Sic semper tyrannis
February 15, 2008
Tuesday at 2 p.m., mere hours after College President Gene Nichol announced his immediate resignation, students rallied in his honor in the Sunken Garden. Thus began a docile, funereal grieving session — a disappointment in every respect.
p. Why aren’t we angry? Where is the hard proof of our outrage? At a time when the entire campus should’ve spewed vitriol, the pro-Nichol rally was fawning and precious, a public display of affection. People smiled, cheered; friends traded sycophantic anecdotes. Nothing was lit on fire, and cries of “Fuck the BOV!” were far from acidic. Nichol had been martyred for the cause; in the process, the cause was entirely forgotten.
p. In the aftermath of the news, several friends and I yearned to do something momentous. Burn BOV Rector Michael Powell in effigy? Nah, we could get arrested. Defecate on the BOV’s conference table? None of us had to go. Start a riot? Maybe, but apathy would constrict its scope.
p. We turned, ultimately, to that most divisive of organs: political satire. Our ally was historical precedent — during the French Revolution, cartoonists shocked vast readerships with explicit gore and sex, like men riding penis-horses or bloody heads fresh from the guillotine. The dialogue was frank to the point of brutality, but it retained an intellectual edge.
p. In the spirit of those commentators, we designed a prurient flyer in which Nichol, defeated, is sodomized by the fist of Christ. Tasteless and gratuitous, the illustration bent the First Amendment to its breaking point. The subtext, we thought, was painstakingly obvious: The religious right has fucked our College. Hard.
p. Oh, how wrong we were. When it comes to singing the praises of ribald allegories, our student body is tone-deaf. Our message was radical and offensive, but its most ardent detractors were not Christians or Republicans, but those ostensibly on our side. The rally, then at the height of its neutered discourse, met our flyer with more derision than laughter. It had its fans, sure, but many so-called “protesters” couldn’t grasp its unsubtle pro-Nichol implications. A copy made its way to the hands of a speaker, who tore it up to applause. It was, as a friend put it, a dismal moment for satire.
p. If risque, envelope-pushing humor isn’t at home on a college campus, where does it belong? Our madding crowds are nowhere to be found. We are either too listless or too afraid of consequences to get pissed off. At other universities, couches and cars are set aflame after mere sporting events. Here, our entire liberal arts ideology verges on annihilation, and only candles for Nichol are burning.
p. Meanwhile, on America’s other coast, University of California-Berkeley students major in porn studies.
In an increasingly ironic gesture, the great seal of Virginia bears the motto, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” or “thus to all tyrants.” The seal depicts virtue as a woman, spear in hand, vanquished despot underfoot. But the College has caved to tyranny. Our tormentors hold a lot of money and control our access to it. Vexed questions arise about how beholden we are to alumni funding, to what extent we should curb liberalism to woo donors and how this balance of finances and values will impact our mission statement. Our institution is dramatically different than it was 20 years ago. Can its past, present and future make amends?
p. These issues aren’t widely debated on campus, and if they were, they would affect no paradigm shift. Advocates of reasoned discussion are as lost as those seeking drastic retaliation — there should be more overlap among these groups. We tried talking it out, time and again; anonymous visitors to The Flat Hat website calumniated and disparaged writers. Now we’ve lost, and what have students done? Shrugged glumly, gathered in modest numbers to mourn a man while his modus operandi exits stage right. This weekend, most will attend parties and drink. By Blowout, the resignation will have blown over.
p. We must do something: incite, violate, revolt, destroy, denigrate, vilify, disgust. We must be the subjects of these verbs, not their direct objects. This is the only way to prevent our defeat from settling and receding.
p. The process failed us. Respectful behavior didn’t work. Get angry about it.
__Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.__