Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Alexander & Hephaistion: Historical Besties for V-Day

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, and I’m working on final edits for the Alexander novels as well as mulling over Hephaistion for an academic biography, I’m reminded of one of the things that originally caught my attention.

Alexander and Hephaistion are a great love story. I don’t mean romantic love (eros), although maybe they had that too, at least as boys. I mean theirs is a true LOVE story (philia).

Philalexandros” is the name Alexander gave Hephaistion, at least according to Plutarch (Alex. 47.5), who adds it wasn’t a one-time clever come-back to supporters of Krateros (Hephaistion’s chief rival at court). Apparently he used it a lot (Plutarch uses "frequently"). It translates as “Lover of Alexander,” in contrast to Krateros as “Lover of the king” (Philobasileus).

The word used here for love, “philia,” often gets translated as “friendship,” but that doesn’t do it justice. To the Greeks, philia stood above eros, or simple desire. One could eros a boy, a woman, or a well-cooked piece of tuna. They used it much as we use “love” today. But philia was reserved for people, or one’s city-state, or perhaps ideals. Philia was assumed to be of longer standing, if not as fiery. The poets cry out that they’re “sick” with eros. The same language isn’t used of philia. So Alexander is saying that Krateros loves/respects his position as king. But Hephaistion loves Alexander, the man. In another story, where one of the Persian royal women accidentally bows to Hephaistion, not Alexander, and is embarrassed, Alexander replies with, "He is Alexander, too." (See the illustration above [Curt. 3.12.17]).

That’s what I find of interest. How many of history’s most powerful men (or women) had a true best friend? Someone s/he trusted above all others to love him for him/herself? It’s not unique, but it is rare. Power usually kills trust, and I think it did kill Alexander’s trust in a lot of those around him. But not his trust in Hephaistion.

One can question aspects of this legendary friendship. Afterall, we have multiple issues with our original sources. Some issues that pop up like dandelions in spring:

1) Were they really boyhood friends, or is that a later assumption/insertion?
2) Was the Achilles/Patroklos trope one they used themselves, or was it made up by later Roman-era authors (esp. Arrian) seeking to flatter imperial patrons? Or maybe they used it once or twice, but it got padded and blown up by later authors?
3) (The Million Dollar Question) Were they really lovers, or just Bromance Buddies?
All are legitimate questions. My own answers are 1) I think they were, 2) it was probably exaggerated later (Alexander did court Achilles comparisons), and 3) yes, at least when they were boys, but who knows later and it doesn’t really matter to their mutual affection. I tend to be less skeptical about Hephaistion’s importance to Alexander in general, although I remain carefully cautious about the exact nature of that tie (whether ever sexual or not).

The thing is…it didn’t matter. And that’s what I want to elevate on this Valentine’s Day. One of the best historical love stories I know isn’t about romantic love of the sexual variety.

It’s about the most powerful man in his section of the world at the time with a friend he genuinely trusted, even when he’d become paranoid about virtually everyone else. When Alexander lost Hephaistion to some sort of febrile illness, he grieved not unlike a spouse who’d lost a long-time partner, and died about ten months later. If he didn’t die of a broken heart, I’ve argued elsewhere his death wasn’t unrelated to his profound grief (w/ Eugene N. Borza, "Some New Thoughts on the Death of Alexander the Great," The Ancient World 31.1 (2000) 1-9). Alexander speaks of Hephaistion as “more important than my own head.” That’s some serious importance.

It can be tempting for historians to get cynical about our subject matter, or about our sources—not unfairly. Doing real history tends to burst bubbles and quash romantic notions about people in the past. History is not myth, and whatever myths Alexander wanted to perpetrate about himself, that statue had clay feet. Very porous clay feet.

But true love does exist, and some people are lucky enough to find it. I think Alexander was one of the lucky ones. He had a true love and loyal friend.

So on Valentine’s Day, I wanted to celebrate a real historical love story that wasn’t necessarily romantic (eros). Maybe they had romantic love, too; I find it possible, if also impossible to corroborate from the state of our evidence.

Yet it was the love born of long-standing friendship, philia, that sat foremost. This love was remembered and remarked on by both their contemporaries as well as later authors.

And that's pretty romantic.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

A Deal with the Devil (Kavanaugh hearings)

Some thoughts on the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh hearings....

As I see it, two layers here intersect, but should not be conflated. The first is Kavanaugh's confirmation. The other is the verisimilitude of Blasey Ford's allegations. The problem is an assumption that bringing forward Blasey Ford's allegations at the 11th hour was done solely to stop the confirmation and that means they're false (or at lease "mixed up," to use one Republican senator's assessment, even before hearing her testimony). This is false logic, and I'd ding a student who tried to use it in a paper. Why?

We have a verifiable paper trail. One could argue all of it is a lie--everybody on the Democratic side is making it up from the get-go--but that seems overly conspiratorial. Let's take the basics: Blasey Ford submitted her allegations to her representative when Kavanaugh was merely one of several names that had floated to the top of potential Supreme Court nominees. But--this is very important--she asked to remain anonymous, because she feared (rightly) the blow-back. The woman is a psychologist. She's probably better suited than most of us to assess the likely outcome of her emergence from obscurity with name attached.

So the issue is not that she failed to come forward earlier in the confirmations (she clearly did come forward earlier), but with why her allegation was saved until later.

Some would/have tried to sing the ol’ “Why didn’t she report it at the time?” song, which is notably tone deaf in the wake of the many #WhyIDidn’tReport stories. We won’t even look at the difference between the early 1980s and the late 20-teens, in how women were treated in court for allegations of sexual assault. She’d have been slut-shamed; I know, I graduated high school in 1982. I wouldn’t have reported it, either. I could go into this further but I have other fish to fry. If you’re inclined to blame her for not reporting it in the early ‘80s, you’re living on a different planet, or at least in a delusional bubble.

The better question is why did Feinstein wait so long to bring up this letter? I think anyone honestly considering the whole thing must ask it. Yet I fear it's been couched in an automatic negative that assumes, as part of it, the fabrication of the entire episode. E.g., she held it back because Feinstein and company cooked it up at the last minute. (But see above about when Blasey Ford wrote and submitted it, originally.)

I'd like to re-posit Feinstein's reasons to the positive: she sought to respect Blasey Ford's request for anonymity, and her legitimate fear of going public. Blasey Ford has a family, and kids. Terror of reporting due to threat (or at least fear) of retribution against not just the victim, but a victim’s family, is a potent tool for criminals of all types since antiquity. Here the threat wasn’t from Kavanaugh, per se, but from the rabid supporters of his confirmation who would—and did—threaten Blasey Ford and her family with violence.

Feinstein knew things would get ugly; she got elected in the wake of the Anita Hill hearings. She was disinclined to bring it up if it looked as if Kavanaugh would not be confirmed anyway. Blasey Ford submitted her accusations because she was worried that Kavanaugh would wind up on the Supreme Court. If it seemed like he wouldn't, why expose Blasey Ford to a potential 3-Ring Circus?

So yes, when it seemed that he might be confirmed, Feinstein brought out the letter...not because it was false, or made up, but because the time had come, and she suspected Blasey Ford would want that--which appears to have been the case. As Blasey Ford said herself, she was terrified to testify on Thursday, but believed testifying was her civic duty.

So Feinstein kept the letter confidential to protect Blasey Ford's requested anonymity, not as some trumped-up charge at the last minute. When it looked as if Kavanaugh might be confirmed in a highly partisan vote, Feinstein decided the good of the many outweighed the good of the one, and gambled Blasey Ford would agree. You may not like Feinstein's decision, you may think the letter should have been put forward sooner, but I do not believe her motives for reserving it were, as Kavanaugh claimed, "seek and destroy"...unless it was to avoid seek and destroy of Blasey Ford, re-victimizing her.

Is it political? Of course it is, but not in the way so stridently touted today by Kavanaugh. Roe vs. Wade is the real political battle here. Yet putting a sexual predator on the High Court (in a lifetime appointment) just to abolish Roe vs. Wade—that’s immoral. I understand the larger question of abortion is complex. I am pro-Choice, but understand, and even respect, pro-Life arguments, even if I think they mostly rest on faulty biology or outdated theology. But pick a better candidate.

This is all about TIMING, as Kavanaugh’s supporters fear that control of at least the House will change and the bulk of the US electorate does not favor abolishing Roe vs. Wade.  It’s become “Kavanaugh or bust.” Yet putting Kavanaugh on the court just to get a swing vote to kill Roe vs. Wade is a deal with the devil.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why Maame Biney Matters in 2018

Why Maame Biney Matters in 2018

In this dark time of Trump, it is perhaps poetic justice—or just karma—that the rising star of the US American team is an 18-year-old immigrant born in Ghana, the first black speed skater in US history at the Olympics (along with Erin Jackson, long-track, whom we shouldn’t forget).

But I want to talk about Maame because she defines what this country is about.

Her parents are separated, her mother in Ghana, but her father in the US.  While she still talks to her mother, she fell in love with the US, and at 5, chose to live with her father.  He took her to a skating rink on a lark, and when she proved to have talent (albeit in speed skating, not figure skating), he worked extra and gave up much to support her immense, budding talent.

To complete her training, she was taken in by a white host family in Salt Lake City, who her father waxes poetic about as not caring about race, but perhaps he shouldn’t.  In the current environment, I understand, but Maame is America: the ambitious immigrant.  She doesn’t need apologies for making the team.  Increasingly black athletes are finding standing in sports once considered mostly white.  Gymnastics saw it with Gabby Douglas, then Simone Biles (the latter of whom was also known for her infectious personality).  Now we have Maame and Erin in speed skating.  The white-power narrative will argue that blacks are “taking over,” but this is silly, a fear reaction because territory once perceived as theirs is no longer white-washed.

That helps everyone.  Athletes seek to excel, or should.  Greater competition means athletes are challenged to excel more.  Whining about increased competition is a sign of weakness and insecurity.  Do white athletes need a “handicap” in order to make the Olympic team?  I don’t think so.  The US sends her best.  Any color.  We’re fortunate to have a large enough population to send so many athletes.  200+ compared to some countries excited to send just 3-4, none of whom have any chance of medaling.  Just to participate is enough.  We shouldn’t whine.

Back to Maame.  She hails from a continent/country the US president recently labeled a “shithole,” and why should we let in people from such places?  To make it worse, her father isn’t rich.  He put everything he’s earned into his daughter’s training.  They are not the Trump White House’s idea of “ideal immigrants.”  Yet when she earns medals in South Korea, I wonder what the current administration’s reaction will be?  Will she get an invitation, with Trump trying to coopt her victory to lessen backlash for his “shithole countries” remark?  Or will she be politely ignored?  If she’s invited, frankly, I hope she declines, but that is her decision to make.

In the end, Maame is just a girl, a high school senior.  And like any other girl, she has dreams.  She wants to win gold, and then she wants to become a chemical engineer.  And if a lot of people at universities all across the US dream of the latter, very, very few have any hope of the former.  Yet it’s the later on which I think we should focus.  Maame is special, she has a rare talent, but she’s also just like any immigrant in that she wants a better life, and has dreams shared by a lot of other Americans, from truly Native Americans, enrolled in any of the recognized native tribes, to Americans from older immigrant groups dating back before American independence, to more recent immigrants, whether through Ellis Island or other venues.

America is about people with dreams.  And to my mind, the best thing Maame brings to the Olympics and this country is her laugh, her hope, her drive, and her dreams.  In short, she brings herself.

Go, go, go, Maame.  You are this country, this United States.  We got your back, girl.  Go win some Olympic hardware.