Weekly Varia no. 7, 12/31/22

I write enough about myself this time of year through my end-of year reflections (writing and books are up, with a general meditation and resolutions to come) that I don’t feel the need for short essay about whatever I’m thinking about on a Saturday morning this week.

Happy New Year.

This week’s varia:

  • Peter Kidd documents manuscript provenance on his own blog. I’m not a regular reader, but his post this week caught my attention. For his tenth anniversary post, Kidd relates his exchange with the secretary of an author whose recent book appears to plagiarize his blog. The conversation includes denial, threats of lawyers (not on his part), and the claim that since his blog isn’t significant enough to warrant citation because it is just a blog. The last is particularly galling. Blogs might not pass through peer review and come out through academic publishers, but that doesn’t mean that they are always inconsequential. To paraphrase something that Dr. Sarah Bond has been saying for a number of years now: writing in academic blogs is an exercise in public scholarship that can help ensure the vitality of a field, but they will only be considered legitimate if people cite them. At the same time, plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you use an idea, cite it.
    • Since the original post went up, the publisher appears to have made the PDF of the book in question unavailable, digitally altered a bunch of the online material, and questions have emerged about both the staff and the physical office of the publisher. People associated with RECEPTIO responded aggressively with reverse accusations, threats to involve the police, and attempts to “anonymously” harass and dox Kidd in an attempt to preserve what increasingly appears to be a scam to funnel grant money through and convince people to spend fees for workshops at this “research institute.” Kidd has written several additional blog posts that address specific parts of her responses. I have seen more than one academic demand a movie about one of the most flagrant cases of scholarly malpractice that I can recall and how the whole thing unraveled in just under a week as researchers trained in the very particular skills of identifying how manuscripts influence one another and in spotting misinformation turned their attentions to RECEPTIO.
  • A great piece about Sudanese archaeologists doing work that has traditionally been done by Western expeditions that used local labor and expertise, but erased them from the process of interpreting the past and receiving credit for the work.
  • Hamline University has non-renewed the contract of a contingent professor of religion who offered a lesson in an online class about historical Muslim representations of the Prophet Muhammad after a student complained. The Hamline Oracle has the fullest description of the incident and points out the steps that the professor took to offer content warnings and to allow observant Muslims to opt out of seeing the images. The administration is alleging that the lesson constitutes Islamophobia Rather than standing behind the subject matter expert, or, you know, historical reality, the administration chose to cut ties with the faculty member and could do so with no repercussion because the person in question had no job security. This is one of the major issues with contingent contracts in higher education right now. I also recommend Amna Khalid’s essay explaining why the administration’s actions offend her both as a professor and as a muslim.
  • A court has ruled that the Marine Corps cannot reject Sikh men who refuse to shave their beards based on their religious beliefs. The Marines claimed that these rules were a matter of national security, but the court sided with the plaintiffs who alleged that the policy reflects “stereotypes about what Americans should look like.”
  • George Santos has admitted to “embellishing” key parts of his biography, but insists that he is neither a fraud nor a criminal (CNN). I’m not comfortable about how people are questioning his sexuality given that he was previously married to a woman, but the rest of these are serious issues.
  • Stefan Passantino, the lawyer representing Cassidy Hutchinson during the January 6 probe encouraged her to lie about the events of that day and obfuscated when she inquired who was paying his fees, probably because the funding appears to have passed through a Trump-connected PAC, creating a conflict of interest that he did not disclose.
  • There are currently five transgender athletes competing according to their gender identity in Missouri high school sports, but ten bills to limit their participation in high school athletics pre-filed with the Missouri legislature. Because, of course there are (Missouri Independent).
  • Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights this week. Weather is partly to blame, but people in the know are saying that Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system and staffing problems bear more responsibility. Pete Buttigieg had asserted that conditions were getting better, but 34 state attorneys general had written to him urging him to impose fines for airlines with avoidable cancellations and delays, something he has not done. Naturally, money that could have gone toward modernizing their systems has been spent on executive bonuses, dividends, stock buybacks, and lobbying.
  • Andrew Tate has been detained in Romania on charges of human trafficking…because the video he recorded responding to Greta Thunberg online retort displayed a pizza box that allowed authorities to confirm his whereabouts. Romanian officials are claiming that the timing is coincidental, but it makes for a better story.
  • Dinosaur skeletons rarely preserve their last meal, but a researcher named Hans Larsson recently identified such a find and discovered that the microraptor (a 3-foot tall dinosaur) had eaten a small mammal. Dinosaurs remain very cool.

Album of the week: Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World”

Currently reading: Reeves Wiedeman, Billion Dollar Loser, Mary Boatwright, Peoples of the Roman World

It took Peisistratos three tries to become tyrant

This past week was the first anniversary of January 6, a day on which a crowd of people stormed the capitol building to disrupt the peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. Increasingly, evidence is revealing that this was not the spontaneous action of an enthusiastic mob, but the result of coordinated action on the part of people who wanted to undermine American institutions.

I let the anniversary pass without much attention. For one thing, I have been attending a virtual conference while also trying to get my syllabuses together for classes that start on Monday. For another, there have been more incisive reflections than anything that has come to me.

But also, for as terrible as that one day was, I am having trouble balancing in my mind remembrances of January 6 for the events of that day and that the events of that day are a particularly violent reflection of an ongoing crisis. This is not to say that people aren’t talking about the latter. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos profiled the right-wing radio host Dan Bongino who frames his show in terms of information warfare and there is a congressional committee looking into the events of that day—to say nothing of the talk about a so-called “national divorce.” The division also manifested in the contrasting comments made by politicians, including from John Cornyn who thinks that the day shouldn’t be memorialized at all.

My thoughts are complex, perhaps because this is my first time living through an attempt to overthrow the government, constitutionally or otherwise.

The events of this week, combined with the salient reminder in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything that premodern people were, well, people, and my preparations to teach Greek history for the first time in a few years has had me reflecting on coups and coup attempts in ancient Greece.

There are a lot.

Perhaps the most poignant from Classical Athens occurred in 411 BCE when conspirators established a new government and dissolved the democratic institutions (Thucydides 8.65–73), which temporarily created two Athenian power centers when they failed to sway the fleet then at Samos. In fact, a parallel attempt at Samos resulted in the execution of thirty conspirators and the exile of three others (Thucydides 8.73). Seven years later, another coup established the notorious Thirty Tyrants in Athens when the men chosen to revise the constitution unsurprisingly just empowered themselves (Xenophon Hellenica 2.3). Attempts like these allegedly led to the creation of an ancestral law at Athens to disenfranchise those who attempt insurrection. However important these coups are, though, I keep coming back to events from an earlier epoch of Athenian history.

At the risk of making a banal observation, it took Peisistratos three tries to secure his tyranny in Athens.

Peisistratos was born in Athens in the late seventh century BCE, a time when Athens was divided by deep, regional divisions (despite the reforms of Solon). He was prominent enough to become strategos and won popularity in a war with Megara before carving out his own faction, the Diacrioi, from the people who lived in the Northeast of Attica. He hailed from this region and claimed to speak to their grievances, the core of which were that their isolation from the political processes taking place in Athens itself (1.59). Of course, Herodotus says, his real ambition was absolute power.

In 561, Peisistratos made his first attempt at power. The story Herodotus provides is that rushed into the Athenian agora covered with self-inflicted wounds and with a story that he had survived an attack. The Athenians decided he deserved a bodyguard. Peisistratos armed his guards with clubs and proceeded to capture the Acropolis, the easily-defensible ritual precinct that also served as the symbolic center of the city.

Other than Herodotus’ dramatic retelling of the story, the details of this plot are not that unusual. Less than a century earlier, the Olympic victor Cylon had attempted something similar at the urging of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (Thucydides 1.126). Cylon’s followers seized the Acropolis where they were besieged by the other Athenians and killed. The people responsible for killing them in the sacred precinct, the powerful Alcmeonid family, were forced into exile on the grounds that they had committed sacrilege. They were allowed to return during the period of the Solonian reforms a generation later and members of this lineage would provide some of the most famous names in the Athenian democracy. For my part, I am more interested in how Peisistratos initially lost the tyranny, which happened four or five years after he first claimed it (Herodotus 1.60):

Not long thereafter, the partisans of Megacles and Lycurgus collaborated to drive him out. Thus Peisistratos first had Athens and, because his tyranny did not have strong roots, lost it.

μετὰ δὲ οὐ πολλὸν χρόνον τὠυτὸ φρονήσαντες οἵ τε τοῦ Μεγακλέος στασιῶται καὶ οἱ τοῦ Λυκούργου ἐξελαύνουσί μιν. οὕτω μὲν Πεισίστρατος ἔσχε τὸ πρῶτον Ἀθήνας, καὶ τὴν τυραννίδα οὔκω κάρτα ἐρριζωμένην ἔχων ἐπέβαλε.

Herodotus adds a note to say that Peisistratos ruled well during his first stint as tyrant, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure had done nothing to blunt the grievances that had brought him to power in the first place. Thus, it was not much later that the same Megacles who had driven him from power offer him a daughter in marriage and political power again. Peisistratos again turned to political theater to gain entry to the city. This time, Herodotus reports, he had a tall woman, Phya by name, dressed as Athena carried toward the city in a chariot with heralds declaring that Athena herself was carrying Peisistratos back to power.

Once again, things broke down. Peisistratos married Megacles’ daughter, but refused to have children with her, and when the stories of their “irregular intercourse” (whatever that means, ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον) got back to Megacles, he patched things up with Lycurgus and drove Peisistratos from the city (Herodotus 1.61). Not to be denied, Peisistratos spent a decade building support from his friends around the Aegean before returning to Athens in 546. This final attempt culminated in a battle between his supporters and opponents at Pallene, but when his enemies broke, Peisistratos ordered his sons to chase the fleeing Athenians and tell them to return to their homes. The ensuing tyranny only ended in c.510 when the Spartan king Cleomenes I invaded Attica and forced Peisistratos’ son Hippias into exile, prompting another round of political upheaval before the Cleisthenic constitution established a new status quo.

Political theater cosplay notwithstanding, the rise of Peisistratos and the contemporary moment are not directly analogous. That is not the way of history. But there are two broad points worth considering.

First, Peisistratos did not go quietly into retirement when one attempt at a coup failed. He regrouped and returned, finding new friends and adapting whatever systems he could to his advantage.

Second, in that final coup, Peisistratos took pains to convince people that it was in their interest not to cause a stir. To his credit, Peisistratos allowed the Athenian constitution to continue to function, so much so that Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians describes it as “more constitutional than tyrannical” (πολιτικῶς μᾶλλον ἢ τυραννικῶς, 14.3). (Tyrannos in Greek refers to an extra-constitutional ruler, which may or may not entail suspension of the constitution, though Aristotle seems to suggest that suspension was the norm.) The virtue of a democracy, at least in theory, is transparency and accountability, both of which are lost under a tyranny. Peisistratos’ moderation might have made it more tolerable to many among the landed classes of Athens, particularly because he consciously eschewed the violence that often accompanied these ancient coups. But neither did that make his rule less tyrannical.