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'Spartacus Moments" and Why They Matter

'Spartacus Moments" and Why They Matter
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, September 4, 2018. (Reuters / Joshua Roberts)

Read below for contributor Jarrod Emerson’s take on how politics (particularly Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh) and cinema affect the cultural zeitgeist, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, and its relevance in the Trump era.

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As many of us Americans attempt to make sense of the daily cesspool that is our demagogue-in chief’s actions, the country faces an unprecedented stress test. As if President Trump wasn’t content to treat our institutions and alliances like a raging bull in a china shop, his administration now is doing it’s best to ram through the nominating process a toxic Supreme Court Nominee in Brett Kavanaugh. Numerous communities and the guaranteed rights that they have fought so tenaciously to gain and preserve would likely be in jeopardy. Equally alarming are the administration’s blatant attempts to censor Kavanaugh’s lengthy, revealing paper trail. On top of that, Kavanaugh is now facing very credible accusations of sexual assault. Yet in spite of all of this seeming chaos, hope is not dead. Incredibly a recent trend emerging can be traced back to a decades-old piece of cinema. I refer to the recently coined phrase “Spartacus Moment”—words used by Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker earlier this month. If you’re scratching your head wondering just what the hell Spartacus moment is, let’s get one thing straight: It’s more than a mere pop culture reference. It is a tool for confronting tyranny in the most aggressive way possible.

If you’re not in the habit of viewing Spartacus the movie—a decades old, three-hour epic, here comes some context.  Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar-winning, fact-based 1960 epic tells the story of the titular Roman slave (Kirk Douglas), who leads a revolt against slavery in the Empire. As Spartacus builds an army of loyal followers ready to fight and die for their cause, certain members of the Roman Senate naturally begin to panic—and will stop at nothing to squash the growing rebellion. I’ll retirate a slightly controversial opinion from my previous review of Spartacus in my Tony Curtis tribute: I do not feel the film as a whole endures. That being said, one pivotal moment of the film has rightfully earned its place in cinematic history.  

The moment I refer to can be found here. Spartacus and his rebel army have been decimated. Cornered by the ambitious Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier), and his loyal counter forces, the rebel army is issued an ultimatum: Identify Spartacus dead or alive and the rest of the rebellious slaves will be spared death. As Spartacus stands up to identify himself, he’s beaten to the punch by another—his closest friend and ally Antoninus played wonderfully by Tony Curtis. Antoninus, having watched his leader with anticipation, proudly proclaims that he is Spartacus, hence offering to sacrifice himself for the cause. Others soon follow in an act of solidarity until the entire army is shouting “I am Spartacus!”. Uneven and mediocre as the rest of the film might be, this moment is still spine-tingling and as timeless as ever, and now it has paved the way politicians and civilians alike to stand up and shout to fight for the future of our Democracy.

The first of these recent Spartacus Moments occurred earlier this month, as hearings on Kavanaugh began. As Congress commenced confirmation hearings for the controversial Supreme Court nominee, it attempted to censor several damning documents that revealed Kavanaugh’s severely partisan stances on issues ranging from racial profiling to the eternal hot-button issue of reproductive rights. Despite Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s stern warnings to Democrats not to release any files labeled “confidential,” Senator Booker openly defied the order. Following Booker’s announcement that his office would release several so-called confidential documents, Cornyn struck back by threatening to oust Booker from the Senate. Booker, undeterred, fired back by proclaiming he openly welcomed the possible consequences of his actions (subtitle: Bring it on! Go ahead expel me!) However, as Cornyn condemned Booker’s move as “dangerous and irresponsible,” Booker’s colleagues joined in, starting with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin. In a remarkable moment, the democratic Illinois Senator declared, “I concur with what you are doing. Let's jump into this pit together. . . If there is going to be some retribution against the senator from New Jersey, count me in. I want to be part of this process.”  Shortly thereafter, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono also leapt to Booker’s defense remarking, “I would defy anyone reading this document to conclude that this should be deemed confidential in any way shape or form.”  (Again, I offer a subtitle “What, are you gonna have US ALL EXPELLED, CORNYN?!”) And it was here that Senator Booker labeled this powerful moment of solidarity as “…the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus! moment”  Just as Spartacus’s soldiers rallied around their leader offering to sacrifice themselves for their cause, the Democrats offered to put their careers on the line in order to expose the American people to information they felt was crucial.

On September 16, California psychologist Professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward alleging that Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a house party in 1982 when they were teenagers. Despite Kavanaugh’s adamant denial and the Trump Administration’s feeble responses on the matter, another case of drama emerged mere days ago. This time the defiance came from the Right! Outgoing Arizona Senator Jeff Flake last Sunday night called on Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote to be delayed until Ford herself was allowed to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Flake plainly declared he was not comfortable voting “yes” without Ford begin allowed to testify. While the Senator has long been a verbal critic of President Trump, it was quite inspiring and refreshing to see Flake finally turn words into actions. Maybe Flake was channeling the maverick qualities of his late colleague, Senator John McCain, or perhaps it’s his chance to strike back at the president who essentially forced him into an early retirement. Regardless, just like Senator Booker, Flake’s words quickly spawned another Spartacus Moment—this time on the Republican side.  Echoing Flake were Republican Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, all of whom joined in the call for Ford’s voice to be heard. While President Trump initially signaled support for the move, he was privately furious, as evidenced by his usual Twitter tantrums, smearing Dr. Ford and accusing the “the radical left” of trying to undermine his presidency.

As impressive as both of these events have been, it is absolutely imperative that these Spartacus Moments not be restricted to our elected officials.  Luckily, there is already clear evidence of solidarity among civilians. Dr. Ford made to make an extremely difficult decision in going public. And once she did, Dr. Ford faced numerous attempts to defame her character and even death threats. After being driven into keeping a low-profile and communicating only through her lawyers, Dr. Ford received support; more people participated to ignite yet another Spartacus Moment. When the senate Judiciary Committee appeared ready to hold a Monday hearing with or without Ford, several people stepped up. Not one but two letters have been written and signed by numerous classmates from Dr. Ford’s high school, both of which speak highly of her character and appeal to Congress to listen to her story. Just as Spartacus’s army stood up together in the face of tyranny, when anybody from the most prolific elected officials to the most determined band of private citizens stand in solidarity they have the power to influence events.

As of this writing, Dr. Ford was planning to meet with the FBI on Friday September 21. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee had initially offered to accommodate several of Dr. Ford’s requests, they have since made clear that if she does not respond by later that evening, they will go forward with a vote on Monday. Should the vote be held on Monday, it begs the question of how the seemingly supportive Republican Senators will vote. With no re-election battles to fight, will the outgoing senators Flake and Corker vote their conscious? Or will they fall into line with a party that cannot contain its lust for power?  Regardless, the events of the past two weeks have illustrated the dent that can be made when people take a stand and demand justice. In the event that we end up with a Justice Kavanaugh, it merely underlines the urgency that concerned citizens wishing to hold power abusers accountable stand up just like Spartacus’s men.

Across the political spectrum, it has become pretty evident what a Spartacus Moment can do. These important stands of defiance against this oppressive administration are a testament to the power of civil disobedience, and the lasting impact it can have. Like the dedication of Spartacus and his men, it is essential both public servants and civilians follow these examples and light fires against oppression at every turn. To quote Peter Gabriel’s famous protest anthem, “Biko”: “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire,” it is up to all of us to participate in these moments just as Antoninus did and offer to sacrifice ourselves. And, as in Spartacus, the more of us participate, the faster the fire spreads!

© Jarrod Emerson (9/18/18) FF2 Media ******* CONTINUE READING FOR 9/26 ADDENDUM *********

ADDENDUM: CRANK UP THE VOLUME

Since last week’s post, there have been numerous developments in the now routinely mind numbing news cycle.  After uncertainty about an actual hearing for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a tentative deal was reached between Dr. Ford and the Senate Judiciary Committee.  As of this writing, she is scheduled to testify before the Committee tomorrow on Thursday, September 27. Comparisons between tomorrow’s scheduled hearing and Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas have been made everywhere, with many wondering if the Judge Kavanaugh will escape accountability the way Justice Thomas did decades ago.  Or will the victim actually be heard and taken seriously?! In the midst of the chaos, today the seed of another Spartacus Moment has been planted - more on that in a minute. First a little housekeeping is in order.

As of now, Judge Kavanaugh faces two new accusations.  The first dropped on Sunday, September 23, in a New Yorker piece co-authored by Ronan Farrow/Jane Mayer.  In the article, Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s alleges he exposed himself to her, subsequently thrusting his genitals against her face while intoxicated.  The second new accuser is a client of Michael Avenatti – later revealed to be Julie Swetnick. While her connection to Kavanaugh remains nebulous, the 55-year old’s accusations are consistent with the first two. She has described parties at which she saw young men, including Kavanaugh verbally abuse, drug and gang-rape women. Specifically, Swetnick has stated she saw Kavanaugh along with men awaiting his “turn.” Kavanaugh has continued to flatly deny all accusations – going so far as to not only claim he remained a virgin throughout high school in a televised interview, but to offer a supposed high school calendar as evidence of innocence.  Unsurprisingly, President Trump has ramped up the cruelty with torrents of his usual juvenile shenanigans. Not only has he openly insulted the women by blowing off their accusations, but true to his conspiratorial alt-right nature, has accused the Democratic Party of engaging in a con-game in order to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination. Did I mention he felt the need to do this while at the United Nations General Assembly?!

Now that you’re up to speed on the latest (providing another bombshell doesn’t drop before this goes up!) here is a more positive development – the seed of this week’s potential Spartacus moment. With all 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee calling for Kavanagh’s withdrawal, all the Committee’s Republicans maintain their support – well almost all!  The lone defiant voice was a familiar one. Earlier this afternoon, Senator Jeff Flake, still widely regarded as one of the crucial swing votes on the committee, broke rank with his party and continued to show the same potential as he did a week and a half ago. Flake boldly fired back at Trump’s inhumane, conspiratorial dismissals. The Senator declared loud and clear that he DOES NOT believe the women were part of a Democratic conspiracy to sink Kavanagh.  Whereas other Republicans on the Committee, such Senators Orin Hatch and Lindsey Graham have pathetically tried to trivialize the accusations, Flake stated, “I do not believe that the claim of sexual assault is invalid because a 15-year-old girl didn't promptly report the assault to the authorities… How uninformed and uncaring do we have to be to say things like that, much less believe them? Do we have any idea what kind of message that sends, especially to young women?”

Kavanaugh denies sexual assault allegations (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

With this statement, Flake has offered something seldom if at all heard from the GOP throughout this entire fiasco – words of compassion!  He has initiated another potential Spartacus Moment, and now it is time for his fellow Republicans to crank up the volume to the apathetic ears of Mitch McConnell.  While Republicans Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski were already known to be undecided, it is crucial that other men follow Flake’s example by stepping up and throwing their voice into the fight.  The Senator has created the perfect opportunity for his colleagues to create that potent Spartacus moment that is needed. Will they leap into the pit with him, the way Cory Booker’s Democratic colleagues did?  With McConnell reportedly refusing to postpone neither Kavanagh’s Judiciary Committee Vote nor the final Senatorial Confirmation Vote, now is the time for them to join Flake in shouting. Now is the time for them to set an example to hold Kavanaugh accountable.

If this develops into the rallying cry it has the potential to be, then McConnell and the inhuman unqualified Commander in Chief he answers to will have no choice but to listen!  Should this spawn another Spartacus Moment then maybe we can have a shot of repeating of the shameful outcome of that infamous hearing 27 years ago. It seems with the benefit of a Spartacus Moment a victim can not only speak but also be heard.

© Jarrod Emerson (9/26/18) FF2 Media

Middle & bottom photos: Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (Credit: Bryna Productions)