Tag Archives: hubris

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

As A-Rod’s World Turns

5 Aug

New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, a jovial if somewhat pompous fellow well-suited for the Yankee ethos, is known for his personalized, colorful home run calls for each Yankee batter. Over the past ten years, he has used two different calls on Alex Rodriguez’s 302 homers in pinstripes, one of which now seems more apt than Sterling ever could have guessed: “Alexander the Great Conquers Again!”

A-Rod’s story is, indeed, like that of the famed Greek king. For years he was baseball’s golden boy, the hero who seemed destined to shatter the all-time home run record. He conquered Seattle, he conquered Texas, and won himself the richest contract in the history of American professional sports. When he was traded to the Yankees—baseball’s greatest stage—it looked like one last step to securing his spot on the baseball Acropolis.

The first five years of his tenure in New York complicated the narrative somewhat. He put up some huge numbers, yes, but he also struggled mightily in the playoffs—the only thing that really matters in Yankee lore—and never quite managed to be the model citizen his teammates Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were (and are). The scrutiny only increased when he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, a bungled affair in which Rivera eventually convinced A-Rod to ditch his agent and declare his intent to stay in the Bronx. His new contract—even larger than his earlier record-setting deal—was negotiated directly with the Yankee ownership, went over the head of General Manager Brian Cashman, and locked A-Rod into a Yankee uniform into his 40s.

In 2009, his story grew even more complicated: first, he admitted to using steroids back during his days in Texas. But the supposedly clean A-Rod then went on to carry his team to a World Series title, finally shaking off the ‘playoff flop’ tag. Perhaps Alexander the Great had finally purged himself of his past sins and would be able to build a lasting legacy.

It wasn’t to be. First, his performance began to decline, and injuries started to mount; now, A-Rod has been suspended by Major League Baseball through the 2014 season for his ties to the Biogenesis steroid clinic. Like most all mythic Greek heroes, A-Rod’s quest for greatness has led him to reach too far, and he now must pay the price for his sins. The hero’s hubris has destroyed him.

In a typical twist of A-Rod oddness, the suspension came down on the day he will play his first game for the Yankees in 2013. After an injury rehab stint so long that some suspected the Yankees were trying to keep him off the field intentionally—Cashman, the GM who didn’t really want him back in 2007, at one point publicly told A-Rod to “shut the fuck up” when he seemed to contradict the Yankee doctors—he will finally take the field in Chicago tonight. He will appeal the suspension, which means he’ll be playing for the foreseeable future.

His return will make the next two months a complete circus for a Yankee team desperately trying to stay in the playoff picture. On the one hand, the Yankees’ third basemen this season have been atrocious, and even a shell of a past A-Rod will likely be an upgrade. But despite his real upside in that sense, it is clear that no one wants him here. His team’s front office almost certainly wishes the Commissioner’s Office had gone through with its threat to ban A-Rod for life, thus freeing the Yankees of his burdensome contract. His teammates say all of the right things, but even the unflappable Rivera grew peeved at reporters last night, when the only thing they asked him about was A-Rod’s impending return. A-Rod was never a popular figure with the Yankee fan base, and though 2009 will keep him from landing in the Yankee Ring of Hell with the likes of Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, he’s now in a purgatory that will require a mythic performance if he has any hope of escaping. And that is his own team: for the rest of baseball he is a pariah, all of the worst suspicions about his questionable character now confirmed.

Even if he puts the Yankees in his back for the rest of this season, even if his appeal is successful, A-Rod’s legacy is now secure. He could have tailed off after 2009 and slumped to an early retirement; while perhaps not beloved, he would have been respected as a pretty good hitter, perhaps worthy of some sympathy both for the media that marked him as a target and his earnest desire to win that messed with his head when he came to the plate in October. Instead, he struck out again, and cost himself even the defenders who were willing to give him breaks through his playoff struggles and off-field escapades (of which I was one). A-Rod is now the player who got a doctor whom he had never to met—a man once disciplined by the state of New Jersey for irregularities in the prescription of steroids—to go on the interview circuit contradicting his team’s claims about his health.

And so the A-Rod saga has now become a full-fledged soap opera; the sort of macabre spectacle that baseball fans will claim to hate all while riveting themselves to each and every new detail. He has become bigger than his team and bigger than the game, but he still stubbornly believes he can win everyone over and reclaim some of that past glory. Most likely he is deluded, though one never truly knows when it comes to legendary figures. Thinking of A-Rod in such abstract terms may be the only way for Yankees fans to cope with their returning third baseman, as they certainly cannot embrace him as they do with their other stars. The man is now a myth, a lesson to us all of the dangers of excess, one whose ongoing story may reveal yet more about the endless human capacity for self-deception. For all the undeserved fixations over the trivial details of A-Rod’s life, for all of the possibly troublesome tactics the Commissioner’s Office used in its push to find itself a scapegoat for the steroid era it so badly mismanaged, he will deserve every boo he hears.

Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.