Allan Powell: Separation by walls, physical and symbolic

December 20, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

While visiting Italy to celebrate our 30th anniversary, Joanie and I had the good fortune to have a very talented tour guide who exhibited a special pride in announcing that he, Vincenzo, was Roman, not merely Italian. The honor of being Roman is reserved for those born inside the old stone wall that encircled ancient Rome. This wall divided his world into two distinct domains much like the Greeks divided the world into Greek and barbarian.

This old idea of thinking in terms of “we” and “they” is still with us in full force and with the same arrogance and self-assurance as in the ancient world. The physical and symbolic signs are on display for all to hear and see. Signs are carried with sound bites to identify that “significant other” status.

This scenario can be spliced with another accepted practice in ancient Rome that should make us pleased not to have lived at that time. Our tour director took us to a small basilica where we witnessed a circular slab of marble about 4 inches thick and about 4 feet in diameter on which a face had been chiseled. We were told that this work of art was the “Mouth of Truth” and served a very important service.

Our guide explained that the mouth was used as a test for young women seeking to be married and having to prove their virginity by putting their hand in the mouth of truth while swearing the oath. Should the attendant see the hand quiver, they chopped it off as, according to the test, she was a liar. A quivering hand was a sure sign of deceit. We might say that the face had a big mouth and little truth.

We, of course, are too sophisticated to require such a bizarre test of honesty, as well as those of the Middle Ages that forced a person charged with heresy to walk blindfolded through a maze of hot irons. If they emerged unburned, they were set free on the assumption that God had guided the innocent.

The fact is, however, we are a good match for the ancients symbolically on both the creation of walls and looking for quivering hands. There is a very clear wall between Wall Street and the rest of America. On one side are businessmen who drag this economy down the drain and never look a sheriff in the face or see the inside of a jail. They can, using the force of enough money, compel a national legislature to water down regulatory laws. They have successfully fooled the public into believing that regulation is “taking away their liberty,” which is more dangerous than their recurrent financial crises. Documentaries, books and independent writers have shown with clarity that those on the one side of the wall are a special breed over those on the other side of the wall. They are “too big to fail” and too powerful to corral.

As for our own “Mouth of Truth,” we don’t cut off the hands of women but we have many who have no problem taking away the right to control one’s own body. These folk, who profess to believe in a minimal state, used the power of the state to diminish the liberty of women. Our “Mouth of Truth” wouldn’t be so crude as to cut off hands, but judges use exotic words to favor ideologies of their choice. This permits very learned people to stretch words into any definition needed to get the result wanted — all the while, they are condemning judicial “activism.”

It would seem evident that judges who confer personhood on a legal fiction (a corporation) had “butchered the King’s English.” In addition, there are many who want to confer personhood on a fertilized egg. They, too, have no problem with gifted minds using word magic to create the ideology of their choice. Our “Mouth of Truth” is not a slab of stone — it is a small clique of good minds that, like the old stone slab, will be a curiosity in history.

We all are probably like Vincenzo in some respects. We need some distinctive signs of our uniqueness and self-identity. Still, there is wisdom in recognizing the realistic limits imposed by nature and society. All walls have gates to permit entrance and exit to the rest of the world. Also, it is only common sense that truth is more likely to originate in the mind than the mouth.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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