|Courtesy of Slate|
Reading this bit of 1960s nostalgia has coincided with the conclusion of our Spartacus fest around here on the Periphery. It is a dreadful, dreadful show. It is mostly a vehicle for gratuitous sex and violence and the dialogue appears to be written by find and replace of a few key phrases, all inexplicably lacking definite articles. We could not stop watching it in all of its dreadful glory. Sometimes that happens.
As you know, the real Spartacus was a gladiator who led a semi-successful slave uprising against the Roman Empire. I'm guessing that his dental hygiene wasn't as fantastic as was portrayed in the series. That bugged me inordinately while I was watching, but I digress. I think part of the draw of the show for me was, in fact, the utter brutality of the time. Not just the chopping off of people's faces with broadswords, but the psychic brutality that was perpetrated on everyone by everyone. It was with constant fascination that I watched as people fought and died in the service of putting down the uppity slaves.
It's so easy to sit on my comfortable couch and be shocked and outraged. I can sit at my laptop agape at a cruel and unfair "literacy test" from the not-so-distant past and turn away smug that I would never support such a thing. It's easy to paint the early Americans, the ancient Romans as unenlightened, evil, cruel people. And, like in all places, at all times, there were probably some of those folks about.
Of course, you know, I don't like easy. If you were born and raised in a Roman villa with slaves who dressed you and bathed you and cooked all your meals, how much effort would it take to see that life could be lived another way? Would that make you inherently evil? The same goes for American history. Did the people who wrote and enforced these literacy tests at the polling booths do so out of malicious and evil intent? Perhaps. Or perhaps, they were going with the flow of their culture. Perhaps they were brought up in a world to believe in certain things and this was a way that they upheld them.
We cannot ever completely escape our own culture. It gets its talons in us from the very beginning of things and it whispers into our subconscious constantly before we even develop the capacity for critical thought. We are saturated with unwritten rules and images and ideas before we get the chance to form our own. There are always ideas and concepts that we take for granted, whether we mean to or not. I would like to think that the concept of owning another human would always be repellent to me, but how can I know? I am, as well, a product of my own culture. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a post-slavery world. I have the luxury of hiding my eyes from these things in my shock and outrage as they come to me through history lessons or television shows. I would never...
But we, as humans, did. We have for centuries. So I can look back now and say that the whole world was full of evil, weak people until now and now we will show the course of human history how it's done. The hubris of that makes me blush. Or I can look back and see that good, well-meaning people get caught up in the course of human events. I can see the people throughout history who have had the courage to stand up against the status quo and fight for something different, and I can thank them for the luxuries I enjoy now.
As you know, Spartacus dies. He's crucified by the Romans along with a lot of his followers and hung along the Appian Way as a warning to anyone else who might step out of line. So often, this is what happens to the brave few who fight the tide of culture. If you're Joe Roman walking along Main Street, surrounded by the spectacle of failed rebellion, how do you respond? Revulsion? Fear? Sure. Would that inspire you to free some more slaves? Or would you decide that this is what happens when we upset the natural order of things? I cannot honestly say what I would choose. I know what I would like to believe I would choose, but I can't be sure of the reality.
What about now? We know it's naughty to own people, of course. We know that we shouldn't discriminate against people for the color of their skin. We know all of these things. We are oh-so-special. Yet we still swim in the tepid waters of our culture. What things do we just take for granted as true and right and "the way things ought to be"? What things do we resign ourselves to as "just the way things are"? Can we even see ourselves? Oh, not me, you say. I am enlightened. I would never... But what things will our grandchildren forward around their version of Facebook as completely appalling to them, yet were socially acceptable to us? It's impossible to know, I suppose.
But these are the thoughts that niggle at me. Am I Spartacus? Do I have the clarity to see my culture for what it is? Do I have the courage and conviction to truly stand up? Not just safely from behind my keyboard here, but where it counts? Where there is flesh and blood at stake? We don't literally crucify people in our culture any more. We figuratively do it all the time, and we do it with great glee sometimes. I would never... except when I would. Admitting these things is uncomfortable. It shakes the things we believe about ourselves. It makes us defensive. Again, I ask: in what way does that make us any different from our forbears? I'm sure they had some pretty good justifications for the things they did. How many people went along with things that made them uncomfortable because they couldn't see how to change it?
I don't have a sporty leather loincloth, nor a thirst for blood, so it's easy to believe that I am exempt from thinking about such things. But I ask myself nonetheless, am I Spartacus? What would I die for?
Are you Spartacus?