Sunday, December 10, 2000

Sex, Revolution, and Lysistrata

Ever since we watched Lysistrata, one of the more erotic classics available on video, we at Classics Corner have been preoccupied with the idea of sex, revolution, and smashing capitalism, and we owe it all to the Seattle Public Library.

Should you want to see, oh, say, Tom Cruise in Magnolia, there are 85 holds on the library's 21 copies. The wait is two weeks to a month. But tonight, the SPL's single Greek language production of Lysistrata is ready whenever you are. Obscurity has its rewards.

Lysistrata is one of the three surviving plays by Aristophanes to plead for an end to the devastating war between Athens and Sparta. Unlike the other two, this play was produced at a time when Athens was militarily and economically on the ropes. By 411, no peace was possible without capitulation. Yet Aristophanes produced a drama in which the women of Athens and Sparta end the bloodshed and untangle the animosities driving the war, just as they would a knotted mess of yarn.

The basic plot is that the women swear a pact to withhold sex until the men agree to a lasting peace. The men, who have all become big and tense, eventually come around to their point of view.

There is much to love about this play, not the least of which is that the women embody common sense and resolution in the face of folly and arrogance, and that their revolution is both playful and serious. Their protest is an eruption of life and love in opposition to the everyday work of death and commerce.

"For myself," says the Chorus of Women, "I will never weary of the dance; my knees will never grow stiff with fatigue. I will brave everything with my dear allies, on whom Nature has lavished virtue, grace, boldness, cleverness, and whose wisely directed energy is going to save the State."

Speaking of life opposed to death and commerce, Seattle's Little Scab Newspaper recently compared our WTO anniversary demonstrations to Mardi Gras. The "reporter" went on to spend a good many paragraphs discussing the improbable fact of bare breasted Lesbian Avengers in late-November.

Sadly, we at Classics Corner were not personally in attendance. Opposing international capitalism that day took a back seat to our fundraising mailing, which also held a certain charm.

Yet we remember our youth, when we too had energy and ambition to smash the state full-time. In those days, certain professors made us read Marxist-Freudian philosophy at gunpoint as part of our indoctrination to the liberal democratic tradition.

Happily, this included Eros and Civilization, by Herbert Marcuse, the most radical philosopher we'll never really understand. According to Herb, meaningless work, deadened sexuality, commercialized entertainment, and other unfortunate aspects of civilization will always contend with an irrepressible life force that refuses to be contained.

We wonder whether the sweater-challenged Lesbian Avengers might offer the same advice as Aristophanes' Chorus of Women: "Be ever like a bundle of nettles; never let your anger slacken; the winds of fortune blow our way."

Sunday, November 26, 2000

Democracy Goes Out With A Wimper

As GW Bush is named 43rd President of the United States, it would appear that democracy is in some trouble.

We don't much care that he lost the popular vote. If the Electoral College was good enough for Imperial Rome, it's good enough for America.

Nor are we concerned that Governor Jeb, who happens to be the son of an ex-CIA chief, delivered Florida for his brother. It's nice to know folks can still depend on family when the going gets tough.

No, it's worse than that. What's got our knickers in a knot is that we can't seem to remember the day before yesterday, and are thereby doomed to repeat. Doomed to repeat. That's how history is.

The title for World's Longest Running Democracy, of course, goes to Athens, which threw in the towel after a mere 280 years. This has the normally optimistic staff of Classics Corner wondering whether we perhaps might be due.

When democracy collapsed in Greece, no one really much noticed. It was unspectacular. The wealthy just became more and more central, until one day, well, they were back in charge. Of course, the rituals of democracy persisted in a most reassuring manner. Citizens continued to gather and vote, officials were elected, and democracy was celebrated long after it had in fact ceased to exist.

The rise and fall of Athenian democracy is story that begs to be told.

As ordinary people in the ancient world accumulated wealth, the wellborn began to lose control. The first challenges came from fellow aristocrats, who found that power over their peers could be had by playing to the people. These proto-Perot's were some of early antiquity's more enlightened rulers, and beginning about 700 BC, opened the road to democracy. By around 550, the people had gained enough power to approximate the real thing.

By the Fifth Century, all of Athens' free male citizens had a direct vote in the affairs of government, and they seemed to like it. Of course, all this rabid democracy rested upon empire and slavery, but that's another story for another day.

Just when things were going well, the Peloponnesian war broke out, and democrats and oligarchs did their best to do each other in for more than 28 years. Through a series of stupid but democratic decisions, Athens lost. There were several bloody attempts to restore oligarchy, but the people prevailed and democracy was restored.
Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the ancient world, was a big fan of formal democracy, but the real thing soon vanished.

When democracy worked, a balance of power had been maintained by soaking the rich to support the arts and the military. After Alexander, this became voluntary. The kings, posing as democrats, bolstered the power of the rich. The wealthy gained in power, and deployed their assets to suit their own interests. Before long, only the wealthy held major political office. Average people could still speak, but money talked much louder.

Yet, they still called it democracy. They always will.

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

The Great Bushippias/Agoreaborus Debate

After watching all three Presidential debates and most of the painfully shallow post debate commentary, we at Classics Corner have just one question: What the hell was that? BORING! And that's coming from a guy who reads Thucydides for fun.

Let's face it. Focus groups can't script a debate for shit. We want reality. It’s obvious these guys hate each other, so let's see some eye gouging. They're both assholes, and they should have the courage to say so.

We say if the debates are going to be scripted, let’s have them composed by Aristophanes, the profane comic playwright of 5th century Athens. If they were, they'd go something like this:

Bushippias: Should the people elect me, I will abolish taxes, reinstate slavery, and declare April 15th to be "Government is Very Very Bad Day."

Agoreaborus: Should the people elect me, I'll surgically attach a computer to every middle-class kid in America, and I'll build enough prisons to house the others. This will grow the economy by creating another 40,000 good paying guard jobs by the year 2004.

Bushippias: Fuzzy Math! Fuzzy Math!

Agoreaborus: Blow it out your ass, Monkeyboy!

Bushippias: At least I have one.

Agoreaborus: I can see you do, and the money you got from Big Oil is hanging out of your hole.

Bushippias: Did someone fart?

Demos: Tweedledee and Tweedledum. We go ho and we go hum. We yawn and then we scratch our bum. We pat our heads and chew our gum. We love TV and we are dumb.

Bushippias: I believe the death penalty is a deterrent, so once a year I'll use my cheap hand gun to shoot a random Washington Insider.

Agoreaborus: I like the death penalty even more, but I believe in gun control and a clean environment, so twice a year I'll personally garrote a Litterbug with piano wire.

Bushippias: As a Compassionate Conservative, I'll see that all Homeless People get turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

Agoreaborus: Well, here's another area where there's a big difference between us. I'd empower them to work for their dinners, and teach them twentieth century skills, like biotechnology and aerospace engineering.

Third Party Candidate (offstage): Both of you are so far up the ass of Corporate America I can barely see your ankles. I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down.

Bushippias: Did you hear anything?

Agoreaborus: Uh-uh, not a thing.

Chorus: How many words will fall from their mouths, before they say something real. Yes and how many times will we believe lies, like a clubbed and dazed baby seal? The answer, my friend, is it will never end, unless there is campaign finance reform. It doesn't even rhyme, and it will take some time. But what we need is campaign finance reform.

Saturday, October 7, 2000

Slade Gorton Has No Soul: The Socratic Proof

We at Classics Corner do not know everything. We are human, and have most of the same limitations as other mortals. Sadly, our lack of absolute knowledge sometimes extends into the political realm, where tough choices must be made based upon imperfect evidence.

For example, our wife recently told us to vote Cantwell, despite our preferences for Senn, because Cantwell could beat Gorton and Gorton must be defeated. "Slade Gorton is pure evil," she said.

We wondered whether this was possible. We became obsessed by the ratio of Gorton's goodness to evil. We were beyond politics and into pure metaphysics. The real question, we decided, is essentially this: Does Slade Gorton have a soul? Naturally, we turned to Plato for our answer.

Many of us have been forced to read The Phaedo at some point or another in our wretched lives, and may remember it as the dialogue in which Socrates offers three proofs for the existence of the soul before serenely sipping his post-prandial hemlock and finally shutting up.

We at Classics Corner thought it might be illuminating to apply these general proofs to the particular case of Slade Gorton.

Our first proof is the Heraclitean doctrine of opposites. Heraclitus, one of the first philosophers to appear in Greece, said the world is change and is based upon opposing tensions. Day turns into night, sleep into wakefulness, life into death, and so forth, in continuous cycles. This insight was extended substantially by Hegel and transformed into the basis for communism by Marx, so it would be very ironic if we proved the existence of Gorton's soul through the logic of communism. We at Classics Corner love irony, so we'll chalk one up for Slade's soul.

The next proof offered by Socrates is the doctrine of reminiscence. The notion is that we understand ideal concepts even though we've never actually seen one; therefore, we must have experienced the ideal prior to our births. Ironically, the example Socrates offers is equality.

We went to the candidate's website, at, and the Dump Slade 2000 site at, and found little to no evidence that Slade Gorton understands the principle of equality, whether approximate or absolute. We are sorry to report that the doctrine of reminiscence, in the case of Slade, offers insubstantial proof.

The third, last, and lamest proof is that of constancy. Socrates argues that if the soul embodies ideal qualities, then those qualities are not subject to change and must be eternal. But constancy does not seem to be Slade's strong point. His campaign website, for example, says we "need to support our natural resources as a precious gift." Yet the League of Conservation voters says Gorton only voted the right way on the environment 11% of the time last year. His score the previous year was 0%.

This lack of constancy does not make a good case for the existence of Slade's soul.

So there we have it. We at Classics Corner, despite our best efforts, remain perplexed. Does Slade Gorton have a soul? We still don't know. You'll have to decide for yourselves.

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Socrates Hates Democracy

Looking back over the last 100 issues of Real Change, it occurs to us that we may not be loved by all. This makes us sad, because despite all our tough activist posturing, we are still desperate for approval.

But facts are facts, and facts must be faced. Not everyone thinks the words “homeless” and “empowerment” belong together in the same phrase. There are those who believe the homeless should simply become the non-homeless, and barring that, should just shut up and stop bothering the rest of us.

Socrates would probably have been among them.

We at Classics Corner have always found the Socrates/Christ conflation quite unfortunate, since their opinions regarding the poor couldn’t have been more different. For those unfamiliar with their respective philosophies, we’ll clarify: Christ loved the poor, and said so regularly. Christians still occasionally recognize this odd quirk of his, but more often than not prefer to do so in the abstract.

Socrates, on the other hand, was an elitist — ‘scuse our French — sum’mobitch, and despite the fact that the world around him had gone rabidly democratic, still believed in the rule of kings. Let’s be clear. Aristocracy, for Socrates, was too democratic. Rule by the people, he thought, was dangerous, wrong, and just plain dumb.

Socrates would have found the opinions expressed in Real Change annoying at best.
The issue of democracy, for Socrates, revolved around the idea of whether virtue could be taught. He didn’t think so. People had virtue or they did not, and generally speaking, the better one’s breeding, the more virtuous one was. He therefore despised the sophists, or wisdom teachers, of the time, who were busy teaching the rising Greek middle class how to effectively reason, debate, and get their way in the public assembly, which he also despised.

This is why the Protagoras is our favorite Platonic dialogue. Protagoras was a famous sophist, and he and Socrates clash over this very question. Oddly, Socrates loses.
Protagoras relays a lovely creation myth in which Epimethus, the god who peopled the world, makes all the animals first and forgets to save any of the good stuff for us.

Prometheus, to his later peril, tries to save our pathetic asses by stealing art from Athena and fire from Hephaestus. This helps, but it’s not enough. When we try to live in communities, we just fight and kill and make a mess of things in general.
Zeus brilliantly sends in Hermes to give us mutual respect and a sense of justice.

The messenger asks who he should give these talents, and Zeus says “to all.” Protagoras’ point is that democracy works because we all have the potential to participate.

Socrates gets all pissy and diverts the conversation to hairsplitting word games until everyone, including the reader of the dialogue, just has a big headache. But Protagoras’ argument stands unchallenged: There is something about the democratic process that makes us complete. We are born to it. All of us.

So what’s our point? Love us or not, Real Change is here to stay. Join us next time, when we ask, “Does Slade Gorton have a soul?”

Thursday, September 7, 2000

Sappho Junction, Washington

“I think that someone will remember us in another time.”
—Sappho of Lesbos, circa 600 BC

It’s sad but true. When we read Sappho, the Lesbian poet of seventh century BC, we find fewer poems than pieces. They are mostly teasing little bits, like “Eros arrived from heaven wrapped in a purple mantle,” or “with what eyes?” It’s not a lot to go on.

We know that Sappho was born in about 630 to an aristocratic family, was orphaned at six, had a daughter named Kleis, and died in around 570. She is said to have been short, dark, and ugly. While her woman-centered poetry was widely known, very little survived the Dark Age.

But the poet’s memory happily lives on at Sappho Junction, a little town in the Olympic Peninsula at the intersection of U.S. 101 and Highway 113.

Here, behind the Texaco, stands one of the more unlikely literary monuments in Washington State: a chainsaw sculpture of a toga-clad, dark-skinned woman with pouty lips and big wide eyes.

“I needed something for the tourists,” admits Texaco owner Sam Gaydeski. “I could have had a fish or a bear or something, but Sappho being Sappho, I had her carved instead.”

Sappho, population 13, could have been the shipping center of the upper Quillayute valley, or so hoped town founder Martin Van Buren Lamoreaux, who moved there in 1889. After Seattle’s Great Fire, Lamoreaux decided his land near Lake Union was a bust and took a chance on the middle of nowhere.

Lamoreaux, his wife, and their eleven kids took a steamship to the Pysht Indian Village on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, hiked through 20 miles of wilderness, and homesteaded their claim. In Lamoreaux’s town, each member of his family had a good job: postmaster, hotel owner, general grocer, hospital administrator, and so forth.

According to several sources, Lamoreaux named the town Sappho because he felt Sappho’s poetry, with its “intense but controlled emotion expressed in everyday, down to earth language,” struck a nice tone for building a life in the Olympics.

The town founder was jailhouse lawyer as well as an amateur classics scholar. Locals called him “The Judge.” Despite his lack of a law degree, he became Justice of the Peace.

Lamoreaux died in 1901. His family gave it up and split for Vashon in 1909.

Yet Sappho persisted. It was a timber town of sorts, and hosted a logging camp from the 30s forward. By the early 70s, the advent of the logging truck rendered the railway, and the town of Sappho, more or less obsolete. That’s when the post office and the town tavern closed down for good.

Now Sappho is Sam’s Texaco, a junk shop about a mile down the road run by a guy named Biff, and a nice old couple who raise Australian Sheepdogs. “It’s not much of a town really,” says Sam. “Just a big old name on the map.”

But what a name. On any map of the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll find Sappho, just a big as Forks, or even Port Angeles. There isn’t much left, but we at Classics Corner are happy she’s there.

Sunday, August 27, 2000

Hesiod's God of the Little Guy

From time to time, each of us needs to stand back, look ourselves in the eye, and ask, “What has the Protestant work ethic done for us lately.”

We at Classics Corner hid out at a mountain resort last week to do just this. For fun, we brought along Hesiod, a seventh or eighth century BC farmer-poet from the backwaters of Greece. As it turns out, Hesiod is one of history’s first workaholics, but even he says to rest in August, when work is done, the sun is hot, and “women’s lust knows no bounds.”

“Then,” he says, “ah then, I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine.” He also recommends thick goat’s milk, freshly baked bread, the meat of a free-range heifer, and sparkling wine mixed with three parts water. Having none of these essentials on hand, we substituted scotch and tried to avoid fried foods.

While we did not find Hesiod’s remarks upon the habits of women to be particularly accurate, we were still obsessively drawn to Works and Days, his 829 line poem on how to work hard, marry well, lead an honest life, have good crops, and avoid drowning at sea or blaspheming the gods.

Hesiod’s poem is addressed to his lazy brother Perses, who bribed the local “gift-devouring kings” to lawyer the poet out of his inheritance. Perses is exhorted to end his scheming, get off his butt, and “Work!”

Ever since Prometheus egged the gods into hiding the “means of livelihood” in the earth, most of us poor humans have had to scratch out our precarious existence with constant toil. This, says Hesiod, is the way of the world. Life is struggle, he says. Get used to it.

From the perspective of our lakeside adirondack chair, we found all of this quite bracing indeed.

But we were drawn most to Hesiod’s obsession with justice. Having recently survived the prayer-soaked public coronations of Bush and Gore, we found the poet’s idea of a people’s god immensely appealing.

Belief in justice, says Hesiod, transcends the individual to concern the entire community. In an immoral world where might makes right, “grief and pain will find us defenseless,” and “evil doers and scoundrels will be honored.”

Hesiod believes there are spirits who function as the ethics police, invisibly roaming the earth and seeing that justice is served. When corruption is allowed to spread, he says, the entire community is punished, so everyone has an immediate interest in behaving morally.

Even Hesiod, however, has his moments of bitterness and doubt. “As matters stand,” he says, “may neither I nor my son be just men in this world, because it is a bad thing to be just if wrongdoers win the court decisions.”

In Hesiod’s world, god looks out for the little guy, and his faith in this keeps him an honest man. Hesiod’s practical mind would see a god of the rich, powerful, and corrupt as worse than no god at all. His is a useful belief, and 2,800 years later, with god half-dead, it still rings true.

Sunday, August 6, 2000

Herodotus Weighs In On Rent Deposits

Ever since the property markers showed up in our front yard, we at Classics Corner have wanted to lynch our asshole landlord.

The trouble started last fall, when the crackhouse across the alley got torn down. Being the hopelessly confused liberals we are, we felt bad about celebrating. Crackhead squatters need housing too, but that doesn’t make them good neighbors.

But things went from bad to worse. A 3-story, 6-unit box grew in its place and herds of SUVs began grazing in the driveway. Soon after, big ugly condos sprouted like dandelions, and you couldn’t swing a dead cat north of 85th and Aurora without hitting a damn yuppie.

That’s when we found the property markers in the front yard.

Our landlord, let’s call him “Harry,” said we “probably” didn’t need to worry “at the moment,” but our lease “might” not be renewed in four months. We at Classics Corner were good as gone.

Incredibly, “Harry” looked to us for sympathy. Being a landlord, he said, had “taken him places” he never thought he’d go. The logic of capitalism overpowered his will. He became as a leaf, floating lazily downstream. He looked forlorn, like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. The natural process of our displacement occurred just slightly outside his comfort zone.

But he soon recovered sufficiently to screw us on the security deposit, which brings us finally to Herodotus.

It seems there was a certain Spartan named Glaucus, who was known far and wide as a just man. A stranger from Miletus traveled to him and said, “I want to profit from your justice.”

The Milesian proposed that Glaucus accept half his fortune for safe-keeping. His own land in Ionia was subject to all sorts of disruptive activity, but Sparta, known for its stability, and Glaucus, known for his justice, offered the perfect solution. Glaucus could do him a great service by holding half his fortune until he again came to call. Glaucus agreed.

When the Milesian’s sons came back later on with receipts for the fortune, Glaucus lost his memory. He probably said something lawyerly; something like, “I have no recollection of that transaction at this time.”

He bid the sons to return in four months, when his memory might be restored. They unhappily left. Meanwhile Glaucus’ conscience reasserted itself, and he was off to the oracle at Delphi to ask whether cheating was fair.

The oracle inscrutably predicted all sorts of dire consequences to Glaucus’ ill-gotten gain. Glaucus asked forgiveness, but the oracle replied that “to tempt the God and commit the sin are the same thing.”

In other words, “Harry” earns major bad karma for even thinking about screwing us, with or without follow through!

Glaucus sends after the sons and gives back the money, but the damage is done. No trace of Glaucus’ family is left on the earth.

“So good a thing it is,” says Herodotus, “not even to form a thought about a deposit, save only the giving of it back when people ask for it.”

Sounds like good advice.

Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Expose Thyself To What Wretches Feel

Last month, we at Classics Corner found ourselves at the Fifth Annual Conference of the North American Street Newspaper Association, way up in Edmonton, Canada, where all the working people say “eh?,” and curling, a cross between ice bowling and shuffleboard, is an Olympic sport.

Much as we adore vegetarian food cooked by hippies and served from tofu containers, we managed to miss the evening meal by Food Not Bombs. We also missed the little protest march, wherein Dr. Wes Browning allegedly induced dozens of youngsters to dance like Deadheads while chanting, “This is what dem-o-cracy looks like.” We even missed the International Streetpaper Vend-Off, which was won by Larry, a genial little man from Calgary. Larry, who had been a vendor just three days, made $70 on 40 papers in two hours, thus attaining cult status within the North American streetpaper movement.

We were irresistibly torn from all this by the final night of River City Shakespeare Festival 2000, which featured a production of King Lear set in late-Weimar Germany. Goneril and Regan hatch their bitchy little plot in slinky ballroom gowns while smoking from long, elegant cigarette holders. Their imperious stormtrooper husbands gloat all through the play, right up to their well-deserved deaths at the end. Cordelia takes up with the French Resistance, and finally shows up in fatigues to fight for la revolutíon.

Next day, during an exciting by-laws discussion, delegates from across the continent debated membership approval and nominating processes while we at Classics Corner transcended the pathetic human condition by reflecting upon the lessons of Lear.

Lear, we decided, speaks to us because the play cuts through the pomp of privilege to show people as the absurd and vulnerable creatures we are. The King moves from ego-ridden arrogance to self-pity to identification with the wretched. “Expose thyself to what wretches feel,” he says, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, “and show the heavens more just.” Lear finds that stripped of our property, we are all pretty much the same. Man is shown to be “No more than this … a poor, bare, forked animal.”

An MLA, which is something like a State Representative, welcomed us the first day to Alberta and encouraged us in our vocation. We offer a window, he said, into a harsh reality that some might otherwise never see. We fight the good fight against economic injustice. We keep what is undeniably bad from getting unbelievably worse.

Things in Lear continually go from bad to worse. Edgar says “Who is it can say, ‘I am at the worst?’ … The worst is not so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”

Eventually, in his madness and poverty, King Lear sees the hypocrisy of “justice,” and utters what is our favorite line in all of Shakespeare: “Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.”

If we’d had our way, the entire NASNA conference would have taken the night off to attend Lear. We could have grinned across that great class divide and sold papers at intermissions, daring Festival promoters to the irony of arresting us.

That night in Edmonton, it might have been what democracy looked like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2000

The Dangers of Excess

When Classics Corner last month watched fatass rich guy Paul Allen smash a Chihuli guitar to celebrate his latest acquisition, we were reminded of nothing so much as Solon’s legendary advice to Croesus, that no one should consider themselves lucky until after they’re dead.

As Herodotus tells the story, which, like many of his instructive tales, probably never happened, Croesus, King of Sardis, was honored with a visit from Solon, the originator of Athenian democracy. Croesus, then the richest man in Asia, instructed his minions to show Solon about his various storerooms and treasuries. He then asked the wise man who was “most blessed of all.”

The unimpressed Solon answered, “Sir, Tellus the Athenian.”

This Tellus apparently died bravely in battle after having sired devoted sons in a well-run city. Croesus, a bit taken aback by this strange value system, asked who, then, was second most blessed.

“Cleobis and Biton,” said Solon. These men, when oxen were unavailable for their mother’s ride to the temple, yoked themselves to a wagon and pulled her the 6 miles themselves, and then, in an apparent paroxysm of filial piety, died. Their fellow countrymen were so impressed that statues in their likeness were erected at a holy shrine.

Croesus was unamused. Solon, who numbered a mans days at 26,250, reminded him that each of these was different from the last, that that while Croesus was rich and a King, he may or may not be blessed, depending on how his days went to the end.

That was pretty much the end of the King’s hospitality, and Croesus sent Solon away, “thinking him most assuredly a stupid man.”

Later, with his mighty empire in ruins and his mind concentrated by the prospect of being burned alive by King Cyrus of Persia, Croesus saw the wisdom in Solon’s little homily. As the flames kindled, he cried out “Solon! Solon! Solon!,” each utterance bringing the flames a little closer to his feet.

The Persian King, always up for a good conversation, asked who this Solon was, and Croesus told the whole story in perilous detail.

Cyrus, who like most ancient rulers was subject to wild mood swings, reflected on “how nothing of all that is in the world of men can be secure,” and gave orders to let Croesus go.
By then, however, the flames would not be doused, and the fire was out of control. Fortunately for Croesus, Apollo heard his prayers and sent a rainstorm. The Sardinian ruler became the slave of Cyrus, but at least he wasn’t roasted alive. In those days, this passed for a happy ending.

And so it goes. Today, WSU dropout Paul Allen owns a couple of sports teams, some cable companies, an entertainment empire, Janis Joplin’s feather boa, the Hendrix legacy, Mick Jagger’s ex-wife, and various other effluvia and ephemera too numerous to mention.

He thinks he’s so smart. We’d gleefully like to remind Paul that he has 10,058 days left, and as any ancient greek knows, excessive happiness is a very dangerous thing.

Monday, June 19, 2000

Bald and Proud

We at Classics Corner have seen the moment of our greatness flicker. We have heard the eternal coatman snicker. Our head (grown slightly bald) has grown older and fatter.
It is a disturbing matter.

We try not to dwell upon the the fleshly expanse at the center of our head. So long as we need two mirrors to see it, we enjoy the illusion of youth. Our friends know better than to bring it up. Photographic evidence is immediately destroyed.

We fear the day that our thinning crown meets our high forehead and turns us into one of those pathetic old men who comb their three remaining hairs over the shiney area above their eyebrows .

Yet, this can also be seen as one more instance in which advanced age allows one to better appreciate the richness of classical literature.

In our youth, for example, we were always puzzled by 2 Kings 2:23-25, which, as most of you will no doubt remember, is a pleasant little story about the Prophet Elisha.

The elder Elisha was on his way from Jericho to Bethel when a number of small boys came out of the city and jeered “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”

Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two she bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of them.

We used to think this evidence of a cruel, vindictive, and arbitrary God. Now, in our great maturity, we see that the little shits had it coming.

Socrates, with his bald head and pot belly, has rescued our self respect. He was ugly as a satyr, but through pure force of personality and intellect managed to be the Patrick Stewart of the ancient world. Alcibiades, the heart throb of Athens, the biggest playboy of the 5th Century BC, wanted to jump his bones so bad he could barely stand it.

In Plato’s Symposium, the beautiful, brilliant, desirable Alcibiades details his labors to seduce the old man. He corners him at the gymnasium, gets him drunk over dinner and crawls under a toga with him afterwards; he openly professes his love: the poor man tries everything.

But Socrates was too good for him. His brilliant, unattainable, bald head shown forth as a beacon of virtue in the night. Bald was beautiful baby.

As if further evidence of the virtues of baldness were necessary, we also have the testimony of Herodotus, who lived about a generation after the Great Socrates. The far-ranging historian tells of the Argippaei, a people of the north, who lived in the foothills of the Urals in what is now once again known as Russia.

These mysterious people lived under trees and evidently thrived upon cherries, which were strained through cloth and then concentrated into cakes.

Herodotus, who leaves the only extant record of this amazing race, says the Argippaei needed no weapons, for they were “accounted sacred” and no one would attack them. They were in fact sought by neighbors for their wisdom in settling disputes.

These tree-sitting, cherry-eating, dispute-resolving holy people were said to be snub nosed and to have large beards. They were also completely bald, from birth, men and women alike.

Kojak was never this cool. One can almost see the Argippaei, sucking on their cherry cakes, saying, “Who loves ya baby?”

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.”
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

Apologies to T.S. Eliot, upon whose poetry we leech.

Sunday, June 11, 2000

Gladiator and Commodus the Deranged

Despite the fact that Rome isn’t really our specialty, we at Classics Corner recently waddled down to Oak Tree Cinema to watch musclemen perform strenuous acts of combat in the hot sun. As always, we were grateful to not be born in Italy circa 160 AD.

We are, of course, referring to “Gladiator,” which features Russell Crowe doing his best Anthony Hopkins on steroids impersonation, and Richard Harris, who looked about 90, which is odd, since he played Marcus Aurelius, who died at 59.

If you are the sort who needs the element of surprise to stay interested in a predictable story line, I suggest you stop reading right now and spend the next three minutes making crank calls to 684-4000. Tell the Mayor you’re not pacified by bread and circuses, you’re still pissed about SAFECO field, and that one day, the revolution will come. Otherwise, read on.

In the movie, Marcus Aurelius, after conquering most of the known world, asks Maximus, his lead general, to restore the state to the senate and end political corruption as the next Emperor. Maximus momentarily demurs. Commodus, the Emperor’s son, takes the news badly and offs the old man before the decision becomes known. Maximus is unsuccessfully executed, winds up a slave, becomes a gladiator, and eventually, with the ineffective help of Commodus’ sister, plots revolution and kills the annoying upstart Emperor in the Coliseum before a cheering crowd.

It was great. Yet, as the credits rolled and the adrenaline high began to subside, we began to suspect that “Gladiator” was not exactly an historical document. While we don’t want to sound like some nerd at a Star Trek convention whining about how ships in space don’t bank for turns, we thought, as a public service, that we might separate history from Hollywood for those who care.

Marcus Aurelius was, in fact, Emperor from 161-180 AD. He was also preoccupied as a philosopher with the problem of power and responsibility. Despite this, he disastrously named his son Commodus as successor, a move that was widely considered his biggest mistake. Commodus had a sister, Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilia, who attempted his assassination. For this she was exiled and finally executed. In the movie-land of happy endings, perfect teeth, and extensive cleavage, she triumphantly survives to offer a climactic speech.

According to our Oxford Classical Dictionary, which we read everyday and twice on Sundays, Commodus was “obsessively devoted to performing as a gladiator and appeared to be dangerously deranged.” He also, in true Roman tradition, called the months of the calendar after himself and renamed Rome as Colonia Commodiana. He was finally strangled on New Years Eve 192. The people did not mourn his passage.

Unfortunately, there was no general turned slave turned gladiator upon whom the story turned. Nor, presumably, was there an improbable love interest between this gladiator and Commodus’ dearly departed sister. Nor did Commodus bring the games back to Rome after Marcus Aurelius, the saintly philosopher king, had them banned, thus desecrating the memory of his father. In truth, the games were never banned in Rome until Constantine, in 325, decided they were too bloody for a peacetime activity.

But we at Classics Corner would never let our facts get in the way of good story. “Gladiator” has the enduring moral that bread and circuses are not enough. The people love entertainment, but will eventually see through the politicians’tricks to support the scrappy underdog, especially if he puts on a good show. Justice will prevail, and all they’ll have to do is cheer.

At least that’s how it works in Hollywood.

Sunday, May 21, 2000

The Most Simple Minded Thing Ever

A Southern Baptist minister, who otherwise shall remain nameless, recently confided to Classics Corner that G.W. Bush had secured his vote for President. While there was little in this particular circumstance to shock and surprise, the minister’s reasons were, nonetheless, oddly compelling.

“The last time I voted for an honorable man,” he said, “was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ever since, I’ve been in it purely for the entertainment value.”

And so, G.W.’s predictable stands on abortion, gay marriage, and gun control not withstanding, this Man o’ God will cast his puny little vote for the smirking idiot, simply because G.W. Bush is the bigger joke.

Here in Seattle, home of the worlds’ most boring City Council, we at Classics Corner have come around to his point of view: if our politicians can’t serve, they should at least amuse.

For example, why doesn’t anyone bother to come up with a good birth myth anymore?

Honestly, why should we vote for anyone who wasn’t fated to rule from Day One? Moses of Egypt, Jesus of Nazareth, Cyrus of Persia, all as infants had powerful people who wanted them dead. Can Jan Drago say that? Richard Conlin? Of course not. Nobody cared that they were born, and most of us still don’t.

Peter Steinbruek at least has political dynasty going for him, but he’s never gone the extra mile to claim divine favor. This, to our mind, shows a pathetic lack of chutzpa.

Where is these people’s sense of political theater? We long to be entertained! It’s not too late for Paul Schell to grab a second term; he need only emulate Pisastratus, an early tyrant of Athens.

Pisastratus, who once seized power by more conventional means only to be overthrown, reinstated himself by convincing a tall and beautiful woman from the next city-state over to dress in armor and ride into town on a chariot as Athena herself. Heralds ran head, loudly proclaiming her endorsement of Pisastratus. The people loved it. Herodotus disgustedly calls this “the most simple-minded thing, in my judgement, that has ever been.”

Had we voted for entertainment value, Charlie Chong would be Mayor, and Paul Schell would be a happier man, but we as voters lacked the imagination. We were more comfortable with the staid elitism of Paul Schell than with Chong’s inarticulate populism.

Chong needed only to make himself believable as mayor. He could have learned from Egypt’s Amasis, who has appeared in this column before. As the story goes, Amasis, when summoned by the king, lifted himself from his horse, farted, and said “Take that to the king.” A populist gesture if ever there was.

Later, after Amasis had led the Egyptians in revolution, the people were having a tough time accepting the distinctly nonregal Amasis as their ruler. In a bit of political theater unlikely to be reproduced in our day, Amasis had his golden footbath melted into the image of a god, and set it in the square where people bowed before the idol.

“I am like this footbath” he said. This lowly implement, in which the people had once pissed, vomited and washed their feet, had been transformed into a thing to worship. And that was how, says Herodotus, Amasis “conciliated the Egyptians to the justice of their slavery to himself.”

Charlie Chong in 2001. It’s just crazy enough to work.

Thursday, May 4, 2000

A Poem of Force

One of the lovely things about life here in Classics Corner is that we can nearly always find some common thread between the disconnected ideas ravaging our pathetic, bewildered brain.

At the moment, for instance, we are attempting to establish a connection between the Independent Review of the 1999 WTO Conference Disruptions in Seattle Washington, which helpfully appeared in our mailbox this afternoon, and Simone Weil’s brilliant World War II essay on the Iliad as a poem of force.

The Independent Review concludes that Seattle’s response to the WTO demonstrations lacked adequate planning and ignored obvious warning signs. To this, we can only yawn, mutter “No shit Sherlock,” and go on with our pedantic little lives.

The report goes on to say that competent law enforcement would have infiltrated the left, established strategic zones of control at the expense of free speech, and made as many pre-emptive arrests as possible, with particular attention to those pesky Anarchist squatters. In short, they say police should have exercised much more force from the start.

The authors of the report see their evaluation as a blueprint of sorts for what may be a new era of civil unrest. Those familiar with recent events in Washington, DC know the lessons of Seattle have already been applied, civil rights be damned.

Simone Weil was also preoccupied with events of her day, and warned that the naked and extreme force of Hitler rested upon innate human tendencies. It is unsafe, she said, to consign the possibility of barbarism to history.

Force, says Weil, is much more useful than class in understanding the essential nature of the world, and the Iliad, once we accept that the poem reveals something about ourselves, is “the purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Weil memorably describes force as that “which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Through force, the power of life becomes suspended, or even inert. People become objects.

But force is also somewhat illusory. In the Iliad, no one has the monopoly on violence. Force is “on loan from fate,” and the tables continually turn. This means, says Weil, that “the strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this.” In this, we find reason for hope.

Yet, there is an arrogance of power that believes force will always prevail. This, as Hector found while alone outside the Trojan gate, is a mistake. Life is unpredictable.

There is a moment, in the interval between the impulse and the act, says Weil, where justice can exist if we so choose. The destructive momentum of force undermines that moment. Achilles, for example, does not “choose life” when a disarmed enemy spreads his arms wide to beg for mercy. He is drawn to death, and plunges his sword into the supplicant’s neck without reflection.

The logic of force is to dehumanize. Who can forget the image of the teenage kid backing away from the stormtrooper, arms out wide. He is kicked in the balls and shot point blank in the chest with a rubber bullet.

There is no reflection here; just shortsighted arrogance. This is what people do when the precious moment between the impulse and the act no longer exists.

In Seattle, the mentally ill black man skips dangerously down the street and the cop drops him dead with one shot.

Force. It’s so easy. So corrupting. So present.

Sunday, April 16, 2000

Alcibiades, The Log Cabin Republican

We at Classics Corner were very amused to hear that G.W. Bush recently met with a dozen hand-picked Gay Republicans and emerged, in his words, “a better person” for the ordeal. While they did not agree on issues like gay marriage, common ground was found on upper-income tax breaks and decreased social spending, proving once again that while men loving men harms no one, voting Republican is morally problematic at best.

This happy convergence of naked self-interest and same-sex sexual activity led us to muse about Queers in the ancient world, particularly in Greece, where men were men and women, for the most part, were barefoot and pregnant.

There is evidence that gayness in Greece actually became more prevalent, at least among the elite, as the status of women declined, hitting a low point in the fifth century. This can be seen, for example, in Plato’s Phaedo, when Socrates, about to be executed, has only contempt for his grieving wife and, preferring the company of men, coldly sends her away.

Men in ancient Greece, it seems, didn’t polarize their sexual identity as do we more unambiguous moderns. Their lack of clarity about what, exactly, goes where, has led classicists such as ourselves to ponder such burning issues as whether Achilles and Patroclus, those uber-Greeks of the Iliad, were in fact doing “it,” or were just somewhat over-involved.

Our own opinion is that their Queerness is imagined by those who cannot conceive of intense male friendship under any other circumstances. The evidence that Achilles and Patroclus were straight is overwhelming. Achilles goes nuts over a woman. When Achilles and Patroclus have sex, they do so with women. While Achilles’ grief over his friend’s death is ostentatious, it is also, apparently, chaste.

You don’t hear as much about Dykes in Greece, although they were no doubt in abundant supply. The erotic poetry of Sappho celebrates women, and one gets the idea that Amazonian tolerance for men was limited. While Thucydides refers several times to the “revolting Lesbians” in his History of the Peloponnesian War, his reference to the attempted withdrawal of Lesbos from the Athenian alliance was surely not meant to offend.

When Classics Corner considers what sort of Gay Republican G.W. Bush’s campaign staff might find safe to meet their boss, we immediately think of Alcibiades, the flaming golden boy of fifth century Athens. Alcibiades was, in the manner of Truman Capote, said to have a lisp, leading us to wonder whether there really is a queer gene after all.

The Athenian General was, by all reports, rich, powerful, drop-dead gorgeous, and, like any self-respecting nobility, able to trace his family line to a God. While he and G.W. would have been at odds on the screwing men issue, screwing the poor would be welcome common ground.

Another similarity between G.W. Bush and Alcibiades is, of course, the short-lived nature of their political careers. Alcibiades was driven into exile when his drinking club was accused of breaking the penises off the city’s Hermes, which were a sort of sacred phallic lawn jockey. This oddly homoerotic yet distinctly frat-boyish prank almost got him executed.

But Alcibiades survived to narrowly avoid death several more times due to one advantage G.W. Bush clearly lacks. Alcibiades, while self-serving and untrustworthy, was also known to be brilliant. Here, any resemblance obviously ends.

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Solon, History's First Liberal

Those rubes in New Hampshire haven’t said anything that Classics Corner couldn’t have told you months ago. G.W. Bush has the brains and charisma of a hamster, and no chance of becoming President. He makes McCain look good, but not good enough to beat Al Gore, who will impersonate a human being for as long as it takes to win the throne.

Gore, you see, is a liberal, and liberals have an uncanny way of straddling the middle ground without splitting out their crotch and revealing far more than we want to know.

While Republicans want poor people to die unless there’s some profit involved, liberals like Gore honor our diversity because they need the votes.

History’s first liberal is probably Salon. Athens in 600 BC was about to explode into class war and everyone knew it. The lower classes were losing their land and being sold into slavery to pay their debts. There were dangerous grumblings. Some rich guy was about two seconds from getting a pitchfork buried in his gut.

It was time for reform.

According to Plutarch, Solon was “chosen to become an arbitrator and lawgiver; the rich consenting because he was wealthy, the poor because he was honest.” In trying to please both sides, he laid the foundation for what would become the most radical democracy the world has ever known.

Solon freed the poor from their overlords and eliminated debt slavery. He broke the back of the aristocracy and opened the door to democracy by organizing political representation by wealth. He extended judicial rights, in theory, to everyone.

This was not the Bolshevik Revolution, but all in all, it wasn’t a half bad start.

“In this,” says Plutarch, “he pleased neither party, for the rich were angry for their money, and the poor that the land was not divided ….”

The teeny tiny reforms of the Clinton years leaves Classics Corner feeling that the issues haven’t changed all that much. Our own congress recently defeated a proposal to prevent storefront usury outfits from charging one-hundred percent interest on loans. This was part of a package that would raise the minimum wage to a whopping $6.15 over three years.

For the math challenged, that’s $12,792 annually, before taxes. And some people wonder why there are so many homeless people.

It seems to us that slavery is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

But Classics Corner believes in change and loves liberals. We even would have watched Clinton’s State of the Union speech to its visionary end, had our butt not fallen asleep after the first hour and a half, outlasting our brain by a good forty-five minutes.

We struggle daily with our hard earned, world weary cynicism, and speaking in the third person plural all the while, will vote for nearly anyone who says that poor people are not just the figurative crud under their fingernails.

Solon, since no politician operates in a vacuum, practiced the art of the possible. He didn’t give the Athenians the best laws he could. He gave them, says Plutarch, the “best they could receive.”

Clinton and Gore would make the same claim. Maybe the rest of us need to rise to the occasion.

Thursday, March 23, 2000

Herodotus and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been annoying our dwindling circle of friends with stories from Herodotus, the fifth century historian who first established digression as a serious art form.

For example, within his story of the rise and fall of King Apries, who ruled Egypt from 588-569 BC, our guide Herodotus informs us off-handedly that “In Egypt there are seven classes, which are called, respectively, priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, shopkeepers, interpreters, and pilots.”

Classes in Egypt were primarily, it seems, associated with occupational status, and only secondarily with economic position. This got me to thinking about our own class structure, which hopelessly confuses most of us, and how it might look if we took a similar approach.

Movie stars would clearly be our royalty, and not just because they are obscenely and unjustifiably rich. We admire the high moral tone of Susan Sarandon, the glibness of Billy Crystal, and the preternaturally huge mouth of Julia Roberts. We aspire to the beefcake sensitivity of Bruce Willis, the passionate intelligence of Denzel Washington, and the empty charm of Tom Cruise. We are all idolaters, basking in the aura of the unreal.

Next, perhaps, would come rich software geeks. Herodotus tells a story about Amasis, a warrior who challenges Apries for the throne. When the King summons Amasis, the warrior lifts himself from his horse, farts, and tells the messenger “take that back to the King.” If one substitutes Bill Gates and the Justice Department, the parallel is immediately clear.

Cowherds and swineherds were respected for their proximate relation to the sacred. These would now be known as “consultants,” that shadowy variety of “knowledge worker” that gets several hundred dollars an hour for having mastered the arcane ability to utter phrases that none of us understand.

Egyptians, like the Greeks after them, held shopkeeping in relatively low regard. That was more of a Phoenician thing. We, on the other hand, respect private initiative, although we actually shop at Costco, Borders, and Home Depot, thus ensuring our children a monolithic future of highly controlled labor at the hands of others.

And speaking of the future, while teachers are not at rock bottom, they must be close. My sister-in law is a grade school teacher. She gets to form young minds without the benefit of books, supplies, or a school system that gives a shit about children. She may as well be a prison guard. In fact, she’d get paid a lot more if she was.

Pilots, in Egypt, were on the bottom. These, I think, were the many. They were the people who dragged the stones for the pyramids. They dug the canals from the Nile, and built the massive walls that surrounded their cities.

In short, they were the people who did all the work.

I always laugh when I talk to professionals who say they work hard and deserve their pay. I think of landscapers, dishwashers, and factory workers. I think of seamstresses and childcare workers and hospital attendants, many of whom work several jobs to make ends meet. And then I think that if hard work and high pay had any correlation at all, things for most of us would be very different.

Sunday, March 12, 2000

Homer Flies Like Bird

To the dismay of some and probable relief of many, we’ve decided to take a short rest from the political diatribe you’ve come to expect from Classics Corner to briefly reflect on the obvious similarities between Homer and bop saxophonist Charlie the Birdman Parker.

Bird, one of the great jazz players of all time, knew thousands of songs and could drop bits of blues, tin pan alley, hillbilly or classical music into any tune at just the right place and time to create something perfectly of the moment. He played games with harmonics and rhythm and pitch to create a completely distinctive style that was either pure genius or pure crap, depending upon one’s taste.

Homer, another improviser of note, had a similar method. He took bits and pieces of a vast repertoire of styles and riffs and created a thing of amazing beauty, versatility and genius.

Centuries of bards had come before him, and their vowelly songs of Achilles and Briseus, Odysseus and Penelope, Helen and Paris were the Top 40 Hit Parade of Greece. They didn’t recite. Their audiences wouldn’t have stood for it. That was dead. They improvised on the spot, using formulas like rosy-fingered dawn and white-armed Hera and strong-greaved Achilles to mesmerize their audiences with perfectly metered poetry that riffed on familiar storylines like Parker blowing White Christmas.

Homer, in all probability, learned his licks within the brotherhood of bards, and, like Bird, transcended. While classicists agree on few things about Homer, most doubt he was a writer in the sense we would think. He was an oral poet, taking the pieces of his culture, and arranging them in ways we still recognize as perfect 2,800 years later.

Snobs that we are, Classics Corner is always amazed by how people can listen to, oh, say, Parker’s Ornithology, and all they hear is a bunch of annoying repetition which they will go great lengths to flee.

Repetition is where improvisation breathes. You hear the small differences. You focus on the rhythms. It’s a break from the intensity of creation where you relax for a moment and drift happily into the familiar.

Homer’s audience got this. When Agamemnon gives the delegation to Achilles his incredible list of gifts, ranging from golden tripods to daughters in marriage, many find it annoying that Odysseus, like some kind of ancient transcription device, repeats the list verbatim only pages later. Yet this was how poet and audience alike got a break from the concentration demanded by spontaneous performance. It was a welcome island of familiarity, like Parker riffing out on a phrase of Jingle bells when he’s off wandering God knows where.

No one really knows when Homer was frozen into the written word, and we’ll never know what it was to hear Homer sing. The bard was replaced by the rhapsodist, who, instead of creating in the moment, recited from memory. Imagine never being able to hear Bird do Ornithology, and the best we could do was to hear Kenny G play the notes. And then the rhapsodist over time became the hack. Imagine a muzak version of Kenny G ripping off Bird.

You can still hear him blow: “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son …”

That Homer cat must really have been something.