12th Grade: Platea, Taiwan, and SOPA

This week we continued our look at the Peloponnesian War and looked at a few important topics:

1. Athens and Platea,

Platea had been a long time ally of Athens, and a strategically important one because of its geographical location near Spartan allies.  Platea’s position was much like that of West Berlin in the Cold War, and perhaps, Taiwan today.  When they came under attack, Athens faced a brutal decision of either abandoning them or attempting a very risky attempt at reinforcing them.  Of course this is shortly after their city suffered an attack of the plague that killed perhaps 1/3 of its citizens.  What should they do?  The class was divided on this question, and it resulted in some interesting debate.  Would/should we, for example, be willing to defend Taiwan at any costs if China attacked?

2. The Athenian Assembly

Thucydides gives us a great behind the scenes look at Athenian democracy in action.  Here we see something much different than we are used to from Congress.  They discussed real issues in plain language with arguments that people could follow.  No 800 page laws passed here.  Average, everyday people could have a direct impact who were not even elected officials, like Cleon, the son of a tanner.  Anyone who has watched congressional sessions on C-Span and found themselves less than inspired would, I think, find accounts of the Athenian assembly bracing.

But there was a down side, as sometimes this rough and tumble process found itself outside established law.  The first time this happened, they approved of a military action that resulted in their biggest success of the early part of the war.  Years later, when they did something similar after the Battle of Arginusae, it would be a disaster.

Is it possible to have our cake and eat it with democracy?  Must we choose between an emphasis on law, with its attendant stuffiness, and dynamic social interaction, with it’s propensity to get carried away?  If so, which should we choose?  Is it possible for our country and our system of government to have the latter even if we wanted to?

3. The War Expands

When the Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC, I think it safe to say that both major proponents felt the war would be over in a year.  After all, no major strategic question divided them (or so, perhaps, it merely appeared to be so). Why was the early phase of the war indecisive?  How did this lead to a change of tactics for both sides, and how did this end up changing the war itself?

On Wednesday we took a detour and discussed the SOPA law being debated before Congress.  I thought this was worthwhile not just because it was a hot topic of conversation, but because it has a lot to do with how one thinks of democracy and society properly functioning.

The law raises a couple of key questions:

– Most see the internet as a good thing for democracy.  Witness, for example, the role of cell phones, web broadcasts, and other such things during the Arab Spring.  The internet puts enormous amount of choices before consumers, which can translate into an enormous amount of power.  The relative ease with which the public can pirate media forces media conglomerates to not take the consumer for granted.  Many have written, for example, of the entrenched arrogance and aloofness of the record companies ca. 1995.  CD”s made them huge profits, and they reduced customer choice.  After all, what other choice did we have but to go to them and buy whole albums? Such is the usual attitude of dictatorships before the fall.

– On the other hand, the digitizing of information has allowed those with power (be they governments or corporations) to amass enormous amounts of data about us.  The data is easy to acquire, store, and retrieve. Privacy has been redefined by the very existence of such technology.  As we have said in class before, the only thing preventing our military from taking over the government is whether they want to or not.  Even citizens with all the automatic weapons the NRA would want available would be no match for an air force, laser guided bombs, etc. In the same way, the only thing preventing government’s from accessing and using this information is whether they want to or not.

On another note,

I noticed during our conversation that the democratization of information may have led to a democratization of Constitutional interpretation.  One student objected to the law because, “It makes the companies instead of the individual the arbiter of what is or is not copyright infringement.”  This student said this almost without realizing the revolutionary implications of such a thought.  For myself, the idea that individuals decide what infringes copyright is a radically new idea.  For the student, it seemed perfectly obvious.

Of course the proposed law does ultimately involve the courts.  Media companies can’t put anyone in jail.  But it struck me that ‘Government’ as the deciding entity rarely came up in the discussion.  This may reflect something Philip Bobbitt discussed regarding the ‘Market State’ back in our mid-term project unit.  He predicted that in the ‘Internet’ era government’s would grow weaker in their connection to the people.  We just don’t need the centralization governments give society anymore.

All in all, it was a wonderful rabbit trail, and one we will likely revisit in a week or so when we see if the law passes.


Dave Mathwin