Was Socrates Right?

This is another in my series of re-posts. I wrote it just prior to the last presidential election and have added a few comments to the update.

The Greek philosopher Socrates who lived from 470 until 399 B.C.E. sought to withdraw from the hurly-burly of ordinary political life in what was one of the very first democracies. He insisted that it was impossible to participate in the political life of Athens and at the same time retain one’s integrity. And in his view integrity, living a virtuous life, was of paramount importance: it led him to eventually accept the decision of a corrupt court and drink Hemlock.

 Socrates

Socrates

Politics has always been a bit of a dirty game, but it is a game that is played for high stakes and a great many have discovered how to become very wealthy playing the game, doing what they are told, and collecting their reward from the special interest groups. I have not counted recently in our political system (which is not a democracy, strictly speaking) how many can be readily identified as corrupt. But the number must be rather large. We are now caught in a bind with “representatives” who only represent special interests and who are determined to bring government to a halt if their candidate does not win the presidency.  Partisanship has replaced citizenship in this country and there are very few like Socrates around — or even those who are convinced that they can play the dirty game of politics and still keep their hands clean. We can count those few on the fingers on one hand. But there are a few.

Socrates, it has always seemed to me, was a bit too uncompromising. Surely it is possible for a person to be actively involved in politics and to remain a person of integrity? Or is it? Think of the temptations from the immensely wealthy who have millions of dollars to spread around buying the people who will make the decisions that will favor their particular business. [Think N.R.A.] There is no question whatever but that the corporations and special interest groups call the shots, especially since the Supreme Court decision Citizens United that gave the corporations the right to directly influence elections. Is it possible for a politician like Elizabeth Warren, for example, to continue to play the dirty game without getting soiled? That is an interesting question and one which will not be answered for a few years yet. But the siren song of wealth and power is always playing in her ear and she will have to be one tough cookie to ignore it.

There are a great many people in this country who are sick and tired of “politics as usual.” They are convinced that it is a dirty game and that everyone who plays it is soiled. Of late, to be sure, those who play the game strike us as a large group of very well paid men and women who spend time talking, getting paid large salaries, and doing nothing. Thus these voters turn to an outsider, one who is outside of politics if not outside of reality itself, and they hope and pray that this man with the funny hair and tiny hands will deliver this country from the muddy world of politics as usual. In the process, they expect, they themselves will be legitimized and their hopes and dreams will become a reality, because politics as usual has passed them by and they have been left in the lurch, clutching at straws.

Unfortunately, politics is a dirty game. That is a fact, and anyone who chooses to play must get their hands at least a bit dirty. The problem that faces this country at this juncture is whether we are realistic enough to accept the fact that politics is a dirty game and seek the one candidate who is the cleaner of the two and who promises to play the game in such a way that the country will remain relatively strong and survive as at least a shadow of the republic the founders envisioned. Or will the citizens of this country be so sick of politics as usual that they will blindly choose a man who is completely unqualified to head up this government and play a game whose rules he does to fully understand, a man who is used to making up his own rules on the go? [We now know the answer to that question!]

Socrates was right. But he was also wrong. It is possible for some to play the game and retain their integrity. But it is mighty difficult and there are few who can manage to play it successfully. In the meantime, we must accept reality as it is given to us and accept the candidate who will do the best job for the country and for each of its citizens — the best under the circumstances. It’s time for realism, not pie-in-the-sky-fantasy that ignores the fact that an unqualified president will flounder and fail miserably in the dirty world of politics, a world he is totally unfamiliar with and one that will eat him alive.

The Scuzzy Threesome

As we knew would happen, the Three Stooges have been nominated for the baseball Hall of Fame. Now the sportswriters of America must wrestle with their consciences and decide whether Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds are worthy of inclusion.

There’s no question the three of them played exceptional baseball. What is in question, as the world knows, is whether they deserve to be enshrined in baseball’s highest hall of honor. The ballot states clearly that “voting shall be based upon the payer’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” Note that all six criteria apply: it doesn’t say “either, or.” It would appear that of the six criteria all three of these men fail at least half: character, integrity, and sportsmanship.

Our judicial system rests on the principle that a person is innocent until found guilty and, strictly speaking, none of these three men has been found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming and the court of public opinion has already found all three guilty of using banned substances. At least two of them also seem to have lied to Congress and if the government hadn’t fumbled the ball, Roger Clemens, at least, would have been fund guilty of Contempt of Congress.

Mark McGwire who has been on the ballot three times before has failed to garner more than something like 20% of the votes of the sportswriters — 70% being required for acceptance into the Hall. He confessed to using banned substances as he and Sammy Sosa chased and passed Babe Ruth’s home-run record (which means that he also lied to Congress). The three stooges may have the same results. One never knows. This decision would appear to be cut and dry, given the criteria that must be met to get into the Hall. But I have heard several sportswriters interviewed on ESPN who are going to vote for all three simply because they were outstanding players — thereby ignoring half of the criteria. Their rationalization is that “everyone else was doing it and these three stood out among the rest.”  But haven’t we heard this before? (Fade to Nixon after Watergate.)

It must be OK because “everyone else is doing it.” Logicians call this ad populum and it is a very weak, indeed fallacious, argument. In ethics it is sometimes referred to as the “two wrongs fallacy.” In any event, it is muddle-headed. The fact that all of the other baseball players were using PEDs — which is doubtful — cannot be said to be a sufficient reason for any one of these three men doing what they knew was illegal and would give them an edge. If something is right it is so because it is grounded on a moral principle, such as fairness of respect for persons. If something is wrong it is because it violates one or more of those principles: it matters not how many people are or are not doing “it.” In the case of these three men it is evident that they lack sound character and integrity and were poor sports. Thus, they do not deserve to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It is significant in this regard that Barry Bonds doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. He wants in and he has been quoted by USA Today (11/29/12) as saying “I don’t understand all the controversy we’re having about it. For what reason?” Indeed. Apparently those drugs don’t only make the athlete stronger and more agile, they apparently interfere with the mental process. But in a sense Bonds is right: there shouldn’t be any controversy. This is a no-brainer. The three should be kept out of the Hall of Fame.