Crypteia for Our Age

Historians aren’t quite sure what the ancient Spartan krypteia was–perhaps a military training, a rite of passage, a secret police force. In all of these ways, it is what comes to mind as I read stories of Trumpian terrorism against immigrants.

One explanation of the krypteia was that those young Spartan men who had proved themselves exceptional in their military training where, each fall, given permission to murder and steal from the helots–the people who worked in agriculture. They were devalued, perhaps total slaves, perhaps occupying a position between slave and free person. Whatever their status during the rest of the year, during the krypteia, they were targets. Though they outnumbered the Spartans who ruled over them by large numbers, they were oppressed through violence. Spartan men who participated in the krypteia were encouraged to spy on them, then choose the strongest to kill.

The Spartans needed the helots to produce their food, but they feared their uprising.

And so, each year, the ritual of hunting and murdering the vulnerable, oppressed people that the Spartans themselves relied on, in an effort to control them through fear, happened.

It’s hard not to see the parallel in the US government’s raids on immigrant agriculture workers.

See the source image

There are many reasons for why our agricultural system looks as it does: We want a lot of meat. We want all our food cheap. Our nation was built, literally, by the work of enslaved people, toiling in fields, producing cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar, and other crops for white consumption. Since then, our domestic and foreign policies have been motivated by American eaters’ desires, from bananas to beef. And, always, we terrorize those who do this work. In 1942, Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II left fields full of strawberries as they were forced from California. A few weeks ago, immigrant workers from nations south of us were forced from their jobs, their children left alone, and into detention centers.

One explanation of the krypteia is that it kept the helot population under control. If you would be targeted because you were strong or smart or had leadership capabilities, perhaps you would choose not to develop strength or smarts or leadership skills. If you knew that obedience was still rewarded with terrorism, you would certainly avoid disobedience.

But I wonder if there isn’t something else, too, that drives such cruelty: that we often hate the things we are dependent on because they remind us that we are vulnerable.

Trump is a narcissist, and I suspect that many of his followers are too. This doesn’t just mean that they like themselves a lot–it also means that they hate anything that reminds them that they aren’t superior. ICE raids look like narcissistic rages: an attempt to erase and destroy any hint that we rely on others.


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