Athens Speaks of Sparta

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By Rod Amis

The level of political discourse in these United States has sunken to a level where most people tune it out anymore. There's no surprise there, since most of us have to deal with paying mortgages, childcare and healthcare costs and get exhausted from the guano that the Mouthpiece Media believe is news. For the most part, many have decided the celebrity media figures are talking among themselves and no longer to or for us. The Kerry Flap du Jour is a classic example.

We ask when is the next episode of the television program "Deal or No Deal?" At least there is some excitement to be derived there.

The problem with the Kerry Flap is two-fold.

  1. It points to how we have made the Military-Industrial Establishment (thank you, President Eisenhower) so sacred that any comment upon its by-products is immediately deemed news. And;
  2. It speaks to how trivial our definition of "democracy" has become.
It's impossible to address the first point without lapsing over into the second point and I'll explain why. Promoting democracy, if you listen to the current political establishment, is supposedly the mission of the United States in the region of the globe known as the Middle East today. The problem with this mission statement, as any thinking person can easily discern, is that the United States is actively, and by military force, promulgating undemocratically elected regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq while threatening democratically elected regimes in Palestine and Iran. Among other places.


If the United States truly supported democracy, Aristide would still be President in Haiti, for example.

That the redefinition of democracy is being done by military force underscores the fact that the United States, rather than acting as the Athens of the modern era, has chosen to be the Sparta.

As Cindy Sheehan demonstrates, the mothers of American boys should now be willing to say that their sons must come home carrying their shields or being carried upon them. (I think this statement let's Mr. Kerry off the hook. Don't you?)

It is this Athens/Sparta analogy that the first point is meant to address. It is from Athens that we drive both the concept of the demos, from which our term "democracy" derives but also where we get a polity, from which we extrapolate the term "politics." The ancient Greeks suggested to us, their inheritors, that free people should have the responsibility to decide their own fates.

Unfortunately, the ancient Greeks knew nothing of lobbyists or electoral politics predicated on the influence of money – or simply not enough.

And then there was Sparta, a militaristic city-state that focused all of its resources and energy on its military establishment. President Eisenhower, being a West Point graduate, likely thought of Sparta as he warned us, his fellow countrymen, about the power and influence of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Shortly after attending the first George W. Bush inaugural, where I appeared as a protestor, it was my privilege to take an extended walk with Howard Ehrlich, the Executive Director of the Prejudice Institute, an American anarchist of the old school (throwing truths rather than bombs) recommended to me by a university classmate. We walked through Baltimore, Maryland, and Dr. Ehrlich asked me what I saw as the future of America. He did not like my response.

"Sparta," I said. "Expect this country to offer nothing to its youth except militarism."

Dr. Ehrlich, like many before him, decided that I was a cynic. He felt hopeful, looking at the many young people gravitating to the anarchist perspective. As a seasoned dissident, I could not but rain on his parade. I asked him what these young people were learning from those who had gone before them and been involved in the struggle that dissidence necessitated.

Ehrlich had to admit, "Well, they don't listen to us, actually. They think what we bring to the table is old hat."

Therein, I posited, lay the sad truth of the American Left. Nothing we had learned in the much-defamed 1960s was being passed on to our ancestry. The young were re-inventing the wheel instead of being imparted our (ostensible) wisdom.

Worse yet, my position continued, there were far too few of the young dissidents to counterbalance those young people who were being indoctrinated by Nintendo and PlayStation to the culture of violence. Welcome to Sparta, Dr. Ehrlich.

My second point has more to do with how we define democracy in the United States - or how our government does, at least - than anything Howard Ehrlich and I would have envisioned five years ago.

Even then, before the long and tawdry elucidations of the new vision of democracy presented by the dominant spokespeople of the United States, we still believed that the concept of democracy was tied to the popular will. Not anymore. As our government has explained and demonstrated to us and the world, democracy is when the people of a given nation choose leaders that are acceptable to and supportive of the interests of the United States and those corporations it supports. Otherwise, the popular will is invalid, period.

With the preceding simple formula in mind, it is valid for the United States to support a coup to overthrow the popularly elected government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (2002) or say that the Palestinian Authority is illegitimate because the people there chose a government that is heavily represented by officials from Hamas (2006). You are with the US or against it, plain and simple, as stated by the current American President.

While traveling in Serbia during 2001, This Interlocutor noticed that the bridges bombed by NATO, beginning on my own birthday, had been restored and the highways were again open. Because most Americans don't have passports – only 12% is the average the State Department of the United States reports – most were unaware that the former-Yugoslavia, the highways of Serbia, where how most of Europe made it to Greece, Italy and Turkey, during their holidays. That these bridges and roads were restored was a substantial boon to that country and to the continuity of Europe.

I bring this anecdote to your attention because it speaks to our knowledge of our effects on the other countries with which we share this planet and the regions where our large and violent footprint occurs. If, like the American President today, we don't actually know these countries, we don't actually make an adequate assessment of the harm our definition or failure to understand the true definition of democracy, does them.

In a finely reasoned paper on this foreign policy conundrum, Joshua Sperber has this to say:

If US-supported repression, however, is a means to an end, the end largely involves economic domination. The US has more often than not been able to achieve this more directly, if not less violently in its effects, through the imposition of IMF/WTO economic mandates, often culminating in brutal so-called austerity programs. For creditor nations, these programs' success was their failure, as the dramatically depreciated standards of living resulting from foreign-imposed neo-liberalism in Argentina, for example, discredited that program there once and for all. The political fallout of the Argentine crisis--where the poor overtook highways and rebelled in food protests, while the wealthier fought cops upon being deprived of their capital--has contributed to the US's failure to impose the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Latin America, an attempt to expand NAFTA as a means of matching the EU's increasing economic cohesion and the ascent of China.

The backlash against IMF/WTO neo-liberalism and its US sponsor is increasingly articulated through indigenous people's movements, which have obtained state power in Bolivia. Indigenous movement's grievances, platforms and rhetoric, buttressed by the strength of innumerable anti-capitalist movements with their annual meetings at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, arguably represent the greatest and most cogent refutation of global US-led capitalism in the post-Cold War era. That the US is unable to condemn these movements as Soviet proxies, but must either attack them through the baldly oppressive and ideologically prostrate "War on Terror," itself a rhetorical substitute for the equally impotent "War on Drugs," badly weakens its hand. No matter how hollow and hypocritical the US's Cold War rhetoric had been it at least had the retrogressive Soviet police state to reference. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, US imperialism is growingly naked--revealing its indubitable oppressiveness among masses whose revolutionary sentiment "another world is possible" is a direct challenge to the US nationalism that is an internal precondition for its rule. At the same time, even removed gloves can do little when their fists are being swallowed in the Middle East.

While the growing brazenness of US extra-legal violence reveals and exacerbates its weakening position, the US is simultaneously suffering as a result of the internal contradictions of its official, and unavoidable, economic policies. NAFTA was designed to both alleviate capitalism's invariable overproduction crises by opening up the Mexican market to US-subsidized agribusiness, while also creating investment outlets freed from environmental, labor and other regulations impeding foreign trade and profit. While reactionaries such as Ross Perot were correct in predicting that NAFTA would accelerate US de-industrialization and lead to massive job losses, its defenders were equally correct to condemn nationalist capitalists like Perot as naïve isolationists ignoring that capitalism's quintessence is perpetual expansion. NAFTA's adoption less reflected a political decision than a bilateral response to increased economic competition within post-1973 capitalism, that is, falling rates of profit combined with decreasing areas of investment.

One irony of present-day capitalism is that the deleterious effects of its insatiable rapaciousness are, via one manner or another, increasingly boomeranging on the imperial powers. NAFTA assuredly devastated Mexico, condemning myriad peasant farmers to poverty. Unable to compete in a market flooded with US-subsidized cheap grains, rural farmers overwhelmed the cities. In the north, the brutal anti-union maquiladoras resulted in heavily polluted, crime-ridden towns left for dead by the ravages of capital departed for yet cheaper markets across the Pacific. This declining standard of living led increased numbers of Mexican workers, combined with refugees of the earlier Central American killing fields, to migrate to the US.

One cannot but suspect that if John Reed were alive today he would be in Mexico. That country, next door to the United States, its citizens in America made the latest scapegoats of a system in peril, suffers a news blackout in the United States that is both unparalleled and egregious. The electoral crisis – speaking of the definition of democracy – alone demands headlines.

The popular uprising in Oaxaca should be front-page news.

Instead, a deafening silence about affairs in the country that the US plans to wall off at their mutual border obtains.

As a dissident journalist and publisher, I cannot but be outraged, faced with this lack of journalistic integrity by my putative peers.

As an essayist, I must return to our main point of this essay, how and why this country has repudiated the aspiration to reflect the Athenian ethos and turned, instead, toward the Spartan.

The argument can be made that an irony this essayist has touched on before is at work: while Americans overwhelmingly claim to be religious, they have undergone a progressive spiritual bankruptcy that evidences itself in an obsessive focus on possessions – which has made them individuals mired in debt - violence and compassion-fatigue. In short, a loss of a spiritual center. As the Pew Center for Public Policy has reported, Americans profess to be more religious than their peers in Europe or Asia. Nonetheless, their actions – or those they are allow their leaders to perpetrate – belie a sense of fellow feeling.

Thus, it is easily understood that a nation so self-absorbed and commercially driven could easily value "security" over civil liberties and begin to define democracy as a product, like soap or cornflakes, to be purchased rather than participated in by its populace. Therein lies the road to Sparta and the path away from Athens.

And there you have it.


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