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What Ostracism Really Means

Saturday, February 2, 2013

It's a little embarrassing, but I only recently learned what ostracism is. Or used  to be.

Ostracism (Greek ὀστρακισμός, ostrakismos) was a formal political practice, in ancient Athens, by which citizens of the city-state would in essence hold a referendum on who was the biggest jerk in town. It was a democratic system for excluding someone from a social group by means of ballotized rejection.

The yearly ostacism would be kicked off in the Athenian assembly. The question was put in the sixth of the ten months used for state business under the democracy (January or February in the modern Gregorian Calendar).  If the assembly voted "yes", an ostracism
(involving participation by all interested citizens in Athens) would be held two months later, in roped-off sections of the agora. 

Voting tokens from ancient Athens.
The word ostracism is derived from ostraka (singular ostrakon , ὄστρακον), which refers to the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens. Broken pottery was, of course, abundant and could be used as a kind of scrap paper. (Papyrus from Egypt was far too rare and costly to be used in a disposable way.)

Athenians would scratch the name of any citizen they wished to expel on pottery shards and deposit them in urns. Officials would count the ostraka thus submitted and sort the names into separate piles. The person whose pile contained the most ostraka (the unfortunate "winner") would be banished from Athens for ten years, providing at least 6,000 votes were cast. There was no formal charge, and no defense could be mounted by the person expelled

There is evidence that ostracism was often imposed on unpopular politicians. In one anecdote about Aristides the Just (who was ostracised in 482), an illiterate citizen who did not recognize Aristides in person came up to ask him to write the name "Aristides" on his ostrakon. When Aristides asked why, the man replied it was because he was sick of hearing him being called "the Just."

Perhaps the time has come to institute ostracism once again, starting in America's one and only true city-state, Washington D.C. It would be interesting to know who would get the boot. A Supreme Court judge? A Senator? A cabinet official? Somebody higher?

I say we run the experiment, using Washington as a pilot program, with the idea of rolling it out nationwide if it proves a popular success. Then it could be scaled horizontally to include more than one jerk per city. They could all be rounded up and sent to Afghanistan, where they belong.

1 comment

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