Sunday, April 11, 2010
Filling in the Gaps
Last Sunday, Easter, I spent the end of the afternoon sitting outside on a friend's deck, overlooking the woods and drinking wine, eating homemade Chinese vegeterian dumplings with wooden chopsticks, and discussing politics with a perfect stranger--actually the husband of a friend of a friend, who was visiting from out of town for the weekend. The guy was a real tracker, up-to-the-minute on everything. I'll probably never see him again, and I can't even remember his name, but I sure had a blast in time and space conversing with him.
Truth is, I don't get to talk with people that often who are so engaged, informed, and open-minded, and know exactly who's who and what's what across the board. It was rather like, if you happen to enjoy tennis or chess, unexpectedly getting to play a game with somebody who's really good at it. Given the utter scuzziness of politics now, most folks are more sporadic and ho-hum about it, depending on how much else is going on in their lives.
I used to be like that myself: pretty much asleep at the switch, I have to confess, for most of my life. I am not proud of the fact that I slept right through the Vietnam war, the struggle for civil rights, McCarthyism, Watergate, presidential assassinations--you name it. Living quite happily, thank you, without all that, I was well insulated inside my own bubble. It took radical Islam flying airplanes into the World Trade Center to finally wake me up to all that was going on. Only then did I set out to master the political curriculum of government and war on the world stage, and today I have ended up swallowing it whole. Even so, I am still having to catch up with so many past years of ignorance.
What I'm saying is that there are significant gaps in what I know, some of which got some unexpected remediation this week. First, I found myself boning up, of all things, on the Holocaust, as I began to study a large catalogue about art and Auschwitz--a connection I hadn't known even existed. "The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz," was given to me by David Mickenberg, the new director of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke (and also one of the book's three editors). I didn't realize, until I started reading, that a significant body of art exists made during World War II in concentration camps.
The catalogue is huge, not least because of the ten scholarly essays it contains. It also contains reproductions of some 300 art works created primarily (but not exclusively) at Auschwitz by Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Collected and retrieved by Mickenberg (and others) for an exhibition held at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in 2002, they offer an insider's view of what life was like in a concentration camp: how it was run and what it was like to be there under such barbaric conditions. It seems amazing to me to discover only now that, amid unthinkable scenes of mass murder and slave labor, gas chambers and crematoria, art was being furtively made from whatever "fragments" of material could be found. Not art as we normally think of it or see it hanging in museums, but something more like a diary of atrocities, a living record of the conditions and complexities of life in the camps.
Most striking is the unrelenting sameness and homogeneity to the images--of persons enduring deathlike regimentation, crude beatings, torture, and unendurable boredom--in the absence of any color or luminosity in their world. What you get is a sense of drab, hopeless hours following one upon another, punctuated only by random atrocities, 24 hours a day without respite. I try to imagine life without pleasurable distractions. Unable to enjoy a java-chip frapuccino while reading the newspaper at Starbucks, after exercise class. I imagine not being able to turn away from the horror of what I'm reading about the Nazis by freely switching mind channels--moving on now to watch American Idol, just as Crystal Bowersox starts singing her Beatles song, with a black man accompanying her on the didgeridoo. These small but necessary treats that make life worth living.
Bowersox was not all I saw on TV this week. I have been absolutely gripped by the PBS documentary about the civil rights movement, "Eyes on the Prize." Filling in those gaps again, I was aware of Rosa Parks, who is one of my heroines, as an icon of resistance. Her refusal to go to the back of the bus that day in Montgomery, Alabama, was a primary inspiration for the movement, but honestly I hadn't known about the year-long bus boycott it inspired among black people after she was jailed. Under the sublime tutelage of Martin Luther King, Jr., black people in Mointgomery agreed to walk to work after that, hurrying along in the streets, sometimes in groups, sometimes with arms linked, and often cheerfully singing. Judging by the film clips, it was an incredible sight to behold. Financially, the bus companies took a real beating from the loss of their best customers. But they were never violent, never once lost their dignity--not even when they were being rounded up and stuffed into paddy wagons, and hauled off to jail by the truckload during their peaceful protests. They kept on hanging in there together, and they sang. There wasn't a single vicious or vile placard remotely like those you see these days, carried around by Tea Partiers.
Watching the in-depth story of the struggle for civil rights half a century ago, in all its horror and glory, certainly offers perspective about the raging battle over health-care reform, which is really a code action for ending the current administration. From what I hear in the news today, Republicans are gearing up for drop-dead war against Obama. The country is definitely in for it, with yet another race war looming. History repeats. "The point of history," according to Richard Hofstader, "is to remind us that our present times are not uniquely oppressive."
Maybe they aren't--but isn't another point of history to learn something from mistakes of the past? At least, this was the key idea floated in a lecture I attended this week at Roanoke College, given by Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist well known for his writing on civilizational collapse. Diamond was talking about how societies CHOOSE to succeed or fail. What made him "cautiously optimistic" in present circumstances, he said, was that our present unlimited access to history and the media increases the possibilities for learning from our mistakes. But will we do that?
Introducing the notion of choice as a key component in civilizational collapse is very intriguing, but it does seem as if what we are choosing (collectively, if not individually) at our point in history is not course correction, but the same dead-end path that is slowly sealing our fate. While half of the country, under Obama's leadership, desperately tries to turn the ship around, the other half is determined to prevent it happening.
Hiding from the Nazis for years in somebody's attic, diarist Anne Frank still found it possible to declare that "I somehow feel that despite everything, people are good at heart." Our fate at this time would seem to hang on whether or not this young girl was right. "It's always been a yin/yang struggle between the forces of good and evil," says my friend Liz. She's definitely right, and the truth is, we still don't know how the story will end. We may find out the ending soon, however, perhaps much sooner than we think, or than we would like.