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In this season of commencement speeches there have been some gems. (That link is one which you should come back to and read and savor.) Also in the past month or so, perhaps in anticipation of campus ceremonies and in deference to "higher learning," there have been extended allusions to Homer, Thucydides, Julius Caesar, and all the welter of stories and aphorisms about the progress of democracy, particularly the big potholes it has encountered.

Maureen Dowd's Wednesday column in the New York Times-Select fell into this general category of harkening way back to the Spartans and Athenians and to these ancient stories and lessons about which most of the recent American generations have no earthly idea. She drew her net around Professor Kagan, acknowledging that his spawn are well-known "imperial rangers," decked out in their white plastic neocon costumes and goose-stepping to the higher calling they imagined some few years ago was Truth. In Maureen's column we have an expert, Professor Kagan, commenting for her on the new Iraq War czar:

Professor Kagan said that one reason the Athenians ended up losing the war was because in the Battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C. against the Spartans, they sent "a very inferior force" and had a general in command who was associated with the faction that was against the aggressive policy against the Spartans.

"Kind of like President Bush appointing this guy to run the war whose strategy is opposed to the surge," he said dryly.

With cold realism, Thucydides captured the Athenian philosophy in the 27-year war that led to its downfall as a golden democracy: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

What message can we take away from Thucydides for modern times?

"To me," Professor Kagan said, "the deepest message, the most tragic, is his picture of civilization as a very thin veneer. When you punch a hole in it, what you find underneath is hollow, the precivilized characteristics of the human race, animalistic in the worst possible way."

It is to this last paragraph that I want to draw your attention. It is a sentiment that runs strongly under the surface in Washington, where people-elected and otherwise-become convinced of their own indispensability and commanding view of History itself. We heard the comment that the republic would not endure an impeachment of Richard Nixon. It is too frail, they said, the people will lose confidence in government, and (under their breaths) the people are an unruly bunch, not far from rebellion at any given moment.

We are hearing the same thing again today. Nancy Pelosi has taken impeachment "off the table" partly because she believed that the best course of action was to show the American people a Democratic Party committed to collegial government. Partly, though, she took it off the table because her advisors and a preponderance of the Democratic leadership hold the view that civilization is hollow and that democracy is a thin film on the surface of our civilization, not only frail, but substantially ephemeral and likely to evaporate when the heat is turned up.

I cannot tell you how much I hate this idea. It is the most pernicious long-standing idea in America among politicians. It is because they are in Washington and in power and in trouble that the notion is given credence. It is born of the fallacy of immediate impacts, (my own label), that sense of uncertainty and unease one gets after being regaled with one problem after another for years on end, each one displaying one or more of the sordid aspects of human behavior. Pretty soon you begin to think of people as grasping, sucking, criminals and pathological liars.

But, it is an illusion of perspective. People are remarkably civilized. Yes, there are people who live entirely to sate their gluttonies, their libidos, their hungry egos seeking endless validation. Yes, some of them are in government, perhaps more than we would wish. But you and I, man, we are good, we are true, our peccadillos are minor and our vices harmless. When the time comes we stand and deliver. We are not afraid of our Constitution; on the contrary, we believe it is a work of considerable value and worthy of our defense.

Civilization is not hollow inside and the people who make up civilization are not untrustworthy. Maureen Dowd's repetition of the idea was surely one of her classic mistakes and, perhaps, a striking reminder that even pundits begin to lose hope in times when votes go the wrong way because the populace has not provided votes in the right proportions.

There is a quotation that I have used on several occasions at the American Liberalism Project over the past few years. The words are now solidly attributed to Karl Christian Rove. They epitomize the hubris that permeates Thucydides' comment quoted by Kagan and then Dowd. These are the words of disdain that these olympians have for the common man and common sense. They are the death knell of democracy as we knew it. This version is from the commencement speech I recommended to you in the first line of this essay.

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial "unnamed Administration official" and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind's recounting, is what that "unnamed Administration official" told him:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

I must admit to you that I love that quotation; indeed, with your permission, I would like hereby to nominate it for inscription over the door of the Rhetoric Department, akin to Dante's welcome above the gates of Hell, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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