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History's table of context

By Lady Liberty
web posted March 26, 2007

As all of you doubtless know, a movie entitled 300 recently opened to huge box office success and reasonable critical reviews. Most of the raves are coming courtesy of some truly phenomenal computer generated imagery which, with 300, has reached a pinnacle many of us couldn't have imagined even a few years ago. But some heavy promotion of the film is also coming from those of us who are fans of freedom.

300I wrote a review of 300 that praised the filmmaking technique because it truly was stellar. I often address such things as special effects or edits in my movie reviews because those are particular interests of mine. In some cases, though, and where it's appropriate, I'll also comment on some political message or another a movie may convey. In the case of 300, I wrote (in part; you can read the rest of the review here):

"King Leonidas rallied his soldiers in the film by saying, 'A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.' 2,500 years after the fact, we still know. That's one hell of a legacy for liberty, and one I think not enough people can know enough about."

Interestingly enough, while many people seem to recognize the political content of 300, there seems to be some surprisingly varied takes on it. I've even received e-mails from a few who consider my own viewpoint to be the direct opposite of theirs and call my notions effectively disproved by the "real history" of the Battle of Thermopylae.

One correspondent chastised me rather thoroughly by pointing out that the Spartans weren't exactly poster children for freedom. He noted that they had slaves and that they engaged in the infanticide of children born in some way imperfect. He also mentioned an hereditary ruling class to which the lower echelons of Sparta couldn't ascend. As an aside, he noted that the "boy lovers" (an appellation from the film) in Athens were the ones who actually invented Democracy.

I've read quite a bit about the Battle of Thermopylae, and have read even more since seeing 300. I can't argue the historical facts with the man who wrote the aforementioned e-mail because he isn't wrong. Life in Sparta 2,500 years ago wasn't free for many Spartans by most standards we might use to measure liberty. The Spartans did take an active hand in evolution by determining for themselves the survival of the fittest and killing or abandoning those infants that didn't meet their harsh criteria. Sparta was ruled by kings and a council of elders who, it is said, imposed and enforced laws governing just about everything (Sparta's code of laws was oral rather than written, and as such, we don't know for sure many of the details). In turn, even the hands of the ruling class were tied by obligations to religious authorities.

On the other hand, whoever may have officially been credited with the invention of democracy in the end, the ancient Spartans mixed their totalitarianism with a structure of government based on votes by appointed or elected representatives from among their allies. Though the kingship was inherited, the ruling council was also an elected body. Citizenship was bestowed by virtue of birth; Spartan "slaves" were really in a mixture state-owned serfs and of failed soldiers who stayed at home and engaged in farming, manufacturing, and trade while the elite fought battles. Meanwhile, Spartan women may have been the freest in Greece with rights equal to their men including an identical education, the ability to divorce, and full rights of property ownership.

When we look back with the clarity of 2,500 years of experience, we can say that some of the things the Spartans believed and did were wrong and, in fact, anti-freedom. But in the context of the time and place, the Spartan regime was no worse than many and better than others. It had redeeming qualities well worth admiration even today. Consider, for example, the high esteem in which Spartans placed women, and then recall that American women have only even had the right to vote for the last 100 or so years. Recall, too, the premium the Spartans placed on honor and on doing the right thing solely because it was the right thing. There's a wonderful anecdote from the historian Xenophon in a Wikipedia entry about Sparta that states:

"A strong emphasis was placed on honour and carrying out acts because it was the 'right thing to do.' Xenophon wrote about the Spartans as he observed them during an Olympic game: 'An elderly man was trying to find a place to sit and observe the Olympic Games, as he went to each section. All the other Greeks laughed as he tried to make his way through. Some ignored him. Upon entering the Spartan section all the Spartans stood and offered the elderly man their seats. Suddenly the entire stadium applauded. All the Greeks knew what was the right thing to do, but the Spartans were the only ones who did it.'"

Certainly that kind of behavior is worthy of respect and emulation even today despite the fact that we have since learned that other aspects of Spartan history might best not be repeated! And I maintain that the Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas of Sparta engaged in one of the most courageous last stands of all time, was fought for freedom — the freedom of his people to continue their way of life, and for his country to endure intact and without forced allegiance to another.

In much the same way I was told that Sparta and King Leonidas weren't "real" freedom fighters, I've also been advised more than once that the American Founding Fathers weren't all they were cracked up to be, either. Although we must acknowledge the fact that they were instrumental in declaring and then securing independence from Great Britain, some would suggest that these men were less than freedom lovers themselves because some of them owned slaves.

George Washington's Mount Vernon estate was worked by more than 300 slaves. Thomas Jefferson also owned a number of slaves who toiled at Monticello. Washington apparently reconsidered the notion of slavery as he fought for the freedom of other Americans, but he didn't free his slaves. It is said that Washington feared the reaction from the numerous other slave owners, particularly in those states where slavery had taken considerable root. Having fought so hard for unity of the colonies, Washington chose not to rock the barely stable boat of the new nation. Jefferson, meanwhile, did free a very small percentage of his slaves both before his death and by virtue of his will. But he, too, chose to largely maintain the status quo.

When we again apply the 20/20 vision offered us by hindsight, we can unequivocally say that Washington and Jefferson (as well as their compatriots) were wrong to have owned other human beings. At the same time, and in the context of the times they lived, it was a perfectly ordinary and acceptable thing for wealthy landowners to do. Some so-called free blacks fought in various and sundry Revolutionary War conflicts (in fact, a free black was the first colonist to die in the Boston Massacre) and were in large part accepted there, but it was another three quarters of a century before the disparity between "liberty for all" and the institution of slavery was definitively removed.

Some 230 years ago, the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves was unworthy of comment, critical or otherwise. But even today, their singular acts of courage to liberate an entire country remain inspirational and worthy of honor that should be undimmed by failings that have only later come to be called failings.

Even the one thing that many believes most defines and refines men — religion — can be similarly criticized. The brutalization of the Middle East in the name of the Crusades is reprehensible. The slaughter of the Aztecs and other native American cultures, some of it in the name of "convert or die" Catholicism, is appalling. The atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition scarcely bear thinking about, at least not in any of its bloody and merciless detail. And yet we condemn the acts themselves without disparaging religion in its entirety.

More recently, take a look back at the men who were the first permanent settlers in North America. They left their native land in large part because they wanted to practice their religion freely. Upon landing on our shores, they promptly began discriminating against everybody else in much the same way they themselves had suffered. Hindsight when it's so close behind is apparently a little blurry!

Since then, however, we've learned that merely founding a country in its early days based on a religious freedom that wasn't doesn't mean we can't appreciate the rationale of the founding even as we correct — and learn from — some of its mistakes. And certainly, the Crusades or the Inquisition notwithstanding, we've not thrown out all religion as bad even when certain parts and pieces of it are best remembered only so we can avoid any repetition of it!

Everybody who loves freedom and who works with that ultimate goal in mind knows full well that any journey toward any goal is taken in increments. To do so with any hope of true success means that we must know what our predecessors have done, and which of their deeds were good and fruitful and which were substantially less. We would do well to imitate the best of them, and to consider the rest to be cautionary. In the end, the latter does us almost as much good as the former. Then we, too, work within the context of our present day to get the job done.

The most important thing that we can do to ensure that we make as much progress as possible for liberty is to ask ourselves what history books will say of us when our actions are considered. When our doings are subjected to the crystal-clear magnifying glass of hindsight, will we be admired for the good we managed to do, or will we be dismissed or disparaged because our efforts weren't unflawed? I suspect the case will consist of both, though we can tip the scales toward the former if we do enough good. Far worse, though, than even the bitterest criticism would be history's footnote that suggests we assumed that when even the greatest of men weren't perfect, we "lesser" souls could avoid similar mistakes and criticisms by doing nothing at all.

In the April, 2007 issue of Playboy magazine (I swear I read it for the articles!), there's a cartoon that stopped me dead in my tracks. It shows two men in suits and ties walking just outside the US Capitol building. One man is saying to the other, "You say it's a free country? My God, when did that happen?" The point, of course, is that our country isn't anywhere near as free any more as we'd like to think that it is. But the counterpoint is that we have it within our power — the power of the Constitution's much-vaunted "the People" — to offer an answer to that question.

The answer I'd like to propose is this: Today. Today is when freedom happened. Today is when we collectively rose up, repealed bad laws, and removed bad government employees from office. Today is when we decided that King Leonidas' unflinching courage, Thomas Jefferson's philosophies, George Washington's principles, and the great sacrifices of countless other freedom fighters throughout history have given us a roadmap to get where we want to go. That they also showed us a few futile detours is only an added bonus that will, if we heed them, make us all the more capable of living up to the possibilities and the hope most men in all times have for freedom. The one thing even history cannot dim nor hindsight ever harm is the simple unchanging fact that freedom itself is never wrong nor is doing all that we possibly can to achieve it. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

Other related essays:

  • Astonishing visuals define 300 by Lady Liberty (March 12, 2007)
    It would madness, at least according to Lady Liberty, for you to miss the graphic novel turned movie 300
  • A battle that changed the world by Steven Martinovich (October 24, 2004)
    Barry Strauss argues in The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization that a naval battle in 480BC saved Western civilization. Steve Martinovich isn't sold on that notion but he thinks the book is still a rousing success

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