How Art Helps Us See Our World
As we approach 2020, a Presidential election year, certain realities about party politics have coalesced very clearly. The Republican Party, as a direct result of 8 years of Barack Obama’s presidency, has become the party of white male supremacists. I am not saying that everyone who calls himself/herself a Republican is a white supremacist but the evidence is overwhelming that the Republican Party, under the leadership of the conspiracy-theorist Donald J. Trump, has become a party that supports white supremacy. Two events this week reflect this pretty clearly.
The House of Representatives voted to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you are not familiar with the Act, here is some background (via Wikipedia).
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the civil rights movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
The coverage formula was originally designed to encompass jurisdictions that engaged in egregious voting discrimination in 1965, and Congress updated the formula in 1970 and 1975. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula as unconstitutional, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions. The Court did not strike down Section 5, but without a coverage formula, Section 5 is unenforceable.
In attempting to Restore the Act to countervail the Court’s 2013 ruling the voting ran strictly along Party lines with only ONE Republican voting for it. In 2006, the last time the Congress voted to Amend and renew the Act the vote was 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Yesterday’s vote was a party-line 228-187. The Bill will now move to the Senate where it is expected to DIE at the hands of the Republican majority. It should be noted, regarding the 2013 Shelby decision:
Five years after the ruling, nearly 1,000 polling places had been closed in the U.S., with many of the closed polling places in predominantly African-American counties. Research shows that the changing of voter locations and reduction in voting locations can reduce voter turnout. There were also cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls and imposition of strict voter ID laws. Virtually all restrictions on voting subsequent to the ruling were by Republicans. (Wikipedia)
In 2006 there was widespread bipartisan support for renewing Voting Rights. As the Republican Party recoiled from the Obama presidency, however, and fell under the sway of a racist President, only one Republican supported the notion that all Americans should have an easy path to voting. The need to ensure that white people (and white men, in particular) maintain an advantage in our society is clearly the goal of the current Republican Party.
This vote compounded the veiled threat made by Attorney General only two days earlier at a Justice Department awards ceremony for police officers. At that event, in barely coded language Barr stated:
“The American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers,” Barr said. “And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves.” He added, “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need." (Vox Sean Collins December 4, 2019 – italics & bold, mine)
Is anyone unsure of which “communities” Barr means in this statement? I know the Trump/Republican apologists will claim it is a “harmless” statement and mine is the usual “liberal” inferring that sees “racism” in everything this Administration does. Given the record of this Administration (“There are good people on both sides”) it is hardly an inference to understand who Barr is targeting in his speech. I won’t belabor this topic because I believe some of the best arguments to educate and inform our fellow citizens about the racism built into the DNA of this nation --- and each of us --- is on full display on your tv screen --- and I’m not talking about Fox News.
Both HBO and Netflix are currently airing programs that demand your attention. They are provocative, artistic, and confront the reality of racism both historically and in our current context. I will not include any spoilers regarding either program but only encourage you to watch and think.
If you have a Netflix subscription you should watch American Son with Kerry Washington in the lead. Adapted from a stage play of the same name (and featuring the same cast that brought the production to Broadway) it is about 85 minutes of anguished drama about a mother in a police station in South Florida trying to find out what’s happened to her son, who has been involved in a traffic stop. Without going into detail, let me only say that the issues that are raised (a white father, the son’s name, the police handling of the mother and the father, the assumptions made --- by the white males, in particular) should strike extremely responsive chords with any honest and open-minded viewer. As an older white male watching this, it was disturbing, moving, and, while a bit cliched at times, very effective art.
More powerful --- and visceral --- is HBO’s Watchmen. Based on the 1986 graphic novel, Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) adapted the original “superheroes as humans” theme into a current context (2019) and focused the story on racism and white supremacy. Using the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 (if you are not familiar with this event, please “Google” it) as a jumping off point, Lindelof provides the viewer with fascinating television as he not only educates us historically but also provides an extremely visceral sense of how racism is deep in our bones --- affecting all of us, even 400 years after the first slaves were brought to Virginia. It’s a nine-episode event and is currently up to episode 7 --- but episode 6 is a “knock your socks off” experience! I will say no more and only recommend you watch/binge it.
“Difficult” times often breed great art (Goya’s The Disasters of War & Picasso’s Guernica, for example) and I believe this television programming (along with Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play on Broadway) does what art is supposed to do: it makes us uncomfortable, at the very least, and provokes us to think and, hopefully, think honestly and deeply, providing insight and reflection. I suspect we will see more of this kind of art --- onscreen and on stage, as well as in painting, music, and dance --- emerging over the next year and beyond.