The issues of fake news, incivility in shouting down Republicans who try to eat at restaurants, the bitter nomination fights over judges and increasingly rancorous tone over many issues from politicians seem to be new and dangerous trends. But I’ve been rereading some of my books from college, and I found that ancient Greeks as described by classical historians, like Thucydides and Polybius, dealt with and handled these problems fairly well.
In describing how rancorous things were during the conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides wrote: “Civil war ran through the cities…and they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one’s own security was though a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion”( iii.82).
Sounds like an average day online, and it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer. Angry clowns seem to get all of the attention, while reasoned assessments get ignored. In fact, I’ve lost writing positions because I wasn’t angry enough or angry at the right people. You could also look at the counterpuncher in Trump, the incivility of Twitter, those for whom “cuck” is their favorite and frequent insult, and bomb throwers who sling “warmonger,” “racist,” and “sexist” with reckless abandon.
I used to teach a class on Pakistan, and my students often reacted with shock and a sense of smug superiority at the number of Pakistanis who riot over false rumors of desecrating a Quran, or those who believe the CIA and not terrorists are behind bombings. But before you pat yourself on the back for not being one of those people and confidently attack Trump and his supporters or his opponents and liberals, realize that there are people who lose their jobs before they get off the plane, and consider how many of you have reposted inflammatory memes and news without knowing the whole story. In the upside-down world described by Thucydides, your anger can be part of the problem while simultaneously thinking you are better than everybody.
In addition to describing the problem extremely well, the historians also provided the solutions. Polybius criticized the accounts of another historian, which seems especially applicable to the migrant crisis and so many critiques of Trump: “Phylarchus…omits to suggest the causes which give rise to [the catastrophes], or the course of events which led up to them; and without knowing these it is impossible to feel the due indignation or pity at anything which occurs. For instance, everybody looks upon it as an outrage that the free should be beaten: still, if a man provokes it by an act of violence, he is considered to have got no more than he deserved, and, where it is done for correction and discipline, those who strike free men are deemed worth of honour and gratitude…And so in everything our final judgment does not depend upon the mere things done, but upon their causes” (ii. 56).
That is why I remind those howling in outrage over the children of migrants that they are complaining about a story that is in its middle act (or as the Romans might have said, in medias res). A more comprehensive policy that addresses the root cause would empower NGOs and local governments to give potential refugees the option of staying in their own country. It would help them immigrate to nearby countries that are closer and offer a safer journey. That policy would help them avoid a longer trek to a country in which they don’t speak the dominant language, and where many of them must rely on human and sex traffickers, often employed by cartels, to get there. In short, the outrage from liberals uses children as a prop that ignores the role that the parents and the liberal politicians themselves had in placing those children in a position where they would be separated from their parents. As a result of knowing these causes and essentially the whole story, I don’t “feel the due indignation or pity” that many liberals insist I should.
The context and cause of the policy in question apply in so many more areas, from the necessity of waterboarding to debates over entitlement reform, but are often lost in what Polybius said was some people’s desire to “thrill…delight…and beguile” readers instead of giving them the truth that benefits the listener. This leads to the final key from Xenophon. When his besieged army received terrible information from an informant, they were “greatly agitated and alarmed. But a young man…after reflecting a little on the matter, observed” that the news did not make sense and was likely false (ii.4.18-19).
In other words, a bit of calm assessment and self-reflection in the face of fear and great agitation helped them make a better decision that in this case literally saved their lives. The Greeks remained alert and set guards, but the bulk of the army rested in security after seeing through the fake news they were given.
Bitter partisan debates, fake news, and manipulated narratives designed to provoke emotion instead of solutions are not as new as people think. While the ancient Greeks didn’t have their politicians kicked out of restaurants like the Red Hen, they did deal with and provide solutions to issues that are incredibly relevant. The answer to the modern debate isn’t turning up the volume, and it isn’t virtue signaling about how much more loving you think you are; it can be as simple as sitting down and reading a book, then calmly and fearlessly considering how you might be wiser like Pericles and less foolish like Xerxes.