Right Now We’re Living the ‘Allegory of Bad Government,’ and We Have an Obligation to Resist It

On April 25, I was thrilled to deliver a TED Talk in Vancouver. I’m a lover of Italian art, and one of my favorite old masters is Ambrogio Lorenzetti. In 1339, Lorenzetti finished a series of frescos whose message resonates with us today as President Donald Trump attacks the values that define America.

Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” is a reminder that good government is characterized by Justice, Concord, Peace, and Wisdom while bad government is animated by Division, Avarice, Fury, Vainglory, even Tyranny. When good government reigns, all is well. When bad government plagues the realm, the Tyrant usurps the power of the people and the citizens suffer.


For me, and I hope for you, the paintings are a call to action. Democracy, as I say in the talk, is not a spectator sport. Since January 20, bad government is ascendant. But good government — in the form of people taking to the streets and the courts working as they should — has shown that the American people and our form of government will persevere if we stay vigilant and jealously guard our liberties.

Our choice is clear: We can either stay in the streets or find ourselves painted into Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Bad Government.”

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Here is the text of my TED Talk:

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.

This last 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.

The election did to family holiday dinners what Uber did to the New York City taxi system.

Couples 
have broken up. 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. If I try to sneak away for a few miles on the treadmill, any cardio benefit is instantly obliterated by the blood pressure spike that comes with reading another presidential tweet on the headline scroll.

Even my secret pleasure of studying the Italian painters has been infected by politics.

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” said Picasso.

I study, even stalk, the old masters. This is my desk — with my postcard exhibition of famous and obscure paintings — mostly from the Italian Renaissance.

Art used to provide a necessary escape from the hurly burly of politics and my work at the ACLU.

Not anymore.

I was at the women’s march in San Francisco the day after inauguration. The crowd was chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” Suddenly, I flashed on an old Italian fresco that first captivated me many years ago. Holding my sign and umbrella in the rain, I struggled to remember all the different pieces of an actual painting of good and bad government. It's almost like the old master was taunting me, "You want to know what democracy looks like? Go back and look at my frescoes." So I did.

In 1339, Ambrogio Lorenzetti finished a monumental commission in the governing council chamber of Sienna’s Palazzo Pubblico. His paintings still speak to us — even scream to us — 800 years later.

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” said Picasso.

And as we search for the truth about government, we should keep Ambrogrio’s work — not a lie but an allegory — in our collective mind’s eye.

In Lorenzetti’s time, the political legitimacy of Italian city-states was often on very shaky ground. Sienna was a republic. Yet there had been enormous unrest in the two decades leading up to the commission.

Sienna’s political leaders, who would literally govern under the eyes of these allegorical figures, were Lorenzetti’s audience. He was cataloging the obligations of the governing to the governed.

You can spend years studying the frescoes. Some scholars have.

I’m hardly a scholar, but I am passionate about art.

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 in the middle here — dressed in Sienna’s colors — personifies the republic itself. Lorenzetti labels him Commune, and he is telling the Siennese that they — not a king or tyrant — must rule themselves.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Allegory of Good Government

Surrounding Commune are his advisers.

Justice is enthroned and looking up at the figure of Wisdom, who actually supports her scales.

Concord — or harmony— holds a chord that originates from the scales of Justice and binds her to the citizens — making them all compatriots in the republic.

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.

Big images. Big ideas.

But I really love the small stuff.

Disruptive. Messy. Loud. That is what democracy looks like.

Along another wall, Lorenzetti illustrates the impact 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, and plowed all in one picture. Crops and livestock are brought to market.

In the city, builders raise a tower. People attend a law lecture — a TED talk of the 14th century. School children play. Tradesmen thrive. Dancers — larger than life — dance with joy.

The republic is watched over by Security, whose banner reads: “Everyone shall go forth freely without fear.”

What’s incredible is that these images, 800 years old, are familiar to us today. We see what democracy looks like. We experience the effects of good government in our world, just as Lorenzetti did in his life.

But it’s the “Allegory of Bad Government” that has been haunting me since November 9. It's badly damaged, but it reads like today's newspapers.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Allegory of Bad Government

Ruling over Bad Government is not the Commune, but the Tyrant.

He has horns, tusks, crossed eyes, and braided hair. He obviously spends a lot of time on that hair.

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

Around the Tyrant, Lorenzetti paints the vices that animate bad government.

Avarice is the old woman at left behind him, clutching her strongbox and a fisherman’s hook to pull in her fortune.

Vainglory carries a mirror. Lorenzetti warns us against narcissistic leaders guided by ego and vanity.

On the tyrant's right, we find Cruelty.

Treason — half lamb, half scorpion — lulls us into a false sense of security and then poisons the republic.

Fraud – with the flighty wings of a bat.

On the Tyrant’s left, Division is clothed in Sienna’s colors. Si and No are painted on her body. She chops her body in half with a carpenter’s saw.

Fury — wields the weapons of the mob — the stone and knife.

Democracy mustn’t be a spectator sport. 

In the remainder of the fresco, Lorenzetti shows us the inevitable effects of bad government. The civic ideals celebrated elsewhere in the room have now failed us. And we see it.

The once beautiful city is falling to pieces. The countryside is barren; its farms abandoned — many in flames.

In the sky above, the winged figure is not Security, but Fear. Her banner reads: “None shall pass along this road without fear of Death.”

The final image — the most important really — is one that Lorenzetti didn’t paint. It is of the viewer. Today, the audience for Lorenzetti’s fresco is not the governing but the governed: the individuals who stand in front of his allegories and walk away with insight — who heed a call to action.

The frescoes warn us that we must recognize the shadows of Fury, Division, Vainglory, and even Tyranny when they float across our political landscape. Especially when those shadows are cast by individuals loudly claiming the voice of good government — promising to make America great again.

And we must act.

Democracy mustn’t 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 our own lives — so that we can disrupt the amoral accretion of power by those who would betray our values. We — we the people — must raise Justice up, bring peace to our nation, and come together in Concord.

We have a choice. We can paint ourselves into Lorenzetti’s nightmare of Bad Government. Or we can stay in the streets.

Disruptive. Messy. Loud. That is what democracy looks like.

Add a comment (44)
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Anonymous

Who/what is it we are to oppose as we "stay in the streets?"

Anonymous

...whatever you want...this is the nature of democracy

Of course, indirect actions in protest pale in comparison to direct actions...

Donny Trump

Hi everyone, I'm Donny Trump and I'm kushner gay-gay!

Pat Witt

We are to oppose greed whenever it threatens the public good. We oppose oppression of the poor and minority populations. We publicly expose lies and corruption. We insist on keeping are civil rights, including access to the ballot box. We oppose government sanctioned bloodshed as often as we can.

Deborah Wilson

This was a terrific presentation. I'll try to help the ACLU if I'm able in time.

Anonymous

Ted's last words to Mary Jo Kopechne 'If you get a bum cap talk to Colonel Sanders and keep your nose off the ground "

Anonymous

What makes the ACLU the last word of what is "good" or "evil". Do you not support the slaughter of living human beings at their youngest and vulnerable stage of development/life?

Anonymous

Trump shoulda been aborted!

Anonymous

Every child has the right to born WANTED. The risks of a horrible life increase breathtakingly if the child can't be taken care of, isn't wanted. Just look at what happens to children worldwide, and you'll see how hypocritical it is to call abortion slaughter.

Ed Weldon

Babies are living human beings at the point where they take their first breath after their umbilical cord is parted. Up to that point they are part of the mother and like all other body parts they are subject to her control and wishes. Any attempt by other humans to take physical control of a mother's body should be limited by the definition of the crime of assault. So no. I agree there should be no support for the slaughter of living human beings. Nor do I support the redefinition of a living human being for the purpose of oppression and control of women or their bodies or some other nefarious attempt to build wealth and power.

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