Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

27 JULY, 2015

The World We Live In: An Extraordinary Reality-Check

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The chilling human story behind an almost-statistic.

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their magnificently prescient 1970 conversation on race. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” And yet the most pernicious seedbed of trouble is a world in which some people, but not others, are routinely told how they deserve to be treated, then routinely treated that way, based on criteria of visible difference that have nothing to do with the invisibilia of who they are. For, as a legendary Zen teacher observed, sameness and difference are constructs of the mind caught in the illusion of separateness — concepts that keep us from our expansive humanity.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly, nor with more harrowing honesty, than Traffic Stop — a breath-stopping animated short film from the always-excellent StoryCorps:

My whole worldview changed that night.

Complement with the wonderful StoryCorps film A Good Man, then revisit Dr. King on how the Ancient Greek notion of “agape” can help us cut off the chain of hate and Mead and Baldwin’s indispensable, urgently important A Rap on Race.

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07 JULY, 2015

Declaration of the Independence of the Mind: An Extraordinary 1919 Manifesto Signed by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Jane Addams, and Other Luminaries

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“We commit ourselves never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes.”

Decades before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his timeless case for the ancient Greek notion of agape as a centerpiece of nonviolence, another luminous mind and soaring spirit challenged humanity to pause amid one of the most violent periods in history and consider an alternative path.

In 1919, a few months after the end of WWI and four years after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings,” the great French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland (January 29, 1866–December 30, 1944) penned a remarkable text titled Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — a passionate cry for using the power of art and intellectual work not for propaganda, destruction, and divisiveness, but for bringing the world together and elevating the human spirit through the invisible fellowship that transcends national, ethnic, and class boundaries. It was signed by hundreds of the era’s most prominent intellectuals, including Albert Einstein (who was a vocal opponent of war), Bertrand Russell (who thought a great deal about what “the good life” entails), Rabindranath Tagore (who dedicated his life to our spiritual survival), Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Stefan Zweig, and Hermann Hesse.

The declaration was published in the socialist newspaper L’Humanité on June 26, 1919, and was later included in the out-of-print treasure Hermann Hesse & Romain Rolland: Correspondence, Diary Entries and Reflections (public library) — Rolland enclosed the text in an April 1919 letter to Hesse, asking the beloved German writer to be among the signatories. “I want to express at once at least my unreserved approval of your admirable [declaration],” Hesse wrote in reply. “Please add my name to it as well.”

Romain Rolland in 1914

Although the declaration is very much a response to the destruction of intellectual life during the war, at its heart is a timeless clarion call for the preservation of art and intellectual life in the face of any threat — be it by weapon or censorship or the pernicious mundane anti-intellectualism of modern media — urging us to uphold our duty in ennobling rather than corrupting each other’s souls through our art and intellectual contribution.

Rolland writes:

Intellectual workers, comrades scattered throughout the world, separated for the past five years by arms, censorship, and the hatred of nations at war, now that the barriers have been let down and the frontiers have been reopened, we address an Appeal to you to form once again our fraternal union — a new union closer and stronger than the one that existed before.

Noting that most intellectuals “placed their knowledge, their art, their reason in the service of their governments” during the war, Rolland laments the perilous hijacking of thought and art in the service of hate and violence, and urges humanity:

May this experience be a lesson to us, at least for the future! … The thinkers and artists have added an immeasurable amount of poisoning hatred to the scourge destroying Europe’s body and mind. In the arsenal of their wisdom, memory, and imagination, they should old and new reasons, historical, scientific, logical, and poetic reasons for hating. They worked to destroy mutual understanding among men. And in doing this, they disfigured, reduced, depreciated, and degraded the Idea whose representatives they were. They made it (perhaps without realizing it) the instrument of the passions and egotistical interests of a political or social clan, of a State, of a fatherland, of a class… And the Idea, compromised by their conflicts, emerges debased with them.

That Idea, of course, is the spirit of art itself — art as a force that fortifies our mutual dignity rather than demolishing it; one that causes constructive chaos rather than destruction; one that, as John F. Kennedy asserted half a century later in one of the greatest speeches ever given, nourishes the roots of our culture. “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth,” Kennedy urged — a sentiment at the heart of Rolland’s declaration.

Rolland's original handwritten manuscript of the declaration

Appealing equally to spirit and reason — curiously, the original French title was Déclaration de l’indépendance de l’Esprit, but its English translation replaced “spirit” with “mind” — and to the unshakable longing for justice and equality buried in every human soul, Rolland exhorts:

Arise! Let us free the Mind from these compromises, these humiliating alliances, this hidden subservience! The Mind is the servant of no man. We are the Mind’s servants. We have no other master. We are created to carry and to defend its light, to rally around it all men who are lost. Our role, our duty is to maintain a fixed point, to show the pole star amidst the storm of passions in the darkness. Among these passions of pride and mutual destructions, we do not single out any one, we reject them all. We commit ourselves never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes. Of course, we do not dissociate ourselves from Humanity. We toil for it — but for all humanity. We do not recognize peoples — we acknowledge the People — unique and universal — the People who suffer, who struggle, who fall and rise again, and who always advance along the rugged road that is drenched with their sweat and their blood. We recognize the People among all men who are all equally our brothers. And so that they may become, like us, ever more conscious of this brotherhood, we raise above their blind struggles the Arch of Alliance — the free Mind that is one, manifold, eternal.

Stefan Zweig captures the spirit of the declaration beautifully in his biography of Rolland, itself a sublime work of art:

The invisible republic of the spirit, the universal fatherland, has been established among the races and among the nations. Its frontiers are open to all who wish to dwell therein; its only law is that of brotherhood; its only enemies are hatred and arrogance between nations. Whoever makes his home within this invisible realm becomes a citizen of the world. He is the heir, not of one people but of all peoples. Henceforth he is an indweller in all tongues and in all countries, in the universal past and the universal future.

I wonder whether Frida Kahlo was familiar with and influenced by Rolland’s declaration when she wrote in her diary more than three decades later: “I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations … united in blood to me.”

More of Rolland’s uncommonly luminous mind comes to life in Hermann Hesse & Romain Rolland. Complement this particular beam with William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the artist’s duty to help humanity endure, John Dewey on our individual role in world peace, and Jeanette Winterson on how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit.

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01 JULY, 2015

An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’

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“Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.

Nowhere does he transmute spiritual ideas from various traditions into secular principles more masterfully than in his extraordinary 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love,” in which he examines the six essential principles of his philosophy of nonviolence, debunks popular misconceptions about it, and considers how these basic tenets can be used in guiding any successful movement of nonviolent resistance. Penned five years before his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail and exactly a decade before his assassination, the essay was eventually included in the indispensable A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (public library) — required reading for every human being with a clicking mind and a ticking heart.

In the first of the six basic philosophies, Dr. King addresses the tendency to mistake nonviolence for passivity, pointing out that it is a form not of cowardice but of courage:

It must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight… The way of nonviolent resistance … is ultimately the way of the strong man. It is not a method of stagnant passivity… For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

He turns to the second tenet of nonviolence:

Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo and Trafalgar.' Click image for more.

In considering the third characteristic of nonviolence, Dr. King appeals to the conscientious recognition that those who perpetrate violence are often victims themselves:

The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by the evil. If he is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between the races… The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness…. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

Out of this recognition flows the fourth tenet:

Nonviolent resistance [requires] a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back… The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it “as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber.”

That, in fact, is precisely how Dr. King himself entered jail five years later. To those skeptical of the value of turning the other cheek, he offers:

Unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

The fifth basic philosophy turns the fourth inward and arrives at the most central point of the essay — the noblest use of what we call “love”:

Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Here, Dr. King turns to Ancient Greek philosophy, pointing out that the love he speaks of is not the sentimental or affectionate kind — “it would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense,” he readily acknowledges — but love in the sense of understanding and redemptive goodwill. The Greeks called this agape — a love distinctly different from the eros, reserved for our lovers, or philia, with which we love our friends and family. Dr. King explains:

Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object… Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both. If one loves an individual merely on account of his friendliness, he loves him for the sake of the benefits to be gained from the friendship, rather than for the friend’s own sake. Consequently, the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.

This notion is nearly identical to one of Buddhism’s four brahmaviharas, or divine attitudes — the concept of Metta, often translated as lovingkindness or benevolence. The parallel speaks not only to Dr. King’s extraordinarily diverse intellectual toolkit of influences and inspirations — a high form of combinatorial creativity necessary for any meaningful contribution to humanity’s common record — but also to the core commonalities between the world’s major spiritual and philosophical traditions.

In a sentiment that Margaret Mead and James Baldwin would echo twelve years later in their spectacular conversation on race“In any oppressive situation both groups suffer, the oppressors and the oppressed,” Mead observed, asserting that the oppressors suffer morally with the recognition of what they’re committing, which Baldwin noted is “a worse kind of suffering” — Dr. King adds:

Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person — his need for belonging to the best in the human family… Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage children's-book adaptation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Click image for more.

At the heart of agape, he argues, is the notion of forgiveness — something Mead and Baldwin also explored with great intellectual elegance. Dr. King writes:

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.

With this, he turns to the sixth and final principle of nonviolence as a force of justice, undergirded by the nonreligious form of spirituality that Dani Shapiro elegantly termed “an animating presence” and Alan Lightman described as the transcendence of “this strange and shimmering world.” Dr. King writes:

Nonviolent resistance … is base don the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

A Testament of Hope is an absolutely essential read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. King on the two types of law, Albert Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice, and Tolstoy and Gandhi’s equally forgotten but immensely timely correspondence on why we hurt each other.

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18 JUNE, 2015

MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag as a Design Icon: A Conversation with the Artist Who Made It

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“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.

There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”

There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.

I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.

Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:

It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.

And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.

On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…

[…]

Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.

On how the rainbow flag came to telegraph the most important message Harvey Milk championed for a community that had remained invisible for most of modern history:

Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.

On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:

The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.

[…]

Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.

See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.

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