Friday, March 25, 2016

Blame the Greeks

They gave us Democracy (demos : people, kratia : rule) along with its perverse cousin, Demagoguery (agogos : leader). It’s a package deal. Add to that their word Xenos (strange), and we have xenophobia, fear of otherness. The result is a tragedy of Greek proportions.

Early on a demagogue was just a leader of the people, the common people that is. He was generally benign but quick to rouse the rabble unlike the learned who tended toward deliberation. Aristotle denounced their intemperance.

The word, gadfly, was used in Plato’s account of Socrates defense. He cites the essential role it plays to challenge and reinvigorate a democracy by disrupting the status quo in the service of truth. However, in the hands of self-serving megalomaniac, a gadfly can also sting the animal that causes a stampede.

When I ran for milk monitor in kindergarten did I promise two cows in every garage? If I had only thought of it then I might have won. It didn’t work for Herbert Hoover either when he promised a chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage.

Politicians are always painting a future they cannot deliver. Hopefully the electorate tacitly understands and smells the baloney. We allow for a modicum of malarkey. But Donald Trump has broken new ground in his arrogance, deceit and bluster. He lives in a bubble of rhetorical ignorance void of any substance. As Lawrence O’Donnell put it, he is not running for President but for king.

The demotic has long been a concern in a democracy.  An ill-informed, fearful and armed mob can be whipped into a frenzy particularly in this world of instant connectivity. In the process they willingly abdicate their autonomy.  

The demagogue, with a good ear for collective complaints and a sure charisma, doesn’t orate. He speaks conversationally, like it is, in the agreed-upon language, audaciously, and with absolute certainty. He gives voice to the outrages his followers couldn’t quite articulate or wouldn’t dare. His word is unimpeachable. He is father. They are being re-parented. Children must behave. Daddy will tell you who to hate, who to mock, to beat up. Order and greatness must be restored. The trains must run on time, the train to yesterday, to nowhere.

Athenian democracy fell into tyranny after a failed invasion of Sicily. The hubris of exceptionalism, led to the hegemony of expansionism and finally the humiliation of extinction. 

John Adams warned, There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide. The carton of milk ends up a glass of Kool-aid laced with hemlock.

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