July 08, 2020

Off the rails?

The opening sentence in Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina is justly famous: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I’m not sure that’s true of families, but it might be of countries. According to the World Population Review, the 10 happiest countries (we’re not among them) seem to be democracies with functioning governments, less inequality, economic security for all and high degrees of social trust.

There are all kinds of ways for a country to be unhappy. It’s a scary thing when great societies go off the rails. It’s happened plenty of times but looks different each time.

One that I’ve been thinking about was chronicled by the great ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, which raged from 431 to 404 BC. He was an Athenian general and a participant in the strife.

Ancient Greece was composed of independent city states that often fought each other. Their constitutions varied greatly. They were mostly united by language, religion, shrines and oracles, and festivals such as the Olympic and other PanHellenic games.

Despite their frequent conflicts, many of these city-states or poleis (singular: polis) managed to unite to defeat the mighty Persian army in the 490s-480s BC. Then things started to unravel.

The two most powerful poleis were Athens and Sparta. Athens was a slaveholding democracy in which women were excluded from public life. However, for those who had political rights, it was a pretty direct democracy, with many important offices being filled by lot, almost like drawing names out of a hat.

As the great Afro-Caribbean scholar CLR James put it:

“At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.”

Sparta, on the other hand, was a militaristic state with a constitution that combined a dual monarchy with something like a senate, popular assembly and a supreme court. Although women citizens had more freedom there, the society was based on the subjugation of the Helots, a conquered population whose forced labor allowed Spartan male citizens to devote themselves almost exclusively to training for war.

Pick your poison.

After the Persian war, Athens founded a defensive alliance against the old foe with many other poleis called the Delian League. Members were supposed to support the league by contributing ships, men and money. Over time, it became more like an Athenian empire extracting monetary tribute from those under its power. This alarmed Sparta and its allies. Armed conflict loomed over the political allegiance of various poleis.

To their credit, the Spartans sought a diplomatic solution, but the Athenians in their arrogance or hubris weren’t having it. Pretty soon, it was on.

What made the war so devastating wasn’t so much the fighting between states; that wasn’t all that unusual. The key factor was the conflict within each polis.

Most were pulled apart by internal factions that more or less mirrored and favored either Sparta or Athens. The Athenians often supported democratic factions, although their methods weren’t necessarily democratic, while Spartans supported aristocratic and oligarchic factions. Foreign intervention often accompanied revolutions or counterrevolutions.

This is where it gets scary. The bitterness of conflicting passions broke down all norms of civility. Here are some lines from Thucydides:

“To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. 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 mark of a real man…Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect….

“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”

It didn’t end well. For anybody.

Our situation today is totally different, but still I think of those lines when I contemplate some aspects of the current scene, including an increase in hate crimes; overheated, extremist political rhetoric at the highest levels; emboldened racist groups enjoying their day in the sun; an increase in the influence of paranoid conspiracy theories; social and other media outlets distorting news and spewing propaganda; the rejection of science; demonizing those with different views; and rampant inequality in the midst of a global pandemic.

I’m hoping that what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” will kick in soon. Otherwise, a line from a late period Bob Dylan song seems appropriate: “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

No comments: