You could be forgiven (but what’s the fun in that), if you were to think. Looking at Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Death of Socrates, you could believe you’re seeing Socrates giving the bird to democracy and demanding that Crito give him the goddamned chalice full of hemlock, and get out of the way. There are different versions of what Socrates’ last words were. I thought I heard, “Tell my neighbor, Asclepius, he’s a cock, and I owe him one.” But I’d just come off reading The Clouds, Aristophanes’ take-down of Socrates, so I could be wrong. All we know is that he was in a foul mood.
And he had a right to be. All those Ralph Nader-like years of public service, including a distinguished stint as a soldier during the Peloponnesian War, only to be told, like most any vet, that things had changed since his return from his tour of duty. The Thirty Tyrants banned him from speaking in public — his dialectics had a tendency to undermine their reign of terror. He never spoke out against the oligarchy directly, but he did continue to be a “gadfly” for every horse’s arse who came his way: encouraging each to think for himself. When democracy was restored, his influence was not forgotten by governmental leaders.
Socrates famously quipped, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ Golden Rule is built into the foundation of American democracy. A life that is not examined is one controlled by the thoughts of others — open to deception, propaganda, and subterfuge. An examined life is built into Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “well-informed public.” Augmented by the mission of the Fourth Estate, which is to keep the citizenry informed and the Bastards Honest, well-informed, self-examining people are in control of their representative government. Ideally. But there are a lot of Ee-yores, assorted horses arses, and serial ignoramuses out there. Even a Ralph Nader can only do so much.
Ultimately, Socrates was convicted on charges of impiety and corruption of youth. Only the latter really matters (nobody really gave a good goddamn about the other one). At the core of his dialectical philosophy was the directive: Question Authority. He demonstrated his method daily, followed around Athens by youthful acolytes, as he took the mickey out of the Know-It-Alls in power. Even in the heyday of democracy, the vested interests wanted none of that. They laughed at Aristophenes’ parody of Socrates and his tactics as a form of sophistry allowing sleaze-balls to weasel out of debts and obligations by making language itself a series of loopholes without end. Creating lawyers who could con Jesus off the cross. Denny Crane! “Never lost a case.”
Socrates might have gone into exile, but, he argued, it would have been the same thing all over again — his dialectics pissing people off. An endless vista of Apologies opened up. So, he talked himself into the death penalty (which came in record time, BTW). He said, according to the Benjamin Jowett translation, “I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” Then Socrates was handed the chalice of hemlock. Some say that that was the day the music died for Athens’ exceptional democracy, and by the time it got handed down to we moderns it was already more sound and fury than substance.
And yet, here we are some 2500 years later, historically slap-happy, still trying to work out the broad strokes and nuances of our own Exceptional democracy — like kids playing with dynamite, as Mose Allison might say. There’s something Belén Fernández wrote in her new book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World that sticks with me, something about patriotism, guarding the O Say Can You See against foreign and domestic usurpers, defending the fatherland (patri) you believe in (ism) no matter how abusive and alcoholic he’s become, until you can’t take anymore. As Fernández observes, you can “ start to view the state itself as public enemy number one,” and you know something’s been lost when you start seeing your country as a “state.” Like Socrates.
And that got me thinking about childhood, and homeroom, and our placing our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to all them stars and stripes, earnestly but mechanically. And at lunchtime, all the goombahs extorting lunches and test answers from the weaklings and nerds in that long lead-up to their grown up years of thuggery and politics, now seen as the first wake-up call in the game called Hide Your Twinkies.
And after lunch, we’re taking turns reading aloud Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without A Country,” gasping as Philip Nolan exclaims, at the end of a trial for some unknown treason, “To hell with America,” or something like that. And he gets sent ‘up the river’ for 56 years (gulp) for saying something I’ve felt mosta my life — and I’m a true patriot. No, really.
But then, at recess, as the goombahs started selling ‘insurance policies’, I hung out in the toilet and got to thinking, started examining myself (mentally, I mean), and began to wonder what did Nolan actually do wrong? The story doesn’t really say. Miss Johnson (at least that’s how I remember her name) just said it was a parable about patriotism. But what had he done? My little mind worked and worked to know. Had he done some illicit machine-gunning? Was he a serial philanderer? Had he tried to kill John Lennon and all his love? 56 years! No one once asked him if he’d changed his mind, offered him some fucking parole? I discovered myself without toilet paper. Wrote on the wall: Phillip Nolan was here.
Years later, as I was growing up (still am), I discovered that Nolan’s tale was loosely based on an incident that happened to Peace Democrat congressman Clement Vallandigham in 1863, who, mid-war, openly called for peace; who didn’t believe the battle to end slavery was worth the price of a divided white nation. A draft had been called by Republican president Abraham Lincoln; New York’s white underclass erupted in rage when it was discovered that rich people could buy their way out of serving or find a proxy, and that their jobs refining slave-labor crops (cotton and sugar) could be lost, if the Union won. Vallandigham’s exhortations were regarded as treason — he was court-martialed and sent into exile. Why, Nolan was a patsy!
Many self-examinations later, I thought: Only a Republican would send a man up for 56 years without a chance for parole and call it a parable, while only a Democrat would sue soulfully for peace, but not give a damn about the injustice of slavery or, later, what became known as “economic inequality.” I didn’t know what to think. Toilet stalls don’t grow on trees, and I had nowhere to hide. And it all reminded me an awful lot of the Clinton years, back when Is was Is.
It’s only gotten worse since Socrates and Nolan, IMO — democracy and patriotism, I mean. Some would argue that they are long gone, like a turkey through the corn. 9 Eleven, that was our house of cards, two decks down, freefallin’ at the same time, ‘oh, the humanity’, and like little children who’ve spent all morning building and balancing our catastrophe-in-the-making we raged at physics, as if it were a demon, and looked with extreme prejudice for goats trying to escape.
As Pavlov dingled his bell, and we all broke out in a lip-doodling frenzy of ‘patriotism,’ Susan Sontag seemed to be the only one in the elephant room big enough to call the response for what it was: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…[and] well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Sontag saw no need to apologize and took her hemlock exile courageously. One day we’ll find the patsy in all this — probably while shaving.
Socrates died in 399 BC — but one could picture, almost 2500 years later, that Democracy has overshot its trajectory, and that Capitalism, not Asclepius, is due a salute. We have our own Cloud issues now; way more than Thirty Tyrants; our hearts and minds still filled with the soothing beats of war drums we’ve heard all our lives (from Korea to the ‘Ghan); thinkers pilloried; a press that mocks and squawks; and instead of a well-oiled Grecian democracy ready to wrassle with Killer “Climate Change” Kowalski, we got us a 1963 Rambler needing a new transmission. Personally, I think that future pledges of allegiance should require not the hand over the heart (that’s got other things to do: why burden it with the gravitas of false patriotism), but a nice big juicy middle finger that says Question Authority. That’s what a mature democracy requires.
Think about it.