Brief History of Athens and its application to modern Washington DC Modern Jackass, Fundamentalism, Sectarianism


Richard Sennett wrote the mind threatens continually to subvert the materials with which it works. What I mean by the academic anti-intellectualism evinced in the review of my book is a parade of authorities, a refusal to confront intellectual difficulty, a fear of ambiguity, all of which attempt to ward off that power of mind.

When I had come back from Paris to Washington DC I had felt that I was “returning to the backwaters” of Washington DC. To give an analogy to my friends – I compared Paris to DC vis-à-vis New York city to Huma, Louisiana. Someone got offended! Actually indignant!

Richard Hofstadter tenth book, earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964.  He calls it a personal book and a critical enquiry.

I have argued here, that Pragmatism is the American pastime; it is the virtue. Hofstadter contends that “mystique of practicality” as spiritually crippling”. The folksy maxim of Calvin Coolidge: “the business of America is business.”  American disinterest to the past–our consistently anti-historical, pro-utilitarian disposition– the secularization of the American mind by way of the “curious cult of religious practicality”.

Reductio ad absurdum, is a form of argument which attempts either to disprove a statement by showing it inevitably leads to a ridiculous, absurd, or impractical conclusion, or to prove one by showing that if it were not true, the result would be absurd or impossible.

And I have encountered more than my share here in Washington DC.

There is a fascinating conversation here – “this American life

Modern Jackass. Of course, there is no Modern Jackass. But ever since I heard that story, I found myself referring to Modern Jackass all the time. It’s incredibly useful, and it could be useful to you, to back out of all kinds of awkward conversational situations.

Nancy Updike

The thing about Modern Jackass is, it’s usually not something about which you know nothing. It’s something about which you know a little bit, enough to sort of get yourself into trouble.

Ira Glass

Like you read an article.

Nancy Updike

Exactly, or something on the web.

Ira Glass

Just last weekend, I was out for breakfast with some friends. And we got into this conversation about these people who do caloric restriction. Have you heard about this? Apparently, there are these people who believe that if you eat a lot less, it can make you live longer. As so we’re talking about this, and somebody’s explaining the cells of your body go through all this wear and tear when you actually digest food. And before you know it, one of my friends– somebody who knows nothing about biology, actually– starts talking about mitochondria. Mitochondria. And maybe he had a little bit of knowledge about this. But it was totally Modern JackassModernJackass, the medical edition, which Nancy says that she finds herself in quite a bit.

Nancy Updike

My mother sends me information about partially hydrogenated oils. And then when somebody says, wait, why is partially hydrogenated oil bad again? I say, well, it’s an unstable compound, which it is. It’s oil to which hydrogen has been added in order to make it solid at room temperature. That I know. That’s a fact.

Ira Glass

And why would that be bad, Nancy?

Nancy Updike

Well, that’s where we get into Modern Jackass territory. It’s unstable in your body. There’s an extra hydrogen atom that can interact with things.

Ira Glass

Oxygen and form water.

Nancy Updike


Eric Weiner wrote

The ancient Athenians enjoyed a deeply intimate relationship with their city. Civic life was not optional, and the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public affairs: idiotes. There was no such thing as an aloof, apathetic Athenian. “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” wrote the ancient historian Thucydides, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.” When it came to public projects, the Athenians spent lavishly. (And, if they could help it, with other people’s money—they paid for the construction of the Parthenon, among other things, with funds from the Delian League, an alliance of several Greek city-states formed to fend off the Persians.)

In retrospect, many aspects of Athenian life—including the layout and character of the city itself—were conducive to creative thinking. The ancient Greeks did everything outdoors. A house was less a home than a dormitory, a place where most people spent fewer than 30 waking minutes each day. The rest of the time was spent in the marketplace, or working out at the gymnasium or the wrestling grounds, or perhaps strolling along the rolling hills that surround the city. Unlike today, the Greeks didn’t differentiate between physical and mental activity; Plato’s famous Academy, the progenitor of the modern university, was as much an athletic facility as an intellectual one. The Greeks viewed body and mind as two inseparable parts of a whole: A fit mind not attached to a fit body rendered both incomplete.

The Athenians also hastened their demise by succumbing to what one historian calls “a creeping vanity.” Eventually, they reversed their open-door policy and shunned foreigners. Houses grew larger and more ostentatious. Streets grew wider, the city less intimate. People developed gourmet taste. The gap between rich and poor, citizen and noncitizen, grew wider, while the sophists, hawking their verbal acrobatics, grew more influential. Academics became less about pursuing truth and more about parsing it. The once vibrant urban life degenerated.



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