A Call to Arms

Dear Fellow Sortitionist: I urge you to join me in a letter writing campaign intended to raise public awareness here in the U.S.

I’ve written to the director of the Metropolitan Museum (in New York), requesting that the Greek wing host an exhibition on the subject of Athenian democracy. The letter is heartfelt but I am an unknown individual possessing no social or institutional connections – neither a donor, a scholar, or a socialite – I doubt very much that my missive will ever even make it past his secretary. But what if the director were to receive a dozen (or a hundred) similar letters? I think then his assistant would undoubtedly take notice and the director would most certainly give the idea serious consideration. Hence, my plea to the sortition community for a joint assault on the director’s inbox

To directly challenge someone’s mainstream political views (as sortitionists are wont to do) is usually an exercise in futility. But to question them indirectly, by contemplating the example of an exotic, ancient system of government, may just leave some wiggle room for the adjustment of hard held habitual beliefs. That’s the hope anyhow. The museum patron enters the exhibit as a die hard supporter of the 21’st Century “Democratic” status quo and exits harboring some well informed doubts. A sortition partisan in the making… This is what I would hope for anyhow, and so long as sortition remains unknown here in the U.S. activist projects such as this will remain the main focus of my energy.

I am of the opinion that the window available for the modification of our political systems may well be closing. As the climate crisis accelerates and the temperate nations are inundated with refugees I fear that a nativist backlash will likely end in monolithic fascism; leaving zero room for well intentioned citizen input. Thus it is with a great sense of urgency that I contemplate any and all activist projects; this being the one currently on my mind, although I’d certainly love to here what other activist ideas may be on your mind.

For now my letter (text below) remains unmailed, sitting patiently on my desk. I will wait to see how many of my fellow sortitionists decide to join me in this endeavor. Then when the moment is right I hope that we can all apply stamps in unison and deposit our letters in the post box simultaneously.

Here is the address for the CEO, the Director and the deputy director for exhibitions at the Met:

The Metropolitan Museum
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028.

Max HolleinDan WeissQuincy Houghton
Max Hollein, Director, Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO, Quincy Houghton, Deputy Director for Exhibitions

Below is the text of the letter I intend to send. I’m not interested in putting words in your mouth and imagine that your letter would be entirely different. In fact, I would hope to save all the letters and in the event that we are successful a compilation of these letters might be distributed at the exhibit.

Dear Director,

As a prominent steward of our society’s collective cultural memory, you hold a position of grave intellectual responsibility. Ideas, like other human artifacts, must be curated & tended. Citizens go to the Metropolitan mainly seeking entertainment I suspect, but hopefully they also come away with food for thought. Ideally you plant the seeds of a conversation that will play itself out in a variety of venues and ultimately have some real impact on our culture’s future. The past informs the present; you are a major architect of this ongoing dialogue.  It is with this institutional mission in mind that I implore you to make the Greek wing the focus of one such exploration.

I don’t know how familiar you are with classical Athenian political institutions but you surely realize that the originators of “Democracy” held a conception very different from our modern understanding of the word. The differences were profound, and to contemplate them seriously today is a provocative exercise. Such reflection suggests any number of likely improvements to our contemporary institutions. Alterations which might even make our Western governments more responsive to the pressing concerns of our unique era. A timely dialogue indeed.

Fortunately, this subject isn’t purely abstract. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be writing to you. There are significant artifacts in bronze, porcelain and stone which accompanied the Greek political practices. A few examples may already exist in your collection but most remain, quite properly, in Athens – at the museum of the Ancient Agora. I doubt they’ve ever travelled to New York before but after a 2500 year residence in their Mediterranean home I think it may be time for this ancient technology to take a trip. If the U.S. wishes to be a great modern exporter of Democracy perhaps we need to finally examine the origin of this word. These implements were the original embodiment of the concept. Perhaps, bringing them to the Metropolitan might help to initiate a renaissance in our conception of the word.

I urge you to contemplate the curation of a special exhibit on the subject of Athenian Democracy. I cannot imagine a more timely or important exercise for the Metropolitan.


Paul Rosenfeld

5 Responses

  1. An interesting idea! Perhaps the impact would be greater if it were a single letter with a number of signatories? The letter itself is a good start, but could use redrafting – I may be able to have a crack at it over the weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not opposed to a single letter with multiple signatories. I guess we have to see how many wish to participate and what the consensus is. I think it should also go without saying that overseas signatories are very much welcome. I hope the Met will succumb to international pressure.


  3. Hi Paul,

    Thank you very much for putting in the thought and effort into finding a way to promote sortition. We need more of this.

    I am very much in favor of letter writing campaigns as well as other coordinated action. Unfortunately, in previous attempts we haven’t had much success in organizing such activity – but obviously things may change. For one thing we didn’t have you, Paul, on board then.

    Regarding multiple individually-signed letters vs. a single letter with multiple signatures: we can try both kinds. The advantage of the former is that it saves a lot of effort on refining the wording in an attempts to reach an agreed-upon version. This seems like a major advantage to me, but if it somehow turns out that a single letter is more effective maybe it would justify the added effort.

    The notion of an indirect message is certainly interesting. Specifically, however, I am not sure that an Athenian democracy exhibit would be particularly effective. First, museum exhibits tend to be attended by elite audiences and this is not our natural audience. Second, more importantly, it is very likely that the central role of sortition would be severely downplayed, as it is almost always is by historians. Instead, as always, much hay would be made of the Assembly and the rotating one-day-term office of the president.

    Of course, writing a letter is a very low effort act so we might as well give it a shot.

    But if we are willing to put in some effort (and I know, Paul, that you are) I believe we should give much thought to other potential avenues of action: maybe creating memes, videos, audio recordings? Maybe distributing through social networks existing pieces of media? Should the content focus on sortition, or maybe it would be more effective to simply undermine the idea that elections are democratic?


  4. I hear what you’re saying about the “elite”, but still I’ve always imagined there should also be allies there. Weren’t the French and Russian Revolutions both led by educated members of the property owning classes? However you’re probably right, not our natural audience. And no doubt the Assembly would steal the show as you suggest.

    Yes social media is probably the way to go. Other messages & mediums may hold more promise. Clearly the EBL audience isn’t interested in this sort of thing.

    So far as undermining messages go. Here in the U.S. I think that the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s are both ripe for the plucking. I will try to locate some sources. Possibly material for a podcast?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that BOTH individual and group letters are worth a try. Both can be initially dismissed by many readers for contradictory reasons. The solo letter is obviously a crackpot who lives alone in a cabin in the woods, while a group letter is obviously an organized cult. I have heard that repetition is the key to persuasion… the availability bias… “Yeah, I’ve heard something about that before.”

    Liked by 2 people

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