Few authors have grappled with Big Questions™ via deliciously salacious material better than Sophocles. Want to get people talking about conflicts between secular & religious obligations, fate, and civic virtue? Tease them with incest, patricide, live burial, and self-mutilation.
The West Was Written blogger has an interesting analysis of the civic virtue angle as presented in Antigone:
Once the confetti is swept up, the real test of governing begins. This is when King Creon’s admonishment [to be skeptical of our leaders' self-advertisements] becomes important. WE MUST WATCH OUR RULERS – and this is daunting because there are so very many of them these days. Where to begin? Begin with the understanding that this duty is not exciting. That it requires sacrifice and boring conversations on multiple occasions with people your delicate feelings would rather avoid…
Why all of that watching? Politicians never EVER say what they really mean. It takes multiple times listening to their speeches and interviews (or better yet being in the room with one by going to boring government meetings) to really get a sense of what they’re actually saying.
The conflict between what’s important and what’s exciting is clearest in politics. It’s why the Cordoba House mosque attracts more attention than the Financial Reform Bill, and why Sarah Palin has more than 2,000,000 followers on Facebook, while Paul Ryan has fewer than 6,000. Government’s most important functions are rarely sexy, which is why it’s necessary to keep a close, weary eye on it and the people who run it.
But we should apply our skepticism means as well as the proper goals and purpose of government. Keeping politicians and bureaucrats honest is essential to liberty, but only if we are equally vigilant about keeping them on task.
And what is that task? Ask George W. Bush, and it’s to end tyranny on Earth, among other things. According to Barack Obama, it’s to restore science, help people achieve a decent wage and comfortable retirement, and — famously — slow rise of the oceans and heal the planet. God only knows what they’ll be saying in 2012.
We didn’t always speak this way. Washington’s Farewell Address is usually remembered for its warnings against foreign alliances and factionalism, but those are less relevant to us than this section:
I shall carry it [my gratitude to you] with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
…The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.
Even with the 18th century flourishes, it’s amazing how modest the old man’s expectations were both for and about the government he had lead for 15 of the last 20 years. Washington offered no mission or crusade to change the world, only the hope that he had maintained the country’s institutions so Americans could follow their own pursuits in life, society, and business. He didn’t offer his fellow citizens meaning from the government because — in his estimation — it has none to offer. Indeed, the Farewell reads more like a letter from a retiring CEO to his shareholders than that of the nation’s first Head of State.
Those days are gone: America is too powerful and the world too complicated for us to try return to the style of government we had in 1796, even if we wanted to. But keeping an eye on our politicians — tedious though that may — to ensure that they’re honest and doing only what they should be is as essential as ever.