Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a speech Patty Limerick gave at a public meeting of the National Council of the Humanities on Dec. 6, 2019.
I am the faculty director and chair of the board of an organization called the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where the word “center” has several meanings. The meaning I will accent now is that we hold onto a position at the center of things in a contentious time. One demonstration of that commitment is that a few days from now, I will host a public conversation between two Colorado public servants who have forged and maintained a friendship across party lines: former Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez and former Democratic Congressman and Senator Mark Udall.
When I was a freshman in college, we took a required, year-long course in Western Civilization. Fifty years later, I benefit nearly every day from things I learned in that course. While I will not take a stand on the Reformation and the separation of Protestants from the Catholic Church, I will declare that the words that Martin Luther said when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses have stayed front and center in my mind since I was a 17-year-old in that required Western Civ class: “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”
So that should be a fair warning for the observation I am about to offer on current events.
I am a much bigger fan of doggerel verse than I am of official forms, but I still recognize that an official form carries far more weight than even the most exquisite and artful of limericks. And so, when the postman brought me a document called a “Notification of Personnel Action” informing me of my “termination” as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, I did not waste my time by crafting a limerick that might prevail over this notification. (I am leaving the Council because the Senate has confirmed my successor and the successors of my 15 colleagues.)
Here is an honest confession: I would have liked to have stayed on board this ship. I have enjoyed every voyage I have taken on it, and I do not want to desert Chairman Jon Peede, nor my colleagues on the Council, nor the impressive and dedicated public servants who work for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But now for the good news.
A close reading of the termination provides a spirit-lifting recognition: not a word in that document states that I am now relieved of the promises I made, back in 2016, when then-Chairman William Adams, a scholar of high achievement and a Vietnam veteran, administered my oath of office. Obviously, the final statement in that oath (“I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter”) has lost its bearing. But I am very pleased to realize that I have not been released from my obligation to the other 50 words.
Because of my participation in the Department of Defense’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, created to convey respect to the veterans of that war, I have had the opportunity to become involved with veterans of multiple wars, including the student veterans at the University of Colorado. This leads me to salute — in every sense — a man who has served his nation with bravery as an officer in the United States Army and who has, with equal bravery, also served his nation as an advocate of the humanities, testifying with extraordinary force to the finest qualities of this nation’s heritage.
I am referring to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, and I am referring particularly to his statement before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, where he contrasted the danger he would face, if he lived in other countries, with his freedom in the United States. On Nov. 19, he assured his worried father that he would be safe here: “Dad, [that] I’m sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
It was a radiant moment when I realized that, in joining the Army, Alexander Vindman took nearly the same oath that I took in 2016, with the difference that he vowed to serve in the military and I vowed to serve, much less strenuously, on the National Council for the Humanities.
In a well-established custom, quite a number of wives and husbands choose to take part in a ritual in which they publicly renew their vows. This custom has not spread to public service, but I don’t see why it couldn’t. So, as my departing statement at the public meeting of the National Council on the Humanities on this date, Dec. 6, 2019, I will now perform that ceremony. And I invite any or all of the current or departing members of the council to join me in reasserting our commitment to this Oath:
I, Patricia Limerick, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. So help me God.
And now, on the chance that doggerel verse still exercises at least a tiny fraction of power to persuade, I conclude with a rhymed tribute to that oath:
The nation’s cohesion is slipping.
Its civility is steadily dipping.
But it’s the humanities’ fate
To refuse darkness and hate,
Holding fast to an oath that stays gripping.
The National Endowment for the Humanities provides the nation’s best arena for a civil exploration of the question: What does it mean to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic?”
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado and a regular columnist for The Denver Post.
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