Sunday, March 7, 2010

More from Thucydides...

From the chapter on the Corcyran Civil War:

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable - on one side political equality for the masses, on the other side the safe and sound government of the aristocracy - but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves...


The nature of the Hellenic political institutions was of course radically different from our own. But both political cultures give an essential role to public discourse. Consequently, both our own and Classical societies face a threat from demagogues. Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly are merely the latest voices in a lineage going back through Morton Downey Jr., Father Charles Coughlin all the way to Cleon of Athens.

Any demagogue is an entrepreneur, seeking elite status within a particular subculture or identity community by espousing the defining values of that group. It's a form of display behavior somewhat more sophisticated than throwing dirt and sticks into the air, and one which requires the exploitation of identity cleavages.

We all identify with multiple communities, with the salience of all of our identities changing with the social context in which we find ourselves. To the extent a demagogue can make a particular common identity salient in their audience, they succeed. And the best way to make someone focus on a particular identity is to convince them there's a threat to the community on which that identity is based. The hyperpartisan atmosphere which results can result in the complete disintegration of a society; examples are the American Civil War, the Rwandan Genocide and the Yugoslav Civil War.



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