It appears that, 2,000-plus years after it was last politically relevant, Greece still offers us lessons to ponder.
I hadn’t picked up on this when it was first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, back in September, but better late than never. It’s an article about the resurgence in political discourse, particularly in Greece, of the concept of the “barbarian” as a category definition. The “troika” that has been attempting, with in truth not much to show for it, to jerk a knot in Greece’s butt for some months now is publicly characterized as demanding “barbaric” concessions and measures. The German finance minister Schäuble had the temerity to observe that, while Europe remains willing to support Greece, they cannot keep “pouring into a barrel with no floor.” President Karolos Papoulias responded, “I do not accept that Herr Schäuble mocks my land; as a Greek I do not accept that. Who is Herr Schäuble to mock Greece? Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finns?” Of course President Papoulias labors under no inability to identify the peoples he references. He knows jolly well who they are. What he means to ask is, “Compared to Greeks, who are the Dutch to pass judgment on them?” In doing which he grasps 2,500 years back, to a time when it mattered what Greece thought about anything.
“Barbarian” began as simply “non-Greek,” someone who did not speak Greek. It became over time something more, an identification to distinguish between an idealized self-image and the reality of power in the ancient world. It became, in other words, a device to bridge the gap, to reconcile the contradictions, between one’s self-assessment and the assessment passed by the balance of the world. The world became divided into “we” and “barbarians.” As the article points out, by the Fifth Century B.C. (note to the gentle reader: you will never catch me using that mealy-mouthed “B.C.E.” bullshit) the Greeks could point to their many accomplishments culturally, socially, artistically; they could look about and see that they were admired and copied. But they could also see that the Persians didn’t seem to care. They could see that the Persian tide in Asia Minor kept rising, sweeping all the wonderful Greek refinements before it. The factual world, the world as it existed outside Greece, was not cooperating.
In the crisis of the Persian ascendancy the response was a call to unity among all Greeks to come together and defeat the barbarian hordes. Which they actually then did, or at least to the extent of running Persia back out of Asia Minor. And having done so, the concept of the “barbarian” as the Other settled fast in the Greek self-understanding. The Persian army had been mindless slaves, defeated by superior Greek culture. This gave Greece not only the ability to rule, but — and this is very important in understanding where things are, in Greece and . . . ummmmm . . . elsewhere, today — the right to rule, the right to be as they choose to be. Being Greek became sufficient justification all by itself; it became definitionally the Good, the Just, the Desirable.
The Romans gladly adopted the concept of the “barbarian” from the Greeks (when they’d squashed Greek independence for the next 1,900-odd years). At first, as in Greece, “barbarian” meant simply “non-Roman.” But in the face of growing threats from outside the empire, the concept began to mutate, just as it had hundreds of years before in the Greek mind. “Barbarian” became someone so utterly non-We that it became conceptually impossible to concede his fellow-humanity. A “barbarian” became someone as to whom, because he was so utterly non-We that the normal moral ties to others within the circle of We no longer bound the Roman, one need not quibble with the delicacies of human intercourse. Treaties and simpler promises became non-binding. And as the non-We grew in power, it had to be beaten back. Forcefully.
[I will here note that, human nature being what it is, there is more than a tinge of delight in the exegesis in a German newspaper about others who divide the world into Greeks and barbarians. There is a noun in German, and signficantly it’s a singular noun. It is used to refer to those areas of the world for which an English speaker, for example, would need whole expressions like “the rest of the world,” or “foreign countries,” or even “other places.” But the German can simply refer to “das Ausland” — “the out-land.” One either finds oneself in Germany or in the out-land. There’s a joking story that Bavarians divide the world into Bavarians and Prussians; it doesn’t matter whether one is born in Peoria or Peking, Pretoria, Pakistan, or Pomerania: one is a Prussian. I suppose human nature is in fact pretty much universal.]
But what do 2,500 year-old politico-cultural responses to threatened self-images have to do with us, here in the United States, today? It has to do with hacks like Paul Krugman, and his rhetorical question of who cares what’s the matter with Kansas. The “better,” because more anti-American, America won the election Tuesday. Fly-over country. The sticks. Kansas. These expressions are the new analogue of “barbarians,” and like barbarians, those in these areas are no longer quite fully level pegs with the more “diverse,” and “better” America. Jas Taranto, author of the WSJ piece linked, sums it up: “The lack of self-awareness here is something to behold. Krugman identifies a racially defined out-group, excludes it from the ‘real America,’ and declares the in-group to be a ‘better nation’ than the out-group (which is, in fact, part of the same nation). All this in the name of tolerance.”
It’s not a good thing to be a barbarian when dealing with a Greek or a Roman. One of the things that I picked up on (well, “picked up on” is probably not the right phrase, because one “picks up on” subtle indications, and what I’m about to describe was about as subtle as Sherman’s evangelising Georgia) while attending law skool at a . . . well, let’s call it a certain northeastern skool which enjoys an extremely exalted self-image, was the underlying assumption among my classmates that they were incredibly clever (true), and thoroughly well-intentioned (also true, or at least I was and am wiling to assume that). From those two correct proposition they proceeded to draw conclusions that scared and scare the bejesus out of me.
Because they’re so smart and so well-intentioned, what they believe proper is not only by definition correct, but also morally right. Because what they desire is correct and right, anything that is contrary to what they desire is wrong and wicked (“barbaric,” in the ancient learning). Thus a dispute between them and someone who does not desire what they do is not just a disagreement over methods or goals but rather a struggle between Virtue and Iniquity.
In a struggle between Virtue and Iniquity, anything that aids the triumph of Virtue must itself be virtuous, at least to the extent employed in the aid of Virtue (thus: ballot-stuffing in, say, Texas is wicked; ballot-stuffing in Philadelphia after you’ve forcibly ejected one party’s poll watchers, so that in those precincts you have 90%+ voter turn-out with 99% voting for one party, is vox populi incarnate). Anything that opposes Virtue, such as for example suggesting that maybe you ought to have Congress, rather than the EPA, decide to destroy coal-fired electricity generation, is by hypothesis Wicked. In the same manner that because Marxism is an inherently liberating political system, all wars to expand Marxism are wars of liberation, so all measures necessary to put the Paul Krugmans of the world, and my classmates, in charge of everything are meet and right.
Anything necessary to ensure that my desires are not consulted or realized is therefore not merely permissible, but mandatory, because anything less would be to give aid and comfort to Iniquity.
A number of years ago (OK; it’s been almost 28 years now) I read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, a history of slavery in colonial Virginia. The larger theme of his book is of course the paradoxical inter-relationship with the colonists’ yearning for what they understood as freedom for themselves, even as the foundation of their colony’s labor system was, remained, and had always been fundamentally un-free. Among the subsidiary, but no less interesting things I recall about the book was the story of how the un-free labor system gradually changed from indentured servants to African slaves, and how that final and complete transition occurred much later than one would guess, and had to do with changing life expectancies of the laborers (short version: if you can’t expect a laborer to survive more than a couple or three years in the pestilential environment of tidewater Virginia, why on earth would you buy the fee simple in a slave when you could lease an indentured servant who wasn’t going to survive the term of his indenture in the first place?). Another was how racism, or the specifically racialist characterization of the African slaves, was fostered not to support the introduction of African slavery but to justify its perpetuation.
It’s that last point that unsettles me. It is now simply accepted discourse to attribute sub-human understanding, morality, and motives to those who do not share the leftist frames of reference common on the coasts. Those of us who do not are barbarians, and unworthy of engagement on terms similar to what one would extend to one’s fellow humans. We may be lied to, expropriated, and exploited to fund the Civilized Elites’ realization — or at least sufficient for them to surround themselves with a warmth-giving coccoon to seal out conflicting feedback — of their self-images. If we are ground down; if there is no work for us; if we can no longer afford to give our children the opportunities which we ourselves had; if our temples are violated; our idols jerked from their plinths and dragged behind the Conquerors’ chariots to amuse them: We have received no more than our due.
We should make no mistake: Dear Leader exhorted his supporters to vote for revenge, and revenge is precisely what they mean to have. Our very existence is an affront to their vision of themselves as the paragons of humanity.
My question is whether those of us who do not share the leftists’ opinion of themselves will so far rouse ourselves as to find our way to our own Teutoburger Forest. Rome was ejected from across the Rhein not by the Germans’ becoming more like Romans, but by their determination that they would not become so and their unity in vindicating that determination.