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Can we learn from Thucydides’ writings on the Trump of ancient Athens?

The Conversation

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

There is much consternation, and quite a bit of alarm, at the recent vote of the British people to leave the EU, and the equally astonishing emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Early on in these campaigns there was a tendency to mock Trump as a bit of a laughing stock, and likewise the equally flamboyant Boris Johnson in Britain.

But with the Brexit vote done and dusted, and Trump crowned as candidate, no one is laughing now. Trump has virtually thrown out the rule book for pleasant political discourse, and seems to get away with just about anything. In many quarters the mockery of Trump is fast being replaced by abject fear that he might actually get elected.

It is worth pausing to reflect on a historical parallel for some of this, not the least because Trump is often described as a “demagogue” – a Greek term which we will probably see a lot of in the coming months. The word is innocuous enough in its etymology, simply meaning “a popular leader”, somebody who “leads the demos” (being the adult male citizenry of classical Athens).

Athenian democracy was “direct”, in so far as the decisions were ultimately made by the citizens themselves in the assembly. This is a process that many conservatives found quite alarming at the time – just as many people today are alarmed at the direct power given to the British electorate in the Brexit plebiscite.

Pericles. By Internet Archive Book Images, via Wikimedia Commons

The term “demagogue” could easily have been used to describe Pericles – the urbane and respectable voice of Athenian politics in the late 5th century BC. After all, Pericles was brilliantly successful in achieving office and carrying the day in the assembly.

But the historian Thucydides, a great admirer of Pericles, never describes him in this way, preferring to use it pejoratively of his opponent Cleon, a controversial figure with populist leanings.

Cleon was fiercely anti-Periclean, and seems to have been a kind of Donald Trump of ancient Athenian politics. Classical scholars have described him in the following way:

he was an effective, if vulgar, speaker, and seems to have been given to extravagant promises and extravagant accusations against opponents. He was one of the first of a new kind of politician, who were not from the old aristocracy, and whose predominance depended on persuasive speeches in the assembly and lawcourts rather than on regular office-holding.

Cleon came from a wealthy background, albeit not an aristocratic one (his father was a wealthy tanner). He wielded significant power in the assembly at various times, especially after the death of Pericles (in 429BC) – playing a crucial role in determining the fate of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos, which had revolted from Athenian control. Cleon convinced the Athenians to put the men of Mytilene to death – a decision that, upon reflection, was rescinded the next day.

It is in the context of a debate on the issue of how to punish the rebellious Mytilenians that Thucydides provides us with a long speech by Cleon to the Athenians, which ends in the following way:

Pay them back for it, and do not grow soft just at this present moment, forgetting meanwhile the danger that hung over your own heads then. Punish them as they deserve, and make an example of them to your other allies, plainly showing that revolt will be punished by death.

Thucydides. Chris JL/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The speech is actually written by Thucydides – a hostile source – but it gives us a sense of the rhetoric of Cleon, for all its brilliant clarity and violence. Indeed Thucydides’ assessment is that Cleon “was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character”. Cleon ultimately died in battle in 422BC, seven years after his political enemy Pericles.

Thucydides’ History argues that bad public policy can do great damage to a city-state in crisis. Pericles had a clear vision of what strategy to adopt in their war against Sparta – to tend to their navy and not be drawn into risking the safety of the city and the empire. But Cleon went in the opposite direction, and is charged by Thucydides with abandoning the public good for private ambition.

Like much of Greek literature, Thucydides’ History focuses on the community response to the crisis of war. One reads of the increasing desperation of the city-state as the social and financial basis of the community starts to disintegrate.

The rise of the demagogues like Cleon in late 5th-century Athens might be seen as a culmination of various social, political and economic factors. Some of these elements also have resonances in our own times.

Political power could be achieved by speaking well in the assembly, regardless of one’s background. Indeed, being from a different, non-establishment, background could be a positive virtue.

And there were plenty of people who were prepared to offer instruction on how to handle oneself in the Athenian assembly (especially philosophers called “sophists”, or “wise men”).

One should not really press the Cleon/Trump parallel too much, given the 2,500 years between them and the very different cultural contexts. Nonetheless, at the beginning of his work, Thucydides does make some claims about human nature and the circularity of history that are worth bearing in mind :

It will be enough for me if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever (1.22).

There is a slightly ominous tone to these sentiments, given the experience of Athens in the Peloponnesian war. But we will need to wait and see how things play out in our own times before reaching a conclusion.

The ConversationChris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Boris Johnson on the Paris terror attacks

Some people have told me in the last couple of days that they couldn’t sleep after the first images started to come in from Paris on Friday night. Others have said that they had unexpected crying fits, or the shakes.

Of all the horrors that have taken place recently in the world, these massacres seem so immediate – because they are immediate: geographically, culturally, politically, spiritually. Paris is our sister city, just a couple of hours away on the train – a place you can go to for lunch, a city that in the last few years has despatched so many talented workers to London that I am the proud mayor of one of the biggest French towns in the world.

And so there is always one question that people want to ask me, even if – for fear of seeming selfish – they leave it unspoken. That question is: Could it happen here? Is London going to be hit by shootings on that scale?

The answer is that even though I think an attack of that particular type is unlikely, and even though we are doing everything in our power to prevent it, I am afraid that it would be impossible – and irresponsible – to rule it out completely.

How could we rule it out? Yes, of course the police and the security services are doing an amazing job – with the resources they have – in monitoring the thousands of potential suspects (perhaps 3,000-4,000), some of them clearly more dangerous than others. They foil all sorts of plots, half-baked or otherwise. They make arrests with great frequency. But it is plainly no use hoping that the problem of Daesh-inspired terrorism is going away.

Just in the last few months we have seen appalling loss of British life on the beach in Tunisia; we have seen a Russian passenger jet blown out of the sky; and now 129 people killed in Paris, in the most vicious and shocking fashion, and many others seriously wounded.

Several people over the weekend have echoed the sentiments of the excellent French ambassador to London, Sylvie-Agnes Bermann, who said that this massacre was qualitatively different from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January. This, she said, was a 9/11 moment. This was an act of war. I agree. And as we deliberate on how to respond, it is essential to be cautious, and to be pragmatic – and yet to use every weapon at our disposal.

First of all we need to catch the bastards before they strike; and I am afraid that I have less and less sympathy with those who oppose the new surveillance powers that the government would like to give the security services.

To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me. It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police. I want these people properly spied on, properly watched – and I bet you do, too.

Second, we need to be able to intercept them at frontiers. I know Molenbeek, the melancholy Brussels suburb that is said to have produced some of the Paris killers. I remember happy hours walking its bemerded and frituur-smelling streets, and alas I am not surprised to find – a generation later – that some of those scampering North African children have grown up to become jihadis.

What are the implications for the security of Europe, if you can load your car with Kalashnikovs in Molenbeek, and drive unimpeded not just to Paris but to any EU capital you please?

The Paris massacres – as the French have implicitly confirmed, by trying to control their own frontiers – have greatly strengthened the hand of David Cameron as he argues for better control at the borders. And yet it is not enough just to spy on them.

It is too late to try to catch them, once they have pupated into proto-terrorists. We must intercept them before the metamorphosis begins. We need to get the antidote down their throats before the poisonous death-cult takes over their minds. That means working ever harder to enlist the vast majority of Muslims who despise Daesh (so I propose to call them, since it is a shame to play their game and use the word Islamic in their title), and who can help most powerfully in differentiating their abominable doctrines from the teachings of the Koran.

It means working with the families, and coming down hard on parents who – all too often, alas – are allowing their kids, of both sexes, to go online and imbibe the jihadi madness: the ranting sermons, the home-made hydrogen peroxide suicide belts, and all the rest of the claptrap.

We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa. How hard can that be? Their “caliphate” is savage, dysfunctional, and so scary that many British would-be jihadis end up pleading to come home. But there it is – a breeding-ground of terror; and it looks very much as if at least one of the Paris killers actually came from Syria, via Leros. And so we come to the last of our possible responses – the military one. All the generals I have talked to are leery.

They want to understand the mission, and how we propose to achieve it. Would we go in with Putin? Would we effectively be backing Assad? No choice looks attractive; no plan is perfect. But is doing nothing any better? It is more than two years since the government was defeated in its plan to intervene in Syria, and the rhythm of terror would appear to be increasing.

These people avowedly want to destroy us, and in those circumstances no military option can be off the table. This is a fight we will one day inevitably win – because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs. But we won’t win if we don’t fight back.
 

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The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 13, 2014 By 0 5

The question before the meeting was very simple. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only 22 years old. There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the Cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. He told Halifax to forget it. Britain had been at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be raised over Britain.

So he said no to Halifax. In another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation, we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been prime minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But it was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

Lord Halifax,  second left, and Neville Chamberlain,  third left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

Lord Halifax, second left, and Neville Chamberlain, third left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the Empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the Thirties, your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communisms’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British prime minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, GB Shaw – was lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had hardened. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that, in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the prime minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7pm. He then convened the Cabinet of 25, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as prime minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full Cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7pm, the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the Cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from books.telegraph.co.uk. Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London

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