When There Is No Normal

Victor Davis Hanson // National Review

One of the ancient and modern critiques of democracy is that radicals destroy norms for short-term political gain, norms that they themselves often later seek as refuge.

Schadenfreude, irony, paradox, and karma are various descriptions of what happens to revolutionaries, and unfortunately the innocent, who suffer their collateral damage when radicals of any stripe use any means necessary to achieve supposedly exalted ends.

Three of the most moving — and terrifying — passages in Greek literature involve such ironic payback. In the third book of Thucydides’ history, the historian relates a murderous civil war (stasis) between oligarchs and democrats on the island of Corcyra (modern Corfu). He laments how morals and laws are destroyed in a cycle of madness, all to achieve short-term gain while depriving both parties of sanctuary when the tide one day turns against them.

When extremism becomes normal, there is no prior normal. In his fifth book, Thucydides describes the destruction of the small island city-state of Melos, in a riveting dialogue between the Athenian invaders and the Melian defenders. After concluding his account with the Athenians’ destruction of Melos, Thucydides immediately, in books six and seven, describes the Athenian catastrophe on Sicily, in which the invading and soon-to-be-trapped Athenians play a similar role to that of the doomed Melians, and the victorious Sicilians are no more magnanimous to the defeated than were the once-victorious Athenians.

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