This morning while reading a book review by Howard Zinn from the late 1980’s (Plato: Fallen Idol, from The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, p.457) regarding a work in critique of Socrates and Plato’s writings by I.F. Stone which had been causing some controversy at the time (although, to be fair, _any_ critique of such a philosophical bastion is bound to stir up trouble in some academic circles, even now), I was reminded not only of my own past experiences discussing Plato and his treatment of Socrates at university, but also of something I found on the web last night, a dialogue of sorts (c/o Textism) between a ‘warmonger’ and a ‘peacenik’ debating the current crisis in Iraq.
Zinn, who admits in his introduction to his piece that he himself “had fun with Plato”, is quite candid in his appraisal of Stone’s near evisceration of the Socratic dialogues, in particular Crito — who, in the hands of Plato, is rendered helpless by Socrates’ apparently dazzling skills of argument — and the Apology, where Socrates proclaims that “[the] unexamined life is not worth living” yet goes on to mount an argument in defense of blind obedience to government. One of the stronger points made here is that the Socrates we know today is only the Socrates that Plato wanted us to know. Despite being his mentor, would it really have been beyond Plato to put his own words into Socrates’ mouth, for the sake of giving weight to his own beliefs? It’s not like Socrates would have known about it, having been dead long before many of Plato’s dialogues were composed.
While the Socratic dialogues are, for the most part, an entertaining read and certainly appear at face value to be what one might describe as potentially _deconstructionist_ — cutting through layers of rhetorical membrane to reach the meat of the matter — it must be said however that they are, at root, suspiciously loaded, one-sided arguments. The critic of Socrates is never really given a fair shake of the whip, as Plato gives his mentor the oratorical analogue of Muhammad Ali’s legendary ring skills, floating like a butterfly with a flurry of seemingly irrefutable statements that leave his opponent breathless, and stinging like a bee with his conclusions, delivering a knockout blow to his critic’s position. Looking more closely, it appears that every critical statement has been set up like a fly for Socrates to swat; here is Plato, not only putting words in the mouth of his mentor, but also those who would disagree with him.
Are the Socratic dialogues of great philosophical value, even in the present day? Of course they are; that much, as well as Plato’s lauded position in the annals of modern culture, is not disputed. But are they representative of the essence of true dialogue? No, not really.
Which brings me to A Warmonger Explains War to a Peacenik. Even that title alone tells you which direction this particular dialogue is headed. While it does, in fairness, make many valid points against the Iraqi incursion and the motivations behind it, highlighting in particular the continuing hypocricy of the American government, the bias of the format doesn’t do this position any favours. The ‘peacenik’ is obviously the same voice as the anonymous author of the piece; the points made by the ‘warmonger’ here are merely those that the ‘peacenik’ wants him to make. Whether these points have been made before by various people in actual dialogue is irrevelant: the fact is that _here_, in _this_ case, the opposition hasn’t really been given a chance to defend itself, nor on the other hand be defeated convincingly. The most that this dialogue achieves, if it achieves anything, is an accurate sense of the anti-war leftists’ exacerbation in the face of the (predominantly American) pro-war lobby’s almost labyrinthine contrariness.
The big mistake the author makes here is in closing off the discussion with a flippant remark about the prevaling climate of anti-French sentiment, and a final quip of “I give up!”. First of all, the bold-faced racism displayed by the (again, mostly American) backlash against France and everything French is much more significant than such a treatment gives credit for — in fact, it is symptomatic of the general American lowest-common-denominator attitute towards foreign cultures, even within its own borders, which is undoubtedly a driving force behind support for the conflict. Secondly, _why give up?_ To shrug your shoulders and throw your hands up in frustration while simultaneously giving a knowing wink for sympathy for your cause is not just glib, but arrogant.
Until both sides of the divide can sit down and truly argue on equal terms, ‘dialogues’ such as this are pretty much meaningless. Not that I don’t agree with the sentiment — the pro-war lobby is in serious need of a good dressing-down — but when you put words into people’s mouths, _especially_ those on the right, it merely serves to reinforce their self-righteous indignation. As a rehearsal for the real thing it might be good exercise, but no fight has been won here; this is nothing more than boxing with shadows.