7-2 pedagogy

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

7.2 (Spring 2007)


Thinking and Writing

courtesy of artrenewal.org


Socratic Method in Comp 101: Wringing Simple Truth from Complex Essays


Peter Singleton  

     For my sins, I have been allotted a life of teaching English composition to college freshmen over what now seems a great many years.  I should have written “trying to teach”, for the sense of modest success is always half-emptied by a sense of mitigated failure.  Not the least of my problems, however, has always been the notorious freshman reader—an anthology of essays, that is, whose obstacles to clear thinking can hardly be laid at the student’s doorstep.  To make matters even worse, most of the million-and-one anthologies on the market seem to contain most of the same essays.  With the passage of time, I have come to construct my semesterly syllabus around a reliable few.  I define “reliability” in various ways.  I depend upon Hannah Arendt to force-feed the students a little indispensable history and common humanity.  I trust Machiavelli to lure most of the class into deplorable assertions which I take a vengeful pleasure in exposing.  Still other readings offer such convoluted reasoning that the students typically join me in wondering how a published author could build so careless a case.

       If I were that teacher of teachers, Socrates, and if I could be united in some quiet limbo with all of these authors, I would certainly have the time of my afterlife drawing them out in conversation.  I have occasionally tried to model Socratic exchanges for my students in the hope of inspiring them to seek the truth from all angles.  Recently I wrote out some of these exchanges with a little more than what I take to be my usual finesse, supposing that the readers of Praesidium might not take them amiss.  I remember, in fact, a piece not too long ago in these pages which was written entirely in the form of a Socratic dialogue.  [See John Harris, “The Narcissus Narcosis,” Pr. 6.1-2 (2006): ed.]  Understand that what follows is intended in the same vein: I mean, to arrive at the truth, and not necessarily to mimic exactly what Plato’s mentor would likely have uttered on particular subjects.  Yet I don’t think that Socrates would have paddled against my drift in most of these cases.  After all, my sole ambition was to make sense.


 Socrates and Hannah Arendt

     A selection from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem appears in the anthology from which I have often taught.  The excerpt studies the fascinating case of Denmark ’s overt refusal to collaborate with Nazi Germany ’s anti-Semitic campaign at any level.  The Danes would not so much as affix a yellow Star of David to the Jews: the Danish king declared that he would be the first to wear it if the policy were forced upon him.  Furthermore, Nazi officers who had lived in Denmark for a couple of years before Hitler declared martial law there in 1943 proved unreliable when efforts to round up and deport Jews were renewed.  Word of a proposed sweep appears actually to have been leaked by high-ranking Nazis like Werner Best to the Jewish community so that evasive measures might be taken.  Arendt rightly sees a vindication of human nature in this patch of fair weather during one of history’s darkest storms.

S: You wrote that the Danish response to Nazi anti-Semitism should be “required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.”

A: Yes, I recall those words particularly well.  I didn’t editorialize frequently in the book, but the solidarity of the Danish stance against evil is riveting to the onlooker who assumes that you simply couldn’t say no to Nazi tanks and machine-guns.

S: I recall a similar incident recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus.  Augustus had just died, and Pilate insisted on placing statues of him all about Jerusalem—which he ordered to be done, however, under cover of darkness, knowing what a stir he would create.  As the sun rose, sure enough, and the populace saw that a most holy prohibition had been violated, unsettled mobs of people congregated everywhere.  Pilate assembled the people in a stadium as if to harangue them, then surrounded them with Roman soldiers, their swords drawn.  He declared that anyone who had anything to say against the display of Augustus’s likeness would be executed on the spot.  The people thereupon knelt down as one and offered their necks to the sword.  Pilate was so overwhelmed by the response that he not only called off his men, but ordered the statues removed immediately.

A: Stunning, isn’t it?  We speak of deathly menaces as if they leave us no choice—but there’s always a choice.  We can always choose to die.

S: Those might have been the words of my grandsons, the Stoics.  It is no small testimony to the life of the spirit that one of the twentieth century’s most noble and courageous hearts belonged to a woman, my dear Hannah.

A: The same lesson recurs throughout history, of course.  Jesus declined to be defended against those who came to seize and execute him.  Gandhi brought the British Empire to its knees through passive resistance, and the American struggle for civil rights surged forward once it had committed itself to non-violent demonstrations.  I might also mention a certain Greek philosopher who turned the world upside-down by cheerfully accepting death rather than exile… but I fear being accused of volleying extravagant compliments.

S: Since you raise the subject of the Mahatma… allow me to inquire into this matter more closely with you to see if we may not have simplified our optimism excessively.

A: By all means.

S: Are you aware that Gandhi criticized the Jews in his private correspondence for not embracing death at the hands of the Nazis?  He was of the opinion that if thousands had rushed to the slaughter, the butchers would have dropped their axes and gaped.

A: That’s certainly possible, though to demand such dedication of so many men, women, and children before such a bloodthirsty foe is to expect much from human nature.

S: I should say so!  Yet apparently such a response was forthcoming from the Jews menaced by Pilate.

A: So do you believe, then, that the Jews might have stopped the Holocaust if they had only greeted it with open arms—or with extended necks?

S: I do not.  And it was my intention to ask you the same question.

A: Of course, we shall never know.  We can never know.  The next man who jumps off a building and flaps his arms might fly.  But the situation was not promising.  In my book, I stress that the Danish response was sui generis.  Instances of barbaric brutality which made the gas chambers at Auschwitz look positively humane were abundant throughout Central Europe , where Hitler’s “final solution” was embraced with a vengeance.

S: Yes, and let us say the obvious.  Hitler needed Copenhagen for his fleet, and he didn’t have the manpower to spare for policing occupied countries.  The Danes were not mere cattle in a pen: they were players in a diplomatic game who held a certain number of trump cards.  Furthermore, the British faced down by Gandhi were not Nazis—even the Romans were not Nazis.  There were certain rules of war observed by both of those great peoples.  There tended to be an understanding about how non-combatants should be treated.  The rules were not always observed… but utter public disgrace could follow if one took them in vain and were exposed.  As for the Nazis…

A: And even before the Nazis, Socrates.  The Prussian tradition of ruthless efficiency marched forward in both of the century’s great wars: poison gas, bombing of civilian populations, sinking civilian ships without warning, developing hideous weapons like flame-throwers and incendiary bombs, enslaving the inhabitants of captured towns to work as chain gangs…

S: It was not my intention to stir your courageous heart until it pumped like a drum.  Yet your righteous indignation illustrates my true point.

A: That non-violent resistance does not work under all circumstances?  Yes, I am fully persuaded of that.  It was not my purpose to argue otherwise.  What the Danish example suggests, I would argue, is that it can work in certain circumstances.  We should not immediately set a poor estimate upon human nature in time of crisis, because we may deny ourselves a workable solution in so doing.

S: Let us see if we can state the circumstances under which civilized people might productively stand up against the pressures of a barbarian swarm.

A: Let us do so.

S: Would you say that most people would risk their lives to protect a complete stranger from a crazed mob—not by telling the mob, “Yes, your victim is in my house, and there he stays unless you slay us both.”  That magnificent antidote to Prussian aggression, Mr. Kant, would have us be thus punctiliously honest… but let us exact no more from the ordinary person than that he harbor the fugitive and then shrug at the mob with pretended innocence.  Would he be apt to do so, do you think?

A:  Yes, I do.  As long as he knew that the fugitive were not a desperate criminal… and even then, I believe that many would protect the criminal from a criminal throng intent on tearing him apart.

S: Why?

A: Because people are basically decent.

S: Why, then, is the angry mob behaving indecently, being composed of nothing other than individual people?

A: Because people misplace their souls when they become part of a great crowd.

S: Then decency springs from inklings of the soul, and not from expectations of the masses?

A: Yes.

S: If the mob paused long enough to quiet down, if its leaders delivered speeches, and if a vote were then calmly taken which confirmed that the vast majority wanted the fugitive found and torn limb from limb, would that oblige the individual who shelters him to reconsider his act of decency?

A: It would not.  Because even a mass of voters behaving with apparent calmness can nonetheless be blinded by mob hysteria.  Hitler, let us remember, was democratically elected.

S: Had we not better call that light which shines within the individual soul, therefore, goodness?  For decency is that which befits its surroundings, while goodness is perfect and eternal.

A: Yes, of course.

S: Then you would say that every person has a vital spark of eternal goodness within him?

A: Unless he is wholly depraved, yes.  History suggests that the spark can be wholly quenched, but also that it can subtly linger in embers for some while until it receives fresh air.

S: And may we also say that the best society would therefore be one of people acting as individuals rather than as an unthinking mass?

A: Yes, indeed!  One person in the right is superior to a million in the wrong.  For right is right, whether people choose to endorse it or not.

S: But if the one person is brave enough to speak up, then he will likely be that breath of fresh air which resuscitates the fire of goodness in a great many hearts.

A: Exactly so.  It is in those circumstances that democracy becomes a benign form of government.

S: It seems that we may conclude, then, that passive resistance should be considered a realistic option in circumstances where the members of the brutal mob have received some degree of education or cultivation as individuals; and that, conversely, to attempt to awaken the conscience of a lackey who has never even conceived the notion of initiating his own behavior is to sing an exquisite melody before a tumbling boulder.

A: Yes, that seems to be the right conclusion… only let us never assume too quickly that every member within an entire mass of people lacks such cultivation.  For the spirit of goodness can break out in the most unlikely places, like a flower over the mass graves of Auschwitz .


Socrates and Machiavelli

Still a favorite staple in undergraduate anthologies, Il Principe seems to lend itself to excerpt and condensation.  While students find the historical references off-putting and (of course) confusing, they at once gravitate to the author’s extreme cynicism when they begin to sniff its odor.  A Socrates capable of pointing out to them the naiveté of such worldly wisdom, alas, is all too rare. 

S: I understand that you would not have the prince honor a treaty if doing so would place him at a disadvantage to his adversary.  Your assumption is that the adversary, himself being very probably a deceiver, would pose a threat to the prince’s entire nation if he were supposed strictly truthful.  Have I done justice to your position?

M: You have.  Honesty, you see, is so rare among men that when a particular ruler possesses it in abundance, he is no less handicapped than a racehorse forced to carry two riders.

S: For convenience’s sake, let us say that you yourself are the prince.

M: Very well.

S: This principled disdain of scruples which you counsel would almost require you to be dishonest in all treaties and agreements, would it not?  For you would never know beforehand if your adversary intended to dupe you after the ink was dry, and to assume that he did not have such an intention would place you in the vulnerable position of the honest martyr.  So you should really have to commit yourself to exercising duplicity whenever possible if you were to enjoy your wisdom’s advantages.

M:  Not entirely true.  The adversary will perhaps suppose me to be reliable if I am sometimes trustworthy.  It is to my advantage, then, to be so regarding small things in order that I may create a reserve of gullibility in my opponent regarding large things.

S: You must also hope that your opponent is capable of gullibility, though, must you not?  Or else that he is a fool.  But how many experienced heads of state can be such perfect fools as not to be able to distinguish between small matters and large?  The competent leader will surely draw no conclusion at all about your fidelity in large matters by observing your fidelity in small ones—except, perhaps, that you are priming him for a major deception.

M: I would think along these lines myself, it is true.  But many leaders are by no means as perspicacious as you suggest.  I would be sure to get the better of at least a few in the course of solidifying my power; and I would know, further, how to distinguish between the wise and the fools before beginning my game.

S: So certain leaders could be counted on to keep their word and to trust you to keep yours.

M: On occasions where the parties are many and relatively unfamiliar to each other, yes.

S: But your familiarity would be far greater than theirs, for you would have placed agents and gathered reconnaissance long ago so as to gauge their level of reliability in negotiations.

M: Precisely.

S: And by similar means, you would have determined in advance that certain leaders may be trusted to be trustworthy only in matters of small account.

M: Very aptly put!

S: Indeed, I think so, too!  For what you have described is nothing less than a spider’s web of trust—based, it is true, upon calculated probabilities of deceit.  But you have nonetheless placed yourself in the position of having to trust that certain rivals may always be trusted, certain ones never, and the cleverest only in small matters.

M: Yes.  Yes, I would not reject that formulation.  But I am trusting the human penchant to be untrustworthy, which is infinitely more deserving of faith than the human commitment to honor.

S: I hardly think so, sir—not unless you equate honor with utter stupidity.  For it seems to me that only a fool would enter into an agreement of any importance with you or one who subscribes to your views.  The honorable ruler would simply abstain from depending upon you in any circumstances—he would treat you as a liar in great things and in small ones, unless he were an honorable idiot.  You would then have gained nothing at all through all these parlor games.  You would have deprived yourself of potential dupes of even modest intelligence the first time you publicly broke faith, and you would be left with allies of the very worst sort—gamesmen like yourself who keep the faith only that they may more effectively shatter it latter on.

M: I very much dispute that.  Honorable men are invariably naïve.  There is always an abundance of them in these matters of state just waiting to be cozened.  Call them fools or idiots if you will: I find that rather harsh.  They are children—or fools, perhaps, but fools of such a kind as exist in abundance.

S: And yet, when we began our exchange, you insisting that men of honor are extremely rare.  Now I find that, on the contrary, you have a pressing need to suppose an abundance of fools around you in order to convince yourself of your system’s wisdom.  But all I can make out of it is a means of sealing yourself off quickly and permanently from the community of honorable men.  And since the only possible co-signators of any agreement you might wish to make would be others like yourself who understand the risks they run, I cannot see for the life of me how you would extract any significant advantage from their pledges.  In the race to reach a point where the treaty might be broken to one party’s particular profit, you would all resemble so many nags running backward, your tails to the future and your hooves poised to set off in any direction other than straight ahead.


Socrates and Lani Guinier

Nominated by Bill Clinton for the position of Attorney General (and rather noisily forced to withdraw from candidacy), Guinier was one of the more appealing faces involved in the affirmative action tussles of the nineties.  Her collection of essays, The Tyranny of the Majority (1994), contained a short piece of the same title which continues to be anthologized.  In it, Guinier argues that political decisions—and racially sensitive decisions, in particular—might be better made by striking compromises rather than awarding all the spoils to the statistical majority.  A primary example offered by her of such compromise is a high school prom where the band would perform some selections pleasing to the tastes of white students, some pleasing to the tastes of black students—not the resolution reached by a school in her area, where such an impasse created regrettable tensions.

S: Your hypothetical compromise of the school prom incident has a certain charm—one would like to think of young people curbing their impulses in such a civilized manner.  But what does it show us about the operation of the polis?

G: It shows us that people can work together.  It shows us that the majority does not have to tyrannize the minority with its tastes and preferences.

S: In a political setting—in a realm governed by law rather than personal politeness?  How?

G: I should think that would be obvious.  A dispute arises, both sides feel passionately about their position, one side wins out by sheer strength of numbers rather than by logic or virtue, and then the winning side compromises with the minority in the spirit of neighborliness.

S: Yes, yes.  But leaving aside the matter of whether any group of people ruled by passion can make a mature decision, what sort of genuine political dispute could possibly allow of such a compromise?  Will the polis compel me to play music not to my taste in my own house because one or two of my guests have different tastes?

G: No.  But in a public place, such a compromise might well be mandated.

S: How?  Why?  In which public place would you require a rainbow of musical tastes to be represented?

G: The music was just an example.

S: In what way?  Does it typify other public collisions of taste?  Should the polis mandate a certain percentage of nude people in any given crowd to placate its nudist citizens?  A certain percentage of bamboo construction on Main Street to placate immigrants from the Fiji Islands ?

G: You’re being wholly facetious.

S: Not in the least.  I am casting about for a single example of arbitrated tastes in the public political forum—subject, that is, to the law’s rigor—which would allow of your solution.  For it strikes me that tastes are manifested either among a “private public” where people mingle by invitation, as at the senior prom or in my own house, and also in an open public forum governed by society’s declared rules.  A free people does not concern itself with relatively private gatherings—not unless it wishes to effect their abolition by regulating how they are conducted, which would be wholly inconsistent with a free society, naturally.  We are therefore left with fully public manifestations of tastes—such things as fall under municipal codes governing decency.  Do you consider that such ordinances as prohibit the open sale of pornography or the lewd exposure of shameful body parts stand in violation of the spirit of compromise?

G: There was no talk in my essay about any such laws.  Perhaps I would relax a few codes here and there if I were granted authority to do so… but every community has them, and possesses the right to enforce them.

S: Indeed?  Does a community have the right to enforce certain standards of dress?

G: Of course, if by that you mean does it have the right to prohibit indecent exposure.  There are children to be considered, and there is no significant disagreement about the probity of protecting them from certain kinds of display.

S: Would that it were so!  But in many university towns, for instance, what might well be called a significant minority—consisting of both genders—wishes to wear virtually nothing in public, or to wear clothes only as a means of emphasizing the relative absence of clothing in provocative places, as one might say.  Should public businesses be allowed to deny such people service?

G: Some parts of the world have different customs or assumptions.  A community must rule upon such matters as it sees fit.

S: But whichever way it rules will express the will of the majority—the tyranny, as you put it.  What compromise is possible in these circumstances?  Should every other day become a no-shirt day?  Should citizens be permitted service who wear half a shirt?

G: You know, we never have really addressed the kind of situation that I was trying to illustrate.  Your examples are questions of taste for the groups concerned to arbitrate.  I would hope that, yes, they might find some sensible manner of compromise such as I suggested for the prom controversy.  But what interests me far more is broad issues where such factors as race are involved.

S: I must ask again, what would be a fitting example?

G: Say that you have a city which votes to put a new highway right through the heart of town.  Many residences will be plowed under or deprived of their neighborhood ambiance.  But they belong to black people, and the city’s black vote is a mere 40% of the total.  So the highway destroys a neighborhood instead of skirting the city harmlessly.

S: Is the bypass option completely harmless?  Are you arguing, in effect, that the 60% non-black population desires to harass the other 40%?

G: No, not at all. The downside to the bypass is probably cost.  But it will not ruin lives.

S: And relocation ruins lives?  Well, let us estimate the human soul with sufficient contempt to say that it does.  I do not understand why the 40% are so politically inept that they cannot form a coalition with part of the 60%.  The disruption of downtown activities would surely grieve certain business-owners as well as home-owners.

G: Say, then, that they are politically inept, as impoverished people often are.  Is that any reason to tyrannize over them rather than seek a reasonable accommodation of their interests?

S: But exactly what nature of accommodation is possible?  Half a highway is no more feasible than half a shirt.  Or would you have the highway built halfway between the city center and the city limits?

G: I would have citizens act like citizens and neighbors like neighbors.

S: Commendable!  But neighbors must be made aware of their neighbors’ distress.  Your half-and-half formula is really no solution at all to any practical political crisis.  As an exhortation to show humane concern for the downtrodden, it is praiseworthy—but it’s of no practical help at all in a political crisis.  A competent orator would be worth one hundred such formulas—for it sounds to me as though these cases primarily need a degree of timely eloquence in the public forum.  Why can the sufferers not speak up, or select someone to do so on their behalf?  Why must they have a mathematical formula in place which automatically corrects the harm done by their muteness?  Unless you intend to codify such a formula as law, reducing every dispute to concessions based on percentages of the total vote, you must accept that your citizens—all of them—are human beings, and that human beings will usually listen to human reason.


Socrates and Betty Rollin

It appears that Betty Rollin’s standard-bearing feminist essay, “Motherhood: Who Needs It?” (first published in 1970 by Look magazine), no longer expresses her point of view.  She has publicly recanted the sentiments contained therein very recently, noting that her own childlessness exerted a kind of “sour grapes” influence over her reasoning.  Yet the essay is still widely circulated without any apology or footnote, proof that many in the academy continue to find the original piece’s rash assertions compelling.  The essential case seems to be that very few women would ever consciously elect to be mothers if given a fair chance to plot their life’s course.  Western culture has in fact kidnapped their minds and their will, seducing them into making decisions which severely cramp their style for years, if not for a lifetime.

S: You ask who needs motherhood.  May we assume that this question is highly rhetorical?

R: How do you mean?

S: Obviously, life needs motherhood.  Societies that intend to survive need motherhood.

R: But I do not.  Neither do a lot of other women who have been raised to think themselves incomplete if they don’t become mothers.

S: But this is just what I mean.  Your title might be rephrased, declaratively and without irony, as follows: “I do not need to be a mother.  Neither do many other women who are only vaguely aware of their independence of this need.”

R: Yes.  That’s what I just said.  But a writer strives to make her title provocative.

S: And orators are familiar with the same ambition.  Yes, yes, I understand that.  But now, I am not so sure that I understand which women do not need to be mothers.

R: Most of them, really.  Perhaps no woman really needs it.  Society may need for her to need it—that’s why women have all been programmed for centuries to have this need.  But I believe that every woman has unique abilities and should have a chance in life to find and express them.

S: And motherhood inhibits this project of self-discovery and self-expression…

R: Absolutely!  If you weren’t a man, you wouldn’t even need to ask that question.

S: … by tying the woman down to the duties of caring after very dependent beings—feeding them, washing them, watching over their play?

R: Oh, yes.  It’s all exhausting.  And the woman has no time left over to develop her own talents.

S: Really?  If she were musical, could she not teach her brood music?  Art, if she were artistic?

R: I wish you hadn’t said that!  You really are talking like a man!

S: How so?

R: In the first place, why do you assume that a woman can’t be an accountant or a nuclear physicist?

S: I don’t.  You were the one who mentioned the deep rewards of special abilities developed to their fullest.  I regard the artist as having such abilities, but not the accountant—not as an accountant.  In fact, I believe the phrase “creative accounting” has very pejorative connotations.

R: And the physicist?

S: Very few people of either gender are suited to be nuclear physicists.  And perhaps these should not be mothers, or not mothers of large families.  That leaves us with a group of about 1% of 1% of the population, perhaps.

R: But there are other reasons to be an accountant than satisfying artistic needs.  Society needs accountants.

S: Yes, as it needs mothers.  But I thought we were considering the needs of the individual.

R: Okay… say that we are.  Why should not a woman have a legitimate need for a career—for position and respect—just like a man?

S: But, my friend, why should anyone have a legitimate need of such superficial, circumstantial things as money and esteem?  Vice and crime accompany these altogether too often—and even the best people may lose all their possessions overnight in a fire, or see their fame turn sour in days under an attack of slanders.  What lowly objectives to expect at the summit of an arduous ascent!  No, I cannot allow this “need for a career” except insofar as it designates the family’s need to be supported.  Beyond that, it has the ring of self-aggrandizement to my seasoned ear.

R: So men can self-aggrandize, as you call it, but women can’t?

S: Alas, anyone can, and most do.  But nobody should.  It is not conducive to the good life.

R: Developing your talents is not conducive to the good life?

S: No, betraying your natural talents by suppressing or warping them into a pattern which sells fish or olives or amulets in the agora is not conducive to the good life.  Being a slave is not conducive to the good life.  Perhaps being a man is not so, if it means that one must ever be catching fish or hawking them to feed wife and children.  Perhaps, Ms. Rollin, you have an altogether naïve notion of just what men do away from home.

R: Or perhaps someone should write a declaration of independence for men entitled, “Fatherhood: Who Needs It?”

S: I doubt that continued neglect of the next generation would change the essential character of the market place—except, perhaps, to make it worse.  But in any case, you have returned us to the central question.  Which men or women should not be fathers or mothers?  Is it primarily those who crave money, power, and fame, or those who have special creative genius?

R: If you put it that way, then surely the latter.  They have a right to develop their creative genius.

S: Very good.  Now I understand.  You desire a world where society’s future will be surrendered to the progeny of talentless, superficial egotists, whereas I think it is precisely these people who should leave no trace of themselves behind.  Except I really believe that you honor their ambitions with the name of talent and wish them to be rid of family fetters the more freely that they may enrich and advance themselves.  And if that is so, Ms. Rollin, we turn out to be in full agreement, after all.


Socrates and Gloria Anzaldúa

In the schizophrenic “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” (first published in 1987 by Borderlands/La Frontera), Ms. Anzaldúa argues with stunning incoherence for a world where she may speak at will any dialect of English or Spanish to which the spirit moves her at the moment.  Regard for her audience is apparently not involved in determining the direction of this whimsy.  Indeed, the article is richly peppered with Spanish passages deliberately left untranslated.  The argument (if such it may be called) also implies that male sexism has hampered the author’s style almost as much as snobby Americans and the Mexican educational establishment’s affection for mainstream Spanish.

S: Chaire, mainas!  Phainetai moi gar se mainesthai te kai boulesthai hos medeis sous logous mepote gignoskei.

A: Are you trying to be funny?

S: No, I’m just being Greek.  It’s what I am, how I was born.  May I continue addressing you in Greek?

A: I can’t stop you, but I can continue ignoring you.

S: Do you mean to say that you were ignoring me before?  But that’s rather brutal of you.  I was expressing myself, and you were simply denying the reality of my native culture.

A: But I don’t understand Greek! What would be the point of my paying attention to something I don’t understand?

S: Or of my doing so?  For I don’t understand Spanish—or not, at any rate, the varieties of Spanish which you claim to favor.  It goes without saying that you find English a burden imposed upon you by colonial oppressors.  Castellano Spanish is baggage of almost the same weight, apparently—the Conquistadors, and all that.  You say that you prefer Tex-Mex in certain situations, Tejano in others, Pachuco in others, still further varieties of slang in others… and usually the selection seems determined by your wish to be minimally rather than maximally understood.

A: My wish is determined by my desire to be who I am rather than someone else’s puppet.

S: Yes—a wish I shared when I was speaking Greek.  But you didn’t care for that at all.

A: No, I’m completely cool with it.  Because guys like you have nothing to say that I want to hear.

S: So you already know what I’m going to say?  Are you prophetic only in English, or can you also read my mind in Greek?  Or are you saying that you don’t even care to read my mind—that something about my age or gender or manner so prejudices you against me that you refuse even to acknowledge my presence as a fellow human being?

A: On the contrary, it’s people like you who refuse to acknowledge people like me.

S: But who are people like you?  Would that be people who speak dialects of Spanish that most of us can’t understand?

A: That’s right.  We might as well not exist, as far as you’re concerned.  We don’t speak your own lingo, so we’re just supposed to dry up and blow away.

S: But you do speak my lingo.  We are having an intelligible exchange at this moment, are we not?

A: But not in my preferred tongue, we’re not.  If I stop speaking your tongue, I suddenly disappear.

S: But if I attempt to speak in something more proximate to your native tongue—in Castellano Spanish, for instance—it is nevertheless not close enough.  If I speak anything other than one of your favorite dialects—which, being dialects, are very difficult for the general public to acquire—then I am apparently forcing you into the same betrayal of your heritage.

A: It’s like I said, you people don’t really have anything to say that my people want to hear, anyway.  So don’t sweat it.

S: Which is just what I was saying, as a matter of fact: that is, that your people, as you are pleased to call them (I wonder if they all want to embark upon the same exile as you have done?), are not in the least isolated in their dialect.  Virtually all of them can speak something nearer to the mainstream, something broadly comprehensible, if they so choose.  But they—but you—prefer to be walled into a cloister where the outside world cannot reach you.  You regard this as self-expression, it seems, and giving up this precious turf strikes you as a kind of defection from your ethos, your unique customs.

A: So you understand that much, do you?  And maybe you can understand, too, why having to walk around in someone else’s shoes might be painful.

S: I can grasp that one might not express oneself as fluently in a second language, yes, even though that language might be spoken much more widely than one’s native patois.

A: Well, good for you.  Maybe you can also understand our resentment that those of you who just happen to be born in a certain place get to dictate what’s the mainstream, and all the rest of us have to adapt to it.

S: I can understand it to this extent: I can understand why you might rather speak Spanish than English.  What I do not understand is why you resent the logical necessity of learning either mainstream Spanish or English to participate in a broader community of citizens.  Do you suppose that English-speakers, too, do not have to learn a more correct form of English if they wish to advance to positions in the polis where people far and wide will hear their voices?

A: It would be something if people like you would just learn a little Spanish.

S: I think, rather, that it would be nothing at all.  I doubt very much that it would make the slightest difference to you, other than to make you more uncomfortable than ever.

A: And why would that make me uncomfortable, other than having to listen to your gringo accents?

S: Because you and your inner circle would begin to be less unique.  The more integrated you are into the community, the less you stand out from the community: a mere tautology, if you’ll forgive me.  Indeed, if the odious group which you style “people like me” magically woke up with the ability to parley in fluent Tex-Mex, I fancy that you would be furious.  For it is not easy communicating to which you aspire—you can already do that quite easily enough in mainstream Spanish, or even mainstream English.  No: it is not communicating which you hold very dear.  The failure to communicate creates a “people like me” and a “people like you”.  In the absence of any deeper understanding of your identity, you successfully deceive yourself into thinking that you have found your soul by reviewing all the people whom you are not like.

A: You couldn’t begin to understand what I’m like.  There’s no way.

S: And your dialectic brethren who happen to be males also cannot understand you, as you claim vehemently in your writings… and why not add to the list your sisters who seek eros in male company rather than female?  Eventually, you may have to create a dialect all your own to ensure that no person whatever can understand you.  Only then will your identity be secure.  But it turns out, you know, that this is not such an uncommon condition!  Many a child has an imaginary friend who belongs only to himself.


Socrates and Michael Levin

Michael Levin’s short piece, “The Case for Torture”, was originally published in Newsweek way back in 1982, when its pretext—the captured terrorist possessed of secrets which could save thousands or millions of lives—still seemed slightly far-fetched.  Levin insisted that torture should be applied in cases where the malefactor’s involvement in some epicly homicidal plot (e.g., the planting of a “dirty bomb”, also known as the “suitcase nuke”) stood in no doubt whatever, and where the information extracted from him could immediately save large (or even small) populations of non-combatants.

L: I’m actually a great admirer of yours.  I view my celebrated editorial of two and a half decades ago as a little exercise in applying logic to issues that have become greatly vexed by uncritical emotion.

S: You mean your piece about terrorizing suspicious characters?

L: What?  No, I mean the piece on the importance of subjecting terrorists to torture in extreme cases.

S: As I thought.

L: What?  No, no, it’s not at all a matter of terrorizing suspects.  I presented a hypothetical situation in which thousands of innocent lives might be threatened by a bomb whose location is known only to the terrorist responsible for its planting.  I contend that, if the would-be murderer has openly boasted of his guilt and if time is pressing, only a moral coward would not proceed to extract life-saving information from him by whatever means prove effective.

S: I should like to tell you the allegory of the green horse.  It goes thus.  There was once a king who wished to stem the excessive flow of foreigners through his capital city.  He did not wish simply to issue an edict, for he cherished his generous reputation among the people.  No, he decided instead that the people would effect the ban for him.  So he had it rumored far and wide that a mysterious stranger on a green horse had been circulating through the country.  Wherever the horseman stopped, inexplicable misfortune brought ruin and death.  Naturally, the citizens began to keep an eye wide open for the passage of an impossibly colored horse.

L: But Socrates, this is absurd!  The threat I describe is so far from being impossible that it grows more imminent every day.  The years since my piece’s first publication have made its concerns more relevant than ever!

S: Oh, concern about the green horse grew to be very relevant to daily life, as well.  Though non-existent, the animal transformed how strangers were received in the city.  Riders who appeared in the dusk before the gates were closed, whose animals were besmirched with mud, who had the ill luck to own a green saddle blanket… many a rider was unceremoniously mobbed and hauled to the ground before he could vindicate himself.  Soon travelers of any sort were visiting the city far less, and the king’s end was accomplished.

L: You know, if fewer terrorists would visit our shores, then the thumbscrews encouraged by my article would have been well employed.

S: There might well be a terrorist or two in the millions of unkempt loners whom your practices would dissuade from walking a public street.

L: But how can you state my position so abusively?  Have I not explained that the subject of this torture would have to be indisputably guilty and also pose a clear threat to innocent life?

S: Indeed, you have described the culprit so well that I wonder to see a being with no more substance than a green horse fleshed out so fully.  He is a fantasy of your making, this villain—a two-headed Cyclops with a detonator.

L: On the contrary, he has never been so real or so abundant.

S: So you continue to say.  Yet please answer me this.  Would the bomb in your hypothetical case be set to explode in two days, or two hours?

L: I mentioned a time limit of two hours in the article, just to use a figure.

S: And you did well, because torture would be immensely more difficult to justify in a broader rime frame.  In two days, an entire metropolis could be evacuated.  Or detectives could perhaps locate and defuse the bomb.

L: Agreed.  But virtually no evacuation would be possible in two hours.

S: No—and neither would the effective intimidation of a lunatic resolved to meet his end in a vast calamity.  At best, he might be so racked with pain that he would scream out a false location.  You would then spend your precious remaining moments vainly puttering about rather than transporting a few hundred school children to safety.  Or if we take your curious example of the terrorist removed from a jetliner and tortured to reveal the “disable” code of the ticking bomb in the cargo hold… could we not better use that time debarking the passengers?

L: Do you dispute that the life of one innocent—even one—is more valuable than the fingernails of a ruthless butcher?

S: No more than I dispute that the green horse’s rider would deserve whatever drubbing citizens would dish out if they happened to find him.  But where, my friend, is a green horse to be found?  Or where a terrorist who is indubitably a terrorist, and also the right terrorist?  Do you not know that pitiable creatures will freely confess themselves to be desperados just for the pleasure of the limelight?  Do you not know that one terrorist organization frequently lays claim to another’s evil deeds, since publicity is their common aim?  Would it surprise you to learn that, even if your culprit were both sane and truly guilty, he might have planted an empty shoebox rather than a bomb—or might have forgotten to set the timer?  For we cannot really be sure, in such cases, that any life—innocent or otherwise—is in the balance, other than that if the benighted fool whom you hope to torment just short of death.

L: Well, by all means, let’s not take the threat seriously until the bomb goes off!

S: No, by all means, let us torture merrily away as if the threat were serious and the proper culprit in custody, for we will surely disarm a bomb sooner or later.

L: That’s fine with me.  A dozen broken bones seem a fair trade for hundreds or thousands of lives.  Even many dozen broken bones… though I think your prediction of millions wrongfully tortured is, well, a bit hyperbolic.  Just a bit!

S:  My prediction was that millions of people deemed suspicious for some reason—their beards, their skin tone, their vagrancy—would fear to appear in public, not that any one of them would in fact be tortured.  For I should imagine that your two-hour terrorist with intact faculties, a faint heart, and a big mouth would be flushed out about as soon as my green horse.  I am not particularly worried about incidences of brutal torture at all: I am worried about what concerned citizens may do as they search high and low for a green horse.  After the public debate for which you clamor, instruments of torture will be readied, jailers will study the art of torture, the public’s appetite for this new tree’s first fruit will be teased, and every dark-eyed loiterer collared in a dumpster will be sized up for the rack.  Without a bomb threat, the vagrant will simply spend his day in a conventional cell… but the people among whom he moves will no longer be the same people.  By resurrecting that fabled monster, the Chimaera, you will have ignited a monstrous eagerness in the eyes of our neighbors.


Peter Singleton has divided his time between teaching and writing in various capacities over the past several years.  A frequent contributor to Praesidium, he lives in the North Texas area.