Monday, July 11, 2005

Love of power

A couple of years ago I was paging through my wife's copy of "How to Read a Book" by Charles Van Doren. I didn't actually read the book, but I did find a suggested reading list in the back. According to Mr. Van Doren, this list constituted the necessary basis upon which any educated person might properly assert their literacy. Overtaken by a sudden, reckless desire to be truly literate, I bought the first few books on the list and read them. Among those books was "The Peloponnesian War" by Thucydides.

Having never really read any of the "classics", I expected Thucydides to be turgid, dry, and unsatisfying (insert Fighting 101st Keyboarders joke here). As it turns out, though, Thucydides actually earned his place in the pantheon. The book is a fascinating study of war and politics in ancient history, and it is full of sharp observations and pithy quotes. What is truly amazing, though, is the timeliness of Thucydides' observations. I know it's trite to say so, but much of what he wrote in 427 BC holds true today. I suppose this is primarily a testament to the abiding flaws of human nature, but I'll argue that is also due to the quality of his writing and analysis.

In any case, I was reading the Post this morning and had cause to think back to Thucydides. As you may be aware by now, the prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case managed to elicit testimony from Time reporter Matthew Cooper that implicates Karl Rove in the affair. According to the Post story, "Rove apparently told Cooper that it was 'Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency.'" This is an important revelation because at issue is a federal law that forbids the knowing identification of undercover agents by people with access to classified materials. Now, to you and me, it no doubt sounds like Rove has met atleast one part of that test: identication. If I say, "it was my father", you know damn well who I'm referring to and I've pretty much identified the person I'm talking about. Even if you don't know my father, the relationship is so obvious as to make it possible to easily learn the identification of the referent.

Karl Rove and his lawyer, however, would apparently disagree. According to the Post article, Rove's lawyer "said yesterday that Rove did not know Plame's name and was not actively trying to push the information into the public realm." No sir. We know that Rove wasn't identifying Valerie Plame to Cooper or anyone else because, "Rove did not mention her name to Cooper."

And so I come back to Thucydides. In Book III, he describes a conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats who comprised the Hellenic states. As the conflict spread from city to city, the Greek language began to lose meaning as the two parties sought every means possible of gaining power over the other. Thucydides tells us that, "To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings."

That's a nice quote. It certainly seems to capture what Rove's lawyer is trying to achieve. However, read the next few paragraphs and suddenly Thucydides is painting a very familiar and very scary picture. In this day and age, most of us expect to hear politicians trying to change, manipulate and otherwise molest the English language. (What is the meaning of is?) When that trend shifts from one man or a few men to encompass the whole population, that is when we should be afraid. To continue on with Thucydides quote:
"What used to described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man...Parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime...If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect."

Now that sounds familiar, doesn't it? And you can see it in action. Consider what folks have to say about Valerie Plame at Free Republic, Powerline, or Little Green Footballs. Search those sites for articles on Iraq, the Supreme Court, et cetera and you're sure to find more of the same. Love of power and violent fanaticism it appears, are not phenomenon isolated in ancient history.