It’s pronounced Keev, not Kee-ev.
Pick up any journal of mass political psychosis, cultural collapse or resurgent authoritarianism in once-vibrant Western democracies and you’re likely to encounter an ancient Athenian by the name of Cleon. A villain of the late-fifth century B.C., this public irritant otherwise lost to history is getting a belated workout for one reason: He’s a lot like Trump.
He’s also a good baseline for a discussion of American demagogues, which is the subject of the freshman writing class that I teach at George Washington University.
Cleon Son of Cleanetus was a boor of the period immediately following the death of the literally pointy headed Pericles, the Obama of the era. He vaulted to power despite having had no government or military experience, which had been the typical route to leadership. Instead, he ran the family business, a successful leather tanning outfit.
He was rash, scornful, self-proud and slanderous. Aristotle viewed him as a bully who “corrupted the Athenians more than anyone else.” Cleon, he said, “was the first to shout during a speech in the Assembly, use abusive language while addressing the people, and hitch up his skirts.”
Just like Trump!
He also had a violent streak. In a famous passage in Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War, Cleon demands that the Athenian Assembly slaughter all the men of Mytilene, an erstwhile ally that, like a rat, had switched sides in the middle of the war to side with Sparta. The women and children, he insisted, should be sold into slavery.
Persuasive, too. The Assembly sided with Cleon over his more dispassionate interlocutor, Diodotus, and dispatched a galley to Mytilene to execute the orders. More than a thousand men were quickly put to the sword.
That’s the abridged version. It’s a dramatic tale with an unexpected twist. And it has a few pungent parallels to our own woe, which is why Cleon, like Trump, has been getting lots of press lately in some major outlets: The Scotsman, The American Scholar, UWire, even The Herald-Tribune of Randolph County, Ill., although the reference there was to a Cleon Kempfer Sr. of Willisville, arrested for burglary of a farm shed along with a Cleon Kempfer Jr.
Senior and Junior caught up in alleged crime, eh? Ring any bells?
In my class, we use ancient Cleon as a model for America’s own Big Four demagogues: Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and, of course, Trump.
We learn that Cleon, like The Big Four, was loathed by the elites and beloved by the rabble, whom he flattered and purchased with such emoluments as three extra obols for jury duty. When you’re humping cisterns of olive oil all day long, some extra obolage can go a long way.
We also learn that Aristophanes mocked Cleon mercilessly in his comedies, provoking much litigation. It didn’t work for Cleon, either.
It’s de rigueur to observe that Trump, like Cleon, has flouted all the “norms” of democratic politics. It’s also true. But Trump is not only normal; he’s an archetype of democracy as old as the polis.
He’s also squarely in the American tradition. When my students read Margaret Chase Smith’s take-down of McCarthy, they know who’s Cleon and who’s Diodotus. Ditto debates over treatment of mothers with babies pleading for asylum.
In fact, as malignant as Trump is, he’s just the latest aspiring American tyrant. Even the way he sells out his country is typical. Nixon secretly derailed Vietnam War peace talks for advantage in the 1968 campaign. Reagan meddled in the Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. And of course, Trump is in bed with Russians oligarchs.
So much for the exceptional quality of our democracy.
Maybe that’s a good enough lesson to take from history since exceptionalism can excuse lots of unexceptional behavior. Like getting in bed with Russian oligarchs. And neo-Nazis. And porn stars. And Wayne Lapierre. Ew.
As for what to do about Current Cleon, what counsel does history offer? Hm. Cleon died in battle, but Trump survived his combat: beating off STDs lurking among his sexual conquests.
Long was shot, obviously not an option here. Wallace, too, was shot and used the experience to redeem himself, a profoundly unlikely model for Trump. McCarthy drank himself to death, but Trump’s a tea teetotaler. SAD!
Maybe we’re already self-correcting given the midterms and the inexorable muddle to impeachment. If so, we would be repeating another bit of Athenian history: In a twist, the day after it voted to butcher the Mytileneans, the Assembly changed its mind and sent a second galley to overtake the first.
That’s lovely, but the Athenian correction was only temporary since Cleon’s rise helped bring on Athens’s fall. By 404, spent from plague, war and bad government, the great democracy had surrendered to Sparta. It never fully recovered.
People love to quote Santayana on the peril of forgetting the past, but he was only repeating what Thucydides had said 2,400 years earlier:
It will be enough for me … if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.
That’s both a hope and a warning.
Sometimes at work, when I can’t get back to sleep after a meeting, I lay awake and daydream.
Today I daydreamed about becoming a sociopath. Again. Oh, you think that’s odd, do you? How about I come to your house and kill you?
Ha, ha! Just kidding! Sociopaths are not necessarily homicidal, although homicidal people are, ipso facto, sociopaths. Anywy, I’m not actually a sociopath. But I wish I were. Here are some reasons why!
If I were a sociopath, I would have a lot of friends because sociopaths have a magnetic charm that draws people to them, the better to destroy their lives.
If I were a sociopath, I would wound and exploit my “friends” for gain, for pleasure, and for no reason at all. If my “friends” wounded and exploited me, I would feel wronged and indignant, and I would say, “Hey, I’m the real victim here.”
If I were a sociopath, some other things that I would say would be, “It’s you, not me,” “Yes, it does make you look fat,” and “I’d shut my mouth if I were you.”
If I were a sociopath, I’d stop feeling guilty all the time. And I wouldn’t apologize for anything. Not a goddamn thing.
If I were a sociopath, I would give my therapist just twenty-three hours’ notice before canceling an appointment. Also, if I were a sociopath, I’d probably quit therapy because it’s an untreatable condition.
If I were a sociopath, I would embezzle money from my employer and frame that imbecile Don Grissom in HR, and then finagle things so that I got his job. I would be great in HR.
If I were a sociopath, I would buy inappropriate gifts for people to make them feel bad about themselves. Like a baby carrier for an infertile couple.
If I were a sociopath and we were at a party playing the “Would you rather be invisible or able to fly?” game, I would say “Invisible, so that I could spy on people without being seen.” Then, if someone joked that I sounded like a sociopath, I would say, “I’d shut my mouth if I were you.”
If I were a sociopath and I was at a restaurant, I would stop at someone else’s table on my way to the bathroom, take my knife and fork out of my pocket, cut off and eat a piece of their London broil without permission, and then continue on my way to the bathroom. I would toss my knife and fork over my shoulder, like Michael Corleone in that restaurant scene in “The Godfather.”
If I were a sociopath, I wouldn’t have to work hard. All day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum.
If I were a sociopath, I would say, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
My new favorite Jewish aria: “Oy Vey, Maria.”
Only 12 hours left for an 86% discount off a subscription to Architectural Digest! Thanks, Conde Nast!
‘I hereby denounce linguistic laziness in the strongest possible terms, “the strongest possible terms” being the strongest possible term I could come up with even though it’s neither strong nor much of a term and can’t, by any stretch, be said to push the expressive possibilities of outrage. But I’m in abundant global company, in which the point seems to be to aim low when in high dudgeon:
Dlamini in hot water after calling for no action against Manana — “Such deplorable treatment of victims of violence is reprehensible and shameful to say the least, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”
UOSSM Strongly Condemns Killing of 7 White Helmets Staff — UOSSM condemns in the strongest possible terms the killing of seven White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defense) staff In Idlib, Syria.”
Matiang’i says criminals looting property during demos — “We are condemning with the strongest possible terms the use of excessive force by Kenyan security forces in quelling post-election protests.”
Can Sessions Legally Demand the Press Betray Their Sources? — “Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms the staggering number of leaks’ of classified national security information …”
Customs intelligence chief resigns amid shabu smuggling probe — “I deny in the strongest possible terms having received money or any form of bribe from Mr. Mark Taguba. As he himself admitted, he merely relied on text messages. I am not on his list,” said BOC Intelligence and Investigation Service Director Neil Anthony Estrella.”
Why Trump’s Attacks on Mueller Are Getting Some Surprising Pushback — “Rich Lowry, the conservative editor of National Review, appearing on the same Fox News Sunday broadcast, warned the president in the strongest possible terms that purging Mueller would not be a good idea.”
Ulema Scholars Slam Herat Mosque Attack, Say It Was Un-Islamic — “Several countries including the UN and the European union condemned the attack in the strongest possible terms.”
Mary Beard is right, Roman Britain was multi-ethnic. So why does this upset people so much? — “Rather than an opportunity to reflect on the languages, the literatures, the cross-cultural encounters that textured and enriched the Roman empire, some of the attacks on [professor of classics at the University of Cambridge] Mary Beard are seemingly about negating in the strongest possible terms the presence of dark skin in British history.”
Is This the Most Shameful Thing Trump Has Ever Said? — “It is a shameful day for the presidency, and police agencies across the country should condemn the president’s irresponsible and indefensible comments in the strongest possible terms.”
Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary: North Korea Missile Appears to Have Fallen in Japan EEZ Waters — “[Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide] Suga added that the missile launch was unacceptable and in clear violation of United Nations resolutions, and said Japan had protested in the strongest possible terms.”
House members demand apology from Turkish president — “The State Department said in a statement following the incident that it was communicating its concerns to Turkey in the strongest possible terms.”
A Summer Education Meltdown: Why Everyone in DC Is Mad About ESSA, Congress, Charters, Choice — “Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, urged Congress ‘in the strongest possible terms’ to raise the cap on non-defense discretionary spending.”
Regional Trial Court judge Godofredo Abul Jr. killed in Butuan City — “The IBP Eastern Mindanao condemns in the strongest possible terms this atrocity.”
AIBA chief Wu responds to ongoing rift, crisis — “The [International Boxing Association] condemns in the strongest possible terms the latest tactics of its Executive Committee, under the unrecognized ‘Interim Management Committee,’ to attempt to illegally seize control of the organization’s headquarters in Lausanne on the morning of 26 July.”
Herman Mashaba vows to end ‘suffering‘ in billing crisis — “ ‘This is an unacceptable treatment of our residents that I condemn in the strongest possible terms,’ said Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba.”
”K’Listha vandals target clinics — Mayco Member for area east Councillor Anda Ntsondo has lambasted the incessant vandalism and burglary of clinics in Khayelitsha. ‘We condemn these acts in the strongest possible terms.’ “
Maine Voices: Portland task force’s pesticide ordinance is full of loopholes — “Recent evidence of the harm done by neonicotinoids to both honeybee and wild bee populations makes the case for banning these insecticides in the strongest possible terms.”
Governor Joho bleeding out of wounds sustained during scuffle with police in Migori County — “We deplore in the strongest possible terms this assassination attempt and demand prompt and transparent investigation in order to bring the perpetrators,” said H.E. Hassan Joho on the assassination attempt on ODM leaders in Migori.
Pence on Syria, Assad: ‘All options are on the table‘ — “ ‘I know the president and I and our entire administration condemn this chemical attack in Syria in the strongest possible terms,’ Pence said.”
Supreme Court Delivers Huge Patent Win To Small Business — “But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected the appellate court’s thinking in the strongest possible terms.”
RS Claims Police Stopped Truck From Entering Green Zone — “ ‘I condemn the attack in Kabul, in which dozens of people were injured and killed, in the strongest possible terms,’ said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.”
Possible class action over chemotherapy saga — “St Vincent’s rejected the report’s critical findings ‘in the strongest possible terms.’ ”
Ibrahim Halawa trial delayed for 20th time — “Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said in a statement, ‘I urge him in the strongest possible terms not to pursue such a course of action, and to protect his health in every possible way.’ ”
Attack tests movement Sanders founded — “ ‘Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,’ Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a statement.”
Letter to President Trump — “As the leaders of one of the country’s great institutions of higher education and research, we are writing to assert in the strongest possible terms the importance to the United States of continuing to welcome immigrants and the talent and energy that they bring to this country.”
In the three years, eight months, one week and five days that I’ve been meditating, I’ve become more mindful of the weightlessness of my fleeting thoughts, less prone to inner turbulence, and generally more equanimous thanks to the Buddhist flavorings of the training.
On the other hand, I’ve gotten jack shit done. No second novel, no new standup routine, no trip to Morocco. For the same outcome, I could’ve saved myself three and a half years of retreats and guided meditations and gone straight to a lobotomy.
Thanks Buddha. For bupkes. I want my irritability, and my edge, back.
As Cassius says to Brutus, “I’ll not endure it.” (“Julius Caesar,” Act 4, Scene 3.)
Hm. That’s not quite right. As Goneril says to Oswald, “I’ll not endure it.” (“King Lear,” Act 1, Scene 3.)
Yes! That’s …
Not quite right.
Wait! Now I got it: As Othello says to Iago, “I’ll not endure it.” (“Othello,” Act 3, Scene 3.)
There! Whew. Thanks, Bard!
Image from BrainPOP
To the Editors:
Please fire David Brooks and hire me. My maunderings on society are just as inane as his (although today’s column will be hard to beat), and I can write just as badly.
Here’s something you don’t hear very often: “I’m loving this book about Auschwitz!”