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Stiehm: Athens and America — Helpful hints for the fix we’re in

By Jamie Stiehm - | Jun 24, 2022

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Jamie Stiehm

ATHENS, GREECE — Greetings from the land where democracy began 2,500 years ago.

I came seeking shelter under the Aegean sun from American democracy running ragged.

Our own government is the oldest extant democracy in the world. But America is reeling from the revelations of the House select committee hearings on the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol. I witnessed the siege from inside the walls and covered two somber committee hearings.

So far, it’s clear our worst fears about former President Donald Trump’s ruthless scheme to steal his lost election are true, and then some.

So, I have some helpful hints from here to send home.

The most important takeaway from Athens is how precious, rare and fragile democracy is. Its backstory is a timely cautionary tale. My urgent message on the winds Odysseus sailed is simple: We must cherish what Americans take for granted.

Trump’s violent conspiracy to hold onto power was indeed like a Greek drama. The Proud Boys were the tragic chorus, along with calls to hang Vice President Mike Pence — the hero who saved the day. Believe me, the mob would have done it. They had a list of who they wanted.

We who witnessed the un-American, murderous sound and fury knew who sent the mob of 30,000 that winter afternoon. And we knew without committee hearings. Only one man had the hubris and the power to dare to do that.

The majesty of the gleaming Parthenon towering over the city is so much more than an art history book can say. We walked up high to behold the place where the greatest philosophers met in dialogue, leaders gave orations and where Greeks worshiped their gods.

Even more crucial, this is where democracy was first practiced. The radical idea was that each citizen of Athens was the equal of any other. Fancy that.

The citizen was the essence of governing the “city-state” in the 5th century B.C. This period was the Athenian golden age. American revolutionaries had much the same idea in 1776, inspired by Athens. One man, one vote.

America and Athens shared a tragic flaw: each excluded women and enslaved people from being citizens. In our case, the slave-owning South pressured the nation’s founders and won greater representation in Congress. While denied all rights, people who were enslaved still counted as 3/5 of a person.

Confederate state Texas also forgot to tell some emancipated people they were free until a Union general rode to proclaim their freedom on June 19, 1865. Texas was two and a half years late for President Abraham Lincoln’s chosen date of Jan. 1, 1863.

In ancient Athens, the principle of majority representation and rule was established. In our Constitution, strangely, the minority wins more often than you might think. Take this: all three recent Supreme Court appointments were made by a president (Trump) who lost the popular vote.

If a political leader was turning into a tyrant, Athenians invented a way to get rid of him. He was ostracized by the people of the city. The results of “ostraka” were likely more direct and swifter than Trump’s two impeachment trials.

Athens is a fabulous place to be glad you’re alive, bubbling over with beautiful everything: literal layers of the past, sculptural art, architecture, ideas and Homeric poetry even older than the city’s heyday.

At the peak of its power, Athens was the envy and glory of the world. Her warships rode the waves, feared by allies and rivals alike.

Sound familiar?

But that did not last long, about a half-century. The long Peloponnesian War with Sparta depleted its treasury and a generation of young men. Athenian dominance and democracy ebbed in the ancient world, and the city was conquered more than once.

The leading light went out of the classical world, though Rome and other conquerors treated Athens with respect for its cultural place.

Our democracy is under threat, under siege, right now. The most public expression of that festering “war within” waged by extremists took place on Jan. 6, 2021. The November 2022 midterms are the next showdown.

The forces opposing democracy could crush our fondest hopes and dreams for the future. The proud Greek past is telling us that.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.

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