Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 21, 2014


Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 21, 2014

In mid-June the wife of my long-lost cousin wrote to her Facebook friends:

To encourage and reward lawlessness by refusing to enforce the will of the people as proven by laws passed by our political representatives is the signature of a tyrant. In this case, Obama’s refusal to enforce immigration laws and his blatant suggestion that his chosen illegal activity will be rewarded are proof of his tyrannical tactics.

Sarah Palin is certainly not alone in this judgment of the current President. A frequent commentator to this blog writes:

A White House who believes it can use its pen and phone without ramification and a Congress and constituents who continue to allow such outrageous behavior – how dare you folks allow this continuing weakening of our established procedures by a WH and AG who could give a damn about our laws and enforcing them… The real question, will it be domestic terrorism we need to truly be concerned about, or a government who cannot adhere to the checks and balances placed before us by our forefathers to guard against possible breach of faith and in the words of Frederick Douglass, the following: “Find out just what People will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

Award-winning screenwriter and playwright David Mamet agrees that President Obama is a tyrant.

He’s a tyrant and I give him great credit. He’s always said that his idea was to reform the United States. And, you know, like many tyrants, like Wilson and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he believes that his way is the right way and that he’s going to implement his vision of the world, and many agree with him. And he’s acting in concert with his conscience. And I applaud him for that. I just disagree with everything he’s done.

New York Times writer C. Gerald Fraser has called Mamet the “Aristophanes of the inarticulate”. Aristophanes was a writer and director of biting politically-charged comedies. Plato suggests that his play The Clouds set-the-stage, so to speak, for the prosecution and execution of Socrates. No wonder Plato mistrusts poets.  Plato also suggested Aristophanes plays to non-Athenians as a way of better understanding the complex culture of the city-state.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Aristophanes’ The Wasps:


Everything is now tyranny with us, no matter what is concerned, whether it be large or small. Tyranny! I have not heard the word mentioned once in fifty years, and now it is more common than salt-fish, the word is even current on the market. If you are buying gurnards and don’t want anchovies, the huckster next door, who is selling the latter, at once exclaims, “That is a man whose kitchen savours of tyranny!” If you ask for onions to season your fish, the green-stuff woman winks one eye and asks, “Ha, you ask for onions! are you seeking to tyrannize, or do you think that Athens must pay you your seasonings as a tribute?”


Yesterday I went to see a whore about noon and told her to get on top; she flew into a rage, pretending I wanted to restore the tyranny of Hippias.

This play was first performed in 422 BC. It describes an Athenian democracy degraded by a populist authoritarian executive and a banal, self-indulgent, litigious, and often vengeful populace. A long war and related economic decline have generated widespread cynicism. Bdelycleon, above, is a protagonist for reclaiming the joy of life… partly by putting aside anti-social conventions and adopting a rather refined, yet still spontaneous conviviality.

Mamet’s use of tyrant surprises me.  But I expect that was his goal.  He once told some interviewers, “In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, based solely on our ability to speak the language viciously. That’s probably where my ability was honed.”

Vicious, as Mamet knows, is related to vice, suggests cruelty, and signals faulty, defective, corrupt.  The opposite of virtuous.

If you have ever seen a Mamet play — Glengarry Glen Ross or Sexual Perversity in Chicago — you might agree the playwright is masterful in exposing how language can be used to misdirect others and, especially, self-deceive.

Vigorous language is needed.  It both seeds and weeds our thinking.  But it seems to me vicious language is a threat to real thought.  Shedding humility the vicious communicator is exposed as anorexically prideful.  The language is chosen to intimidate or, failing that, confuse.  At the very least vicious language renders a real conversation practically impossible.  Dangerous in a want-to-be (need-to-be?) democracy.

— Parabasis —

This post is I readily admit very close to off-topic.  Given what continues along our border, what is emerging in North Africa and Southwest Asia, and various domestic threats, it is rather weird to quote a Fifth Century BC dramatist regarding the tendency to socially scripted over-statement.

But it also seems to me the situation in Ferguson has exposed an unbridged abyss between homeland security tactics and strategy.  Especially treacherous is where rhetoric is inclined to rock-slides.  Too many of the players in Ferguson have performed as if they were reading from (badly written) scripts.  Catch-words, platitudes, stock-phrases, pseudo-slogans, clichéd complaints have been repeatedly deployed on all sides; which one or more of many sides receives as proof that others are not listening.  So each retaliates on each with a barrage of their own bromides. Absurdly farcical possibilities unfolding into tragedy. Words replaced with other weapons.

Aristophanes — no friend of his city’s authoritarian ruler — strongly suggests that the principal source of tyranny is our individual and collective tendency toward non-thinking.

I have experienced the wisdom of crowds, especially if the crowd is listening and in meaningful discussion. I want to be in conversation with you.  When our digital “talks” get going — when we listen and build on the wisdom of each other — it is noticed.  Then our words have influence.  Especially when we are not repeating scripts but actually thinking, listening, and exploring — together — about tough issues that are, we demonstrate, abundant in ambiguity and ambivalence.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 21, 2014 @ 2:04 am

WOW! An amazing post from Phil. What some may know or not know is that selective enforcement of federal laws has long been upheld by SCOTUS. What is troubling is that immigration is not the only arena in which federal law is both civil and criminal. Thus a confusing choice from inception between prosecution perhaps and administration.

Exactly which of the many civil and criminal laws involving immigration do Americans want enforced or administered? If all is the answer then a major expansion of DHS and DoJ will be necessary.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

August 21, 2014 @ 7:21 am

“Especially treacherous is where rhetoric is inclined to rock-slides.”

I don’t think truer words can be spoken.

Comment by Ben

August 21, 2014 @ 8:54 am

It’s always interesting to see how carefully people choose words. Were I to ask the modern commentators what to justify their use of the word ‘tyrant’, I suspect that I would get conflicting definitions.

Here are a few:
1. From the ancient Greek: The ruler of a City/State/People.
2. From Plato: One who rules without law, on behalf of himself, and uses cruel or oppressive tactics against his own people.
3. From John Locke: One who rules without the “right” to do so, and rules for their own advantage.
4. The modern definition (Collins): a person who governs oppressively, unjustly, and arbitrarily; despot – or – any person who exercises authority in a tyrannical manner

I could easily select at least one of these definitions that would apply to any US president. However, if we are going to use anything other than the most modern use, we have to be really careful not to let the definition get lost in the talking points.

For example: If I were to say that “Every citizen of ancient Athens during the days of Socrates would have considered Barak Obama to be a tyrant”. This would probably be true, and should not carry any specific negative connotation. But if I were to say this to someone that was only familiar with the modern definition, it would have conveyed a very negative connotation.

Word games at their worst . . .

Comment by John Comiskey

August 21, 2014 @ 9:21 am

Too much has been said about the events in Ferguson and Staten Island by too many uninformed/biased people who claim to be civic leaders and objective journalists.

That is to be expected. The greater problem is a citizenry who unknowingly and/or unintelligently lets the above buffoons purport to be leaders and objective journalists.

Part of the solution is civic education replete with a critical thinking component embedded in K-12 and higher education. While I have mixed feelings about national common core K-12 programming, I know of no better alternative for the nation. There is a place in common core education for civic education.

I pray that God bless these “united states” of America

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 21, 2014 @ 9:35 am

How did “tyrants” in classical era Greece become “tyrants”? Elections?

Comment by Christopher Tingus

August 21, 2014 @ 11:07 am


By N.S. Gill’s Ancient/Classical History Glossary

Definition: A tyrant in ancient Greece meant something different from our modern concept of tyrant as simply a cruel and oppressive despot. A tyrant was little more than an autocrat or leader who had overturned an existing regime of a Greek polis and was, therefore, an illegitimate ruler, a usurper. They even had some measure of popular support, according to Aristotle. “Before Turannoi Were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History,” by Greg Anderson; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 24, No. 2 (October 2005), pp. 173-222, suggests that because of this confusion with modern tyranny, the perfectly good Greek word should be removed from scholarship on early Greece.

Drews (“The First Tyrants in Greece”) paraphrases Aristotle as saying that the tyrant was a degenerate type of monarch who came to power because of the insufferability of the aristocracy. The people of the demos, fed up, found a tyrant to champion them. Drews adds that the tyrant himself had to be ambitious, possessing the Greek concept of philotimia, which he describes as desire for power and prestige. This quality is also common to the modern version of the self-serving tyrant. Tyrants were sometimes preferred to aristocrats and kings.

Parker (“????????. The Semantics of a Political Concept from Archilochus to Aristotle”) says the first use of the term tyrant comes from the mid-seventh century B.C., and the first negative use of the term, about a half century later or perhaps as late as the second quarter of the sixth.

King vs. Tyrant

A tyrant could also be a leader who ruled without having inherited the throne; thus, Oedipus marries Jocasta to become tyrant of Thebes, but in reality, he is the legitimate heir to the throne: the king (basileus). Parker says the use of tyrannos is common to tragedy in preference to basileus, generally synonymously, but sometimes negatively.

Sophocles writes that hubris begets a tyrant or tyranny begets hubris [Parker].

Parker adds that for Herodotus, the term tyrant and basileus are applied to the same individuals, although Thucydides (and Xenophon, on the whole) distinguishes them along the same lines of legitimacy as we do.

“The First Tyrants in Greece,” by Robert Drews; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 21, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1972), pp. 129-14

“????????. The Semantics of a Political Concept from Archilochus to Aristotle,” by Victor Parker; Hermes , 126. Bd., H. 2 (1998), pp. 145-172.

Also Known As: basileus, king

Cylon was one of Athens’ tyrants. He was also an Olympic athlete and married to the daughter of another tyrant. Tyrants included Cypselus, Periander, and Peisistratus.

Peisistratus (Pisistratus) was one of the most famous of the Athenian tyrants. It was after the fall of the sons of Peisistratus that Cleisthenes and democracy came to Athens. See Rise of Democracy.

Greg Anderson argues that before the 6th century there was no difference between the tyrannos or tyrant and the legitimate oligarchic ruler, both aiming to dominate but not subvert the existing government.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

August 21, 2014 @ 11:17 am

Article 2, Section 1, Clause 1

Document 13

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, no. 70, 471–80

15 Mar. 1788


Comment by William R. Cumming

August 21, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

Thanks Chris!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 22, 2014 @ 8:45 am

Bill Cumming asked a good question.Ben and Christopher Tingus provided helpful background on how language/meaning can morph. Thanks very much. A narrower take:

Aristophanes took particular aim at Cleon, a leading figure in the Ekklesia (Assembly of 6000), the principal instrument of Athenian government in the Fifth Century BC.

Late in his career Cleon was elected Strategos (General) but his authority, such as it was, rested on his ability to persuade the Ekklesia to his preferred action. There were executive bodies, but these were chosen mostly by lot. I am not aware that Cleon directly participated in any of the executive bodies. Rather he was “merely” a leading citizen.

This was direct democracy in a form that concerned so many of America’s Founders and Framers.

Based on several third-party reports, Cleon’s ability to persuade depended on a straightforward coarseness that the more aristocratic elements, including Aristophanes, found dangerously simplistic. (Our “demagogue” is derived directly from the Greek and literally means leader-of-the-people, our pejorative reflects aristocratic judgments regarding the sort of rhetoric that moves crowds.) Cleon’s style and substance was harsh. He advocated the total annihilation of foreign enemies and something not so different for his political adversaries.

To my broader concern as to rhetoric: Aristophanes and his “class” tended to see the world as a complicated place, for Cleon the choices were clear enough. Aristophanes and those he reflected were inclined to accommodate a reality they perceived as inclined to absurdist self-delusion. Cleon and his cohorts perceived reality was their’s to make. These differences in worldview were, of course, reflected in language. Language used in the Ekklesia and the law-courts across the Fifth Century was increasingly confrontational.

A case can be made that this perpetually confrontational political atmosphere weakened the internal strength of Athens resulting in Macedonian predominance in the generation after Cleon and Aristophanes. Athens would not reclaim a semblance of independence for two millennia.

I am Aristophanic in my worldview. I am looking for an effective way to authentically communicate and deliberate with the Cleons of this age. My concern is to preserve and even enhance the arete (strength, excellence, and wisdom) of the United States.

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