In defense of second place

His nickname was Beta, because he wasn’t the best at anything, but he was just under No. 1 in a lot of things ordinary people thought were unrelated.

He was born in 276 BCE in Cyrene in modern-day Libya and led a life of intellectual pursuit and contemplation, culminating in being named chief librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Before that, he was a widely read poet and historian.  His list of achievements while at Alexandria was impressive, to say the least.  Among them are:

  • Wrote  a three volume work in which he described in detail all of the known world, and in the process invented geography, which, not surprisingly, was the title of the work.
  • Calculated the circumference of the sun, and its distance from the earth.
  • Did the same for the moon.
  • Not to mention the circumference of the earth while he was at it, which, contrary to what you may hear on Columbus Day, he knew was roughly spherical.
  • Devised a method of finding prime numbers.

There are more achievements, but since we’re talking about second best, it seems inappropriate to continue.

The man whose very nickname was “second place” was Eratosthenes of Cyrene who lived from 276 bce to 195 bce.

By today’s ludicrous number-one-or-nothing standards, he was a miserable failure.

Egypt’s lesson for America

The term of President Mohamed Mursi ended abruptly Wednesday, as the Egyptian army took control, arrested him, and declared his government over.  A coup, in plain words, toppling the country’s first democratically elected president from power.  We should be outraged.

Or should we?  Mursi’s missteps, succinctly recounted in this Reuters article, seemed to almost ensure his demise, but incompetence, even recalcitrance, alone doesn’t justify annulling a popular election.  What doomed his regime, and what, to me, provided reasonable cause for his removal, was his November 22 hijacking of the constitutional assembly process.  On that day, he assumed for himself emergency powers, by which any and all oversight of the assembly, previously packed with his Muslim Brotherhood compatriots, was crushed.  This included any discussion of the packing itself.

When the assembly predictably returned a constitution leaning heavily toward Islamist principles, the public rebelled, and took to the streets once again.  Mursi’s response: quell the demonstrations, force an early referendum, before the opposition had a chance to organize itself, and ram the new constitution through.  Every move after that was right and proper, according to the new constitution, but if the constitution itself is suspect, such legality is moot.

Mursi’s victory was on the slimmest of margins, and was largely the result of the disunity of the opposition.  As it was, he was forced into a runoff against Ahmed Shafik, who was arguably handicapped by having been Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarek.  Shafik still managed 48.3% of the vote.

This is the crux: having won by a small margin, Mursi proceeded to rule as if he had a crushing mandate, assuming emergency powers when conventional channels disfavored him, and thoroughly ignoring any of the concerns of the opposition, accusing them instead of subversion.  No compromise.

So, the burning question is, is democracy simple majoritarianism?  We hear a lot about majority rule with regard to democracy, but is that all there is to it?  In the United States, the constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, declares otherwise.  The very concept of rights quite bluntly limits the power of the majority to enforce its will, and protects minorities from its ill will, right down to the individual.  I use the term “minority” here in its strict sense, not the political sense of identifiable interest group.

But on a subtler level, the implication is that the interests of such minorities must be taken into consideration by the leaders elected by the majority, even when swept into office by groundswell.  Still more, when the margin of majority is as thin as spring ice.

Which brings us to the infamous gridlock of American politics.  It is grounded on the idea that, in a democracy, the winner takes all, that it is unnecessary, even irresponsible, to compromise with the losers.

We seem to have a lot of Mursis in American politics these days.  Let’s take Egypt’s fate as an object lesson, and avoid that treacherous path.



In Egypt, where almost everything we know, love and hate first began, there is a place called Gizeh, “by the high place, ” in Arabic.  Here is where Khufu, son of Seneferu,  of the fourth dynasty of kings of  Kemet, built his tomb.  It was strong and precise, to serve as the home of Khufu, who was Horus while living, and would be Osiris afterwards.  People counted on him to be their emissary from the land of the living to the vast and brooding underworld, at least until the next king died.

The living and breathing land of Kemet, the Dark Earth, was but metaphor for the cosmic truth of creation, power, betrayal and redemption that was the real world.  Well, not redemption, exactly; more like accommodation.  Those Egyptians were practical, if anything.  But that story, of sibling rivalry and savage butchery, along with countless others of conspiracy, duplicity and ultimate justice, is for another time.  Suffice it to say that in the Egyptian version of eternal truth, when power and glory clash with pragmatism, it’s pragmatism every time.

But this is a personal story, my story.  Some years ago, I visited Khufu’s pyramid with a group I was supposed to teach something to.  We were allowed inside, and climbed to the so-called king’s chamber.  I say so-called, because in spite of elaborate steps to safeguard the room, and the presence of a granite sarcophagus therein, Khufu was really buried in a secret chamber deep below.  To no avail, as it turned out, as the tomb was robbed almost immediately.  Have I mentioned the Egyptians were pragmatic folk?

It’s a bit unnerving, deep inside a hole burrowed into six million tons of limestone.  If you look up to the ceiling of the chamber, you see a great crack extending through the rock from one side to the other.  I wouldn’t call it worrying, but it’s not reassuring, either.  Our group leader announced that he had arranged for the modern electric lights and ventilation system to be turned off for a few minutes, to allow us to fully savor the experience.  He asked us to lie down on the floor, or sit if we preferred; he then donned his nemes ( the royal headwear), grabbed his crook and staff, and lay down inside the sarcophagus.  Don’t ask.

The lights went out, and the hum of the great fans slowly stopped.  No one spoke;  I swear no one even breathed.  For – how long? – there was nothing, absolutely nothing.  I have never experienced such darkness and silence.  Then a remarkable thing happened.  Six million tons of enormous, closely fitted limestone blocks ceased to exist.  I felt liberated not only from the walls of stone, but the walls of flesh and bone that surrounded me.  My body and the vast, trackless universe merged.  The stars were invisible to me, of course, but I could feel them, and the long gamma scream of the great black holes, the ancient bones of galaxies.

Someone coughed.  The lights haltingly came back on, the ventilation fans scraped to life, and all that rock wearily resumed existence.