Saturday, February 13, 2010

Role models

Unhappy the country without heroes, says one of Brecht’s characters, only to be told by another, no, unhappy the country that needs heroes. Ours is a nation desperate for them. There’s our voyeuristic celebrity culture; our children of all ages worshiping at the odorous feet of corporate-branded athletes; the many who await the man (or woman, cf. palm-pilot Sarah Palin) on horseback; the others who dream of their spectral savior. To me this all speaks of a great passivity and impotence, a triumph of spectatorship over citizenship, of consumption over action; in the case of the messianic, it bespeaks the perversion of religious teaching.

In this week’s New Yorker -- a journal of middlebrow starfucking and conventional wisdom, with the occasional gem amid the dross -- there’s a portfolio of veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Here are some of the footsoldiers (two of the original Greensboro lunchcounter sitters-in, all of the Little Rock Nine); some the surviving leaders (of SCLC, SNCC and the NAACP LDF); and some of those thrust into history by violence (Myrlie Evers, Maxine and Chris McNair, Emmet Till’s cousins). I found these portraits tremendously moving, not least because I didn’t know that many these veterans were still alive. But mostly I was moved because they dared. They faced the curses, spit, fists, clubs, dogs, water hoses, bullets, and bombs of their enemies, and so few of us are prepared to do that. Certainly at the time, the majority of Americans largely sat out that struggle, out of fear, indifference, antipathy. (A majority of white Americans were supporters of anti-miscegenation laws when the Supreme Court trashed that filth in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.) There were those who offered moral and economic support, of course, which is good and necessary -- but hardly heroic. (Today many of us push the “send” button on our computer and call it activism, but nothing real was ever won this way.)

We can, and should, honor these warriors, but the greatest honor would be to emulate them.

1 comment:

amarilla said...

Thanks for the excellent post. It's hard to become a hero without a discreet oppressor, whatever it may be, sirens, racists, sexists, royals. What oppresses us now are subtle things, our own fear and prejudices, our edges and tendencies to marginalize others and ourselves. The oppressors are internalized and obfuscated.

I esteem some artists who seem to be working towards a depth of relationship with themselves that others, too easily seduced by superficial values, automatic tendencies and pliant to the demands of those ubiquitous externals, parents and culture, would rather run from. Kiki Smith and Anne Hamilton are favorites, but I suspect there's many many many I haven't had the pleasure of considering. It seems like these artists blueprint a metaphysical freedom that counters widespread psychic death.