The core mission of the Onassis Foundation USA is the promotion of Greek culture, which is realized through cultural and educational programs in partnership with organizations in New York City and beyond. From antiquity to now, the imprint of Greece is ever present—in art, theater, literature, philosophy, and civic institutions, among manifold other things. BAM, with its adventurous spirit and tireless programming in the arts, is an ideal partner for the Onassis Foundation, and together we are most pleased to bring to the public a series of talks and films, under the titular aegis of Speaking Truth to Power. It will explore the contours, the limitations, and the threats to our living together in community and how we might resist the darkest turns we see in the halls of power in this country.
We credit the Greeks—and rightfully so—with the invention of “democracy.” At the same time, we perhaps maintain a (naïve) idealistic understanding of what democracy was like in ancient Greece, in particular in Athens, selectively forgetting that even in its most radical form, it enfranchised only the adult male citizens. Women, foreigners, slaves—together outnumbering all of the male citizens—never had a share in the “power to the people.” Furthermore, we imagine that some enlightened ancient Greeks, philosophers even, envisioned a new way of living together, where all (adult, citizen) men were equal, with shared rights and the power to determine together the destiny of their community. And somehow, this political ideal was peacefully implemented in Athens, and it spread to other city-states in the Greek world. Of course the reality is, that the development of democracy was messy, at times ugly…it was trial and error; it was success and failure; it was experiment; it was... violent.
The historical figure most closely associated with Athenian democracy was Pericles. He and his co-conspirators ushered in the most radical form of democracy in Athens. In his famous speech, the so-called “Funeral Oration,” Pericles boasted: “For we do not borrow from the laws of our neighbors, by imitating their polity; we ourselves are the paradigm to them, rather than imitators of others” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.37). The Athens of his day, of course, was an imperialist state, appropriating the resources of its allies to beautify itself and wage war—dare we say a civil war—against other Greeks. Yet, Pericles claimed, “For we make friends not by receiving favor, but by giving it” (2.40). And so, there is an inherent paradox in our admiration for the ancient Greeks—the Athenians certainly laid the foundations for what we believe today, that of all the flawed ways humanity has experimented in governance, democracy is the most equitable and just form.
Indeed, ancient Athens was also a cultural nexus, wherein some of our best ideas and practices flourished—art and architecture, philosophy, the free exchange of ideas…the theater. But we must contrast such achievements with the darker side of history—inequality, patriarchy, colonialism. By reckoning with the past and all of its beautiful and at the same time ugly realities, we might find ourselves on firmer ground to consider our present moment. Democracy never was, nor ever will be, a static thing. It is always changing—and we hope evolving—into something better, but it was and remains fragile, easily manipulated. Plato, one of the harshest critics of ancient Athenian democracy, thought it was just a step away from tyranny, that populism was the seedbed for demagoguery. And so we must protect and preserve, nourish, and prune our polity.
Free speech—by individuals, organizations, movements, the media—is essential for democracy to flourish, and in particular, we must be able to speak freely to (against?) those in positions of power, especially when we witness the looming shadows of injustice. We must give voice to the ignored, the marginalized, the oppressed. We must resist the darkness. Freedom of speech, however, does not mean that we can say whatever, whenever, however we want; there are limits to our public discourse. But at the same time, we must wrestle with the question of who establishes the boundaries? In his vision of the ideal polity, Plato thought that state-enacted censorship was a necessary feature of keeping his society intact, yet such power begs the familiar maxim, quis custodiet ipsos custodes (“who will guard the guardians?”).
The answer in a democracy must be We the People. Still, We the People can become a dangerous mob, easily swayed by bluster, and so we must be an educated, well-informed, critically-thinking We the People. Furthermore, across the political spectrum we have a tendency to ensconce ourselves in our respective echo chambers, hearing only those things that reinforce what we already hold true. We have, in a troubling way, forgotten the art of dialectic. We are losing our ability to discern what is true from what is not. And so the collaboration between the Onassis Cultural Center New York and BAM for Speaking Truth to Power is a small, but meaningful step in recovering what makes our democracy strong through ideas, images, conversations, performances, and debates. Just maybe, if we sit together long enough, listen to our neighbor, and see the beauty of our diverse faces, then perhaps we can begin to rediscover our shared humanity, become We the People once again, and speak truth to power.
Young Richard Kim, PhD, is Director of Educational Programs/Assistant Executive Director at the Onassis Foundation USA.