- Ancient Ideologies, Postmodern Echoes: American Politics after 9/11 and the Greek Rhetoric of Identity
The U.N. says to the Iraqi citizens who again are trying to figure out the right balance as they head toward this new democracy after years of — after years of being enslaved by a tyrant — how best to do this, and I think it’s very helpful to have the stamp of the international community be placed upon the political process.- George W. Bush (From an interview on “Meet the Press” on Feb 8, 2004)
Beginning with the State, I replied, would you say that a city which is governed by a tyrant is free or enslaved? No city, he said, can be more completely enslaved. And yet, as you see, there are free men as well as masters in such a State? Yes, he said, I see that there are — a few; but the people, speaking generally, and the best of them, are miserably degraded and enslaved.Plato Republic 557c (tr. Jowett)
Why Ancient Greece?
As a trained Classicist with broadly humanist interests, I recently volunteered to co-teach, with a non-classicist, a course in the new undergraduate General Education curriculum at my university, listed under the rubric of “Contemporary Issues: National Perspectives”. Our ostensible aim was to teach “Identity” and “Difference” in today’s America, but in the end we could think of very few ways to isolate our study of identities (sexual/gender, national, class, ethnoracial) to “America” or “nation” — or to the “contemporary” world, for that matter. That will be no surprise to social critics, who have begun to see the western individual’s fraught relationship to identity as the fountainhead of our postcolonial and, now, post-industrial1 and post-national world. Global economics, the internet, the American “melting pot,” and the European Union collide with an older world of ethnic hatreds newly activated by the breakdown of colonial and communistic rule — resulting in what Zygmunt Bauman has called our “liquid modern” world.2
No moment in our collective memory has so completely undermined the distinction between the international and the domestic, the past and the present, than 9/11 — that very moment to which our National Perspectives discussions always eventually led, with clockwork inevitability. Like many of who have written on the subject, my colleague and I saw it fit to situate 9/11 within the context of modernity, taking the discussion back to the creation of the nation-state and its accompanying imperial expansion, emblematized in the 1492 unification of Spain and Columbus’ voyage to the New World, or using as our starting point the 20th century Cold War, where the potential for mutually assured destruction between the American and Soviet superpowers was siphoned off into a number of civil conflicts in foreign lands, including Afghanistan. And yet there was a particular aspect of the rhetoric of our foreign policy — and its disturbing intersections with our domestic policies — that was able to draw our attention back to antiquity with little difficulty.
By now the world had witnessed the latest invocation of the rhetoric of civilization vs. barbarism, whereby America posited herself as the unifier and leader of the (so-called) civilized world against the (so-called) barbarian one.3 The latter term, as is well-known, originates from the ancient Greek word barbaros. Of course, the civilization/barbarism dichotomy itself has gone through many evolutions since the days of classical Greece and Rome — for example, when it was used by Europeans of all stripes to justify the colonization of Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia from the 1500s onwards,4 and by the United States against the “twin scourges of German and Japanese barbarism” and Communism during the Cold War.5 I do not in any way wish imply that the modern rhetoric is somehow more “essentially related” to that of the ancients than to the modern. But as we vaunt our desire to export democracy throughout the world, I find it instructive to consider the language the Greeks themselves used as they went about creating the world’s first democracies. For no less then than today, the rhetoric fails...