The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.

Reflections on being an election judge

4:30: “Do you work here? Cuz I’m ready to vote!”

About four weeks ago now, several hours before America went to the polls to start voting for a new president, I drove out to rural Boone County Missouri to finish preparing a polling place. I know some people spent the day watching election returns, but I spent the entire day at that polling location, without cell phone reception or any sense of what was going on in the world until I got into my car at about 9 PM central. Until then, I had had about fifteen minutes of downtime in the previous fifteen hours.

This was my first experience as an election judge. Almost two months before election day I received a mass email from the Boone County Clerk’s office putting out a call for more election judges. The county pays judges some money, including three training sessions, setup of the polling place, and one very long election day. I decided that it might be a good experience for me to sit on the other side of that desk and alleviate some of my anxiety so, since I don’t teach on Tuesdays, I signed up. Then, the week before the election, I received another email asking for volunteers to work in rural Boone County, and I agreed thinking that I am actually closer to most of the rural sites than to the ones downtown. Naturally, I was assigned to the polling station most distant from me while still being in the county.

I went out to the polling station on Monday to help set up, but, had to leave before it was done in order to get back to campus for an appointment. It was raining on election day when I woke up at 3 AM so I could leave home by 4 and arrive by 4:30. On my way into the polling place the first voter asked me when she could vote.

5:47: “Oh, yay! Voters!”

Voting began in Boone County at 6 AM and we had a line at 5:45. The average wait in our line (we were told) was more than twenty minutes, and that was a) in a rural district, b) with three check-in stations, c) with an efficient system that only took about a minute to check each person in, and d) with people who didn’t bother waiting in the morning and came back later in the day. The station I worked at checked in more than five hundred voters over the course of the day, and until the poll closed, the line only really disappeared twice, once for about five minutes around 10 AM and once around 1 PM for an hour. It was in that latter period that everyone managed to snag our only break of the day to grab a bite to eat.

Every ballot handed out had to be signed off on by election judges with two different party affiliations. In practice this meant that our seven workers for three check-in stations worked in pairs, with one person roaming to collect pens, assist voters, and operate our single electronic voting machine. I liked my coworkers, all of whom were from the area around the polling station and therefore some knew each other already. The most memorable of the coworkers reminded me, in the best way possible, of a young, male Leslie Knope: a young, outgoing, true-believer in the civic process.

Voter: “You need to have a little patience on a day like this.”
Voter: “Where’s my America gone?!”

Working at a polling station for a presidential election is, in my admittedly limited experience, an exercise in managing chaos. There are dozens of small, repetitive and redundant steps taken throughout the day and hundreds of repeated interactions. You are a custodian, secretary, bureaucrat, and customer service rep all in one, regulating and managing a flood of people, most of whom are patient and understanding, but some of whom are primed to be aggrieved.

There were problems, of course, including several very frustrated voters and instances where we had to put them on the phone with the main office to resolve the issue. Certainly, with experience, we could have improved the process a bit, but, I am confident in saying that there were no shenanigans with the vote in our little corner of Missouri.

They need to call it tonight so I can wear the broach that I made.

Being an election judge was an interesting and largely rewarding experience. It reminded me of the the stories about being in a foxhole where any disagreements with the people around you go away in favor of just trying to survive. The people I worked with at the election station were lovely and most of the voters who waited in line were good sports about the inconvenience so long as they got to vote. I was disappointed with the outcome of the election, but not this experience. I expect that I will be working elections again in the future.

Current Mood

And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.

et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Livy, AUC pr. 4-5

I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.

Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.

At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.

Trump, taxes, and me

Back in 2012 I wrote a post kvetching about the political discourse concerning taxes. The issue was about the income tax and, specifically, Romney’s infamous 47% comment. At the time, the debate focused on whether the people who don’t pay income tax remain invested in the system. Most people were implying “no”, but I argued that they still pay taxes, in the form of property, sales, and payroll taxes. The only difference is that when tax-day rolls around, they do not owe anything else and often get a refund. These other taxes, which pay for roads and schools, and the refund itself—which means that they prepaid the taxes and are getting it back—mean that they are still invested in the system.

Now it is 2016 and one of the presidential candidates is a) refusing to release his tax returns and b) defending himself against accusations. After the New York Times published a tax form that showed nine hundred and fifteen million dollars in losses and alleged it was Donald Trump’s 1995 filing, the Trump campaign put out a press release. In it they defended the allegation that Trump didn’t need to pay taxes for 18 years because of this one huge loss, pointing out that it was only the federal income tax that was exempted and that Trump has paid millions of dollars in sales/property/excise/etc taxes. (We’ll ignore the statement about charitable giving that is, by most accounts, at best an exaggeration.) In other words, it is okay that Trump doesn’t pay federal income tax because he pays other taxes, just like everyone else. Note that the release does not directly claim that Trump is smarter than other people for not paying taxes, as he did in the debate, nor does it suggest that the tax dollars would be wasted.

The claim in the press release should be familiar after reading the two paragraphs. Other than the scale, it is the same argument I put forward in 2012 to say that not paying income tax is not the same thing as not being invested in the system. Unlike in 2012, the question is never whether or not Trump is invested in the system. Trump’s not paying income tax does not mean that he is not invested in the system, pardon the negatives. Trump wants to be invested in the system so that he can work the system, as his campaign claims about his intimate familiarity of the tax code or the blunt statements that he made political donations to get a seat at the table.

Nor, I should add, am I saying that he should pass up loopholes in the system, though I would prefer to close some of these exemptions. Right now I am talking about optics and discourse. Trump’s statement makes only a vague argument from the tax code, with an ambiguous claim to fix(sic) it.

Trump’s defense for not paying income tax is the same one that can be used in defense of people without money. The concrete position is I pay other taxes, so why is it a problem that I get out of paying income tax?. It is this doublethink that is stuck in my craw: the fact that when people who can barely afford food and shelter don’t pay income taxes they lack buy-in to the system, while a very wealthy person who doesn’t pay income taxes and defends it the same way the poorer people should, it makes him smart. I don’t want to get into the value judgement about what is equitable, but this sort of benefit of the doubt is certainly a privilege of the wealthy.

Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Trump campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Trump, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Trump certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Trump is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Trump might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but because they would have benefited him as a political being, not because they ensured high-minded election cycles,

Donald Trump and some assumptions about ISIS

In general my policy here has been to avoid politics because politics online usually results in unwanted headaches, but the latest round of sparring between Pope Francis and Donald Trump touched on something bigger that has been festering. To set this up, though there needs to be the context. Speaking in Mexico, Pope Francis questioned Trump’s Christianity if he were to deport immigrants and build a wall along the border. Not for the first time, these comments incited an outcry of hypocrisy! from right-wing sources who are quick to point out that the Pope lives in the Vatican City, itself surrounded by walls. Of course this is a questionable line of rebuttal because Francis had nothing to do with building those walls, the earliest of which were more than a thousand years old and were built when Vatican City was in fact under attack by marauders. However, Trump directly responded to the Pope on a more contemporary tact:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

There is no need to investigate this particularly statement with reference to Trump–the target of Trump and ISIS are going to be interchangeable in this sort of invective. Nor is there any point in examining the legitimacy of the statement, which is a topic for foreign policy wonks and strategists. It speaks, however, a broader preoccupation about ISIS targeting Christianity, which I think emerges both from a corruption of history and a good bit of narcissism.

The underlying assumption of Trump’s statement is that ISIS is waging a religiously-motivated war to exterminate Christianity and, by extension, European-American civilization. [Note already how nebulous this concept gets in peddling a vague sense of doom.] Certainly some of the ISIS propaganda calls for attacks on Europe and America and bin Laden made such pronouncements. In the latter case, though, those attacks were retaliatory and, in general, the war between Christianity and Islam comes from the point of view of the Christians, at least in the last thousand years or so. This is not to say that there has not been fighting or attacks by Muslims against Christians, and religion is ever a convenient excuse, but much of the capability for waging such wars come the other direction. Wars in the Middle East targeting Europeans far more frequently had other motivations, such as opposition to colonialism.

This brings me to the ultimate point about the assumptions in Trump’s statement. He declares, whether he believes it or not, that “everyone knows” that Vatican City would be the “ultimate trophy” for ISIS. This is not something that “everyone knows,” it is something that many people might nod their heads about because, the Vatican City (or Rome, more generally) is synonymous with Christianity—even though this is not true for every denomination. There is a reason that most of the Crusades went from Europe to the Middle East rather than the other way around. A curious interlocutor might ask why Jerusalem or Mecca and Medina, or even Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul would not be a more apt trophy should ISIS be genuinely interested in reestablishing the Caliphate. But this is an arena where facts don’t matter and flying in the face of globalism is a potent clash of civilizations narrative that is constantly being revivified. In this case ISIS is the backward east, Christianity is western civilization and Rome [or Vatican City] is Christianity. Thus distilled, naturally Vatican City is the ultimate trophy for ISIS, and if ISIS buys into these core assumptions they might even think the same way. The irony, of course, is that there is nothing inherent about Vatican City that would make it the ultimate trophy other than the very narratives currently being abused.