Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Mr Pitiful

There’s a lovely moment at the end of Goodbye Lenin!, after Alex has finished his elaborate attempt at persuading his mother, through fake news footage, that Germany has reunited because of the desperation of westerners to flee to the east. “Wahnsinn,” she says, and the first time I saw the film I took it in the sense that Alex takes it: that’s incredible, that’s crazy, wow! Later viewings – and this is a film that bears repeated viewing; watching it last night for perhaps the twentieth time, I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before – make it clear how far there are substantial gaps between how Alex interprets his world (and tries to control it and the people in it), and the reality. (more…)

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Pretty well all my mental bandwidth at the moment is taken up with teaching – learning new computer systems, recording lectures, correcting auto-captions (the variants on ‘Thucydides’ – Through CDC, These Sedatives, Civil Liberties – are a marvel, but isn’t the bloody AI capable of learning from my constant corrections?), checking online discussion fora and wondering why no one is participating, waking at 3 am to worry about the fact that no one is participating… So, an exchange of tweets with the great Shadi Bartsch is pretty well all the intellectual engagement I can currently muster. Even there it’s taken me nearly a week to work out what I actually think, by which point it would seem weird and even rude to push the conversation further (plus, I realised that I was doing this as the Thucydiocy Bot, which is a not-terribly-secret identity but nevertheless not immediately identifiable as me…). (more…)

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On 2nd November 1860, the political scientist Francis Lieber, then professor of history and political science at Columbia College in New York, wrote a letter to his eldest son Oscar. War between the states loomed on the horizon; Lieber was firmly against secession, and during the conflict was in charge of the Loyal Publication Society as well as assisting in drafting military laws, while his two other sons would both serve in the Union army, but Oscar would die in 1862 fighting for the Confederacy. One can imagine the family tensions. Lieber wrote:

It sometimes has occurred to me that what Thucydides said of the Greeks at the time of the Peloponnesian War applies to us. The Greeks, he said, did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke Greek. Words received a different meaning in different parts.


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One of the basic principles of our society is that success and failure are individualised: you are naturally talented and worked hard, YOU are just not good enough, or should have tried harder. This is fair, isn’t it? Places at the Best Universities should go to the Best Students, Important Jobs should go to the Right People, it should all be sorted out on merit rather than attempts at social engineering or quotas or positive discrimination. Just think how awful it would be for someone to know they didn’t get on that course through their own merit, or if they got a job that was better suited to someone else. Clearly unfair. Not everyone can have prizes.

But fairness is not evenly distributed. (more…)

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Yesterday I marked some essays, did more work on preparing next term’s teaching, produced supporting materials for an ongoing political literacy schools project and had a productive online meeting with a postgrad about his dissertation. I followed a new recipe for green coconut rice, and made some red pepper and tomato sauce from garden produce; I had a cup of espresso by the pond, watching water boatmen, dragonfly nymphs and water snails; I detected six different species of bat. And this is all good, and helps keep me grounded, and helps fend off the VAST BLACK ABYSS FULL OF TOXIC FUMES AND ENDLESS SCREAMING THAT IS EVERYTHING ELSE. (more…)

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There’s been an uptick in misattributed ‘Thucydides’ quotes on the USAnian Twitter in the last couple of days, for obvious reasons: “the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself” (journalist Chris Hedges drawing an explicit analogy with Iraq War blowback, which certainly can include the militarisation of the police; interesting, Incidentally, how he tries to focus on “Athenian leadership” not the demos…), and “justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are” (actually Solon, in Plutarch’s Life). There’s also been an interesting interpretation of the Melian Dialogue line “there is justice only between equals” as a plea for equality rather than as an utterly immoral conception of justice.

Do pedantic corrections have any role to play at this time? Well, much more than usual I am very conscious that people are tweeting these lines in good faith because they are powerful and/or useful ideas, and acknowledge this in replying to them (which does take substantially longer than just tweeting derisive emojis), but I’ve decided to carry on doing it; truth still matters, even in such circumstances.

It did bring to mind another of Solon’s ideas, that we ended up discussing quite a lot in my Greek Political Thought class this year: that in times of stasis, those who “out of indifference preferred to let events take their course” should be stripped of their citizen rights (as quoted in e.g. the Ath Pol, 8.5). It’s a line that has been much debated by scholars, given the sense – as seen for example in Thucydides’ powerful depiction of stasis at Corcyra – that a political community collapsing into starkly polarised factions is surely the worst possible scenario, and yet Solon seems to be reinforcing such decisions, calling on everyone to take up arms with one or other side.

One interpretation is that, whatever later centuries thought Solon was saying, the original intent was not to divide the whole polis into two hostile camps but to get everyone to take a stand in resolving the conflict. The true threat is indifference – which we can also understand as selfishness: if the wealthy few are oppressing the poor (and we can update that to recognise other conflicts in modern society: black and white, men and women etc), sitting back to see who wins is an utterly antisocial act, which entirely merits the loss of honour and citizen rights. It echoes Solon’s line about those who are not directly affected by injustice needing to become equally angry; T’s echoed in Pericles’ funeral oration, with the claim that in Athens those who decline to play their part in public business have no place in the political community.

Of course it’s absurdly optimistic; it’s very easy to imagine all the reasons people will keep their heads down (with the risk that, as Thucydides noted for Corcyra, that all the reasonable moderate people, confident in their powers of common sense and prediction, will end up being equally despised and destroyed by both sides). But if your community is riven by injustice, how can you not take a stand?

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As Buffy wisely (but perhaps unhelpfully, given the result) remarked in the very first episode of the series, life is short. A key theme in Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens is its psychological effects precisely in relation to a sense of time and the future: the abandonment of any concern for the longer term, on the assumption that one is more likely than not to die, and hence loss of respect for the law (you’re not going to live long enough to be tried and punished, so who cares?), neglect of traditional virtues like thrift and caution (why save for tomorrow when you might not be there to enjoy it?), and above all disregard for what other people think of you. Honour is something that has to be accumulated slowly, for uncertain benefits beyond the feeling that you don’t want to be despised or jeered by your fellow citizens; in the short term it’s just a restraint on what you want to do NOW. (more…)

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I believe there’s now something of a vogue for schematic accounts of world-historical development, built around some sort of organising trope like ‘killer apps’, with far-reaching, if tendentious, contemporary implications. However, so far these seem to be mostly focused on technology and institutions, or built around grand assertions about human psychology, and inexplicably they deal with classical culture only as the/a beginning of a long process rather than as the fundamental cultural theme it clearly is in reality. It’s time to redress the balance. Yes, this is just a short blog post, but editors and publishers can be assured that I can easily turn this into a polemical op ed or trade book just by adding some striking examples, without inflicting any unhelpful nuance on the core thesis. And of course it’s just about Europe and the West; what are you, some kind of cultural Marxist? (more…)

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Attendance is free, but numbers are limited, so please register HERE. (more…)

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Leadership for Dummies

Suddenly the idea that political power should be allocated on the basis of legitimate descent from generations of ruthless thugs, or even on the whim of a strange woman in a lake handing out swords, doesn’t seem so bad, because apparently the alternative – the unanswerable reason why Labour politicians are unfit for government – is the ability to recite a large chunk of material in a foreign language, learnt by heart back at school.

Not just any material, of course. (more…)

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