At about this time in an election year, for instance, we're to the point where we assume that anything anybody says to us is bound to have a hidden political meaning. The Culture War in America is at a fever pitch we haven't seen since — well, four years ago.
Even the giant convenience-store chain Seven/Eleven is inviting bleary-eyed morning customers to choose either a red (Romney) or blue (Obama) cup for their coffee, and the daily accounting is released in the form of a political poll.
In fact, a person can't even tell a simple story without some listener complaining that it has a thinly veiled, devious partisan message.
Such as, the story about a place that once decided it was spending way too much in tax money on public education and, instead, people should pay privately for their own schooling. This proved to be a popular idea, especially among high-ranking citizens (i.e., those who had money) and new private schools and universities flourished.
Without those pesky teaching credentials to worry about, anybody and his/her brother/sister could start up a school and charge money to attend it. And so they did. With the free market kicking in, teachers could set their prices based strictly on how popular they were. And so they did.
The superstar teacher at the time was a man named Gorgias (pronounced "gorgeous") — not to be confused with Gorgeous George, who was a different type of wrestler in a different country at a different time.
Gorgias would become famous for inventing a new style of rhetoric, known today as Sophism, which is defined as “a specious form of argument used for deception.”
(Wikipedia adds, “Such an argument might be crafted to appear logical while actually representing a falsehood, or it might use obscure words and complicated sentence constructions in order to intimidate the opponent into agreement out of fear of feeling foolish. Other techniques include manipulating the opponent's prejudices and emotions to overcome their logical faculties.”)
People paid big bucks to hear Gorgias's town-hall-style speeches, but the main attraction was what followed a speech. People in the audience who considered themselves “educated” (i.e., in the old-fashioned public way, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.) were invited to come up onstage and debate him. Regardless of his opponent, Gorgias would get them so tied up in linguistic knots that he declared himself the victor, to the roar of the crowd's approval.
How did the ascendance of Sophism as a form of public and political discourse work out for that country as a whole? Well, not so good.
The most thorough account of what happened next, and why, is a book by Edward Gibbon titled “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Be aware that while Gibbon has many gifts as a writer, brevity is not among them.
Which is to say “Decline and Fall” is definitely not a bathroom book, unless you're having problems with...well, let's not go there. Anyway, it's a very enlightening read.
The fall of Rome was caused by a sort of double whammy: Some wealthy and powerful guys named Caesar decided that elections were too unhandy and, to simplify things, declared themselves permanent emperors. And, despite a strong military and strong city gates, a group of Rome's enemies known as the Barbarians managed to invade, ransack, and wreak death and havoc all over. I don't know if empires had bond ratings back then, but if they did I'm guessing that Rome's quickly hit bottom and kept going.
Why do I bring the story up now, you ask?
No reason. I just thought it was interesting.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, books, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM and is archived afterward on his website.