June 09, 2017

G(r)eeking out

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus has been called “the father of history.” And “the father of lies.”

He is remembered today for his Histories, a sprawling account of the origins and outcome of the clash between the Greek city-states and the mighty Persian Empire in the fifth-century B.C.

It’s also stuffed with moral instruction, folklore, palace gossip, wild speculations and incredible tales of floating islands, giant gold-digging ants and flying serpents.

It also has some dark wisdom about happiness and the changeability of human fortunes.

One story involves two people whose names have become words, Solon and Croesus. Solon was an Athenian lawgiver who laid the foundation for that city’s democracy, while Croesus was the wealthy king of Lydia, in what is now Turkey.

A solon is a wise legislator, although you don’t hear the term around West Virginia much these days for some reason. Someone who is fabulously wealthy can be said to be “as rich as Croesus.”

The story goes that after Solon reformed Athenian laws, he left the city for 10 years after making the citizens swear an oath to abide by his measures for that period of time.

He visited Lydia, said to be the first country to mint coins, and stayed with Croesus. Eager to impress his guest, who was reputed to be wise, Croesus showed Solon his many treasures and asked him who he thought was the happiest man.

As my wife would say, he was fishing for a compliment.

He didn’t get one.

To Croesus’ surprise, Solon’s answer was someone he’d never heard of, an apparent Athenian nobody named Tellus, who had a decent life, a good family and who died fighting for his city and was honored with a funeral at public expense.

Croesus then asked who was next happiest. Once again, the answer wasn’t what he was looking for. Solon gave the names of two brothers from Argos named Kleobus and Biton.

They were the sons of a priestess of the goddess Hera. When the time came for her to go to the temple, the oxen who drew the cart had wandered off. Her sons put the yoke around themselves and pulled her several miles to the temple, where they were praised for their devotion to their mother and the gods who protected their city.

When the exhausted boys fell asleep, their proud mother prayed that they would receive whatever was best.

They never woke up. Let’s just say they went out on a high note.

Solon went on to explain to an angry Croesus that, since human life is subject to major reversals, he made it a practice not to say a person had a happy one until he saw how it ended. He said, “Until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.”

Croesus wasn’t having it. Solon soon left, while he continued to pursue wealth and power. He sent fabulous gifts to the major temples and oracles, including the famous oracle of the god Apollo, at Delphi.

As if you could buy the favor of the gods.

Croesus became concerned about the rise to power on his eastern frontier of the Medo- Persians under Cyrus. He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war with Cyrus.

He was told that, if he did, a mighty empire would fall. Another oracle told him that he had nothing to fear until a mule, a cross between a donkey and a horse, ruled over the Medes and Persians empire.

He did go to war with Cyrus, but the empire that fell was his own. The mule, it turned out, was Cyrus himself, whose mother was a Mede and father was a Persian.

Apollo’s oracle was pretty funny that way, but the blame for the disaster belonged to Croesus and not the god.

After losing everything, Croesus was about to be burned alive as Cyrus watched. He cried out “Solon, Solon, Solon” as the flames burned higher. Cyrus, who was a pretty nice guy as world conquerors go, asked through an interpreter what he was saying and spared his life when Croesus told the story.

As he put it later, “Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same man to continue long in prosperity.”

The point Herodotus and the Greek tragic poets were trying to make was that power, wealth and pride can lead to arrogance (Hubris) and moral blindness (Ate), which, in turn, can invite disaster, often personified as the vengeance of Nemesis, goddess of justice and retribution, who renders that which is due.

The biblical Book of Proverbs makes a similar point, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Meanwhile, the wheel still turns.

(This appeared as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)

June 08, 2017

A close one

According to The Hill, WV Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who has previously supported retaining Medicaid expansion, is now open to phasing it out. This would be a disaster to the Mountain State, where 175,000 people have gained coverage. According to WV DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, that includes 50,000 people getting treatment for opioid addiction in a state that leads the nation in overdose deaths.

The House plan, according to the CBO, would over time cut Medicaid coverage for 14 million people. Even a kinder, gentler, slower Senate phaseout could end coverage for millions.

Just another reason why it's important for West Virginians to contact Senator Capito's office and urge her to preserve this lifeline for so many West Virginians. To find out how to do that, click here.

June 05, 2017

Nothing like the real thing

During the worst crisis in American history, President Abraham Lincoln made time regularly to talk with and listen to all varieties of ordinary citizens. He understood that success in leading a democracy required an understanding of public opinion and the only way to get that was unfiltered contact with the public.

That meant spending time with uninvited visitors, singly or in groups and ranging from office seekers to petitioners to ordinary people to cranks. Lincoln called these occasions his "public-opinion baths" and viewed them as critical to his ability to govern.

As he told a Union officer, "I feel, though the tax on my time is heavy, no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity."

Lincoln admitted that many of the concerns brought to him were utterly frivolous and others were more or less important, but he believed that "all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which I must return."

It was his way of keeping it real.

Unfortunately in today's political climate it's all too easy for political leaders to insulate themselves from their constituents, just as it's easy for us ordinary citizens to live in media bubbles where we stay in our political comfort zones.

For a democracy to work well, there's no substitute for direct contact. That's the only way that real connections can be made between citizens and their representatives. And it's the only way for representatives to understand the concerns of real people. And there's no more direct way for that to happen than by open and unscripted public meetings.

In this day and age, that may take a little political courage. But that's what leadership is all about.

There's no partisan monopoly on this. In March, after some occasionally tense pressure from citizens, Sen. Joe Manchin held four wide-open events from the eastern panhandle to Huntington. It wasn't always a love feast. He took heat from those who disagreed with some of his votes, but there was also a chance for honest give and take on the issues.

New Jersey Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur recently endured a mostly hostile five hour meeting with constituents, many of whom were angered by his vote to replace the Affordable Care Act with the Trump supported replacement.

Love him or not, at least he had the courage to show up and take it.

These days, you get points for showing up.

Whatever their political views, West Virginians deserve representatives and candidates who have the willingness and courage to show up for face-to-face meetings with those they represent.

Everybody needs a good bath every now and then.

(This appeared as an op-ed in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)