Discarding the Crown

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"In
dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions
are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that
they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was
once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man's expedient
to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable;
we may make as good; we may make better."

~
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Politics"

"Let
us remember then, in the first place, that political institutions
(however the proposition may be at times ignored) are the work of
men; owe their origin and their whole existence to human will. Men
did not wake on a summer morning and find them sprung up."

~ John Stuart Mill, Considerations
on Representative Government

Ridley
Scott's Gladiator
is an exquisite film with many attractive features: the imperial
subversion of republicanism, a martial protagonist with immense
delicacy, the indelible introductory tracking shot. Of greatest
significance, however, is its portrayal of political contingency.

The
most pregnant scene in Gladiator occurs when Maximus Decimus
Meridius (Russell Crowe) battles Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in the
Colosseum, encircled by Praetorian Guards. Although Commodus has
wounded Maximus (while enchained) beforehand, the craven emperor
still cannot prevail. Maximus slices Commodus's arm and he drops
his sword. This pivotal sequence follows:

COMMODUS:
Quintus, sword!

(Quintus
does not respond.)

COMMODUS:
Give me your sword!

(Quintus
does not respond.)

COMMODUS:
(To the Praetorians.) Sword! Give me a sword!

(They
unsheathe their swords.)

QUINTUS:
Sheathe your swords! Sheathe your swords!

(They
sheathe their swords.)

Delegitimization
has just occurred. All of Caesar's regal eminence is gone from nothing
more than an alteration in perception.

In
this vein, Gladiator is a Humean film insofar as it instantiates
the observation of that great philosopher, "'Tis, therefore,
on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends
to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to
the free and most popular." (I would qualify this only to say
that in a regime where individuals are cut off from arms, the opinion
determinative of political durability lies with those possessing
arms, namely the military. An unarmed throng may protest a regime
all they like, but a coterie with machine guns and grenades has
the tyrannical luxury of indifference to their lack of consent.
Hence, it's not coincidental that the Praetorians follow the order
of Quintus, their immediate commander.)

It's
commonplace to perceive the State as an august entity to which a
populace must yield. (Hegel went so far as to declare the State
a secular deity.) If the President initiates war without congressional
approval, he must know what he's doing since he's the President;
if Congress guts a proprietor's commercial discretion, our representatives
must have our national interest at heart; if the Supreme Court says
Nebraska cannot prohibit infanticide (Stenberg v. Carhart),
the sagacious justices must be right. Gladiator shows us
this inurement need not be. The State is not a metaphysical phenomenon
but a terrestrial contrivance.

Gladiator
won five Academy Awards on Sunday including Best Picture and
is part of American cultural vocabulary. As in another context and
to a lesser extent with Traffic, we have an opportunity to
promote freedom within a popular framework. Let's capitalize on
this convergence of culture and cause.

March
27, 2001

Myles
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Myles
Kantor Archives

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