Ancient text that explains Trumpism

Posted August 20th, 2019 by admin and filed in 苏州美甲美睫培训
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Donald Trump has provoked an unlikely boom in a few market niches: for the makers of red baseball caps, among late-night comedians, and for those who own the royalties to dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 has been selling extremely well since the US election, with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale recording tidy returns as well.
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Those seeking literary parallels or parables, lessons or clues, to help them cope with the new US President are simply looking in the wrong place and the wrong time. Instead of 1949 (when Orwell published), 1931 (Huxley) or 1985 (Atwood), they should trawl back 2400 years, to Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war.

The currently popular dystopian visions are all a bit mannered and soft for our times. In 1984, Winston Smith is merely threatened with torture (in the form of a cage of rats), not actually water-boarded, exiled to Siberia, forced to dig his own grave, or shot. Orwell’s novel remains distinctive for his inspired neologisms. The ideas behind newspeak, thoughtcrimes, doublethink and Big Brother have pervaded much of the world, far beyond the borders of 1984’s Airstrip One. Nonetheless, the pungent, poignant satire of Animal Farm and its Napoleon pig are much more credible and pertinent to us than is 1984. The Public Sector Informant: latest issue

As for Brave New World, that, too, is a bit too soft and sloppy for our times. The Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning and the College of Emotional Engineering seem affected and twee today. The image of an anti-hero whipping himself at a lighthouse is plain silly.

Turning to Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, certainly the female characters are kept in subjugation and servitude, obliged to carry babies, not permitted to read. Sadly, any female survivor from the Balkan wars or the Rwandan genocide might find ironic such a relatively ordered, genteel dystopia.

Turning to the Peloponnesian war (431-404BC), Thucydides wrote political wisdom red in tooth and claw. For strategists, Thucydides describes an asymmetrical conflict between two superpowers, Athens and Sparta (one strong at sea, the other on land), commencing “when both were at the very height of their power and preparedness”. “Nothing in their designs was on a small or mean scale.” He pins the outbreak of war to “the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta”; the fear of being overtaken, surprised, gazumped and annihilated, which dominated the Cold War.

If we worry about pre-emptive strikes, disproportionate responses, overblown martial rhetoric and ruthlessly vicious fighting, this is the book to read. Thucydides leaves no room for facile romance, sentimentality or fake heroism. War starts with hand-to-hand killing “in the darkness and the mud, on a moonless night at the end of the month”. In another early engagement, “confusion reigned, and there was shouting on all sides”.

Even the first years of battles (if you read up to Book Three, as far as the fourth year of the war) contain a litany of war crimes. Soldiers are massacred or stoned in pits, cannibalism is rumoured, crops are burned and besieged cities starved, captives are murdered or sold as slaves, and classical, democratic, glittering Athens debates whether to put the entire population of a state to death (Mytilene, after a revolt there). Whimsical period detail may sometimes seem to domesticate Attica. Some troops advance wearing shoes only on their left feet, to avoid slipping on mud. Sailors planning a surprise attack carry only their oars, cushions and rowlock thongs. One shoe on, or cushion in hand, those warriors were bent on wholesale destruction. The ancient Greeks may be short of modern kit, but they could take on special forces in a fair fight.

For those concerned that we might not appreciate “the chances and changes of war”, Thucydides offers realpolitik worthy of Sun Tzu or Henry Kissinger. He does so in an enviably unvarnished, unfussed manner, relying on “the plainest evidence” to reach “conclusions which are generally reasonable”. Private Eye’s inauguration issue imagined Donald Trump pledging to “tell the post-truth, the alternative truth and nothing like the truth”. For his part, Thucydides simply tells the truth.

Thucydides’ maxims on statecraft remain disconcertingly current. The strong do what they want, while the weak suffer what they must. “It is generally the best policy to make the fewest errors of judgment.” “There is often no more logic in the course of events than there is in the plans of men.” Words of counsel are delivered with brutal frankness, as well as a bracing insistence that people both face facts and face up to catastrophe. As the Athenian general, Pericles, reminds his people about their imperial ambitions, “your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go”.

Pericles’ most cutting rebuke to his countrymen was simply that “you are losing your grip on the common safety”. The “common safety” may serve as a marker for the common good, or for that happy time Thucydides recalls, “when the state was wisely led and firmly guarded”. Betrayal of allies, courting of enemies (even the arch-villain, the king of Persia), defeats and plagues, none of that seems to undermine – to borrow an American phrase – the notion of Athens as a shining city on a hill.

For those wearied by war, Thucydides offers Pericles’ funeral oration, a speech more principled and more majestic than any inaugural address in Washington. There, to remind us of governing principles, we are admonished by being told that “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous”. We learn once more that “our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of things of the mind does not make us soft” (Pericles had not seen Trump Tower). Those leery of sacrifice might ponder that “all the world is the graveyard of famous men”.

The New York Times asks an author each week which book they would recommend to their president. They would do well to pick Thucydides, substituting his blood-stained, bare-knuckle wisdom for more contemporary works, let alone earnestly stuffed briefing books, talk-show prattle or sententious op-eds. If Clinton voters were seeking particular advice, I would defer to the Spartan king Archidamus: “people grow angry when they suffer things that they are quite unused to suffer”.

Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.

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