There are many uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus, including conflicting opinions from seemingly credible sources regarding the virus’ lethality and communicability, the efficacy of treatments, the effectiveness of lockdowns and masks, the necessity of vaccination, etc. This health crisis has exposed underlying conditions plaguing our polity, from mediacracy and groupthink to the prevalence of third-rate politicians ungroomed for the challenges of public office. It also revealed the dangers of ideology, which appears to cloud any sort of investigative analysis and critical reasoning.
The pandemic will ultimately subside, if not through the marvels of science, then on its own, as if usually the case with epidemics and their more or less symmetrical pattern of transmission. The underlying issues, however, will remain, and likely pose a far greater threat to society.
Our collective knowledge is rife with paradigms, if only we remain attentive. For instance, our tragic poets have long forewarned of the dangers of the messiah complex exhibited by some of today’s self-proclaimed saviors, including billionaire Bill Gates, who fancies himself a health expert while lacking any formal training. Consider the cases of Creon or Oedipus, who, in their haste to save their cities from peril, not only divided them, but ultimately met their downfall through their own hubris.
Oedipus pursues a campaign to uncover his predecessor’s murderer and purify plague-infested Thebes, only to discover that he is the true culprit. Meanwhile, elected officials turned tyrants became modern-day Creons overnight, literally deciding which citizens and practices are “essential,” who will be financially ruined and who spared, who is free to congregate and where, which constitutional freedoms are guaranteed and which are “above their pay grade,” and even who is entitled to a proper funeral and who not.
Eerily, all of this has been done in the name of the “greater good.” This awakens the fears adroitly cited by C.S. Lewis, who echoed the moral lesson of our classical trageides: “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under the omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons’ cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Today’s dystopian reality has gone the overreaching clutches of eccentric billionaires and power-hungry politicians whose claim to fame probably had more to do with the name they inherited or the good fortune of being in the right place, at the right time rather than any innate acumen.
It has extended into public dialogue, where social media, whose vast profits stem from their countless users, are now playing the gatekeepers. Not content to serve as communication platforms and count their billions selling users’ browsing preferences to marketers, these companies are now exercising censorship, muzzling opinions they deem contrary to the mainstream narrative, or in other instances refusing to allow non-systemic media to host revenue-generating ads on their sites – a form of economic blackmail.
Sadly, the news media – the once powerful “fourth estate” that at its best could check governmental and corporate autocratic tendencies and safeguard democracy – has cascaded down this slippery slope. Look no further than the recent forced resignation of the New York Times’ opinion editor amidst in-house backlash over the running of a controversial piece by a U.S. Senator. The NYT’s unacceptable reporting in March about the situation in Evros and the weaponization of migrants is indicative of its management’s new priorities, which apparently prevail over its once acclaimed journalistic integrity.
The duality prevalent in Western thought has often been responsible for repression and oppression. Perhaps today’s media will once again make those who challenge the popular narrative wear a scarlet letter because of their nonconformist views or reconvene modern witch trials to drown citizens so as to prove their innocence. Only now, it’s the “experts” acting in place of Salem’s elders, with the invocation of “science” in loco Deus. But as in the past, it’s very doubtful that the autocratic practices of the “pious Puritans” had any true theological foundation or shred of sanctity.
Perhaps that’s why the “agora,” with its free express and open exchange of ideas, is such an important component of the Hellenic outlook, along with Aristotelian empiricism – the act of “experiencing” knowledge. Critical thought and logic were practiced based on this understanding for centuries, by the learned and unlearned alike. Tragedies carried seminal messages – sometimes powerful enough to threaten the entire establishment. Likewise, comedies were used to reign in the excess of authority. Hubris and the false piety of autocracy were mercilessly targeted.
These are perspectives that Hellenism should be advancing today as a contribution to the ecumene, rather than allowing itself to be twisted and tangled in the webs spun by the profiteers and power hungry.
The words of Aristophanes could never have been truer: “You [demagogues] are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it's only in troublous times that you line your pockets.”
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