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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

22 JULY, 2014

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Death Penalty and What It Really Means to Be an Anarchist

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“The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank…”

In 1921, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both in their thirties, were convicted of murdering two payroll guards during a bank robbery in Massachusetts. The conviction was made despite highly questionable ballistic evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts that placed Sacco in a different city on the day of the alleged crime. The case dragged on for years, until Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in April of 1927. Many, including a number of public intellectuals, believed the murder conviction was wrong, deliberately served to punish the two men for their history as social activists and anarchists, and the subsequent death sentence a complete failure of both the justice system and humanity. Among the outraged was Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet and lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, delinquent schoolgirl, literary gateway drug for children, and only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

On August 22, 1927, 35-year-old Millay made a passionate case for justice and humanity in a letter to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, found in the altogether absorbing The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library). She had met with the governor, one of the wealthiest men in America at the time, earlier that afternoon to interview him for a magazine story she was doing on the case. Millay writes:

Your Excellency

[...]

Tonight, with the world in doubt, with this Commonwealth drawing into its lungs with every breath the difficult air of doubt, with the eyes of Europe turned westward upon Massachusetts and upon the whole United States in distress and harrowing doubt — are you still so sure? Does no faintest shadow of question gnaw at your mind? For, indeed, your spirit, however strong, is but the frail spirit of a man. Have you no need, in this hour, of a spirit greater than your own?

Think back. Think back a long time. Which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith? — Oh, not the way in which your feet are set!

You promise me, and I believe you truly, that you would think of what I said. I exact of you this promise now. Be for a moment alone with yourself. Look inward upon yourself. Let fall from your harassed mind all, all save this: which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?

I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubt. Exert the clemency which your high office affords.

There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The governor never rose to greatness. Millay was arrested and thrown in jail for joining the public protests and the “death watch.” Minutes after midnight on August 23, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco in handcuffs

Over the next three months, Millay remained thoroughly invested in the story and its broader cultural implications. On November 9, 1927, the weekly New York magazine The Outlook published her article on the ruling, titled “Fear” — a kind of open letter to the general public, a spirited case against the execution of the two men and, more broadly, of execution in general. She writes:

On the surface of a Christianity already so spotted and defaced, by the crimes of the Church this stain does not show very dark. In a freedom already so riddled and gashed by the crimes of the state this ugly rent is with difficulty to be distinguished at all.

And you are right; it is well to forget that men die. So far we have devised no way to defeat death, or to outwit him, or to buy him over. At any moment the cloud may split above us and the golden spear of death leap at the heart; at any moment the earth crack and the hand of death reach up from the abyss to grasp our ankles; at any moment the wind rise and sweep the roofs from our houses, making one dust of our ceilings and ourselves. And if not, we shall die soon, anyhow. It is well to forget that this is so.

But that man before his time, wantonly and without sorrow, is thrust from the light of the sun into the darkness of the grave by his brother’s blindness or fear it is well to remember, at least until it has been shown to the satisfaction of all that this too is beyond our power to change.

Millay argues that the atrocity of the sentence itself was only amplified by the failure of justice that resulted, as it was believed, in the men being wrongly accused of murder in order to punish them for their social activism:

If you should rouse yourself for a moment and look about you at the world, you would be troubled, I think, and feel less peaceful and secure, seeing how it is possible for a man as innocent as yourself of any crime to be cast into prison and be killed. For whether or not these men whom I do not name were guilty of the crime of murder, it was not for murder that they died. The crime for which they died was the crime of breathing upon the frosty window and looking out.

[...]

This is the way you look at it: These men were Anarchists, and they are well out of the way; you are fortunate to have escaped destruction at their hands; they were probably murderers; but, in any case, they are well out of the way. It was that word Anarchist which brought them to the chair; that word, and your ignorance of its meaning.

An Anarchist, you insist, is a man who makes bombs and puts them under the State House, and that is that. On the contrary, that is by no means that. The person you have in mind is not an Anarchist, he is a bomber. You will find him everywhere — among Anarchists, among Fascists, among dry-law enforcers, among Modernists, among Fundamentalists, and freely distributed throughout the Ku Klux Klan. He is that person who, when he does not like a thing, lynches it, tars and feathers it, lays a curse upon it, or puts a bomb under it. His name is legion, and you will find him in every party.

An Anarchist, according to the dictionary, is a person who believes that human beings are naturally good, and that if left to themselves they would, by mutual agreement, govern themselves much better and much more peaceably than they are being governed now by a government based on violence.

Millay also argues that the men’s status as immigrants made them all the more vulnerable to injustice:

These men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant and savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.

These men were put to death because they made you nervous; and your children know it. The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank; whereas in the pool of your own mind, whenever an alien image bends above, a fish of terror leaps to meet it, shattering its reflection.

Millay’s closing words reveal just how profoundly the case had touched some deep part of her own humanity, and their poignancy carries great resonance for contemporary debates on the death penalty, nearly a century later:

I am free to say these things because I am not an Anarchist, although you will say that I am. It is unreasonable to you that a person should go to any trouble in behalf of another person unless the two are members of the same family, or of the same fraternity, or, at the remotest, of the same political party. As regards yourself and the man who lives next door to you, you wish him well, but not so very well.

[...]

I dare say these things because I am an not Anarchist; but I dare say them for another reason, too: because my personal physical freedom, my power to go in and out when I choose, my personal life even, is no longer quite so important to me as it once was… Death even, that outrageous intrusion, appears to me at moments, and more especially when I think of what happened in Boston two months ago, death appears to me somewhat as a darkened room, in which one might rest one’s battered temples out of the world’s way, leaving the sweeping of the crossings to those who still think it important that the crossings be swept. As if indeed it mattered the least bit in the world whether the crossings be clean or foul, when of all the people passing to and from there in the course of an eight-hour day not one out of ten thousand has a spark of true courage in his heart, or any love at all, beyond the love of a cat for the fire, for any earthly creature other than himself. The world, the physical world, and that once was all in all to me, has at moments such as these no road through a wood, no stretch of shore, that can bring me comfort. The beauty of these things can no longer make up to me for all the ugliness of man, his cruelty, his greed, his lying face.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a trove of timeless wisdom, and the lion’s share of it is far more humanistic and uplifting than Millay’s reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Sample it further with Millay on her love of music, her love of her mother, and her love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison.

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25 JUNE, 2014

Happy Birthday, George Orwell: The Beloved Author on Money, Government, and Taxes

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“Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary.”

“It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money,” Michael Lewis advised aspiring writers, “find another one.” More than a century earlier, Tolstoy had issued a similar admonition about money and motives. And yet no matter how much we read up on how to worry less about money, there is a baseline financial security necessary for writing, living, and remaining sane, whatever one’s occupation. When that’s missing, no amount of idealism can neutralize the anguishing practical reality.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) — which also gave us 33-year-old Orwell on gender equality in work and housework and his frugal dessert recipes — comes a short entry bemoaning the author’s money troubles. On August 9, 1940 — as World War II is reaching its menacing crescendo — 37-year-old Orwell writes in his diary:

The money situation is becoming completely unbearable… Wrote a long letter to the Income Tax people pointing out that the war had practically put an end to my livelihood while at the same time the government refused to give me any kind of job. The fact which is really relevant to a writer’s position, the impossibility of writing books with this nightmare going on, would have no weight officially… Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary. No one is patriotic about taxes.

As a footnote in the book points out, it’s odd that Orwell was being pursued for taxes so shortly after his state of near-poverty in the 1930s, and at a time when only 20% of the population paid taxes. One possible explanation is that because writers, artists, and others in the creative professions have a greater variability of income year over year, Orwell’s tax challenge may be due to higher earnings in a previous year, such as potential royalties for The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Another is that the earnings of his then-wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who had started working — rather ironically — at the Censorship Department of London’s Ministry of War at the onset of WWII, would have been considered his for tax purposes.

Whatever the case, one thing is of note — five years before Animal Farm saw light of day, Orwell is already contemplating the disconnect between the ideals of patriotism and the greed of the government.

Complement with Orwell on his motives for writing and the freedom of the press, his 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and Ralph Steadman’s gorgeous vintage illustrations for Animal Farm.

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11 JUNE, 2014

Shepard Fairey on Capitalism, Freedom, Selling Out, and What Makes Great Art

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“I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards.”

In 1989, street artist, graphic designer, and activist Shepard Fairey created his famous Obey Giant sticker campaign, which spread like wildfire to amass a massive following and take on the characteristics of a singular semi-secret subculture. Nearly twenty years later, Fairey’s art reached a critical mass of mainstream awareness when he created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster as a tool of grassroots activism, rebelling against a previous administration that betrayed Fairey’s ideas and ideals in just about every imaginable way. At the heart of Fairey’s ethos is a profound commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which lends his work a new level of resonance today, as debates about net neutrality expose how toxic the intersection of corporate interest and government is for democracy and civic freedom.

Included in the altogether magnificent 2009 monograph OBEY: Supply & Demand (public library), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, is an interview with the artist by the prolific design historian, writer and critic Steven Heller. In it, Fairey discusses capitalism, the deeper ideological unity beneath the seeming dualities of his work, and the question of what it means to “sell out.”

HELLER: How do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?

FAIREY: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect… I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It’s not an easy game but I’m making the best of life without a trust fund.

Peace Elephant (2008)

Reflecting further on this question of “life without a trust fund” — the complexities of poetry and privilege in the arts, and the often limiting cultural mythology around those — Fairey turns to the question of what “selling out” really means. Coincidentally, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson had given a remarkable commencement address on the subject in 1990, a few months after Fairey created Obey — a character he considers “the counterculture Big Brother.” Fairey tells Heller:

To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let’s face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars… for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I’m diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!

[…]

I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I’m sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources.

Tyrant Boot (2008)

The Robin-Hooding of Fairey’s art isn’t directed just at corporations but also at the government, finding in street art and public space the ultimate arena for free speech and anti-censorship activism. He tells Heller:

I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy… I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the government. I’m a taxpayer — why can’t I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads, but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part, I think the merchants and the city governments don’t want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I’m trying to provide.

Complement OBEY: Supply & Demand, which features a wealth of Fairey’s most iconic and influential work, as well as more interviews and critical essays by Rob Walker, Henry Rollins and others, with this fantastic short film about Fairey’s art by Brett Novak, commissioned by South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art:

The best art … makes the world feel a little bit less terrifying, it makes things feel a little more intertwined…

This idea that a picture can be the thing that hits the viewer in the gut, that makes their head follow their heart, is such an important concept in my work that, no matter what I’m doing, I like the idea that someone can’t resist the visual allure of an image and, even if it doesn’t align with their political predispositions … the image itself will be beckoning at them to mull it over.

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