History Lessons

After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.

Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.

Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.

The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.

In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.



These are the folks who reach for their phones half-way through the Infomercial to order crap from the TV (with free shipping (plus $8.50 in “handling ” charges)); they are the ones who can be fooled all the time; who are born every minute; who wouldn’t know a half-truth from an outright lie; who buy the “previously owned” car from the crooked salesman; who worry about what will happen to the hero on their favorite daytime soap opera, because they cannot differentiate reality from make-believe. They are, as Strother Martin would have it, “morons on our team.” They are bona fide U. S. citizens who have decided that the man standing before them with strange hair and small hands selling his own peculiar brand of snake oil will take them to the promised land. He is their deliverer! They don’t care that he is a chronic liar and filled with hate. They will not be confused by the facts because their tiny minds are made up. They are suckahs!

Clearly, there’s no point in trying to reach such people, and especially in this format — a blog post with a couple of dozen readers (on a good day). But one always hopes that somehow those still sitting on the fence will get the idea and wake up. We really need to continue to nudge them.

The University of Virginia recently had a poll and predicted that Hillary Clinton will win the election. They have never been wrong — they even predicted that Sanders would not get the nomination. Clearly these people are astute political animals who are able to read the tea leaves and see the future. I worry only that many people will take them seriously and think it’s “in the bag.” However, it’s not over, as they say, until the fat lady sings. And she won’t have sung until we all get out and vote for the one person in this strange, even ugly, political race who has the experience and know-how to run this country.

It’s hard not to get worked up about this race. Neither candidate will ever earn a popularity contest; they are both flawed in their way. But only one of them has made it absolutely clear that he doesn’t have the knowledge or experience — or even the concern — to be president of these United States. Only one has made it clear that he doesn’t understand the risks of a nuclear war. Only one has made it crystal clear that he is blinded by his own ambition and his hatred for those who are different from him and his determination to bring down those who oppose him. Only one has shown a complete lack of awareness of the role this country must play on the international stage.

To be sure, I am biased. But this bias is based on considerable reading and listening to what is being said. I do wonder why others are not doing the same. I would love to see a president who embodies all the principles I regard as essential to running this country and getting it back on the straight and narrow; somewhere along the line it fell off and desperately needs straightening out. But no one person can do this and we must choose the one out of these two (who are the only serious candidates) who can work with a crippled system and who has the political savvy to make the best of a bad situation. Until real change comes about this country will continue to be run by the special interests and money will be the determinant of political policy. In the meantime, we must vote for the only sane candidate out there — the other one is only for suckahs.


In one of Bill Cosby’s hilarious stand-up comic bits, he noted that we don’t cheer for players in professional sports any more, we cheer for the uniforms. In a day when players and coaches stand up before an array of microphones and swear allegiance to the team and then are gone before the next day, there is much truth in Cosby’s comedy. Until the uniform is retired, we had better not get too excited about the star that is playing for the home team because he may not be there in the morning.

Many would call this “disloyalty,” but given the commercial world we live in this is simply regarded as “good business.” No one, it seems, can find fault with the young man or young woman who simply wants to “better themselves” by moving on and taking a better deal. By “bettering themselves,” we mean, of course, making more money. It is no longer even a point of debate to suggest that perhaps a young man or a young man would be happier if they stayed where they are, any more than it is to suggest that young athletes would be well advised to remain in college until they earn their degree. There are some who have done that, of course, but it is almost always a function of the home team coming up with enough money to persuade the hero to stay with the team, or the promise of more money down the line after another stellar year in college. It raises an interesting question about the possibility that, perhaps, the notion of loyalty is a thing of the past along with so many other virtues in our day. Unless, of course, we recognize that for many the object of their loyalty these days is money. And not just athletes. I can’t recall offhand a churchman who heard a “calling” from a Church that promised to pay him less. But back to the athletes.

Though I have not really paid attention to these games because the rampant commercialism has destroyed any semblance of amateurism, the most intriguing story to come out of the Sochi Olympics, in my view, is the story of the snowboarder Vic Wild who got no respect from his American support group so he decided to become a Russian citizen and race for “them.” True, he married a Russian woman, but any doubt about where his loyalties lie is erased when one considers the fact that he simply wanted to race and was willing to do so anywhere if the price was right. In this case, it was a simply matter of getting the financial support he insists is required to perform at the highest levels. He wasn’t getting it in his home country, so he went elsewhere and earned two gold medals for his adopted country, as the following snippit from a Yahoo News story makes clear:

Less than 24 hours before the Sochi Games’ closing ceremony, Russia led the overall medal table with 29. The United States ranked second with 27. Were he still competing for the U.S., Wild would be the most decorated American Olympian at the Sochi Games – and the athlete who pushed them into the lead.

Instead, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association dissolved its already-underfunded alpine snowboarding program after the Vancouver Games, leaving Wild with a choice: end his career or defect. When he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina in 2011, Wild applied for citizenship in her country and its greatest perquisite: the support of an Olympic organizing committee that valued alpine snowboarding.

“I would not have snowboarded for the United States,” Wild said. “I was done snowboarding. I would have moved on. I would have gone to college. And I would have had a great life. I had another option. The only option to snowboard was to go to Russia and snowboard. I wanted to continue snowboarding, to see how good I can be. I wanted to know I gave it everything I had. …

“I was done. I had called them. I had retired. It has nothing to do with the United States itself. It only has something to do with the nonprofit organization, the USSA. They didn’t give me what I needed. That’s cool. I’m stoked for them. They’ve done a great job at these Olympics. They’re amazing. They do a great job. But not everybody can be happy. I had to make my decision. And I’m very happy that I did that.”

Ignoring the false dichotomy between either Vic quits snowboarding or he defects [there is a third alternative], his fellow snowboarders don’t fault Vic, as I dare say few if any Americans will. He was simply seeking to “better” himself, i.e., put himself into a position where he could excel at a game he loves. But we need to recall it is a game, despite the tons of money that are thrown at successful athletes before, during, and (especially) after the Olympics. If Russia is anything like America in this regard, as reports suggest that it is, Vic will be a very wealthy and adored hero in his adopted country, which I suspect might have been part of his motive in the first place. But make no mistake: he is not being disloyal. He is being loyal to the only thing that really matters to so many of us, namely, money. And if you can make a ton of money doing something you happen to be very good at doing, so much the better, regardless of where you do it.

Bombs Away!

We live in an age that defies logic and disturbs our moral sensibilities. There is a growing number of nations that are busily building up their supply of nuclear weapons — any one of which is six times more powerful than the bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan in the mid-1940s. And there are other bellicose nations that want desperately to join the fray. During the Iraq war President Bush actually contemplated using “limited yield” nuclear weapons but settled in the end for 500 pound “bunker-buster bombs” that burrow deep into the ground and destroy everything above and below ground for miles around.

The latest episode in this absurd nightmare is Israel’s request for a few bunker bombs from the United States — along with some planes that can carry the bombs closer to Iran without refueling. At this writing it is not clear whether this request will be met by the Obama administration, but a paragraph in a recent news story is worth a moment’s pause:

A front-page article in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on Thursday said Obama had told Netanyahu that Washington would supply Israel with upgraded military equipment in return for assurances that there would be no attack on Iran in 2012.

Again, this may or may not be true. But one bizarre feature of the story is that Obama’s hesitation (if there is any) is apparently due to his concern with his own reelection — since a war between Israel and Iran would raise oil prices precipitously thereby damaging his chances for reelection. We apparently don’t care if Israel attacks Iran as long as it occurs after the election: it’s OK if you attack, but just not yet! The fact that a President’s main concern seems to be with his own reelection rather than the carnage that would result from the sale of the planes and bombs — not to mention the possibility that the United States might well be drawn into the war as an ally of Israel — beggars belief.

As I write this the Sierra Club is desperately trying to get people to write their Congressmen to help save jobs in the clean energy industry. There is an immanent threat of lay-offs which has dampened investor’s enthusiasm for alternative energy. In their plea, Sierra Club says, “By failing to act, Congress is holding the fate of more than 40,000 jobs in the clean energy industry in its hands. Already, their lack of commitment has caused orders for new wind turbines to dry up and has created a crisis where layoffs are imminent.” Do you see the connection here? Our President worries that gas prices will go up if Israel goes to war with Iran, but he and the Congress are reluctant to support a movement that could help us break away from our dependence on foreign oil! I sometimes think I have passed through the looking glass.

What this government needs to do is get squarely behind the clean energy movement and make a serious attempt to get adequate funding for research and meaningful tax breaks for industries that will in the end make alternative energy a viable alternative and affordable by all. Imagine the benefits that would accrue if we simply took a fraction of the money we spend on “defense” and put it into clean energy research. With sufficient funding it is possible that nuclear fusion could replace nuclear fission. As things now stand, we stumble about on the issue of alternative energy and focus our attention on factors that might raise oil prices — as though the latter are what really matter. They don’t. What matters is taking a long view and committing to a path that will deliver us from a world that seriously contemplates destruction on a mass scale and worries only about the cost of gas at the pump.