Art and Public Space

July 15, 2014

What does it mean to be human today, trudging into the 21st Century?
How can we act ethically in our hurried and bewildering world?
How did we get here, and where do we want to go?
Is there a Public Space? In fact, is there a Public?
What is our diagram of the known world, and how might things be otherwise?
What kind of society do we want to inhabit?
Who do we want to be as people? As a public?
The notable erosion of “the public” in US life has taken place in multiple ways. In language, the demonization of public escalated in the Reagan years and continues until this moment: public welfare, public health, public workers (remember the air traffic controllers?), public benefits, public parks, roads and bridges, public space, public schools. Are criminal courts open to the public when the family members are seated and patrolled behind bullet-proof plexi-glass and attempting to listen through the squawk and screech of voices transmitted by microphone?
In a more complex domain, the content of public representation is seized by corporate/military powers, to be observed by the public: the World Trade Center momument, the ubiquitous military men on horses across town centers, the tiny open spaces in front of skyscrapers or inside giant corporate lobbies with commissioned sculptures and enormous canvases.
Yet all is in contention as well. The lively public participants not only adopted and adore the Maya Linn Vietnam Memorial or the sculptures in Millenium Park, they embellish them daily and make the art their own.
Across the land, the valorization of the Confederacy vies with the stench of the slave market. As in the occupied land of Palestine/Israel, so too in the settler land of the US: street-signs, uprisings, and art in contention become markers of excavated history: Wounded Knee, Montgomery, John Brown Lives!, immigrant rights marches, Watts, the Ludlow Massacre, Occupy, Haymarket and Seneca Falls. Sometimes humor, wildly embraced by diverse publics: the Chicago cows, for example, or the Yes Men and Guerilla Girls. Rarely an artist and community in harmony: Theaster Gates, the Living Theater, Howling Wolf, Miriam Mkeba, Tom Morello, Diego Rivera.
What can we become?
What gives meaning to our lives?
What time is it on the clock of the world?
Plunging into the wreckage we see all around us, swimming as hard as we’re able toward a distant and indistinct shore with courage and hope and love, overcoming difficulties and re-imagining life’s possibilities along the way—this is the spirit these questions might unleash. Of course we all dwell within a tiny crack of light suspended between two infinities of darkness, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle our brief moment in the sun flies past and is gone. Still, we might choose to grasp this moment with all our might, to squeeze it as hard as we’re able, to hang on for dear life as we swirl headlong into the vortex.
That’s often easier to say than to do. When we feel ourselves shackled, bound, and gagged or when we are badly beaten down, struggling simply to survive, living with dust in our mouths, the horizons of our hope are immediately lowered, sometimes fatally, and asking questions like these can seem idle and silly. What kind of world do we want to inhabit? When no alternatives are apparent or available, action becomes pointless. We all live immersed in what is, the world as such; imagining a landscape different from what’s immediately before us requires a combination of somethings: seeds, surely, desire, yes, necessity and desperation at times, a vision of possibility at other times, and occasionally just the willful enthusiasm to dance out on a limb.
Imagination, then, is indispensable. More process than product, more “stance” than “thing,” engaging the imagination involves the dynamic work of mapping the world as it really is, and then purposely stepping outside and leaning toward a world that could or should be, but is not yet. People may have accepted their lot-in-life as inevitable for decades, generations, even centuries, but when fresh and startling winds begin to blow and revolution is in the air, when a lovelier life heaves unexpectedly into view and a possible world becomes vaguely and then acutely visible, at that moment the status quo becomes shockingly unendurable. We reject the fixed and the stable, then, and begin to reach for alternatives. The imagination blows up.
Every human being is endowed with the powerful and unique capacity to imagine—each an artist of her or his own life. Imagination “ignites the slow fuse of possibility” for Emily Dickinson, and for Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Liberation and enlightenment are linked to the imagination.
The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1950’s and later Poet Laureate of Illinois begins her “Dedication to Picasso,” an homage to the great man and the huge sculpture that he gave to the city, with a question: “Does man love art?”
Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”
The voyages art demands lie at the very heart of our humanness: journeys in search of new solutions to old problems, explorations of spirit spaces and emotional landscapes, trips into the hidden meanings and elaborate schemes we construct to make our lives understandable and endurable, flights hooked on metaphor and analogy, wobbly rambles away from the cold reality of the world we inhabit—the world as such—toward a possible world standing just beyond the next horizon. These are the voyages that foreground the capacities and features that mark us as creatures of the imaginary, uniquely human beings: invention, aspiration, self-consciousness, projection, desire, ingenuity, moral reflection and ethical action, courage and compassion and commitment—all of these and more are the vital harvests of our imaginations. And our imaginations are encouraged, nourished, and fired with art.
But it’s also true—art hurts. The capacity to see the world as if it could be otherwise creates yearning and liberates desire—we are freed (or condemned) to run riot. Art—necessarily subversive, unruly, and disruptive—challenges the status quo simply by opening us up to consider the alternatives; suddenly the taken-for-granted and the given world become choices and no longer habits or warrants or life (death) sentences.
“Art is not chaste,” said Pablo Picasso. “Those ill-prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste it is not art.” He is distinguishing pretty decorations and castles-in-the-clouds from the grit and grind, rough and tumble of art. He simultaneously reminds us that the aesthetic is the opposite of the anesthetic: anesthesia is a drug that puts folks to sleep, while aesthetics is a treatment with the potential to wake us up and propel us out of bed again and again. It takes some courage to make or face strong art, life-saving art, or art that tells the unvarnished truth: the Beat Poet Diane DiPrima said, “I have just realized that the stakes are myself; I have no other ransom money.”
We are, in spite of the existential feel of things and our own natural narcissism, finite beings plunging through an infinite space and gazing toward an expanding heaven. We are in the middle of the muddle, and at the end of nothing—the unseen, the hidden, the mysterious, the invisible, the indefinite, the unfamiliar and the unknown, the unheard of and the forgotten are vast, while our various records of the known world are limited, paltry, and, if history can act as something of a guide here, mostly palaces-in-the-sky. Learning to question, to interrogate, to experiment, to wonder and to wander, to construct and create—this is where art lives, and it is the sturdiest foundation upon which to build lives of participation and purpose for free people.
In 1897, after months of illness and suicidal despair, the tormented French painter Paul Gauguin produced a sprawling panorama on a huge piece of jute sacking, an image of unfathomable figures amid scenery that might have been the twisted groves of a tropical island or a marvelously wild Garden of Eden; worshippers and gods; cats, birds, a quiet goat; a great idol with a peaceful expression and uplifted hands; a central figure plucking fruit; a depiction of Eve not as a voluptuous innocent like some other women in Gauguin’s gallery but as a shrunken hag with an intense eye.
Gauguin scrawled the title of the work in bold on top of the image; translated into English it reads: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
These questions, horrifying for Gauguin, are potentially useful for us.
How do we see ourselves and our problems/challenges/potentials? How can we connect our personal and spiritual seeking with the practical search for a better world for all? How can we live with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is while the other foot stretches toward a world that could be but is not yet? How can we transform ourselves to be worthy of the profound social transformations we desire and need? And how can we build within ourselves the thoughtfulness, compassion, and courage to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair?
1300 words


Free Minds/Free People

July 14, 2014

Bernardine and I met up with our old pal Jeff Jones, jumped in the car and headed off to the Oregon Country Fair outside Eugene where we’d been asked to speak about the political moment we were living through—Occupy your Imagination; Free Minds/Free People. It was a Blues Brothers road trip—we were on a mission from God.
The Fair was an insurgency from the 60’s transformed and institutionalized in a mere half century. New Age meets the New Millennium as capitalism consumes the counter-culture. Where tie-dye and incense, pipes and rolling papers, long hair and funny hats, as well as bubbling pots of free brown rice and red beans and tofu/vegetable stew had been a few of the markers of the rebellion, all of it was now de rigueur and for sale in every corner. Where the battle with the cops and the health authorities over the right to crash in a tangle of unruly humanity overnight on the land had been pitched in the early years, the original hippies were now the gray heads who owned the land and issued the permits. A rainbow of wristbands demarcated where folks could wander, and the most prized were the gold ones—which the three of us were miraculously granted—allowing fair-goers access everywhere as well as the extraordinary privilege of staying after-hours when things really got going. One of my favorite moments was sitting with the old-timers one night after the Fair had been officially closed and the grounds swept of the riff-raff, listening to the stories of how folks snuck into the Fair and evaded the sweeps in the sweet long ago of their glorious youth—when they were the riff-raff.
The Fair stretched over acres, from field to forest and from river to green rolling hill, and every inch was occupied by lovely people doing wondrous things: puppeteers and magicians, singers and chanters, crafts people and cooks—everyone together making a joyful noise. A defining characteristic of the Fair was the ease with which babies and toddlers and children of all ages expressed a sense of comfort and fun.
There were dozens of booths where we could get Ken Kesey’s famous home-made ice cream or Dave’s Killer Bread or Juanita’s Dynamite Tortillas, and dozens more stages simultaneously hosting bands and presentations and speeches and sales pitches—we stopped at one to hear Swami Beyondananda do a beautiful stand-up riff on contemporary politics in the smooth but annoyingly superior voice reserved for yoga masters: “People say there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats,” he began. “But that can’t be so—the Republicans bend over backwards like this for Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Finance…Observe…And the Democrats…bend over frontwards.”
It was a dazzling and magical place to be, old people evoking images of Fairs gone by, young people etching their own stories through experiencing the Fair anew, babies in backpacks and toddlers in tow pointing toward Fairs yet to come. I settled in with a joint in order to experience the Fair in full.
We were hanging out late with a bunch of old friends from SDS and Weather, including Robert, the older brother of our comrade CW who had split with us after the terrible townhouse explosion, gone underground on his own, never surrendered, and died anonymously and on the run. His closest friends and family quietly and properly memorialized CW, and then transported his ashes to Cuba and scattered them on the monument to Che Guevara, a fitting resting place for all time. Robert had told me long ago and several times that my depiction of CW in Fugitive Days, while understandable from my perspective and experience, was not his story or the whole story. Robert was a smart and generous person, and we’d talked about it and come to understand one another.
As we relaxed into the gathering dusk, high on the Fair, CW’s nephew came over before his rock n’ roll band took the stage. He’d heard our talk earlier and was happy to say hello now. We chatted awhile—smart and sweet guy—and as the band was finishing their set-up he said to me: “I understood what you wrote about my uncle, and I could certainly see your point, but I want you to know something: you only knew him for a moment and you could only capture him in a snapshot. He lived a long time after that and he was generous and kind, crazy and fun, thoughtful and open. He encouraged everyone to be smarter and better, and he remained true to your shared vision of a better world. People try to pin a label on him, but, hell, people try to nail you guys to a board all the time—just like you, he was more than you imagined.”
We embraced for a long moment and I felt a vital circle close. Then he turned and mounted the stage.


The Myth of Military Might

July 13, 2014

A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.


War and Peace

July 12, 2014

A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.


The Culture of War Unleashed

July 10, 2014

War culture is everywhere: at athletic events where everyone is expected to sing ritualistic patriotic songs at the start and once again at half time or the seventh inning stretch, and where uniformed and armed people march with flags onto the field of play; at airports and train stations where uniformed military people are given a designated waiting area and priority boarding; in our schools where military recruiters have free reign; in our language, where war metaphors hang heavy over all aspects of life from sports and commerce to local politics and social policy, and where the word “service” has morphed quietly into a seemingly acceptable short-hand for time in the uniformed military.
War culture combined with an ascendant and triumphant individualism has led to the passage across the land of legislation that contains a bizarre contradiction: on the one hand “stand your ground” laws that allow anyone to shoot a person who seems threatening, and on the other hand “open-carry” laws that allow folks to carry their guns openly wherever and whenever they please. It’s a matter of time before a posse of open-carriers walks into a mall or a restaurant and meets a stand-your-ground crew—let the fireworks begin!
Domestic debates about private gun ownership and gun control are dominated by Second Amendment myth-makers who insist that there’s no common or collective possibility of public safety, and that it’s each person’s individual right and responsibility to defend life and property and personal well-being with lethal force. The National Rifle Association urges everyone to arm up, noting that the best defense against “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.” I propose that the NRA introduce legislation offering a $1000 stipend in order to purchase guns for any American citizen or resident living below the poverty line—there are many good guys among the poor, and I’ve always gotten a kick out of the words scrawled across the Night Watchman’s guitar: Arm the Homeless! Hell yes!
For those who prefer gun control, we might offer this alternative to arming everyone: Disarm everyone, starting with the dangerous and out of control US military, move on the deadly domestic police forces, and then the rest of us. Guns for everyone, or no guns for anyone.
I cringe with the constant and insistent reference to (and self-referencing of) the president as the Commander-in-Chief. The continual mention of that single aspect is a contemporary thing, and fully in keeping with the militarization of the public space.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the operational line of command was set as running from the President to the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander. Before 2002 combatant commanders were referred as “commanders-in-chief;” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that the use of “commander-in-chief” should be especially reserved to refer to the president alone. Now we are reminded at all times and at every turn in keeping with our warrior status that our president is primarily our Supreme Commander, like the imperatores of Rome, sitting on the throne of empire and commanding its violent legions.
The military detail handled personally by presidents in wartime has, of course, varied dramatically. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and day-to-day operations, while Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush paid practically no attention whatsoever. Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in Korea, and to fire Douglas MacArthur. And Barack Obama personally picks out targets for drone strikes every week.
As a little blue-sky exercise, what if any bit of the war culture were transformed into a peace and love culture: the Super Bowl opening with thousands of local school kids rushing through the stands distributing their poetry, and then everyone singing “This Land is Your Land” or “We Shall Overcome;” an airlines or bus terminal clerk saying, “We want to invite any teachers or nurses in the gate area to board first, and we thank you for your service.”
Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven together in such a way that members of the culture can communicate and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common-sense of American violence unleashed.
The US spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The US has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken-for-granted, occasionally visible and on full display, and always lurking in the shadows.
I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful and so I never saw the film nor can I remember the title—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, and saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace” just before blasting them to smithereens. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but after a while the classic challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of another come into play: Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?
This is precisely the situation the US finds itself in all over the world: We come in peace…we always come in peace. But for the youth in the streets of Cairo or Tunis facing US arms in the hands of American-financed dictators, or the women servicing the US military bases stretching across their landscapes, or the farmers and workers all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose repressive police forces and militias are trained and supplied by US aid, or people anywhere who find themselves in the sights of an American-made rocket or a US drone, what are you going to believe? Your own lying eyes?
In our stuttering mechanical recorded message we announce to ourselves and to everyone else that we are a peaceful people, our intentions always righteous and just. It’s comforting, and it’s a deeply held self-description, so compelling that it rises quickly to the status of common sense, requiring no investigation, no fact-checking, no external validation whatsoever. All right-thinking people believe it; everyone simply knows that it’s true.


The Big Brain of the Right on American Exceptionalism

July 9, 2014

David Brooks, the moderate “human face” of the plutocrats and its dangerous fang faction within the Repulsican Party, trumpeted the need for “a national greatness agenda” in his New York Times column and managed to evoke a grotesquely mangled and romanticized image of the Black Freedom Movement of 50 years ago in an attempt to rally people to a left/right social movement of all the politically disaffected built around the goal of broad revitalization: “Like the civil rights movement, this movement will ask Americans to live up to their best selves.” And our “best selves” is easily summed up by DB: “Love of country.” Yes simple patriotism will, in Brooks’ cosmology, allow Americans to see that sacrificing Social Security benefits “at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan,” or giving up pensions as an investment in “America’s future greatness,” represent the sensible unifying path forward.
Most Americans (and the whole world besides) think that the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been and continue to be catastrophic. The vast majority of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (not the “insurgents” or the Taliban or the “jihadists”) have overwhelmingly opposed the US military presence in their respective lands practically from the start. Any ethical person would tell the government to end its senseless wars for a start, bring those Marines and soldiers home now, and spend those squandered billions on education, health, and the common good.
But Brooks sees the hand writing on the wall: US power is in deep crisis, and the American empire is coming to an end; his solution is to mobilize a nationalistic movement and shred any expectation of a common commitment to human welfare: line-up, re-load, and march. Or as he puts it, his social movement will have one simple and unapologetic goal: “preserving American pre-eminence.” He asserts that “American ‘supremacy’ is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.” To Brooks the US Century must continue and the echoes of Rome and London and Berlin and Tokyo—pick your century, pick your conqueror—are unmistakable. The world will be a far, far better place if everyone will accept the obvious fact that the US makes a great ruler and that it should simply be allowed to run the whole show forever.
People around the world can’t possibly agree with Brooks’ assessment, and most never will no matter what the cost. Most people think the US (less than 5% of the world’s population, but gobbling up vast resources and acting as if it’s some sort of entitled aristocracy or super-majority) has some noble traditions and hopeful rhetoric but it is also a misguided and menacing cowboy, the largest mercenary force ever created, benighted and armed and dangerous, and more than a little out-of-control.
The problem here, as always, is whether ordinary people can be counted on to support the long war, pay the price, avert their eyes, become participants or accomplices in conquest and occupation and war without end. Brooks and his patrons in power and privilege are worrying about the pesky and unpredictable home front (That’s us, folks!!!) and he’s calling on us to close our eyes to injustice everywhere and build nothing less than a patriotic/nationalist popular movement to resist “national humiliation, diminished power in the world, drastic cuts and spreading pain.”
American Exceptionalism inflamed, structural racism ascending, American supremacy triumphant. America uber alles and of course war after endless war. Here lies the deadly dictate from the big brain of the “reasonable” right.


Are you proud to be an American?

July 8, 2014

The question poses problems from the start.
First, I was always told that pride is a sin—it’s so tightly linked with arrogance and self-righteousness—so pride may not be the expression we’re looking for here. Perhaps satisfied is a better choice, or fulfilled or contented or happy.
Second, “American” is such a vast and complex and contradictory landscape. For most Americans being American is simply an accident of birth, and we could have as easily been thrust into the world as Algerian, Bulgarian, Cambodian…Zimbabwean—the whole alphabet soup. Why take pride in a chance happening, even if it turns out to be a joyful one personally? And for most immigrants, coming to America and becoming an American is freighted with complicated motives and meanings, deep conflict and an abiding sense of dislocation: a few are political refugees, many more are refugees from the ravages of poverty or climate change imposed by wealthier nations (think NAFTA), and others are fleeing wars—note the waves of Vietnamese and Indochinese immigrants following the US invasion and occupation there, and more recently the huge numbers of people coming from Iraq following that invasion. Pride doesn’t begin to capture the lived realities of actual people.
Third, pride in America leans fatefully toward nationalism, and nationalism leads inevitably to moral blindness: every atrocity universally condemned—torture, assassination, bombing civilians—changes its meaning for nationalists depending on who does the deed.
Imagine meeting a Japanese citizen and asking her if she’s proud to be Japanese. “Well,” she answers, “I am a happy person, and I love my family and care for my neighbors and community; I like hiking in the countryside; the language is lovely, the food remarkable, and many aspects of the culture are alive deep within my bones. But I’m not proud to have an emperor, nor am I proud remembering the ‘rape of Nanking,’ the Korean ‘comfort women,’ the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or more recently, the avoidable devastation at Fukashima.” That’s a pretty thoughtful and sensible answer.
A German might respond similarly, adding: “I like the economic privileges I enjoy here, the sophisticated infrastructure, and the beer—but World War II and the Holocaust, no. I’m young and so I didn’t live through those years, but it’s part of the German reality and so I still feel a painful responsibility that can and should never be forgotten.”
A Belgian could love the lakes and loath King Leopold; an Englishman might like the food—I said “might”—and despise the bloody Royals. So it goes.
And so it is for this American: I’m happy to be alive today searching for answers to the monstrous challenges we face—permanent war and the largest military behemoth ever created with its attendant war culture eating away at the foundations of democracy and justice, mass incarceration and a culture of cruelty and debasement (the “New Jim Crow” according to legal scholar Michelle Alexander because of the vast over-representation of men of color) with the US caging 2.5 million people, 25% of the world’s prisoners crowded into American hell-holes, and avoidable environmental catastrophe looming above us all—happy to be swimming through the wreckage toward a distant and more hopeful shore.
I’m delighted to be in a revolutionary tradition that broke with empire and a kingdom—because a king to me is always a son-of-a-bitch—and engaged in a second powerful revolution that overthrew the slavocracy. I’m pleased to draw a straight line from where we are now back to the great Americans who opposed the Castillian invasion and the Columbian genocide—Crazy Horse, Osceola, Cochise—to those who broke with Great Britain—Thomas Paine, Governour Morris, Patrick Henry—and to those who rebelled against slavery and led to the Second American Revolution—Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Harriet Tubman with that little pistol concealed in her pocket.
I’m inspired to be in the tradition of America’s radicals: Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs and WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Stokely Carmichael, Leonard Peltier, and on up to today and the efforts of James Thindwa and Karen Lewis, Grace Lee Boggs and Ai-jen Poo, Bill McKibben and Jeff Jones, Kathy Boudin and Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis and Beth Richie, Kathy Kelly and Bernardine Dohrn and Reyna Wences. Of course as Ella Baker said of Reverend King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were thousands, tens of thousands and millions putting their shoulders on history’s wheel and sharing a faith that injustice can be opposed and justice aspired to, a belief in human solidarity and connectedness as a living force, a spirit of outrage tempered with vast feelings of love and generosity, a commitment to open-ended dialogue where the questions are always open to debate, and a full and passionate embrace of the life we’re given combined with an eagerness to move forward striving to build a world-wide beloved community.


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