Monday, 20 January 2014

The ultimate measure

Bill De Blasio's inauguration (photo taken from the portal Hyperallergic)
Bill de Blasio is New York´s 109th Mayor. He’s married to poet and activist Chirlane McCray. His inauguration was on January 1. Two days before that, the New York Times (NYT) published the article A new mayor brings hope for a populist arts revival. I was curious. The newspaper referred that the new mayor has got a populist brand and that, considering his cultural and artistic preferences, one may expect him to get interested in a part of the city´s cultural life that is quite different from the one that attracted his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. The NYT actually referred that the new mayor was never seen at the Lincoln Center and that his family rarely visits the city’s big art museums. On the contrary, there are usually seen in small neighborhood museums and galleries. Chirlane McCray frequents reading sessions, was member of the jury of a number of poetry competitions and arranged for the poem of a young poet to be read on her husband’s inauguration day. De Blasio’s transition committee (that is, the people who will help him form his team) includes experts from the Public Theater, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as the director of Studio Museum in Harlem.

A few days later, Hyperallergic published an article by Mostafa Heddaya entitled De Blasio and the mythology of a new arts populism. Heddaya comments on the NYT’s considerations, but concludes that the cultural interest of the new mayor and his wife are of little relevance, just like the ones of his predecessor. Heddaya, together with other commentators he quotes in his article, is more concerned about how the new administration will support the arts, in a constructive and fair way, and whether they will manage to attract donors in order to compensate for the support given by Bloomberg to a number of cultural institutions in the city, by investing his own millions.

Problems with funding and permanent problems because of the lack of constructive and fair cultural policies. New York doesn’t seem to be facing a different situation than that of a number of other cities. Nevertheless, and apart from this discussion, I was left thinking about two other things: the fact that the new mayor’s cultural preferences are considered “populist” by the NYT (is there some other meaning to the word that I am not aware of?); but, mostly, the fact that these preferences and habits are an issue, discussed publicly, in newspapers and blogs. I know little or nothing about the cultural habits of the men and women who govern us. Rarely is this an issue among us, before or after elections. And rarely did I see them at the places I used to work or go to, except when their presence was required by protocol. (There are some bright exceptions; few. It´s the case of those politicians who also didn’t ask for an invitation to come and watch a performance; they paid the ticket).

I was once again left with this in mind, I was left thinking if it matters what books our politicians read, which plays they see, what music they listen to, what were their favourite films in 2013. Another event in the US reminded me of this issue.

Photo: Witness Against Torture (taken from Flickr)
On January 11, the day of the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, Witness Against Torture activists did a protest at the National Museum of American History in Washington (see here). Using the characteristic orange jumpsuits and black hoods, they assumed detention poses near the museum entrance. Others delivered a speech, asking President Obama to free the remaining 155 prisoners and close the camp. Later, they moved to the exhibition “The price of freedom: Americans at war”, they assumed the same detention poses and exhibited signs saying “Are these the price of freedom?” or “Civil liberty?”.

I saw in the choice of venue a more favourable symbolism for the museum than the one the organizers actually aimed to assign. “We came here today because we want to see Guantanamo relegated to a museum”, they wrote in a press release. But they also said: “(...) we want it to be shuttered and condemned, but also understood as an example of where fear, hatred and violence can take us.”

It was in Tzvetan Todorov’s book “La peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations” that I first read about the Torture Memo, a document prepared by the  legal office of the American Ministry of Justice, which was used to present a “new definition” of what constitutes torture and to defend the legitimacy of acts committed by the american government. A language that was very well elaborated by someone who knows how to use (or abuse?) words. A shocking public document which was used to justify inhuman, humiliating and shameful acts (this is why I thought that the choice of National Museum of American History had a more profound meaning than seeing Guantanamo ‘relegated’ to a museum”).

I was once again left thinking: what kind of books do they read, what kind of plays do they see, what kind of music do they listen to, what are the favourite films of those politicians, lawyers, security agents, economists and others who, taking advantage of and nurturing our fears, find justifications for barbarity and wish to turn us into their accomplices. From torturing prisoners who have never been formally accused, to promoting referenda on fundamental rights, cutting already miserable pensions, increasing the number of students by class and reducing the number of teachers and subjects, putting at risk the good functioning of cultural institutions and compromising access to them, human rights are being violated every day, ‘for a good cause’, in our ‘civilized’ countries.

Distribution of food and clothes, Portugal, Christmas 2013 (Photo: Bruno Simões Castanheira for the Projecto Troika)
Martin Luther King said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So maybe it does not really matter what are the cultural habits and preferences of those who govern us and of those who support them. Books, theatre, music do not have super-powers. What matters is that a man has got strength and consciousness, so that he’s able to use what he encounterd in them against his own, always underlying, barbarity.

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