Sunday, April 24, 2016
Idiots--Then and Now
At the expense of once again showing an arrogant snobbery that has turned the stomach of many, I recently learned something I found rather interesting. It's a small fact, but given the state of the nation and the world in general it has a large bearing on the affairs of how things are run and the future of our children. Though as usual, before I get to my damn, possibly over inflated point I must do my usual grotesque digression into a seemingly unrelated subject.
True historical documentaries on television are a rare occurrence, curiously enough they are almost extinct on such cable venues like the History Channel and Discovery Channel where strange and inbred reality shows now dominate. Which on the surface is quite the bizarre situation since when both of those cable channels were chartered it was proudly proclaimed that their purpose was to raise the standards of American television. Over the years those networks have devolved into being dominated by puffball shows about “antique picking”, the logging business, driving on ice roads, and numerous programs about cars. While there is nothing wrong with any of those series, the fact that they air on channels meant to give something more than mindless entertainment proves that quantity programming cannot really exist when corporate management has to worry about ratings and nervous sponsors ready to bolt the second a show has a dip in viewership. On the rare times anything educational is broadcast by those cable networks, whatever subject they broach is only given the most superficial of treatment before breaking for a long string of commercials.
The best example I can give is Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent version of the Cosmos series first started by Carl Sagan back in the 1980's. While the Fox Network is a broadcast channel, not cable, the true length of each episode was barely over forty minutes. Sure, they were an excellent forty minutes compared the usual Fox-based crap, but overall Tyson, and producer Seth MacFarlane, could have done a far better series had it aired on PBC, as the original did years ago.
All that being said, the internet streaming providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu have a number of historical documentaries that allow a snobbish prick like me to sit back and watch television without feeling the IQ points slip away like wisps of vapor rising up in the hot morning sun. Don't get me wrong, the internet streaming providers have their own collection of mindless crap but they all have things organized so someone with a better than average curiosity that stretches into shows with an intellectual weight can easily find them.
Such a documentary is: Athens:Democracy Without Rules airing on Amazon Prime and starring Dr.Bettany Hughes, British historian and author. Let me go ahead and get the stereotypical sexist American disclaimer out of the way. Yes, Dr. Hughes is an attractive woman but her ability to relate history in a context someone like me can understand and connect to our modern world is unparalleled. Her documentaries allow the watcher to relate to the past in a manner that is sorely lacking in many historians who can't get past the basic facts. Just to show what I think of Dr, Hughes, I cannot help but call her the Carl Sagan of history, which for me is high praise bordering on worship. Then again, I love history while for far too many of the great unwashed and barely sentient, they hardly comprehend things that happened just a couple of decades ago.
In short, as anyone should be able to guess, Athens: Democracy Without Rules tells the story of the rise of democratic ancient Athens starting with how the wealthy aristocrats controlled both the land and the city government with the poor living nearly enslaved to them. It quickly moves on to the Age of Tyrants and then the rise of Cleisthenes, who brought on the reforms which came to be called democracy.
This documentary is not the typical whitewash of history where some less than thorough and honest host grossly waxes on about how Athens lead the way to the establishment of Western Civilization. Yes, Athens did lay the foundations of the West and, in my opinion was the most important defender of those early ideals during the Persian Wars. Sorry fans of Sparta, sure Leonidas and his troops held off the Persians at Thermopylae but it was the Athenian naval battle at Salamis that saved Greek civilization. The ancient Athenian people were total hypocrites but quite frankly the citizens of Sparta were monsters given their practices and government.
But Dr. Hughes goes on to show that the people of Athens were not saints, that they regularly voted for war--so much it came damn close to utterly destroying them, that they oppressed woman in way quite similar to many Muslim countries, and that while they championed the idea of freedom, their economy was based on a vast population of slaves.
But it was the origin of the word “idiot” that about made he fall over laughing. In today's modern American English the word idiot is defined as anyone who is stupid but in ancient Athens it held a meaning that, as far as I am concerned best describes the proles that unfortunately dominate our society.
Idiot is derived from the ancient Greek word, ἰδιώτης ( idiōtēs ), meaning “person lacking processional skill.” For those living during the years of ancient Athenian democracy an idiot was someone characterized as a self-centered person more concerned with private affairs than the greater public good. It also meant someone lacking education and to be so mentally deficient as to be incapable or ordinary reasoning. To the ancient Athenians everyone when they were born were idiots but were made citizens through education. Yes, don't send me hate mail or nasty comments, I know Athenian citizenship was overwhelmingly hereditary but for the most part they still imposed strict educational standards.
Call me a snob and slightly delusional but I can't throw a rock anywhere I live without hitting someone who while trained to do one thing well enough to have a job do not have the slightest ability to make a reasonable and informed decision. If I desired to start a blog listing examples on general idiocy it would be so easy but also exponentially depressing. But before anyone starts calling me a political partisan out to grind an ideological ax at the expense of conservatives, rest assured idiotic behavior crosses the entire political spectrum.
So, some might be wondering what is wrong with being an idiot? It's abundantly easy with most of society geared to service such people. Yeah, but the world we live in now has reached a crowded complexity that defies all the moaning down through the ages about how the unwashed masses don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. Humans are no longer a thinly scattered animals living in primitive cities and villages completely disconnected from what goes on the other side of the planet. Decisions made in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, and hundreds of others cities that would terrify the ancient Athenian because of their size daily affect everyone on the planet.
For the average factory worker to not have a basic understanding of how such things as regional trade agreements will affect them is to court disaster and possibly suicidal. I could write a whole other crappy essay on how abuse of the environment and the increased rate of extinction could endanger the entire human species. But for far too many people, such information is not just above their heads but something they do not want to accept because it might mean an end to their easy lifestyle. The same goes for police brutality here in the United States and how an Africa-American male wouldn't be wrong to walk around with a shirt displaying a circular target. Just to share the wealth of idiocy, the same could be said for many nations, including American, European, and Islamic, and how they are doing their best to turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of refuges fleeing oppression, war, and climate collapse.
A comfortable idiocy seems to be a prerequisite for modern life in the twenty-first century Western world. Mildly stupid entertainment, such as the stuff I mentioned earlier, allows people to unwind and relax after a hard day running the metaphorical but pointless hamster wheel. Human nature seems to me that once a group has craved out their comfortable little space that the rest of the world doesn't exist. This complacency is highly dangerous because a lazy population is easily distracted allowing the rise of a privileged elite that will eventually do everything within their power to protect their positions. Which was of course was the reason the Athenian people rose up in the first place to begin their unprecedented experiment in self government.
Given the house of cards our civilization has become maybe were due for a type of Dark Age. Maybe at some point people will realize that they need to pay attention to the world around them, that idly making due as their portion of the pie gets smaller and that some people get nothing is wrong and rise up again. Then again, maybe if they stopped being idiots they could have avoided all the heartbreak and spilling of blood required to build a better world in the first place.