The Lunch Guys / Art, Politics and Talibanism

August 13, 2019

     The Lunch Guys are: to RRandy Alfred (editor & writer)Dan Hubig (artist)Jeffrey Klein (former editor of Mother Jones & West magazines)Jerry Barrish (artist & bail bondsman), Larry Gonick (cartoonist), Michael Castleman (writer), Phil Ryan (lawyer & former Freedom Summer participant)Andrew Moss (epidemiologist & writer) and Enrico Deaglio (writer). 

     Not pictured: Ben Christopher (political reporter for CalMatters.org), Michael Nolan (activist & promoter), Bernard Ohanian (editor & writer), Dean Rindy (political media consultant), Michael Singsen (lawyer), Tom DeVries (investigative journalist), Dave Moriaty (former publisher of the Austin Sun & Rip Off Press), Frank Viviano (writer), Tamim Ansary (Writer)

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    In famously leftist San Francisco, a controversy has erupted concerning the depression-era murals, created by Victor Arnautoff, that are in George Washington High School. The 13 Arnautoff murals were created as critical commentary on some of the more 

controversial spects of American history, including genocide of the American Indian populations and slavery. Arnautoff himself was a communist who migrated to the Soviet Union after the murals' completion.

    As reported in the NY Times, (see image below) “In one of the murals, George Washington points westward over the dead body of a Native American. Another depicts Washington’s slaves, hunched over, working in the fields of Mount Vernon. In the debate over the murals that make up “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School, one side, which includes art historians and school alumni, sees an immersive history lesson; the other, which includes many African-Americans and Native Americans, sees a hostile environment.” 

    The San Francisco School Board has voted to paint over the murals, but the opposition contends that they will sue to prevent the historic murals from being destroyed.

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Randy Alfred:

From a book review in July's The Atlantic:

“We stagger under the daily load of doublethink pouring from Trump, his enablers in the Inner Party, his mouthpieces in the Ministry of Truth, and his fanatical supporters among the proles. Spotting doublethink in ourselves is much harder.

 

'To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,' Orwell wrote. In front of my nose, in the world of enlightened and progressive people where I live and work, a different sort of doublethink has become pervasive. It’s not the claim that true is fake or that two-plus-two makes five. Progressive doublethink—which has grown worse in reaction to the right-wing kind—creates a more insidious unreality because it operates in the name of all that is good. Its key word is justice — a word no one should want to live without. But today the demand for justice forces you to accept contradictions that are the essence of doublethink.

 

For example, many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics, and that good politics is a matter of identity. The progressive view of a book or play depends on its political stance, and its stance — even its subject matter — is scrutinized in light of the group affiliation of the artist: Personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value. This confusion of categories guides judgments all across the worlds of media, the arts, and education, from movie reviews to grant committees. Some people who register the assumption as doublethink might be privately troubled, but they don’t say so publicly. Then self-censorship turns into self-deception, until the recognition itself disappears — a lie you accept becomes a lie you forget. In this way, intelligent people do the work of eliminating their own unorthodoxy without the Thought Police.”

"Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined"

What 1984 means today

by George Packer

Review of:

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984 

by Dorian Lynskey

Doubleday

 

 

Frank Viviano:

Brilliantly put by George Packer, and as he implies, a window into uncomfortable thoughts that should trouble us all. Jeffrey and I have had long conversations about this, dating back several years. The conflating of politics and aesthetic judgments with matters of identity may be understandable in light of the moral degeneracy of the Republican Party, chiefly evident in its delirious embrace of racism. But it's a perilous dead end, as well. We avoid thinking too deeply about that possibility because to do so is viewed, by ourselves as well as by others, as a form of treason. Yet the dead-end result is that it permits the right to define the terms of battle. Not just any battle, but arguably the final struggle to salvage what remains of democracy. 

 

Identity politics have been necessary at certain moments in history, and constructive up to a point. But beyond that point, and in the wrong historic context, they become destructive. At their worst, they mimic the mindless tribalism of white supremacy. At their best, they threaten to fragment authentic and vibrant multiculturalism into a shattered mosaic of  paranoid monoculturalisms. What's needed to defeat the sinister forces lining up against genuinely progressive values -- in Europe and Asia, as much as America -- is an echo of the Popular Front. Not paranoid neo-tribalism, but an assertion of determined commonality. Common principles, common goals, common beliefs. Above all, common ground in which to cultivate shared principles in the collective interest of social justice and civil partnership. Martin Luther King understood that very well, as did Gandhi, and it speaks for itself that they were both targeted by assassins, King by a hit man for white supremacists and Gandhi by Hindu nationalists.  The most effective enemy of the extreme right everywhere, from Trump and Nigel Farage to Matteo Savini and Marine Le Pen, is a united front dug into the rich soil of common ground and rational discourse. If democracy is to survive, that's the only ground it can inhabit. Whatever its intentions, tribalism is neo-fascism's irrational and suicidal ally.

 

 

Frank Browning:

Well stated, Frank, and needs to be said again and again.  The PC episode concerning the SF high school is deeply distressing. Next burn Titian’s Rape of Lucretia?

 

 

(photo: one of the murals at Washington High School, including the dead Indian)

 

Frank Viviano:

Amen, Browning. The SF school board is a textbook example of mindless barbarism.  

 

 

Jeffrey Klein:

Agree with Frank Viviano wholeheartedly. One aspect of this profound problem: the desire to appear to be "a good person" too often drives progressive politics. E.g., those saying that illegal immigrants coming into the USA not only deserve unimpeded entry but also free medical care often hold this position because they want to advertise to themselves and others that they are "good, moral, empathic people." But it's a losing political position. It enrages Ollie Opiod, whose manufacturing jobs are disappearing; whose kids are likely to drop down a social class, etc. Fear of loss has 2x the power of the desire for gain. Tribalism is profoundly rooted in human evolution. Simply put: humans have encountered new populations; spied on them; then killed all males and male children; then raped the remaining fertile women. Total replacement theory. We're clever animals but beasts nonetheless. Identity politics makes progressives feel good but it's a dead, deadly end. Frank Viviano’s points about competing monocultures is profound.

 

 

Daniel Rosenheim:

Well put, Frank. For fighting to save Victor Arnautoff's mural at Washington High School, Cindy has been branded a white supremacist.  It is the Taliban of the Left.

 

 

Dean Rindy:

I agree with you on the San Francisco mural issue.  I also am curious about your reaction to another recent event.  By now most of you have probably heard about Nike and Betsy Ross. Nike issued and shipped to stores a special 4th of July sneaker featuring the famous revolutionary flag with a circle of thirteen stars sewn by Betsy Ross. Colin Kaepernick, a NIKE “brand ambassador,” objected, saying it made him uncomfortable because the flag had been used by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups and came from an era of slavery.   NIKE withdrew the shoe from stores.

 

Some Democratic Presidential candidates agreed with the decision. Julian Castro said he was “glad to see” NIKE acted to remove the shoes over the “painful” symbol he compared to the Confederate flag.  Beto O’Rourke also approved. “I think its really important to take into account the impression that kind of symbol would have for many of our fellow Americans,” he said.

 

For the record, as Fox News was delighted to report, the Betsy Ross flag was shown prominently at Obama’s 2008 inauguration.  As far as the Klan goes, over the last century the KKK waved the actual American flag infinitely more times than the Betsy Ross version.

 

Personally, I think my fellow Texas Democrats, Castro and O’Rourke, are behaving like opportunistic dumb-asses. Dumb, because you don’t win elections by stating that a patriotic symbol cherished by millions of ordinary citizens is suddenly verboten because some racist numbskulls waved it at rallies.  Asses, because as a practical matter of politics, there are few swifter ways to fragment and divide a polity than by implying that something that has long symbolized unity is actually a symbol of hate, and therefore (by implication) those who persist in using it will be choosing to side with hate themselves.  

 

I don’t really want to argue about this.  I’m just curious to know if people agree these two events are part of the same social dynamic.

 

 

Daniel Rosenheim:

Interesting question about Betsy Ross.

 

This is more about about realpolitik than principle, I think. Yes, some of the founding fathers had slaves, but the Betsy Ross flag is hardly on a par with statues celebrating the Confederacy. Since when do we think the American Revolution was a reactionary event? 

 

In the current climate Nike made a marketing blunder, and now it can hardly afford to offend its ambassador. Castro and Beto don't want to be outflanked and, yes, are being opportunistic, I think. In one case, it's a commercial issue; in another, it's political tactics. Neither has much to do ethics or even ideology.

 

I do not believe, however, this is quite the same as the Washington High School mural, which involves, not a pair of tennis shoes, but a work of art that has enduring value -- (and progressive art, at that). It's one thing to object (rightly or wrongly) to a corporate marketing scheme; it's another to start destroying art or banning books because they come with a painful message. (cf. Taliban and Buddha statues).

 

Separately, I like Jeffrey's point about fear of loss, which is why I think the abolition of all private health care is a non-starter right now. Maybe later. For now, make quality public health care available to all, but let people keep their private plans if they want.

 

 

Larry Gonick:

And as far as Castro and O’Rourke go, they are so far out of the running that they’re clearly looking for anything that’ll give them some purchase with anyone.

 

 

Tom Devries :

Okay, seriously: 'some of the founding fathers had slaves....'  

It's way worse than that. The Constitution enshrined slavery. Because the Southern colonies threatened to pull out, the Founders made a specific and explicit choice not to include black slaves in the list of those deserving God-given freedom. There was open discussion and tension around the issue in Philadelphia and ultimately they chose to have a United States rather than confront the slavers. The Betsy Ross flag is a symbol of a horrific price paid by blacks for the rest of us to have this nation. I have no great regard for some retro version of America's past where Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, Justin Herman, and Junipero Serra were all great heroes. If finally someone finds offense in the Betsy Ross flag, well, makes perfect sense to me.

 

 

Larry Gonick:

Everything you say, Tom, is true—but what do we make of it? Slavery was well-entrenched by 1789. There was no way to make it disappear. Did the framers of the constitution make the wrong decision? My opinion is that if the north and south had split at the outset, there might well have been a number of wars between them—and slavery would probably have ended at around the time it did anyway, or maybe somewhat later, as this was a worldwide trend. (Having said that, I’m also of the opinion that counterfactual, subjunctive historical scenarios are pretty much a waste of time.)

 

The weight of the past is heavy. It’s better to understand it than to censor it. Taking offense at ancient symbols is Talibanistic—unless, like the confederate statues, the monuments were created (after the fact, to celebrate the "lost cause," i.e., treason in defense of slavery) as deliberate affronts in the first place.

 

The Washington High murals were intended, if anything, as an affront to and critique of received history. They should be expanded, not destroyed.

 

 

Tom DeVries:

Rosenheim's comment which I quoted (''some of the founding fathers had slaves....') was about the Betsy Ross flag and was magnificently tone deaf and a-historical. Four of the first five presidents were Southern slavers, elected (partly) because of the 3/5ths compromise. South Carolina had a white/slave ratio of 1 to 8, and in consequence more votes in Congress and the Electoral College I believe than Massachusetts.  Our country exists now politically and economically as it is because of slavery. It is our Founding Sin, racism literally written into our origins. If the Ross flag is a symbol of that to some, I'm okay with losing it.

 

About the murals, they're interesting but strike me as kind of dated agitprop. Cover them up for a while or something, maybe, because now they're gonna cause trouble. Removing them does seem impulsive and vandalistic. 

 

(I shot a Discovery Channel piece about the Diego Rivera murals in Detroit which I love. They are also dated agitprop so maybe I'm off here.)

 

 

Randy Alfred:

We can't "lose" the Betsy Ross flag, because it happened. It was there. Perhaps we should stop glorifying it — or "Old" Glorifying it, to be specific. 

 

But it was news to me last week that it's favored by (some) white supremacists and thus an object of hurt to (some) people of color. Nike should probably have done better market research (or even consulted its own figurehead spokesjock), but the market can sort that out. It's not a matter of public policy.

 

As for the GW High murals, as historic art (of which agitprop is a worthy genre), they ought to be preserved. But a high school is not a museum; it's a workplace and a compulsory workplace at that. I say, cover the murals most of the time, so they are not an affront to members of a captive audience, but uncover them regularly for curricular use and to make them available for public viewing (which they have not been in the past).

 

And as for representation prior to the First Census (1790), the Constitution specified eight representatives for Massachusetts and five for South Carolina. (Virginia had the most with 10.) That held for the First Congress and Second Congress.

 

Starting with the Third Congress (1793 to 1795), Massachusetts had 14 and South Carolina had six. (Virginia still had the most, with 19.)

https://history.house.gov/Institution/Apportionment/state_apportionment/

 

 

Larry Gonick:

Also the Betsy Ross flag design predates the Constitution by at least ten years. 

 

 

Tom Devries:

On the Electoral College, I mis-remembered. The exemplary imbalance was Virginia-Pennsylvania. In the early days they had about the same free population but the 3/5ths thing gave Virginia three more Reps and six more electors. Jefferson beat Adams in 1800 entirely because of electoral votes based on slaves. Without them Adams would have been president. 

 

Anyway, sorry for the error, but I hold to my point. Slavery and racism are literally written into our founding and their symbols are pernicious. 

 

 

Frank Viviano:

The gist of your argument is accurate: slavery is in the national DNA. See Jill Lepore's superb "These Truths" on the same theme. But your stats re: population are wildly inaccurate. There was nothing like an 8-1 imbalance between the numbers of slaves and whites in South Carolina. There was, rather, near parity, which in itself was enough to provoke white paranoia — and lead the northern states into a pact that they knew was hideous, but appeared to be the only route to union. 

 

The imbalance did, in fact, exceed 8-1 in the Caribbean sugar colonies, which the Continental Congress hoped to draw into the revolution.  But although the islands (notably Jamaica) were as unhappy with some aspects of British rule as the insurgents in Virginia and Massachusetts, they declined the invitation — openly citing their fears of an apocalyptic slave rebellion if British troops were withdrawn.  

 

As for the Betsy Ross flag, it's worth noting that such artifacts can hold dramatically variant symbolic meaning for different constituencies. As for the murals, I simply can't agree on any level with their cloaking, much less their destruction. Rosenheim's allusion to the Taliban is right on the mark, except that this particular nod to mindless censorship not only reflects profound ignorance but also abject cowardice.

 

 

Tom Devries:

Errors are the price I pay for writing off the top (of my head). Sorry. Probably thinking of the Caribbean sugar islands. In any case, as you say, there's the 'gist'. I personally don't think 'written into the DNA' gets to how important race and slavery was to the Founders. There apparently (cf. Lapore) would simply not be a U.S. had the Founders not agreed to permit slavery and indeed reward slavers with enhanced and dominant political power for it. A monstrous immoral agreement underlies our entire history.

 

The symbols are what they are. The Ross flag stands in for things, like it or not. Even if someone believes the Jeff Davis monument is simply to honor a brave historical figure, it is more than that, and indeed forever poisoned in the eyes of others. The upraised flat hand is the Nazi salute. The middle finger an insult. The N word is an obscenity. It is the business of this time to reconsider many unchallenged assumptions and attitudes in the light of sensibilities beyond those of while middle class men. Women, people of color, LGBT, immigrants, black Americans, Native people. About time. 

 

 

Frank Viviano:

Monstrous agreements, hammered out in calculated cynicism, underlie the histories of every nation-state I can think of, Tom. But history can't be rewritten, notwithstanding the efforts of addled school boards [which] might like to give it a shot. The saving grace is that history doesn't stand still, either, and monstrous agreements can be turned on their heads with the passage of time. The principal slavers in the 18th century were the English — worth recalling, by the way, that North American colonial rebels, slavers or not,  regarded themselves as Englishmen demanding the same rights accorded to Englishmen in the British Isles.  By 1833, the British government had not only outlawed slavery, it had instructed the Royal Navy to seize any ship on the high seas, no matter what its flag, if its cargo was believed to be human beings. 

 

Granted: neither that, nor Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation three decades later, was enough to give people of color a fair shake. It would take another century of protest, violence and legislation before practical experience began to match the rhetoric of equality. That's inarguable. But it's equally inarguable that things have changed dramatically in the past several decades, not simply for African-Americans but for people of color in general, as well as for women and LGBT Americans. Indeed, they've changed more in the United States than in any other country. (If you don't buy that, take a close look at the lot of black people in Europe.) What makes this understanding, this belief that history can move forward, so crucial is Trump and everything he represents. 

 

Their effort to turn back the clock — to rewrite history since the civil rights movement, since the women's liberation movement, since Wounded Knee and Stonewall — is the great peril of our time. It's Germany in 1932. What we can't afford, none of us, is to descend into the suicidal tribal bickering that has historically characterized progressive politics and destroyed all of its hard-fought gains. The stakes are too great.  

 

 

David Tuller:

Climate change is the great peril of our time. Everything else being discussed is very distressing but from a short-term perspective.   

 

 

Dan Hubig:

The saddest aspect of the mural confrontation is that it’s happening in an educational institution. Seems that something basic about this artwork has not been taught. But just who is it that remains in the dark? From what I’ve read, the students there, by a good percentage, support keeping the murals. It would seem that this situation is a massive PC overreaction. If the historical relevance of this mural cannot be explained to the students/parents/administrators in a way so as to get them to embrace its message, even if the visuals cause some uncomfortableness, then perhaps we really deserve the ‘snowflake’ designation. This is pathetic. The mural doesn’t need to be covered or moved to a museum . . . it needs to be right where it is where it can cause some discomfort and provoke ideas, i.e. educate.

 

I feel something similar about the Betsy Ross flag. There may be nothing pure about this country but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also represent hope for change. While I’m not a flag waving nationalist, I still resent the idea that the hate-mongers be given any symbols other than the ones they already deservedly possess (the Confederate battle flag, swastika, etc). Our being cowed by their choices erodes our strength . . . why do we let them determine the terms of the debate? If they embrace something, then do we all have to shrink back from that thing to show that we are good people? Not that I care if Nike doesn’t make money on some fake patriotic sneaker, but to abandon any ground to some narrow-minded people — from the right with the flag or the left with the mural — is weakness .... and it gives them strength. As with the mural, this is an opportunity to let the dark sides of our history be a guide to going somewhere better, not to become a problem to paint over and therefore hide it from ourselves.

 

 

Frank Viviano:

What makes matters spectacularly absurd is that the actual charge leveled by the moronic school board isn't racism itself, but rather that its exposure — indeed its denunciation — may cause discomfort. In short, it's the board members themselves who are de facto apologists for slavery and genocide. Not that they have the sense, collectively or individually, to recognize it.  

 

 

David Tuller:

Climate change is the great peril of our time. Everything else being discussed is very distressing but from a short-term perspective.To the extent that how we understand and deal with the past impacts our ability now to address climate change and also to ameliorate current conflict and minimize pain and suffering, these debates over historical and present interpretations are of course incredibly vital and necessary. My previous comment reflects my sense and fear that we're past the time when how we resolve those issues will help with climate change.

 

 

Frank Viviano:

You’re right, of course, David. But the dilemma we face is that there will be no adequate response, indeed no response at all, to the epic crisis of climate change so long as Trump and his enablers (and their European counterparts) hold the reins of power. Hence the absolute need for clarity of purpose, rather than endless bickering, about who the immediate enemy is and what to do about it.

 

 

Tamim Ansary:

I’ve been following this conversation with interest, and a couple of points occurred to me along the way.  First, Frank said that identity politics “threaten to fragment authentic and vibrant multiculturalism into a shattered mosaic of paranoid monoculturalisms.” I couldn't agree more heartily, and that's brilliantly put.  But I’m not sure "an assertion of determined commonality" is enough of a remedy. What’s needed, I’m thinking, is a common framework within which the terms we use can have the same meanings. Otherwise, we could spend all day naming principles, goals, and beliefs we hold in common without actually establishing any common ground at all — without even knowing we’re failing to do so — because we’re using words to make our connections, and the meanings of words depend on their context, and context governs perspective, and perspective stands in for reality.   And these days, thanks to the social-bubble phenomenon, people can occupy the same physical space while inhabiting different contexts.  The great challenge is to craft a single planetary perspective from which to argue out our differences. Or so it seems to me.

 

Then also: someone in this thread said: “The Betsy Ross flag is a symbol of the horrific price paid by blacks for the rest of us to have this nation,” by way of arguing that that should be shelved.  Well, hmm.  “Symbol” suggests a one-to-one correspondence between image and idea.  The Betsy Ross flag was created as a symbol for the new nation, but was slavery the only feature of that nation? Was it the only issue on the table? What about the very act of rejecting monarchy? What about the very idea of founding a country on the basis of a constitution?  And of a constitution that was mainly about mechanisms of governance, rather than a treaty among competing parties? And what of elections as a source of authority?  And what of requiring that the top executive power in the state seek a new mandate from the electorate every four years? What about the first ten amendments? Freedom of speech, habeus corpus,  et al?

 

Yes, the constitution enshrined slavery but it also included a mechanism for ending slavery by amending the constitution.  It took a bloody civil war to do it, but it got done. It got undone through Jim Crow and such legal abominations, but politically the work before us, now and always, is to keep improving our society by developing and adapting our constitution and its applications.  That’s why it’s so important to preserve the constitution as a living document and block the literalists who want to treat it as scripture. That’s why it’s so heinous that this guy Trump got hold of the levers of power and managed to stick two more constitution-as-scripture literalists on the Supreme Court.  That’s why the single most overwhelmingly important task right now is to drive out Trump and Trumpism.  And that’s why I think it’s dangerous to conflate the Betsy Ross flag with the statues of Confederate generals.  Those guys were all about a cause and that cause was slavery and nothing but: brute and simple. The Betsy Ross flag wasn’t about slavery, it was about a fledgling country with many aspects, one of which was slavery.  If we were to dismiss every symbol of national unity born at a time when there were bad things about this country, we’d have to reject every symbol created before — well, before right now, and including right now.  That means we’d have to head into the 2020 election as the party that rejects every symbol of American unity including the Constitution.  That doesn’t sound like a winning platform to me.  And a winning platform is no small thing, because I fear we stand at the threshold of an existential crisis: this next election could be our last.

 

I also question whether erasing symbols of a racist past from historical memory helps ensure a non-racist future. For one thing, the past can’t be erased: it can only be recontextualized. That’s the wheel to which we should be putting our shoulders. Because in the end, it’s not just about the symbol, it’s about gaining control of the meaning of the symbol.  Attempts to erase from memory symbols of a racist past become part of the history remembered by our future selves.  The meaning of the act is at that point up for grabs.  The Taliban destroyed the Buddhas, the Buddhas are gone; but the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas is embedded in the permanent record. Millions of people who had never seen or heard of those Buddhas know about them now, in connection with what the Taliban did.  In trying to erase them, the Taliban in a sense immortalized the Buddhas. I’m just saying: let’s be careful about what we immortalize. 

 

 

Frank Viviano:

Bravo, Ansary. In this long and often fraught exchange, your reflections are the most insightful. 

 

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