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What Does Senator Cory Booker’s ‘Spartacus Moment’ Mean?

The New Jersey Democrat made a pop culture reference during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh — here’s what it was all about

When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) threatened to defy Senate rules and release confidential documents about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, he cited the opportunity to have his own “I am Spartacus” moment — and prompted a few head scratches about the pop culture reference.

“This is the closest I’ll ever get in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” Booker said, citing a line from the 1960 Academy Award-winning movie “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, and based on real history.

While the line Booker is referring to is iconic, it’s also just old enough that it’s beginning to slip from some people’s pop culture lexicon.

“Spartacus” follows a Thracian man named Spartacus (Douglas) who is a slave of the Roman empire in the 1st century B.C., but consistently defies them and leads other slaves in a revolt that initially proves successful.

When Spartacus’ fighters are surrounded and mostly slaughtered outside Rome, the Romans question the survivors to identify their leader so they can make an example of him. And that’s when the survivors each each stand up to declare, “I am Spartacus!” to protect their beloved leader.

The Romans wind up crucifying all the survivors, including Spartacus himself — who was based on a real man who led an uprising, though the “I am Spartacus” scene comes from the novel on which the movie is based, not history.

So Booker’s mention of the “I am Spartacus” moment refers to the Democrats defying what they see as an unjust rules about the disclosure of material derived from tens of thousands of documents related to Kavanaugh’s previous government service that had been marked “committee confidential.”

Democrats have argued that too many of Kavanaugh’s records remain unreleased, and that they haven’t had sufficient time to read through them as Republicans try to force through the nomination ahead of the midterm elections in November.

In threatening to make public the document, an email thread, Booker said he knew that  Republicans could pursue charges against him and even seek to oust him from the Senate.

Booker is also talking about his willingness to sacrifice himself for a cause he believes in, the way Spartacus and his men were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause of advancing freedom in Rome.

Apart from the situation with Booker, there’s another “I am Spartacus” moment taking place in American politics — sort of.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed it says was written by a senior member of the Trump White House. The article, titled “I Am Part of the Resistance in the Trump Administration,” talked about the author’s work with others in the administration to curb Donald Trump’s worst impulses as president and actively undermine some parts of his agenda, for the good of the country.

Speculation has run rampant as to who exactly might have written the article. Some think the use of the word “lodestar” might mean that it’s Vice President Mike Pence, since that’s a term he uses a lot in speeches — or that someone might be trying to set Pence up.

Thursday saw many officials denying they were responsible for the article, which led to many on Twitter calling it an “I am not Spartacus” moment. It’s a joke at the expense of those officials by those who see major problems in Trump’s presidency.

Rather than officials coming together in solidarity with their colleague, who wrote that they and others are working to protect the country from its leadership, critics see officials as stepping back to leave whoever wrote the article to take the punishment, and save themselves.

These are two cases of the “Spartacus” reference in action, one meant to praise people for standing up for their principles, and the other used to mock folks who seemingly refuse to do so. As many have pointed out in reference to Booker’s “Spartacus” mention, though, it’s worth noting that things didn’t work out too well for Spartacus in the end. That’s kind of the point, though — at least he’s remembered.