Our Roman Fathers

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I wrote this 250 word audition piece for a client and thought it topical, worth remembering, given the times.

Our Romanesque Fathers

The American Founders, well-versed in history, embraced ancient Rome, even taking Roman pen names like Washington’s Cincinnatus and Jefferson’s Cato. America’s symbol, the eagle, and the Capitol’s architecture are likewise borrowed from Rome. However, the Founders’ greatest influences are the lessons learned from the Roman Empire’s founding and demise. The U.S. Constitution was written with an eye toward both.

To Protect Against Tyranny

Like America, Rome emerged as a city state from war and tyranny. Its mythological creation from feuding Romulus and Remus, characterizes its founding, one geographically destined to emerge as powerful but warring with its strategic placement near seafaring passageways. The Punic War expansion both forged and destroyed the Empire.

Looking to Rome, the Founders inscribed Roman virtues–liberty and freedom–into America’s constitution, but wisely included safeguards to protect against a government subject to human weaknesses, like intoxicating power and greed. The U.S. Constitution conceived a Roman inspired tri-part government, a combined democracy, monarchy and aristocracy. Divided power among its branches ensured against tyranny, of which Rome served as warning.

For Survival of a Nation

The Founders learned from Rome’s eroding largesse and excess to foster, preserve and protect their budding nation. They knew Imperialist Rome’s downfall lay in its expansion wars, leaving unemployment, migration, venality, religious intolerance–and ultimately, tyranny.

The American constitution, both reactionary and visionary, founded a nation upon ideals–which defines its exceptionalism–not merely on geography, ethnicity and history. Rome served as its map, just as the U.S. Constitution mapped the American nation forward.

Feeling no burn

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Always astounded by the lack of historical fluency of college students, I once again found myself defining terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ and giving history lessons on the Constitutional context–revolution, tyranny and power. Most students did not even know from whom America gained its independence judging by the quiz on the first day of class. It’s always a big job to explain the story of America.

But now it’s research paper time and the readings turn political, especially advantageous in an election year: essays on gun control, torture, colonialism, free speech, economics (subprime mortgage debacle) and poverty, to name a few. My hope is that students will attach history to current events, find relevance in the story behind the polarization of just about every issue: guns-no guns, pro-life/pro-choice, as well as examine the apologists for just about everything from torture during the second Iraq war to complaints of reverse discrimination in school admissions policies. 

But after my history and vocabulary lessons, I asked my students about voting. Very few said they would vote this election on the grounds of apathy and disengagement from the process. None felt it made a difference. Where were all the enraged college students riled by the rogue candidates on both sides of the political spectrum? I was hoping to find a few Bernie Sanders enthusiasts in particular to question. From newscasters and social media accounts of his popularity, I was certain I would find a few supporters among college students. I did find one.

She liked his free college and single payer universal health care solutions and felt he was for the people and not big corporations nor Wall Street. Unfortunately, she did not stand up to gentle questioning about how she thought congress would vote regarding free college and universal health care. But she had reached the end of her thoughts on the subject and so I was on my own to speak on behalf of revolution, which is how Bernie Sanders’ words and ideas have been characterized. 

In the end, I worked myself into a lather detailing some of the best known revolutions in American history from independence to unionization to the Vietnam War’s end. They all took people getting hurt, risking life and liberty. They took numbers on foot, in the streets. Short of that, revolutions do not happen, just gradual shifts by attrition, erosion, desensitization and devolution or evolution. The pendulum keeps swinging. But Bernie’s revolution, as inviting as it sounds, is one for the streets, not the ballot. 

I am skeptical about what will happen should he get to the White House and meet with an intransigent congress as has been the trend in recent years. Will he disappoint those youth who came out to get him elected and thereby give them reason to stay home next election? I suppose that is the risk of any campaign’s success–failure to make good on promises.

We read Garrett Keizer’s “Loaded” about guns for today. Keizer is a gun-toting progressive by his own admission. After outlining the traditional camps and characterization of the two sides as either NRA gun violent nuts or tree hugging pacifists, he decries the lack of revolutionary fervor in defending rights, ideas and the Constitution. His last paragraph segued nicely into my drifting English, history and political lecture:

The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Still, if asked to choose between an urban guerrilla armed with an Ak-47 and a protester armed with a song sheet and a map showing how to get to the designated ‘free speech zone,’ I would decline on the grounds of insufficient faith and negligible inspiration. Rather, give me some people with very fanatical ideas about the sanctity of habeas corpus and the length of time an African American or any other American ought to have to wait on line to vote. Give me some people who are not so evolved that they have forgotten what it is to stand firm under fire or even to squat near the fire in a cave. Give me an accountant who can still throw a rock.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right…

…Here I am, stuck in the middle with you, you the sane ones. Can we just stop? I blame the middle for its quietude.

Extremism everywhere in all forums and locations seems to be the new norm if you merely scan social media. And the balance, the middle, is silent, gets no air time.

To the right most extreme we have banning books, dissemination of contraception information, health care advisory on certain procedures–abortion, for instance, or exploration of new research areas like stem cell, and, the latest, a Texas senator who would vote to keep women in the house where they can clean and care take. At the left most, we have trigger event warnings, micro aggressions, and the University of California regents censoring any coded anti-semitism in the form of anti-Zionist speech or acts on UC campuses.

Last week’s critique of this newly introduced policy by the California regents board is discussed in the article (Op Ed) by Saree Makdisi and Judith Butler in last week’s LA Times entitled “Suppressing Zionism on Campus is Catastrophic Censorship.” The policy seeks to root out anti-semitism disguised as anti-zionism on campuses. The UC committee charged with examining the purported rise in anti-semitism expressed on campuses (a vandal’s bathroom scribble about hating Zionist Jews, for example) sought to expose thinly disguised or coded prejudice in the form of an ostensible critique of an Israeli political faction.

Authors and UC professors Butler and Makdisi contend the hidden agenda behind the policy is motivated by suppressing anti-American sentiment fomented by growing criticism of Israeli-Palestinian relations/stand-off. The authors accuse the move as a thinly veiled censorship attempt aimed at suppressing criticism of American policy regarding Israel.

Whether these professors are correct or not, censorship does not belong on campuses–period. Students who vandalize bathrooms should be prosecuted for destruction of property. Students who commit or instigate violence should be counseled. People who hate others by reason of their color, creed, beliefs or practices, well, exposure to those types is the cost of living in society.

The purpose of colleges and universities is to prepare students for life, civic duty, employment and social existence. In particular, higher education should expose students to both practical and ideal considerations of living in society like earning wages and working in teams, understanding democratic responsibilities to vote and be informed as well as honing critical thinking skills vis a vis advertising, politicians and door to door salesmen let alone legal documents, medical treatment and military service. In other words, the primary responsibility for higher education is to teach students to think, to slot them into already established spots in society or to make new ones.

Thinking requires exposure to thoughts, principles, laws, behaviors and energies present, past and future, seen and unseen. There must be exposure to all that should and could be thought about, including beliefs and ideas that challenge existing beliefs and ideas. That’s called growth, and growing into citizens of a nation and the world.

And yes, restraint and constraint are also taught on campuses. You cannot say and do whatever you wish. There are laws against harassment, vandalism, assault and battery. There are laws forbidding lying about others such as defamation. Prosecution or expulsion for these crimes or torts is lesson learned for committing wrongs against society or specific others.

Regardless of the motivation or interpretation of UC policies regarding anti semitism or zionism, censorship does not belong on a college campus.

 

Speak Up!


I am all over this video, which captures the gist of a sticky issue. Freedom of speech means some will take a hit, get their feelings hurt, even re-live traumatic experiences by someone’s words. Better some take the hit than an important freedom for all be jeopardized.

Censorship belongs least on a college campus.

Perhaps we need to project ourselves on to the bloody battle fields and lie among bleeding out bodies of those who fought for that freedom in the American Revolution, or maybe we just need to think about this logically for a moment.

Teaching about human civilizations, i.e., becoming educated, entails learning about the hideous as well as the glorious. Do we stop studying the Civil War because some students identify as Southerners and may be offended by that period in history? Do we forget entire courses like criminal justice in law school because some students come to class as former crime victims? How have we become such boorish cowards that we fear our beliefs and values are so thin that they cannot withstand challenge, fine-tuning or amendment?

The Kentucky City clerk who refuses still to issue same sex marriage licenses even after a court decision denying her “right” not to issue them in accordance with her beliefs is emblematic of this mentality that “it’s my world and everyone else should live according to my rules” mentality–make me comfortable. Get another fucking job if you cannot perform this one in good conscience! Don’t go to college if you are not psychologically prepared to do so, being “triggered” by mocroaggressions.

The Constitution protects free speech. It’s the first amendment, a very brief, uncomplicated, simply worded two lines that most people can read if they are educated beyond the fourth grade. It does not protect sensibilities. I challenge anyone to find that Constitutional protection, not even in the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights, where the right to privacy was extracted.

While I am a full supporter of sensitivity–mindful of the grand diversity of beliefs and experiences–education, particularly beyond K through 12, just like comfort is not a right, just as any given job is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. They are privileges. Necessities, but privileges nonetheless, the same as a driver’s license.

Rights vs. privileges: it’s important to know the difference.

Sure, some people will use their words as weapons, spew hate speech, but that is not the speech that is protected under the Constitution, out of which the Supreme Court has carved exceptions. The violation is one of human respect, decency and citizenship, as well as codified laws.

Eleanor Roosevelt, or whomever the sentiment is attributed to, said it best when recalling that no one can insult you without your consent: you know, sticks and stones and all that. Behaviors–like refusing people their legal rights to be married (not to mention be happy) because you happen to be in a position to do just that by your job title–are another matter.

As a civilized, democratic nation, we fight disagreeably offensive speech with more speech, counter and other speech.

First world problems are so wacky, the taken-for-granted privilege of living in a country where the luxury of sensibilities are even considered a topic of discussion. Crazy.