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.