Friday, December 17, 2010

Wrong About the Odyssey

I recently read the Iliad and the Odyssey, back to back, in their entirety. I'd encountered bits and pieces of them in high school and college, reading excerpts necessary for understanding subsequent works (damn near all of Western literature if you're to trust some sources, but that's a different essay), and I've read Joyce's Ulysses which uses the structure of the Odyssey to tell the story of hapless and heroic Leopold Bloom. There is a lot to say about both epic poems, especially when re-imagining and re-interpreting the events and images in terms of contemporary society, but one thing above all else stood out for me; how wrong I was about the Odyssey.

Being an object of culture, referenced in all media and all different levels of artistic expression, just about everyone knows something about the Odyssey. We have a cultural familiarity whether we've read the Odyssey, read excerpts of it in school, or just encountered it in references in movies and comic books. We all have an idea of what the Odyssey is about and what happens in it. Well, we're wrong.

The Odyssey is a story of the strife endured by Odysseus as he struggled against the gods to return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. However, of the ten years it takes him to get back to Ithaca from Troy, seven are spent in the strife and struggle of being the lover of the nymph Calypso, where she fed him ambrosia, had sex with him every night (and not just regular sex, but nymph sex), kept him from aging, and promised to make him immortal if only he stayed with her. (Did I mention it was nymph sex?) That's 70% of his time abroad. May all of your struggles and strife be 70% nymph sex.

While we're on the topic of what Odysseus actually spent his time doing during his trip, he spent a whole lot of narrative time with the Phaenicians, who were not cannibals, or opium addicts, or man-eating monsters. No sea beasts. No deceitful women. No angry gods raining petty vengeance upon a powerless mortal. Rather, they are a wealthy and generous sea merchants who treat Odysseus to a massive feast, imply that he could marry the daughter of the king, and shower him with more gifts than he won in all of his plunder of Troy (which of course, went down with his ship) before returning him to Ithaca on a ship so fast and so smooth that he sleeps through the entire journey.

Furthermore, a full third of the poem takes place after Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and involves his plot to deal with the suitors, a goal “nudged” along by Athena. To recap; 70% of the journey was spent as the boy toy of a nymph, another big chunk of the story takes place on Ithaca, another substantial percent is taken up with the Phaenicians, and there's a whole bunch of stuff about Telemachus that doesn't even involve Odysseus at all. The big events from the Odyssey that we all know about even if we haven't read it; the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus in Hades, Circe and the whole turning the crew into pigs thing, are a very small part of the actual story as it is told.

Cultural memory is a process of extrusion; as an artifact whether it's an epic poem, story, person, or idea is transferred around a culture its complexity is shaved off and members of the culture are aware of a simplified version of the entity. What a cultural artifact becomes when most in the culture do not have direct contact with it, is important, not just in understanding Homer or Shakespeare, but in more general issues of society. How many of our political decisions are based on the cultural artifacts of the American Revolution? How many of our politicians appeal to concepts of “freedom” and “liberty” without any examination of the documents and events that built those concepts? The most direct example of this is the constant claim that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” a claim that can be made when the distinction between, “a spirituality based in Christian mythology,” (which is what most of the Founders actually had) and “Christianity” is lost or ignored.

I haven't met anybody with the time to read every major readable cultural artifact and the point is not that everyone should feel obligated to read everything (there's a lot of Shakespeare out there, and frankly the Federalist Papers get a little dry after a while), but that we realize that what we know of all of these artifacts are simplified versions. This is fine when enjoying art or entertainment that references these entities, but this is not fine when, say, making a policy decision or establishing a personal belief structure. In terms of important decisions, it seems reasonable to ask people to do a little research.

Oh, and the Trojan Horse thing; doesn't happen in either of them. A bard mentions it in a song about the Trojan War (a song Odysseus requested). Nor does Achilles die his famous death. The Illiad actually ends with the funeral for Hector, the only honest to god decent human being in the entire story (No, seriously, Agammemon is an arrogant jerk, Achilles sulks in his tent while his friends die because he didn't get the slave girl he wanted, and well, Odysseus himself sacked an innocent city on his way home from the war and executed servant girls who were born after he left for Troy for sleeping with suitors.) who valiantly fought hordes of invaders and spent his last night before he knew he was going to die with his wife and infant son. And what does he get for his bravery and general decency; he gets his dead body dragged back and forth in front of the gates of Troy behind a chariot. In the extruded versions of these epic poems it's Achilles and Odysseus who are thought of as the heroes, but after actually reading them, Hector is the one worthy of respect.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Story of Big Government

The first major expansion of federal power in our nation's history came early in, well, our nation's history, when the Constitution was ratified, replacing the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation barely constituted a national government as it had virtually none of the power we associate with, well, national government. In the context of history, this was by far the biggest expansion of federal power over society, at least in this country, in that federal power as we know it was incorporated. There was one other major expansion but I'll get to that later.

Almost from the word go, the government experienced a still unabated piecemeal expansion. In order to solidify a truly national economy, especially in the face of Revolutionary War debt, the Bank of the United States (which was eventually followed by a Second Bank of the United States and a period of open banking before a panic in 1907 lead to the establishment of the Federal Reserve) was established. Thomas Jefferson wasn't sure if the president had the power to purchase land, but he couldn't turn down France's offer and thus expanded federal power with the Louisiana Purchase. The state of Alaska (from which a certain “small government” proponent supposedly is kept visually aware of Russo-American relations) might not have existed otherwise.

The second of the two major expansions of federal power happened in the Civil War, when the fundamental right of States to leave the United States of America was eradicated. The Civil Rights amendments were a coda that expanded the federal government's power over how states interacted with their residents, but, as we learned from the Jim Crow era, this expansion wasn't enough to ensure legal dignity for all Americans. Despite what some might say, with the debatable exception of the establishment of income tax, which required a constitutional amendment, no expansion of federal power since has matched this one because it ceded to the federal government the power to determine whether or not states were subject to its power.

The industrial revolution, the urbanization of society, the massive amount of immigration, the development of the stock market, and other societal changes created an entirely new economy with entirely new problems that society, as it was, did not have the ability to solve. In response to this new economy, government expanded again through a series of regulations and then, in order to hold society together after that economy collapsed, through massive infrastructure projects and other spending initiatives. The ultimate result of the Depression (which was ended by an even larger government spending program commonly referred to as “World War II”) was a system of regulations on finance and production and a material safety net in order to ensure the Depression never happened again, including the third rails of politics, Social Security and Medicare.

There were expansions of federal power in response the Cold War such as the Committee on Unamerican Activities. The tragedy of Jim Crow was resolved by another expansion of Federal power most dramatically demonstrated by the National Guard forcibly integrating Central High School in Little Rock, and culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Along the way, the government continued to accumulate regulatory agencies such as the EPA and OSHA. The EPA, of course, was established by everyone's favorite tax and spend liberal, Richard Nixon. Of course, not all of these expansions of government were institutionalized. There certainly isn't anything in the Constitution or in legislation about selling weapons in exchange for hostages, for example. There have been more contemporary expansions of government as well, the biggest of which was not the recent Health Care Reform, but the original Patriot Act, which gave the government far more power to observe and detain American citizens than it has had since the Alien and Sedition Acts. And this doesn't even include the size and effect on our society of the ever expanding American military or the actions taken by the CIA (See Legacy of Ashes for that story).

Another way to tell this story is as a story of economic crisis. The private market could not free the slaves. It couldn't prevent factory machines from pulling the arms off of children or stop factory owners from locking their workers in. It couldn't keep human fingers out of our sausages and rat poison out of our medicine. It couldn't stop companies from lying to consumers. For some reason it couldn't teach investors that it was a bad idea to buy stock with the projected dividends of other stocks. Since we're on the topic, the private economy also couldn't stop companies from dumping poison into our water and spewing toxins into our air. Regardless of whether the administration in power was Federalist, Bull Moose, Republican, or Democratic, they almost always responded to these crises through expansions of government power and influence.

This means that the story of “big government” then is not one of liberal or Democrat power grabs, but the accumulation of responses to economic and societal crises. Whenever a Republican or conservative accuses a Democrat or liberal of something about “big government” they are completely ignoring the history of the development of the United States Federal Government. What we have today is the result of two hundred plus years of people responding to problems.

I have no problem with arguing about the costs and benefits of particular government policies, but the “big government” label doesn't do that. The debate between big government and small government was settled over a hundred years ago with the Civil War. My problem with the Republican technique of the “big government” card is that they use it to argue against a proposed Democrat policy without actually arguing against the policy itself. Rather than helping to determine whether a particular proposed regulation will actually stabilize investment banking for example, they simply argue that “big government” as an abstract concept is inherently negative. This argument itself is bad for governance. It's not that I want Republicans to rubber stamp Democrat legislation, but the proposed policies cannot be improved if the opposition led critique doesn't actually engage the policies themselves.

This is a particular example of a more general problem with our political discourse. The sound-byte has no room for nuance and debates have become ballets of sound-bytes, and somehow, despite the presence of three 24-hour news networks, no one seems to have the time to establish the historic context of a given issue. I don't have a solution for this general problem. So much goes into our inability to have productive political debates and so many forces benefit from that inability that a solution will be long in coming. But hopefully, the next time you hear someone try to end an argument by arguing against “big government,” I hope you'll remember this story.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How Sport Lasts

I was at a bar over Thanksgiving weekend with my friends from home, (Lewiston, ME for those keeping track) as Thanksgiving weekend, for whatever reason, has always been a big homecoming for my set of Lewiston friends. The day after Thanksgiving we play (or enact a reasonable approximation of) a game of touch football at the field at the middle school and many of us go to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game that same night and head out to the bars to catch up afterward. There is a way this essay could go that really focuses on that touch football game, exploring how little the game itself, or at least, how “a game of football” is usually understood, matters to the event, but that's not what I'm going to talk about, though, in a way, (sorry for all the commas,,,,) that's all I'm going to talk about.

After the football game, after the hockey game, and for me and a few others anyway, at the second bar of the night, I ran into a couple of people I hadn't seen in years, perhaps in over a decade. They were cousins to each other, were both married, and had children. One was living in Hinesburg, VT near Burlington so we were able to chat about that for awhile, and one was living not too far from where he grew up, in Bowdoin, ME. There was a new beard involved. We all had jobs. Wives were introduced. The conversation broke up when I had to get a beer. One of them left before I made my way back (which took awhile, given the other people I ran into) and one of them I was able to properly wish good-night and good luck when I was on my way out. The story here isn't in how the night as a whole went, how my conversation went with these two friends, or how the night ended. The story here is how I was greeted, how we greeted each other.

There was a moment of recognition, an offered handshake that turned into a hug and then I was embraced by both of them and we were jumping up and down in the bar and they were shouting “Cook! Cook! Cook!” Despite the askance looks of a couple of wives and a few of the other patrons within earshot, and despite the obviously ridiculous visual the whole event produced, I knew exactly why what was happening was happening.

It made sense because, the three of us played youth hockey together. In Lewiston, youth hockey used to be organized by the various parishes in the city and even when the league became it's own entity, it preserved certain aspects of the old parish system; the team you played on was determined by where you lived, which meant that most kids played with the same kids year after year. So Johnny, JP and I played for Holy Family, mascot the Bears, from when we were about 6 or 7 until when were about 12 or 13. This means that we haven't been teammates for almost eighteen years and yet, whatever connection we had was still strong enough to produce a jumping, chanting, public display of man-love. The question, of course, is why did the emotion of that very old connection stay that strong?

I'm sure there's a developmental psychology answer about formative years and early social tribes, but, frankly, I don't find that answer particularly interesting. Here's my answer; we played hockey together when we still believed we could play in the NHL.

Looking back now, I know there was no time in my life, when I had a chance to play professional hockey. I never had even a fraction of the raw talent necessary. But what do you know at 10 and 11? We were getting up at ungodly hours in the morning on weekends to go to practices at an outdoor rink where we needed to wear nylons under our pads and put tape over the ear holes in our helmets to fend off frostbite. Our parents were paying ridiculous fees, buying expensive equipment, and driving us all over the state. We were playing in tournaments, winning them, losing them, getting trophies, having end of the season parties, getting injured, crying over losses, and dreaming of a life where we got to play hockey forever.

Of course, there are ways to undercut the general conclusion I'm coming to; Johnny and JP are cousins who have always been as much friends as relatives; Johnny was always the top goalie on our team and I was always the top defenseman; we won the Lion's Tournament together, which was the Lewiston league's championship; we won a youth state title together; but I still think the universal in this situation outweighs the particular.

We were participants in each others' dreams as children. When we didn't know anything about the world, when all we knew of hockey was what happened when we played and the fantasy we created by interpreting what we watched on TV, when we were without the scale of worldiness, when we hadn't learned that not everything was possible, we were teammates.

Of course none of us ended up in the NHL. I was good enough to make a pretty good high school hockey team and Johnny was good enough to give Juniors at least a try. I managed to scrape together a few pond hockey games here and there and now live near a roller hockey rink where I occasionally shoot around by myself. JP found some guys to play with in Vermont and Johnny left before I could see if he still strapped the pads on every now and again.

At one point Johnny suggested a reunion game with the old Holy Family guys we played with. I live in Somerville, JP in Vermont, Johnny in Maine and who knows where all those others guys are. The logistics would be challenging even if we all didn't have the rest of our lives to manage (did I mention that both of them are fathers) even in the world of Facebook. I'd be shocked and overjoyed if something like that were ever organized. At the same time, I know exactly what Johnny said when he said that, and even though I can't explain the real meaning behind the statement, I completely agree with it.