Innocent/Guilty “Until”

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Having just heard the verdict about the policeman who murdered Philando Castile, seeing Nick Cave’s exhibit “Until” at Mass MOCA was not only timely but even more devastating.

Cave’s installation was mounted in September 2016 and remains until September 2017. “Until” refers to “innocent until proven guilty.” Or does it? Guilty until proven innocent is what is really implied, because Cave’s art is built on, and haunted by, the ghosts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith and more.

The program says that the installation began with Cave asking himself, “Is there racism in heaven?” His answer is an experience rather than just a matter of looking at one art piece. One is confronted by masses of glittery mobiles twisting and turning. They are mostly beautiful and mesmerizing; then one sees that many of the mobiles depict guns, bullets, and targets.

One walks through this maze of glitter to a crystal cloud atop which is a huge garden of ceramic birds, gramophone horns, and, startlingly, black-face lawn jockeys. One has to climb a very tall ladder to see this site of mainly found objects.

After passing through and around a wall of plastic beads that look like netting, from far away, you enter a dark room with a giant lifeguard chair in the center and a frenetic video that plays on the walls. While my sister and I were there, we were the only museum-goers who stayed to watch the whole video, which is unsettling and somewhat sinister at times. It ends with a chorus of black-face tap dancers; all the while, a video of swirling shallow water is cast on the floor, so you feel off-balance anyway.

IMG_20170621_123518488The last part of the installation is a metaphorical wall of water meant to seem cleansing. It is only the last part, though, physically. I promise that if you go, or have a chance to see it elsewhere, you will carry the installation in your mind and heart for a while.

To see a slo-mo video of the mobiles, go to Nick Cave installation.

 

The Moral Universe – Self-Interest Well Understood

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Okay, I do have to write about Alexis de Tocqueville again, so bear with me. You can blame him for being so wise in addressing issues that are universal and timeless and also for being so prophetic.
Have you ever practically flown out of your chair upon hearing a concept described that you had thought about for a long time but never knew there was a name for?

This happened to me while listening to the second set of CDs in the “Tocqueville and the American Experiment” Great Courses series.

“Self-interest well understood” is the term that Tocqueville gave to participation in political associations, meaning that when people are involved in serving others, they are also serving themselves. He does relate it fairly narrowly to the importance of participation in democracy and cites all kinds of ramifications in not doing so.

But the term hit me so hard because it is something I’ve given much thought to and had discussions about with my sister. It is a concept I started to define in my own mind in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, when we’d had almost four years of Tea Party campaigning and scare tactics. Since I had come to know people who self-defined as members of the Tea Party, I was trying to understand where they were coming from but finding it difficult to discern anything in their comments but fear and selfishness. The bulk of their objections to the Obama administration started with the words “My” or “I.” “My taxes,” “my health insurance,” “my guns,” etc.

I never heard concern expressed for others who aren’t members of the Tea Party. I heard nothing that expressed a zeitgeist that included one’s neighbors, the country as a whole, or the rest of the world.
As we talked on the telephone while awaiting the results of the 20I2 election, I said to my sister that I never remembered voting for someone because of what I thought that person could do for me personally, but what that person could do for the greater society, whether on a state or national or international level. Since I first voted for George McGovern in 1974, it just never occurred to me that my personal concerns had anything to do with my vote, but that my vote was meant to consider a broader constituency.

My sister felt the same way; I don’t know where we got this from, though we tend to credit our mother with much of the way we look at the world. erhaps growing up in the 1960s also had something to do with it. We protested the Vietnam war not because we personally were going to lose or gain by it, but because we thought it was an unfair, imperial action that was costing too much in terms of both American and Vietnamese lives.

We also grew up during the hottest part of the Cold War and were taught to be afraid, to be very afraid, of atom bombs raining down on us with just the meager protection of a schoolroom desk. That might have formed in us a selfish outlook and overarching concern for our personal safety; instead it taught us that atom bombs are bad for Planet Earth and every living thing on it.

We watched the evening news from an early age and saw black people being fire-hosed and set upon by police dogs and somewhere in our brains we formed the idea that, though those hoses and dogs were not set upon us, it was a bad thing for the country that anyone should be treated this way. We did take it personally when Martin Luther King Jr. and, shortly after, Bobby Kennedy were assassinated because we felt that the country needed them so desperately.

Ultimately, somehow and from whatever inspiration, we grew up feeling that what was good for the larger community was good for us. We had learned self-interest well understood. As adults now in our 60s, we are even more concerned about the reign of terror (I can’t really speak for Sally, but that’s how I have come to see it) unleashed by the hateful war waged against the Obama administration. It has not only paralyzed Congress from acting in any positive way, but it has also seemed to give bigots the audacity to act out their prejudices again as in the days of Jim Crow. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, John Crawford and others have had to pay the ultimate price for the Tea Party’s fomenting of us vs. them.

I shall have much more to say about the NRA in a future blog, but what else but fear and selfishness allows people to think that their right to have military-grade weapons handy trumps innocent people’s right not to be killed by passing bullets and/or psychotics whose voices in their heads tell them to go to an elementary school and kill as many children as possible? It is the ultimate in self-interest not only not well understood, but ignored and trampled on.

It defies belief, but I have to hope it doesn’t defy the hope that if the Beloved Community that John Lewis wrote about really comes together and walks toward this problem, it can be solved. Too many futures have been shattered; we must see that other futures come to fruition.

The Moral Universe – Bleedin’ Missouri

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Missouri has figured often in the history of civil rights in this country, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Dred Scott decision in the 1850s to lynchings in the Jim Crow era (has that era even ended) to the tragic events still unfolding in Ferguson.

As the westward expansion of the United States progressed in the early 19th century, the issue of whether territories would be accepted as free or slavery states became a tipping point with a direct line to the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise was completely political and had nothing to do with anyone’s rights. The point was to keep a balance of power in Congressional representation between slave and free states. Passed in 1820, the act admitted Maine as a free state in exchange for admitting Missouri as a slave state. The law also prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.

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Missouri Compromise Map

The political upheaval engendered by this portioning out of territory created a major new political party and redefined another. The Whigs party evolved into the Republican Party, with its major plank being no new states with slavery. Democrats, though the name did not change, did have a lot of divisions based on geographical lines.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the man who lost the Presidency to Abraham Lincoln, pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery north of the 36° 30´ latitude. The bill also stipulated that it would be up to each territory’s residents to decide whether to be slave or free.

In 1857, the Supreme Court under Roger Taney (pronounced, oddly enough, “tawny”) declared, as a sidebar to the Dred Scott decision, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because the federal government did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

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Dred Scott

Kansas lies directly to the west of Missouri. New England abolitionists sent settlers there in order to populate it such that any vote on slavery would be a “no” vote. This caused proslavery settlers to go there as well and gave the future state the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas.” Much of the bleeding, however, was caused by neighboring Missourians who were proslavery and wanted a proslavery neighbor. They became known as border ruffians and made incursions into Kansas to harass, vandalize, and even kill free-staters.
Meanwhile, Dred and Harriet Scott were slaves who belonged to an Army officer. They moved with the officer from Missouri (slave state) to Illinois (free state) and Wisconsin (free state). Therefore, the couple lived for many years on free soil. The officer was ordered back to Missouri, where he died. An abolitionist lawyer helped Scott sue for his freedom in 1846 on the basis of the amount of time he had lived on free soil.

The case wound its way through various courts until it reached the Supreme Court. In 1857, SCOTUS ruled in a 7-2 decision that since no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be a US citizen, therefore Dred Scott had no right to sue for his freedom.

In her wonderful book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson says that St. Louis ranked #10 (most severe) out of the worst10 US cities in integration issues after the 1980 census. The term “hypersegregation,” she says, was applied to such cities by sociologists to describe areas where segregation “was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work.”

During the Civil War, the Missouri border ruffians spawned organized groups of renegades who were early role models for the Ku Klux Klan. One such group was led by William Quantrill, and “Quantrill’s Raiders” became a terrifying name to people in Kansas and beyond. The raiders were so brutal that Quantrill became wanted not only by the Union, but by the Confederacy as well. Jesse James started his career as an outlaw under Quantrill.

So what about now? What about what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri? The posts on Facebook are overwhelming. Some of the worst racist ideology I’ve ever seen is in some of them, and some of the most plain, common-sense ideas are in others. There’s a lot of foolish talk and there’s a lot of heart-wrenching talk. I’m not there, I’m not black, so do I even have a right to comment?
Well, I do have a right to my opinions, and here are a few of them:

1. Slavery – wrong, always, everywhere.
2. Police using deadly force against unarmed people – wrong, always, everywhere.
3. Anyone assuming they know the facts before the facts are collected – wrong, always, everywhere.
4. Thinking anyone on the face of this planet is “less than” because of color, religion, language, accent, shape of eyes, shape of nose, shape of skin – wrong, always, everywhere.

The most affecting piece I’ve read about Ferguson were written by Michael Twitty on his blog. I urge you to read it, which you can do by clicking on this link: http://afroculinaria.com/2014/08/18/ferguson-my-thoughts-on-an-american-flashpoint/