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The U.S. Capitol Dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. File

“I call it ‘truthful hyperbole.’ It’s an innocent form of exaggeration and a very effective form of promotion.”

— Donald J. Trump, “The Art of the Deal”

It’s no open secret that “politician” has become a pretty ugly word in America. The combined U.S. Congressional approval rate is a mere 15 percent, and that of the president is down to 35 percent as it continues a plummeting spiral. How could it be otherwise considering all the oxymorons involved?

If the word “oxymoron” sounds like Greek to you, there is good reason. The Hellenic word oxymōros was popularized around 400 A.D. by the most learned grammarian of the time: Maurus Servius Honoratus, an Italian. It does not mean “dumb as an ox,” although that’s the way it sounds. “Smart ass,” is more like it.

That’s because the roots are oxys (sharp) and mōros (dumb), as in “pointedly foolish,” the meaning of which rings true until you stop and think about it. Thus, “oxymoron” is defined as contradictory words and/or actions that somehow make sense.

Fresh prunes anyone?

Why did the Greeks express themselves in such an ambiguous way? The answer is politics — plain and not so simple. The city-state of Athens was the cradle of pure democracy, birthed in the 5th century B.C. as a way for the citizens to govern themselves without some hapless tyrant mucking everything up. In the process, Athenian politicians perfected the art of speaking out of both sides of their mouths, after which a vote was taken, the majority ruled and confusion reigned about who said what.

Wrapped in flowing, wine-stained togas, their balding pates crowned in green laurel, Athenian citizens regularly gathered in the agora to equivocate on a wide range of subjects. There were no elections, no legislature, no term limits, no political parties and no advertising budgets to confuse matters.

Qualified citizens openly discussed, and then voted on issues large and small such as: “We have to pass our 2,700-page health care bill to find out what’s in it,” and “Let’s feed to the lions all those ungrateful Olympians who refuse to stand for the Athenian anthem,” and “Shall we declare war on Sparta today?”

Yet Athenian democracy was no free-for-all. Everyone understood the importance of checks and balances, and took time for blunt reflection before voting too hastily. Varying rules of decorum prevailed, and it was no open secret that qualified voters must be Athenian born and well educated to the liking of everyone who mattered, which, of course, did not include women, children and the enslaved masses.

In fact, nobody said anything negative about the democratic process in public. The last honest indiscretion a malcontent would ever commit is to slip on a grinning, mustachioed Guy Fawkes mask and storm the agora holding up a “Greek Lives Matter” sign. The very last thing ... Indeed, in those classic halcyon days gone by, making cultural waves was an acutely stupid thing to do because everyone knew that, in a pure democracy, all it took was a majority vote of qualified citizens to have you executed.

Athenian democracy evolved quickly for more than a century until the end of the second Peloponnesian War, which was perfectly awful for Athens and terribly good for Sparta’s military junta. Subsequently, a majority vote was no longer necessary to have you executed for anything.

Yet liberalized forms of democracy survive to this day, and nowhere is it more sacrosanct than in the United States. However, polls show that mindful Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents — are not happy with the fuzzy logic that passes for responsible legislation inside the Capital Beltway, and they are not afraid to say so. Deficit spending, continuing resolutions, free trade, consumer confidence, open borders, a huge influx of illegal foreign nationals, fake facts, television news and kicking cans down the road to satisfy the self-serving munificence of elected leaders have become de rigueur, generally speaking. It’s surreal but true.

In fact, oxymorons are ubiquitous in American politics today from under the Capitol Dome to inside the White House. Yes, a former House speaker actually urged approval of Obamacare so that we would know what was in it, and it is true that the current president — a developer by trade — vows he’ll restore bureaucratic efficiency by draining the swamp that is Washington, D.C., which, of course, was built atop a Virginia quagmire to start with, thanks to political compromise. It’s some seriously funny stuff until you dig really deep into it, right?

John M. Burbage is a veteran journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in Charleston and grows organic vegetables on his family farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at