I think it was Pericles who defined an "idiot" in Athens as a man who chose to get rich and completely stay out of politics. "A man who minds his own business,” said Pericles, a guy who whose fave beanie was a steel Athenian hoplite helmet, "has no business here at all.” But if just about everything we do online is now public, minding your own business becomes everybody’s business. Which means everything we do is political.
For a while in Western democracies not talking about politics, or only talking about it in politically correct platitudes, seemed to be the norm. There may be a one-day pressure valve built in every 3-5 years for citizens to tick a few boxes and flip a binary switch that decides who controls the governing apparatus for the next quarter-to-half decade. But outside of the news and talk radio, political opinions are taboo on TV, on first dates, and in school outside of civics classes.
Not this time.
For a few days after the election, it seemed everyone had a stump speech. Even Shaq and his ESPN colleagues decided to spend more time telling sports fans how to react to the election than that Wednesday's games. One guy even brought Jesus into it. Weeks later and pretty much every other post on my news feed is still politically motivated.
And yet in ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, not shutting up about politics was the norm. After all, their system of government evolved out of the marketplace, where you couldn't get a mouthful of dolmas any time of year without an earful of rhetoric from the shopkeep to go with it. But to an Athenian, the opposite would have seemed weirder. How can you not talk about something that affects every moment of your life?
Which is why in Athens, the guy who 'didn't have an opinion' was the crazy one: Anyone who had 'no comment' was guilty of either lying or 'no thinking'.
Athens was hardly perfect, but nowhere is. But even though it was a state with slaves where only white men with land could vote, the excuse that 'your vote won't be counted' wasn't good enough. It just meant it was your job to get involved in other ways.
Because to an Athenian, every part of public life had political implications, just as it does today. And anyone who chose not to get involved was choosing to let other people run their lives. It's not just who you vote for, but who you buy, read, listen to or watch. It's who you give your attention and money to. Politics is already part of everything from the regulations that govern the plastic you use to the lack thereof governing the bank accounts you keep your money in. Which is why 'keeping politics out of life' isn't virtuous, it's idiotic.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you should take the streets in an Athenian-style mob riot, either. Most of us suck at standing up to water hoses, tear gas and rubber bullets. Plus, with fragmented media and all the other concerns of modern life, we can neither sustain nor truly impact things through the picket lines. It's time instead to get creative about applying what we are good at to making the changes we want. Whether it’s societal or individual, bad habits aren’t corrected by gestures alone, but through a process of sustained incremental advancements that add up over time. More to come.