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A Bookish Post-Debate Strategy from Aristophanes

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Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

It’s been a long year. Now, in the wake of the last logic-straining, sanity-testing debate, we’ve got a moment to breathe and test last strategies for stopping this before it advances farther.

There’s voting, of course. With one candidate proposing an American future that makes Margaret Atwood’s Republic of Gilead look cozy, that, in and of itself, has never been more important. In T-minus a few weeks, if those of us not alarmed by the rhetorical throwbacks to darker times don’t come out in greater numbers than those who casually flirt with bombastic and violent potential leadership, well—shall I list the dystopian novels haunting our dreams? Or may I, dear fellow readers, address you “in beneficial, candid, patriotic accents”?

We are people who read beyond columns in the ballot box, and we know that this resurgence of ugly rhetoric won’t just dissipate when (here’s hoping) we elect our first woman president on November 8th. This wave of ugliness is something that we’ll have to beat away, steadily, with determination, even then. We’re embattled in a more lasting way now—those of us who understand that speaking against immigrants, those of other faiths, women, and hurting populations is not okay.

I’ve been reminded of Aristophanes a lot of late. We have definitely endured “sufficient hell” this season. Can we force those wrapped up in it to negotiate a peace? The Greek playwright thought maybe, and posited a plan, way back in 411 BCE, that—though he meant it satirically–we may as well try. Last resorts and all. Let’s do John Waters one better, and take Lysistrata‘s pledge:

I will withhold all rights of access or entrance

From every husband, lover, or casual acquaintance
Who moves in my direction…

We’ll have to amend the conditions some, of course–taking into consideration the allies who fight with us; stripping the gendered language away. Really, the gulf we have to negotiate is that between us—those who live with richer literary lines than “she’s a nasty woman” running through our minds, those who’ve had enough of the flimsy rhetoric–and those who somehow find him and his words palatable.

This is a readerly principle, really it is. As the Atlantic said in its endorsement, the candidate on the right, among his other sins, appears not to read; and a lack of literary prowess in general makes our electorate too reckless. Waters notoriously proposed “withholding rights of access” for the sin of not owning a book; I don’t count Rand, really; so why not take it to the next logical, stageworthy step?  What we’re hearing sets off bells—we can dive to history books and speculative fiction to clarify the warning.

Maybe Aristophanes is the solution.

Just being blunt with each other: you’re probably tempted to practice this selective withholding anyway, yeah? Could you really sit across the dinner table from someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” tee right now, who thinks that the Times is trash, but Alex Jones gets it right sometimes!, and manage to keep your dinner down? I think probably not. You’ll take a little classical literature over that companionship any day, right?

So lets do it with style. Let’s freeze out the goons. Let’s go full Athenian strongperson. Lets drop some ancient Greek theatre wisdom on their asses. No access to our “fruited plains” (that’s straight from Aristophanes himself; I’m reading the pun as prophetic).

There’s a tendency to get complacent after a major win—and in a year that’s been no easier on women than anyone else, a woman president will certainly be a win. It’ll balm these wounds, for a moment, but we should still heed the Lysistrata warning, to take care, and be sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.

The language, the bluster, and the instigations from the right’s candidate have moved us all very near to an awful precipice, and if we manage to skirt the edge, well—just don’t break the sexy-bread with the ones who entertained him too soon.