Thursday, October 28, 2010

Antiphon Is Always Welcome at Our Tea Party

I was discussing Oedipus the King with my freshman-level Play Analysis class the other day, and I wanted to talk about how notions of guilt and innocence were different for the Greeks than for us. Today we have all manner of tests of intentionality; for the Greeks, it pretty much boiled down to one thing: what happened? They weren’t much concerned with motivations or similar psychological analysis. The fact that Oedipus tried valiantly to avoid his prophesied fate only to commit his horrible acts in direct consequence of his attempted circumvention of them may have made Oedipus more sympathetic, but it had precious little to do with his guilt, as far as either the Thebans of the fictive world or the Athenians of the real-world audience were concerned.

There were in fact different punishments for crimes committed intentionally and unintentionally in ancient Greece, but there was no need, for example, to show negligence to convict someone of an accidental crime. Thus, it is all but irrelevant that Oedipus unquestionably believed beyond the proverbial shadow of a doubt that his parents were back in Corinth when he killed his biological father in the world’s first recorded incident of road rage, and subsequently became, literally, a BAMF.

To illustrate the point, I mentioned the events enumerated in the Second Tetralogy of the orator Antiphon. What happened was this: a young athlete was practicing javelin-throwing. A little boy ran out onto the field to collect the javelins just as the young man released his next heave. As luck would have it, the spear penetrated the boy’s ribs, and he died on the spot. No one claimed the death was anything but accidental, or indeed that the young javelin-thrower had failed to take proper precautions. Indeed, all agreed that his throw was well within the boundaries, and that he had done nothing wrong in ethical terms. Still, the boy’s father accused the young man with accidental murder, a charge which carried a penalty of a year or more of exile. (The defense in the case seems to argue that the young man is in jeopardy of a death sentence, but this is a wild exaggeration. Go figure: a lawyer who distorts the truth.)

Here’s where Antiphon enters the picture, as an orator (or, more accurately, logographos, or speechwriter) hired by the defense. (The orator wrote the argument, but it was delivered by someone else, in this case the young man’s father.) He can’t argue that accidents happen, and that, in the absence of negligence, there’s no case. In a society that cared about the notion of pollution, with a stain clinging to anyone who kills, even inadvertently, that argument would go nowhere. So what Antiphon argues instead is that his client is in fact the aggrieved party… after all, he didn’t get to see how far his throw was because that pesky kid got in the way:
because the boy ran under the trajectory of the javelin and placed his body in its path, one of them was prevented from hitting the target, whereas the other was hit because he ran under the javelin…. Since the young man made no mistake, it would not be fair for him to be punished for someone else’s mistake; it is enough for him to bear the consequences of his own mistakes. But the boy was destroyed by his own mistake, and the moment he erred, he also punished himself. Therefore, the killer is punished and the death is not unavenged.
Really, it was damned decent of the young man’s father to allow the boy to escape without further punishment. I mean, interfering with a javelin-thrower’s workout is a serious offense.

I didn’t go into class thinking I was going to talk about Antiphon, but the anecdote came into my head in the middle of the discussion. And then, just as quickly, it was returned to the back of my mind, to that intellectual space that occasionally gets dredged for a pertinent tidbit, but basically is just allowed to simmer on the lowest possible heat. Or so I thought. A couple days later, we got the modern challenger to Antiphon’s title of Most Outrageous Case of Blaming the Victim in Recorded History. You see, that was when it became public knowledge Heritage Foundation consultant, Tea Party doyenne, and wife to a US Supreme Court Justice, Virginia Thomas, proved she’s an even bigger idiot than hubby by leaving a voicemail on the office telephone of now-Brandeis professor Anita Hill. To “[extend] an olive branch to her after all these years,” as she subsequently claimed to a reporter who wondered, in effect, what the hell she thought she was doing? Hardly. No, the actual message included this: “I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.” I suspect I wasn’t the only middle-aged American to do a spit take at that one.

The request that Ms. Hill should be asked to apologize nearly 20 years after the fact for damaging the reputation of a Supreme Court nominee who was confirmed anyway, and who went on to be one of the biggest disasters and, by objective standards, most activist, judges ever to serve on the SCOTUS is, well, nigh onto mind-boggling. More to the point, the preponderance of the evidence, then and now, suggests that Justice Thomas was at best a creep and at worst a felon. [In the interest of political fairness, I note that the same description would apply to Bill Clinton.] Ms. Hill, was, after all, the alleged victim. I’d make a more direct analogy to running under a javelin, but the Freudian implications of such a linkage would send my laptop metaphorically screaming into the night.

At best, Ms. Thomas’s ill-conceived scheme highlighted the inanity if not insanity of the Tea Party hierarchy, not to mention serving as a reminder of the true Astroturf quality of the movement: nothing says “just folks” like the spouse of a Supreme Court Justice, after all. Nor did it do anything to dispel the developing conflict-of-interest allegations about Justice Thomas (and his more-evil-because-less-stupid sidekick, Antonin Scalia) participating in Koch-funded strategy sessions.

But Virginia Thomas’s inter-personal and political clumsiness quickly paled in comparison to another, even more accomplished, practitioner of Blame the Victim. After all, it is conceivable that Ms. Thomas might have a point. The fact that such likelihood is roughly equal to Louis Gohmert’s losing his seat in Congress this week (his only opposition is a Libertarian, as the Democrats are characteristically too cowardly to field a candidate against one of the most embarrassing Representatives in history) doesn’t change the fact that there’s a possibility that Ms. Hill’s accusations were spurious. There is no definitive proof; one could make a case that one’s conclusions on the case might tell us more about the observer than about the evidence. Besides, it is not unreasonable that a wife would take her husband’s side in such a dispute, even if the majority of the population didn’t concur. The whole demanding an apology thing may be a bit much, but spousal loyalty in general is not to be disparaged.

No such possibilities admit themselves in the case of Tim Profitt, the Rand Paul-supporting goon who is caught on tape literally stomping on the head of a defenseless operative named Lauren Valle. It doesn’t matter what went before. It doesn’t matter whether she instigated the confrontation. It doesn’t matter that, if so, was simply taking a page from the FreedomWorks bag of tricks, employed a few months ago by that particular Astroturf cabal to disrupt town meetings on health care reform. What matters is what we see on the tape: a young woman wrestled to the ground by one man (without context, we can’t tell, but this part could have been a legitimate attempt at crowd control), and then having her face stepped on, quite intentionally, by another man, causing a concussion.

In any sane universe, there is only one response to this latter action: immediate arrest on battery charges and an equally immediate repudiation of such thuggery by the candidate. Imagine my surprise that neither happened. Mr. Paul distanced himself from Profitt, one of his county organizers, without really condemning his actions:
...there was a bit of a crowd control problem. I don't want anybody, though, to be involved in things that aren't civil. I think this should always be about the issues. And it is an unusual situation to have so many people so passionate on both sides jockeying back and forth. And it wasn't something that I liked or anybody liked about that situation. So I hope in the future it is going to be better.
The Paul campaign (as opposed to the candidate himself) released a statement condemning “violence of any kind,” but (of course) softening the blow my addressing “supporters on all sides.” They were also “relieved to hear that the woman in question was not injured.” A concussion and a sprained shoulder = “not injured” to the Paul campaign. At least they're consistent: nothing else that comes out of that campaign comports to reality; why should this?

And the knuckle-dragging drooler who committed the assault? As far as I can tell, he’s still at large, blaming the police and Ms. Valle, and… wait for it… demanding an apology! How dare the physically restrained Ms. Valle allow her head to interpose itself into the path of Mr. Profitt’s foot? Outrageous!

Antiphon would be so proud.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The link, alas, is cowardice

One of the things any scholar does is to seek patterns other people might have missed. It becomes, in a sense, a variation on the theme of the $10K/25K/100K Pyramid. If you’d like to play along at home, here are the clues:

a screed by Michael Moore about what Democrats need to do to maintain their control of Congress

• a story a couple of weeks ago that Senate Democrats would postpone until after the election a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone except the over-a-quarter-million-a-year-crowd

• a recent story week about how the Obama administration is issuing waivers to employers and insurance companies alike “to maintain even minimal coverage far below the new [health-care legislation’s] standards.”

• a travel advisory from the State Department about a potential terrorist attack in Europe

• a photograph of the statue of Oliver Goldsmith in front of Trinity College Dublin that came around on one of those annoying Facebook feeds

Okay… what do they have in common? The answer: Edmund Burke, the great Irish statesman and philosopher. For the Goldsmith statue, the connection is that a statue of Burke is the other famous memorial at the front gates of TCD. For the others, it’s Burke’s best-known line, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Another way of putting that famous aphorism: “Have some damned balls, good guys.” With me, now?

I start with a point Moore sort of buries in his piece, but which would make a huge difference: “announce that you will force the Republican senators (who until now simply have had to say they ‘intended’ to filibuster in order to kill a bill) to have to actually filibuster! Make them stand on the floor of the Senate and read from the phone book 24/7. They won't last a day. And America will see them for who they really are.” I’ve been saying this for a long time: make them do the Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” thing.

Conventional Wisdom and the New York Times story (if there’s a difference), say the reason Harry Reid is parading his signature brand of cowardice with respect to the Bush tax cuts is to “[spare] some politically vulnerable incumbents from casting a potentially difficult vote to let taxes rise for the rich.” The polls show a pretty much divided electorate, with different results apparently (to me, at least) a function of how the question is asked. Thus, a CBS News poll from late August showed that by 20 points (!) Americans believe “the tax cuts should expire for households earning over $250,000 per year.” And while a subsequent poll by CNBC seems to suggest an opposite finding, I’d argue that the difference comes in large part from the phrasing: “increasing taxes on any Americans will slow the economy and kill jobs.” (Note the italics!) Or so it would appear the question was—I pulled that phrasing from the story; the alleged “complete poll results” are, to be polite, incomplete.

By the way, lest you think that the change is better explained by when the respective polls were conducted, there’s another one from Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion, taken essentially contemporaneously with the CNBC poll. It shows a slight preference for continuing the Bush tax cuts for the middle class but not for those in the $250K income bracket. Interestingly, 54% of Republicans don’t think that income level qualifies as “wealthy.” Really. I’m a tenured faculty member at an accredited university; my wife is the Financial Aid Director at a community college. We’d need about a 150% increase in our family income to reach that threshold. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d suggest pretty damned strongly that bringing in a quarter million dollars a year would qualify a family as well off. Certainly, they’d be doing well enough to be able to afford a modest tax increase on income over $250,000 a year.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter. The nation is, at worst, divided. And this after an onslaught of post-Citizens United decision, anonymously-funded, misrepresentations of reality. The Republicans and their minions at Fox News (or is it the other way around?) have consistently mis-defined “small business,” fiddled with statistics, and pretended that they’re interested in the deficit while making sure their fat-cat friends continue to profit from the policies that are largely responsible for creating the size and scope of the deficit to begin with.

Even more to the point: you’re supposed to be Democrats. Stand for something, dammit! Remind people of why they voted you into office to begin with. Give them a reason to re-elect you, not just to prevent that lunatic you’re running against from getting into office. You’re going to be smeared by RepubliCorp anyway, so don’t worry about them. Put together a bill that extends the tax cuts for 98+% of the country. Vote down the inevitable amendment to extend the cut for the terminally-entitled rich.

And make the sons of bitches filibuster the bill! Make them stand on the floor of the Senate and, in full view of the American people, argue against a bill that would prevent a tax increase for the overwhelming majority of us. Or, alternatively, to “read from the phone bill 24/7,” demonstrating such contempt for the middle class they pretend to care about that they’ll do anything to thwart a bill that would help the 98% at the expense of the 2%. Do this before the mid-term elections and run on your attempts to help regular people, contrasted with Republicans’ petulance, arrogance, disrespect for the Senate and the citizenry alike. The chances of this happening, of course, are precisely zero, because the only thing in American political life as certain as Republican mendacity is Democratic cravenness.

We see this phenomenon again in the Obama administration’s unconscionable capitulation on healthcare. It wasn’t enough, apparently, to bargain away anything that looked like real reform (in exchange for what? and with the upside of how many Republican votes?). No, they’ve got to grant waivers to everyone with a lawyer and a lobbyist. Come on, who honestly believes that McDonald’s can’t afford to provide the very fundamental level of health-care dictated by so-called Obamacare? Or that insurance companies can’t make money except by extortion? Give me a damned break. If some company says they’ll pull out of a market, let ‘em, because they are passing up an opportunity to make money.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the claims that President Obama is a socialist. Not for the reasons the professional prevaricators of the right are claiming, of course. But the President doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the free enterprise system. Even in this economy, companies need to compete for good employees. Cutting insurance coverage isn’t going to help do that. And executives who choose to make no profit instead of some tend not to endear themselves to investors. There are times to regulate markets and times to butt out. This is the latter, especially if the rationale is somehow to avoid criticism. As Mr. Obama has repeatedly pointed out in recent days, the GOP is going to complain, regardless. So do what’s right.

A different kind of cowardice is at play in the “terrorism” nervousness. Of course there’s going to be a terrorist attack somewhere in Europe, sometime in the not-too-distant future. There’s also going to be some crazy with a gun on an American university campus, soon. (A week after the fatal incident at the University of Texas, for example, an “armed and dangerous” murder suspect was spotted on my own campus.) The chances that someone will be driving while drunk, stoned, texting, making calls on a cell phone, or otherwise not paying attention at any given moment in my small town: metaphysical certitude. I’m driving to work tomorrow. I’m also going to London over the holidays. This isn’t reckless behavior. I may be peculiar, but I’m not crazy.

I confess to being somewhat at a loss to explain the State Department’s curious warning. There doesn’t appear to be any specific new information that precipitated the announcement, and the advice is remarkable in its uselessness: “U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.” Exactly what “appropriate safety measures” might constitute, we’re left to guess. Well, pretty much so, anyway: in a telephone briefing, State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy argues for “common sense precautions” like avoiding unattended parcels, knowing how to use pay telephones, having contact information for the American Embassy, etc. Wow. Has the nanny state really reached the point at which we need a government edict to not be freaking stupid?

More to the point, if “we’re not recommending, that American citizens of any kind–business, tourism, study abroad–we are not–we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not,” then what the hell is the point? What is gained from this bizarre release? If this were the Bush administration, I’d be looking for a wag-the-dog moment, and I’m not so naïve that I believe Democratic administrations incapable of such chicanery. But there’s no reason for it: no particularly bad news to try to bury, no scandals to cover up. And, if anything, the Dems have been making inroads into the presumed GOP landslide in next month’s elections.

The best I’ve got as an explanation is pure, unadulterated cowardice. Two terms of Bush/Cheney fear-mongering apparently took their toll. Democrats are running from their own good work, avoiding confrontation instead of standing on principle (with the result that they’re beginning to look like they in fact have no principles). Americans in general are supposed to cower at the prospect of a specter which will almost certainly affect someone, but which is extremely unlikely to directly affect any particular individual. The post-9/11 bumper sticker of the American flag with the cutline “These colors don’t run” is looking increasingly fanciful.