Athenians vs. Visigoths

Thanks to Joe Carter for posting this commencement address (which he never gave) by the late media scholar Neil Postman. Read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that set forth the basic paradigm:

I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology. . . .

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics. . . .

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliche.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

Germany is fed-up

Germany has played nice since the end of World War II, trying to expiate its guilt by pushing for the European Union, sacrificing the solid Deutschmark for the ups and downs of the Euro, and using its strong economy to bail out other European countries.  But what is happening in Greece is causing Germans to say, “enough.”  So reports Anne Applebaum:

“Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks — and the Acropolis too!”

– headline, Bild newspaper, March 4

Sometimes they cut to the essence of the story, those tabloid-headline writers, even when they haven’t got the quotation exactly right. What the German politician quoted in the Bild article cited above actually said was: “A bankrupt party must use everything he has to make money and serve his creditors. . . . Greece owns buildings, companies and several uninhabited islands, which can now be used to repay debt.”

What the politician meant, though, was more accurately reflected in that Bild headline: The Germans are fed up with paying the bills of everybody in Europe, they don’t want to bail out the feckless Greeks with their flagrantly inaccurate official statistics, they resent being Europe’s banker of last resort, they object to the universal demand that they plug the vast holes in the Greek deficit in the name of “European unity” — and for the first time in a long time they are saying this out loud. Not only are tabloids demanding the sale of the Acropolis; Germany’s deeply serious paper of record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has pointed out that while the Greeks are out protesting having to raise their pension eligibility age from 61 to 63, Germany recently raised its pension age from 65 to 67: “Does that mean that the Germans should in future extend the working age from 67 to 69, so that Greeks can enjoy their retirement?”

With an unerringly poor sense of timing, the Greeks have, in response, chosen this moment to flaunt their own resentments. One Greek minister complained to the BBC that the Nazis “took away the Greek gold that was in the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back.” The mayor of Athens has demanded 70 billion euros (about $95 billion) for the damage the Nazis left behind after the war. The Greek consumer organization, not exactly thankful for the German bailout or Europe’s demands for Greek budget cuts, has called for a boycott of German products. Officially, the Germans have described these comments as “not helpful.” Unofficially, the German press is foaming at the mouth (see above), for once accurately reflecting the views of German politicians and German voters.

via Anne Applebaum – Germany’s tug-of-war with Greece – washingtonpost.com.

A Spartan budget

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is no conservative, but he is worried, very worried about the deficit.  He sees what is happening in Greece as our future:

Look into the face of George Papandreou, America, and see your future.

The Greek prime minister is in town this week as part of a world tour seeking help for his beleaguered homeland. Greece is broke, its government on the verge of default. As Papandreou landed in Washington, there were strikes in the streets of Athens over his tax increases, his wage cuts for government workers and his scaling back of retirement benefits.

As he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced the cameras Monday, she spoke of the weekend’s election in Iraq. “Greece is the birthplace of democracy, so anytime there's a democratic election anywhere in the world, Greece should get a royalty, Prime Minister,” Clinton said.

“Would help our deficit, too,” Papandreou joked.

“Yeah,” Clinton agreed. “It’s a new way of plugging the hole.”

Remember that scene. If current trends persist, an American president will be doing the same thing in about 10 years. He or she will probably be in Beijing, asking for more favorable interest rates or pleading with the Chinese government to keep speculators from betting on an American default.

Greece’s national debt last year reached 113 percent of gross domestic product. The United States will hit that in about 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office, assuming policy continues as it has. And last year’s U.S. budget deficit amounted to 9.9 percent of GDP, nearly rivaling Greece’s 12.7 percent.

To pull Greece back from the edge, Papandreou has promised to cut the deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2012. For the U.S. government to make an equivalent cut, it would have to shut down the Pentagon and a few other agencies: the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, plus the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA — and even then we'd come up a few dollars short.

via Dana Milbank – From Greece, an economic cautionary tale for the U.S. – washingtonpost.com.

Will Greece pull down everyone’s economy?

The nation of Greece is in the middle of a debt crisis that, because the European Union, has a single integrated currency, the euro, is pulling down the European economy.  And its effects may reach here.  The analysis by the British”Financial Times” is sobering reading.  From FT.com / Comment / Opinion – A Greek crisis is coming to America:

It began in Athens. It is spreading to Lisbon and Madrid. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that the sovereign debt crisis that is unfolding will remain confined to the weaker eurozone economies. For this is more than just a Mediterranean problem with a farmyard acronym. It is a fiscal crisis of the western world. Its ramifications are far more profound than most investors currently appreciate.

There is of course a distinctive feature to the eurozone crisis. Because of the way the European Monetary Union was designed, there is in fact no mechanism for a bail-out of the Greek government by the European Union, other member states or the European Central Bank (articles 123 and 125 of the Lisbon treaty). True, Article 122 may be invoked by the European Council to assist a member state that is “seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control”, but at this point nobody wants to pretend that Greece’s yawning deficit was an act of God. Nor is there a way for Greece to devalue its currency, as it would have done in the pre-EMU days of the drachma. There is not even a mechanism for Greece to leave the eurozone.

That leaves just three possibilities: one of the most excruciating fiscal squeezes in modern European history – reducing the deficit from 13 per cent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product within just three years; outright default on all or part of the Greek government’s debt; or (most likely, as signalled by German officials on Wednesday) some kind of bail-out led by Berlin. Because none of these options is very appealing, and because any decision about Greece will have implications for Portugal, Spain and possibly others, it may take much horse-trading before one can be reached.

Yet the idiosyncrasies of the eurozone should not distract us from the general nature of the fiscal crisis that is now afflicting most western economies. Call it the fractal geometry of debt: the problem is essentially the same from Iceland to Ireland to Britain to the US. It just comes in widely differing sizes.

What we in the western world are about to learn is that there is no such thing as a Keynesian free lunch. Deficits did not “save” us half so much as monetary policy – zero interest rates plus quantitative easing – did. First, the impact of government spending (the hallowed “multiplier”) has been much less than the proponents of stimulus hoped. Second, there is a good deal of “leakage” from open economies in a globalised world. Last, crucially, explosions of public debt incur bills that fall due much sooner than we expect

For the world’s biggest economy, the US, the day of reckoning still seems reassuringly remote. The worse things get in the eurozone, the more the US dollar rallies as nervous investors park their cash in the “safe haven” of American government debt. This effect may persist for some months, just as the dollar and Treasuries rallied in the depths of the banking panic in late 2008.

Yet even a casual look at the fiscal position of the federal government (not to mention the states) makes a nonsense of the phrase “safe haven”. US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbor was a safe haven in 1941.

Even according to the White House’s new budget projections, the gross federal debt in public hands will exceed 100 per cent of GDP in just two years’ time. This year, like last year, the federal deficit will be around 10 per cent of GDP. The long-run projections of the Congressional Budget Office suggest that the US will never again run a balanced budget. That’s right, never.


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