I debated posting this for a while. I hate standing on a soap box, and this is a blog about books, not politics. But there’s so much going on worldwide at the moment that I’ve started feeling like an ostrich, hiding my head in the sand. What gave me the final push was TJ’s post, Sorrow in the US.
You can rest assured that I’m not changing the direction of this blog and that normal posts will continue right after this one, with a fascinating look at parchments and their use in Medieval times.
Arcadia? Not really
Despite modern visions of Arcadia, ancient Greece wasn’t an easy place to live in. The various city-states were in constant war with each other. The only time they came together was when facing an external threat, such as the Persian invasions. And Pax Romana was the longest period that ancient Greece enjoyed in its turbulent history.
Language, Blood, Religion
Long before Rome’s ascent, several philosophers questioned the city-states’ never-ending fight for supremacy and the resulting carnage. In search of a Greek identity, Herodotus ended up with four criteria: “Τὸ Ἑλληνικόν, ἐὸν ὅμαιμόν τε καὶ ὁμόγλωσσον, καὶ θεῶν ἱδρύματά τε κοινὰ καὶ θυσίαι, ἤθεά τε ὁμότροπα” – Greeks are those who share a common blood, language, religion, and customs. Anyone not satisfying these criteria was deemed a barbarian. (On an interesting side note, the very word barbarian came from the way other languages sounded to Greeks, like a constant repetition of the sound barb, barb, barb.)
Europe often reminds me of ancient Greece, with its long history of wars. After centuries of infighting in Europe, we have built the European Union. This has guaranteed peace and prosperity for the last 70 years, and perhaps some day may even form a closer political union – sort of the United States of Europe.
But we’re still a long way from that. I would love to say that the religion criterion is no longer relevant, but then I think of the whole the West vs. Islam mess. And the whole language/blood/religion/customs argument is one that has found an alarming echo in today’s cultural wars. The result of the recent Brexit referendum has been deeply divisive, while the recent racial killings in the US show just how powerful the “Us vs. Them” mentality still is, even between people that have so much in common.
A second school of thought held that the language/blood/religion/customs criteria were misleading from the start. Isocrates argued that anyone who partook of the Greek education is a Greek – “Ἕλληνας καλεῖσθαι τοὺς τῆς παιδεύσεως τῆς ἡμετέρα.”
This enlightened approach essentially argued in favor of spreading Greek soft power through education. Ironically enough, it became the way through which Greek thinking survived Roman occupation centuries later: in Horace’s words, “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” (“Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror”).
Every society has fault-lines that range from deep to superficial. Multiculturalism is often blamed for exacerbating this, and yet, after the Balkan Wars, Greece became one of the most monocultural societies in the world. Thirty years later, civil war broke out between supporters of the king and the Communists. And there’s no doubt that ancient Greece was as monocultural a place as you can find in the world. And yet, barely a year passed without a war breaking out.
Rich vs. Poor. Black vs. White. Protestant vs. Catholic. Christian vs. Muslim. Gay vs. Straight. Muslim vs. Jew. Left vs. Right. Liberal vs. Conservative. Pro-Europe vs. Eurosceptics. Natives vs. Immigrants. Catholic vs. Orthodox. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. The NRA vs., well, everyone else (a study showed 90% of Americans in favor of universal background checks).
All these are fault-lines that run through our societies. They have one thing in common: they have been exploited by ruthless people who look to control people through fear. Politics and politicians are a prime example, but fear-mongering is not limited there.
A recent example: Greece is predominantly Greek Orthodox, with a tiny Catholic minority, mostly in the Aegean islands. A few weeks ago, an ultra-religious pamphlet-waving fellow warned me about Catholics invading my home to proselytize me. Apparently, this was a reaction to an upcoming Orthodox Synod that aimed to update some obscure, outdated regulations. In a bizarre twist, he then blamed Jews for that, along with traitors, Masons, and heretics from within the church.
When someone mentions the words “Jews,” “Masons,” and “traitors” in a single breath, I know it’s time for me to get the hell out of there.
The need for an identity is very real. But we should not define ourselves through our fear of the Other. As this is a blog about books, I will mention here a recent publication by Brendan Simms, called Britain’s Europe (you can read the Economist’s review of the book here).
Brendan Simms is a historian at Cambridge University, who argues that the British notion of an island story is wrong. Britain’s history is above all about continental Europe. From the Romans and Normans to 100 years’ war to the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe mattered above all. Through repeated wars, the British found that the state of continental Europe’s was a vital national interest. Security was to be found on the Rhine or even the Elbe—and the continent should never be allowed to fall under the control of a single country.
Even The British empire, the world’s biggest, was largely a product of European rivalries. In 1759, a glorious year of British victories from Canada to India, Britain still had more troops in Europe than anywhere else. And British concerns to stop any particular country dominating the continent were at the root of the Napoleonic wars and, a century later, both world wars.
So, the fact that the Brexit camp so easily convinced the British public to effectively is nothing short of astounding. The fact that they achieved this by terrorizing people about immigration and EU regulation speaks volumes about the power of fear. Ironically enough, the experts’ warnings of the consequences a Brexit would have in the economy were dismissed as Project Fear. Within 24 hours, the pound fell from 1.50 to 1.32 against the US dollar, a multi-decade low, and Britain slipped from being the fifth richest country in the world, to place six, with negative prospects (according to rival rating agencies Fitch and Moodie’s, who both downgraded the UK’s credit rating to AA negative). 25% of British companies have stopped hiring, and a number of multi-nationals announced they are considering fleeing the UK. Both Frankfurt and Paris, which have long fought London for the position of Europe’s financial center, are rubbing their hands with glee. And a few days ago, Britain announced tax incentives for companies to remain in London, acknowledging the danger to its interests.
The most important unforeseen consequence of the Brexit referendum, however, was to expose deep fault-lines within Britain. Right after the result was announced, Scotland announced they’re mulling a second referendum. Northern Ireland demands for a unified Ireland followed soon after. Britain has not looked so fragile in centuries. It would, indeed, be ironic if the English quest for greater influence in the world ended up being the nail in the British Empire’s coffin.
That’s the problem with earthquakes – you can’t predict which part of a building will break up first.
A Trump-ed up charge
No post on cultural divisions would be complete without a mention of the dangerous polarization of US politics. In a typical event, Rakeem Jones, 26, and several friends visited a large Trump rally in Fayetteville. They began shouting, “Bigot!” shortly after Trump took the stage. Officers led Jones and his friends toward the exit. As they moved along, a man slipped past security and punched Jones.
The man arrested and charged in the assault on Jones, John McGraw, said in an interview after the incident that “you bet I liked it,” and justified hitting Jones because he might be a foreign terrorist.
We don’t know if he’s ISIS. We don’t know who he is, but we know he’s not acting like an American and cussing me . . . and sticking his face in my head. He deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.
History is very exciting when writing a story based on ancient Greek history, as I have done in Pearseus. Less so when I see the same patterns repeated around me and worry about our future.
Left vs. Right defined Western thinking during the second part of the 20th century. This is now a defunct dichotomy. A new one is taking its place, between those in favor of a cosmopolitan, global, united world with open borders and those who prefer the perceived security of a closed border, monocultural society. The twin evils of nationalism and populism are once again rearing their ugly heads. In Brecht’s words,
I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New. It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever smelt before…
So the Old strode in disguised as the New, but it brought the New with it in its triumphal procession and presented it as the Old. The New went fettered and in rags; they revealed its splendid limbs. And the procession moved through the night, but what they thought was the light of dawn was the light of fires in the sky.
And the cry: Here comes the New, it’s new, salute the New, be new like us! would have been easier to hear if all had not been drowned in a thunder of guns.
The ancient Greek city-states tried repeatedly to overcome their fear and form alliances such as the Delian League. They were all short-lived, condemned by the short-sighted ambitions of the member cities. In the end, Greece was united forcefully by Philip of Macedonia and his son, Alexander the Great. Most Greek cities didn’t really put up a fight. Largely, this was due to the fact that Macedonians were fellow Greeks (they even satisfied that ομόγλωσσον, ομοαίματον, ομόθρησκον criterion), but the sheer exhaustion of centuries of warfare also played a big part.
One thing I’ve learned from history is that peace should never be taken for granted. It would be a shame to risk it, especially when we’ve come such a long way toward a common future.
What to do?
I will close this post with a line from TJ’s post:
I’ve seen a lot of things in my life that I didn’t say anything about. That time has come to an end. There’s a Lawrence Kasdan quote from Silverado, “The world is what you make of it, friend. If it doesn’t fit you make alterations.” That might sound a little cheesy in the vein of this discussion, but I believe that. The world is exactly what we make it. Today I’m trying to make it a better place. I’m hoping others will do the same. We could use some alterations.
If you enjoyed this post, check out John Maberry’s post on killing the will to kill.