Reflecting on Thucydides and Prince

I was a great fan of Prince’s, as I suppose most of us who grew up in the 1980s were. There was the delightful raunchiness of Purple Rain, magnificently enhanced by Sheila E’s ferocious drumming. His sudden loss came at the end of a week when I had begun seriously re-reading Thucydides in Greek, after hitting a solid brick of wall of “we hate him” in my justice class. Thucydides is tough, and most students never get anything from him other than the Melian Debate, and always in translation.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think Thucydides is much diminished by translation, and diminished in ways that Plato and Aristotle are not. I think you can lead a good life just reading Plato in English. But Thucydides…no. I remember wading through him one summer in English and thinking “well, that sucked; why is he such a big deal to classical scholars?”

Much aided by Robert Connor’s excellent Thucydides, I came later to appreciate the importance of the book as a commentary on war and society. Connor helps illustrate the structure of the narrative, so that you can see, ultimately, what Thucydides is trying to get us to see:

1) Empire is profitable, so that imperialism leads inevitably to over-reach

2) People are fearful and seek advantage/domination as a result

3) and again as a result, suffering ensues

4) people naturally resist domination as much as people seek it; and

5) again, as a result, suffering ensues.

There is no just war (jus bellum); there is merely war.

This week reading through in Greek, the author’s subtle commentaries on leadership became more apparent to me: Pericles, as a leader capable of cooling passions at the same time acknowledging the necessities of aggression as a cornerstone to maintaining the profits of empire–and also a visionary of the Athens as people desire it to be (the Funeral Oration). But mostly, Pericles is capable of sacrificing for the common good. When he is gone, the story is diminished, as is Athenian capacity.

Then Cleon and Brasidas, both clever politicians and military leaders, but both duplicitous and motivated mostly by their own self-interests. Diodotus wins some clemency for the Mytilenes vis-a-vis Cleon not by appealing to Athenians’ sense of right and wrong, but by pointing out the advantage for Athens in showing clemency. Nicias appears to be good-hearted and noble–he seems a remnant of old Athens– but allows himself to get played by Cleon and Demosthenes, and is completely incapable of formulating a pragmatic argument that can really move Athenians when they are as focussed on advantage as they are. Nonetheless, he dies a noble death, proving himself capable of self-sacrifice in an attempt to stop the Syracusans’ senseless slaughter of his men as they tried to retreat. Even that noble sacrifice proved misguided, as the survivors were sent as slaves to the quarries–a long, tortuous death instead of a quick death from arrows on the battlefield. And then Alcibiades with tyrannical focus on himself and what he wants, which leads him to exile and treason.

All these are ways in which leadership can go completely, utterly wrong, even when, as with Nicias, one has good intentions and motivations.

These themes hit me very hard as I as am, as usual, reflecting on my place in the world, and realizing, not for the first time, that I really don’t belong in my department. I spent some time blaming the department for that, and then I started blaming myself, but it’s not anybody’s fault. People have their preferences and proclivities; they are as they are. And as Popeye says, I am what I am. The only transformations really possible through leadership occur, I suspect, when the right leader meets the right context at the right time. That’s a high-wire act if there ever was one.

I may simply belong nowhere, and ambitions–even those that exist as a desire to help or to envision–are best laid aside. It’s hard telling what might have happened for Athens if Cleon or Nicias had had such an insight and the humility to accept it.

Prince led simply by being who he wanted to be–fiercely original, his innate creatively wielded like sword. That strikes me as a very wise way to be in the world for those of us who never fit.

Thomas Jefferson on Bonaparte

I was complaining on Fboo about how my students won’t read a page and a half of Thomas Jefferson, which is a shame, because he wrote like so:

Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control. His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out. To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added. But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

Bam a lam.

Why would this writing appeal to me right at this political moment, I wonder. Atrocious egotism. Hmm. I wonder.

Was Ronald Reagan America’s Pinkerton? USC Bedrosian discussion of Reagen’s White House

Our policy wonks read Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw At the Revolution , and we sat down to discuss it a few weeks ago. On the resulting podcast are USC Bedrosian faculty, staff, and students: Raphael Bostic, Donnajean Ward, Matt Young, and me.

I listened to our discussion the other day and came to two conclusions: 1) I get very boisterous discussing books and 2) I have always rather thought of Reagen a lot like the Pinkerton character in Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton is not, per se, a bad man. He is very charming, and he is courtly in his affections for Butterfly. But he ruins her anyway because he’s not a careful man, nor is he a thoughtful man. Even at the end, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that coming back to Butterfly, new wife in hand, to take her boy away will take everything Butterfly loves and give her no reason to live. This isn’t a merely cross-cultural blindness on Pinkerton’s part. At some point, all that stops being the winsome charm of a simple, devil-may-care fellow and starts being an unforgivable obtuseness in his character about the way the world works and what other people need.

And that’s a little how I feel about the Reagan legacy. Conservatives revere him as this marvelous leader who emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous 1960s to ‘make America great again.’ If Trump’s slogan sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a constant drumbeat for conservatives. Conservatives are in thrall to imagined past that was simple, clear, and linear, and so much better than today, and we could have that again, if only we did things differently, and progressives are in thrall to an imagined future where things could be so much better than today, if only we do these other things differently.

Nonetheless, when I think of Reagan I think of a truly charismatic leader that, by “simplifying” the issues, led us to two legacies just as socially and economically disastrous as anything the 1960s might have wrought:

1) Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes at the same time they should engage in lots of foreign policy brinkmanship and intervention; and

2) A dollar spent on a social investment in an American is a hand-out to a unproductive person, and, thus, that is a dollar wasted. Rather, if we all just pull together and smile enough, things like need will go away with jes’ a l’il o’ that American gumption and go-gettiness.

Those two led major influences that Reagan legitimized, even if he didn’t invent them, have led the US into crippling levels of unproductive spending and unwillingness to have any serious discussion about social investments at all.

The first impression has led us into one, very expensive foreign entanglement after another, which leads to the US taking on what have turned out to be unproductive spending in blood and treasure. The second influence led to decades where social policy discussions were either one-sidedly stupid or nonexistent, which led to conditions where the possibilities for health care expansion allowed older Americans and the health sector to benefit, while younger Americans got less and less investment, and while I certainly do not want elderly people to be impoverished or to suffer ill health, dollars spent at the end of life are not at all the same economic investment as those made in young people.

And we can’t discuss either of these issues without people running around like their fannies are fire and yelling “SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM FACISM ERMERGERD FACISM YOU ARE JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANS.”

Bostic, in leading the discussion, seemed to want to discuss management; I wanted to discuss policy, and we seesaw the discussion back and forth in the discussion. I agree entirely that Reagan was a wonderful leader who did a great job at many things as president. But I also abhor the policy influences of that leadership. Trump has said, again and again, that people do not care about policy. I clearly do. Which leads me to some questions:

1. Do people vote for individuals trusting that their character is fine, and if that character is in general what they want it to be (in Reagen’s case, seemingly friendly, fatherly, determined, decisive, old-fashioned, decent) is that enough to say that a leader did his job by being those things? Was it enough for Reagan to make people feel hopeful again and to make them love America? That itself can’t have been easy.

2. Or do people–should people–vote for parties based on platforms, even though few people seem to know what platforms are and what they are for, and even though presidential leadership may lead far from platforms?

3. Or should people realize that the individual leaders they see standing on the stage come with a whole host of people. The people running for office aren’t just individuals, they are organizations. In Reagan’s case, that nice old man came equipped a horde of Chicago School Friedman’s acolytes whose dogma was “taxes baaaaaaaaad, markets goooooood” and hawks who believed themselves above democratic scrutiny in the name of democratic security, willing to experiment with the Laffer idea and other trickle-down theories without ever–ever–revisiting their policy experiments for potential failures once we had empirical results on the tax cuts? Is he responsible for them because he gave them “grandpa” cover? I rather think so.

For more of my discussion of the problems with doubling down on Laffer