I had a dream...of a philosopher-king

Mary Grabar
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Posted: Jan 21, 2007 10:20 AM
I had a dream...of a philosopher-king

I dreamed I would become a celebrity. I would no longer be an assistant-adjunct-temporary-part-time instructor of English. Instead of searching for a chair in an office that doubled as storage area for cast-off furniture, I would have a safe chair in a dressing room, a hairdresser, a make-up artist, a publicist, and Little Debbie chocolate peanut-butter wafers at the snap of a finger. Instead of being surrounded by stoop-shouldered word workers who trudged in like ink-stained Oakies, I would be surrounded by beautiful Botox-ed, liposuctioned people.

How would I get to become a celebrity?

Well, I would have to think of new ways because the old ways--being born into a super-rich family, posing for Playboy, having sex with the right men, having sex with women, getting busted for drugs--had all been used up.

I wanted to be a celebrity and not an assistant-adjunct-temporary-part-time instructor.

After all, here I was with a Ph.D. that I had worked long and hard for, and Paris Hilton who didn’t know how to read instructions on loading a dishwasher was more famous than I. So I decided to capitalize on my uniqueness. After surveying college students for years, I realized that very few people have read Plato.

"Play-doh?" they’d say, eyes glazing because I was not getting into a heated debate on gender, race, and class.

"No, no," I’d say. "The great philosopher, the scribe of Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living, who introduced the Socratic method, dialectic, who was condemned to death because he challenged the prejudices of a people living in a popular democracy. And in The Republic, the dialogue on justice, where he introduced the idea of philosopher-kings…"

The snoring was drowning out my enthusiastic rendition, so I had to end it there and divide the class up into 'groups' where they could entertain each other with their own brilliant insights and witticisms.

After having such experiences over the years, I became dejected. But then I observed that it is not really what one does or knows that gets one attention. I thought of changing my last name to Marriott and having a reality program where I would go around to college campuses and grade papers of other professors’ classes. I thought my grading calculus papers or engaging in a discussion on nuclear physics would make for interesting viewing, but I couldn’t get past the intern at the major production studios.

So, I decided to take out the meager funds in my IRA for a retainer for a publicist. I told the exquisitely coiffed and fashionably attired 22-year-old what I wanted: "Tell the world that I have read Plato’s dialogues."

"Who?" she said, looking up from her Blackberry.

"Plato," I said, "the great philosopher."

"What is philosophy?"

"The love of wisdom for its own sake. Listen, it’s now or never. I’ve got to spread the word. I’ve got $3,000 here."

I showed her the cash.

She booked me onto the late night talk show of our local access television station. I was to debate another Ph.D. in English, someone who had made a name for himself by completely deconstructing Western rational discourse. He was now endowed professor of Humane Studies and Animal Linguistics at the big university in downtown Atlanta. He had just had a book come out: Animals Speak: The Deconstruction of Species-ism and Logocentrism, and Towards the Primal Utterance on the Way to Peace, Love, and Harmony.

I was excited about my big break, even though it meant staying up past my bedtime.

On the big night, I was let into the station by the security guard.

My interlocutor arrived shortly afterwards.

To my horror, it was a former professor I had had for a seminar on T.S. Eliot! Back in the early 1990s he had been reading the class his book manuscript in which he brilliantly revealed T.S. Eliot to be a Christian and a firm believer in the value of the Western heritage, and therefore bigoted, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and one of a long line of dead white men who was responsible for all the ills and injustices of the world. The graduate students had worshipped him. He was also popular because, in keeping with his rebellion against oppressive Western logic and linear thought, he allowed students to present papers in the form of patchwork quilts or even perform them to the accompaniment of bongo drums.

He and I had had some words in that class!

Now he was in the studio facing me, his hair and beard long, his ears pierced, a tattoo on his forehead of a hog with a knife across its throat and a 'no' circle with a diagonal slash imposed over it. He crossed one blue-jean-ed leg over the other, revealing one quite hairy knee. The tweed jacket, with a Che Guevara button on one lapel and a Hugo Chavez button on the other, opened to reveal a work shirt of the type my father, a welder, had worn. We recognized each other.

Our host, attired in a Jimmy Carter-style cardigan sweater with a John Kerry button, began his opening remarks.

"Tonight on Book Talk," he said, "we have something a little different. We are not having a white Southern lady novelist who writes about ‘mama and daddy and them’ spiced up with explicit sex scenes and ending happily with racial reconciliation. We are not having a Civil War historian who rehashes every last little battle and talks about racial reconciliation. We are not having an author discuss his glory days of the 1960s when he skipped school to march for racial reconciliation. We are not having a gay author who will write about coming out and racial reconciliation. We are not having an African-American writer who writes about how we still need racial reconciliation. Tonight, we are having a debate by two local college teachers. Tonight they are going to take us back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, student of Socrates, who recorded his ideas in the form of dialogues—"

He was interrupted. My former professor, Dr. Randy Renegadero, began in the manner I remembered from his classroom.

White foaming spit ran down the sides of his mouth with his opening salvo:

"I’ve seen your job applications, Mary. They’ve been coming into the office. I don’t know how anyone would think of giving you a Ph.D. Of course, you’d want to discuss Plato, especially The Republic, that blueprint for totalitarianism, probably what Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice read. Yeah, philosopher-kings! Fascists! King George! That’s who we have! Show me the weapons of mass destruction! Why it’s those like you, Mary, and networks like Fox News that spread the propaganda—"

"Um, if I may--"

Seeing that it was not I who was speaking, Dr. Renegadero stopped.

"With all respect, Dr. Renegadero," continued the host, "I had some opening questions and would like to give Dr. Grabar a chance—"

"Dr.! Who gave her that Ph.D.?"

"Please," said our host. "Dr. Grabar."

"Well," I responded, "I think that’s a big misconception about The Republic. In the literature, the claim is often made that Plato was advocating a totalitarian government. But my understanding is that the dialogue is not to be taken literally. Rather, the philosopher-king is the reluctant ruler, motivated not by ego or personal gain. His motivation is the love of wisdom and justice. These ideas, indeed, form the basis for our republican form of government, in contrast to a popular democracy ruled by the masses. You may recall Thrasymachus—"

Randy Renegadero was now at the edge of his seat.

"I knew she was a Republican! Of course, she would be for philosophy, the notion that there is a truth. We all know that the truth is the truth of the ruling class, the Western imperialistic hegemony. Yeah, whose ‘truth’? (He was making scare quotes with his fingers .) It’s the truth of white men! It’s not the truth of those of color! It’s not the truth of women! It’s not the truth of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendereds!"

He was shouting now and standing up.

"Whose truth? I’ll tell you! The truth of the ruling classes, the oppressors, the species-ists, the meat-eaters, those who believe that because of this thing they call ‘reason’ that they are superior to our fellow species. This is another holocaust, I tell you!"

At this, he reached into the pocket of his tweed jacket.

The security guard was stirring in his sleep and the dreadlocked cameraman was bestirred enough to extinguish his joint.

Our host looked nervous. "Please, professor—"

The spit in the form of white foam was now trickling down Dr. Renegadero’s beard.

"I’ll tell you what those like Dr. Grabar do to our planet!"

Dr. Renegadero held up what he had in his hand.

I saw that it was a good-sized chunk of ground meat.

"See, this is what you logo-centric purveyors of Western phallic ‘truth’ promote!"

I opened my mouth to object but soon got my first taste of beef tartar.

Dr. Renegadera hovered over me, spitting, "I refuse to engage in your mode of discourse based as it is on Western notions of oppression!"

And with that he rushed past the security guard who was yawning and struggling to get his gun out of his holster. The fiery professor slammed his entire body against the door and set off the security alarm.

It was all caught on tape, live, for the 153 viewers at 1:00 a.m.

Dr. Renegadero, as a result of his appearance, received numerous job offers from Ivy League universities, but decided to join his much-admired colleague, Dr. Cornell West, at Princeton, where he is now collaborating on a rap album that includes the grunts of liberated Holsteins and Herefords.

I received my own notoriety and fame and made appearances on "The Big Idea," "The View," and "Larry King Live." But I knew that I had really, really made it, when I was invited on Oprah.

On the appointed day, Oprah greeted me with a big, long hug. I was a solo guest, since no other conservative English professor could be found. I was under the bright lights with an adoring audience. Oprah literally beamed rays of healing and warmth over me. She made me so comfortable.

"So, Professor Grabar, tell us about your experience."

I began by recounting my days as student of Dr. Renegadero.

Oprah, from her side of the couch kept nodding and said, "It’s okay. It’s okay."

I continued with how he had spread the word about my political views to all the hiring committees in the university system of the state of Georgia so that I could not rise above assistant-adjunct-temporary-part-time instructor. Bravely, I told what had happened in those wee morning hours in a one-room television studio in a cinder block building in DeKalb County, Georgia.

It was quite an emotional experience, but I was also excited about the possibility of educating, from Oprah’s couch, a nation of young mothers, retirees, and anyone waiting for a tire rotation about Plato.

"You see, Plato’s idea of philosopher-kings was not as literal kings as we know them, who rule by virtue of lineage, like being female and wife of a former president or being a half-black male, but as leaders who are motivated by their love of the logos and justice. They are gentlemen and gentle ladies who do not engage in crass displays of power, such as flexing their biceps for the ignorant, adoring masses, after gaining a position—like Speaker of the House. They do not pander to voters by giving preferential treatment to certain races. They apply laws equally—even to those who sneak over the borders—"

Oprah took my hand in hers, stopping my enthusiastic lecture. She gave me a very understanding, soulful look.

"I understand your pain, Dr. Grabar. Now tell us: what did it feel like to be hit in the face with a pound of hamburger?"

That’s when I started to cry and woke up from my dream.