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April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2013/ 17 Adar, 5773

For true democracy, bring back ostracism

By Paul Johnson





http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Among the many complaints I have heard about this unsatisfactory election is this one: it is impossible for the general public to get rid of a thoroughly unpleasant, or corrupt, or dangerous politician if he (or she) sits in a safe party seat or in the Lords. Such people can thumb their noses at us, and do. But there could be a thoroughly satisfying way of meeting this need, and one with wider applications than mere politics. The new parliament, which we all trust will be more responsive than the last one, might consider going back 2,500 years in time and copying from the resourceful ancient Greeks the admirable institution of ostracism.

Most people understand the word but are unfamiliar with the process. I have been going into it while writing my present book, on Socrates and his world. Ostraka, a kind of rubbish, were broken potsherds, just big enough to make a cheap and convenient writing surface. Anyone who has studied ancient Egypt will know they form an important source for social history. They were used by schoolchildren for their exercises, officials for tax receipts, and the malevolent for casting spells — and for many other purposes. The Greeks used them too, but only in particular circumstances, as voting tablets.

Ostracism was probably introduced in 507 bc by Cleisthenes, the inventor of Athenian democracy, for precisely the reason it could be used to supplement our faltering democracy now. Under his law, the ecclesia or Assembly, the sovereign body of all Athenian citizens, could decide each year whether to hold a vote to ostracise anyone regarded as a public menace. If the vote was positive, the ostraka were piled up outside the entrance to the Assembly, and each citizen was allowed to write on the ostrakon the name of the person he wanted ostracised. These were deposited in a marked-off space in the Agora and counted.

The rule of the institution was that at least 6,000 citizens must vote for the process to be valid. This was a significant percentage of the total male citizen population, perhaps one tenth, and was a valid test of public opinion. The man with the highest number of ostraka against him was then sentenced. The penalty was exile from Athens for ten years. He did not lose his citizenship or his property, and after ten years could return with full rights restored. But for a decade he was effectively excluded from Athenian public life. Evidently some felt at times that the period of exile was too long, and it was reduced to five years. A few ostracised men were amnestied after two years. But the process was evidently popular and was adopted by various city-states. At Syracuse the names were written on olive leaves, and the institution was known as ‘petaling’.

We know the names of most of the people who were ostracised. The first (487 bc) was Hipparchus, believed to support tyranny. In 484 it was the turn of Xanthippus, father of Pericles, and a well-known general. But he was amnestied when Xerxes and his Persian horde invaded. In 482 bc Aristeides, another general-statesman, was ostracised. This showed that no one was beyond the reach of public disapproval, for he was famous for his rectitude and patriotism, and was known as ‘Aristeides the Just’.

But he evidently had his faults, though he, too, was amnestied two years after sentence. Other prominent men who were booted out for a time were Themistocles, Cimon and Thucydides (the general, not the historian).

Dumps of potsherds, with names written on them, have been found by archaeologists in Athens. They provide the nearest thing we have to records of a political general election in antiquity. A pile of 191 ostraka, dating from the time when Themistocles was ostracised in 471 bc (the year before Socrates was born), has been found and investigated carefully. All bear his name but the writing, mysteriously, is in only a few different hands. It may well be that a systematic campaign against Themistocles was organised by his enemies, and that citizens, especially illiterates, were handed potsherds already inscribed with his name as they arrived at the Assembly. ‘Against that awful fellow are you? Well, just hand this in. No trouble, eh?’

Other recovered voting-potsherds show totally unknown names, singly. Evidently some citizens took the opportunity to work off a private grudge, albeit to no purpose. But I suppose it was a stigma of sorts if even a single vote was cast against you, and it was known. Evidently there were frivolous votes too. Plutarch reports that at the time of Aristeides’s ostracism, as he was hovering nervously at the entrance to the Assembly, a citizen came up to him, said he could not write, and asked him to put ‘Aristeides’ on his voting-potsherd. Much hurt, Aristeides asked, ‘Why, what harm has he ever done you?’ The man said, ‘None at all. I don’t even know him. But I am sick and tired of always hearing him called “the Just”.’

The last ostracism we know of was in 417 bc, when a demagogue called Hyperbolus, a lampmaker by trade — much disliked by the comic playwright Aristophanes — who was trying to organise the ostracism of Nicias or Alcibiades, found himself voted out. After that we hear no more of such votes, though the law was never repealed, I think.

If we adopted the institution here, there would be no need to see politicians as the only potential victims. Nor would exile necessarily be the most suitable punishment. Obviously a successfully ostracised man or woman would lose the right to sit in either house of parliament for a fixed period, or to vote, or to occupy an office of profit under the crown, such as a quango job. To this I would add the right to sit on the board of a public company or to represent Britain in sport or — perhaps the biggest punishment of all — to appear on TV or in other mass-media.

Obstracism could be directed not merely against politicians but against horrible sportsmen, foul-mouthed entertainers, greedy businessmen and bankers, nasty writers (including militant atheists), objectionable members of the royal family or indeed any of those tiresome celebrities and busybodies who grin at us safely from the newspapers. Plutarch rightly noted that one virtue of the system was that it ‘appeased the envy of the people’. Not just envy either. There is a lot of hatred in this country today which finds no harmless outlet in our political institutions. People feel impotent and rebellious.

Ostracism could provide a wonderful safety valve. Lawyers would be totally excluded from the process since it would be a simple vote, with no prosecution, defence or appeal, as under the old law of ‘attainder’. The entire nation of those eligible to vote would take part, and whoever received the largest number of votes would be ‘out’. (Unless of course we decided that each year ostracism would apply to, say, half a dozen people.) There might also be provision for subsequent annulment or mitigation of sentence again by universal vote.

Now I am aware that my proposal might fall foul of the Human Rights Act, the European court and other such obstacles to justice and democracy. On the other hand, once established in Britain, the institution might prove so popular that other countries would adopt it. The French and the Italians would love it; and the Greeks might be glad to return to it. I invite readers to make their own suggestions, and classical scholars to point out any useful aspects of the ancient system I have missed. But no one, I think, can deny the sheer pleasures in store.

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Previously:


02/19/13: The age of achievement: Doctors say it's all downhill from 45. History suggests otherwise
01/08/13: Peering Into the Abyss
11/27/12: Men Blinded by Their Brains
10/24/12: The World's Most Unlovable Man
07/17/12: Make the Euro A Joking Matter
04/17/12: Silent witness
03/13/12: To pick an American President
12/13/11: American Culture Rides High
10/20/11: Who Can Lead Us To Safety?
08/23/11: Wanted: Global Role Models

07/05/11: Debt: A Moral Issue

06/08/11: The Moral Logic of Intervention
03/10/11: China's Secret Weakness: Is history repeating itself?
02/10/11: Assessing America's Foes
11/29/10: Wanted: Someone to Trust
10/19/10: Are Universities Worth It?
06/01/10: The English Language and Freedom
04/20/10: Listening and Telling the Truth
02/28/10: There Is No Keynesian Miracle
10/20/09: A Job Waiting for a Woman?
07/21/09: Obama Has to Be World Sheriff
03/24/09: Short works of genius that cheer up the writing profession
02/11/09: What would Darwin do?
01/27/09: Are you sophisticated? Here's how to find out
01/06/09: What did they talk about in the Ice Age? The weather, of course
09/09/08: Time, and our appalling ignorance of it
08/19/08: Eye-stopping glimpses of an exotic and forbidden world
06/30/08: How to fill a lecture hall, and how to empty it
06/23/08: Americans should count their blessings
05/20/08: Pajamas for Presidents
05/13/08: Literary woodlice boring needless holes in biographical bedposts
04/01/08: When markets come crashing down, send for the man with the big red nose
04/01/08: Quality for dinner. Pass the Fairy Liquid, Old Boy
03/25/08: In search of an American President with brains and guts
03/18/08: Technological warfare against mice won't work. Try cats
03/11/08: What is a genius? We use the word frequently but surely, to guard its meaning, we should bestow it seldom
03/03/08: Fiction as a crutch to get one through life
02/26/08: Impatience + Greed = Trouble
02/13/08: Shakespeare, Neo-Platonism and Princess Diana
02/07/08: Where Industry Has Failed Us
12/19/07: People who put their trust in human power delude themselves
12/12/07: What is aggression?
12/04/07: Pursuing success is not enough
11/07/07: Are famous writers accident-prone?
10/31/07: Courage needed to disarm Iran
09/20/07: Who Will Say ‘I Promise to Lay Off’?
07/24/07: Greed is safer than power-seeking
04/02/07: Benefactors must be hardheaded
03/07/07: American idealism and realpolitik
11/28/06: Space: Our ticket to survival
10/24/06: Envy is bad economics
10/11/06: Better to Borrow or Lend? Rethinking conventional wisdom
08/22/06: Don't practice legal terrorism
08/08/06: A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
08/03/06: Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty ones
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle

© 2009, Paul Johnson

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