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.

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