Monday, August 21, 2017

Bubbles 0 - Art


Every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth.

Soap Bubbles, Jean Siméon Chardin 
I find it useful to begin with art. When we think of art, we think of something holding value, not for its utility, or its economic or military value, or its ability to inspire or to drive profit, or even its aesthetic beauty (though art may possess any of these qualities), but simply out of its being, a value springing from the mere fact that it is an expression of something that would not otherwise exist. Art is valuable simply because it is.

So, too, with human beings.

Destruction of art, or failure to recognize its inherent value, or to appreciate it, or to care for it, or to maintain it, or to treat it as a heritage and a sacred trust, is a commonly understood sign that one is dealing with barbarism.

So, too, with human beings.

plurt, My Daughter
It’s worth repeating: Every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth.

Suppose ethics were an exercise in determining the most important priorities between competing values. If that were true, whatever value was prioritized highest would define that culture in ways both visible and invisible, and which would become inescapably apparent if that culture were investigated.

Suppose that we decided that, for any ethic to be truly moral, it must take as its primary priority the life and dignity of every human being, and that any ethic taking as its top priority any other value will, inevitably, arrive at barbarism.

That’s where I’m sitting. The life and dignity of every human being should be the top priority of our ethics, and the bedrock of our assumptions about what is important and good. It should be the foundation of our politics. It should inform our economics. Any other tool, quality, value, or principal that comes into conflict with this priority, no matter how good it might be, must be subordinate to this primary one—because every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth.

Human beings themselves tend to deny this idea, or to accept it only conditionally—both about others, and about themselves. I’ve known this. I’ve done this. If we wanted to borrow from the current lexicon, we might think of this as "living in a bubble."

Still, over time, it had seemed as if we humans believed more in this idea of humans as art. We were heading in that direction. We were building momentum. We were considering other people’s perspectives before, who previously had been silenced. We were accommodating the physical necessities and underlying value of those whose bodies or minds did not fit our understandings of standard operational parameters. We were legally and financially protecting those who previously had been partially or entirely vulnerable. Those who had been enslaved had been emancipated. Those who had been impoverished received care. More people had security, freedom, protection under the law, than had enjoyed it before. It was a story we believed about ourselves, and we were believing it into reality.

This was the story.

(Photo: Associated Press)

But I’ve also known this: There have always been those who wanted to go the other direction; people who had chosen to place themselves above art, who had taken instead the roles of critic and curator, had chosen to recognize only specific preferred genres when it came to art in the medium of humanity.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Art falling outside the narrow ranges of their preference present themselves to these curators as only as so much raw material, and they understand exactly where best to stow such material so that it will no longer offend. Some of the more savvy among these also understand exactly how much profit is to be gained by deconstructing each piece and selling off the components.

Those curators were distressing, and they gained their advantages where they could, and enacted their unfortunate intended realities on their targets, but their advantage was slowly decreasing. Most of their support came from their canny cloaking of their true intentions, but as they became desperate, I was sure, they would expose themselves for what they were, and, on that day, those who had been fooled by their coded language and their nods and winks would abandon them, and they would fail.

That’s what I thought.

But now the curators are in charge of nearly everything in my beloved country.

They’re moving ruthlessly, and quickly, without subterfuge. Their intention is to harm those already harmed, to marginalize those already marginalized, to reclaim their birthright of being not just the most, but the only. They do not want to be replaced, and they'll tell you so, and the leader of our country thinks many of them are fine people.

They use the language and tactics of white supremacy, of Jim Crow. They appropriate the signals and slogans of Nazism.

It must be said, these newly empowered curators don’t see much value in the arts, or other pursuits whose value lies less in the marketplace and more in the pursuit itself. Perhaps this helps explain their attitude toward humans. Perhaps it explains why the art they do wish to preserve celebrates those who fought a bloody war to expand and protect mass human enslavement, and why they refer to this art as their history and their heritage. What a terrible thing to admit about oneself, what a terrible self-accusation to levy. Surely to do so with pride speaks to some sort of awful blindness.

And, there's this: they have exposed themselves for what they are, and their supporters have not abandoned them. Their supporters think they are just fine. They’re supportive, enthusiastic, even delighted. The fear and dismay of the rest of us energizes them.

Exit through the gift shop.

As a result, I’m not all right these days.

I’m frequently enraged. I store a lot of my rage in discrete 144-character buckets on the internet, but sometimes it overwhelms me, and I pace my house, delivering devastating rejoinders to imagined adversaries.

I’m filled with joy that overwhelms me sometimes, at the simplest things. Basic kindnesses. A pretty day. A job done well. A story of a person helping another person. A story of bravery. A story of sacrifice. A reminder of what human beings are, which is art. Some tiny affirmation of our unsurpassable worth will spring up and startle me with its immediacy. Each moment seems more precious these days, each person I meet seems more beautiful. The art of human beings can be ignored or denied, but its quality will inevitably show.

I cry at movies more now. I cry at concerts.  I never used to do that before. When Leonard Cohen died, I bawled like a baby. What an odd thing to do. I never met Leonard Cohen once in my life, or in his for that matter. What an odd thing to do.

I go on long runs through adjacent neighborhoods. Everywhere I go, I see yard signs that hadn’t been there last summer.


It seems many of us feel compelled to say these things, which we’d previously thought to be generally assumed. These signs are everywhere, everywhere.

Except…they’re not everywhere. It's understandable they aren't in every yard—everyone expresses themselves their own way—but, very evidently, these sentiments are not in every heart. I know now for a fact there are millions of others who believe no such thing. Who believe very much the opposite thing. Who will fight against those things, and who very much resent being scolded about it.

The signs don't remind me so much of what we all think, as they remind me of what we all apparently disagree about.

I find myself increasingly uncomfortable in crowds, particularly crowds that skew demographically in favor of our political lurch toward white supremacy and kakocracy. We seem to be at a tipping point, where our politicians feel safe in their jobs even while telling lies for which contrary video evidence exists, in order to pass legislation that will bring about the inevitable death and suffering and bankruptcy of thousands, of tens of thousands. We seem to be at a tipping point, where the idea that objective knowledge even exists may be called into question, and that the best minds of history and science might be scorned in favor of badly spelled memes from sweaty conspiracists. We seem to be at a tipping point, where those who would like to speak the language of mass extermination feel free to test these ideas outside the laboratories of their own twisted imaginations. We seem to be at a tipping point, where people will either decide that these things are unacceptable, and must be fought, or else are the acceptable new state of things. Polling evidence suggests that ‘white’ people, especially ‘white’ Christians, are undiminished in their enthusiasm that all this barbarism might come to pass into general acceptance.

I go to church. My church is a large one, full of ‘white’ Christians. I know many of them well, and many of them sort of well, and I recognize even more. They’re good people, committed to bringing measurable change to marginalized and oppressed people. I’m sure of it. I’m positive.

In the parking lot, I see a bumper sticker in the parking lot. The sticker says TRUMP.

You can say a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people with a single printed word these days, in a world of ICE raids and shredded environmental regulations and militarized police forces and proposed Muslim bans and transgender bathroom bills and racial voter suppression and military bans and eager proposals to strip health care from special needs kids and the elderly and ... well. The list, as they say, goes on. You can really get a lot done with a single word.

I'm not even in a single one of the groups targeted in the paragraph above. If I feel like I'm falling down a hole when I see that TRUMPer bumper, I ask myself ... how does it strike one who is?

I find myself increasingly uncomfortable in crowds.

I strongly recommend reading all of this strip by Cory Thomas.

I spend time wondering what I think about basic things anymore. When so many seem so intent on the warehousing and destruction of so much priceless art, disorientation seems inevitable. When the story you told yourself about your society’s innate momentum toward decency turns out to be a comfortable myth, uncertainty seems the one certainty.

I used to trust my country, and the people in it. I don’t trust either anymore, or my own judgment, either.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate
And then, there’s this: The people who want to effect these rough changes, and the people who seem comfortable with them if they are enacted— they are human beings too. And every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth. Even if they themselves fail to recognize this, I must honor this truth about them, without denying that they live into a dreadfully harmful set of lies.

I wonder what to do with that. I think about it all the time. How to confront this? How to effect a change in the other direction? How to practically oppose? How to persuade? How even to communicate in a basic way to others who have accepted for their own ethic a grounding reality completely counter to my own, which I now find unacceptable?

How to win this debate humanity is having over its own soul?

How, anymore, to be?

My conclusion is this: It is not going to work to win the current debate. It is rather going to be necessary to reframe the terms of the debate—to insist on reframing them—until we are having a different conversation entirely.

John Everett Millais, Bubbles
In fact, I suspect we need to decline debate entirely as an instrument of change. A debate won does not appear to change a heart or a mind. It’s not even a debate won, really: In an age when people choose their own facts based on their existing assumptions, people choose a debate’s winner ahead of time, too, based on those same assumptions. And debate has never really been a tool for changing hearts or minds. A tool for conversation, perhaps; education and edification, maybe; not change. Debate is at best a tool for sharpening the mind, for organizing thoughts. It’s the whetstone, but it isn’t the knife. When used to persuade, it is at best a bludgeon.

What changes minds, I think, is story.

A story well told is good. Even better is a story well-lived.

It seems to me many of our old stories don’t work anymore. Maybe they did once. To the extent that they did good work on our souls, it is appropriate to honor them for that, but I don’t think it’s going to be appropriate to go on telling the old stories in the old ways. We put too many lies into the telling, and the truths in our stories have not been ones we've been frequently willing to live into.

Example: We told ourselves a story that we were The Greatest Country in the World. And here we are.

We need to go to work on telling a new story, or, perhaps, exhuming an even older and forgotten one. We must examine the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and critique it to reframe it. And then we must begin telling another, truer, better story, which insists that human beings are art—not to defeat the old story point-by-point, but to simply refuse the old story on the merits, and to compel with the new. Once we’ve become good at telling it to ourselves, we need to start telling it to others.

It might even work. Who knows?

This is going to be my story. Let's call it "Bubbles."

| Next

I am trying to find a new way to exist in the world, with my new understanding of what my country is, and what so many of the people who live here seem to believe.

This represents my attempt, such as it is, to do that. It has been useful for me to have written it. I’m publishing it in twelve pieces over the next month, in case it is useful for anybody else to read.

So: first frame, then story.

(Also, as you likely already suspected, a review of Pulp Fiction.)

0. ART



  1. I really appreciate this. I feel the same way, and you eloquently described those feelings. I suspect you and I are not alone.

  2. I really appreciate this. I feel the same way, and you eloquently described those feelings. I suspect you and I are not alone.

  3. I escaped the persecution 2 years ago, met my wife here and gained the access for permanent residency. I felt immensely grateful for every single day. Being able to buy junk food from drive thru at 2:00am, taking the highway to go to work, feeling the power of central AC on a hot summer day, being asked how I am doing by Walmart cashier were some of the simplest yet most joyful everyday activities for me. I had none of them back in the country I was born. Where I come from, you don't yield to the pedestrian who is rolling the cart, going to his car, you will not thank the waitress for bringing the food on your table because you pay for it. You definitely won't see librarians who greets everyone with a smile.

    I still enjoy those things but ironically whenever I realize the moment of that joy, something hits me real hard deep inside. I interpret the tiniest positive interaction with others as a sign of hope for the salvation of us, people. Being kind to each other, exchanging a few nice words cannot be this precious as it suggests that it is no longer an inherent element of the society we live in, which begs the terrifying question: what is the substitute for that now?

    I still believe in us, this country. I have to admit, however, sometimes I catch myself looking for the triggering event which would make me to make the same kind of decision I made two years ago: escape and go elsewhere where you are an insignificant minority that will hardly be noticed.

    Julius Goat, I wish I was as articulate as you are, but more importantly, I hope there are more people like you, a laborer of thought, servant of justice and voice of absolute morality.

  4. Loved this read! Hoe exciting it would be to begin to think of new ways for human beings to approach conflict in a time when prolific online debate and extremes of opposing rhetoric are pushing us further apart.

  5. Excellent. Been having similar thoughts of late myself. Really looking forward to what's next.

  6. Thank you, sir, well said and my sentiments a well. Humans are Art, appreciating the small things, dealing with ALL humans, very complicated. I do miss the boring life...

  7. Thank you. Beautifully said, we are all unique pieces of art. I think we battle between our divine and lower selves every day and it is a struggle to become better people. Still, we need to try.

  8. Julius, this is brilliant, and I probably have a higher bar for what I consider "brilliant" than most. Please check out a movement that I think you might be interested in, and that I know you could make invaluable contributions to:

  9. Impressive piece of work. If the rest is about as good, surely would make a fine and important book. I don't entirely agree with the sentiment, that each of us is precious or a work of art; but I agree that we need to treat each other as if that were true.

  10. MY GOD!!! Julius, why hasn't some lucky publishing company grabbed you by the lapels with an offer you can't refuse? Someone as articulate, as honest, as moving a writer as you clearly are needs to be heard by EVERYONE.

  11. this is resonating with me so much my spirit feels like a singing bowl.


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