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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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Well, the American election is coming up tomorrow. I have tried not to write too much about this great national contest, since every other media channel in the world has covered it non-stop for 20 months now, but I guess it is time for Ferrebeekeeper to hop down into this mudpit and support a candidate. In the past, when there has not been such difference between candidates, I have supported voting out incumbents or cross-voting (i.e. voting blue in red states or red in blue states). Alas, Americans neglected my fine advice and we are now experiencing some real national strife, so for the 2016 election I am advocating a different course to unite the troubled nation.

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Hilary Clinton should be our president. If you are a voting-age United States citizen you should vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

Now,  admittedly Hilary is 1) grasping, 2) secretive, and 3)shifty , but she exhibits these traits well within the ordinary operating tolerances of American politicians.  Indeed, in the right light, and, with a bit of squinting, these traits could be 1) ambition, without which, no one would be a politician to begin with, 2) the ability to plan, and, 3) the ability to compromise and change tack based on the circumstances.  Additionally, she personally knows every important leader in the world. Above all, she is a workaholic, a smart person, and somebody who cares that the nation succeeds and prospers.

So there are some very legitimate reasons to hope that Clinton will be our own iron lady (provided she can jettison this stupid rubbish about how free trade and globalism are bad for us). Hopefully she can also project American power a bit more robustly than certain presidents in order to gladden our allies and dismay our enemies.  She certainly has vast experience of public life, a sharp mind, and an indomitable will. So I am not merely voting for Hilary because of the despicable nature of her opponent.
Speaking of whom: beyond Donald Trump’s lack of policy, his ignorance of world affairs, and his extremely shady business practices, there is one overriding reason Trump should never be president: he is mean. He takes personal delight in cruelty, violence, and spite, in a way which I have not seen in another American politician (or even in any other person except for a few outliers in Junior High School whom I suspect have long since been hanged). Because of his sadistic streak, I have been sad to see Trump win over so many voters.  New Yorkers know that he is a con man, a loser, and a violent lout, why can’t everyone see these things about him? I kind of suspect it is more about primatology and less about people sharing Trump’s atrocious values–I certainly hope so.
But enough. Too much has been said about Trump.  The whole world has paid attention to him for far too long.  However I would like to talk about Trump supporters before the election ends tomorrow and we pretend we never have to think about this again.  The followers fall into two different categories: established Republican political leaders (who have always pretended to be lukewarm, although I don’t think that is really the case), and grass-roots political supporters who tend to be rural working-class whites.
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Appallingly, the Republican establishment has supported Trump even though anyone who has lead people in any capacity can plainly see he is not a worthy leader. This is why I recommend you vote against all the Republicans tomorrow.  A lot of writers and talking heads have acted like they are sorry for Paul Ryan, or Ted Cruz, or other Republicans who have been forced to support Trump. This is ridiculous. Those people haven’t been forced to do any of the things they have done. They have chosen their actions for specific reasons, and they should be judged accordingly. The current Republican leaders have been throttling the government of resources so that it doesn’t work right and then acting as though this somehow the fault of government. They have been throttling people of resources so they don’t work right and acting as though it is the fault of people. They are behind Trump not out of fear (although they do strike me as singularly cowardly) but out of lust.  If Trump wins they will be able to use his inattentive narcissism to remake the country in a grasping and mean-spirited way of their choosing.
Which brings us to Trump’s grassroots support. I am a West Virginian.  The whole nation makes fun of the state and this is generally regarded as fair sport (since, among the chattering class, it is not uncouth to make fun of poor white people the way it is regarded as bad form to make fun of poor brown ones). Additionally, the benefits of globalization have not much “trickled down” into West Virginia, except perhaps in the form of fracking revenues. To my horror, West Virginians are taking their revenge by voting for Trump. It is like the capuchin throwing away the cucumber.  It will not help them.  Indeed, this time, such spiteful protest could actively hurt us all.

East Flatbush, the Afro-Caribbean immigrant neighborhood where I live now reminds me greatly of Clay County—in bad ways and good ones.  Poverty, addiction and and feuding are big problems, but the great bravery, loyalty, and personal generosity of the inhabitants tends to keep everyone moving forward and make life worthwhile. The distinction between city and country is a false one.  The distinction between Americans of different races, religions, and genders is likewise not so big as some people would make it out to be. Democrats for all of their flaws, believe in a united nation.  Lately Republicans are deliberately dividing us so they can get everything they and they alone want. The Democrats are wrong-headed and frustrating. They tend to neglect the two most important issues in front of us, research and national defense.  But Republicans have stopped caring about these issues as well and they are actively trying to injure the nation so that they can advance their own agenda.  This political infighting is causing people to lose faith in the system (which feeds into the “government is broken” death cycle which is so dangerous).

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The United States needs to be careful.  The Han Dynasty and the Soviet Union stopped thinking they were countries and suddenly they were not. We are the United States of America, but it could be otherwise. Anyone who wants to be president should recognize that the nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from West Virginia and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair–and all sorts of people from everywhere else (Hillary Clinton, an Appalachian who ended up in New York, knows this) . The states and their people are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.  Let us remember that on election day…and all of the other days after that.  We must work hard with President Clinton so that the election of 2020 is not so divisive and awful.

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It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has written about politics.  This is partly because everything everywhere this year has been about politics, and I wanted a break from the relentless annoying noise (at least in my own little patch of the internet).  Also, in general it seems like the vastly increased media/internet attention has not led to better outcomes:  instead the “anything for clicks” mentality has made a volatile situation worse.  Also I did not want to fan the flames by writing about Donald Trump.  Like the screaming kid grabbing people’s hair and kicking desks in 5th grade, he draws his strength from demanding all of our attention.  If we could just ignore him, he would lose his dark power to enthrall.

But, now that Donald Trump is officially the candidate of the Republican Party, my strategy of pointedly ignoring him has failed.  It is time to actually pay attention to a clickbait election so shrill and mean-spirited that it makes one long for the days of Andrew Jackson, Polk, Goldwater, or even Nixon….

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Except of course we don’t really long for such things.  Those days are gone and good riddance. Saying otherwise is hyperbole; and hyperbole is our enemy right now.  The Republican Convention makes it sound like we are all going to die. “Enemies are at the gate!  Our cities are coming apart because of violence and dissembling immigrants!  Economic depression and stagnation will doom us all to servitude and starvation!”  This is a dishonest and dangerous strategy.  It will fail in unexpected and dangerous ways.

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I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I was an anxious child.  I read things and knew about the state of world affairs back then.  It seemed pretty improbable that we would survive an era when twitchy old men with endless arrays of poorly computerized nuclear weapons stared unblinking across the world at each other.  Looking back at those times with nostalgia is madness! The fact that we didn’t all perish in nuclear hellfire sometime between the fifties and the nineties is a miracle.  This world is all gravy—an improbable bonus round (and, let’s face it, the fact that we have this impossibly ephemeral bubble of consciousness between two infinities of oblivion is already pretty miraculous).

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Yet Cold War shadows linger: the conflict was a decades-long existential crisis which caused us to come together and work in tandem.  It demanded good leadership and lockstep order at home, and the gravity of the fight allowed us certain freedoms abroad.  Now that the long grim conflict is over, we have great opportunities: opportunities of being closer to other nations and helping people. We can undo some of the great power meddling which was necessary to win that conflict (while making goods and services cheaper for everyone). We can learn astonishing new things. All of humankind can move forward to a brighter world where everyone has opportunities. However to get to such a place will require creative thinking, nimble pursuit of rapidly-changing opportunities, and the ability to adapt quickly to surprising circumstances.

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The Republicans make it sound like they want to go back to the past.  But, for goodness’ sake, we don’t want to go back to a time when everyone could die because of a rogue bear! And if they want to go back to the time just after the Cold War, when America was the only great power, well it wasn’t a Trump who was in the White House then. In fact we know exactly what Trump was up to during that time because New Yorkers lived through it.

I have lived in Brooklyn a long time, and New Yorkers know Trump.  He has refined his act here. There have been times when Trump’s hair-pulling hissy fits and histrionics (and spouse abuse and mistresses and bankruptcies) have sucked up all the oxygen in the local tabloids.  It has given us a measure of immunity to his damnable act…and a valuable insight about his nature.  Like liars who talk about truth all of the time, or broke people who talk about money with every breath, Trump talks incessantly about winning.  It is not because he is a winner.

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So here is what is going to happen in this election: This is the biggest act of Trump’s mendacious life and he is going to lose spectacularly to a woman. He will drag his ticket down with him, but not so much that we can escape the deadlock which is hurting our nation by preventing us from researching and creating.

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You definitely need to vote, and you need to pay attention, but also remember that, in the bigger picture, things are ok.  Don’t be afraid! What people say about the end of America isn’t true.  Race relations are improving. People are being drawn out of poverty.  The pie is getting bigger here and abroad (although the pie hogs are getting stronger and more shameless too).  Heck, even if Trump gets elected through some nightmare circumstance, America has survived presidents who were ninnies, racists, incompetents, or even in a coma.

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Or all of the above

We need to put on our grown-up clothes and calm our anxieties and deal with a world of great change and great opportunity. Now excuse me while I go back to ignoring politics and send out some applications and proposals.

Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

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The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

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Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

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The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

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Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

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