The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”
—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism
What a month November has been. On the eve of the election, the Rail team was working tirelessly to keep up all of our activities while stepping up the level of creative spirit and energy in anticipation of a welcome or dreaded outcome. Like many Americans, and many others around the world, we were profoundly saddened by the news of Donald J. Trump’s electoral-college victory as the president.
We’re now reminded of Lewis F. Powell Jr. (an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, nominated by Richard Nixon) who drafted the 1971 confidential Powell Memorandum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which proposed strategies to systematically deploy a free-enterprise system. This resulted in neoliberal policies and agendas based on the assumption of monetarism and supply-side economics, which encouraged and accelerated the privatization of public functions and the rapid gentrification of urban areas and reduced collective protection for the working class by means of economic deregulation, causing perpetual underpayment and abuse of wage labor, among other horrors.
Despite the nominal differences in economic theory separating neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies, both have also used the issue of race to gain political leverage. It was during Nixon’s war on crime—creating an atmosphere of panic and fear for public safety by hurling accusations of (inherent) criminality towards African Americans, especially those involved in radical political struggles—that neoconservatives joined to support Nixon in his racial politics in order to advance their opposition to the Soviet Union while pressing the war in Vietnam. We now recognize that the criminalization of African Americans has extended to the criminalization of Islam, of immigrants, and of women’s rights.
The fear, amplified by a perceived threat of security at home and a world-wide, far-right backlash against globalization and multiculturalism, combined with decades of economic oppression and decline—has finally broken the surface of civic discourse. Once again the American pendulum of intervention and withdrawal has swung to its far right, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed: “An American attends to his private concerns as if he were alone in the world, and the next minute he gives himself up to the commonweal as if he had forgotten them. At one time, he seems animated by the most selfish cupidity; at another by the most lively patriotism.” Many of us are reminded again of the sad truth that, despite the ostensible gains of the 1960s, the New Left has not been able to develop ideas and strategies that are tangible and relevant to the immediate needs of the people, and their feelings of alienation from American life.
What are we to do when we all know our national anthem celebrates heroism under fire, and martial imagery imbues our politics and our pastimes? What are we to do when we all know that the history of manifest destiny is the history of a generations-long genocide, one that is alive today at Standing Rock?
In the legacy of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and of the greatest lights of nonviolence, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, David Dellinger, and Barbara Deming, we can count our friends like Dore Ashton, Jonas Mekas, George Braziller, and the late Barney Rosset who have questioned and resisted political and social oppression in all forms. In the case of those of us who are endowed with creative outlets, we can take up our pens, brushes, and instruments and make essays, poems, songs, works of art, cartoons, dances, and performances. Just as 19th-century French novelists like Gustave Flaubert, Anatole France, Guy de Maupassant, and Marcel Proust explored how artists see and look at things, we, in this 21st century, can turn open and unflinching eyes onto our world.
In the present day all sorts of museums, including many that solely focus on contemporary art, are built to accommodate the demands of visual culture, and many have been increasingly receptive to critical responses to political and social issues, hence openly anticipatory in their inclusiveness of many mediums. We’ll continue our fight against tyranny, censorship, oppression and corruption with our most powerful tools: criticism, insight, and creation.
Onward and upward,
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives of Leonard Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Arnold Mesches, Rosamond Bernier, and Diana Balmori whose contributions to the fields of music, art, art publications, and architecture have had significant impact to our cultural lives. We’d like to extend our deep condolences to their families and friends.
P.P.S. Lastly, I would like to congratulate two friends, Sanford Biggers and Eugenie Tsai, for being the CUE Foundation 2016 honorees for their brilliant contributions to our art community. And a monumental congratulations to one of my oldest friends in New York City, the legendary publisher Dan Simon and his formidable Seven Stories Press on their 20th anniversary.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.