Anthony D. Romero
1,260,889 views • 12:48

Silicon Valley is obsessed with disruption, but these days, the biggest disruptor didn't come out of Silicon Valley. It came out of steel towns in Ohio, rural communities in Pennsylvania, the Panhandle in Florida. And this last US presidential election was the mother of all disruptions. Once again, politics is personal. Millions of Americans became activists overnight, pouring into the streets in record numbers in record time.

(Laughter)

The election has done to family holiday dinners what Uber has done to New York City's taxi system. Couples have broken up and marriages disrupted. And the election is doing to my private life what Amazon is doing to shopping malls. These days, the ACLU is on the front lines 24/7, and even if I manage to sneak away for a couple of miles on the treadmill, any cardio benefit I get is instantly obliterated when I read another presidential tweet on the headline scroll. Even my secret pleasure of studying the Italian painters have been infected by politics.

Now, I study, even stalk, the old masters. This is my desk, with a postcard exhibition of some famous and obscure paintings mostly from the Italian Renaissance. Now, art used to provide me with a necessary break from the hurly-burly of politics in my daily work at the ACLU, but not anymore.

I was at the Women's March in San Francisco the day after inauguration, and the crowd was chanting, "This is what democracy looks like." "This is what democracy looks like." And there I was holding my sign and my umbrella in the rain, and I flashed on an old painting that first captivated me many years ago. I struggled to remember the different pieces of an actual painting of good and bad government. It was almost like the old master was taunting me. You want to know what democracy looks like? Go back and look at my frescoes.

And so I did. In 1339, Ambrogio Lorenzetti finished a monumental commission in the governing council chamber of Siena's Palazzo Pubblico. It's a painting that speaks to us, even screams to us, today. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," Pablo Picasso once said. And as we search for the truth about government, we should keep Ambrogio's work, not a lie but an allegory, in our collective mind's eye.

During Lorenzetti's time, the political legitimacy of Italian city-states was often on very shaky ground. Siena was a republic, but there had been enormous unrest in the two decades leading up to the commission. Siena's political leaders, who would literally govern under the eyes of these allegorical figures, were Lorenzetti's intended audience. He was cataloging the obligations of the governing to the governed.

Now, you can spend years studying these frescoes. Some scholars have. I'm hardly an art historian, but I am passionate about art, and a work this massive can overwhelm me. So first, I focus on the big stuff.

This is the allegory of good government. The majestic figure here in the middle is dressed in Siena's colors and he personifies the republic itself. Lorenzetti labels him "Commune," and he's basically telling the Sienese that they, and not a king or a tyrant, must rule themselves. Now, surrounding Commune are his advisors. Justice is enthroned. She's looking up at the figure of wisdom, who actually supports her scales of justice. Concord, or Harmony, holds a string that comes off the scales of justice that binds her to the citizens, making them all compatriots in the republic. And finally we see Peace. She looks chilled out, like she's listening to Bob Marley. When good government rules, Peace doesn't break a sweat.

Now, these are big images and big ideas, but I really love the small stuff. Along another wall, Lorenzetti illustrates the effects of good government on the real and everyday lives of ordinary people with a series of delicious little details. In the countryside, the hills are landscaped and farmed. Crops are being sown, hoed, reaped, milled, plowed, all in one picture. Crops and livestock are being brought to market. In the city, builders raise a tower. People attend a law lecture, a TED Talk of the 14th century.

(Laughter)

Schoolchildren play. Tradesmen thrive. Dancers larger than life dance with joy. And watching over the republic is the winged figure Security, whose banner reads, "Everyone shall go forth freely without fear."

Now, what's amazing about these images from 800 years ago is that they're familiar to us today. We see what democracy looks like. We experience the effects of good government in our lives, just as Lorenzetti did in his life.

But it is the allegory of bad government that has been haunting me since November 9. It's badly damaged, but it reads like today's newspapers. And ruling over bad government is not the Commune but the Tyrant. He has horns, tusks, crossed eyes, braided hair. He obviously spends a lot of time on that hair.

(Laughter)

Justice now lies helpless at his feet, shackled. Her scales have been severed. Justice is the key antagonist to the Tyrant, and she's been taken out.

Now, surrounding the Tyrant, Lorenzetti illustrates the vices that animate bad government. Avarice is the old woman clutching the strongbox and a fisherman's hook to pull in her fortune. Vainglory carries a mirror, and Lorenzetti warns us against narcissistic leaders who are guided by their own ego and vanity. On the Tyrant's right is Cruelty. Treason, half lamb, half scorpion, lulls us into a false sense of security and then poisons a republic. Fraud, with the flighty wings of a bat. On the Tyrant's left, you see Division. She's dressed in Siena's colors. "Si" and "No" are painted on her body. She uses a carpenter's saw to chop her body in half. And Fury wields the weapons of the mob, the stone and knife.

In the remainder of the fresco, Lorenzetti shows us the inevitable effects of bad government. The civic ideals celebrated elsewhere in this room have failed us, and we see it. The once beautiful city has fallen to pieces, the countryside barren, the farms abandoned. Many are in flames. And in the sky above is not the winged figure Security, but that of Fear, whose banner reads: "None shall pass along this road without fear of death."

Now, the final image, the most important one, really, is one that Lorenzetti did not paint. It is of the viewer. Today, the audience for Lorenzetti's frescoes is not the governing but the governed, the individual who stands in front of his allegories and walks away with insight, who heeds a call to action. Lorenzetti warns us that we must recognize the shadows of Avarice, Fraud, Division, even Tyranny when they float across our political landscape, especially when those shadows are cast by political leaders loudly claiming to be the voice of good government and promising to make America great again.

And we must act. Democracy must not be a spectator sport. The right to protest, the right to assemble freely, the right to petition one's government, these are not just rights. In the face of Avarice, Fraud and Division, these are obligations. We have to disrupt —

(Applause)

We have to disrupt our lives so that we can disrupt the amoral accretion of power by those who would betray our values. We and we the people must raise justice up and must bring peace to our nation and must come together in concord, and we have a choice. We could either paint ourselves into the worst nightmare of Lorenzetti's bad government, or we can stay in the streets, disruptive, messy, loud. That is what democracy looks like.

Thank you.

(Applause)

Chris Anderson: First of all, wow. Obviously, many people passionately — you spoke to many people passionately here. I'm sure there are other people here who'd say, look, Trump was elected by 63 million people. He's far from perfect, but he's trying to do what he was elected to do. Shouldn't you give him a chance?

Anthony Romero: I think we have to recognize the legitimacy of him as president versus the legitimacy of his policies. And when so many of the policies are contrary to fundamental values, that we're all equal under the law, that we're not judged by the color of our skin or the religion we worship, we have to contest those values even as we recognize and honor the fact that our democracy rendered us a president who is championing those values.

CA: And the ACLU isn't just this force on the left, right? You're making other arguments as well.

AR: Well, you know, very often we piss everyone off at one point. That's what we do. And we recently were taking stands for why Ann Coulter needs to be able to speak at Berkeley, and why Milo has free speech rights. And we even wrote a blog that almost burnt the house down among some of our members, unfortunately, when we talked about the fact that even Donald Trump has free speech rights as president, and an effort to hold him accountable for incitement of violence at his marches or his rallies is unconstitutional and un-American. And when you put that statement out there to a very frothy base that always is very excited for you to fight Donald Trump, and then you have a new one saying, "Wait, these rights are for everybody, even the president that we don't like." And that's our job.

(Applause)

CA: Anthony, you spoke to so many of us so powerfully.

Thank you so much. Thank you.

(Applause)