A Democrat and Republican Problem

How should we understand our current moment regarding sexual harassment and violence? Who is at fault, where is the line and what are the consequences? Allegations against figures in the entertainment industry and ongoing allegations against current and past presidents and congressman have lead to a conversation about sexual harassment and abuse and larger discussions about what behavior is appropriate and how persons can be held accountable for their actions. And while nearly every commentator, pundit or person on Facebook or in conversation agrees that this type of violence is despicable and wrong and worth condemning outright, there lacks, certainly at the national level, consensus on what allows this violence to fester and how systems of power condones sexual violence.

In terms of root causes, many pundits discuss the sexual abuse allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as, “both a democrat and republican problem.” Some conservative commentators go further and point to how men are raised as causes of violence while liberals reference the patriarchy as the largest root cause of violence against women. While these are helpful strategies in discussing sexual violence each on its own merits does not go far enough in labeling the root causes of the mayhem that infests our society, in acknowledging the violence against all that is the beating heart of our capitalist system. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are capitalist parties with no real interest in changing the pre-existing power structures. And to blame the “culture” of masculinity or the patriarchy has the same limitations as blaming black “culture” for disadvantages in their communities or Muslim communities for religious violence. To locate blame in some inherent masculine trait is to disregard half the population of humanity, the vast majority of whom struggle under capitalism and are allies in the struggle against sexual oppression.

Sexual violence, against women and men, is its own type of horror, and each victim of sexual violence lives in their own paroxysm of grief, rage and humiliation. Acknowledging the uniqueness of sexual violence obviates us, however, in locating such violence in the constellation of violence that constitutes the capitalist system. Sexual violence is the valence of power, pure and simple. Even the term “sexual violence” obscures the power dynamic involved because its so easy to get caught on the “sexual” part at the expense of the “violence” part and become confused into thinking that this is just an extreme end on the spectrum of sexual gratification. Sexual violence uses sexual gratification to subjugate another person, an act no decent person would ever recognize as a legitimate type of sexuality. If we see sexual violence as about power we can begin to locate it among other forms of oppression that powerful people use against less powerful people. Moving beyond the halls of power or the glamour of Hollywood, we can see this dynamic play out in many workplace environments where a boss has the power to humiliate, exploit or threaten their employees. The Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote on behalf of 700,000 female farmworkers standing in solidarity with the victims of Hollywood actresses who have been victims of sexual abuse:

“Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything — even sexual harassment — seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”

Under a capitalist system there can never be a true reckoning with this type of abuse of power. Capitalism keeps the end goal of both the far right and the left at bay. The far right cannot enact their endgame of returning all women to the home in a Gilead-style patriarchy because it would deprive the market of too many workers and consumers. In turn, the left’s desire of a reckoning with sexual violence cannot come to pass because there would be an equal amount of economic shock if all men who have committed some form of sexual harassment or abuse were held to account. Again, too many workers and consumers would be lost. As the female farmworkers said, there is too much at risk, too many families to feed. Under capitalism we are too economically dependent on each other to make a real inroad into changing the systems of power that protect sexual abuse.

The imaginative leap comes when we can stand in solidarity not only with these women, but all the victims of capitalism, both men and women. Sexual violence festers in hierarchical power structures, as does the violence committed by the police against Tamir Rice, as does the suicide and opioid epidemic in rural white communities. To fail to locate sexual violence as another, uniquely horrific, example of capitalist violence risks ghettoizing this violence, to marginalize it as another social problem among many. And to not locate sexual violence among other forms of capitalist violence is to risk pushing the victims of that violence into the arms of the nascent fascist movement that is growing in America.

The victims of sexual violence need to be heard, comforted and counseled wherever possible. Victimization happens individually, behind closed doors, perpetrated and disregarded by those in power. Erasing the hierarchical power structures that allow capitalism and its attendant violence to thrive can only be accomplished collectively, in the clear light of day.

Senator-Franken-767x972@2x

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

 

Access Hollywood Syndrome

As usual men are behaving badly. The latest celebrity to get into the news for sexual violence is the comedian Louis C.K., who has admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent. C.K. admitted to these stories after five women were on record for the New York Times detailing their encounters with the entertainer. In response to these now substantiated accusations, HBO has removed his content from their streaming service and his latest movie is no longer being released. Also in the news is the senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, who is alleged by the Washington Post to have molested a 14 year-old girl some three decades ago. What these two men have in common is a use of sexual violence as a way of enforcing cultural and political power.

A whole host of pathologies have gone into allowing Louis C.K. and Roy Moore to flourish. To speak to all these pathologies, as a man, is presumptuous. Men need to listen to women, both victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment, to understand how this problem is perpetrated. What can be said, at the very least, is that these men are the beneficiaries of a culture that fetishizes their perceived excellence to the exclusion of all other virtues. Our society values men who are seen as extra and uniquely special, talismans of excellence and genius. These men are imbued with perceived charisma and intelligence that seems to allow them to make groundbreaking art or pursue rarified political power on behalf of their political party. We value these men, in part, because they are stand-ins for our own ambitions, ambitions to be outstanding that is the bedrock of our hierarchical culture. Such projections explain, in part, why the entertainment and political industries look away from these bad men’s behavior. In a recent interview with David Axelrod, John Stewart was asked about the allegations against his friend Louis C.K. Stewart’s knee jerk response was smug dismissal of the question. David Aexlrod was visibly annoyed by the temerity of someone questioning his vaunted and rich guest about his vaunted and rich friend. Cultural conservatives in Alabama have responded similarly to the allegations against Moore. Everything from outright denial to rationalizations using biblical allusions have been used to defend Moore’s alleged actions. Circle the wagons, knee jerk smug dismissal, hostile criticism, character assassination, these are the tools used to defend the political and cultural elites when one of their own is under attack. And while Louis C.K. has come out and admitted to his misdeeds and is facing serious career repercussions, Moore is still the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from the yellowhammer state. Because to admit the truth is to admit that the elite’s hold on power and charisma is a mirage, a castle built on sand. When we turn broken and small men into infallible idols these men will always abuse their power and betray our trust. Sexual violence is an expression of power against women. Only by deconstructing these sacred idols and creating a society imbued with gender equity can we begin to erase our culture of never ending sexual predation.

 

The comedian Louis C.K. and Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore

Thoughts, Prayers and Condolences

On Sunday, November 5, a young man walked into a Texas church armed with an AR-15 and opened fire, killing 26 people and wounding another twenty.  The victims of Sutherland Springs include a five-year-old child and a pregnant woman. The pastor’s fourteen-year-old daughter was murdered while her parents were away on vacation. This was the largest mass shooting in Texas history. A few weeks earlier a man opened fire from a hotel window in Las Vegas and shot five hundred people, killing fifty-eight. That was then the largest mass shooting in all U.S. history. If someone is reading this in the future, these events will have been forgotten, eclipsed by larger mass executions. Eyewitness accounts of first responders from Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man executed a school full of kindergartners describe what an AR-15 does to a five-year-old body. At close range, the bullet will cause the body of the child to explode.

In the aftermath of such events, politicians cast about for talking points; on the right, thoughts, prayers and condolences; on the left, common sense gun laws. When Democratic members of congress say that “common sense” regulations of guns will work they are peddling a myth. While studies have found that a reduction of guns in circulation will reduce gun violence, our current laws largely preclude such action. This is why “common sense” language is so ineffectual. Gun violence is best understood not as interpersonal disputes but as a type of political speech, a speech that is guaranteed by our bill of rights. To say there should be “common sense” restrictions on a right to a gun is like there should be “common sense” restrictions on freedom of thought. The freedom of thought and speech that allows the New York Philharmonic to flourish also allows for a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. To restrict one is to restrict another. Liberals have been willing to live with hate speech because it is a price we pay for other forms of intellectual rights. If we accept that owning a gun is a fundamental right protected by the constitution, than of course individuals are going to use these guns for violence, sometimes mass violence. The political right should admit openly and without shame that Texas and Las Vegas and Newtown and the thousands of suicides each year by guns are the price we pay for this freedom. Copping to anything less than a full admission of cost-benefits is a lie. The freedom to own a gun is the freedom to commit violence at will. To say mentally ill people or domestic abusers should not have access to a firearm is a dodge. We might as well say mentally ill people should not have access to a library card or sexual predators be denied access to internet pornography. Books, pornography and guns are too widespread and any worth wile restrictions futile.

Only when we accept as a society that owning a gun, both as individuals and by the police, is not a fundamental right worth preserving will we rid ourselves of this plague of violence. Technocratic solutions offered by the center will not suffice in preventing the next slaughter. Until we de-comodify violence as a unit of exchange in the form of guns can we prevent the next mass murder from occurring. We must take a step unthinkable today; renounce a right we believe is enshrined in the constitution and collectively give up our suicidal ownership, both as individuals and the state, of guns. Anything short of this is a half measure that will allow this plague to fester. Our goal should not be restriction of gun ownership but abolition of gun ownership. Your common sense prayers and condolences are not enough.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e2-cddc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections

A lost Cause

The Civil War has never been won. As a historical fact, of course, the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 but no one can reasonably say that the hostilities ceased on that date. The Civil War did not end with Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 or the formation of the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas Eve of that year. The Civil War did not end in July of 1866 when a riot killed 150 people in New Orleans, or in 1877 when the last of the Federal troops pulled out of the south and ended reconstruction and with it any attempt to create a racially just society in the former confederacy. The latest murmur of historical memory comes from John Kelly, Donald Trump’s chief of staff and a retired four star Marine general. In an interview with Laura Ingram Kelly said,

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago, was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.”

Kelly is articulating what has become a “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that is popular amongst a surprisingly large group of Americans, including, it seems, his boss. Kelly’s “honorable people” dodge resembles his boss’s own “both sides” argument made after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville earlier this summer. Similar to the creationist “argument” for intelligent design, this rhetorical device is intended for one purpose, to muddy the waters on the issue and absolve wrongdoing of intellectual or political responsibility. As many historians have written before, the Civil War was fought over one issue, slavery. Every Confederate state’s articles of secession mention slavery as the paramount issue and the Vice President of the confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as racial equality]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Tariffs, states rights, etc. were not discernible causes for the conflict.

The centrality of anti-black racism that undergirded slavery was so profound that it could survive unchanged and retrench itself after such a massive political cataclysm as the Confederacy’s defeat. Even after the biblical violence-newer estimates put the death toll at 750,000 men- where the entire economy of the south was destroyed, the elites of the era embraced a concerted effort of terrorism and racial violence as a way to undermine advances made by African Americans. In spite of the violence done to their cities and citizens there was no price the south did not seem willing to pay to retain their ideology of racial superiority. The south endured their suffering because in the end they were able to tell a story of southern Redemption, a story of an out of control federal government, of African Americans undeserving of political rights and an oppressed poor white majority held in bondage by these two nefarious factions. “Lost Cause” mythology, as it is now known, told a moving tale of southern charm and hospitality, stately grace and manners, of dastardly blacks and blue devils on horse back terrorizing helpless southern citizens. What this story does, however, is act as a back door for low down bitter anti-black racism to enter into and fester inside our political language. Anti-black racism cloaked in lost cause-ism has become such a permanent feature of our political life that we have stopped hearing its pernicious double think. Slave-holders and traitors become, “honorable men”, murdered black children get called in the media, “thugs.”

John Kelly, and more importantly his boss Donald Trump, partakes of this tradition of lost cause-ism and refracted racial dog whistling. While Trump’s language is more nakedly crude than past Republican politicians, the anti-black racism is right at home in modern conservatism. America’s ‘founding sin’ was slavery and in many respects anti-black racism is the defining animus of so many of our political decisions, a ghost in the machine, rattling around and popping up in surprising places, in issues of policing and housing and education and the environment. Trump and Kelly didn’t invent racism, but are instead the latest exemplars of a vicious and lost cause.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dd-f3e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections

To the victor go the spoils

I always remember that America was established not to create wealth—though any nation must create wealth which is going to make an economic foundation for its life—but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal. America has put itself under bonds to the earth to discover and maintain liberty now among men, and if she cannot see liberty now with the clear, unerring vision she had at the outset, she has lost her title, she has lost every claim to the leadership and respect of the nations of the world.

Woodrow Wilson, “The Coming On of a New Spirit”, speech to Chicago Democrat’s Iriquois Club (12 February 1912)

As the one hundred anniversary of the October Revolution approach, critics right and center decry and disparage Lenin and his revolution while advocates on the left try to rehabilitate socialism for a new generation. While these debates rage on, another question relates not to the merits of Lenin and the Soviets or the efficacy of Communism but instead how the United States, the clear victor of the Cold War, can enact a more egalitarian socialist model than the failed Soviet experiment. The left today needs today to learn from many strains and traditions offered throughout history, not solely Marxist-Leninism, and offer a new model for equality and justice that speaks to all people from across the political spectrum. One of the lessons from the Russian revolution is that desperate people in desperate times will do desperate and mean things. The United States is at a crossroads. A toxic xenophobic right is on the rise again in the heart of a modern democracy. The liberal center is powerless to stop it or is outright collaborating with the klpetocrats. The left alone stood against the rise of imperial war of 1914-18 and against the brown shirts in the thirties. In their time the liberal center and the capitalists could not stop their respective historical catastrophes of the trenches and Hitlerism, but appeased them or colluded with them outright. The Soviet Union was born in the ashes of a broken and autocratic Czarist monarchy, while the National Socialists grew and festered in the heart of the time’s most progressive liberal democracy. Which country does the United States today more closely resemble? And when we are faced with mean and desperate circumstances and mean and desperate people, will we do any better than the societies of Europe one hundred years ago?

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-da7b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Book jacket, 1939

New York Public Library Digital Collections

No one is safe here

When will we feel safe? As a society, how do we decide when we are legally and physically secure? With the deaths of four Green Berets in Niger many in the media are asking questions about the ‘mission’ in Africa or how Trump is ‘responsible’ for their deaths. The current inglorious media circus began with the four soldier’s deaths at the hands of suspected ISIS militants on October 4. It escalated with President Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, where Trump said to a grieving widow that her husband, “knew what he signed up for … but I guess it still hurt.” John Kelly’s press conference was chock a block with lies and platitudes about sacredness and honor. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, declared that it would be “highly inappropriate” to debate a “Marine four star General”, a sentiment more comfortable in Wilhelmine Prussia than a twenty first century democracy. Trump also published many tweets during this time. What this toxic sideshow highlights, aside from the fact that there is no real low in our political discourse, is that the Unites States is unwilling to fathom or explain its unending need for violence as a solution to our insecurity. The U.S. would rather be entertained by our buffoon king than explore why soldiers died in a country we are not at war in against an enemy we helped create.

The United States’ fetishization of ‘national security’ is in practice a chief purveyor of violence around the world. Global Capitalism has created a practice that intertwines state control through violence and state finance in multinational corporations. The State Department facilitates the sale and disbursement of weapons, large and small, to governments around the world, including Saudi Arabia who has used them to terrorize the people of Yemen in a bombing campaign. The Department of Defense and Justice facilitate the transfer of military material to municipal police departments, including the St. Louis County Police Department, used against demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri while protesting the death of Michael Brown.

The media attacks, rightly, Trump’s racist and dishonorable smear against Myeshia Johnson but is incapable of even beginning to question the nature of the imperialist mission that her husband was ordered into. It is easier to attack Trump’s racism and dishonor as a personal symptom of a buffoon and a liar than to question the imperialism that is at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s racism and dishonor are symptoms of a larger pathological need for control and domination that is the heart of our politics. Trump is merely the incompetent executor of preexisting policies, policies that will live long after Trump slinks off stage.

Removing Trump from office will not end military engagements overseas like the one that killed Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39 and Sgt. La David Johnson, 25. Nor will his removal bring back the countless victims, civilian and otherwise, of our foreign wars. Impeaching Trump will not close the roughly 800 military bases around the world. President Pence or President Ryan will authorize force, covert or otherwise, in countries to remote and little to warrant attention on the cable news. These fictional Presidential saviors will allow their State Departments to sell and transfer weapons to government around the world; Secretaries Clinton and Kerry certainly did under President Obama. The two current political parties are not the cause of violence; one is not ‘worse’ than the other. These parties are merely the vectors of the violence that is embedded in our economic system. Capitalism is the violence. To counteract this violence a militant working class must stand in solidarity with working people the world over and demand the eradication of capitalism and state violence. We the people must stand united and declare that no violence in our name done overseas is ever justified. Because under our current system, no one is safe.

 

Jim Crow Sculpture

“100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Julian Carr, speaking at the dedication of the Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University of North Carolina, UNC (Chapel Hill), 1913

“Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?…Get him out of here. Throw him out!…so obnoxious and so loud…maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Donald Trump to a Black Lives Matter protester November, 2015

 

What role does art play in political revolution? How can public art collectively shape our civic identity? These ideas are at the forefront of leftist direct political action in the wake of Charlottesville. Before antifa activists engaged fascists in the streets of that small Virginian city, white supremacist led a (tiki) torch lit march on the campus of the University of Virginia to support the continued presence of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a park in nearby Charlottesville. Since those protests and the murder of a young activists and the wounding of nineteen more at the hands of a fascist, Jim Crow monuments have begun to come down across the eastern and southern United States. Four public sculptures were removed in Baltimore, Maryland, a statue was removed without the permission of the authorities in Durham, North Carolina. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has called upon Confederate references to be removed from State College campuses. Nancy Pelosi has called for all Confederate statues to be removed from the Capitol building. Even in New York City the M.T.A. is investigating which tile art could possibly reference the Confederacy and is tasked with removing that subway art.

What has galvanized this issue, of course, is the overt support President Trump has shown for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and his fawning nostalgia for the kitschy symbols of white racists Confederate ‘culture’. At heart of removing the Jim Crow sculpture, however, is the radical gesture of destroying art as a tool for collectively reordering civic memory. Setting aside the dearth of artistic merits of these statues, (most of which were mass produced in Northern workshops) the statues still exist as art objects properly understood. Schlocky mediocrities that they are, these statues exist as repositories of value and meaning for the communities that commissioned, fashioned and maintain them. To destroy, or desecrate, or remove these statues is to not simply alter their physical location or appearance. Instead this act of removal seeks to destroy, to desecrate and to erase the ideology that these statues represents. These statues are not  simply Confederate Monuments but are a visual manifestation of the ideology that created them, Jim Crow. Similar to the Nazi kitsch muscle man sculpture or the tacky lavishness of Trump Tower, these Jim Crow sculptures seek to assert power over groups perceived as weak and expendable. To look at art, to look at these Jim Crow statues, is not a passive visual experience. Instead, the viewer of any work of art is an active participant in the meaning and memory that each work of art seeks to render. To look at art is to participate in politics and to destroy art is a political act. Nazism and Jim Crow and Trumpism are despicable ideologies and their adherents, and monuments, should be removed by any means necessary.

 

41_rep
Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University, UNC (Chapel Hill), 1913
die-partei-1945.jpg!Large
Arno Breker, Die Partei, 1945
Donald-Melania-Trump-Manhattan-Penthouse_1-768x511
Donald and Melanie Trump’s fifth Avenue penthouse apartment, New York City

A Reintroduction

 

Six years ago I started the blog Thoughts That Cure Radically. The format of the blog was straightforward. Every week I would visit art exhibitions in New York City and write a review of about a page or a page and a half about the show. The exhibitions could be in either galleries or museums and could be any medium but I habitually gravitated towards painting. In the three years I wrote the blog I wrote about one hundred and forty reviews and also a scattering of catalogue essays, interviews and book reviews. For a number of reasons, however, I stopped writing for Thoughts, some being working as a teacher and also the birth of our two daughters.

While the demands of a full time job plus fatherhood weren’t the sole reason to stop writing and painting, they gave me a ready-made excuse to stop something that had become a struggle. The richness I felt for my family was not matched in my creative life. Painting, and writing about painting, had once been the cornerstone of my identity. Yet by the time I stopped they had become to me a parlor game or fodder for a marketing campaign with myself as the product.

Instead of working through these feelings I stopped painting and writing altogether. I stopped looking at art, talking with artists or thinking about art. I no longer thought of my life as a creative project. Instead, I was a father, husband, teacher and friend, someone who was trying to make a life for themselves without needing to create an extra layer of artistic production to justify myself. In the time away from art I developed new interests and passions. I developed an interest in urban farming, composting, food justice and environmental activism. I became in a small way involved with the Bernie Sanders campaign, trying to get residents in my Queens community motivated to vote.

Being responsible for my family, however, extends my responsibility to the wider world. To care for a child is to care for food justice, is to care for the environment, is to care for politics. And to care for the world is to need creativity and also, I discovered, to need art. Currently we are living through a profound series of crises; political crises, environmental crises, economic crises and cultural crises. These crises demand commitment and courage and people who engage the world with passion and focus in their ultimate hope of a better society. My belief is that art is not “out there” solely in the art world, politics is not “out there” solely in Washington, but located right here in my community and every day life. Instead of being a consumable product, art can be political by being an engine for change in today’s world.

My art practice, and the purpose of this new Thoughts That Cure Radically, is to engage in these issues, issues of creativity and justice and purpose in today’s world, with honesty and passion. The purpose of my writings is to discover how art and political change can happen by me in my community. I hope in these forthcoming writings about art, culture, the environment and politics that I can discover what I believe and discover what matters to me. My hope is that any discovery I make for myself will help you discover something about yourself; that my work can be in any way large or small a gift to you the reader.

 

471px-Dürer_Melancholia_I

Melencolia I
Engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1514