“To stand outside the state is to stand nowhere”
—from “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”.
Americans think of themselves as a democracy, which we are not, but nevertheless point to ancient Athens as the origin of the American democratic experience. That we are a republic, not a democracy matters little for “We the People” have taken sovereignty from the clutches of the self-appointed monarchs who had hitherto lorded over the masses by means of the pious fraud known as ‘divine right’. We are rightly proud of our experiment in self governance, now entering it’s third century. But lost in the din of contemporary political discourse and discord are some rather fundamental precepts of self-governance that were passed down through the ages to our founding fathers, but have been lost on the ‘generation of swine’.
If one cares to read not only the founding documents of this republic but the body of work representing its rationale, principally “The Federalist Papers”, one is confronted immediately by the realization that our founding fathers were steeped in ancient history, languages and, most especially of the political institutions of the ancient and medieval world. They understood not only how ancient Greece and Rome were instituted but were well versed in the Conceptual nature of how the ancients saw themselves, their community, and one’s place in that community.
For the ancient Greeks specifically, the political community, the city-state, defined by the concept polis was all encompassing. It defined everything, it was in essence the totality of the social arrangement. For the Greeks to be outside the polis, is to be outside society. To be outside the polis is to be nowhere.
I remember, as a young man, watching an episode of “The Waltons”, a serial saga about a semi-rural family in small town America. The son, called ‘John-Boy’ declared to his father that he was a writer. “You’re not a writer John-Boy”, replied the old man, “until someone else says you are”. Herein lies the abiding truth about our existence. It is the community that defines the individual, that is the point that old man Walton was trying to impress upon his impressionable young son. You are what the community says you are, what–in large measure–the community has made of you. Herein lies the overarching lesson of life.
It begins in the cradle, who brings you into this life, the station in which one finds oneself. What one then makes of it is in large measure determined by the influences, be they familial, of the community, or of the institutions in which one is increasingly nurtured. Later in life, individual initiative is either enhanced or retarded by the opportunities opened by one’s earlier upbringing and experiences or closed as the case may be. But it is, in large measure, determined by the greater society. Finally one knows when one has ‘made it’ when, as old man Walton, so inelegantly expressed it, someone else says you have. The currency of success is always a social currency; one becomes a writer when one becomes ‘recognized’, one becomes an economic success only when society heaps wealth upon your shoulders. To stand outside society was, to the ancients, an absurdity. Likewise in every society be it tribe, city-state, confederation, church (as in the middle ages), or modern nation-state to be outside it’s boundaries is to be an ‘alien’, to be an ‘outcast’, to be nowhere.
The word “Idiot” in this context derives from the Greek “ idiotes” meaning someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs. Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.” (1) Indeed democracy was first introduced to Athens as a means of making the affairs of state public as opposed to the state being run by a group of oligarchs for their own personal gain. By expanding the franchise the ‘people’ acting directly and on their own behalf served to reign in on the abuses of the oligarchy, not by expanding the definition of the polis, but by expanding the participation in it.
Two concurrent threads are interwoven in this tapestry; the all-encompassing definition of citizenship and the participation in that citizenship for the purpose of reigning in and controlling the dominant economic interests of the state. It was, therefore, anathema to the Greeks that one would place private concerns ahead of the public interests and to see in every concern, in every issue, in every domain merely narrow private interests was, to the Greeks, to be the original idiot.
It is the Greek word polis that is the root of our term ‘politics’, as the word commune is the root of its variant community. One is born with an understanding of neither; however, it is hoped that through education the citizen develops an understanding of his rights, privileges and responsibilities to the greater society. Indeed in this context “idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.” (1) Idiocy, then, is the opposite of citizenship. ‘"Idiots" were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters”. (1)
This, by degrees, leads us to the swine. We have witnessed in the last election one of what one hopes will be one of the last hog-calls of the swine, but I fear not. In any case, the Koch (read coke) addled knuckle-dragging tea baggers have now made a complete pig’s breakfast of the political process in effect paralyzing the politics of the republic. This has been a long time coming, beginning with the Young Asses for Fascism (2) and their support of Barry Goldwater to the modern Tea-Bagger we have seen a four decade assault on the very idea and legitimacy of governance itself. When Reagan declared in his first Inaugural Address that “Government IS the problem” he, in effect, declared war on the polis and in so doing not only demonstrated bad citizenship, but revealed himself to be the political mouthpiece of a growing number of idiots in the truest meaning of the word.
1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiot,
For a partial explanation of the ancient meaning.
2. Known as the “Young Americans for Freedom” they were referred to, in my youth as the
“Young Asses for Fascism.” And so they have become.