The Year Of The Oath is Not Over

In 2014, this weblog reviewed George R. Stewart’s classic work, The Year Of The Oath, a book about the loyalty oath controversy at the University of California, Berkeley.  The faculty won their battle to have the oath removed.  But oaths, pernicious and unconstitutional, still abound in public employment – even for teaching and research positions.

This past week, in one of the less-pleasant small world stories connected with Stewart and his work, another author in another college resigned when he was ordered to sign such an oath – years after he began teaching there.  James Sallis is by coincidence a George R. Stewart scholar who wrote  likely the best essay about Earth Abides for The Boston Globe. Sallis, who also wrote Drive, made into an award-winning movie starring Ryan Gosling; and he’s now written Driven, a sequel.  Sallis is a poet, a novelist, and – until recently – a teacher at Phoenix College in the city of that name.

His work in the classroom drew students from a wide geographic area.  He was an excellent teacher, who knows how to write well, and to sell his writing.  The chance to have this man as a mentor was a great boon to the apprentice wordsmiths.  But the administrators of the College – who Sallis says were professional, and asked him to stay  – said he couldn’t teach without signing.  He chose to follow his conscience, and resigned.  The administrators, when contacted by news organizations passed the buck, in this case to the Arizona legislature who authored the oath long ago.  Even local Arizona media found the entire story incredible.

Fortunately, his act of courage is having a far reach, and may eventually help result in the tossing of the oaths.

Sadly, the Year of the Oath is not yet ended.  Citizens would be well-advised to put their energies into correcting that rather than various red herring issues they seem to focus on.

(Disclaimer:  I refused to sign both the US Army oath – which had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court – and the California Standard Secondary Credential application oath without qualifying statements discussing the oaths’ illegality and unethical qualities.  That meant deferring teaching for a while, until the state oath was tossed out by the State Supreme Court.  As for the army oath – I have the rare distinction, during a time when protesters were trying to shut down the Oakland Army Induction Center, of keeping it open and keeping employees there long after they wanted to leave.)

Vigilantes – Heros or Terrorists?

In Earth Abides, Stewart’s human protagonist Isherwood Williams faced the biggest crisis in his small post-apocalyptic community when “Charlie” entered the story.  Two of the teenagers had been sent on a trans-American journey about 17 years after the founding of what Ish called The Tribe.  They found Charlie along the way, and brought him back with them.   Ish and his old “American” friends were deeply concerned, because Charlie had all the characteristics of a syphilitic alcoholic; and he packed a gun.  When he began to woo the teenage girl who was retarded, and she began to respond, the old men of the community met secretly do decide what to do about Charlie.  The decision was execution, since banished, he might return.

GRS, I think, was troubled by this part of his tale.  It was inevitable, given the truth of the events dramatized; but no enlightened author wants blood on his hands – or those of his “good” characters.  He apparently thought about this for years; then, in 1964, he wrote a history of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco which dealt with the issue of capital punishment meted out in an extra-legal way.

Committee of Vigilance is subtitled “Revolution in San Francisco, 1851.”  The implication is that, at least in the case of that particular group of vigilantes, they were exercising their American Right of Revolution to deal with a crisis that the formal government was ignoring.  Eventually, after a fair and public trial, they did condemn some of the criminals to death, and hung them in a public square.  Others were transported to Australia or otherwise punished.  The City’s crime wave, for a time, ended.

The Committee re-formed in 1856, and acted similarly.  But Stewart, who always wanted precision in his work, knew that he must focus on only one episode if he was to do the thorough research and writing the subject demanded.  Since it was the first, he chose the 1851 event.

His conclusion, very carefully thought through and written, is that the Committee of Vigilance of 1851 was, in the best American sense, legal, proper, and well-run.  One of the facts he emphasizes is that the Committee disbanded itself after three months.  It did not become one of those small nations’ permanent juntas.  The members did not want to be political leaders; like the farmers who fought in the American Revolution, they wanted to return to their farms as soon as they’d completed their work.  They were followers, in style if not in name, of Cincinnatus, Roman leader who became dictator just long enough to defeat an invasion of Rome, and then returned to his farm.

Committee of Vigilance lacks the writing flair of Stewart’s great novels,  but is compelling reading none-the-less.  In this day of constant ignoring of Constitutional, international and local laws by national and local governments, it reminds us that ultimately we are the ones – and the only ones – who can protect society.  The ideas of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hendry, and Paine are reflected in the work and history of Committee of Vigilance.  Every American is well-advised to read it.