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.