Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

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So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?


The Ides of March

In the days of ancient Rome, politicians as well as plebeians feared the interference of the gods. Auspicious days were ignored, even by emperors, at their own peril. In my Mythology class the concept of hubris frequently emerges. Generally thought to be excessive pride, hubris can take many forms. Whenever a mere mortal strives for godhood, however innocently, it must be punished. Julius Caesar, declaring himself emperor, had to face the wrath of the gods. The ides of March kept in check the ambitions of the powerful. In a world where the political become too powerful, the very phases of the moon step in to restore balance.

The ides seem to have their origin in the date of the full moon. The month of March, named after the god Mars, featured a military parade on the ides. Then, as now, political power is simply the form of government backed by the military. The history of human unrest, especially notable since the American and French revolutions when the common people shouted, “Enough!”, is where might is shown not to equal right. Pontiffs and presidents, enamored of firepower and its blandishments, appear like Caesar before their populaces, confident in their wealth and military backing.

The concept of hubris might once again be meaningful to a culture under siege. As pundits and politicians make bids for places of abusive power, confident that there is no one above them, ethics are reformed in their own images. Have they not become their own gods? We the people bow to their vision of what should be. How many political leaders retire to uncertain futures because their own pensions have been slashed and healthcare diminished? Those who care for them in their dotage are the very children whose educational funds they’ve slashed. Hubris? It behooves all of us to beware the ides of March. Most, like Caesar, will ignore the warning and don the purple. Those who read, however, will not anger the gods.

Et tu, Brutus?