“Americans don’t want to think. They want to know.” — John Dewey
“There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” — Audre Lorde
“You can’t really change the heart without telling a story.” — Martha Nussbaum
In the midst of Donald J. Trump’s Senate trial (focusing on two articles of impeachment approved by the House: Article I, “abuse of power,” accusing Trump of pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden by refusing a meeting at the White House and withholding military aid; Article II, “obstruction of Congress,” accusing Trump of trying to impede the impeachment inquiry by urging government agencies not to comply with subpoenas and witnesses not to cooperate), some of us wonder what has happened to the everyday democratic practices of ordinary people, the progressive social reforms that were set forth by what was best in the American tradition from Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman to William James and John Dewey: a deep belief in the great potentialities of democracy, and the capabilities of its working citizens to develop different kinds of intelligence to mediate challenging situations while participating in the public sphere as a foundational support in shaping their lives. Many of us are aware of our inexplicable craving for any kind of doctrine of the absolute, any form of rigid structure, or any sort of simple dichotomy, especially in times of disproportionate crisis as we’re currently confronting—which we know too well can lead to actual devastating consequences. Still, what have we learned from our past—given the US has a short history, and one that thrives on the extremity of opposites: win or lose, do or die, black or white, rich or poor, like cowboys shooting at each other in the O.K. Corral—knowing at the moment the pendulum swings in favor of the right?
What have we learned more specifically from the two decades that seem to share a similar political and social ethos, namely the 1930s and the 1960s, when the willingness to undertake social experiments was a possible option for an autonomous and self-determining democracy? We inevitably associate the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) with the former, during the Great Depression leading to World War II, and John F. Kennedy (1961–63) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) with the latter, between the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements among other social reforms and the turbulence that arose from the Vietnam War. Emphatically, without nostalgia, we too recognize it’s impossible to avoid the real contingency and unpredictability that we confront on the daily basis of our existence, which most of us perceive as an inescapable, generic feature of our human experience. When we think of the decade of the 1930s, we think of how the New Deal was created in response to the Great Depression as a series of programs, public work projects, and reforms in both legislation and financial regulation. We still marvel at the WPA (Works Projects Administration), which included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey, and Relief for African Americans, all providing crucial support and much-needed jobs. Above all, education was an indispensable element in that the future of schools and the future of democracy were one. Most libraries were open six days a week, 12 hours daily, and mobile libraries and bookmobiles broadened education to the public. Many of us admire the experimental spirit that propelled Black Mountain College (1933–57) as a commitment par excellence to democratic governance and the idea that the arts, through cross-pollination, are central to the experience of learning.
Similarly, we all remember John F. Kennedy’s love for poetry as he invited Robert Frost to read at his inauguration in 1961. In fact after Frost’s death in 1963, Kennedy delivered a beautiful eulogy just a month before his assassination in November of the same year, articulating, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.” How can we forget his famous speech, broadcast live on national television and radio on June 11, 1963, unveiling plans to pursue a comprehensive civil rights bill in Congress, stating, “This nation, for all its hopes and and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” Kennedy took Michael Harrington’s landmark publication The Other America (1962), which exposed poverty in the US (and was further popularized by Dwight Macdonald’s review in The New Yorker, “Our Invisible Poor”) to heart during his short-lived presidency. He set forth in his administration, carried on by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, the relentless effort behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and declaring the war on poverty on January 8, 1964.
As we’re entering the days, weeks, and months leading to the election on November 3, we’re contemplating how to confront the tremendous uncertainties of our future, especially in regard to Trump’s trademark policies on immigration and climate change. While we all recognize during times of crisis that conflicts can frequently culminate in war and violence, as we have often witnessed in the past, we also understand conflict can play a creative role in how we each can turn it into opportunities to ameliorate justice in the evils that confront us. We all are capable in other words of “thinking without a banister,” to borrow Hannah Arendt’s term. In reference to Nietzsche, who asked in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), “Have not all handrails [banisters] and footbridges fallen into the water?” Arendt embraced the loss of the banister as the given condition of our age as both a crisis and an opportunity. Once again, we’re in a similar time for which “thinking without a banister” is essential. It’s time for artists from all fields of discipline to come together with our friends and colleagues from the sciences and humanities to reclaim our public sphere once again. It’s time to activate our imminent and participatory democracy, from which uninformed past habits can be substituted by collective, intelligent action.
Onward and upward, in solidarity,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the legendary journalist and news anchor Jim Lehrer (1934–2020), whose calm, intelligent, judicious, and sensible moderation made him one of the most trusted figures in broadcast and a witness to history; to John Baldessari (1931–2020), whose wit and humor significantly broadened the idiom of conceptual art and visual culture through the unity of his remarkable art making and teaching; and Emily Mason (1932–2019), whose lyrical repertoire of color evokes both musical and poetic implications to our perceptions. We’re grateful for Lerner’s, Baldessari’s, and Mason’s profound contributions. Lastly, we send a monumental belated birthday salute to our exuberant Board Member Scott Lynn.