Friday, October 13, 2006

E Plebneesta and the Dangerous Writers

Weekend Assignment #133: Share with us a person or person who you think is a model for free speech in the United States. It can be one of the Founding Fathers, another historical personage, or someone who is living right now. Yes, this is slightly more work than the usual Weekend Assignment, but, you know. Free speech is worth it. For those of you in the UK or Canada, you can nominate someone who represent free speech in your own country, or pick someone from the US.

Extra Credit: A favorite controversial book (it doesn't have to be from an American).

I'm not up for the full-blown rant on this subject, at least not tonight. Tonight I'm just going to toss out some names and a few anecdotes, and call it a night. Maybe over the weekend I'll take the subject and run with it.

When I was in high school, the U.S. Constitution always reminded me of a silly bit in a Gene Roddenberry-penned episode of Star Trek, "The Omega Glory." It still does, really. In the episode, the Yangs would trot out a tattered American flag as their leader chanted a garbled version of the Preamble to the Constitution. "We the People of the United States" became, at least to my ears, "E Plebneesta."

And if you break it down, "E plebneesta" makes a surprising amount of sense. "E" also begins the Latin motto "E pluribus unum": "from many, one." "Plebn" could refer to plebians, or ordinary people. And "eesta" could be "ista," a (usually) plural suffix found in words like "Sandinista" or "fashionista." So "E plebneesta" becomes "From the ordinary people and their proponents." And that's pretty much what the Constitution is, the ordinary people (as represented by wealthy landowners) ceding certain rights to various branches of government, while retaining others for themselves.

Yes, I know the Preamble and the Bill of Rights are two different parts of the Constitution. I'm mentioning the E Plebneesta anyway, because to me the whole Constitution is important and sacred, its priniciples worthy of a lot more respect than certain politicians give it. So there. That's my preamble to this entry.

Thinking about the actual Bill of Rights, though, leads me to an entirely different memory, from a Weekend Assignment two years ago. The actual assignment was about which Founding Father we'd each like to hang out with. It provoked in me an account of a fictional 21st century picnic, to be attended by John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison. In my first entry, I merely mentioned the guest list and the two destinations, but the follow-up entry was a vignette in which time traveler Karen invited the Madisons to the 2004 picnic, and mentioned the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights, image enhanced slightly for visibility

So, now that I've fictionally partied with Tom Jefferson (left), who believed that "half a loaf" of rights secured to the people was better than none, and James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights (partly cribbed from the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the writings of John Locke), what proponents of that all-important first amendment right of free speech do I especially admire? Well, those two guys for sure, and Samuel Adams, for starters. I really should learn more about Madison; he didn't say much during that picnic. He did mention, however, that he mostly put the Bill of Rights together to keep the newly-formed Constitutional government from collapsing in the wrangle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

More contemporary outspoken people who made a difference in my lifetime: Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most important one. If you're going to say things that people don't want to hear, it's helpful to have a thirst for justice, a substantive message backed up by action, and a gift for oratory. Some of those old speeches still blow me away. At a more personal level, I used to admire the heck out of George Carlin, with his infamous Seven Words. It wasn't that I actually liked or used every one of those words myself, although I did use the two biggies in those days. What I admired was Carlin's ability to satirize the folly of thinking those words, of all the words in the language, were so dangerous and harmful that they must never be broadcast.

I was going to work in a riff about Harlan Ellison here, but let's skip it.

Most of my Wrinkle collection.

Favorite controversial book? That's got to be A Wrinkle in Time, of course. This classic about love and faith, friendship and family, and individuals fighting evil (including enforced, mindless conformity) rates high (#22 in the 1990s) on banned book lists. It's been slipping down the charts with the advent of new targets for self-appointed censors, but it's still an important and misunderstood book. But I've already ranted that rant, at least once.


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julie said...

Is it terrible that I knew exactly what E Plebneesta was when I saw your headline? ;-)

DesLily said...

do i detect a bit of a history buff in you? (very good post btw)

Paul said...

I always heard it as "eed pebneesta." Thomas Jefferson is my favourite of your founding fathers. Looking up quotes supporting freedom of speech will always result in s great number of hits from him, and they are great quotes.

Bea said...

Karen, I'm starting A WRinkle in Time today, actually. I volunteered to read it (and another book, Becoming Neomi Leon) for our school librarian. She asked for volunteers to read a list of books and submit questions for her to use in The Elementary Battle of the Books this year (for 4th and 5th graders). I chose A Wrinkle in Time and the other book because I had never read either of them. I didn't realize it had been considered a controversial book, though. Glad to see it was one of your favorites. Bea