August 24, 2007


This week, El Cabrero is on another ancient Greek jag. The theme is the tragic Peloponnesian War which brought about the end of Greece's "golden age" as documented by Thucydides (died around 400 BC), the first "modern" historian.

One would hope that it's not too late to learn from that tragedy. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

As is the case with most wars, both sides predicted a short fight and an easy win. When the Spartans invaded Attica, the Athenians gave up their countryside and retired within the walls of the city, counting on sea power for provisions and victory.

Plague came in the wake of the overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions:

people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later.

That was just the warm up. It got really nasty after that. The worst was the feeling of despair and isolation:

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. This was especially the case with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honor made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends' houses, where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disaster.

Thucydides sums it up this way:

Words indeed fail when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure

All this happened in the year 430. There were 26 more years of war to go...

But there was another plague as well: the plague of habitual brutality as the war dragged on and led to other revolutions and civil wars. Thucydides again:

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mare of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect...

Revenge was more important than self-preservation...

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out.

There's a lot more to it but you get the idea...

WV AHEAD OF CURVE ON MINE SAFETY. In the wake of the 2006 mine disasters, the state of West Virginia didn't wait for federal action. It moved quickly to enact new safetly legislation which became a model for the MINER Act. This is from USA Today:

West Virginia passed its own mine safety law last year after an explosion at its Sago mine trapped 13 miners, all but one of whom died. State mining officials followed with an ambitious plan to get the best communication devices available now to miners quickly. The state is using combinations of older technologies to provide systems that can work deep underground. One uses miles of cable antennae run through a mine's tunnels along with wireless radios, much like the ones used by police and firefighters, for individual miners. Another system uses an adaptation of Wi-Fi.

The state required operators to submit plans for using the devices by last month. Mines will start getting the devices this year. By the end of 2008, 170 underground coal mines can be equipped for $150 million, according to Randall Harris, engineering adviser to West Virginia's mine safety director.

In other words, West Virginia is doing the best it can for miners right now, while the federal government is spending years looking for a perfect solution. Robert Friend, the deputy assistant secretary for the federal mine safety agency, says West Virginia is "trying to get out in front and be proactive. I wouldn't criticize them for that." Even so, he believes that the federal approach encourages development of a better, fully wireless system by 2009.

Unfortunately, waiting for a perfect system can mean more dead miners.

(I imagine our "Unleashing Capitalism" friends would prefer all this to be left to "the market.")

KATRINA: A "GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY" FOR CONSERVATISM. As we pass the second anniversary of the Katrina debacle, here's a good one by Rick Perlstein about how the hard right hoped to cash in on the disaster.

TAX CUTS: WORKING FOR WHOM? This snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute challenges supply side dogma about growth, employment, and cutting taxes.


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