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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

I don't know how to make art today

With the events of last week unfolding, I can't think of any more dangerous and more hopeless time in the arc of history through which I have lived in my six decades

MacLean Gander, a professor of English and former journalist, contributes often to these pages.

Originally published in The Commons issue #365 (Wednesday, July 13, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.



It is difficult to believe that the world is not spinning out of control.

As I write, I am listening to President Obama’s news conference following the killings of police in Dallas, an event that occurred in the same week that two horrendous killings of black men were committed by police officers and captured on social media.

I am in a family cabin in Green River, a summer dwelling we have owned for more than five decades — an old mill, built well in 1860. I came here with a friend, both of us looking for some quiet, a rainy day to work on our writing overlooking a country landscape that still remembers its past, in the stone walls, the old maples, the small abandoned roads and hamlets in the hillsides.

She’s black American, from an inner city; I come from white American privilege and wear it on my skin. We’re both photographers, poets, writers. A rainy weekend after weeks of heat and sun — it seemed good to get away and focus on our projects. We’re quiet, moody like the weather, gray and spattering.

What can we say to each other?

* * *

I can’t possibly imagine what she is feeling, thinking about this dreadful news, this strong woman who climbed from the inner city to two university degrees and meaningful work, who experiences the color of her skin every day in a way I never will.

I am thinking about the early spring morning in 1968 when I woke up in Manhattan to find my father, a journalist, on the living-room couch sobbing into his hands. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

I was 12. That day, a black kid I played with in Riverside Park tried to beat me up, and he took my football home. Later we were friends again, but he kept the football.

And my thoughts turn to a question: What is art in a time like this? Brecht famously framed the question: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?”

And he answered, “Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark.”

And then there’s Nietzsche’s comment that one should be careful not to look too long into the abyss, because it also looks into you. Humans can’t bear too much reality. I can’t remember right now who said that.

I contemplate how Obama is so reasonable. He has a nearly preternatural control of his emotions, I suppose in the way that a brilliant young man with brown skin would need in order to negotiate the institutionalized racism of the United States.

I am thinking of the things the president said after the verdict absolving George Zimmerman of the killing of a teenage boy, a child with dark skin walking home after buying candy at a corner store. I could see Obama got it in a way I never can.

I feel reassured after listening to him answer various questions for almost an hour: clear, thoughtful, thorough, nuanced, and always canted toward the idea that it is possible to get things right. He surely ranks with our greatest presidents in times of deep crisis — Lincoln, of course; FDR; Eisenhower, who managed the Cold War.

It helps to know that for at least a few months more the person in charge is thoughtful and does not fall prey to his feelings.

* * *

When the news conference ends, I feel calmer but also very angry in this strange way that I am controlling fairly well. My friend is out walking in the rain. The dog is sleeping beside the small fire I made to ease the gray and damp.

How did things get to this pass?

I really don’t know, but I can’t think of any more dangerous and more hopeless time in the arc of history through which I have lived in my six decades.

Britain has voted to exit the European Union because of demagogic appeals to fear and anger among the nation’s dispossessed. The sentiment is mirrored by the rise of “Know-Nothing” parties in nearly every state on the continent and by the bizarre ascendance of a neurotic real-estate developer turned reality TV star to the Republican nomination for president.

A new Cold War has started over the contested Ukraine and Russia’s Putin-led revanchism, which we sparked in part by moving NATO to his nation’s borders. China’s turn to military belligerence in the South China Sea is a response, in part, to its growing economic woes, and perhaps the most dangerous flag on the horizon.

The Middle East has largely devolved to the tribal state it was in before post-World War I European agreements created arbitrary nation-states. Millions of refugees are flooding Europe. As Colin Powell warned George W. Bush of Iraq, “If you break it, you’ll own it.” We broke it.

Climate change is here, obviously — each of the past several years has been hotter than the past, and only a fool would argue that we are not reaping now the natural consequences of our actions. Within a century the nation of Bangladesh might disappear because of ocean levels rising. That’s about 200 million people who will have to go somewhere. They probably will be hungry — and angry.

In the United States, fewer than 100 individuals and families control as much wealth as 40 percent of the population — more than 100 million people. No wonder people are angry after being sold a bill of goods for 40 years.

And the sleep of reason breeds monsters, which is why a deeply flawed and psychologically unbalanced person could be elected president next year.

* * *

But all I can really think about right now is the calm voice of Diamond Reynolds as she narrated Philando Castile’s dying moments from the driver’s seat of a car where her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back, and of the image of Alton Sterling’s body held to the ground as a cop shot him dead.

And then the incalculable horror of the Dallas ambush, a dark reminder that any unhinged person with a gun can kill groups of people. It also is a savage twist and escalation of the national discourse regarding how the United States criminal-justice system treats Black and Latino males.

Obama, calm and thoughtful, preached that the country is less divided than it seems, and that most Americans are reasonable people. I pray that he is right.

But the evidence seems contrary to that, and I don’t know how to make art today, in this crazy weather.

* * *

One out of four black male Americans is in the criminal justice system. It’s the reason our unemployment statistics are so low. Police killings of black males are nothing new. It’s just that now social media bring them home to folks like me with white skin, decent jobs — something secure to count on.

Opioid addiction is rampant; our children are dying. We know what to do. There are evidence-based practices that have demonstrated what the standard of care should be for what, after all, is a terrible illness.

Ideological divisions in the nation prevent us from moving from a criminal to a medical model for dealing with this terrible scourge, and not enough money is available because we cut taxes so low and spend so much on the greatest military force the world has ever known.

Driving while black is still an issue everywhere. We know the litany of names of Black men killed by cops in high-profile cases, but it’s worse than that: last year an average of two unarmed Black men were killed every day by police. Only 10 of more than 100 of these cases was tried in criminal courts. Only two officers were convicted.

A five-year study of racial disparities in traffic stops in Vermont was just released, demonstrating that blacks and Latinos were four times as likely to be stopped around the state, even though whites carried more contraband. In Brattleboro, the rate was six times greater.

I wonder how that squares with our pride that Vermont is one of the most progressive states in the union and the home base of Bernie Sanders.

* * *

I don’t want to talk about solutions, or these godforsaken elections, or make any pretense to know what might have to happen in this nation to move things from the dreadful course we are on toward justice and light.

Really, I just want to have something to say to my Black American artist friend when she gets back from her solitary walk.

So I wrote these words for her.

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