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Not long ago someone reminded me of the not so long ago days when boys lined up for swim class wearing nothing but an expression. Standards have changed considerably, with the public being much more skittish (or is it fearful?) about group nudity. In any case, I understand decorum is the order of the day where the individual (like a noble in the Roman republic) is protected from insult to her/his dignity. Quite frankly, it was embarrassing to stand for swim class roll with the full extent of one’s pride and shame out there for all to see. Though each boy felt his (girls did not have to endure this in the hideous sacks they wore) shortcomings with keen intensity, the embarrassment was universal because no physical body is perfect, especially in the eyes of the one inside. The lad with above-average stature and biceps with muscle bulging like implanted baseballs had his own imperfection to sweat. Whether it was flat feet, knobby knees, fat rolls, or sad luck in the male department, each of us had things we’d much rather keep hidden. It was embarrassing to be viewed unvarnished, but did that truly harm us, or did it force us (however haltingly and reluctantly) to face reality by accepting the facts of our physical form or urge us to change what we could with exercise and cutting down to a one-Twinkie lunch and not consuming the entire package? (They do keep quite well.)
I mentioned the Roman republic and its rules about “noble” Romans for a reason. While Romans valued the origins and traditions of the king-free republic, they were fiercely loyal to and deeply mired in class. As a free-born male (the female rules were as complex), you were either of noble or plebeian rank, each with its own dignity to preserve. For example, one needed permission to touch a person of noble birth and was expected to yield right of way to them in public. No unwanted and shaming contact with the lower orders was supposed to upset the decorum of nobility. Because nobles were of wealthy families, they could afford curtained sedan chairs that kept the disgusting masses from view and prevented those masses from looking on their betters.
If you recall, Julius Caesar paid the full price for upsetting the social order by trying to put long-haired, bearded Gaul nobles in the Roman senate. Of course, making himself dictator for life had something to do with Caesar’s downfall, but those handling the knives that day were likely more personally upset about having to sit in chambers with unwashed provincials than they were balked by the unlikely prospect that Julius would next declare himself king and do away with the noble (dual meaning) republic.
I make the comparison because in my day we acted and were treated as free-born plebeians under a common standard. Over time, and in part driven by the bogeyman called “correctness” (though it has some benefits, this concept has serious implications), the ordinary plebeian has magnified into a noble who cannot be seen, challenged, questioned, or touched without risk of insulting her or his vaunted dignity. For the noblest of reasons we have chosen to empower individuals by hiding their shortcomings rather than facing them. The exercise moto of “no pain, no gain” applies to political and social life as well. It is difficult to gain when insulated from pain and treated like an empty eggshell swathed in cotton and wrapped in layers of bubble pack. Are individuals made better by protection, and does their betterment increase the more we insulate and cushion them? These are questions the Romans failed to ask, or did not answer in timely enough fashion to save them.
So this got me wondering what it might be like if politicians were given less cover from podiums and good suits. We’ve heard enough fine speeches dripping full of noble intentions and more than enough promises to feed vast armies of celestial beings who feast on hope alone. In the spirit of the Roman bath, let’s have nude debate. Show us what you’ve got. That’s it? I mean, THAT’S it? Now of course, nude debate has less to do with clothing than it does with removing the claptrap politicians hide behind. Nude debate means plebeian, of the common individual, with less concern for protecting personal dignity and more attention to the common weal.
Consider this. When a person runs for office, what do they say simply in how they announce? There is a difference of focus between Joe for president and Joe for United States president. In the first we have Joe and his ego, perhaps wishing to hear “Hail to the Chief” piped into his personal WC. Or is Joe putting the United States before president? It is an important distinction. By being too nice and not asking the tricky, possibly embarrassing questions, we risk the error of the Romans and their fate.
Anyway, back to high school swim class, where several grades of musical and academic boys were shooed into a shower where we were packed in a more friendly fashion than many wished to be. In anticipation we waited for the first chill blast from the overhead showers to drain us of breath and set all fifty of us on tiptoe until cold changed to warm and heels could return to solid tile. The glory-warm deluge lasted a minute or two before its stop announced the next part of our shared trial, when the door to the pool opened and we had to splash through the foot bath and line up. After the hot shower, even the over-warm air of the pool felt icy and was, of course, a great leveler as we stood shivering, waiting for our names to be called and the torture of roll call to be replaced by some other test. After six years I swam as poorly as a senior as I did in seventh grade, but I was sure and certain of one thing. I was plebeian, and it was not an unhappy lot.