I have since come to see some wisdom in this. The whole thing feels like a crap shoot already. Which rich such-and-such will have the least damaging effect on us? Which will be beholden to the least destructive powerful interests and persons? I have never voted for anyone in my life, but only against, and I cannot imagine that I am alone in this. At least if there were a real lottery for each post, you'd have a better chance to get someone outside the political caste, and maybe someone who doesn't care about having a lot of money would be less eager to spend everyone else's.
My dear Maine has sort of tried this by instituting term limits for legislators (as the nation and most states have for their executives). It is really fun to see the Great Oaks have to pick up and leave Augusta and a bunch of Sycamore Saplings rush in, fresh with enthusiasm and ideas they're too young to know aren't new. But the thrill fades when you see the staffers and the political parties who really run the show, and despair soon enters when you realize how glad all those Sycamores are to become Oaks and move further up the ladder.
Another important component of Athenian democracy was the ostracism, and this, I think, has more promise for today's situation. The name has ugly connotations because it is usually used in personal or small-group contexts: it conjures a popularity contest in reverse, mob mentality, the tyranny of the majority against the freedom of the individual to be just that. Or, worse yet, the television series "Survivor". But in its original form, it was a healthy corrective to the mob rule that was Athens. Plutarch (Aristides, 7.2) defends it thus:
Now the sentence of ostracism was not a chastisement of base practices, nay, it was speciously called a humbling and docking of oppressive prestige and power; but it was really a merciful exorcism of the spirit of jealous hate, which thus vented its malignant desire to injure, not in some irreparable evil, but in a mere change of residence for ten years.In a direct democracy, the biggest problem (as exiled Thucydides noted) is that the passions of the people can be too easily swayed. But once that passion has cooled, the mob looks upon its instigator with contempt, which intensifies with the depth of that former passion. Ostracism was a perfect tool for reminding would-be demagogues that their ultimate reward may well be being thrown out of the city for all their hard work.
Here's how it worked: Each year, the Athenians (yeah, yeah, yeah: only land-owning males, yadda yadda, yadda) came together and wrote down on a shard of pottery (ostrakon) a name of the man they most wanted thrown out of the city. There were no primaries, no speeches, no campaigns for this (though there were pre-printed "ballots"), just write down the first name that pops into your head. Now, imagine that, instead of writing down Mickey Mouse or Madonna or Morgan Freeman for president, thus depressing us ever further (except in that last case; I think he'd make an awesome president), idiots like us would write a name down in order to throw him or her out of the country. The basic idea is that anyone who is well known enough to come to mind when writing on a piece of broken pottery has done something wrong, or why else would he be so well known? (Try it at home: Write down the first ten names that come to your mind: are there any of those that you wouldn't want to see exiled?)
|Ostraka from the Athenian Agora|
Then there is just too much of a good thing. US magazine is full of embarrassing pictures and stories of people they helped make celebrities just years or even months before and are now need to reduce, Zeus-like, for their overweening pride. In Athens, there is the famous, perhaps thus apocryphal, story of Aristides the Just who was asked by an illiterate man to write his (Aristides') name on the potsherd. Asked why he had chosen him, the fellow, not realizing who was asking, replied, "I don't even know the fellow, but I'm tired of everywhere hearing him called 'The Just'." One could just wait for these people to fade into the background, but the problem is all the damage they do in the meantime (extended as it is by the legions of publicists and agents attending each star). Think of how many fewer cases of measles and mumps there might be now had Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey been exiled a decade ago and not been allowed to give such a boost to the anti-vaccination movement. If most two-term US presidents had been exiled instead of re-elected, there probably would have been no Watergate cover-up, no Iran-Contra hearings, no Lewinsky scandal, no Katrina debacle, no Veterans' Administration embarrassment. (Now, please don't get excited: I am agnostic on all these, and I don't care about your politics, so don't bother me with them. My point is that these are all controversies seen in second terms.) In power or out, the longer celebrities are around, the greater the chance that they will do more harm than good.
I am older now, and my father's world-weariness has become my own, as well as his cynicism not just about the absurdity of what is, but about the impossibility of any really changing it (Housman, as always: "The toil of all that be / Helps not the mortal fault: / It rains in to the sea, / But still the sea is salt."), especially not for the better. So, taking refuge in books and history and the sense of self-satisfaction that at least I'm not to blame, I shall just wait until the time that I must hold my nose and choose to vote for what I can only hope is the not-worst. And may Heaven protect us all from the result!