Melanie Maxwell/MLive
Source: Melanie Maxwell/MLive

Last week, Barack Obama came to the Big House. On a Saturday morning that was supposed to be nice--but, in typical mid-spring, Midwestern fashion, was not--he delivered the 2010 commencement address. I didn't go, but I read the script. It was a good speech.

Even before Obama got started, in the wind, and under the clouds, somebody called out "I love you" from the stands. How could she not? Could there be a better poster boy for the American dream? On this May morning, a racial (black, white), religious (brought up by Midwestern Christians and Indonesian Muslims) and cultural (the grandson of a missionary cook from East Africa and a furniture salesman from Kansas) melting pot, who'd become a self made man--a Harvard Law graduate with honors, a senator, and now President of the United States--had come to tell us to mend fences. He called out to the woman in the bleachers, "I love you back."

Then he started to talk about civil discourse. As the president pointed out, we've been arguing about government--about the role of government, about the cost of government--since the debates on the US constitution more than 200 years ago. Free speech, and a free press, are key in any democracy. We can and should have conversations about the importance of government in our lives. But the best of those discussions must be grounded in mutual respect. There should be a basic level of niceness in our public debates.

The problem, as the president pointed out, is that politics are important to people. And the more important politics are, the ruder people become. At one point in his speech, Obama flashed back to the last day of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia--a city named for the Greek philos, or "loving," and adelphos, or "brother"--literally, the city of "brotherly love." He remembered that Benjamin Franklin was asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?" And that Franklin had famously answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

But the good doctor had said more than that. On the 9th day of the convention, on the 2nd of June, the 81-year-old Franklin had stood up in the hall and warned: "As all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing & governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less." He conceded that the party in power usually carried its point, and that the government's revenues kept going up as a result. At which point, Franklin stopped being very nice. "There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharaoh, get first all the people's money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants for ever. It will be said, that we don't propose to establish Kings. I know it. But there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government."

The president didn't go farther back than the Founding Fathers in his speech last week. He didn't have to, but he easily could have. People in every known democracy have debated the dangers of monarchy--from Philadelphia, to Rome, to Athens, to Gilgal. Because politics are personal.  And not just to the governed, but to the people who govern them.

Nearly 2000 years before the Constitutional Convention, Marcus Tullius Cicero--nick-named for the "chickpea" sort of cleft at the end of his nose--wrote volumes about the end of the republic, and the beginning of the monarchy, in Rome. Like most public discourse in a crisis, that debate was often discourteous; and it was almost always ad hominem. As Cicero, at one point, famously summed up: "Our cause is reputable, theirs disreputable; ours decent, theirs obscene; ours honorable, theirs infamous; ours a model of self-restraint, theirs given up wholly to lechery."

Closer to 2500 years before the Constitutional Convention, there was an experiment with democracy in Athens. It didn't last very long: Solon, the lawgiver, started giving "the power they needed" back to the people at the start of the 6th century BC; and Philip II of Macedon, who was Alexander the Great's father, beat the Athenians at Chaeronea in 338. In between, the governors of Athens were skewered--in speeches, in histories and on the stage. "Well now, think how rich you and everybody else could be, if it wasn't for this gang of demagogues, keeping you tied up just where they want you?" asked Aristophanes' Wasps. That didn't matter, as long as the scraps were enough to buy time with a flute girl.

Almost 3000 years before the Constitutional Convention, it had all been said at Gilgal. In the first books of history, in the first book of Samuel, the people of Israel asked one of their prophets for a king. But Samuel--whose ancestors had run away from a Pharaoh--had a few choice words for them. "These will be the ways of the king who will rule over you," he began. He'd take their sons, and turn them into his horsemen, his commanders and farmers; he'd take their daughters, and turn them into his perfumers and cooks and bakers. He'd take the best of their fields and vineyards and olive orchards and cattle, and give them away to his eunuchs. Then he'd take their menservants and maidservants away, "and you shall be his slaves."  But Samuel went ahead and anointed the first king of Israel, Saul--who was usurped by his lyre player, David, who was succeeded by his son, Solomon. Solomon built himself a bronze and cedar palace, and filled it with 1000 women. And Solomon's son, Rehoboam, told the people who complained: "My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions."

Civil discourse is a good thing. So is civil dissent. As well as anybody, the man at the podium in the Big House last week would appreciate that. Democracy is a rare and precious commodity. In how many places and times could the grandson of a furniture salesman and a missionary cook, the product of three continents (North America, Africa, and Indonesia in East Asia) and two religions, win a majority of the 100,000,000 votes cast, and end up in the White House? Since the first written words, roughly 5000 years ago in the Near East, the experiments in democracy have been few, and mostly short. There does seem to be, as Benjamin Franklin told the good people at the Constitutional Convention, a tendency toward monarchy in history.

And the same holds for natural history. Animal societies are full of "queen" bees and termite "kings;" social snapping shrimp are called Synalpheus regalis, for the obvious reason. And Homo sapiens are "political animals," as Aristotle pointed out. Aristotle was a product of Athenian democracy, but he wasn't its biggest fan. He was uncomfortable with the rabble, suspicious of aristocrats, and preferred the company of his student, Alexander the Great--who, having conquered Egypt, Mesopotamia, and gone as far as India, put on a purple robe and crown, and surrounded himself with 365 women.

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