The Thrasymachus Paradox: How An Honorary Doctorate Can Cause Embarrassment

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During the weekly national broadcast before his trip to France, Rafael Correa made as if he’d lost count of the number of honorary doctorates that he’s collected. “How many do I have?” he enquired of his assistants, with his characteristic sour smile, “Thirteen, fourteen?” Of all the characters he has played, this is the least plausible. Because, let’s see: how does a president, in eight years, obtain twice the number of honorary titles awarded to Albert Einstein in his entire life? The answer is simple: through concerted effort and focus. And surely, anyone who attaches this much importance to such a vacuous task will at least keep track of the results.

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It seems that the diplomatic corps is responsible for obtaining titles for the President. Someday, when this is over, we will know of the petty and comic backstage antics involved in this race of leverage and lobbying. Oh, yes, we will know. And on that day, certain people will hang their heads in shame, including several deans and university presidents. It is pathetic, `to say the least, to imagine dozens of Ecuadorian consuls and ambassadors lobbying universities worldwide to feed the fatuity of their chief. We have seen the President writhe with smugness with each new title, boasting and bragging, poor thing, swaggering and swelling with conceit whenever there is a new addition to his doctorate collection. And he wants us to believe that he doesn’t know how many he has? Please! Like the child who knows the exact number of stickers he needs to complete the album, or the porn actor who knows to the exact millimeter the dimension of his work tool, the President can surely list, one by one, each title won for the greater glory of the revolution.

Upon his return from France, Correa proudly showed off his new mortarboard. So French he was. The producers of the broadcast even used the Montmartre organ-grinder’s version of the French classic Sous le ciel de Paris as background music: such cliché. He only lacked a beret and a baguette under his arm. Of course, he elaborated on the details of his new endowment: “I said, there will be about forty people. Who’s going to pay attention to the President of Ecuador in Lyon, France? And the truth is that the auditorium was full.” It’s that one thing is one thing and another thing is another thing. One thing is Ecuador, which does not summon an audience; another is Rafael Correa, whose voice fills stadiums. “It just shows how we are thought of abroad.” That is, how he is thought of. When the President does not speak of himself in the third person singular, like Napoleon, he uses the first person plural, like the Pope. Only when speaking of the State does he say ‘I’.

Thirteen honorary degrees (or is it fourteen?) is a record, but not worldwide. It is still far from the thirty-something of King Juan Carlos and, even worse, from the 66 awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa. In the case of a good-for-nothing Peruvian writer, this last figure has to hurt. Especially when you consider that Vargas Llosa’s total includes degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Yale, Georgetown, King’s College and New York University; in short, some of the best universities in the world, immune to the lobbying of consuls and ambassadors. Clearly, for Correa: unattainable.

The President did achieve one thing in Paris to put him at the same level as Vargas Llosa: he was interviewed by Le Monde. However, during his subsequent public broadcast, he spoke as if the publication stinks like shit, because not even the world’s best evening newspaper can attain the dizzy heights of an academic with multiple doctorates. If he deigned to give the interview, he explained whilst pretending to laugh, bitter and pedantic, it was only “to see what they publish.” Some barbarity, no doubt. After all, there must be something wrong with a newspaper that criticizes us, or rather, criticizes him. The ‘something wrong’ is, of course, its owner. You have to hear the President speak of Pierre Bergé, the French industrialist, patron, publisher and activist who heads up the investment group which bought Le Monde five years ago. Correa dispatched Bergé in less than twenty seconds, but those twenty seconds were not wasted. Twenty seconds during which every inflection, every gesture and, of course, every word uttered by the President were the ultimate expression of arrogance, ignorance and prejudice from an honorary doctor.

Correa said, “Well, Le Monde changed owners. Now it’s a fashion designer who was a partner, in quotation marks, of Yves Saint Laurent, a guy responsible for information technology and digital media, who started out in pornography and an investment bank.” He loaded the words ‘fashion designer’ and, especially, ‘Yves Saint Laurent’, with a huge amount of disdain, as if speaking of a pointless and futile activity, of any old z-list celebrity. A cultural byproduct, so to speak. Someone, of course, far below his intellectual stature and statesmanlike demeanor.

In 1961 Pierre Bergé was a founding partner of the emporium Yves Saint Laurent Couture House, one of the firms that transformed contemporary popular culture and gave substance to the new phenomenon of individual and collective expression, discussed in Lipovetsky’s The Empire of Fashion; a phenomenon of which Correa clearly has not the faintest idea. But more than a business partner, Bergé was Saint Laurent’s lover and romantic partner for decades. In other words, “partner in quotes” wink wink hahaha. Furthermore, throughout his life, Bergé has been one of the most prominent activists for gay rights in France. And not only that, he is a cultural institution in his country: the Director of the Théâtre de l’Athénée, where he has produced works by Peter Schaffer, Marguerite Duras, Peter Brook, John Cage and Philip Glass; and President of the Bastille Opera and the Jean Cocteau Committee. A friend and contemporary of Cocteau (who bequeathed to him the rights to his work), as well as Aragon, Camus, Sartre, Breton … authors whose works the President surely has not read but perhaps has heard of and, yes, they are important. That is Pierre Bergé, the main shareholder of Le Monde, the couturier who started in pornography, according to the President. Someone should beg him to consult Wikipedia before talking such bullshit. Someone should teach him a fact that he hasn’t noticed during his many visits to France: that French culture is not confined to the organ of Montmartre.

All this to tell us, “dear young ones” that we must always look at who owns a newspaper before deciding how much credibility to grant it. “The moment journalists discover that the owner of the newspaper has evaded taxes, let’s see if he allows them to tell of it. He will let them, provided it does not affect the system, make no mistake.”

Is he referring to Le Monde and its owner, the banker and pornographer? Yes, of course. But the President ignores what happened just last February: after a rigorous journalistic investigation, Le Monde began publishing the names of rich and famous people who had evaded taxes through fraudulent transactions with the Swiss subsidiary of the British bank HSBC. Bergé and the other shareholders of the newspaper, bankers, yes, and multimillionaires too, felt threatened and screamed bloody murder. They came out of it looking pretty bad. Bergé went so far as to declare, referring to the journalists of Le Monde: “It is not for this that I allowed them to retain their independence.” And what happened? Le Monde’s editorial defended its position and the newspaper continued to publish the lists. Because when a team of journalists has clear responsibilities, even when their boss is a banker, issues of public interest are ultimately resolved in the public eye. Bergé was wrong: it was France, not he, who granted independence to Le Monde. And that independence, it was shown, is not negotiable. Even if Le Monde’s independence were a gift from Bergé, that gift, once converted into law and recognized by the public, can turn against him.

This is precisely the great lesson that Thrasymachus learned from Socrates.
Correa spoke of Thrasymachus in Paris. Rather, he quoted him. A man of quotes, is the President; he loves to fill himself with them. An orator who likes to feign erudition. An academic who thrives on sabidurías.com or similar sites. With Thrasymachus’ most famous phrase (perhaps the only one) the President closed his keynote speech at the climate summit.

He said: “As Thrasymachus said more than 2000 years ago in his dialogue with Socrates,” here, he puffed out his chest and assumed the serious demeanor of an honorary doctor, “justice is only the advantage of the stronger.” Posing for his bronze statue. Leave aside the fact that, spoken by him and looking at the performance of Ecuador’s courts, the Greek phrase seems more an action plan for the Judicial Council than an analysis of the balance of forces in the world. Let’s focus on Thrasymachus. If, instead of looking for inspirational quotes on the internet, the President had actually read Plato’s Republic, he would know that Socrates destroys this theory and he would refrain from quoting it. The majority of Plato’s dialogues cover exactly this topic: Socrates educating his contemporaries. In this case, what Socrates demonstrates to Thrasymachus is that when the will of the strongest becomes law and is accepted by the people, sooner or later the strongest end up being harmed.

If Correa was a statesman, he, who has bent justice to the expression of his will from the moment he got his hands on it, would seriously reflect on these words of Socrates, rather than conceitedly quoting Thrasymachus. Of course, this is not possible. For starters, if he were a statesman, the president would not go around the world leveraging honorary titles, spreading his folly on both sides of the Atlantic.

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