One of the most harrowing incidents in the Athenian historian Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is the democratic debate over the rebellious subject state of Mytilene on the distant island of Lesbos. Thucydides uses his riveting account of the Athenian argument over the islanders’ fate to warn his readers of the fickle nature of democracy.
Outraged by the revolt of the Mytileneans, the frenzied Athenians suddenly assemble and vote to condemn all the adult males on the island, regardless of the role any of them may have played in the revolt. They are to be executed en masse for rebellion, on grounds of collective guilt. The next day, however, cooler heads in Athens narrowly prevail. The radical demos just as abruptly takes a second vote and withdraws its blanket death sentence of the day before, voting instead to execute only 1,000 of the ringleaders of the rebellion.
But what about the messenger ship that was dispatched hours earlier to deliver the mass death sentence?
A second trireme is now sent off by the contrite democracy with orders to the crew to row as fast as they can, in hopes of delivering the reprieve in time. The relief vessel and its exhausted crew arrive at Lesbos at the very moment that all the adult male islanders have been lined up and are about to have their throats slit.
Thucydides uses the frightening story to warn of the wild — and often dangerous — swings in public opinion innate to democratic culture. The historian seems at times obsessed with these explosions of Athenian popular passions, offering an even longer and more hair-raising account of popular mood swings over invading Sicily. We forget sometimes that the Athenian democracy that gave us Sophocles and Pericles also, in a fit of unhinged outrage, executed Socrates by a majority vote of one of its popular courts.
American democracy has become increasingly Athenian, as it periodically whips itself up into outbursts of frantic indignation. While the government in theory still operates according to the checks and balances of the Constitution, in reality, in the hyped Internet world of modern pop culture, fevered passions can seize the majority of the population in a matter of hours.
The idea of gay marriage in 2008 earned unapologetic disapproval from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The liberal voters of California twice rejected the idea in statewide plebiscites. But after years of constant harangues in the media, boycotts, public ostracisms, and ad hominem attacks on the integrity of skeptics, the liberal political establishment — many of whose members are recipients of large amounts of cash from wealthy gay donors — suddenly flipped.
A sort of collective hysteria took over from there. In 2008 there was common assent on the part of the Democratic party’s leadership that the three-millennia-old belief that marriage involved different sexes would prevail, while a separate rubric, “civil union,” would be invented for homosexual couples. But by 2012 that notion was not merely outdated, but taboo. Almost overnight, supporting the erstwhile Obama position of permitting civil unions but rejecting gay marriage became tantamount to career suicide.
Ditto on illegal immigration. Barack Obama likewise swore between 2008 and 2012 that he was no despot who by executive fiat could legalize violations of immigration laws that had been passed by Congress. Yet by 2015 anyone who would agree with Obama’s past vows is now rendered little more than a nativist and xenophobe — so powerful is the Orwellian engine of groupthink.
Take the Confederate-flag debate. What started out just days ago as a reasonable move by the state of South Carolina, in the aftermath of the Charleston mass shootings, to remove the Confederate battle flag from public display on state property, within hours had descended into something like the mob’s frenzy over Mytilene. We have now gone well beyond removing state sanction from a flag that represented an apartheid society. Indeed, Americans of the new electronic mob are witch-hunting the past with a vengeance, as private, profit-driven companies seek to trump one another’s piety by banning the merchandising of Confederate insignia. Meanwhile, our versions of the ancient sophists and demagogues are hoping that the mob can stay agitated long enough to go on to new targets, such as banning public airings of Gone with the Wind or ending respect for public monuments of prominent Confederate war dead.
At some point, the throng will exhaust itself, and realize that while removing Confederate flags from state property was a reasonable and overdue gesture, most of what followed was Mytilenean to the core. Think of the contradictions that have already arisen from the mob frenzy.
One cannot today buy Confederate flags online, but one can easily purchase Nazi insignia of the sort that flew over Auschwitz.
One cannot today buy Confederate flags online, but one can easily purchase Nazi insignia of the sort that flew over Auschwitz or the hammer-and-sickle Communist banner that represented the Great Famine, forced collectivization, and various cultural revolutions that led to 100 million slaughtered or starved to death in the 20th century.
One can argue that the slave-owner Robert E. Lee fought to perpetuate human bondage, but Lee never took delight in personally executing without trial his ideological enemies, in the manner of the psychopathic, pistol-toting Che Guevara, whose hip portraiture adorns all too many campus dorm rooms.
Present politics mostly define the degree of past sin and the appropriate punishments, as the revolutionary mob decides in an instant which particular historical figure deserves the most immediate ostracism and should be Trotskyized from our collective memory. Should we now remove the racist Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill? Even in my small town in central California there are schools named Jackson and Wilson. Apparently our Depression-era educators thought that the one Democratic president was a populist reformer, the other an idealistic internationalist. Yet both were abject racists, at least as we understand the charge today. In fact, no president of the 20th century disliked blacks in general and integration in particular as much as the Southern segregationist Woodrow Wilson, although he adroitly cloaked his racial hatred with a thin veneer of liberal academic respectability as president of Princeton University and author of several progressive tracts.
The writings and speeches of Margaret Sanger, founder of what evolved into Planned Parenthood, trumped the biases of Wilson. Her progressive version of eugenics fueled much of her family-planning agenda. She saw reproductive rights as inseparable from discouraging the supposedly less gifted (in her view, mostly non-whites) from having lots of children.
Should Al Gore give one of his trademark teary public confessions and, in vein-bulging angst, apologize to blacks for misrepresenting his senator father’s racist votes against civil-rights legislation? Should Bill Clinton join Gore on the podium to feel our pain and say he is sorry that regional Clinton–Gore campaign affiliates often plastered “Clinton–Gore ’92” on the Confederate battle flag in an effort to get out the supposed redneck vote? Will Hillary Clinton join in too and apologize for her 2008 declaration — delivered during her heated, racialized primary struggle with Barack Obama — that the polls showed “how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states [Indiana and North Carolina, where primaries had just been held] who had not completed college were supporting me.”
Planned Parenthood is as likely to disown its progenitor as Princeton University is to change the name of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — and as the Clintons are to publicly repent for their past appeals to blue-collar whites. Apparently, on the one hand, we must understand that there are inveterate haters and symbols of unrepentant racism that should be excised from the body politic, and, on the other hand, there remain well-meaning progressives of the past, who were unfortunately captives of their times and said or wrote things (often spoken in the heat of passion, or taken out of context today) that they did not quite mean. The record of the latter group, according to modern liberal tastes, is unfortunate — but is fortunately overshadowed by their greater liberal accomplishments. Consequently, the mass hysteria against anything that reeks of past racism will be carefully steered clear of monuments honoring the pro-segregationist J. William Fulbright or former Klan leader Robert Byrd, or other liberal heroes like the racist states’-righter but Watergate icon Senator Sam Ervin, who, 20 years before Watergate, authored “The Southern Manifesto,” which encouraged opposition to the desegregation of schools.
There will be no liberal watchdog or enlightened corporation that goes after the federally funded National Council of La Raza for its racist nomenclature, which can be traced back to Franco and Mussolini. We cannot properly damn the liberal Earl Warren or the progressive McClatchy newspapers for their 1941 racial rah-rahing that helped convince the progressive Roosevelt administration to implement the Japanese internment.
The damnation of past segregation by race does not extend to censure of present segregation by race in campus dorms and meeting places. No one cares much that the liberal racism that prompted Woodrow Wilson to discourage blacks from attending his beloved Princeton logically continues with the modern Ivy League university adjusting SAT scores and GPAs to ensure that Asian-Americans are not “overrepresented” in Princeton’s incoming class: In both cases, utopian racialism by enlightened social engineers cannot be judged by calcified notions of color-blind fairness.
These outbursts of public frenzy at supposed enemies may reflect grassroots furor, but they are also orchestrated by progressive grandees who are inconsistent in their targeting of history’s villains — offering context and exemption for liberal fascist and racist thought, speech, and iconography, while connecting their present-day political rivals to the supposed sins of the country’s collective past. Manipulating the past, in other words, becomes a useful tool by which one can change the present.
In another analysis, Thucydides reminds us, in regard to the stasis at Corcyra, that in frenzied efforts to reconstruct both the past and present to fit ideological agendas, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” So they do today, as the mob makes the necessary adjustments in going from one obsession to the next.