One of the most harrowing incidents in the Athenian historian Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is the democratic debate over the rebellious subject state of Mytilene on the distant island of Lesbos. Thucydides uses his riveting account of the Athenian argument over the islanders’ fate to warn his readers of the fickle nature of democracy.
Outraged by the revolt of the Mytileneans, the frenzied Athenians suddenly assemble and vote to condemn all the adult males on the island, regardless of the role any of them may have played in the revolt. They are to be executed en masse for rebellion, on grounds of collective guilt. The next day, however, cooler heads in Athens narrowly prevail. The radical demos just as abruptly takes a second vote and withdraws its blanket death sentence of the day before, voting instead to execute only 1,000 of the ringleaders of the rebellion.
But what about the messenger ship that was dispatched hours earlier to deliver the mass death sentence?
A second trireme is now sent off by the contrite democracy with orders to the crew to row as fast as they can, in hopes of delivering the reprieve in time. The relief vessel and its exhausted crew arrive at Lesbos at the very moment that all the adult male islanders have been lined up and are about to have their throats slit.
Thucydides uses the frightening story to warn of the wild — and often dangerous — swings in public opinion innate to democratic culture. The historian seems at times obsessed with these explosions of Athenian popular passions, offering an even longer and more hair-raising account of popular mood swings over invading Sicily. We forget sometimes that the Athenian democracy that gave us Sophocles and Pericles also, in a fit of unhinged outrage, executed Socrates by a majority vote of one of its popular courts.
American democracy has become increasingly Athenian, as it periodically whips itself up into outbursts of frantic indignation. While the government in theory still operates according to the checks and balances of the Constitution, in reality, in the hyped Internet world of modern pop culture, fevered passions can seize the majority of the population in a matter of hours.
The idea of gay marriage in 2008 earned unapologetic disapproval from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The liberal voters of California twice rejected the idea in statewide plebiscites. But after years of constant harangues in the media, boycotts, public ostracisms, and ad hominem attacks on the integrity of skeptics, the liberal political establishment — many of whose members are recipients of large amounts of cash from wealthy gay donors — suddenly flipped.
A sort of collective hysteria took over from there. In 2008 there was common assent on the part of the Democratic party’s leadership that the three-millennia-old belief that marriage involved different sexes would prevail, while a separate rubric, “civil union,” would be invented for homosexual couples. But by 2012 that notion was not merely outdated, but taboo. Almost overnight, supporting the erstwhile Obama position of permitting civil unions but rejecting gay marriage became tantamount to career suicide.
Ditto on illegal immigration. Barack Obama likewise swore between 2008 and 2012 that he was no despot who by executive fiat could legalize violations of immigration laws that had been passed by Congress. Yet by 2015 anyone who would agree with Obama’s past vows is now rendered little more than a nativist and xenophobe — so powerful is the Orwellian engine of groupthink.
Take the Confederate-flag debate. What started out just days ago as a reasonable move by the state of South Carolina, in the aftermath of the Charleston mass shootings, to remove the Confederate battle flag from public display on state property, within hours had descended into something like the mob’s frenzy over Mytilene. We have now gone well beyond removing state sanction from a flag that represented an apartheid society. Indeed, Americans of the new electronic mob are witch-hunting the past with a vengeance, as private, profit-driven companies seek to trump one another’s piety by banning the merchandising of Confederate insignia. Meanwhile, our versions of the ancient sophists and demagogues are hoping that the mob can stay agitated long enough to go on to new targets, such as banning public airings of Gone with the Wind or ending respect for public monuments of prominent Confederate war dead.
At some point, the throng will exhaust itself, and realize that while removing Confederate flags from state property was a reasonable and overdue gesture, most of what followed was Mytilenean to the core. Think of the contradictions that have already arisen from the mob frenzy.
One cannot today buy Confederate flags online, but one can easily purchase Nazi insignia of the sort that flew over Auschwitz or the hammer-and-sickle Communist banner that represented the Great Famine, forced collectivization, and various cultural revolutions that led to 100 million slaughtered or starved to death in the 20th century.
One can argue that the slave-owner Robert E. Lee fought to perpetuate human bondage, but Lee never took delight in personally executing without trial his ideological enemies, in the manner of the psychopathic, pistol-toting Che Guevara, whose hip portraiture adorns all too many campus dorm rooms.
Present politics mostly define the degree of past sin and the appropriate punishments, as the revolutionary mob decides in an instant which particular historical figure deserves the most immediate ostracism and should be Trotskyized from our collective memory. Should we now remove the racist Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill? Even in my small town in central California there are schools named Jackson and Wilson. Apparently our Depression-era educators thought that the one Democratic president was a populist reformer, the other an idealistic internationalist. Yet both were abject racists, at least as we understand the charge today. In fact, no president of the 20th century disliked blacks in general and integration in particular as much as the Southern segregationist Woodrow Wilson, although he adroitly cloaked his racial hatred with a thin veneer of liberal academic respectability as president of Princeton University and author of several progressive tracts.
The writings and speeches of Margaret Sanger, founder of what evolved into Planned Parenthood, trumped the biases of Wilson. Her progressive version of eugenics fueled much of her family-planning agenda. She saw reproductive rights as inseparable from discouraging the supposedly less gifted (in her view, mostly non-whites) from having lots of children.
VDH reminds us just how fast words can completely change their meanings when the Left needs them to.
He finishes with a quote from Thucydides: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.”
This helps us realize messing with language is not new.
Last night an AME Church was struck by lightening and destroyed.
But the first instinct of the Leftists was to accuse hatred by whites for the fire.
Michael Brown charged a police officer, football style.
The first instinct of the Left was to believe that Michael Brown’s hands were up and he was surrendering with his back to the officer, too.
Both narratives were wrong, but what with an entire community basing actions on rumors, what difference does the truth make?
Samuel Adams wrote: ”How strangely the tools of a tyrant pervert the plain meaning of words.”
Mass hysteria is going to continue to be a problem because we have a divided country:
One part is fact-based and stays rational even while disagreeing.
One part is rumor-based and whips up into a frenzy at the drop of a hat.
@Nanny G: What’s worse is that the lemming-like, malleable left falls for the quick-draw, shoot-from-the-hip blame and accusations every time never pausing to collect the information that might make them look a little more intelligent in the long run.
Careful, john, you might just be taken for a fool.
And there is always a good example, like that one.
Here in Utah the gay and Left press had been covering a gay man’s horror stories about a few gay bashers who would come into his family-owned pizzaria when only he was there.
They might beat him up or make him swallow bleach or pull out some of his hair.
But what they always did was rob the till of all the money (about $1300 per instance) .
Well, someone put up a hidden camera and he was faking his injuries so he could steal from his parents.
There were no gay bashers at all.