Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

10 DECEMBER, 2014

Elie Wiesel’s Timely Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on Human Rights and Our Shared Duty in Ending Injustice

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“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In 1986, at the age of fifty-eight, Romanian-born Jewish-American writer and political activist Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee called him a “messenger to mankind.” Wiesel lived up to that moniker with exquisite eloquence on December 10 that year — exactly ninety years after Alfred Nobel died — as he took the stage at Norway’s Oslo City Hall and delivered a spectacular speech on justice, oppression, and our individual responsibility in our shared freedom. The address was eventually included in Elie Wiesel: Messenger for Peace (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades later, Wiesel’s words ring with discomfiting timeliness as we are jolted out of our generational hubris, out of the illusion of progress, forced to confront the contemporary realities of racism, torture, and other injustice against the human experience. But alongside the reminder of how tragically we have failed Wiesel’s vision is also the promise of possibility reminding us what soaring heights of the human spirit we are capable of reaching if we choose to feed not our lowest impulses but our most exalted. Above all, Wiesel issues an assurance that these choices are not grandiose and reserved for those in power but daily and deeply personal, found in the quality of intention with which we each live our lives.

With the hard-earned wisdom of his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, memorably recounted in his iconic memoir Night, Wiesel extols our duty to speak up against injustice even when the world retreats into the hideout of silence:

I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

Wiesel reminds us that even politically momentous dissent always begins with a personal act — with a single voice refusing to be silenced:

There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free.

[…]

There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

Complement with Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize herself five years later, on freedom from fear, then revisit William Faulkner’s piercing Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, Albert Camus’s beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher upon receiving the coveted accolade, and the story of why Jean Paul Sartre became the first person to decline the prestigious prize.

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20 OCTOBER, 2014

John Dewey on War, the Future of Pacifism, and Our Individual Role in Peace

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“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.”

Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. His enduring insight on the true purpose of education and the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity resonates today with growing relevance amid our struggle to cultivate wisdom in the age of information. But nowhere was Dewey more prescient than in his reflections on conflict, war, and what is required of us if we are to live up to our hopes for a peaceful world — reflections urgently relevant today, as we face a swelling tide of violence along the vast spectrum from bullying to beheadings.

On July 28, 1917 — exactly 67 years before I was born, and exactly three years after the start of World War I — The New Republic published a poignant piece by Dewey titled “The Future of Pacifism.” The essay is now included in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — that fantastic “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought marking the 100th anniversary of The New Republic, which also gave us George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself. Dewey’s perceptive insight may well have been written about modern attitudes toward war — particularly America’s — and his impassioned case for peace reminds us that conflict is not merely something inflicted between governments but something in which we all, as individuals, are implicit in the small, seemingly imperceptible choices we make daily, the macro-beliefs we subscribe to in our private lives and the micro-actions we take in public.

He writes:

There is no paradox in the fact that the American people is profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists.

He considers “the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance”:

It takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two.

Lamenting the misguided belief that that pacifism is merely a form of “futile gesturing,” Dewey admonishes against the prevalent perception that those who don’t support the war must be pro-enemy at heart. (Nearly a century later, a certain American president would repeatedly suggest that not supporting the war in Iraq — a war his administration started — was not only pro-enemy but also anti-American.) Dewey points to the pioneering American social worker, peace activist, and suffragist Jane Addams as the finest example of doing the pacifist position justice:

She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”

That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion needs not be doubted.

And yet Dewey, never one to oversimplify the complexity of things, is far from advocating for “the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be.” Such preventative methods, he argues, are a matter of “treating symptoms and ignoring the disease.” He writes:

All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air… To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.

To put an end to war and violence, Dewey argues, is not a matter of passive and theoretical protest. (One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s epidemic of online petitions.) It is a matter of acting, here and now:

I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency.

More than that, our individual responsibility is to use whatever “influence” we have — whatever reach, whatever voice, whatever share of the cultural conversation — in dispelling the propaganda of war:

The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.

Illustration from 'The Ancient Book of Myth and War,' a Pixar side project. Click image for more.

This task of wedging a stick in the myth-making machinery of war propaganda is undoubtedly of greater — graver, even — importance today. But while the machinery of the media may have become manyfold more industrious since Dewey’s day and a merciless economic driver of commercial culture, it also pays to remember that in many ways, we — you and I and all the unique private individuals of whom the faceless public of citizenry is composed — are the media today. As Sally Kohn elegantly put it, “clicking is a public act” — what is being written determines what we read and what we come to believe, but today more than ever, what we read also very much determines what is being written. We are no longer the passive consumers of those catchwords of which Dewey admonishes but also their propagators, their perpetrators. Seen in this light, Dewey’s closing remarks ring with extraordinary poignancy:

One might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world. The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them… Too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.

Complement with Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence on war, peace, and human nature, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s letters on violence and the truth of the human spirit, Mark Twain’s The War Prayer animated, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams on how our choices shape our world.

The whole of Insurrections of the Mind is a trove of timeless, timely thought, featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Andrew Sullivan.

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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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