27 November 2010

The Promised Answer

I said I had the answer to gridlock in DC, but to explain it we need to go to Greece.

This here pile of stones is part of that ancient agora I mentioned a few days ago. Nothing to look at, and no great event took place here. There is a marker there, hard to read and in Greek, that says it was the location of the Boule, the group that essentially ran Athens. Five hundred men from each of the ten families or demes, each served a year and no one could serve more than twice.

What got my attention, though, was that this body could not pass laws on its own. Laws had to be approved by the larger assembly of citizens, call the ecclesia (from which we get the word ecclesiastical).

The ecclesia was too large to create laws, numbering 6000, but it had the authority to approve or deny laws proposed by the boule.

This is what got me thinking. Right now, our constitution expects the House and the Senate to create laws. Two centuries ago when the senate had thirty senators and the house around 100, this was a lot easier. Partly because life was slower and simpler, but equally because it is much easier for a small group to create things than a large group.

If a camel is a horse built by a committee, then a law written by the legislature is guaranteed to be a monstrosity. No matter who is in charge, which party, or what the purpose of the law is, everyone will have to be included in some way which means it will be swollen and complex.

I will also grant, as my conservative friends observe, that elaborate and complicated laws are unhealthy. The more clauses and sections there are the more bureaucrats are needed to enforce them, and the more lawyers to dispute them, and the more forms to be filed and so on.

What to do?

Change the rules. Require all laws to be drafted by the Senate, and approved by the House. Give the smaller group the job of writing laws, and the larger group the power to approve or disapprove the proposed law.

Other things would have to change, too, I know. Right now all spending bills must originate in the House. That's one that has to change, for sure. And maybe we should change terms to ten years and limit them two terms. My personal preference would be to bar lawyers from serving at all - talk about a conflict of interest - but you get the idea.

I think that asking those who are not subject to electoral tides every two years, who have to collaborate with others to get anything done, who are not chosen by districts that may be heavily industrial or agricultural or urban or rural, is better for creating laws that affect the whole nation. Conversely, giving the House the duty to approve or disapprove reminds the Senate that they are not in charge of the country but only to see that its rules are fair and accountable.

Yes, I know that changing the rules will not make people noble or smart. But I also know that the constitution was written for a nation vastly smaller and slower than the one we have. Preserving the purpose of the structure is more important than preserving its forms, despite what the Supremes say. Once, state houses chose senators. Nowhere does it allow for buying land like the Louisiana Purchase. But somehow these, and other changes have not destroyed it. Maybe the reason we have gridlock now is not because people are worse but because the rules we have cannot serve us as they once did or the purpose for which they were written.

Trying to operate modern America right now is like putting new wine in old bottles. If you don't get the reference, you can read about it here.

25 November 2010

Commie Pinko Pilgrims

Yep, those people with the funny hats and blunderbusses were commies, saith the John Stossel and Rep. Todd Akin. But they learned their lesson and returned to good old Christian Capitalism. Meanwhile, over at the loopy lefty NYTimes, Kate Zernike traces this midrash through its many twists and turns. Do read them both, in that order if you wish to keep your appetite.

Were it not so grim in its influence I would laugh at this argument because the whole Thanksgiving story is a sham. Not the pilgrims didn't have the feast or that there is no such think as Thanksgiving, but the celebration we observe is purely secular, and ultimately quite pagan.

Long before Europeans set foot in the Americas natives had done much the same thing in our Great lakes region, a custom called the ghost supper. Further south the festival of El Dia de los Muertos resembles thanksgiving more than Halloween. Back in Europe, harvest festivals, necessary because some foods had to be consumed for lack of storage and preservation, had no Christian or national meaning. People just did them.

If we were serious about making this a real commemoration of Pilgrim pride and national gratitude we would do it like they did - as a community event. We would go to church and listen to long prayers and even longer sermons and maybe then sit down in large groups with an especial effort to invite guests. Think potluck supper. Indeed, before 1863, thanksgiving days were understood to be days of prayer and worship not days of eating and celebrating.

As it is, our Thanksgiving is now about family not nation, about eating not praying, about merriment not worship. And this, I believe, is just fine. Let's admit we are pagans about this, chuck the whole pilgrim thing out for lots of reasons, and just be grateful - something that does not need politics or preachers to happen.

Good food, good meat, good God, let's eat!

23 November 2010

I Have The Answer!

... to political gridlock. Really.

But I owe you a glimpse of my trip to Greece, which is fast receding from memory. While I am disposed to telling you of my trip day by day, I will fast forward from my visit to the acropolis on the day after I arrived to the second to last day I was there. I went to the ancient agora or marketplace. They call is the ancient one to distinguish it from the Roman era agora. That gives you a sense of how old they mean. Think 2500 years.

The view to the left is toward the best preserved ancient Greek temple in the world, one devoted to Haephestus, the god of metallurgy and stuff. Between the temple and me are assorted ruins of government offices, about which I will speak later. But this is just a cool view, even on a cloudy day.

As you can see on the right, there are still walls of the interior 'cella' which enclosed the statue. And you can see how the temple is supported by columns inside as well as around the outside. The lattice work is part of the original roof, but the original frieze (the carved bas reliefs above the inner row of columns) has been removed to protect them. This is a modern replica.

I add the other picture to show how the columns have shifted over the years. They are actually made from sections called drums, which are stacked up as you can see. As Greece is known for earthquakes (The whole Mediterranean basin has this gift) over time tremors have likely shaken the columns enough to do this. You should know that the Greeks had no know-

ledge of cement or mortar. They simply hold together by artful use of the physics of force and friction.

But as impressive as this was and is. A far more imposing place was almost abandoned. Nary a soul was back in that corner of the place and even I did not know it was there. But along the old street of the marble workers, shown below, is also what remains of the ancient prison.

Why does this matter? Because it is likely the place where Socrates was imprisoned and in which he took the famous dose of Hemlock. For those who revere Plato and Aristotle, who think the golden age of Athens truly shaped the world, this is the epicenter.

It is sobering to think that Socrates was convicted for telling the truth, something that one would think would be celebrated not condemned. But it would happen again four hundred years later in Jerusalem. The more things change...

18 November 2010


It means Geezer In Training, which I prefer to 'senior moment.' I felt it this morning as I strained to remember the book review from the NYTimes on October 31 that mentioned the loss of a genuine American "Left." The point of the reviewer was that without a genuine ideological left wing that had some heft, the Democratic Party has no clear purpose.

Flash! My mind recalled that Liberal Religion, of which I am an adherent, has been defined by the historian/ethicist Gary Dorrien as a mediating movement that believed both Christianity and modernity could and must co-exist. What if the Democratic/Liberal party exists to do something very similar, to mediate the claims of the ideological and left and right and propose a very Anglican 'via media'?

In our very conservative times this may seem preposterous. The Democratic Party is routinely painted with commie red. But they are far from those who a century ago really were socialists. Back in the prudish Edwardian era the Socialist Party of America won nearly 1,000,000 votes in 1912, and again 1920. And yet it was the Democratic Party under Roosevelt that injected a little socialism into a reeling economy and perhaps saved capitalism as a result. I know there is disagreement about whether it worked technically, but I believe it worked socially as it popped the balloon of fanaticism that was growing in the struggles of that era.

Two generations later Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Michael Harrington were redefining socialism and left-wing thought in books and articles read both widely and openly. But the clarity and urgency of the early 20th century was now gone. Today, there is nothing like that in American politics. Left wing politics is a parlor sport like playing Botticelli.

The reasons why belong to historians and analysts, not bloggers. My point is that because there is no real left any more - none that has as weight or power - the Democratic Party has no mediating role to play in the political landscape. It is inherently a party of means not ends, of compromise not principle.

And I say this as a Democrat, a political 'Anglican' who knows that purity of principle is the path of tyranny. Both on the left and right, the righteousness of the true liberal and the true conservative tends toward a political puritanism. Today's Tea Party is an obvious manifestation. Their demands to slash the budget and taxes and government are attractive because of their clarity and simplicity. Especially in turbulent and troubling times we have an even greater hunger for clarity and simplicity than usual. But the price will be very high if we actually follow that path.

The Democratic Party, though, is constitutionally unable to respond because it is the mediating party. It cannot be the Left because it seeks balance not perfection.

The remedy is to recreate the Left. I mean not an intellectual, deconstructed, post-modern, contextualized left. That is pathetic politically; truly suited to be the straw men of right wing demagogues. I mean an old fashioned Eugene V. Debs, labor and worker and proletarian Left. Not because I believe they are good and the right is bad, but because without a real alternative to Tea Party Conservatism there is no middle ground. We will become a one party nation, which is indisputably anti-democratic and eventually tyrannical. For the Democrats to find new life we must first give new life to the Old Left.

"Lazarus, come out," said Jesus to the corpse at Bethany. "Socialism, come out" I say. We need Debs again, and soon.

16 November 2010

Greece or News?

This time I am going with the news. Not a big deal, though. Just a very cool article from the Sunday NYTimes of October 31. Made me think in new ways. Always a good sign! Give it a read. And tell me what you think.

13 November 2010


No, but I am back (and excuse the ancient cinema reference.)
Touched down on Wednesday evening at 930 pm, which means I had been up for 22 hours, and in the air for 14 hours. When I left the terminal in GR it was the first fresh air since I entered Eleftherios Airport (aerodromeio) outside Athens. By the way, they even have ancient statues at the airport. They turn up anywhere you dig I think.

To prove I was there, behold yours truly alongside the actual Parthenon. We both look a little worn, but it is getting better. Yes, it will take a few years (another forty at the rate they are going) but for something that's 2500 years old that's not even 2% of its age.

It is astonishing in scope, vision, mass, and form. The new Museum is a fitting and fabulous partner in revealing the life of the acropolis. The Parthenon itself is just part of the place, and in some ways less impressive than the Erectheum and the Proplylaea.

And the acropolis also includes structures on the slopes of the place, back to an enclosed spring used by the first Mycenean developers of the place. The spring is no longer accessible to the public but little shrines to Aphrodite and others have left their marks in niches in the rocks and smoky caves that are as evocative as the great buildings on top.

For a fan like me, one or even two hours is not enough. Knowing I
may not be back again, I arrived at 9 am and left after 5, including the museum.
For me, it is not only the sights, but the sensations like the bright sun and the feeling of the wind and the smell of dust. While groups, many of them each with their leader talking in wonderfully accented English, trouped endlessly about, I sampled the hard water of the one drinking fountain and sat in the little bit of shade I could find. As tourists limbered about I translated a little plaque honoring the liberation of the acropolis from the Nazis in 1942. And when I could no longer pretend to have anything left to see, I sat on the steps at the foot of the Propylaea for a long time and tried to fix in my memory as much as I could before climbing down the slope and back into the city around it.

07 November 2010

So Where Have You Been?

... On the road for a a few days. I am in Athens Greece on their election day which may be as important to them as the US electionwas to us, maybe more. Politics was invented here, including the word politics, which comes from the Greek word 'polis' for city. I am therefore in the city that is the birthplace of politics, Athens.

Mostly, I am seeing the places here and near here that have been part of my intellectual world for most of my life. Having read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Hesiod, Euripdes, Sophocles, Herakleitos, and other ancient folks, I wanted to see a bit of what they saw. Put some flesh on those abstract intellectual bones.

I could write very lengthily, but let me say that on Friday, as the sun was setting, I finally found my way onto the hill of the Pnyx. I was alone there, looking at the rough remaining ruins of the Bema, the orator's spot, the place where democracy reared its head and spoke its first words with names like Pericles. One quarter mile away was the Acropolis, the high city, with its temples. Slightly closer was the Areopagus where Paul held forth and won his first Greek convert, Dionysus the Areopagite.

Those who ask if I am on vacation are right only - ONLY - if that means I am not at my paying job. But for me, this is a pilgrimage, with all that word's power and effort. Alone, with no company but my own thoughts and all but unable to communicate because Greek is hard they talk fast; after walking around the acropolis for hours and through the new museum; with little to eat or drink; to arrive there at sunset by myself and behold in one place the trinity of Greek culture - Paganism, Democracy, Christianity - was perfect.

An that was just one day. By the time I get back I will need a vacation to recover from all this.