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Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) on Art an Justice

March 30, 2012

We cannot say that we are very familiar with the work of the late poet Adrienne Rich, but a recent profile of her that highlights not only her accomplishments as a poet, but her passionate commitment to defending the full dignity and justice for women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, and the poor, convinces us that we should read her works more deeply.

In particular, we were moved by the vision for art that she expressed in her courageous refusal to accept the National Medal for the Arts award for the Arts from the Clinton White House in 1997:

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art–in my own case the art of poetry–means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

— Adrienne Rich, Letter Refusing the National Medal for the Arts, 1997


The Ipad and the Warlord: Widening the Circle of Concern and Care

March 22, 2012

Most privileged Americans are dismissed as too pampered and self-absorbed to care about anyone they do not know personally, or whom they cannot identify with in terms of race or class background. But we see in two of the biggest and most surprising social media stories in 2012 so far an intense hunger for social justice, a compassion for oppressed people far beyond the national and cultural borders that are supposed to constrain the typical American’s world of concern and care.

However flawed and limited by our current bias and ignorance, compassion needs no apology. Compassion is the starting point for change, the first step in the march toward a better world.

In January, the popular NPR program This American Life aired a show called “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory.” The show featured excerpts from the acclaimed stage monolog by performance artist Mike Daisy recounting a trip he took to China to visit the factories where his beloved Apple products were made. In powerful, moving words that we confess moved us to tears, Daisy described conversations with Chinese workers whose bodies and lives were used up to produce the gadgets that have virtually come to define a life of middle class American privilege, gadgets that some of the workers themselves would never even see in operation let alone own. It quickly became the most popular episode of all time for This American Life, with more than 880,000 downloads and 203,000 streams. A listener-generated petition to Apple in response to the show quickly got nearly a quarter of a million signatures. That’s a significant response from a public that is supposed to be too enthralled by technology to care much about the conditions in which it is produced in far-flung Asian factories.

The second story was the 29-minute video Kony 2012,  produced by a relatively little-known (until now) non-profit group called Invisible Children, that aimed at creating massive public demand for the international community to bring to justice the central African warlord Joseph Kony, who stands accused of abusing and abducting tens of thousands of  children and forcing them to fight in his armed insurgency. Improbably, the video went wildly viral, getting 100 million views in only six days – faster than any video in YouTube’s history. And the video, much longer than the typical viral YouTube video and emotionally wrenching, was spread through the facebook and twitter feeds of young people and soccer moms that are typically obsessed with the latest episodes of Glee, American Idol or banal internet memes like “Laughing Baby” or “LOL Cats.”

Of course, as has been widely reported, both of these stories are rife with ironies and complications that have led some critics to dismiss their social, political and moral significance. Mike Daisy’s brilliant performance turned out to be too good to be true. The reporter who covers China for business show Marketplace that also airs on NPR, suspicious about some of the details of Daisy’s show, tracked down Daisy’s Chinese interpreter and established that many of the personal encounters with Chinese workers that he described were fabricated. This American Life retracted the story in an additional hour-long episode, but re-iterated that the problems in Chinese factories on which Daisy based his (it now turns out) fictionalized work are true – corroborated in a investigations by other journalists, advocacy groups, and in some cases confirmed in the internal audits of Apple itself. Some (including Daisy himself) have defended his lies as an understandable and perhaps even necessary use of dramatic license to get people to care about the issue, while others have seen it as an unforgivable breach of journalistic trust that undermines the cause he claimed to be supporting.

Although no one has accused Kony 2012’s creator Jason Russell of lying outright, many have pointed out that the film presents a greatly oversimplified and in some cases misleading picture of the complex situation in central Africa – most egregiously, ignoring the fact that Kony was pushed out of Uganda years ago. Yet critics of Russell were much more vehement than critics of Daisy, accusing him and those who pushed the campaign of having a messiah complex with neo-colonial if not  racist overtones. Though this criticism might seem extreme, Nicholas Kristoff’s measured defense of the film despite its flaws and the nuanced criticism of Ugandan writer and musician Musa Okwonga (captured nicely in interviews of both on the program On the Media) make it clear that it is far from baseless. Clearly there is a real danger of reinforcing paternalism and stereotypical views about Africa and its people when a story is deliberately simplified to appeal to the sensibilities of white middle class America. The tragic circumstance that a week after defending himself and his organization from these criticisms, Russell himself was found running naked through the streets of San Diego in a psychotic state, which will inevitably lead to speculation about whether his breakdown was caused by the criticism and/or the burdens of setting oneself up as the white savior.

It would be sad if the controversies that quickly engulfed both of these stories reinforced a sense of apathy and cynicism among the many Americans who were stirred by them to care about distant people and situations that they never had cared about before. However flawed and limited by our current bias and ignorance, compassion needs no apology. Compassion is the starting point for change, the first step in the march toward a better world.

There are many more steps that must be taken – steps to educate ourselves more fully, steps to determine an effective course of action, steps through the complexities and challenges that will inevitably dog our best intentions and efforts. But the first step is always compassion – and Americans by the millions demonstrated their capacity for that first step in their response to these stories. We pray that the sense of meaning and connection we experienced through these stories will sustain us in walking further along the path of justice.

Scriptures for 9/11: They Couldn’t Apply to US, Could They?

September 11, 2011

Sometimes the Word is so wonderfully troublesome for the powerful. On the Church’s calendar, today is the “Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” but for Americans of course, this is no ordinary day, but the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By a graceful coincidence, the readings for today speak to this experience with a clarity that needs no comment:

Reading 1     Sirach 27:30-28:7

Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Reading 2     Romans 14:7-9

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Gospel     Mathew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

But that couldn’t mean us, could it?

Health Care Reform and the Soul of the Nation

August 20, 2009

” Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Progressives are fond of citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words on the moral priority of health care. But it is the vitriolic opponents of health care who seem to have grasped its full importance, manifesting a level of fear and hatred – in thinly veiled assassination threats and the prominent display of guns — that is nothing if not reminiscent of the opposition to desegregation and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

As Paul Krugman has argued, this is not simply ignorant rent-a-mobs mobilized by health insurance interests – though that is certainly part of the story. They are also people who seem to feel profoundly threatened by Obama’s presidency, and see the prospect of health care reform as a threat to the American way of life.

As progressives and even moderates and some fiscal conservatives have pointed out, the folks whose hatred has hijacked the health care debate are wrong about nearly everything – laughably wrong about the technical details of the current health care system and proposed reforms, and bizarrely wrong in their characterizations of Obama and other Democrats as dictatorial tyrants. But they are surely right in believing that the adoption of meaningful health care reform providing universal health care coverage would fundamentally transform this country. Passing health care reform that responsibly provides quality care for all American citizens would be the most significant challenge in more than 30 years to the growing dominance of large corporations over every aspect of social life.

The task of progressives, and particularly the religious left, is to persuade Americans that the fundamental change in American society that true health care reform would represent need not be feared; that extending the full measure of American freedom and fairness to all citizens, not just the privileged and the powerful, will enrich us all. The values embedded in health care reform — empathy, responsibility and care for the common good – are at the heart of what has made and can make America great.

Fifty years ago, America stood at a similar crossroads, with the struggle for Civil Rights seemingly stalled by implacable and vicious opposition. Justice ultimately prevailed because of the left’s response to hatred and violence. Progressives, including the religious left, rallied around African American civil rights leaders to form a broad-based movement of good will that stood up to hatred and violence and called America to its higher values. Health care reform will be won if progressives form a similar movement now. Some of the pieces are beginning to come together: doctors and nurses on the front lines of the health care crisis have emerged as leaders of the movement, theorists like George Lakoff have begun to move beyond policyspeak to articulate a moral framework. and the religious left and other progressive groups have begun to mobilize.

The real question is whether a mass movement will form behind them. Health Care must become the Civil Rights movement of the 21st century.Not only is rational health care policy at stake, but the very soul of the nation.


Cars and Bikes — Sin and Repentance in Two Classic Films

February 4, 2009

One of 10 Things I wish I’d Blogged in 08Ok so this little list of quick posts to mark the new year is becoming things I hope to get to in 09….But I will get through this list!

Anyone who actually knows me will attest that, notwithstanding this blog’s royal pretensions, I am normally quite humble. But one thing that will get me in a righteous lather is America’s reliance on the automobile — a reliance that is at best accepted thoughtlessly and at worst with a pathetic surrender.”Yes, I know it’s terrible, but there is just no alternative.”

Yes, I think that driving an automible is a sin — a sin defined as that which keeps us from God. And yes, if it makes you feel better, you can call me hypocritical because I am not able to eliminate the automobile completely from my life, and frequently find myself behind the wheel of a car.  Though I’d call myself not a hypocrite for that, but a sinner trying to repent. And the fact that circumstances drive me to sin does not make me less a sinner.

I would like to develop my reasons for actually believing that driving is a sin in some detail in a later post, but here let me simply state that it is the usual sort of problem we humans have — too much power, not enough wisdom.

For now, let two excellent films stand for the argument. The case against the automobile is brilliantly made in the classic Disney cartoon “Motor Mania,” in which Goofy embodies the problem of too much power, too little wisdom. As hilarious and sadly true now as when it was made in 1950.

The virtue of the rider and bike is evident in Erroll Morris’s brilliant ad for Miller Beer and “alternative fuels.” Yes, I know there is a jingoistic “screw the rest of the world” subtheme to this — but when Americans by the millions abandon their cars for bikes we will earn the right to our splendid isolation. And yes, I know that Miller Beer is not a wonderful product — I have no real defense there. But maybe it’s because I have been riding through the snow all through this beautiful winter. Or maybe because I am a lot closer to this Joe Six-Pack with in his khaki shirt and pot belly than I like to admit; I have no illusions that the sight of me in my spandex riding tights can provoke anything but laughter. Whatever the reason, I just can’t help loving the the stoic determination on the riders face and the campy righteousness of the text. Campy or not, there’s a lot of repentance in this true patriot. And there is nothing — I think really actually nothing — that would do America more good than if everyone who could would get out and stay out of their cars as much as possible.

“We Were All There”: Thoughts on the Inauguration

January 22, 2009

inauguration-01-20-2009Like most of the country, I spent Tuesday following the ritual inauguration in our nation’s capitol on a variety of media. As any reader of this blog knows, though I voted for Obama, I have criticized the way his campaign marginalized the issue of domestic and global poverty and the other ways that his campaign ignored rather than challenged the most destructive aspects of Empire America. But today I want to celebrate just how important his election is for this country and the world.

Dignity and community – these are the essential elements of transcending the ravages of poverty; these are the essence of a good life, the things that have most tragically been destroyed by the economic and social marginalization of the poor. The remarkable campaign and election of Barack Hussein Obama embodied and articulated the hope and long struggle of marginalized people for dignity and equality in this country and around the world. Thus, though we will have to work hard to push Obama toward the real change we need, it may be that Obama has already done more to lift up the poor than any other president.

ellamae_540I watched the inauguration and speech in awe. But the most moving moment for me was NPR’s story about Ella Mae Johnson, the 105-year-old African American woman from Cleveland who braved the bitter cold and winds huddled in a sleeping bag to see the inauguration in person. Thinking of all of the painful history that her long life embodies as a witness to this moment cracked me wide open. I cried. Her words were simple, but seemed to sum up the hope and redemption of the moment:

We were all there; we were there waiting. It didn’t matter what my color was. It didn’t matter what your color was. And I could not ask for anything better.”