
edge in political activity, and now it provides an edge in what has become
perhaps the most important aspect of that political activity, raising
money.  Further, the constant need to
raise ever larger amounts of money has rapidly lengthened campaigning almost to
the eve of the previous election, which in turn fuels the need for money.

Campaign
finance laws have been a complete failure.
Politicians are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about limiting their
own access to funds, especially if their party is better at raising money, and
in any case limiting what an individual or even a corporation can donate
immediately runs afoul of the First Amendment.  Exclusive public funding of elections will
also have constitutional problems, and in any case would never be passed by
Congress.  Perhaps the solution may be
found in the joke that politicians should dress like NASCAR drivers, covered
with patches identifying their supporters: a candidate can receive any amount
of money from any source, even foreign governments, but it must all be
publicized on websites and in major newspapers.
Failure to do this would result in the immediate ejection of the
offender from the race.  If voters
nevertheless still elect candidates bearing suspicious financial strings, then
we deserve what we get.

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.