Viewing the American Crisis from Athens

Viewing the American Crisis from Athens
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Robert S. McElvaine

Athens. Viewing from the birthplace of democracy the latest and most disturbing developments in the startlingly rapid decline of the American Republic in the seven months since Donald J. Trump assumed office provides one with a useful perspective.

No reasonable person can any longer deny that our Constitutional Republic is in grave danger. Trump regularly assails the courts, seems blissfully ignorant of the roles of Congress, a free press, and checks and balances, and knows virtually nothing about the history of the people he wants to rule as the sort of authoritarian he so admires in other countries. A recent poll found that half of Republicans would be willing to suspend the 2020 Election and allow Trump to remain in power unconstitutionally. And now we have seen a gang of racist Neo-Nazi terrorists pledging their allegiance to Trump attack an American town — the home of Thomas Jefferson, no less — and the president failing forcefully to denounce them, then being persuaded to read a statement on Monday condemning neo-Nazis, but left to speak his mind on Tuesday, swinging back to refusing to condemn the neo-Nazis and arguing moral equivalence of the white supremacist attackers and what he labeled the “alt-left” (whatever that is). Millions of other Americans also sided with the terrorists. Plainly, the current situation corresponds with the “fire-bell in the night” that in 1820 filled Jefferson with terror about the nation’s future.

The first important point to be realized in viewing the present American crisis from Athens is that Athenian democracy excluded categories of people similar to those today’s Trumpists seek to subordinate: women, the foreign born, and slaves. In ancient Athens, the last of those groups consisted largely of people who had fallen into debt that they could not repay, which is to say the poor — the sort of people who (along with women, immigrants, and racial or ethnic minorities) Trump demeans, even while hoodwinking them into thinking he is their champion.

Misogyny ran through the fabric of ancient Athens, as it does through the veins of Donald Trump and the white male supremacists who comprise the shock troops of his anti-American movement. In both times and places, the status of women was a major matter of contention. Women had previously (in the case of classical Greece considerably longer ago than in contemporary America) enjoyed a degree of equality that men sought to take away. Aristotle classified a female as a “deformed male.” In Athens during its golden age, women were totally excluded from public life. Inasmuch as public life was considered the be-all and end-all of meaningful human experience, a man who was uninterested in the affairs of the polis — politics — was classified as an idiot, which meant that he was like a woman.

The effort to put women “in their place” was evident such ancient Greek plays as Aeschylus’ The Eumenides (458 BCE), which contends that it was an honor for women to give up their former power and go underground to serve the men by providing fruitful soil and has Athena proclaim: “I am always for the male.” Euripides’ The Bacchae (405 BCE) warned Greek men of the catastrophic consequences that could flow from giving women any power whatsoever.

One thinks also of the parallel between the demagogues who turned poorly educated and easily swayed Athenians against the intellectuals, particularly at the end of the Peloponnesian resulting in the imprisonment and death of Socrates and in Plato’s disillusionment with democracy and the anti-science, anti-fact preachments of the Trumpists.

We must recognize that we are in the greatest crisis our nation has faced since the Civil War. Anyone who fails to stand, with no hint of equivocation, against the assault on our Constitutional system, American values, and common decency being carried out by Trump and the authoritarian elements inside (e.g., the just-departed Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian L. v. Gorka [the L. v. indicates his allegiance to a Hungarian Nazi group]) and outside (Richard Spencer, David Duke, and assorted neo-Nazis, racists, thugs and terrorists, such as those who descended on Charlottesville last weekend) his administration, shows him- or herself to be against America.

A Man on a Golf Cart

Trump longs to be the sort of commanding military leader that Pericles was, what would in later times be called a “Man on Horseback,” to whom frustrated people are willing to submit in hopes of improving their situations. In fact, of course, he is nothing of the sort; he is a pathetic “man on a golf cart” who avoided military service by claiming to have bone spurs in his right foot . . . or maybe his left foot. He is, though, quite willing to saber rattle against North Korea, Venezuela, or anyone else, apart from Russia, in order to divert public attention from his own failures and misdeeds.

Perhaps the ancient Athenian of whom Donald Trump is most reminiscent is a nephew of Pericles, Alcibiades. He was a rich, privileged man known for his profligate lifestyle, immorality, treachery and working with Athens’ enemies. He riled up the Athenian citizens to launch an all-advised attack on Sicily in 415 BCE, then switched sides to join with Sparta and later with Persia, though he eventually came back to Athens and regained popularity and power. Some parallels with the current American president are clear, though Alcibiades, unlike Trump, actually was a military leader.

<p>Temple of Apollo, Delphi</p>

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

Robert S. McElvaine

On a visit to Delphi a few days ago, at the Temple of Apollo, I asked the Pythia what the future of the American Republic will be. The Oracle was silent, which I took to be eloquent. I interpreted to mean: “It is up to the American people to determine what their future will be.”

{Millsaps College historian Robert S. McElvaine, the author of ten books, has just completed a book manuscript, “‘Fuck You!’ — A Brief History Misogyny, from ‘Prehistory’ to Trump.”}

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