“Here, right matters.”

Riding upward on Fortune’s wheel (Paolo Manucci, pavement of Siena cathedral, 1504-1506)

“. . . their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion.”

––– Gilles Deleuze [1]

 

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. He garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he said, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.” [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1798.

After watching this week’s Congressional impeachment hearings, I am trying hard to “have patience till luck turns,” but whether our nation can ever truly recover “the principles we have lost” remains an undecided question. The lawlessness of crimes, corruption and coverup appears to be more than a match for constitutional processes, at least so far.

“This is America,” insists Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. “Here, right matters”[3]  But the President and his allies are doing their worst to prove him wrong. It’s become so difficult to stay ethically focused in the blizzard of bad acts that is the Trump administration, with its distracting whack-a-mole of endless evils.[4] Words and actions which would have scandalized prior generations have been normalized into the banality of daily, sometimes hourly, experience. But during the past week, the House Intelligence Committee has extracted one particular crime out of the ceaseless flow, enabling millions of Americans to examine it in depth.

In the face of a mountain of damning evidence, Congressional Republicans cover their ears and shut their eyes. Their posturing at the hearings has been shamelessly mendacious and painfully childish. Whether their behavior is driven by fear, ambition, or blindness, they act under a malignant spell which not even a clear and present danger to Constitution and country can dissolve. Their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion. They sleepwalk toward the abyss, dragging America with them.

“We are better than that!” cried Elijah Cummings earlier this year. And Adam Schiff, the chair of this week’s hearings, chose his late colleague’s passionate plea to be the final words of yesterday’s concluding session. So now we must ask: Are we? Are we better than that?

A foundational American myth has been the story of rebirth and renewal. Unburdened by the weight of the past, perpetually empowered to reinvent ourselves, we want to believe in our own agency, the chance to start afresh in every moment. No Old World fatalism shall deter our capacity to act. If there’s a problem, we’ll solve it. If there’s an obstacle, we’ll overcome it. “I know if we come together, there’s nothing we can’t do,” says presidential candidate Joe Biden, expressing a mandatory trope of American rhetoric.

Writing about American cinema, Gilles Deleuze says that it “constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization.”[5] And in that sense our politics are like our movies. We watch in order to rediscover America. But, as Deleuze cautions,

 “. . . we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of our economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally perceive only clichés.[6]

Epistemology––the study of what we know and how we know it––is not just the domain of philosophical reflection. When 30-40% of Americans now perceive the world as a place where monstrous and murderous acts are somehow acceptable, epistemology is a political problem. Trump will be gone, sooner or later, but the toxicity of unknowing will take decades to dispel, assuming we manage to survive this perilous time with our democracy intact.

In yesterday’s impeachment testimony, foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill warned Americans about the Russian strategy to destabilize western democracies:

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”

Hill went on to say, “Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”[7]

In other words, if America lives by the lie, it will die by the lie. If a deluded public loses the ability to distinguish what is imaginary from what is real, we are lost. The false narratives of others will be substituted for our own freedom of thought. Who, then, will rescue us from this “body of death?”[8]

This week, in addition to missing three days of rare and precious Northwest November sunshine while staying inside to watch the hearings, I curated a conversation about St. Paul at the Episcopal church of St. Barnabas on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We began with a pivotal passage from his letter to the church at Philippi:

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)

These words were inscribed in large letters on the wall of the assembly hall in my boyhood school, and for six formative years, from seventh through twelfth grade, they were before my eyes at every morning assembly. Ever since, Paul’s invitation to a radically new kind of perception has continued to challenge my ethical complacency and disturb my spiritual sleep.

To have the mind of Christ, I believe, isn’t asking us to do a little better, but to be radically different, to make our center not the ego or all the assumptions and biases implanted by nature and culture, but something transcending our limited (and limiting) personal standpoint.

As Episcopal theologian Mark McIntosh puts it, faith becomes “a new cognitive framework . . . restructuring the mind and prying it open to the infinite, deathless reality of God.”[9] With the mind of Christ, we see with the eyes of the Compassionate One, the Merciful One, not only desiring what God desires, but becoming the very means of actualizing divine desire in the mending of the world.

In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor said that “to have the mind of Christ is, in my opinion, to think in his wayand of him in all situations.”[10] In other words, when we “put on Christ” (to use another Pauline image), the question of “what would Jesus do?” becomes existential: What would we do? What will we do? It’s not simply a way of thinking. It is a way of acting and being.

St. Paul was an itinerant pastor to some pretty wayward and quarrelsome congregations, who, he worried, only “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 5:15). He repeatedly exhorted them to renounce partisan rancor and fearful self-indulgence, to let Christ’s mind be in them, manifesting itself in the way they live with each other, and in the way they exist to invite everyone else into Love’s dance.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If is it possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9-18).

The gap between Paul’s exalted vision of communal life and the present reality of America’s broken public could not be greater. You don’t have to be a Christian, or conflate church and country, to see the wisdom of Paul’s words for our common life as citizens and neighbors. Our refusal to love cannot stand. Paul’s warning to his congregations is aimed at America as well:

Take care, lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal. 5:15).

 

 

I recently photographed the 16th-century pavement image of Fortune’s wheel in the cathedral of Siena in Italy. There are 4 figures riding the wheel; one at the top, one at the bottom, one going down, and one riding upward. I chose the latter for this post as sign of hope.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 94. Deleuze was describing the wealthy characters in the films of Luchino Visconti, but it seems an apt image for the inexplicable behavior of Trump’s political allies.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798.

[3] Testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 20, 2019.

[4] This does not seem hyperbole to me. My post before the 2016 election, Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, has proved all too accurate as far as it goes, but who then could have predicted children in cages, the pardoning of war criminals, the betrayal of Kurdish allies, etc. etc.? Just today I read that almost 10,000 premature deaths per year can be attributed to Trump’s gutting of EPA rules. As I said, endless evils.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 148.

[6] Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 21.

[7] Fiona Hill, testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 21, 2019.

[8] “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

[9] Mark McIntosh, “Faith, Reason, and the Mind of Christ,” in Paul J. Griffiths & Richard Hutter, eds., Reason and the Reasons of Faith (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2005), 141.

[10] Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Chapters on Knowledge, II, 83, cited in McIntosh, 121.

“Your celebration is a sham”––Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

Standing room only at McAllen, TX, detention center, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

––– The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

“If you want water, drink from the toilet.”

 ––– U.S. Border Patrol agent to a thirsty immigrant, July 1, 2019

 

John Adams, our second President, predicted a Fourth of July “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] It would be a time to remember our origins, honor our ideals, and pledge ourselves to nurture and preserve the noblest portions of our national life.

In the nineteenth century, the vision of Independence Day as a national covenant of memory and renewal found exuberant expression in the verbal fireworks of grand orations. These long-winded blasts of rhetorical excess came to be known as “making the eagle scream,” but their homiletic intention was serious: to summon the people to “effusions of gratitude” for America’s sacred origins, and to encourage “a faithful and undeviating adherence” to the principles of liberty, equality and the common good. [ii]

But what about those who are excluded from the blessings of liberty? By the 1820s, some Independence Day orators began to call out the inconsistency of celebrating freedom while so many still wore the chains of slavery. “We ought to remember that the happiness we enjoy is not universal,” Giles B. Kellogg told an audience at Williams College on July 4, 1829. “This will temper our exultation and render more heart-felt our tribute of gratitude . . . There are those among us who are shut out from the light of freedom, chained down in the prison house of bondage . . . those of common origins with ourselves, inheritors of the same great blessings, heirs to the same immortality.” [iii]

The most famous of these abolitionist orations was delivered on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, to the Rochestery Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. As an escaped slave himself, he gave voice to the voiceless with fiery eloquence:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy––a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” [iv]

Irony and guilt continue to haunt our national celebrations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism is alive and well, along with other long-standing national sins. And the concentration camps on our southern border, where federal agents put children in cages and subject countless refugees to conditions of torture, certainly make the rhetoric of freedom an unholy sham in our own day.

For those who are more offended by the words “concentration camp” and “torture” than by the realities they describe, let me point out that while these are certainly loaded terms, they are technically accurate. A concentration camp is defined as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”[v] While the most notorious examples are Nazi death camps and Soviet labor camps, the term itself has a broader application. As for torture, a physician who witnessed the appalling conditions of the camps––“extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food”––concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” [vi]

Detention Center, Weslaco, Texas (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

How shall we respond to such evil? Let Douglass be our teacher:

“O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

 

Detention Center, McAllen, Texas, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

The Fourth of July should be a day of atonement not only for the cruel barbarity of the Trump administration––which would indeed “disgrace a nation of savages”––but also for our collective impotence to make it stop. Instead, the president is stealing millions of dollars from our National Parks to stage a military spectacle in his honor, and to desecrate the Lincoln Memorial with hate speech to his adoring mob (Trump opponents will be kept at a distance to silence the voice of protest). And to such shameless and pitiful parody of Independence Day, the words of Douglass make perfect reply:

“Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of [the people] crush and destroy it forever!”

 

 

Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203.

[ii] Phrases taken from the July 4, 1821 oration of John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of State. This and many other Independence Day orations may be found at https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th.html

[iii] https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th/Kellogg.Oration.1829.pdf

[iv] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852). https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/

[v] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/concentration_camp Some might argue for the term “refugee detention center,” where people may indeed suffer from logistical overload. But the deliberate and intentional infliction of suffering by the Border Patrol and its white supremacist enablers in the Administration justifies, in my view, the more damning term.

[vi] Matt Stieb, “Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps,”New York Magazine (July 2019). The physician quoted is Dolly Lucio Sevier: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/the-inhumane-conditions-at-migrant-detention-camps.html

“Could I but find the words”–– Art vs. the Barbarians

The dictator and his holocaust in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.”

If a nation’s sins go unconfessed, can it ever be free of them? Or will they continue to flare up, resistant to every cure? If measles can make a comeback, why not fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, or even Nazism? Radu Jude, a Romanian director, explores the persistence of evil in his demanding new film, “I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (2018). The title is from a 1941 speech by the Romanian dictator, Ion Antonescu, calling for the eliminationof the Jewish population of Odessa. After the Ukrainian city was taken by Romanian forces in alliance with the Nazis, Antonescu’s soldiers murdered some 30,000 Jews. Before Romania switched sides to the Allies in 1944, Antonescu would preside over the slaughter of 400,000 Jews and other minorities.

The dictator was executed for war crimes in 1946, but most Romanians repressed their guilty memory. The Romanian government would not make an official admission of complicity with the Nazis until 2000––54 years later!––in order to gain admission to the European Union. But the subject remains largely taboo in that country. Who can break the contagion of silence? And who will listen?

Jude’s film proposes art as a remedy. When an idealistic director, Mariana Marin (the riveting Ioana Iacob), is hired by a municipal government to stage a sanitized account of the Odessa occupation as a public spectacle, she decides to tell the truth of the massacre instead. To rip away the mask of denial might be the beginning of repentance and healing.

Mariana’s ambitious production is hampered from the start. Many of her non-professional reenactors resent its critical stance on Romanian history. Some are uncomfortable playing the part of the hated Russians, while others seem a little too willing to put on the uniforms––and the swagger––of the Nazis. Others refuse to play Roma gypsies, the untouchables of eastern Europe. Old bigotries remain alive and well in the twenty-first century.

And Mariana’s production staff, for all their shared idealism, are not exempt from anxiety and discomfort. They too are Romanians, shaped by a culture of denial. When they gather to view historical footage and photographs of naked brutality, their conversation is laced with crude jokes and trivial asides, as though only laughter and silliness can lighten the oppressive weight of horror.

But Mariana’s greatest challenge is Movilă (Alexander Dabija), a city official who pressures her to tone down the truth-telling, so the public will not be offended. His extended debates with Marin, unlike conventional movie dialogue, are fraught with critical theory and intellectual fireworks. Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Elie Wiesel are all invoked. The didactic talkiness, showing the influence of Brecht and Godard, subverts the insulating escapism of commercial cinema.

Movilă is witty and charming, and the chemistry between him and Mariana generates a palpable charge. But his “whataboutism,” downplaying the significance of any particular atrocity by citing examples of even greater evils, is insidious. Sure, Odessa was bad, but not as bad as some other massacres. Why single it out? Do you want have a competitive massacre Olympics, or award an Oscar for the worst atrocity? It’s a human problem, not a Romanian problem. And what good does it do to beat ourselves up for something that is past and gone? Negativity can’t bring a people together.

Mariana agrees to make changes in order to maintain her funding, but it’s a promise she doesn’t intend to keep. On the night of the public performance in the city square, what the crowd sees is a horrifying representation of the massacre. The actors playing Romanian soldiers round up the actors playing Odessa Jews, locking them inside a wooden barracks. The building is set on fire, making a great holocaust in the middle of the square (the actors having slipped out through a hidden exit).

Mariana had hoped that this alarming spectacle of national evil would shock the audience into an awakened conscience, producing a collective cry of “never again!” Instead, the spectators seemed to enjoy the whole thing. It was not only hugely entertaining, it mirrored their own prejudices and resentments. Instead of being an indictment, it was celebrated as a festival of tribalism. The people’s eyes glowed as they gazed upon the flames. Many nodded and smiled. Some even cheered.

Mariana had failed to make a difference with her art. But what about the filmmaker? What were his expectations? Can his story about the failure of art to change us become itself an example of art that does transform? I don’t know how Romanians have responded to this film, but when I saw it recently at this year’s Seattle Film Festival, I came away wondering about the transformative role of art in my own country.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899)

On a recent visit to New York City, I saw several works which strive to make our darkness visible and bring the repressed or forgotten to light. In the Metropolitan Museum, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1899) shows a black man adrift without mast or rudder in a stormy sea. The high horizon accentuates the enclosing mass of water. A sea spout looms dangerously near. Sharks prowl hungrily, while patches of red paint suggest blood already spilled. Homer never explained the painting. Some have interpreted the man’s calm in the face of peril as an image of hope. Others, finding suggestions of a tomb in the cabin’s dark opening, see a man resigned to death.

The docent giving a talk when I entered the gallery acknowledged the generalizing views of the painting as a metaphor for the universal human condition, but she also suggested that Homer may have had a more specific subject in mind. Whatever rights and freedoms had come for ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War, they were soon eroded by legalized segregation, which became firmly established in the South over the last 15 years of the nineteenth century.

Could this 1899 painting have been for Homer an image of African-Americans in a racist country, not just set adrift without the power to control their fate, but actively threatened by hostile forces? When some of his contemporaries complained about the apparent hopelessness of the picture, Homer added a distant schooner on the horizon. But as a type of vessel more common to the slave trade era than the new century, perhaps it signified not the hope of rescue but the lingering ghost of slavery, refusing to vanish.

At the New York Historical Society (where I had gone to hear Cole Porter tunes played live on his 1907 Steinway), I discovered an exhibition of works by Betye Saar, best known for her washboard assemblages––adapting a common tool of laundresses and maids to address “enslavement, segregation, and servitude.” In Liberation, for example, Saar recycles a demeaning stereotype into an image of defiant strength.

Betye Saar, Liberation (2014)

Among Saar’s washboards was posted a poem by Langston Hughes, “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman” (1925):

Oh, wash-woman
Arms elbow-deep in white suds,
Soul washed clean,
Clothes washed clean,––
I have many songs to sing you
Could I but find the words. . .

And for you,
O singing wash-woman
For you, singing little brown woman,
Singing strong black woman,
Singing tall yellow woman,
Arms deep in white suds,
Soul clean,
Clothes clean,––
For you I have many songs to make
Could I but find the words.

Betye Saar, (I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998)

I was particularly taken by Saar’s installation piece, I’ll Bend, But I Will Not Break (1998). The ironing board is printed with a famous icon of human evil: the cruelly impersonal graphic of black bodies crammed into the British slave ship Brookes. The original 18th-century engraving was widely disseminated by the abolitionist movement, making it “perhaps the most politically influential picture ever made.”[i]

Over one end of this diagram is superimposed a photographic image of a female house slave, bent over as she irons. An actual iron, signifying both female labor and the branding of slaves, is attached to the board with a chain, another symbol of bondage. The neatly ironed sheet hung on the wall bears the initials “KKK.” Saar has commented on the weird paradox of this image:

“In order for a klansman to go out, he had to have a clean sheet, and a black woman—an Aunt Jemima type—had to wash that sheet. It was about keeping something clean to do a dirty deed. It’s just an ironing board and a wash line, but the political implications are strong.”[ii]

Nichola Galanin, White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018)

The recurring Biennial at the Whitney Museum is dedicated to what’s going on now in American art, and this year’s exhibition, where half the artists are women, half are people of color, and 75 percent are under 40, features many subjects and perspectives intended to open our eyes to what may be hidden, unnoticed, or even uncomfortable for many.

One of my favorite works was White Noise: American Prayer Rug (2018) by Nicholas Galanin, an Alaskan of Tlingit/Unangax descent. Made of wool and cotton, it suggests a television screen filled with electronic noise or “snow”––the flickering dots of static picked up by an antenna in the absence of a transmission signal. But “white noise” is a specifically acoustic term, referring to a mix of all the sound frequencies audible to the human ear, suppressing unwanted sounds so we might more easily fall into sleep.

White Noise vibrates with a rich play of differences: soft fabric representing the hardness of glass, the freezing of restless static into a static image, the correlations and disparities between visual and acoustic “noise.” But the sharpest contrast is between the devotional context of a prayer rug and the idolatrous worship offered to our screens. Prayer is the practice of deepest attention, but the all-knowing, all-seeing screen which devours our time is a poor substitute for true divinity.

Galanin describes his work as a protest against such idolatry. “The American Prayer rug is hung on a wall in place of flat screen televisions, as the image accompanying droning sound we use to distract us from our own suffering, from love, from land, from water, from connection; there is no space for prayer, only noise.”

But the spirituality of White Noise is firmly intertwined with timely political critique:

“The work points to whiteness as a construct used throughout the world to obliterate voices and rights of cultures regardless of complexion. Calling attention to white noise as a source of increasing intolerance and hate in the United States as politicians, media, and citizens attempt to mask and obliterate the reality of America’s genocidal past and racist present.”[iii]

It should be noted that the old-fashioned analog television screen is a relic of the past. Can we say the same about white supremacy?

I Do Not Care, The Gulf StreamI’ll Bend But I Will Not Break, and White Noise all bring what is hidden or repressed into public visibility. God only knows what difference any work of art (or liturgy or sermon) makes in either individual or social consciousness, but let us be grateful for the prophets and visionaries among us. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

And for those who don’t frequent traditional art venues, many artists are taking their work into the streets, where their prophetic message is impossible to ignore. Just the other day (June 12), twenty-four guerilla installations appeared overnight at public sites around New York City. At tourist sites like museums and Rockefeller Center, and outside media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News, a small cage was set up. Inside was the sculpted image of a child under a foil blanket. Continuous audio of crying children played for everyone to hear. A sign on each cage read: #NoKidsInCages.

attribution: Matthew Earle Scott/Twitter

As I have written in previous posts on art activism, Beautiful Trouble and Insurrectionary Imagination, “making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it.” The placing of those cages, like Mariana’s reenactment of the Odessa massacre, made the public look evil in the face. Of course, the authorities soon covered the cages with blankets and disabled the audio, restoring the invisibility of this shameful American sin.

The Republicans who are abusing those children
do not care if they go down in history as barbarians.

What about the rest of us?

 

 

Related posts:

Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Temporary Resurrection Zones

 

[i] https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break

[ii] New York Historical Society: “Women, Work, Washboards: Betye Saar in her own words” (https://unframed.lacma.org/2018/04/23/new-acquisition-betye-saars-ill-bend-i-will-not-break)

[iii] Nicholas Galanin: https://www.flickr.com/photos/galanin/31102635898

The Gathering Storm

Jerome B. Thompson, The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (1858), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The painter gazes with speechless, loving wonder, and I whisper to myself: This is the pathway home to an immortality of bliss and beauty.

–– The Rev. Louis L. Noble (1859)

Do you observe how [God] intended that there should be moral meaning in the face of Nature, and that we should derive instruction therefrom? . . . And as I sat and looked today at the meadows and the trees, I thought within myself, “What message have they for me of my God, and from my God?”

–– The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1860)

 

Nature has always exerted a powerful influence upon the American imagination, whether it was seen as a howling wilderness to be tamed, a vast resource to be exploited, or a sacred gift to be treasured. Before much of this country was settled and cultivated, its unspoiled landscape was deemed a new Eden. But by the mid-nineteenth century, primeval landscapes were already in retreat, and many feared America was becoming Paradise Lost.

Landscape painting offered a powerful response to this anxiety, fostering and preserving a sense of Nature as a divine Scripture, “opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[1] Even as rapacious expansionists were subduing the continent “with the plough and the railroad,”[2] artists were giving a kind of prayerful attention to what Nature, undefiled by human interference, was showing and saying to the receptive mind and heart. As one art historian noted in 1849, “numerous modern painters are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impression.”[3] And the impression registered by painters like Albert Bierstadt or the Hudson River School was a sense of Creation as a shower of blessings suffused with divine presence, requiring of humanity both reverence and care.

Albert Bierstadt, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the 1850s, darker elements began to disturb the blissful images of America’s Eden. A beautiful landscape might include the forlorn stumps of a logged forest; the distant smoke of a steam engine would register the intrusion of human technology. But westward expansion wasn’t the only trouble in Paradise. In his study of Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Franklin Kelly writes that “no other period in the nineteenth century was so indelibly marked by complex national issues, mounting turmoil, and increasing doubt about the destiny of the American nation.”[4] The turmoil and the doubt began to find expression in the representations and intuitions of both literature and painting. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):

“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No More. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” [5]

In a similar vein, the newly invented pigment of cadmium red, so dramatically applied by Frederic Church in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), did more than document a sunset’s color with greater accuracy. To a country on the eve of war, it also conveyed a warning: There will be blood. Damned in the midst of Paradise indeed.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), Cleveland Museum of Art.

Church’s crepuscular scene has been called “a stained glass window burning with the intense power of divine light.”[6] But when the very future of the country was most in doubt, this silent moment just after sunset became an icon of a nation in crisis: in a time of passing away and growing darkness, could we still hope for a bright new morning? Louis Noble, Church’s Episcopal rector and close friend, saw in Twilight “that narrow, lonesome, neutral ground, where gloom and splendor interlock and struggle.” Darkness and light, like Jacob and the angel, “now meet and wrestle for mastery.”[7]

In the previous year, another Episcopalian, Martin Johnson Heade, painted an even more foreboding image of imminent calamity in Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Over the next decade of Civil War and its aftermath, stormy weather would be a common theme not only in American landscape painting, but in political and religious rhetoric as well.

In 1863, the aptly named Noah Hunt Schenck, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, lamented that the “thousand miseries of our fraternal strife . . . so charge the air with gloom and roll their black clouds overhead, as to leave us bowed with sorrow and groping in the dark.”[8] As the original owner of Heade’s painting, Schenk must have looked upon it the day he wrote those words.

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I recently visited Heade’s painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and spent a long time peering into the ominous blackness of clouds and water. The warm tonality of the foreground shore and the jutting pair of grassy spits, glowing with an eerie intensity at odds with the surrounding gloom, only increased the unsettling sense of unreality. The extreme contrasts of dark and light, hot and cool, suggest tension and instability verging on the apocalyptic. And yet the human presences––the rower on the water, the watcher on the shore––seem strangely calm. Do they not see what the painter sees––an imminent doom?

Although the preeminent role of landscape painting in the production of national identity and spiritual meaning has long since declined amid vast changes in art, culture and religiosity, Approaching Thunder Storm seemed to me as relevant to our current situation as any of the edgy political works I had seen at the Whitney Biennial a few days earlier. In fact, as the climate crisis deepens, the symbolic trope of catastrophic weather is being strangely literalized. Climate is no longer just a vivid metaphor for the threats on our horizon. It is itself becoming as grave a danger as any other.

The crisis of these times may prove to be as devastating in its way as the events of the 1860s. But whether our storm clouds be the madness of presidents, the rise of fascism, or nature gone off the rails, the American body politic continues to sit passively on that broken plank––whether by ignorance, complicity, or despair, it matters little––inexplicably unable to rise, with whatever courage and hope we possess, to shout our protest to the gathering darkness:

“No more! Be still.”[9]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1869, rev. 1911). Long after American landscape painters had abandoned the confident spirituality of the mid-nineteenth century, Muir translated the vision of an Edenic wilderness into political action, becoming a major voice in the movement for national parks.

[2] James Russell Lowell (1849), q. in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 55.

[3] Henry T. Tuckerman, Sketches of Eminent American Painters (1849), q. in Kelly, 22.

[4] Kelly, 116.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Louis L. Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Newfoundland (1861), q. in Kelly, 119. 108.

[8] Noah Hunt Schenck, in “Songs in the Night,” a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, q. in Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), 44. Schenck’s Baltimore parishioners were divided in their political sympathies. When prayers were said for President Lincoln, supporters of the Confederacy refused to kneel. After the war, he was glad to take a parish in New York.

[9] Cf. Mark 4:39, where Jesus rebukes the storm, and the wild sea grows calm. Weathering our own gathering storm may indeed require divine aid.

“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

Let It Shine!

The darkness of a room can be solved by a single candle.

–– Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side[i]

 

Has there been a scarier Halloween in our lifetime? Evil powers are abroad, spreading terror and mayhem throughout the land. Will the flickering candles of our jack-o-lanterns be enough to ward them off?

Remember the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia? The brooding mountain unfolds into a Satanic beast whose immense wings blot out the sky. The shadow of the beast flows like hungry lava over the land, swallowing everything in darkness, and releasing into the air ghoulish and malevolent forces we had thought to be safely buried in the tombs of history.[ii]

When I blogged my bleak forecast of a Trump presidency just before the 2016 election, I listed ten areas of concern. Sadly, my predictions were all too accurate. But they were also shockingly incomplete. I had not yet imagined my government abducting children from their parents and throwing those little ones into prison camps. I had not yet imagined a president turning a blind eye to the dismembering of a journalist out of a desire to sell weapons to a genocidal client. I had not yet imagined that neo-Nazis, racists and anti-Semites would be encouraged and enabled so openly and unashamedly by members of the governing party. In a week when Jesus got booed during a conference on religious freedom, perhaps I should not be that surprised anymore.

But as we mourn the slaughter of eleven Jewish souls who were praying in God’s house, it is hard not to be mad as hell. I want to share the Psalmist’s anger:

I am filled with a burning rage,
because of the wicked who forsake your law. [iii]

But merely to glare and fume at evil is to play its game. Entranced by its endless permutations, we may try to meet its every action with an answering counterforce. But as long as we do so, we will never escape its grasp. And we risk infection from the very darkness we hope to conquer. The best way to say no to evil is not to outshout it, but to walk in love, even in the Valley of the Shadow.

Simone Weil, in another dark and dangerous time, wrote a famous essay about the Iliad, whose true subject, she believed, was “force.”

“In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept and blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliadcould appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliadis the purest and loveliest of mirrors.” [iv]

To call a reflection of humanity at its worst as the “loveliest of mirrors” may seem jarring, but for Weil the truth was always lovelier than self-deceit, for it liberates us from illusion and invites us to the makeover of grace. Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . .

When we look at the evils around us, do we only see the most visible perpetrators, or can we detect a deeper, more collective web of assumptions, feelings and actions in which we live and move and have our being? In reflecting on the hate crime at the Tree of Life, my friend Mark Harris, an artist/priest and thoughtful blogger, reminds us of what the ancient theologians called Original Sin: a persistent wrongness embedded in not only the psyche, but also the social fabric which precedes and transcends our personal agency. We may choose to resist or reject this wrongness as we become better conformed to our true humanity, but we can’t deny its existence or claim to be disentangled from it.

“I don’t think it is enough to talk about hate crimes,” Mark writes. “These are higher crimes, somehow more deeply embedded in the social fabric. These crimes are the strategic outcomes of those who form a social narrative in which the crimes are never traced to their source, but rather are left charged, if at all, to the immediate perpetrators. The manipulators of the social narrative hope to never get charged. And what’s more, WE hope never to be charged; in order to avoid having to be accountable, we too easily accept the verdict against the localized perpetrator as sufficient and bundle ourselves in the protection that ‘we’ are not to blame.” [v]

I hope I haven’t ignored my own advice here by talking more about the darkness than the light. What I really want to say is that yes, our flickering jack-o-lanterns of hope and love and kindness shall, in God’s good time, burn brighter than the darkest night, for they are part of the one Light which can never be overcome.

We may be daunted by the forces arrayed against everything good and true and beautiful. We may be shocked at how far things have sunk. We may grow weary of our own participation in the imperfections of history. But this train’s still bound for glory.

And this little light of mine? I’m gonna let it shine.

 

 

 

Photo and pumpkin carving by the author.

[i]Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 70. A moving and beautifully written novel.

[ii]Thankfully, the dawn wins! You can view the sequence here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLCuL-K39eQ

[iii]Psalm 119:53

[iv]q. in Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 93.

[v]Mark Harris, “Kilers, hate crimes, and unholy violence,” Episcopal Café(October 29, 2018): https://www.episcopalcafe.com/killers-hate-crimes-and-unholy-guidance/ Mark’s blog on Anglican/Episcopal matters is Preludium.

“Let it not happen again.”

The Story Wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, where the Nikkei were forcibly removed from their island home in 1942. (Photo Illustration by Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz)

“Later on, they took my dad around five o’clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s praying because he didn’t do anything wrong.’ But they took him anyway.”

–– Nobuko Sakai Omoto

 

Seventy-six years ago, people of a certain ethnicity were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. This happened not in some distant citadel of despotism, but in the “land of the free,” from the shining sea of the Pacific to the diamond desert of the western interior. It happened in the United States of America, and the island I call home is where it all began.

After Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry (the Nikkei), whether or not they were born in America, became objects of suspicion in the eyes of their government. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the exclusion of “any or all persons” from areas deemed sensitive for national defense. Although around 14,000 people of German or Italian ancestry were interned for at least part of the war, those of Japanese descent were the prime targets, reflecting an anti-Asian bigotry with deep roots in American history.

On March 21, after only an hour’s discussion in the Senate and thirty minutes in the House, Congress passed a law authorizing the roundup of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry. Of that great number, the first 227 would be residents of Bainbridge Island, six miles west of Seattle.

These evacuees comprised a significant portion of the island’s relatively small population. Boasting the world’s largest sawmill––a magnet for job-seekers––in the late nineteenth century, Bainbridge attracted immigrant workers and families, many of them from Japan, even after the mill shut down in the 1920s. By the 1940s, both the Issei (“first generation,” born in Japan) and the Nisei (“second generation,” born in the U.S. as American citizens) had become established members of the island community. But when Pearl Harbor stirred up primal fears of the “other,” 227 friends and neighbors were abruptly severed from their community and shipped off to distant internment camps.

Why was Bainbridge targeted first? The high percentage of Nikkei on the island, along with the proximity of military installations and the Boeing aircraft plant, have been cited as probable causes. The fake news of the day accused Japanese-American farmers of aligning their strawberry rows as pointers toward bombing targets. Frank Kitamoto, only two years old when his family was taken, thought the island’s isolation made it a perfect test case:

“We didn’t have the bridge in those days. So it became real easy for the army to isolate us and to kind of use us as a practice run to see how people would react to something like this––if they came in to force us off the island, whether we’d be violent or whether we would cause problems or protest or whatever. And since we went without any of that going on, then I think that kinda set the pace . . . for them to do things.”[1]

The idea of a practice run seems especially chilling to me after reading a recent op-ed piece by Fintan O’Toole, describing Trump’s corrosive attacks on democratic norms as a means of “test marketing” the spread of fascism. “Fascism,” he writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”[2]

Notice of forced evacuation, posted on March 24, 1942.

On March 24, the Nikkei of Bainbridge were given just 6 days to settle their affairs and pack their things before military trucks would come to take them away to the ferry dock. For those with property, it was especially complicated. Non-citizens couldn’t own property, and Japanese-born were forbidden citizenship by law[3], so titles had to be in the name of either U.S.-born children or supportive friends. In any case, what would happen to their houses and land while they were gone?

There was a limit of one suitcase per person, not only for clothes and personal items, but also to carry sheets, blanket, utensils and plates! If you had to pack one suitcase without knowing where you were going or how long you’d be away, what would you include? Practical things, or emotional treasures? Matsue Nishimori Watanabe, who was 15 at the time, remembers the pressures of packing so lightly:

“And, of course, in that suitcase you’re trying to put maybe a sheet or so, that you can have for sleeping. And the rest is your clothes and your shoes. And so you’re not taking any toys or anything like that. . . one suitcase for the rest of your life . . . isn’t a lot of space to put things. And that’s the way we traveled, and with a tag on the suitcase and a tag on our body. .  .  [O]ne of my girlfriends now, she sees the pictures of my sister and us walking down the dock and she could see that they’re dressed up and they have hats on and everything. And she says, ‘Why did you dress up to go to camp?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had no place else to put it except on our body, because you had one suitcase to carry.’”

But there were greater stresses. Many reported a sense of shame at being treated like criminals. What had they done to deserve this? What would their neighbors think of them?

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And for one thing, we were so busy destroying everything that was Japanese. We, my dad says, ‘Get rid of everything,’ so we just burned things, buried things, broke things up, did everything to get rid of all the things that Grandma sent from Hiroshima. . . I hated to get rid of all the stuff that Grandma sent me, but then again, it was too Japanese, and so we just had to destroy them.” (Kay Sakai Nakao, 22)

Perhaps the worst thing was having no idea of where they were being taken, or what would befall them in the days to come.

“They never told us where we were going, if it’s gonna be hot or if it’s gonna be cold or anything, which sort of — I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt like I was kind of up in the air and I couldn’t come down on earth to get my feet on earth, to really feel sort of secure. I don’t know if that’s the word, right word to use, but you’re just left kinda dangling, wondering.” (Kay Sakai Nakao)

 

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

The truckloads of evacuees were dropped at the end of the road I now live on, less than a mile from where I write these words. Escorted by soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets, they lugged their bulging suitcases down to the dock at Eagle Harbor and boarded the ferry Kehloken to Seattle, where they would, under armed supervision, take train and bus to the concentration camps far inland[4]. Some 10,000 people would eventually be crammed into a primitive settlement of one square mile bounded by barbed wire. After the blue water and green forests of Bainbridge, the harsh landscape of the high desert came as a shock. A resident of California’s Manzanar camp summed it up tartly: “The main thing you remembered was the dust, always the dust.”

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

And how had the Nikkei’s neighbors on Bainbridge responded to “the exclusion”? While some residents shared the widespread racism and wartime belligerence of the country as a whole, a majority of Bainbridge Islanders resisted the anti-Japanese hysteria. The bonds of longtime community were stronger than the sirens of fear.

The day after Pearl Harbor, teachers were careful to remind their nervous classes that the students of Japanese ancestry were Americans too. Neighbors pitched in to help the Nikkei families with last-minute logistics. Generous souls took over management of abandoned farms and businesses until the day their rightful owners returned. And the editors of the local weekly newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, mounted an eloquent and courageous defense of the vulnerable.

Walt and Milly Woodward, a young couple from Seattle, had bought the paper when they moved to the island in 1940. Their first editorial made a powerful commitment: “Always strive to speak the truth, unafraid, whether it be on a national issue or something purely local.” And so they did.

On the day after Pearl Harbor, their front page counseled neighborliness over fear: “There is the danger of a blind, wild hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan. That some of those persons happen to be American citizens…easily could be swept aside by mob hysteria.”[5] Walt and Milly continued the fight for constitutional rights and mutual respect for the duration of the war. The Review was the only newspaper in the United States to do so! The Woodwards also hired evacuated high school students to send dispatches from the camps, so that absent neighbors would not become faceless or forgotten. Their stories of exile were read widely back home.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

Because Bainbridge had resisted the extremes of racist hostility and fear infecting much of wartime America, it was easier for its exiles to return without incident when the global conflict drew to a close. As the Woodwards’ daughter Mary has written, “All up and down the Pacific Coast that spring and summer [1945], newly released families returned to vandalized houses and damaged or stolen personal property. Bainbridge families also saw damage, but to a lesser degree. There was vandalism––common whenever a house stands vacant––but it was a result more of petty crime and greed than viciousness.”[6]

Some couldn’t afford to return, and others chose not to, but more than half of the exiles did come back, compared to a much smaller return rate in other places. Bainbridge showed little sign of the nasty anti-Japanese sentiment seen elsewhere. Those who voiced their continuing hostility on Bainbridge found few followers, while there were countless expressions of kindness and goodwill to assist the Nikkei in their resumption of lives interrupted.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And our neighbors were all willing, happy that we came back. That time we came home it was September . . . it was dry summer, they said, the strawberries are all wilted. The dirt, the soil was just like sand, just really, oh, it was sad. Everything was wilted, I remember. And we had to start all over again, and I still wonder how did we ever, you know, with Mom and Dad, how did we ever get going, I always wonder. But we did.” (Michiko Amatatsu Noritake, 22)

 

“I was about thirteen when I came back and I was really frightened, but I went up to school and I signed in as “Sally” because I had to be very American and I didn’t want to be known as Shimako anymore. Well then . . . so the first day of school, Shannon Stafford and Ray Lowry, my classmates from Kindergarten, they came up and said, ‘Welcome back.’” (Shimako “Sally” Nishimori Kitano)

 

Steven Gardner panels at the Exclusion Memorial.

On August 6, 2011, the anniversary of Hiroshima, nearly 600 people gathered to dedicate the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial at the exact place where the Nikkei had been removed from the island in 1942. The beautifully designed site is a moving tribute to the dear people of that troubled time, but it also provides a necessary reminder of our perpetual vocation to repair the world by nourishing community and resisting everything which diminishes the human family.

Paper cranes left by visitors at the Story Wall, where the names of all the evacuated Nikkei are inscribed.

In the Memorial’s peaceful setting beside Puget Sound, a cedar “Story Wall,” designed by local architect Johnpaul Jones, holds the names of all the exiles as well as a series of moving terra cotta panels by Seattle artist Steven Gardner, depicting people and incidents of the exclusion.[7]

It is a place to remember––and to hope. As Sada Omoto, one of the surviving exiles, has said, the Exclusion Memorial wants to “create in you a different sense of being.”[8]This should be a pilgrimage site for every American in this dispiriting time. You will take heart from it.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community’s excellent website is also worth a visit for its wealth of fascinating photos, archival films and video oral histories. Most of the interviews quoted in this post may be found there.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Let it not happen again.

Just before Independence Day, I interviewed Clarence Moriwaki, a local activist who has been a driving force behind the Memorial project. I looked him up after hearing his eloquent speech at the recent Bainbridge Island rally to “Keep families together.” Like so many of us, Clarence is troubled by the normalization of racism and hatred at the highest levels of our government as well as in the untamed id of cultural rage. From the stigmatization of Muslims to the unspeakable cruelty at our southern border, America’s shadow side is on full display, while the crazier voices on the right tout the 1940s internment as an applicable model for the war on terror. Singling out people based on race and ancestry remains an illness hard to cure.

“This is frightening to me,” Clarence said. “We spent months thinking about the motto for the Memorial. We went back and forth, and what we decided on was Nidoto Nai Yoni (‘Let it not happen again’). But it is happening again. It’s happening to those children being separated from their families. The motto is not being lived up to. They’re creating concentration camps, and it’s happening in the name of the United States of America.

“What’s different this time is that people are not remaining silent the way they did in 1942. And they’re making comparisons between what is happening to Muslims and immigrants and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It has become part of the American narrative. Sites like ours keep it out there so it isn’t forgotten. And people have notforgotten. The story is timeless––and timely.”[9]

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Just days before the evacuation of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team opened the season against its traditional rival. They wanted badly to win, of course, but instead of using only the best players, the coach, “Pop” Miller, made sure that all six Nikkei players not only took the field, but remained in the lineup for the entire game. They got trounced, 15-2, but no one seemed to care about all the errors and fruitless swings of the bat. All that mattered to the Nikkei––and to their teammates who cheered them on––was the joy of a love so much stronger than fear.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Among the many fascinating exclusion artifacts in the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, none is more telling than side by side posters of the high school classes of 1942 and 1943. They make an indelible image of a community bereft by a terrible sense of absence. In the class of 1943, the faces of the Nikkei have all disappeared.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1942.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1943.

But the students stranded in Manzanar would not miss their graduation. The principal sent copies of all the graduation speeches to the camp, along with diplomas for every exiled senior. Meanwhile, during the commencement ceremony back on the island, in the middle of the stage, there were thirteen empty chairs.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Let it not happen again.

 

 

I am very grateful to Clarence Moriwaki and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for their generous assistance in the making of this post. It was a privilege to engage with this unforgettable and challenging story and the enduring legacy of the people who lived it.

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the video oral histories on the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) website: (http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=WELCOME)  The ages given are of the interviewees at the time of their evacuation. Thanks to Clarence Moriwaki for his generous assistance with these sources.

[2]Fintan O’Toole, “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow,” The Irish Timesonline, June 26, 2018.

[3]Incredibly, Japanese legal resident aliens were not allowed to seek U.S. citizenship until the passage of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952.

[4]Not all spent the war in the camps. Some joined the military and fought in Europe. Some were jailed. Some would be allowed to move outside the exclusion zone for work or school. But no one could return home until war’s end.

[5]Bainbridge Review, December 8, 1941. Cited on the BIJAC website.

[6]Mary Woodward, In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story(Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community / Fenwick Publishing, 2008), 118. This is a beautifully produced and moving account with many striking photographs and illustrations.

[7]My photos of the story wall are used throughout this post. Thanks to Steven Gardner and Johnpaul Jones for their exquisite artistry, and to Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz for their composite image of the wall and the historic photo of the evacuees walking toward the ferry.

[8]From a display panel at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

[9]Jim Friedrich interview with Clarence Moriwaki, July 2, 2018.