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Our Flawed Political Leaders

6 Nov

I wrote this yesterday – just some idle thoughts on this political campaign season, a throwaway – and posted it on Facebook. Already at least three of my friends have copied and shared it.  So I’m putting it here just as a record it’s originally mine (easier to archive than Facebook).

(Meanwhile I’ve been carrying two, maybe three more in-depth posts around in my mind since August, looking for the time to develop them further here.)

As I prepare to vote on Tuesday, I find myself thinking and talking more and more about Lyndon Johnson (whom my students have never heard of, incidentally). I was not old enough to remember him and the obscenity of our war in Vietnam (my first actual memories began under Nixon), policies for which history has decided he was rightly despised. There is no apologizing for this, and this is what brought him down and overshadowed his presidency and his legacy, at first attacked by the progressive forces of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but undermined and succeeded by the likes of Nixon with the assistance of Cold War Democratic hawks and Dixiecrats.

And yet, here’s a list of what this often duplicitous and untrustworthy wheeling-and-dealing politician oversaw in just five years of his Presidency: The Civil Rights Act (actually two of them, the second including the Fair Housing Act), the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Law of 1965 that ended quotas and preference for white Europeans, the first Endangered Species Act, and the acts that created Medicare, Medicaid, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Head Start, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (NPR and PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the act that made food stamps a permanent program. (Not to mention appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.) None of these, which have altered and improved the lives of all Americans, would have existed or passed without him – flawed, dishonest, and hawkish as he was. Fifty years on it’s hard to imagine American life without these, even though arguably whatever social justice they helped to bring about at home stopped at the border of our empire. It’s also hard for us to conceive of the kind of political imagination that could envision these dramatic improvements that reshaped American life in just five years. (Even as there were more progressive voices inside and outside of government, some of whom formed useful alliances and some of whom remained in opposition.)

Little of this happened without considerable people pressure by progressives, progressives who were mobilized for years by violent and structural injustices in Southeast Asia and the U.S. South. As I’ve said before, democracy doesn’t end on Election Day, it begins then. No one we elect on Tuesday can or will be a savior. Not only is there no perfection, but it may take generations before we significantly change the course of our foreign policy away from its history of massive spending on war, violence, and weaponry, or address the damage we unleashed during “shock and awe” in 2003. Are we going to address economic inequality, racial injustice, or the steps needed to stop catastrophic climate change in the next four years? That’s up to us, but it will help not having someone in the office who would like to forcibly turn the clock back to a time before any of these social advances were part of the fabric of modern America. Nor will it help having someone in office too flagrantly disrespectful of science, sociological evidence, public policy, history, tolerance, and gender equity to recognize the relationship between the folly of willful ignorance, nationalism, hatred, and catastrophe.

The Feast Day of Óscar Romero

24 Mar

I have to start by saying I am not a Catholic, so everything that follows here comes from someone who is not coming from within the tradition.  And yet, every year when March 24th comes around, I find myself meditating on the life of Archbishop Óscar Romero who was assassinated on this date in 1980, just before – full disclosure again – I became involved in movements to keep the U.S. military and government from intervening in the wars in Central America.

Then I come across this Vatican Radio article (on Facebook no less) about the first occurrence of Romero’s Feast Day since his beatification by Pope Francis.  I don’t know how such things work, but I find myself moved that his first Feast Day can’t be celebrated as such because this year it falls on Holy Thursday.  I’m also deeply moved that there is also an effort to beatify Fr. Rutilio Grande, who is also known to Pope Francis himself.

Why does this matter, even to nonbelievers?  I mean, even if the idea of  Feast Day or a beatification has no meaning for you, what is it that makes this stand out as so important.  From my perspective, there are two reasons. Two very powerful, even emotional reasons.

First, especially in light of the illegal and inhuman EU-Turkey refugee deal last week, when all the governments of Europe and Turkey conspired to deny the most vulnerable populations of refugees their human and legal rights, it is clear that we live in a moment of such widespread mediocrity in our leadership worldwide (with the exception of the current Pope, but any others?) that not a one of these European leaders will go down in history leaving behind a single memorable legacy or achievement.  Every one of them is ultimately forgettable, because they stand for nothing when it comes to culture, morality, building a better and sustainable future, equity, vision, community, or humanity.  And at the worst possible moment: the decisions and actions we take over the next ten to twenty years in response to climate change will determine the fate of human civilization on this planet.  We can’t wait a couple of generations for better and more moral leadership to come along.  Time is running out, and the leaders we have selected are bureaucrats more interested in national security than human security, and profit and privatization instead of mutually supportive economic practices and goals.

Second, especially in the United States, the idea of morality has been almost completely hijacked by the right in the most sanctimonious of ways in principle and hypocritical ways in practice.  Moral leadership has become aligned with conservatism (even as the conservatives running for President sink to new lows in rhetoric and the morality they express from the campaign podium).  To read about the moral courage of someone like Romero amidst the background noise of the gutter and trivia of American politics is to throw our true bankruptcy into full relief.  And again, at a moment in geological time when we have to make life-or-death decisions determining the fate of life on the planet, our front rank of leaders (many of them elected) exhibit such moral weakness in the face of multinational corporations and the seductions of quick profits that we have little hope of ever finding our better selves, let alone putting them effectively into action.

It’s not a question of waiting for leaders as if they are going to be anointed and appointed from party apparatuses above to look after us.  It is instead a question of how exceptional and moral leadership bubbles up from the bottom but inserts itself by shifting the channels of power like small rivers that set their own course as they stream.  Think of not only Rutilio Grande, a priest rather than a member of the hierarchy, but of young leaders like John Lewis and Cesar Chavez and Berta Cáceres.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to pursue that mystery of our culture: Why is moral courage despised, to such an extent that we reward and let our world be run by those who instead value expedience, profit, and self-aggrandizement?  How did we develop a social system that from an evolutionary perspective works against our own species’ long-term interests?

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil,
    but those who promote peace have joy.” – Proverbs 12:20


The Decimation of democracy’s critical class

13 Mar

There are two social institutions whose independence and viability are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and which are vulnerable to structural dismantling in a way that take at least a generation to repair.  They are vital for a democracy precisely because they muster the ability to criticize, question, and push back against Power, against the walls behind which government, business, military, or religious institutions exercise control. These sectors are the press and higher education. They operate, outside the walls, not as isolated voices but as collaborations of research and revelation, networks of thousands of individual voices operating as a chorus with shared commitment to uncovering and approaching the truth and then disseminating their findings to readers, students, and other colleagues.  (And I’m under no illusions any kind of uniformly enlightened academia or journalism – there can always be reactionaries and hacks in any large tent.  But then again the complexity of those sectors make such a spectrum possible.)

It is kind of accepted worldwide that a free press is absolutely essential for that reason, though it is not as widely accepted about universities in that kind of constitutional sense because there are those who believe universities are just for the teaching and mastery of job skills, not for the independent voice of social critique.  After all, freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution, though academic freedom is not.

The press does not exist merely to record and transmit the official story.  Universities do not exist merely to provide job training for future workers who will serve government or business without being called on to make decisions.  The basis of living in a democracy is the right to participate in decisions about the community’s future, and the basis of being a moral and effective worker is the ability to have a say in decisions that affect the corporation as well as the surrounding environment (natural as well as human).  The essence of good decision-making is not just critical thinking but also having a well-developed body of knowledge about the issues before us, knowledge that can be complex but one that includes valid evidence and perspectives, rather than ignoring them.

In this context, it is frightening to read, in a very moving investigative article by Dale Maharidge, that the number of full-time reporters for daily print newspapers in the U.S. has dropped 40% in the past nine years, and that rate may accelerate. (This article is really worth reading, devastating, and was the inspiration for this post in the first place.)  As Maharidge makes clear, it’s not just a question that daily print newspapers are being replaced with Internet journalism, but that older reporters with long and local historical knowledge are being let go while inexperienced younger reporters are stepping in. Second, the web-based news is more likely to be national or global rather than local, and even worse, as Maharidge contends, more likely to be to be centered on celebrity and what is entertaining, rather than on what has implications in people’s lives.  But perhaps most devastating is that this new generation of freelance journalists is being asked to work or write for little or no pay, or at best are paid only for the stories they can sell.  Certainly only in the rarest cases are Internet reporters well-compensated and receiving benefits, although recent unionization at Gawker and other news websites is an encouraging start.  At the same time, the type of stories being covered are changing from local and hard news that require interviewing and digging, to the kind of pieces that are either unquestioning repeats of political declarations by our leaders, or that are entertaining (including fear-mongering as a form of horror-show entertainment).

A 40% cut in practicing, full-time personnel would be devastating to any industry.  Not just for the lives and families affected, but for the loss of output, historical knowledge and knowledge of the craft by the elders in the field, and for the inevitable rush to the center among the survivors.  Picture a fishing vessel facing waves crashing over the sides and sweeping the crew overboard.  Those who want to survive will run towards the safer center and cower, rather than ever risk standing near the edge or exposing themselves to risk of any kind.

That kind of sizable cut would also imply that even assuming the nature of news stories were to stay the same, there would be that many fewer stories exposed by the press because there were more topics than the remaining writers could accommodate.  Imagine a 40% cut in the number of stories about climate change, for example, or remaining reporters now having to cover, say, the environment as well as another beat.  They won’t be able to produce as much, investigate as deeply or broadly, and will also have to master multiple fields with professional sophistication in order to interpret what they are being told. (I gnash my teeth sometimes when I hear even NPR reporters who can’t get the details right in immigration law reporting. And we are all still waiting for just one reporter with evidence to confront Ted Cruz on his oft-repeated claim that Obamacare has cost thousands of jobs.)  Put another way, instead of 50 reporters on the ground covering a war, now there would be 30, or there might be 50 but they have to cover more countries and more conflicts, and obviously can’t be two places at once. Stringers are constrained by having to write what will sell, rather than having the financial support of a newspaper to pay for their livelihood while they dig.  In every case, depth as well as the inductive and experienced knowledge from being on the ground are all sacrificed, and can’t be easily recovered. 

Once the business plan of daily newspapers and the field of journalism in general shifts to such an extent that such a high percentage of practitioners are lost, it’s hard to imagine the equal and opposite reaction on the other end of this.  In other words, the proverbial pendulum may not in fact exist and there won’t be a time when suddenly there’s  40% growth in jobs in declining industries like print media.  Newspapers are shutting down much faster than they are starting up. After all, even if there is a massive rehiring, it will take at least a decade for all the new hires to begin to acquire the kind of experience that presumably makes specialists wiser and more able to develop a network of sources.  (Personal pet peeve: there is nothing I hate more than random “person-on-the-street” sound bites, to get the impressions of either totally uninformed or prejudiced people, and usually just one at that, on the air, especially in lieu of interviews with informed parties on multiple sides of an issue.  But I will return to this in another post.)

The same goes for universities, especially researchers and writers.  Much more has been written on the shift over the past twenty years from full-time faculty, engaged in research and writing as well as teaching, to adjuncts hired to teach only, and at such low wages that they are forced to take on extraordinary teaching loads to make ends meet.

Universities are famous worldwide as crucibles of dissent and of research and science (no contradiction there).  And while teaching the young – not just teaching material but teaching the right to question – can be an exercise in freedom, the time and resources to conduct research is at least equally important.  It’s the R&D division of democracies, if you will, and what company can innovate and respond without investment in R&D?  Wipe this sector out and you wipe out an entire intellectual class (like it or not, for millennia every complex society has had its scholar class).  If governments and church denominations can control universities, especially the time and liberty to conduct research, as well as what is taught and what is disseminated to the public, then the critical potential of universities can be circumscribed.  In its most extreme form, this state or military control can lead to the assassination of university leaders, faculty, and students (for example, the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989).  But there are more subtle and systemic ways as well, for example by tying research funding to military and business ends, cutting government funding, and most recently, filling boards with figures from business, not academia. As many have pointed out, this leads to restructuring the faculty so that the majority of classes are taught by underpaid, contingent workers with neither job security nor research portfolios, rather than comfortably-paid professors with lifetime appointments, institutional memory, and the ability to work with students on social and political issues without fear of losing their jobs.  I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said and documented in more detail by others, both the “adjunctification” of universities, as well as the retreat from enlightenment, if you will, described by Jane Jacobs as well as, most recently, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

In about 25 years, the percent of college courses in America taught by full-timers has dropped from about two-thirds to 30%.   The number of full-time faculty has not expanded with the increase in the population attending college, meaning that student-faculty ratios have increased as have faculty teaching loads.  The emphasis is less on the productive work of professional intellectuals as scholars, and more on providing credits for students to obtain their degrees, and in fields in which they are more likely to be able to pay off their debts, because tuition has outpaced inflation and so college is actually harder to afford now.

As I said, others have written about this more than I, and even I have written here about some of this.  But here’s the significant point: in one generation, American universities have changed to a business model that favors training, employment and paying off debt (for alumni) and part-time, contingent work over lifetime investment in faculty to do work including research, writing, and occupying a critical role in our society. Adjuncts can be outstanding teachers but their job function does not permit them the time or resources to be researchers or voices of conscience. And then, will it even be possible for current graduate students and undergraduates to find full-time careers as scholars and professors?  Some will, but how many – and who – will be sacrificed in the name of competition?  (A little bit like the journalists who are getting laid off.)  My heart broke for the young poli. sci. major from Florida who told Hillary Clinton in the Miami debate that she wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.  Sure, we need people like that, but will there be enough chairs in the market for her?  Or will she invest 5-10 years of her life only to get jobs that pay, total, $25,000 a year with no health insurance?

As for the research itself, why wouldn’t you want to be creating positions for more medical researchers, more sociological researchers, more science researchers, to address the most pressing problems of our time?  After all, if you want to find a cure for, say, colon cancers or dementia, why wouldn’t you want to have more researchers working on this and involving more young people in the research and showing them the ropes?  It’s simple common sense that 200 scientists working on a problem or treatment are more likely to come up with useful results than just 120 could.

It’s going to take a lot more national imagination to figure out a way to restore that intellectual class, including a restructuring of education funding  so that tuition doesn’t become the main economic lifeblood of every college and university.  That not only makes students feel they are “consumers,” it also means there is less money to invest in projects that may or may not produce significant short-term results. Such a renaissance of what universities can achieve for democracy and humanity is years away.  Same thing with rebuilding the journalism industry.  It’s not just local print dailies, but the kinds of stories and reporting, and as a by-product, civic involvement they were able to support.  That means getting readers to be interested in learning what is going on around them, and not just parroting and reinforcing their prejudices or following their favorite celebrities (including news personalities) as news.  Yes, the next generation could take this on, with the help of current (tenured) academics and experienced reporters – if they can find the money to support such work.

Alarmingly, we’re at a historical period when we really don’t have time.  The press and universities cannot be absent at what all evidence suggests is a crossroads in our decisions about how to handle climate change and whether or not to continue extracting fossil fuels.  Unlike past generations, this generation has the unique timing to come along when the decisions we make will affect habitability for the next few centuries, if not the fate of humanity itself.  We don’t have twenty years for universities and the press to come up with a critical agenda of questions and answers to allow us to find solutions and grill our elected leaders to do the same.  The disappearance of universities and reporters as significant critical voices is coming at the worst possible time, and we haven’t even found a way – or the political will – to begin to reverse the trend.


Chris Rock: Risky Insights or Flat Notes?

29 Feb

Even before last night’s Academy Award ceremony was over, online columnists were congratulating Chris Rock for his “thorny, meaty, and hilarious” and “brilliant and brave” opening monologue. While he certainly made points that took the Oscars in a better direction – and spared us the nearly revanchist embarrassment of Neil Patrick Harris as host – perhaps I am alone in finding it flat and oddly reassuring when it could have been risky and provocative.

I applaud the way Rock explained and exposed “sorority racism,” but it was also an opportunity to introduce America, using biting satire, to structural racism more broadly. Let’s recognize that Rock is now of a stature where he has little to lose.  So to say that the issues people are facing today are less serious or significant than those of fifty years ago may be, on some level, empirically true, but structural racism, economic and educational equality, mass incarceration, and police violence are still pretty significant manifestations of oppression that continues today.  It’s not just a question of “opportunity.”  It is a question of inequity when it comes to who produces pictures, who is hired in positions of power and decision-making, and who is actually purchasing most of the movie tickets in this country and this world.  Structural racism is perpetuated by those kinds of disproportionate imbalances between the producers, the artists getting work, and the people buying the tickets and buying into the dream.

So no, I don’t think his speech would qualify as “meaty” or as “brave.”  The past couple of weeks, I have been showing my students films about the Black Panthers, Nina Simone, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos – people who risked and sometimes lost everything and yet who are unknown by college students (even adult ones) today.  Compare them to Beyoncé, for example.  I found Rock last night to be not his usual edgy self, but safe, even at times reassuring that we will be able to get past today’s issues.  To me his message included a kind of subtext that said, Hollywood, we know once you provide more opportunity things will get better, without really digging in to why it’s more than just a Hollywood problem and more than just an opportunity deficit.  He had the stage and could have had a moment where the satire was as sharp as he has been in the past, but to me his message was blunted.

But one line really bothered me.  The joke, quoted as “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short” hit a sour note for me for several reasons.  First, lynching is one of those rare topics that to me doesn’t belong in any joke or any line that’s going to end with a laugh.  It’s beyond the pale, even if the satire is in the service of a larger, just point.  I know he wasn’t making light of it in any way, but even as a throwaway to an intro, the image is too horrible to even turn around and laugh, no matter the gallows of this particular humor.

But second, and more subtle, is that “best documentary foreign short” actually is very important for all of the same reasons why we struggle for diversity.  Those other categories at the Oscars, especially the documentaries but also foreign films from time to time, are exactly where the issues of racism, violence, injustice and so forth have been openly discussed when Hollywood and mainstream cinema has been way too timid to take risks.  People need to see those documentaries, precisely because they are not trivial, because they do cover lynching. In fact, this very year’s winner for Short Documentary is about honor killings in Pakistan, which are indeed lynchings – some irony there, no?  (Shout out to director Sharmeen Obaid, who generously agreed to meet with me and my students at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival showing of her radiant documentary Song of Lahore.)  Without documentaries like this one, how would we know or learn about killings like this around the world.  While I haven’t seen it yet, I am also eagerly awaiting 3 1/2 Minutes – 10 Bullets which was short-listed this year though not nominated.

To be brave you have to risk something.  To be meaty, brilliant, and thorny you have to provide insights that don’t just voice what most of the people in the room would like to say, but that takes them to a different level of understanding or provokes them to investigate further.  With great respect for Chris Rock’s career, I don’t think last night he achieved either.  Then again, I grew up in an era of Oscar telecasts with acceptance speeches that included congratulations from the Viet Cong, condemnations of fascism, McCarthyism, and anti-Semitism, parallels between U.S. intervention in Central America and Vietnam, the role of American corporations in the nuclear weapons industry and pollution, and more recently speeches by Michael Moore and Errol Morris two years in a row.  None of these Oscar speeches were so celebrated, and in fact most were derided as inappropriate.  Sad to say, but the Salon and Mother Jones commentators may be too young to remember when political protest wasn’t so safe and watered down as it is today.

*   *    *

On a brighter note, lost in the discussion of the absence of people of color in the acting categories, was the fact that of the award-winning filmmakers themselves, the winners’ circle was actually quite diverse.  The Best Director award went to Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu for the second year in a row – and in fact the third consecutive year for a Mexican director.  As mentioned above, the winner for short documentary was Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid, winning her second Academy Award as well.  (She may be only the second woman to win two directing awards, after Barbara Kopple – I’ll have to check.)  The animated short film was directed and produced in Chile, and the director of the feature documentary, Amy, is British of South Asian descent.  Also, the producer of the full-length animated film is a U.S. American of Latino background.

While much can still be written about American cultural and cinematic hegemony – after all, there are thriving and major popular film industries coming out of India, Hong Kong, Mexico and many other countries, yet only the American Oscars are seen worldwide and American films exported with more force behind them than other countries’ films – the Oscars are changing with more foreign films and directors getting some recognition, or even work.  Who would have thought that the directors of Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También would come to Hollywood and win Oscars?  There is much here in the hidden diversity of Hollywood to be written about later, such as why, for example, no one ever seems to acknowledge that since 1980, there have been 33 women directors who have won Oscars for documentary films, including Barbara Kopple and Laura Poitras. That doesn’t excuse structural sexism – why women get to direct documentaries, and usually shorts, but not feature films – but it does complicate it.  But more on this another day.

*   *   *

Finally, very happy for Mark Rylance.  (Again, time was when the Academy would have given it to Stallone for sentimental and commercial reasons.)  Though I haven’t yet seen Bridge of Spies, he is one of the great actors of our time.  I’ve been privileged to see him onstage three times: in Cymbeline in New York playing multiple roles, where I first took notice (especially when he played multiple characters in the same scene) and when, as he told Leonard Lopate this week, he was a complete unknown, then in one of his Tony-winning performances in Jerusalem, also a great play, and in London, as Richard III at the Globe.  I missed two or three of his great performances in New York, but the last few years have been tough for me to see a lot of theater.  It’s great that more of his work is being recorded on the big and small screen and he’ll be recognized by a larger public.  Hope he gets some leading roles in film now.

*   *   *

Addendum (six days later): On the night of the Oscars, when I wrote this, I missed the middle third of the program while driving home.  For that reason, I didn’t get to see the appearance of the three young “accountants” – an Asian joke by Chris Rock that also included a Jewish stereotype.   Had I seen that I would have had lots to say about that too, another example of how Oscar broadcast writers never get it right, even when they have an opportunity for redemption.  I don’t know if Rock wrote that himself, or if they were writers he hired, or if he had veto power not to deliver such a joke, only that apparently the kids’ parents were not in on how their children would be used as the butts of the joke.  I also don’t know why the Oscar telecasts have lately been so badly written (not to mention inappropriate unfunny ad libs like Sean Penn’s gratuitous “who gave this guy a green card” before announcing a winner last year). Also glad to see that much of the press since last week has been more critical of Rock than the first reports I wrote about, especially this response in Colorlines. Strangely enough, back in the day when the choices were much more artistically conservative, I don’t remember this kind of controversy ever from the monologues of Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal.  So given that we like to think we have made so much progress when it comes to racial justice and equality, why have we become more insecure and more threatened about the topic of race and seem unable to find humor that doesn’t reinforce old forms of domination?


30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.



6 Dec

I can’t recall a time in my life when the world has collectively paused to remember the life of one person, nor can I remember anytime in my own life when I’ve been so moved at the death of a world leader. I’m not old enough to remember the major assassinations of our time, except I do remember the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuit priests at the Universidad Centroamericana, which was news if one followed events in Latin America, but the significance of the murders was generally underappreciated. But Mandela’s passing, even though it was long anticipated, has been one of those rare moments when the entire world seems to suspend breath and recognize the passing of one of the great figures of modern history. Charlie Rose just called him “perhaps the most admired man in the world,” and he is probably right.

I’ve been thinking about Mandela’s greatness as a leader and as a voice of conscience. I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time already, but now it is of course most appropriate. My own appreciation for him went up when I read John Carlin’s masterful biography disguised in part as a sports story, Playing the Enemy, which even more than the film emphasizes Mandela’s gift and genius for negotiation, strategy, and reconciliation. Part of Mandela’s great gift was the ability to shift from risking his life for the freedom of his people – in a way, more globalized, of all people – to embracing reconciliation and peaceful transition when peace was necessary. All this without compromise, or with a minimum of compromise. He embodied principle, conscience, collective action, and effectiveness is a way that few others have.

I’m particularly gratified when I see coverage of the fact that Reagan and Thatcher (the former being sanctified in American historical memory, despite everything we know about his actual record) were, as the cliche goes, on the wrong side of history, that they regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization and they opposed divestment, and that they come off now as dated, foolish, and yes, colonialist as they were even then when they were fooling and obfuscating their respective electorates.

But aside from the tremendous humanism of Mandela’s goals, the depth of his commitment, another valuable contribution (that will come out more in the histories yet to be written) is his strategic thinking. Although we as humans tend to see many things through an adversarial or warlike framework – or because we do – we can say he was one of the great tacticians of our time and all time. His leadership became the spearhead of a kind of revolution, a liberation.

In a wise remembrance, South African political science professor Richard Pithouse observes, “Mandela was also a man whose ethical choices transcended rather than mirrored those of his oppressors.” This is so much the crux of what made him different from other world leaders, and is perhaps the potential saving grace of individual activism.

Let me explain my position. I am generally one who believes in collective action as being more broadly and permanently effective. Though I know that “one person can make a difference” (and have seen it over and over not only in my life but in world politics and social justice), one of our tragic flaws as a species is to wait for, or expect, the one charismatic person to come along rather than recognizing that it will indeed take all of us working together to bring about social change and indeed effect our survival. For various reasons, this myth of the individual is promoted by our media – for example Rosa Parks gets the credit for the Montgomery bus boycott when in fact she was the most visible part of a larger movement – perhaps because promoting the strength of collective action is far more threatening, since it would be more effective if more people took up that banner. That said, we do have world leaders, we do have movement leaders, who make choices – policy decisions, strategic decisions, decisions about tone, humanism, and ethics – that have broader impact across the spectrum of political actors in any given situation.

As a leader of a movement, a very broad movement, Mandela made strong ethical choices (that he didn’t have to make), and imaginative choices (about strategy and reconciliation) that most people in similar situations do not make and historically have not made. And this is an individual thing. All of us are faced with hundreds of ethical choices about how we live our lives – and few of us have the fate of a movement or a people in our hands. The ethical choices we make affect mostly our lives directly, but indirectly are part of a larger body of tens of thousands of ethical decisions that end up statistically having an impact on the environment and the economy, and even on our foreign policy. What puts Mandela in that smallest of upper circles of prophetic leaders is that he made the more deliberate ethical choices even when he didn’t have to. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Bayard Rustin all come to mind in this same sense of ethical choice. Not just political choice and being on the side of justice, but doing so in a particularly steadfast ethical way. Leaving at the end of his first term, for example, is profound. (I remember the joy, the dancing in the streets, when Robert Mugabe was first elected. How differently that turned out.)

In the last day, I’ve come to realize that “compromise” has at least two meanings. One is the kind of negotiation, the way of giving up certain requirements in order to come to a consensus that enables people to progress in a more unified and less divisive manner: I’ll give up this if you give up that. There is at least the pretense of equality of power. The second meaning though is the sense of compromising one’s principles because the “office” (in the abstract) demands it, or those who hold power over you (like your employer) demand it. That is, compromising one’s ideals in the face of perceived greater power. The genius of Mandela is, in part, knowing the difference, knowing when the compromise over punishment and retribution will move the entire country, indeed the world, forward, but when not to compromise on principles like freedom and equality because doing so will move nothing forward and will sell out your own cause.

What we see over and over in the world these days – to a sickening degree – is that most people and most supposed leaders compromise their own ethical positions, their positions of conscience, because they think the position they now hold requires them to have a loyalty to a corporate entity (usually an amoral one), whether that’s a for-profit corporation or a government agency. I think I first noticed this personally in 1992 during Janet Reno’s confirmation hearing, when she testified that she was against the death penalty personally, but as Attorney General would support it because that was the official policy of the office. Now we see this everywhere. Morally, people somehow feel that accepted practice is that you adopt the morals and loyalties of the office you hold, not your own personal sense of conscience. There is no more conflicted figure in the U.S. in this regard than Janet Napolitano, who as Secretary of Homeland Security willingly carried out policies that deported more individuals, and broke up more families, than any other regime in American history, yet now as Chancellor of the University of California is expected to stand up for undocumented students or at least espouse a school policy that does not try to deport them all. Same person, completely conflicting morals determined by her professional office at the time (taking her current position policy at face value and assuming she is not working behind the scenes against the interests of her students whom she is charged to educate). The young Obama was a committed opponent of apartheid and an advocate for the community members whom he was working with, but as officeholder of commander-in-chief he is expected to carry out military and paramilitary policies that as a student activist he would have opposed. Same person – has he changed his personal beliefs, or does the role he find himself in circumscribe his ethical choices? That’s the question. He may be forced to compromise on some policies to get a bill passed with bipartisan support (although history is filled with examples of those who did not compromise and got their way nonetheless, like his predecessor in the office), but only he can choose whether to compromise on his ideals and principles because of how he thinks (or has been told, or threatened) he is expected to act in a given office at a given time. Protocol.

But very rarely we do have a leader – Mandela, and perhaps Pope Francis – who recognize that being a leader for the ages means tailoring the ethics of the office to a higher sense of social justice, rather than tailoring their personal ethics to the expectations of the role the way it has always been done. Continuity, especially in the wake of an oppressive or disastrous regime, is a pragmatic choice, not an ethical one. Mugabe was in a position to reshape his country and what the presidential chair would look like ethically in a new Zimbabwe. He failed. Mandela had a similar opportunity, and made much more strategically difficult, but ultimately morally prophetic and just, choices. And while one could argue that they had the rare situation of finding themselves at the helm of essentially new countries, every leader in truth has this opportunity to the extent he or she is willing to reshape this. In U.S. history, both Franklin Roosevelt (from the left) and Ronald Reagan (from the right) shaped the chair to fit their principles, not the other way around. Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that though he may have tried to do so domestically, he failed because he became ensnared in the dying ethics of colonialism and the Cold War mentality.

The challenge of a prophetic leadership, the kind that leads towards social justice and equity, is in reshaping the ethics of a seat of leadership to a higher sense of individual, even spiritual, ethics, within the larger framework of ethics not as circumscribed by the office and the power-holders, but by that of a larger ideal of justice and equity that in fact is collective while respecting the integrity and dignity of individual lives. This means exactly what Pithouse says Mandela accomplished, “transcending” rather than “mirroring” the ethical and moral choices of oppressors. This is also what the Pope is doing in rejecting the idea of living in wealthy quarters, in visiting prisons and the homeless around Rome.

Something is wrong with leaders when you know what they will say in advance because their office demands they say the expected thing that people in that role are allowed to say. When a leader says something that expands our imagination, something that adds to our way of thinking about what is possible and necessary to bring about a better world, something that provides an insight that goes beyond bromides, that enables hope as something real and powerful rather than a demand to keep waiting passively, that is leadership, rather than just filling a seat and wielding power – the power to keep things the way they already are – because someone has to.

I disagree with the conclusion in an otherwise excellent and insightful article by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker blog, which ends, “It was Mandela’s good fortune that his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders. His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend them on the altar of expediency. Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.” The problem is, this denies Mandela’s own agency and the choices he made, and could have made. We live in a time of mediocre men and women, leaders whose edge is ground down by the cynical and dulling impact of neoliberalism, when we assume that leaders can only act out of pragmatism. The leader who exhibits ideals and imagination is so rare, that even faced with one, we must find a more cynical explanation: it is necessary to look for a rationalization as Cobb does that it really was pragmatism after all that motivated even Mandela as well. No country needs its leaders to “bend [ideals] on the altar of expediency” – and indeed, the case can be made that the radical right (Reagan, Thatcher, G.W. Bush) chose not to do what was expedient either because they could make those choices and sacrifice nothing. Progressive movements around the world need to embrace idealism and support leaders with backbone, the ones who will choose principle over comfort and privilege. What is asymmetrical about this equation is that ideals and privilege are congruent choices on the right, so the forces demanding personal compromise are weak, but ideals require sacrifice among leaders on the left, and the personal rewards of compromise are so easy. Pragmatism becomes the easiest path.

The symbolism of Pope Francis

3 May

I have to start by saying I am not a Roman Catholic, so I am observing this from the outside. My first real exposure to Catholicism was through Latin American liberation theology, the life of Archibishop Oscar Romero, the murdered Salvadoran Jesuits, and that led me back to look at the radical tradition in American Catholicism. I also have to start by saying that I had a father who was deeply suspicious of what he would call “lip service,” people who would perhaps make a nod in a popular direction only verbally, or with some minor action, but the bulk of their actions perpetuated the same oppression and injustices that they had all along.

Having said that, like a lot of people, I have to admit I’ve been fascinated with some of the statements and symbolic actions of the new Pope, starting with his selection of his papal name after Francis of Assisi. I am just as troubled as many are about the questions in Pope Francis’ past and his behavior during the Dirty War in Argentina, and concerned about where he will stand on issues of gender equity, sexual orientation, and other social issues.

But there are two things that already are very notable, and in my opinion very admirable, about this pope. They are largely symbolic, but I’m arguing here that in a position such as his, symbolism is more than lip service, because it becomes an invitation for others to model their behaviors in response. Even if he is only “talking the talk,” it is right and necessary to talk in a language that listeners may not hear from other authorities in their lives. His talk makes it easier for millions of others not only to talk but act in a moral, even rebellious, way in the face of oppression of all different kinds.

The first of these is his attention to economic injustice, to poverty. What really prompted me to write this post was the comment he was quoted as having said when he learned of the Bangladeshi factory collapse: “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us — the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” (This also is in many ways the essence of Liberation Theology, that as we are creative we extend God’s Creation.) And his statement yesterday, on Twitter(!), following on the heels of the other: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”

The fact that he is using his position to critique unapologetically the profit motive and the excesses of capitalist injustice is not insignificant, and links him in a common message with H.H. the Dalai Lama. They are perhaps the only world leaders who dare to criticize capitalism. At all. Think about that. Capitalism has become so dominant and unquestioned among our world leaders (elected and otherwise) that there are few lone voices even “permitted” (if I may say so) to provide a social justice or spiritual critique of the economic system that controls the world.

To be fair, Pope John Paul II was also critical of excessive capitalism. But the message that got more play in the international media was his critique of Communism, and the media tended to overlook some of his more radical criticisms of capitalism, which would surprise many people.

Who else is focusing on poverty and the excesses of the profit motive as severe problems in this morally bankrupt world? (Any American Presidents in the past thirty years?)

That’s why it becomes so essential to have someone in his shoes who opens the space for that discussion. Without anyone who gives that his blessing, even symbolically, every practical and even speculative discussion that takes place around the world on the question of sustainability and the relationship between capitalism and the survival of our environment and the poor is by definition marginalized.

The second of his qualities, symbolic or real, is humility. Whether or not he actually is that humble, certain of his actions, ways of thinking, and lifestyle choices, set an example for millions if not billions of people. Regardless of your politics or religion, humility is never bad. (I’m not even going to get into a theological discussion of this in the Bible.) Learning how to think humbly, how to choose the humble option that refuses to dominate other people, other beings, or our Earth, is part a process of personal transformation that is fundamentally necessary if we are to coexist and survive as a species.

Throughout your life, every day in fact, you are presented with options about how to act and how to behave. If you always look for and choose the option of humility, especially if you are a person in a position of power, the impact will be warm and positive on the people around you. What this pope seems to understand is that as a spiritual guide it is his role to show people there is always a humbler way.

Sure, when you get to that level of the world stage – and let’s not forget his actual power as the Supreme Pontiff – you can afford to be humble, even to pretend to be humble. But inspiring people to be humble by imitation, does not make them submissive, as some might cynically suggest, and for his Western audiences, some of the main reasons our environmental sustainability is at risk derive directly from Western and capitalist arrogance. For too long we have acted as if we have a right to conquer nature, to dominate the world, to control other people, and to have unlimited access to the world’s resources. But if indeed we believe that we are all part of God’s Creation, then we have to have the humility to recognize that we share the Earth not only with every nationality but with every living being.

Why not go to a jail to celebrate one of the most sacred masses of the year with the imprisoned, which included young men and women, immigrants, including some who were not Catholic, and some from the most despised ethnic and national groups? Aside from the literal fact that visiting those in prison is explicitly encouraged in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, wouldn’t we experience an incredible social transformation if we all did this? If the most privileged among us took the time and care, and charity, to visit those the most “at-risk” and oppressed?

Pope Francis may do this but once a year. But each of us can follow this symbolic example in our daily lives. Our international leadership, indeed our local civic leadership as well, has become so pragmatic, so cynical, sometimes so money-driven, and sometimes so corrupt, that qualities of justice, compassion, interdependence, empathy, creativity, honesty, sharing no longer exist in civic discourse, in any country. We can debate and write volumes about what it will take to bring about this social transformation, but without any world example, who will teach our young people that such qualities are part of global citizenship?

It is part of the greatness of Nelson Mandela that he is perhaps unique among world leaders to live this kind of life in a secular and civic context.

Another tweet from the Pope (and exactly who else would be listened to if he or she said this?): “How marvelous it would be if, at the end of the day, each of us could say: today I have performed an act of charity towards others.”

A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

The long arm of the law may bring justice for Victor Jara

3 Jan

Victim of an assassin’s bullet, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously echoed the words of the 19th Century Abolitionist Theodore Parker when he noted “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Well, here’s another example of that long arc bending towards justice. After 39 years of investigation, Chilean authorities announced this week they had implicated eight men in the murder of singer-songwriter Victor Jara five days after the coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende in 1973. According to Reuters, after the case had been closed and reopened several times, four arrests were made, with others to come. One of the suspects, former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Núñez, now lives in Florida, in the United States, and may be extradited. (Interesting that despite his connection to the military dictatorship in Chile he still managed to get a visa to come here.) One of the other soldiers implicated in the killing, Edwin Dimter Bianchi, received training at the U.S.-funded School of the Americas, at the time located in Panama (and now in the U.S. state of Georgia).

Jara joined a list of famous artists who have been assassinated for political reasons, including Federico Garcia Lorca, and is possibly the most significant artist to be executed in my lifetime. Although thousands of people were killed under the Pinochet regime, Jara’s killing had symbolic significance throughout Latin America.

A great bibliography about him and his work, as well as his influence on other musicians around the world, can be found in his especially detailed Wikipedia entry.

Cassandra and the curse of prophecy

2 Jan

On seeing the Metropolitan Opera epic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz last night (one of their best designed and directed productions, in my opinion, by the way), I was struck by a scene in the first act when Cassandra speaks about the curse of prophecy. If I understand the original libretto, by Berlioz himself, correctly (“Tu ne m’écoutes pas, tu ne veux rien comprendre/ Malheureux peuple, à l’horreur qui me suit!“), Cassandra laments that she has the gift of prophecy, of seeing the future, only no one believes her or wants to listen. This is the result of the curse of Apollo.

In Catholic social teaching, “prophetic” has come to refer to those who speak out against injustice, who are part of a tradition that is trying to build a better future by denouncing unjust practices rather than enduring them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are considered to be leading lights in this prophetic intellectual tradition.

But what is made explicit in the Greek, and not in the Catholic, is that true prophets are ignored – at best – sometimes reviled or mocked. Cassandra’s curse is a case in point. She sees the bad that is going to happen, but no one believes her, no one wants to hear her, and they only realize she is right when it’s too late.

This too is the side of the prophetic tradition that we forget. We rally around prophets, especially in death, but when they are alive, there are few who want to listen and take what they say to heart. No one would want to hire them. If I am trying to develop a prophetic social science, for example, it is little wonder I will be unemployed – unless I am super-productive in ways that are valued in the industry. Are people willing to listen to – and hire – the prophetic voice in the classroom and the lecture hall, especially if it rallies against inaction?

Prophecy is a curse in all economic systems and educational environments. Nonetheless, it must be kept nourished.

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