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Herodotus over Thucydides

In the current issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2007), Robert Kaplan tags the historian Thucydides as best fit for today's "modern academic sensibilities," and, too, "the favored Greek among today's policy elites."

Thucydides, says Kaplan, more than anyone from among the classics, and much more than his near-contemporary Herodotus, perfectly suits today's specialists, replicating each other as they do in their otherwise only slightly varied, mutually-isolated niches.  Kaplan sees the preference for Thucydides from among our academic and policy elites as owing to this classic Greek's "almost mathematical approach to history."  The ability to portray life by clearly logical, mathematical formulae lets the specialist mind, he says, set its "complex reality" to "clean philosophical principles."  Thus Thucydides's classic work, The Peloponnesian War, reduces all life's complexities "to war, diplomacy, economics, and little else."  Kaplan calls this "a formula that is appealing to specialists" – to those "leery of the sort of subjective, real-life experiences and captivating anecdotes that are problematic because their worth is difficult to measure."

Jane Jacobs, in her last book, The Nature of Economies, similarly worried about the habits of mind of those gearing our modern, global, corporatist culture.  They have so well set themselves in the habits of their flow-chart and niche specializations, she said, that they routinely pose all that is messily human instead as classifiable, impersonal, abstracted, and countable by statistical, marketing, real estate, and other dollar values.

I found a remaindered copy of this Jane Jacobs book not long ago, and loved those parts of it so pithy for her fingering the depersonalizations of our corporatist religion.  Then, this recent month, I happened upon another remaindered book returning to this theme, Lewis Lapham's Theater of War.  Lapham had been reading Jane Jacobs' The Nature of Economies when it was new, in 2001, about the time of the terror attacks of 9-11.  Now, by serendipity myself reading Lapham's collection of essays from then, I find him wonderful on Jacobs, how "she directs her argument to the unfortunately high percentage of otherwise intelligent people (many of them prime ministers, crowned kings and heads of state) who make the mistake of classifying economics as a department of mathematics rather than as a life science."  She finds none of our elites particularly liking the oddities, messiness, and contrariness of people.  Rather, all adhere to the same measuring-&-departmentalizng imagination – to what Robert Kaplan calls mathematical (Thucydidean) thinking.  Says Lapham of Jacobs:

The shuffling of budgets across or under the desks of the World Bank results in the "'Thing Theory' of development" dear to the hearts of government officials who see the impoverished nations of the earth as improved properties on a Monopoly board.  They add expensive infrastructure (hydroelectric dams, oil refineries, copper mines) to satisfy the requirements of the people advancing the capital but fail to answer to the needs of the people supplying the labor.

Another writer this recent month discussed this same dichotomy between the human and the corporate – the personal and the impersonal – in an on-line article, "Apocalypse No! (Part III) The Law of Life and the Law of Death."  Posted January 11 at www.dissidentvoice.org, and subtitled "The Great Emergency: Global Warming, Mass Death and Resource Wars in the 21st Century," Juan Santos argued from the perspective of the third-world peoples (his own included) being displaced by the forces of globalism – millions worldwide forced off ancestral lands and into unplanned, teeming, urban megalopolises – two dozen of them of ten, fifteen, and twenty million in Asia, Africa, and South America.  Santos lives in one such – in North America, Los Angeles.

When he writes against the depersonalized, consumer-targeted, transient souls feeding the profits and power of corporate hegemony, Santos refers an older alternative, "our living matrix, our living mother."  He says, "The Lakota nation has a word for this: mitakuye oyasin:  all my relations."  He quotes one Jim Kipp, who extends relationship issues to all living beings.  According to "the understanding of his people, the Blackfeet:

The Māori believe that they have whakapapa (genealogical) links to everything – not just to humans but to the universe as well. As such, forests, mountains, seas, rivers and lakes are viewed as siblings (brothers and sisters).

Santos defends this – the brothers and sisters, tribes, peoples – in communities, in nature unlike us by languages and memories.  Opposed to them he sees our modern experience – the one set to the machineries of materialism, and our demographic fits to it – as being the "alienation and isolation that we call individualism."  Our elites, according to Kaplan, Jacobs, and Lapham, buy into and sell all the myths of individualism, propping up as they do all their corporate comfort zones, depersonalized as they are.  Our academic and policy elites have no sense of any of us being in nature – no "brothers and sisters" – apart from the passing entertainment and vacation packages they sell, landscape merely something fleeting by.  In modern culture, nature reduces to commodities, like everything and everyone else.  Thus, says Santos, "We feel we have no place. Our rulers call having no place being 'free.'"

This, he concludes, "is among the deepest fears of indigenous people – to be cut off, excommunicated."

Writing in his own, new memoir, Prime Green:  Remembering the Sixties, also out this recent month, Robert Stone says things about the fix of modern imagination as do Santos, Jacobs, Lapham, and Kaplan.  Stone recalls working in the early '60s for the New York Daily News.  He remembers how "The politics and social perspective of the Daily News were what America calls 'conservative.'" This, however, never meant respect for nature, certainly not for any connections to "mitakuye oyasin:  all my relations."  Conservatism at the Daily News – for all corporate America – instead has "meant promoting American capitalism, the most radical transforming agent in the history of the world."  It preserves nothing, conserves nothing.  It guarantees, rather, that "Familiar social arrangements and structures crumble.  The mass of people find themselves dislocated, alienated, and disenfranchised."  Says Stone:

It was the role of papers like the News to nurse and manipulate popular prejudice in its own language and discover sources for the referred pains "progress" caused, sources safely distant from any suggestion of economic injustice.  Yet class resentment was too valuable a weapon of the dominant corporate interests to dispense with; they wanted it exploited and intensified, yet separated from the notion that corporate America and its workers could have any conflict of interest.

 Maybe it's no coincidence that yet another writer this recent month had something also to say about the blind side of corporate America.  Bill Moyers did, in "For America's Sake," published in The Nation on January 22.

 In this article (also given as a speech, and posted on-line), Moyers decried "the great disparities in wealth" that have been emerging in America in recent decades.  What once was "the 'shining city on the hill' has become a gated community whose privileged occupants, surrounded by a moat of money and protected by a political system seduced with cash into subservience, are removed from the common life of the country."  What "we used to call the US Congress" has sunk to a "multitrillion-dollar influence racket.'  Thus, "Corporations are shredding the social compact, pensions are disappearing, median incomes are flattening and healthcare costs are soaring" – so:

Everywhere you turn you'll find people who believe they have been written out of the story. Everywhere you turn there's a sense of insecurity grounded in a gnawing fear that freedom in America has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are dumped from the Dream.

 Moyers's conclusion:  "America needs a different story."  And he goes on to note yet more books lucid on the issues of Kaplan, Jacobs, Lapham, and Santos:

Ø         Paul Starr's forthcoming, Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism

Ø         John Schwarz's  Freedom Reclaimed: Rediscovering the American Vision

Ø         Norton Garfinkle's The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth

Reading these, suggests Moyers, may help us see that our current "individualist, greed-driven, free-market ideology is at odds with our history."  They may help us see that "human beings are more than the sum of their material appetites, our country is more than an economic machine" – that "question, then, is not about changing people; it's about reaching people."

But if we're going to "reach people," we might revisit Robert Kaplan's discussion of the value of seeing Herodotus, and wider views of human life – over temptations to Thucydides' more sophisticated reductions.  Thucydides, says Kaplan, is "venerated in the West as the founder of enlightened pragmatism in political discourse" – venerated for an imagination projecting all life as classifiably rational – all that corporate academe encompasses in its specializations.  But the rational, impersonal imagination has more to it than the dimensions so obviously lending themselves to multiple-choicing and bottom-lining.  It also, and more beguilingly, represents the very forms of narrative and beauty we take for granted as best.  Says Kaplan, it "embodies Greek classical values, in which beauty – whether in sculpture or in philosophy – is a consequence of artistic and emotional discipline that leads to proportion, discrimination, and perspective." 

Herodotus, by contrast, models wider dimensions, more angles of contact, odder perspective – a world that may have its quite linear sagas of empire and war, but also its messy, contradictory, and multiply-layered anecdotes, myths, and romances.  In this world, says Kaplan, "facts matter less than perceptions," and the histories of national self-interest do not arrive though a calculus of cool, dispassionate observation, but from within a "salience of human intrigues" and "a disfiguring whirlwind of passion."

This recent month had all these excellent perceptions – but perhaps by no coincidence.  January also saw tides of frustration from new majorities of Americans aghast at what has become so obvious as the great failure of our elitist system to impose itself on Iraq and nearby Middle East.  Obviously, we need what Moyers calls "a different story," new abilities for "reaching people" – new ways to connect to Santos' "mitakuye oyasin:  all my relations."   We need less of corporate academe's status quo, and more of Essaying Differences.  In the meantime, however, the worst almost comically prevails, as the San Francisco Chronicle showed in a story on January 23 – on top administrators of the California State University system newly set again to get huge increments in pay for themselves – on the backs of the many, many already-heavily-indebted students who must thus pay yet more in tuition increases, and fall further in debt for their own overlording, genteel, corporate rich to get richer.

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