Isocrates, on corrupt politicians

“For a long time now we have been corrupted by men who have no other ability than to cheat, men who are so disdainful of the mass of ordinary people that whenever they want to incite hostilities against anyone, these men who take money to speak,* they dare to say that we need to imitate our ancestors, not allow those looking on to mock us, and deny the sea to those who are unwilling to pay us their contributions.”

*Probably that they accepted bribes.

διεφθάμεθα γὰρ πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ὑπ᾽ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ἢ φενακίζειν δυναμἐνων, οἳ τοσοῦντον τοῦ πλήθους καταπεφρονήκασιν ὥσθ᾽, ὁπόταν βουληθῶσι πόλεμον πρός τινας ἐξενεγκεῖν, αύτοὶ χρήματα λαμβάνοντες λέγειν τολμῶσιν ὡς χρὴ τοὺς προγόνους μιμεῖσθαι, καὶ μὴ περιορᾶν ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καταγελωμένους μηδὲ τὴν θάλατταν πλέοντας τοὺς μὴ τὰς συντάξεις ἐθέλοντας ἡμῖν ὑποτελεῖν.

Isocrates, 8.36

The Greek world was particularly unstable in the 350s BCE and Athens had long since lost most of its dominant position in the Aegean. In this decade, Isocrates, already the Grand Old Man of the Athenian political scene, published his On the Peace, which is dedicated to the virtues of peace. He goes on to ask these politicians what, exactly, they mean by emulating their ancestors and suggesting several possibilities, including the battle of Marathon, which was nearly as long ago in his time as is the American Civil War is to this time. Isocrates then attacks the hypocrisy of these politicians who simultaneously heap praise upon their ancestors and act in the opposite manner.

Isocrates should not be mistaken for a bleeding heart in On The Peace. He can be high-minded in his values, but the overriding concern in this speech is the preservation of Athens and the Athenian democracy. Toward that end, he is unflinching in his opposition of politicians who put their private interests ahead of the state.

“We may restore the polis and make it better, first by appointing as advisors the sort of men for common affairs as those we would wish for our private ones, that we may stop considering sycophants* as public councilors and the men who are good and true** to be of the oligarchic faction, recognizing that no man belongs by nature to one of these, but for each they wish to establish the type of government that will accord them honor.”***

* Here, in the root sense of the word as prosecutors who took up court cases in the hopes of currying favor or receiving money.
** A loaded Greek phrase that probably holds both the meaning of the people in the aristocratic strata of society and “good people”.
*** Honor here is somewhat ambiguous, but probably best encapsulates advancing their political power and, with it, opportunities for economic enhancement.

ἔστι δ᾽ἐξ ὧν ἂν ἐπανορθώσαιμεν τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ βελτίω ποιήσαιμεν, πρῶτον μὲν ἢν συμβούλους ποιώμεθα τοιούτους περὶ τῶν κοινῶν, οἵους περ ἂν περὶ τῶν ἰδίων ἡμῖν εἶναι βουληθεῖμεν, καὶ παυσὠμεθα δημοτικοὺς μὲν εἶναι νομίζοντες τοὺς συκοφάντας, ὀλιγαρχικοὺς δὲ τοὺς καλοὺς κἀγαθοὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν, γνόντες ὅτι φύσει μὲν οὐδεὶς οὐδέτερον τοὐτων ἐστίν, ἐν ᾗ δ᾽ἂν ἕκαστοι τιμῶνται, ταύτην βούλονται καθεστάναι τὴν πολιτείαν.

Isocrates, 8.133

Privilege and Deportation

A headline caught my attention today: Germany Deports Native-Born Terrorism Suspects. The article explains there were two men born in Germany, but of African descent, who were alleged radicalized and suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. (A raid on their apartment turned up, among other things replica flint-lock pistols.) German authorities decided to deport the two men and a judge rejected their appeal.

I have a few very incomplete thoughts about the specifics of this case, including an American bias native born citizenship, and therefore do not want to talk about the particulars. Instead, I will work through why the headline caught my attention. The kernel of this thought is this: deportation in the modern world is a privilege derived from European imperialism.

Sovereignty, defined in part by the right to govern domestic affairs, is one of the principles of the Westphalian nation-state system. By extension, sovereignty necessarily includes the right to protect and regulate the country’s borders and control the bodies of people who pose a threat to its security. It is possible to construe these terms broadly and I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiments. At the same time, though, the process of deportation amounts to labeling the people being deported undesirable, dangerous, or both and pushing that responsibility for those people onto another country. In this case, the matter is further complicated because the men do not have clear personal relationships to the countries where they are being deported and their indefinite ban on a return to Germany indicates an indifference to where they go, just so long as they are no longer in Germany.

The thousand-foot view reveals much the same relationship with other deportations. There is a general tendency to send the people back to their country of origin, but the point is actually just to put them somewhere other than the country doing the deporting. One assumes that here is a modicum of international cooperation, but, nonetheless, this is where I was struck by the unique privilege European countries (and the United States) get in dictating the movement of peoples, a legacy of an imperial age and histories of immigration controls. The fact that other countries occasionally get to follow the same processes is merely incidental.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.

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.

Ratf*cked: a proposal

The Fresh Air episode from June 15 had its main segment about the new book Ratf*cked, detailing how the Republican Party managed strategically target state districts in 2010 and then use technology to ruthlessly gerrymander districts after the new census to give an unassailable majority despite losing the overall popular vote. This is a technically legal, but highly suspect process, that I think epitomizes how broken the US electorate is. However, I do not feel sorry for the Democratic party because I suspect that they would–and have–done basically the same thing. The important part, as I just noted, is that the system is broken.

The US electorate is deeply divided and there is a lot of dissatisfaction with both parties. There are a slew of reasons for this, including money in politics, and manipulating the voting regulations. Yet, the only place where this much imbalance between overall votes and representation is in state districts and, by extension, in the House of Representatives: i.e. the places where gerrymandering is made possible in conjunction with the tradition of single-member districts. To make matters worse, both national parties encourage this current setup, in part because it discourages third-party candidates.

There are a lot of things I would change about American politics, including truncating the campaign season, but there is one that I think would fundamentally address gerrymandering. For positions that are elected every two years, change from single member districts to a form of proportional representation, with seats allotted based on the percent of the vote won. I am sure that there are unintended consequences to this proposal (possibly making it even more difficult to pass laws), and leaving alone the Senate Presidential elections while changing the other would raise some hackles, but in those other election there isn’t a deep gap between popular vote and representation. Further, this proposal would bolster third-parties, perhaps empowering voters whose concerns are not adequately represented by the major parties. I don’t believe this would, in the short term, change the makeup of the Senate or lead to a third party president and the result would be coalitions in the HoR not unlike how the Republican party absorbed the Tea Party except, perhaps, that there would not be the same formal annexation.

I realize that there would be wrinkles that would need to be ironed out in terms of the transition and I know why this won’t happen, but why *shouldn’t* it happen?

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.

Goodbye, Lincoln Chafee

I was not going to vote for Lincoln Chafee in the Democratic primary. In fact, at this point, there is little any of the candidates could do to actually change my mind as to who to vote for. To be honest, the only major change in my opinions since campaigning began way back before the Canadian election kicked off is that Martin O’Malley, the candidate I knew least about, moved up in my opinion, rather than not even being on the radar.

These campaigns are long, loud, and serious and, while mocking things said by Republican candidates trivializes the seriousness of governance and the traction they have among voters, humor is a nice break from the grind of American campaigns. But I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to share some appreciation for Lincoln Chafee, who just withdrew from the Democratic primary race.

To date, Chafee had my favorite campaign plank: convert the United States to the metric system. His reasoning made sense, namely that the changes will not be too painful and that there are economic benefits, but it was this sort of non-traditional statements that made me like him and his withdrawal speech lived up to expectations.

Chafee linked Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Middle East, and Feminist International Relations theory in his speech before the Women’s Leadership Forum (without directly saying that Hilary Clinton should be president). As a historian of Ancient Greece I always appreciate a good reference to Greek theater, the other great example of which being Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu invocation of Aeschylus the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Chafee mentions the basic plot of Aristophanes’ play, albeit not its conservatism, and encourages women to get involved in ending wars around the world. But his message is also reminiscent of another feature of Aristophanes’ play–that it is women from around Greece who make a joint cause to stop wars. Chafee’s message was one of understanding an unification and said, “from what I’ve heard none of the Republicans running for president want to understand anything about the Middle East and North Africa.”

I wasn’t going to vote for Chafee, but, at least on the day he withdrew, he preached a humanistic message of understanding and obliquely endorsed the value in a classical education.