Author: Peter Meineck ().
We have all heard that the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts are both facing extinction by the new Trump administration. Although, we know nothing concrete yet it seems as if the White House has been heavily influenced by a 2016 report from the Heritage Foundation, that states:
Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. In the words of Citizens Against Government Waste, “actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields; the federal government should refrain from funding all of them.”
This is truly alarming and mischaracterizes the essential work that both agencies undertake nationally throughout all 50 states. With this in mind, on Saturday February 25th the Society of Artistic Veterans along with Aquila Theatre’s Warrior Chorus program (which is funded by the NEH – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ ) held a public event in Battery Park, New York City to bring awareness to the NEH’s role in funding Veteran’s programs. Called American Veterans for the National Endowment for the Humanities this event gathered 16 former and serving members of the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy to perform a simple yet powerful act – public readings on the theme of democracy.
The readings included several from classical literature, including excerpts from Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles; Oedipus Tyrannus, Euripides’ Suppliant Women, and Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, alongside readings from de Tocqueville, Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Booker T. Washington and Robert F. Kennedy.
The setting was more than appropriate as Battery Park is a storied location in American history: it was the last place the British held before leaving their former colony after the American War of Independence, and Castle Clinton, which stood opposite the event, was the entry point for millions of immigrants entering the United States for the first time. The park also looks over Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center close by. These symbols have taken on a powerful new resonance over the past few weeks and hearing this diverse group of American veterans reading literature and rhetoric on the meaning of democracy was indeed a powerful experience, especially in this age of incendiary discourse generated by 140 characters, hateful slogans, and double-speak sound bites.
The Vets read their scenes three times from 1pm to 4pm and attracted an enthusiastic crowd of supporters as well as many passers-by. Some 500 flyers were distributed and the event was widely circulated on social media. We are now planning another such event in Washington DC and encouraging the Warrior Chorus groups in Texas and California to stage similar gatherings. The readings will be posted on-line at – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ so that others may download and use them in their own local areas.
Veterans occupy a unique position in American society at the moment in that they are perhaps among the few groups that can bridge the enormous gulf between the Left and Right in American culture. Having served their country and been deployed in war zones, many of them feel very strongly about their oath to protect and preserve the constitution, civil rights, diversity, and free-speech. Arming them with classical literature and the American rhetoric and hearing them recite it live and in public makes for a very powerful statement about the need to defend democratic institutions. The sign of one member of the crowd captured this perfectly by quoting John Jays: “Knowledge is essential for the survival of the republic.”
Two moments to highlight: Vietnam Veteran, former Marine and well-known actor Dan Lauria (the father on The Wonder Years) made a powerful comment about what may lurk beneath the move to shut down the NEA and NEH, namely the removal of the tax deduction given to donations to arts and humanities organizations. Lauria compared this to nothing less than “Nazi book burning” in that it would devastate the Arts and public humanities. The second was one of many spine tingling moments when the words spoken by the Vets took on a specific resonance. James Stanton, a former Air Combat Command B-52 Squadron Commander, part of the so called “Nuclear Triad”, read the speech that RFK gave in Indianapolis on April 4th 1968, the night MLK was murdered. After quoting Aeschylus, the speech closes with these words:
And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
This project also intersects with Aquila Theatre’s next production Our Trojan War, which restages scenes from Homer and ancient drama alongside the original works of veterans to ask fundamental questions about democracy, inclusiveness, leadership and the treatment of others. This will be presented on a short national tour in March 2017 and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 19-23, 2017.
If you have Vets in your classroom/communities, encourage them to speak about their feelings about democracy and what they fought for. Use classical texts as a means of framing productive and informed dialogue about important themes – leadership, ethics, diversity, refugees, nationalism, federalism, division, war, diplomacy, bigotry, free speech, and knowledge. This is a time when classicists can provide depth, context, exemplars and meaning and above all start to shift the public discourse away from the slogan and back towards knowledge, nuance, complexity and compromise.
Professor of Classics in the Modern World, New York University
Founding Director, Aquila Theatre.