September 18, 2005

Alexanders

(part 1)

He died 2300 years ago yet the story of his life still fascinates. The Ancient World knew him first as Alexander III of Macedon and later as Megas Alexandros---Alexander the Great. And great he was however one looks at the history of his time.

The facts of his life are well known. He was born into the royal house of Macedon in 356 BC. His father was Philip II (384-336), himself the outstanding man of his day. He found Macedon a collection of feudal estates ruled by ignorant and violent nobles and created a modern and powerful state, one of two superpowers of the age---the other being Persia.  It was Philip who forged the Macedonian army, a tool of astounding lethality that his son would use to conquer much of the world. Philip himself was a man of brilliance and ability though hampered by his addiction to alcohol and women---some of whom he married---and to an unseemly intimacy with boys. He left a trail of discarded bastards and catamites all over the Ancient World. In this he was merely a product of his age. But more about this in due course.

Alexander's mother was the emotional, wild and wildly unstable Olympias (375-316). She was not from Macedon but from Epirus----what we today call Albania. Olympias practiced the crazed and secretive rites of a bizarre Dionysian cult. She was known to 'invite' snakes into her bed, and I leave to the reader's imagination what occurred there. She  was a superb hater and schemer who much enjoyed the torture of her enemies real and imagined. History almost believes that the murder of Philip was brought about by the anger of Olympias over the fact that Philip tired of sharing the marital bed with her reptiles.

It was Philip's dream to conquer the sprawling Persian Empire, a state that had twice invaded Greece proper and had meddled in Grecian politics for 150 years. But for this to come about he needed the Greeks behind him. Ancient Greece was one nation and one culture but not one state. It was a collection of petty and squabbling cities, each looking for some advantage over its rivals and each willing to finance murder and mayhem among other Greeks to attain this. They were literally at each others' throats everywhere and all the time. They only unified once, during the Second Greco-Persian War (482-479 BC).

The major Greek city-states were Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Sparta. Athens has been grotesquely overrated by historians, enamored as they are with Greek philosophy, art and writing. The truth of the matter is that Athens financed her 'Golden Age' through imperialism and slavery---those slaves being in most cases other Greeks---and she ruled her empire like the Soviets ruled theirs. She practiced policide---the total destruction of an entire city and its population when that city refused Athenian imperial extortions. It was the hugely over-esteemed and odd-headed Athenian strategos Pericles that started the suicidal Peloponnesian War (431-404) with Sparta. This geopolitical stupidity ended with the entire Greek world enslaved, impoverished, incarnadined, ruined and depopulated, leaving it prey first to Macedonian and then to Roman imperialism.

Thebes was what the other Greeks insultingly called a medizer---one who went over to the Medes (the Persians, that is)---and could be relied upon always to be on the side of Persians against Greeks. Many Greeks called Thebes a traitor to Greece, but then Greece produced many traitors. Thebes' one moment of glory came during the invasions of the Peloponnesus and the destruction of Spartan power under Epiminondas (370-368). After Philip's death his son Alexander burned the place to the ground, crucified thousands of Thebans and sold the survivors into slavery. Other Greeks helped the Macedonians in this slaughter and rapine.

Corinth was a fantastically immoral place well-known among other Greeks for its 'Corinthian women'---women who would perform anything for anyone who had some drachmas to spare. The city was filled with 'houses of ill repute' where one could find nubile lasses and equally nubile lads. Ancients visited Corinth for reasons similar to those of moderns who visit San Francisco and Las Vegas. The Romans destroyed the place (146 BC) but it had been rebuilt, alas, by the time Paul went there to preach---see his Epistles to the Corinthians---and its immorality almost overwhelmed even him. He described the Corinthians as having 'itching ears'---as being always available to absorb the latest idea until the next 'new thing' came along. Today we call such people flakes.

Sparta was a militaristic, totalitarian and communist slave-state. Her power was based upon an extreme military doctrine of almost psychotic preemption. She was murderous, closed and intolerant, and every year would march out and do violence to some unlucky Greek neighbor. The other Greeks hated her but feared her more. When Spartan military power was destroyed forever (371-362) all marveled but few mourned. Her one moment of self-sacrificing glory came in 480 BC when her king Leonidas and 300 Spartans held off hordes of Persians at Thermopylae and gave the Greeks time to reorganize and drive off the invaders.

Such was the Greece that Philip wanted at his side, alas. He needed manpower and the Greek fleet, but what he really wanted was recognition from Athens. Philip suffered from what we today call a 'crisis of self-esteem.' Philip knew he was drunken, promiscuous, violent and half-barbarous---he was also half-blind and half-crippled due to wounds suffered in battle---but he wanted badly to be an Athenian gentleman with proper manners and correct speech---and he wanted the Athenians to recognize him as such. (To the Greeks, Macedonians were crude and their speech had an uneducated tone to it. They saw Macedonians as New Yorkers see Oklahomans.) Athens laughed at Philip 'the barbarian' and his pretensions. Philip knew this of course, but still thought he could get her support in his coming Persian adventure.

 From 358 until his assassination in 336---typically, over an affair of pederasty---Philip engaged in the slow conquest and economic strangulation of Greece. He spread money all around and so had already purchased much of the Greek leadership by the time of the Battle of Chaeronea (338). This was the last stand of Greek freedom against Macedonian imperialism. Greece was as usual only half united, fought incompetently and lost to the rolling phalanxes of Philip. At the head of the Macedonian cavalry at Chaeronea was Philip's son Alexander, all of 18 years old. 

(part 2)

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September 5, 2005

 Random Thoughts on the Death of a City

So America has lost a great city to the ravages of nature. Funny, I thought that it was man who threatened nature, not the other way around. Is not this the standard environmentalist mantra?

The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.

---Matthew 7:27

Ur, Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon, Samaria, Nineveh, Pompeii, Machu Picchu, Tikal, Persepolis, Ephesus, Knossos…now New Orleans has joined that ghostly chorus of dead cities. Some say that the city will be rebuilt. President Bush himself has stated this. Fat chance. Four years on and we have not even replaced the twin towers in New York. New Orleans has lost the communities that gave it its unique atmosphere. New Orleans was always about people, and now all are dead or fled. They will not come back. What is there to come back to? The city itself will likely be abandoned for months as most of it is still under what is perhaps the most contaminated water on earth. Did the Romans rebuild Pompeii? Anyway, why rebuild just to go through this nightmare all again when the next hurricane season arrives? 

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh well, oh well, oh well.

Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin' about me baby and my happy home.
Going, going to Chicago... Going to Chicago... Sorry but I can't take you...
Going down... going down now... going down...

---Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks

Mississippi has suffered much more than the city of New Orleans. An area the size of England has been wiped out. You do not hear of it because disaster preparation and emergency management there have been efficient and competent. There has been almost no looting. Oh, the governor of Mississippi is a Republican. Both the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans are Democrats. Have we ever seen in our lifetime such dreadfully pitiful political incompetence? But the people of Louisiana voted for those creatures. Is not democracy a lovely thing to behold?

The media are all agog with stories about looting, marauding gangs, murders and rapes. But these things were present in New Orleans long before Katrina. Truth be told the crime rate in the Big Easy was always much higher than the rest on the US. Murder rates themselves were 10 times as high. Even the tony French Quarter was rife with robbery, murder and mayhem. What would have been unacceptable in any other American town had become the ordinary in New Orleans.

Last year, researchers had police fire 700 blank rounds in a city neighborhood one afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire.

The cops themselves were part of the problem, often not even responding to calls for help. And it must be said, that an odor of degradation, decadence and grotesque immorality has always pervaded the city. Some folks enjoy such things, of course, or at least have the ability to ignore them.

Anne Rice certainly does both. Fresh from penning her series of vampire-porn novels she writes a lamentation of the New Orleans she knew and loved.

The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy...I know that New Orleans will win its fight in the end. I was born in the city and lived there for many years. It shaped who and what I am. Never have I experienced a place where people knew more about love, about family, about loyalty and about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is perhaps their very gentleness that gives them their endurance.

Ms. Rice seems to have lived in a different city than that described by crime statistics. At any rate her words could describe about any place on earth. She needs to get out more.

New Orleans was always defined by tourism: the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, jazz, food. But no great city can rely upon such a fickle economic base. The fact is that New Orleans had been dying for decades and was rotten to the core. It was one of the few Southern cities to actually have lost inhabitants over the years as people fled its crime and poverty. Its public education system was a shambles, one of the worst in the nation. Corruption was on par with your average Third World kleptocracy. Thus the destitution and filth that one noticed everywhere. The only going concern outside of tourism was the port, but even there much of the trade had passed on.

However, over the past 50 years, industries have sought to shift their operations to more favorable climes.  Houston became the nation’s oil capital and grew far more rapidly.  Indeed, Houston is now sheltering refugees from New Orleans.  Atlanta became the South’s commercial capital and Charlotte its financial capital.  Even Louisiana’s natural advantages faded as shipping firms—finding corruption rampant—sought to move their goods through other ports wherever possible.  Populist policies have consequences: A politicized economy becomes too often a corrupt one.  Louisianians sometimes joke:  “We’re a state that does not tolerate corruption; we insist on it!” Amusing, but tragically true.

Finally, we can note that the governments of Louisiana and New Orleans failed their constituencies at all levels. Those who relied upon their leaders ended up in the fetid Hell of the Superdome. But what could one expect from a people who for generations had looked to government for their sustenance? They were wards of the State and did as they were told---and suffered accordingly.  

New Orleans has provided a corrosive lesson about government. At all levels, government is overbearing and nagging, paying for people's prescription drugs and telling us whether we can smoke in restaurants or not. But when it comes to its most elemental task of maintaining order and protecting property, it might not be up to the task when it is needed most.

The Big Easy spent decades cheating the death that prowled the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. As long as the levees held folks could dine and sing and dance their danse macabre seemingly oblivious to the watery doom that patiently waited just feet from their homes. But once the wind blew and the machines failed and the leaders fled, their end came upon them swift and sure---a rush of water, a cleansing release, an end to the roll of good times.

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