Time for the Ancient Art of Ostracism

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ostracism, as it originated in ancient Greece, meant that the citizens cast votes on ostraca (potsherds or tiles) on the question of whether someone in their midst was so disruptive or so loathsome to the community that he ought to be invited out of town — exiled for a period of 10 years. The undesirable one would lose no property, or otherwise be harmed. He would simply be told, for the general good, to get lost for a decade.

Two friends of mine who are classicists recalled this practice, a little wistfully. We agreed America could use a law like that. My friends thought that, for the general good, the eventual loser in this presidential mess ought to be ostracized. I took the idea a step farther. I wondered if it might be possible to send both the loser and the winner on 10-year leaves.

If any good can come of all this, it should be something in the way of an American political housecleaning. Toxins need to be flushed out of the system from time to time. Over the years, we have built up too much poison in our politics and government. We should seize the occasion of this fiasco, one way or another, to rinse it out.

I have in mind a bloodbath that is thoroughly bipartisan. Let the Clintons be the first to go. American politics will not be healthy until they are purged from the system. Issue exit visas to Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, to Dick Armey, to the ancient and awful Strom Thurmond and the odious Jesse Helms. Let the ostraca fall upon the bombastic charlatan Jesse Jackson, upon Henry Hyde and Maxine Waters, upon Barbara Boxer and Orrin Hatch.

And so on. Make a start. The intent would not be punitive but, rather, therapeutic and resuscitative. The body politic has grown unwholesome — stale with egos that have overstayed. Time to prune the fruit tree and hope for new shoots.

But this sounds like ranting. The distant music of H. L. Mencken dead-ends in Don Imus imitations. It savors of precisely the poison that it condemns. Indeed, the political malaise we suffer from is usually attended by self-disgust. That is one of the dangers of the current situation. But rather than self-loathing, this election — two inadequate candidates fighting to a weird, ignominious tie, with no expectation even that the winner will be the less lousy — should rouse Americans to self-examination.

In the cliffhanging aftermath, we get a Daffy Duck performance: Low cunning and idiot greed spluttering political horsefeathers all over the Florida courts. The system desperately needs new blood. But where will it come from?

Tocqueville said that one "can still consider the election of the president as a period of national crisis... The entire nation falls into a feverish state." But then, he wrote, "As soon as fortune has pronounced... this ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed."

Not this year. Heading toward Thanksgiving, the river of presidential politics is still gushing and roiling all over the place — flooding the basement, short-circuiting the media wires, driving the snakes out of their holes. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is an optimist, thinks the current mess might actually attract fresh, idealistic talents to politics. Perhaps it will happen. But first we must find a way to ostracize the old egos.