Monday, December 13, 2010

Courage & Anger

Frank Rich’s column yesterday, “Gay Bashing At The Smithsonian,” brings to mind an issue which has troubled me for some time. And that’s the issue of courage.

Rich discusses the removal of the late artist David Wojnarowicz’s work from an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. He writes:
When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

This is the piece that was originally included in the Smithsonian’s exhibition, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which is advertised as “a serious examination of the role sexual identity has played in the creation of modern American portraiture.” The National Portrait Gallery yanked “Fire in My Belly” from its exhibit in early December after the Smithsonian caved to a manufactured piece of outrage which I daresay few Americans even heard about.

Back to Rich:

Like many of its antecedents, the war over Wojnarowicz is a completely manufactured piece of theater. What triggered the abrupt uproar was an incendiary Nov. 29 post on a conservative Web site. The post was immediately and opportunistically seized upon by William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.


It took only hours after Donohue’s initial battle cry for the video to be yanked. “The decision wasn’t caving in,” the museum’s director, Martin E. Sullivan, told reporters. Of course it was. The Smithsonian, in its own official statement, rationalized its censorship by saying that Wojnarowicz’s video “generated a strong response from the public.” That’s nonsense. There wasn’t a strong response from the public — there was no response. As the museum’s own publicist told the press, the National Portrait Gallery hadn’t received a single complaint about “A Fire in the Belly” from the exhibit’s opening day, Oct. 30, until a full month later, when a “public” that hadn’t seen the exhibit was mobilized by Donohue to blast the museum by phone and e-mail.

The museum caved. They caved. Why?

Time and again we see groups (and politicians) cave in the face of such obviously manufactured political theater. Where is the courage? Who thinks capitulation is a winning strategy, that it does nothing more than ensure future fake campaigns?

Why was Shirley Sherrod asked to resign so quickly last summer? Why was Van Jones thrown under the bus? Why do our Democratic leaders and institutions cave to the right wing noise machine, time and time again?

Why do they act so afraid that some pundit somewhere is saying something mean about them?

The fact that Republicans are allowed to do the same (or worse) without any pearl-clutching in the media proves how politically motivated these “fauxtrages” are. It’s all about framing, fear-mongering, indulging in stereotypes and retreading that well-worn path allowing the majority to pretend it is a persecuted minority, thus redirecting anger to a more politically expedient target.

Yes, it pisses me off. And with all of that swirling around in my head I turned the page and read Ishmael Reed’s op-ed piece in the same issue of the New York Times (expanded upon at blogs like my second home, The Swash Zone). Apparently, progressives calling for President Obama (and other Democrats) to show some backbone in the face of unprecedented GOP obstructionism need to STFU because we simply don’t understand what it’s like to be a black person in America:

One progressive commentator played an excerpt from a Harry Truman speech during which Truman screamed about the Republican Party to great applause. He recommended this style to Mr. Obama. If President Obama behaved that way, he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people. His grade would go from a B- to a D.

What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” “bullies,” and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years. Very few of them would have been given a grade above D from most of my teachers.

Um, here’s a news flash for you: President Obama has already been dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people. Or haven’t you been listening to Glenn Beck, the very same right wing commentator who cost Van Jones his job? Were you paying attention when Ben Stein came out and called then-candidate Barack Obama an angry black man on Fox News in 2008? No? Well, we progressives were, and we countered those accusations every time. Where were you?

Look, the “angry” label is nothing new, nor is it unique to black intellectuals. Maybe you weren’t paying attention when Republicans called Hillary Clinton “too angry” to win a presidential election in 2008. Karl Rove called Al Gore “one angry dude.” Howard Dean was too angry to be president in 2004 and here he is screaming after a primary win to prove it! We’re “the angry left,” and voters “don’t elect angry candidates,” as former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman famously told ABC News. (For some reason anger isn’t a negative for the Tea Party, though -- despite their guns and Town Hall shouting matches and hanging representatives in effigy. IOKIYAR.)

I get that there is a strategy among those in power exploiting cultural stereotypes and stoking fear of the “angry black male” to oppress black advancement in this country. That's the same reason we hear women are too emotional and gays are pedophiles and all Muslims are terrorists. We all have our baggage and yes, some people’s baggage might be heavier than others. But that doesn’t mean we capitulate to it. Caving to the whims of the hate machine which makes these erroneous claims does not make them go away. It enables them!

This is standard issue right wing framing. Liberals have been labeled “angry” (even “too angry”) for decades, and guess what, we are angry. We were angry when protestors rioted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and we were angry when we protested the Vietnam War and we were angry when we burned our bras in the 1970s and we were angry when we protested apartheid in the 1980s and we were angry when we protested the WTO conference in Seattle in 2000. Hell we were so angry over the stolen election in 2000 and subsequent Bush presidential misdeeds that we created a bumper sticker about it, which the Tea Party has conveniently co-opted.

It’s okay to be angry. Angry people get things done. I just never understood why being angry was supposed to be a bad thing, anyway. Just because the RNC says it is?

So no, I’m not going to tell Democrats not to be angry because Tweety might have a sad or Joke Line may wring his hands about frothy-mouthed liberal bloggers. Getting angry is okay, if you are fighting for your principles.

This is where courage comes in. Getting back to Ishmael Reed’s op-ed, I have to say I was mighty offended when I read this:

Unlike white progressives, blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all. They know how it feels to be unemployed and unable to buy your children Christmas presents. They know when not to shout. The president, the coolest man in the room, who worked among the unemployed in Chicago, knows too.

Well damn, there’s a stereotype for you! Here’s a news flash for Mr. Reed: not all white progressives are used to getting it all, either. And I’ll be damned if I’ll be lectured on stereotypes by someone who can’t even recognize one when it pops out of his own keyboard.

Stand up and show some backbone, Democrats. Don’t cave to the right wing noise machine. Don't agree to a political approach which neuters liberal outrage, and only allows conservatives to get angry. Every time you do so progress takes a step back. Every capitulation emboldens the opposition. It's OK to be angry and it's even better to use that anger to harden your resolve.

And I guarantee you that the Republicans are going to say mean things about you. You can take that to the bank. You know what? They're going to say mean things anyway.