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Clinton, Trump, Greeks and ideals

Written By: - Date published: 10:00 am, October 5th, 2016 - 20 comments
Categories: International, us politics - Tags: ,

pericles

Back in 428 BC Athens was in a bit of a state and a good three years into a crappy war with Sparta. Athens had been used to being led by the bodaciously awesome Pericles. Pericles was like Obama and Lincoln combined and led for over thirty years: awesome orator, run the joint from 461 to 429, and could get up there at assembly and stitch together the ideals that all Athenians should strive, sacrifice and die for.

Unfortunately they’d just lost him to a big plague outbreak. And the Spartan war had dragged. And Mytilene, one of their key ally towns, had jumped over to the Spartan side. In revenge and in shock, the Athenians voted to have all male Mytileneans killed and their women sold into slavery.

Upon waking up the next day, however, and discovering that a ship had already departed to execute the city’s order, some horrified Athenians demanded that the assembly reconsider its decision.

Into this foment steps Cleon. Cleon had a massively wealthy merchant father who accelerated him into a political career. He’s portrayed by both commentators and playwrights at the time as a bellicose buffoon who uses and abuses the demos (the people) to rise to power. Furious with the weak-kneed Athenians and their moral qualms expressed  at the assembly, Cleon declares that the “empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it.” So if you don’t like it, he thunders, “surrender your empire … [and] go in for philanthropy.” His political point is that Athens’ security trumps justice: “A city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered.”

In response steps in Diodotus. He’s as calm and collected as Cleon is seething and strident, and he’s totally prepared for this moment. The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening the people, “but by beating them fairly in argument.” Which is lovely but not a patch on Cleon’s superior realpolitik that national security requires brutal realism. So Diodotus argues that moral or legal right and wrong should be pushed aside. Instead the assembly must consider if the motion to rescind was simply to Athens’ advantage. National security is best guaranteed by showing leniency to the Mytileneans. Not because we are merciful or morally moist, but because we are pragmatists. Showing mercy is simply, according to Diodotus, the only way to avoid future rebellions against Athens.

So the assembly buys the rationale, reverses the decision, and sends a ship in all haste to overtake the first one. The second ship arrives just as the first one is about to execute the first order and spares the entire town. Whew!

Or not. The endless Peloponnesian War this is part of reached its real low point a few years later in the neutral city of Melos. The Athenians besieged and then devastated it to remind all other Greek cities that either you were a winner with Athens or a loser with Sparta. It was a massacre that Diodotus’ pragmatism had paved the way for. In a dialogue that preceeds the siege, an Athenian commander makes clear to the Melians (not Melons!) that the only matters he will discuss are expediency and advantage. The standard of justice, he announced, “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.”

Justice and right are clearly for low-energy types. The Athenians have extrapolated from Diodotus that the sole law of human nature and thus of international relations is that of power. So since they are stronger than the Melians they have every right to expect them to bow. The Melians refuse and reveal another truth of human nature: Just as the will to exert power is all too human, so is the will to resist. Athenian hubris simply makes its competitors resist harder and harder, and less than a decade later Athens is decisively defeated in Sicily.

So let’s get to it. We have seen what the lawless tirades of the son of a wealthy father can bring out of people. But as we saw in the first tv debate, rather than rise rhetorically and morally to this challenge, Hillary Clinton has instead done a Diodotus. In the debate she regaled us with her practicality and the need for realpolitik. Her reply to Trump’s criticism of the Iran deal was that it had succeeded in “putting a lid” on the threat – makes sense in a narrow way but has none of the heroic sensibility we saw in Obama or in Pericles.

So, pragmatism. With Clinton as with Diodotus, political language undermines directness and transparency. The end of the Periclean era is marked by coldness and calculation. Both Diodotus and Clinton can’t bring “the vision thing”, because it’s just not in them. Sure they both seek the good in their own terms, but they both do so not by rousing their fellow citizens to rise to their nations’ ideals, but instead to lower themselves to matters of practical advantage.

This has been brought to you by the old Greek Thucydides. He had great 2,000 year old insights into the ties between language and democracy. Check out Pericles’ funeral oration yourself.

A big lesson is this: if we don’t grasp that words truly matter, for democracy’s defenders no less than its destroyers, it may spell the impending funeral of the best kind of democracy.

The next U.S. Presidential debate is a town hall style one within the polis or people. I’m looking for some ideals in there. Somewhere.

20 comments on “Clinton, Trump, Greeks and ideals ”

  1. Chooky 1

    Clinton seems bereft of ideals…Trump at least seems to want detente and peace with Russia and in the Middle East ( if you look at his serious statements as opposed to his blowing his mouth off and making outrageous statements)

    Clinton has form as a calculated warmonger…and seems bought off…a dangerous situation

    Trump seems to be his own man and a skilled deal maker

    Imo it is best to evaluate them by looking to see who supports them…in the military and amongst the USA oligarchy ( bankers eg Goldman Sachs, politicians eg Bushes)…and who has given funds to their campaigns from outside the country eg Saudi Arabia ? Israel?

    Trump is clearly the outsider

    If you want more of the same and worse , vote Clinton

    …if you want to gamble on something new which could come up trumps, vote Trump

    Trump does not claim to be an idealist , but a pragmatist and a deal maker

    • Anthony 1.1

      Thanks Chooky: I needed a laugh to go with my lunch time bagel.

    • joe90 1.2

      Trump seems to be his own man and a skilled deal maker

      And a piss poor businessman, too.

      It’s worth taking a closer examination at just how awful this is for Trump. Setting aside the legal but shitty tax evasion for a moment, Trump lost nearly a billion dollars during a time when the U.S. economy was booming. Do you remember the ’90s? The GDP consistently grew each year. Unemployment was low. Businesses thrived. Snap bracelets were everywhere. Meanwhile, Trump consistently made a string of disastrous deals that tanked his casinos and airlines. Trump’s so bad at business, his losses in 1995 account for nearly two percent of the entire country’s.

      http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/305415/trumps-so-bad-at-business-1995-loss-was-two-percent-of-us/

    • Richard Rawshark 1.3

      http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11722967

      I cannot find a better summation of what politically is happening, and here too, if you live in Auckland or Wellington you won’t realize the town in Ohio is exactly the same as every small town in NZ.

      In NZ all it needs is someone to resonate what Trump tapped into, politics doesn’t matter, what people have seen is the neolib decimation of western countries, our manufacturing, empty shops etc, but unless you drive outside the main centre’s here you would think everythings great.

  2. Macro 2

    There was an even more perceptive Greek IMHO. Plato. He wrote extensively on the topic of different forms of governance. You can read about his 5 different regimes, Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny here.
    Essentially, according to Plato, all regimes decline and transform over time from the Aristocracy state the ultimate of which is ruled by the philosopher kings into tyranny. Note, democracy is listed second to bottom! i.e. next step along the line is tyranny.
    It might be argued that the US is actually in a state of Oligarchy at the present time. That is a regime where the poor vastly outnumber the rich and in which the rich rule for themselves. However there are certain aspects of Plato’s democracy also very evident in the US – and in all western societies as well.
    “The democratic man is consumed with unnecessary desires. Plato describes necessary desires as desires that we have out of instinct or desires that we have in order to survive. Unnecessary desires are desires we can teach ourselves to resist such as the desire for riches. The democratic man takes great interest in all the things he can buy with his money. He does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. His life has no order or priority.”
    So essentially the US (and the majority of western nations) is in that juxtaposition between oligarchy and democracy.
    In MHO Clinton represents the Oligarchy,
    “Oligarchs do, however, value at least one virtue, that of temperance and moderation — not out of an ethical principle or spiritual concern, but because by dominating wasteful tendencies they succeed in accumulating money.
    On the other had I fear Trump represents Tyranny
    “Democracy is taken over by the longing for freedom. Power must be seized to maintain order. A champion will come along and experience power, which will cause him to become a tyrant. The people will start to hate him and eventually try to remove him but will realize they are not able.”
    We have one such tyrant already in the western world. Duterte of the Philippines we don’t need any more.

  3. Timely. It was Thomas Hobbes who first published English language translations of Thucydides in an attempt to avert what he correctly identified as the slide towards Civil War in England. Right now, averting the slide towards war with Russia is the imperative, and key to that is the hope that Americans will look upon the words of those who are pushing it and ask, “why?”

    Unfortunately, I believe Americas Periclean tendency died at Dealy Plaza.

  4. McFlock 4

    Yes, it was a debate between a buffoon and an experienced orator, but the positions are slightly different from Cleon and Diodotus: Trump wasn’t arguing realpolitik, and Clinton wasn’t arguing purely from amoral national security.

    Trump was arguing from petulance, with no consistency in any law. Clinton had a more consistent and coherent structure.

    The only similarity is in the relative styles each used: Trump as Cleon and Clinton as more rational. Neither was a Pericles, but bear in mind that Pericles started the war that eventually destroyed Athens’ government and independence.

  5. esoteric pineapples 5

    Does that make Bernie Sanders Socrates?

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    What We Talk About When We Don’t Want to Talk About Nuclear War

    I’ll take a backseat to no one in finding Trump unfit to serve as president. Yet beyond the outsized presence of one particular personality, the real travesty of our predicament lies elsewhere — in the utter shallowness of our political discourse, no more vividly on display than in the realm of national security.

    What do our presidential candidates talk about when they don’t want to talk about nuclear war? The one, in a vain effort to conceal his own ignorance, offers rambling nonsense. The other, accustomed to making her own rules, simply changes the subject.

    The American people thereby remain in darkness. On that score, Trump, Clinton, and the parties they represent are not adversaries. They are collaborators.

    It’s pretty much the same in all Western nations. The political discourse is so shallow that no one really knows what’s going on and what response is happening.

  7. Chooky 7

    the USA candidates are what they are ….without trying to fit them into some classical ancient Greek role models and scenarios …this is an ill fitting glove imo…one could just as well try and fit them into a Shakespearean drama

    REALISM is what is required and a close look at their personal histories…lets face it Hillary Clinton has form

    http://theduran.com/support-donald-trump-president-united-states/

    http://davidstockmanscontracorner.com/book-review-of-david-stockmans-trumped-a-nation-on-the-brink-ruin/

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