Latin Mottoes and Conservative Outrage

Vermont SealVia The Vermont Political Observer, we learn that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Go read the article and the ones before it — it’s fascinating. But the basic story is that an eighth grader who was studying Latin noticed that Vermont did not have a Latin motto. So she requested that Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning pass a law to add one. And it was a really great on: Stella quarta decima fulgeat, which means “May the fourteenth star shine bright,” a reference to Vermont’s status as the fourteenth state. But since I’m writing about this, you probably already know what happened.

People heard that the Senate was trying to create a Latin motto and they freaked out. Let’s list some of the more amusing comments:

  • Kevin P Hahn: “How about ‘go back south of the boarder'” [The Swiss border? The Austrian border? Or just that short Italian boarder who stays with us on weeknights?]
  • Phil Salzano: “My question is, are we Latin, or are we Vermonters? Alright then, English it is…” [Even better: make it Vermontish.]
  • Zeb Swierczynski: “ABSOLUTLY NOT!!!! sick and tired of that crap, they have their own countries.” [Well, had.]

This last one goes along with a number about how people need to know how to speak English. This is curious, because the original use of the word “illiterate” was to describe someone who could not read and write Latin. It is also funny how many people claimed that poor Senator Benning was “dumb” and “idiotic.” If ignorance is bliss, these must be some of the happiest people in the world!

What bothers me most about these reactions is that it shows that many Americans don’t even value the European traditions that they so often use to attack other cultures. So it is no longer a question of the United States being the most recent and greatest expression of western culture, it is that the United States is just this singularity that has no beginning and no end but rather just is. This represents a very big problem for me. I still think that there is much to be said about the “great books” approach to education. I want to be more inclusive, but I understand the wish to celebrate the western journey from Homer to Virgil to Dante — Greek to Latin to Italian. But to not know that intellectual history is submental and does not speak well of the United States as the greatest empire in human history.

Digby noted something else: “the conflation of Muslim with Mexican.” But it isn’t limited to that. To these people, all that seems to matter is that these other places are foreign. These are the same people, after all, who hated France because its government didn’t go along with our government in the invasion of Iraq. The only foreign country these people like is Israel, and that’s quite recent. And the only reason they like Israel is because it kills a lot of people who these conservatives hate even more.

An eighth grader requesting that the state create a Latin motto is a great example of American ideals. The negative reaction to it is a great example of American reality: ignorance, fear, and hatred under the guise of patriotism. It’s also the predictable outcome of our terrible educational system. But conservatives want to “fix” this system by making it even worse. Don’t let students know about the actual history of the world. Just start with Thanksgiving (1%), run through the Revolutionary War (50%), teach the Civil War as unnecessary because slavery was dying anyway (20%), explain how the income tax is unconstitutional (10%), and jump right to how Ronald Reagan saved the nation (19%). Give a multiple choice test and call it, “Education!” We don’t need no stinkin’ Latin!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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