The signal moment in Stanley Kubrick’s (1960) Spartacus takes place on a hillside after the Roman legions finally defeat a slave rebellion led by Kirk Douglas. The victorious Roman general announces that the surviving rebels will all be welcomed back as slaves, except for Spartacus, who will be crucified. Across the hillside, one sees the opportunity for heroic action, stands, declaring, “I am Spartacus.” One after another, each slave stands in solidarity, yelling out, “I am Spartacus.” Even Spartacus joins in.
The crosses come out the next day, as the Romans crucify thousands of men along the sides of the Appian Way.
It’s a powerful film with a clear political agenda. I can’t tell you much about the actual slave rebellion 2,000 plus years ago, but the idea of valorizing solidarity under pressure came from blacklisted author Howard Fast’s novel, as dramatized by blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. The writers’ names appear in the movie’s credits, breaking Hollywood’s blacklist. The notion is that solidarity means taking risks that could be avoided; standing with those under fire is a way to combat oppression and discrimination. It’s always easier not to.
The challenges of the Trump presidency will include opportunities for solidarity, and some are already standing up. In response to trial balloons for a national Muslim registry, Jonathan Greenblatt, leader of the Anti-Defamation League, announced his attention to sign up:
The day they create a registry for Muslims is the day that I register as a Muslim because of my Jewish faith, because of my commitment to our core American values, because I want this country to be as great as it always has been. As a Jewish community, we know what happens with litmus tests. We can remember. We have painful memories of when we ourselves were identified, registered and tagged.
The threat of large numbers of people volunteering to swamp such a registry–along with some obvious Constitutional problems–may be enough to scuttle the idea, or minimally, to design a more limited program that will be harder to disrupt.
Even more pressing are Trump’s promises to rescind President Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which offered a relatively safe status to young people who came to the United States as children, and commence largescale deportations. Large city governments, like Los Angeles and Chicago, local police forces, and many universities have announced that they won’t cooperate with a deportation force. The idea is that deportations are antithetical to the other elements of doing their jobs: local police want residents to cooperate with them in solving crime; universities want to foster diverse communities involved in learning.
Across the country, university presidents have issued statements affirming their commitments to safety and diversity. For example, see the letter from City College of New York’s interim president, Vincent Boudreau:
Our values demand, whatever the rhetoric outside our campus, that we embrace the possibility that there is a place for all of us, on this campus and in this society: wherever you were born, and however you came here. They demand that we embrace our differences as virtues rather than threats, and recognize and nurture the promise represented by each person moving across this earth. At the most fundamental level, they demand that we commit our private and public selves to the responsibility of taking care of one another: of recognizing pain, and want, and isolation when we see it in those around us, and offering such comfort as we can.
We are a campus of immigrants, and the advocacy for justice in the field of immigration will continue to be central to our educational efforts. We are a campus community that proclaims its diversity, and so we must be a refuge and a source of wisdom on questions of racial, religious and gender fairness. We are, as an institution, built on foundational beliefs about the necessary place of accessible education—and by implication the need for robust social and economic mobility—in any stable and democratic society. And all of this means that whenever and for whatever reason the climate shifts against these values outside our campus, we are obliged to reaffirm them within it.
The leaders of 90 schools, so far, have signed a statement calling for retaining and expanding DACA. Many schools have announced that they won’t help deport students, and some have declared themselves to be sanctuaries. Meanwhile, faculty, students, and alumni have started petition campaigns asking their campuses to join in. Students have held demonstrations and walked out of classes to underscore their demands.
The statements and the campaigns are all about getting people to take sides in the upcoming conflict, and find solidarity with those more vulnerable.
The rebels on the hillside in Kubrick’s movie made a strong moral statement and deprived the Romans of property. Beyond that, however, the rebellion didn’t turn out so well for them. Sanctuary entails risk, even if crucifixion isn’t on the table. The point, however, remains powerful and clear–to stand against efforts to isolate and punish a vulnerable group of people.
For those who pay attention, there are likely to be far too many opportunities to demonstrate solidarity in the future.