Socrates and the Barbarians

Or, Use The Mace (If Needs Be)

The food fight continues to clatter off the rails:

Rishika Dugyala / Politico:

Trump labels top Pence aide a ‘Never Trumper’  —  President Donald Trump on Sunday labeled one of his vice president’s top national security aides a “Never Trumper,” a day after it was disclosed that she had said the president’s July call with Ukraine was “unusual and inappropriate” in a deposition to Congress.

I had a great hook. I was going to talk about how Aristophanes’ play The Clouds upset Socrates (and Plato) because Aristophanes lumped Socrates in with the Sophists, whom Socrates considered his arch rivals. Wikipedia:

Bust of Socrates

Retrospectively, The Clouds can be considered the world’s first extant “comedy of ideas” and is considered by literary critics to be among the finest examples of the genre. The play also, however, remains notorious for its caricature of Socrates and is mentioned in Plato’s Apology as a contributor to the philosopher’s trial and execution….

But, alas, facts got in the way. For a Republican, this is not an impediment (that’s called “foreshadowing” kiddies) but it is problematic for everyone else.

Socrates, arguably, begins the Western canon: The use of reason and the ‘examined life’ as a basis for action and yes, even jurisprudence. Law schools, to this day, engage in “Socratic dialogue” as a teaching device, never positing an “answer” but forcing a student to take a position on a point of law and then defending it against the endless Socratic questioning.

Contrary to what many believe, Socrates didn’t TAKE positions, he assaulted them, forcing his ‘victims’ to examine their beliefs and to thoroughly engage with them in a comprehensive fashion.  This is, you might note, the baseline of modern courts and jurisprudence, no matter whether the British/American model (innocent until proven guilty) or the Continental (Napoleonic Code) model: guilty until proven innocent.

On the other hand, we had Socrates’ arch-rivals, the Sophists, who embraced Hassan I Sabbah’s proclamation: “Nothing is true; all things are permitted” several hundred years BEFORE Sabbah — who gives us the words “assassin” and “hashish.”

Aristophanes parodies them (as Plato lampoons them, as well, transcribing Socrates and then using him as his fictional spokesman in The Republic and other works) as being capable of proving that up is down, light is dark, east is west, left is right and right is wrong. Specifically:

FATHER Do you beat your own father?

SON Yes, by Zeus! and I am going to show you that I do right in beating you.

FATHER Oh, wretch! can it be right to beat a father?

SON I will prove it to you, and you shall own yourself vanquished.

FATHER Own myself vanquished on a point like this?

SON It’s the easiest thing in the world. Choose whichever of the two reasonings you like.

FATHER Of which reasonings?

SON The Stronger and the Weaker.

FATHER Miserable fellow! Why, I am the one who had you taught how to refute what is right. and now you would persuade me it is right a son should beat his father.

SON I think I shall convince you so thoroughly that, when you have heard me, you will not have a word to say.

http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html

The sophists prove that a son has a duty to beat his father (who paid for his lessons) and the play ends with the son setting fire to the house with Socrates and his disciples inside:

STREPSIADES Ah! you insulted the gods! You studied the face of the moon! Chase them, strike and beat them down! Forward! they have richly deserved their fate-above all, by reason of their blasphemies.

LEADER OF THE CHORUS So let the Chorus file off the stage. Its part is played.

Socrates has been accused of sophistry when he was its greatest enemy. Much like Sikhs (a radically anti-Muslim sect of Hinduism) were killed after Nine Lebbin because they wuz wearing turbans. According to Plato, Aristophanes’ play had much to do with the trial and execution of Socrates, in the Western Civilization pagan passion play.

Certainly, modern jurisprudence has, alas,  COMBINED the two schools: the quest for truth through endless Socratic examination of our evidence, our reasoning and conclusions (the entire corpus of Appellate law casebooks is testament to this) but ALSO to the Sophists, who proved that it was OK for a man to beat his father in Greece, and for OJ to murder his wife in Los Angeles.

THIS was what we expected, in a long litany of such spectacles from Aristophanes’ time to ours, but, instead, we did not get sophists at all.

We got sophomores. And high school sophomores, at that.

No.

We get BARBARIANS.

Now, the term comes to us from those same Greeks, and originally meant “not one of us,” e;.g. “not Greek,” just as “Gentiles” is the term for all NON-Jews.

In this case, gentility has ZERO to do with it.

It is the culmination of 2,500 years of the development of “democracy,” and we need to understand American representative democracy hangs by a thread.
If Trump gets away with this, the Presidency will have become imperial and untouchable and it will only be a matter of time before an American Augustus proclaims himself the “first citizen.”

And the congress and the courts will be functionally irrelevant — albeit retained to create the appearance of “democracy”: like voting in Cuba, old and new Russia, “Crimean referendums” etc. etc.

But we will have slithered into Imperium. Perhaps it will be a lucky “Pax Americanum” but I still like the notion of rule by the majority with certain brakes.

We see not merely a fundamental betrayal of the notions of comity and civility necessary to HAVE a functioning  YESIKNOWITSAREPUBLICANDNOTAPURE democracy. We see a fundamental betrayal of the notion of fair debate using reason and facts. We see an attack on the free press, per se.

We see an entire “Ukraine” narrative (ironically, originating from a Russian intelligence source via Paul Manafort) spun out of whole cloth, like the previous faux-news story, mysteriously echoed throughout an entire voluntary media company network dedicated NOT to getting the “truth” out there, but, rather, to REINFORCING THE STORY.  The great bubble.

But there is no automatic dichotomy. There is actually no monolithic force on the Left to match it, no matter what GOPaganda you find yourself constantly running into. How many MILLIONS of Americans believe that “the media” can’t be trusted, as they’ve been told by THEIR media?

The recent sesquicentenary of the Civil War was revelatory in reading day by day, what the major newspapers, North and South, were saying.

The Northern papers printed the facts well enough that Southern intelligence agents were able to monitor Northern military movements just by reading them.

The SOUTHERN papers, however, slipped off the rails early on in the conflict and end up in sheerest bizarro land bu the bitter end. The point here is that BOTH readerships believed what they read. After all, neither the Reformation nor the Enlightenment would have been possible without the moveable type printing press. Nor the publication of “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine in a country that was highly literate — in New England women’s literacy rates were over 90% and mens were much higher the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. The U.S. Code. Congress. None possible without the press.

And now our “press” — including radio, television and internet — is asymmetrically riven: one side with a fixed narrative endlessly repeated and the other side with a vague consensus but heading every whichaway, as one would expect in a “robust” exercise of the First Amendment.

• • •

As one person brilliantly put it, you’re never going to see such an air tight case of guilt in your lifetime, or words to that effect, woven more effectively.

But do we get Socrates asking questions and eliciting — under Oath — truthful answers?

No.

Do we also get the Sophist proving that it is pious and righteous to beat one’s father and to rhyme “if the glove does not fit, you MUST acquit”?

No.

What we get is the barbarian  on the roof lighting the thatch on fire while his mates bar the doors and windows.

Socrates AND the Sophists are locked inside.

Watching the intentional, smug temper tantrums staged by Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes and the (inevitable Republican token, a la Clarence Thomas) Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (NY) as they abuse the civility of poplite society to create a distraction. To stomp on the tables. To throw feces around the monkey house.

This is barbarism in the sense that we “Greeks” are the civilized, and those who do not understand civilization nor civility — save for what they can use to trick to steal to well, engage in Trumpery — are the “barbarians.”

trump·er·y
(trŭm′pə-rē)

n. pl. trump·er·ies

1. Showy but worthless finery; bric-a-brac.
2. Nonsense; rubbish.
3. Deception; trickery; fraud.

[Middle English trompery, deceit, from Middle French tromperie, from
tromper, to deceive, from Old French se tromper de (quelqu’un), to deceive,
mock (literally, “to play (someone) like a trumpet”), from tromper, to
play the trumpet, from trompe, horn, trumpet; see trumpet.]

~ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition 2016

What astonishes is that these selfsame barbarians attempting to interrupt, to harass, to heckle the proceedings (reminding us WHY we have and need parliamentary rules of order) these selfsame barbarians will come out Sunday and pray most centrally, emote most piously and invoke righteousness and morality with all the fervor of a horny chihuahua humping your leg.

I suppose it oughtn’t. I wrote “The Rush-ians Are Coming, The Rush-ians Are Coming” in December, 1994 and it has proven even more prophetic than intended, since we’ve been infiltrated by REAL Russians, in the end:

We of America hated the Russians for fifty years. Then, the Russians were gone: no more Communists left to hate. We have no one left to hate now, none to vent our self-righteousness, our “freedom” and “American Dream” on but ourselves.

But hatred is a very difficult habit to break, and hating (for over fifty years) becomes a kind of need. And, lately, one hears ‘liberal’ spoken in the same tones, with the same hateful inflections once reserved for pinkos, commies and subversives (whoever they finally turned out to be)….

But in the meantime (and I do mean mean time), we have to stand up for some degree of civility. Perhaps, like Grandma used to say: “I respect your opinions, but if you continue to speak like that, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Barbarism masquerading as civilized behavior is still barbarism, after all.

2019 note: “liberal” lost it’s hateful kick, so it’s morphed into “leftists” — a term formerly reserved for Che Guevara-style guerilla infiltrators and the opponents of every South and Central American strong man we were propping up at any given time. (BTW: If the US Administration or a succeeding one decided the dictator was a dick they magically transform into “freedom fighters.)

But the lesson remains from that hoary text, time- and shop-worn.

Barbarians DO NOT understand civilization. They may understand “civility” (as in how to act in public) but NOT civilization. We see it in every action taken to stonewall, to fail to release documents. To order, in essence, one entire branch of our government to ignore congressional subpoenas.

Barbarians do not understand subpoenas. They understand arrest. The Republicans in the Clinton Impeachment were happy to jail Susan MacDougal for nearly a year (in the LA Women’s facility. ) Why can’t this congress explain to several barbarians that it has the power of inherent contempt to arrest and jail recalcitrant witnesses.

Maybe the Baltimore jail could be contracted to hold said barbarians.

Congress would only have to do it once, methinks. But there IS a reason for the Mace of the United States House of Representatives beyond mere column dressing.

The Mace of the United States House of Representatives, also called the Mace of the Republic is a ceremonial mace and one of the oldest symbols of the United States government. It symbolizes the governmental authority of the United States, and more specifically, the legislative authority of the House of Representatives. (Wikipedia, ibid.)

The mace is the symbol of the Sergeant At Arms, as a combination of the Roman “fasces” — the bundle of sticks from whence the term “fascism” is derived — and the mace, an iron-age club. The symbol of the “bundle of sticks” means that one stick (one person) is easily broken, but a bundle of sticks (society, civilization) is very difficult to break.

On the floor the House, flanking the Speaker’s aerie/podium are two fasces each with a one bladed axe rather than a mace, a symbol going all the way back to the Roman Republic. The bundle of sticks is society. The Axe is originally the double-bladed axe, perhaps the oldest symbol of law in Europe, certainly aboriginal.

It means that the Government of THAT bundle of sticks (of, by and for the sticks, the Ghost of Abraham Lincoln reminds us) holds the SOLE power of life and death. The other edge of that blade is that WE give up our individual right to vendetta, to revenge (sabe for self-defense) to that state, who will use it to protect and defend.

That’s the idea. And it’s not only an old idea, but it’s a GOOD idea.

Sadly, the Sergeant’s mace has only ever been used ceremonially to stop barbarism. And even then only six times. It has been enough to SHOW the mace all but once.

But watching the hearings, and having watched the Brooks Brothers Riot 2.0, with Matt Gaetz playing the Roger Stone role, I do not believe that endless coddling will work.

I don’t know why the Sergeant at Arms can’t contract with a private security firm as deputies. There are a lot of retired ex-FBI agents, US Marshals, etc. who could use the Christmas cash.  Those who have ignored subpoenas can find themselves on the way to the Baltimore jail for inherent contempt rather than breakfast before the office. I don’t believe that it is necessarily the time to do it, yet.

But you must be WILLING to do it. It’s like horses and dogs: they know when you’re serious and when you can be ignored. Have the machinery in place for when it might be needed, and be willing to use it, IF needed.

There is no need to be provocative. But what I witnessed in the two days of hearings was Socratic questioning on the one side and the Flat Earth Society on the other without any real attempt at debate, discussion, civility or decorum.

The barbarians are only doing this because it gets them their way. They pull these stunts in state legislatures all the time, as last spring’s Oregon GOP Senate vanishing act to stop a “cap and trade” carbon-lowering plan seemed about to pass. Barbarism won the day then.

But we cannot afford to let it win the day this day.

Because all hangs on whether we are willing to stand up for civilization or not. And in a purely selfish manner, YOU ought to be very concerned about civility and civilization right now.  We are so interconnected for manufacturing, parts, raw materials and markets that a disruption could well create a modern dark ages. Without the high tech components from multiple continents, computers and their media would decline. Communications would slowly recede as no one would have the technology or materials to launch new satellites and the old ones fall into the atmosphere eventually. Etcetera.

These things depend on civilization and civility. (Sometimes enforced by a carrier group and task force.)

If we LIKE these things, we need to be willing to tap a few heads with that mace.

Thus far, the virtue of patience seems to have carried the day,

But I still fear that we’re not going to have a debate , but, rather, a house–burning.


The Death of Socrates
 1787. Jacques Louis David

I pray that I’m wrong.

Courage.

 

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