On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Politics · Uncategorized

The Terrible Thing Has Happened: Three Questions About Creativity in the Time of Trump

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The terrible thing has happened.

This is what Roger Langeron, prefect of the Paris police wrote in his journal on the day when city was handed over to the Nazis in June of 1940, part of surrender/compromise by the French government. I copied it into my own journal, both in the original French (l’affreuse chose s’est realisee) and in translation at the Mid-Manhattan Library on November 16th, 2016.

Like the majority of American voters who did not vote for Donald Trump, on that dark afternoon I was reeling from the election of the crudest, coarsest, most unqualified disgrace of a person to the highest office in the land. I was, and remain, deeply terrified of his fascist and authoritarian proclivities.

So, at the library, I was continuing an urgent project I started on the morning after election day: researching life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. I needed to know how to survive an authoritarian regime in a large city with a deep history of creativity borne of the freedoms that dictators abhor. I figured that this project would help me pick up a pointer or two.

World history is replete with authoritarian regimes. So why Paris under Nazi rule?

The Nazis were an easy pick, since they’re the authoritarian regime I’m the most familiar with. I’m from a family of Holocaust survivors and have read a lot about it throughout my life. Like most people of Jewish descent, I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I was there, if now was then. Of course, in these imaginings, I’ve always cast myself in the role of public enemy number one. I’ve never seriously considered what life was like for everyone who wasn’t in immediate mortal danger.  Since I’m not a Muslim, Mexican, disabled, an illegal immigrant, or, I guess, Meryl Streep, I assume I’m not on the tippy top of the Trump hit list.

Paris was also a natural choice.  As a cosmopolitan city, Paris had many residents that Hitler wasn’t terribly thrilled with — but weren’t marked for immediate murder. Hitler also had a special feeling about Paris — he didn’t want to destroy its character, which he had no problem doing in other cities.  In fact, he wanted to show the world he could “keep Paris Paris.”  I have a feeling Trump nurtures similar sentiments about New York City. Also, I’m particularly interested in how  artists and writers survive in authoritarian regime, as my immediate decisions will be about resistance, creative expression of protest, and economic self-defense. Few cities are as identified with the arts as Paris.

For a few weeks, I wondered whether Paris was the best analogy, because there’s a difference between a foreign occupation and a democratic-ish election by some of your own citizens —  but since we’ve since learned that the Russians were deeply involved in the outcome of the election, and because the French government brokered the occupation of Paris, I now think the fit is quite comfortable.

Anyway, what I’m learning from this study is what I think are the right questions to ask. So in the weeks ahead, as my research progresses, I’ll share these questions and some of my answers. Let’s hope I’ll be able to continue to do so.

Question One: Should Writers and Artists Still Do Their Thing?

The first question I wanted to address in the wake of this catastrophe was whether to keep on creating: writing, making art in any form. Is this the right way to spend time now? Are there better, more practical ways to spend my time?

In easier times, creatives also struggle with this question, which is really one of permission: who am I to write, or make art? Why do I take time away from people and other worthy causes for my art? In good times we excessively worry about causing offense — or, for the particularly dramatic, that we’ll die, just die, because of something we make.

In times of political repression, when you actually could face severe consequences for self-expression, the invented drama becomes more real. But in crisis, the arts become much more obviously important, urgent, moral.  We’re chronicling, we’re bearing witness. Picasso, upon returning to work at his studio in Occupied Paris, said with evident self-admiration:  “It was not a time for creative men [sic] to fail, to shrink, to stop working…there was nothing to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly and look forward to freedom.”

The very important question, then, isn’t whether you work. Creative people are going to create, drawings were scratched into the walls in Gestapo prison cells. And it’s important that they do so for future generations,

The real question is what you do with your creative output — how, or whether to make it publicly available. And so…

Question Two: Should Writers and Artists Share Political Criticism Publicly?

In most dictatorships, political criticism becomes illegal and dangerous. So, every creative person has to think about her own tolerance for risk.

There’s actual risk — what the law says. There’s practical risk — are there extra-legal consequences for making critical work public, such as financial retribution?  Certainly there’s some sense that this currently exists, as PEOTUS rails against the cast of Hamilton, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Buzz Feed, although it’s unclear what that will actually accomplish.  And then there’s an assessment of future risk, which gets weighed against how much trouble you’re already in for actions you’ve already taken.

When it became apparent on election night that Trump would win, I thought about the “Fuck Trump” stick pins I made in filigree vintage metal during the campaign. I wondered if I could take them off the web and hide that they ever existed. That’s a question of future risk, I’m in no trouble for these right now. I’ve learned that people are now afraid to wear them, so that’s a bit of extra-legal consequence already occurring. The real question here is about the risk I’ll face in the future if the Trump regime cracks down on critical expression.

In this, I’ve become fatalistic. I don’t think I’d easily shed that electronic trail, so, why stop now? In other words, if I’m going to be screwed by this, I am already.

With this is mind, at this moment, I decided to keep making art that directly comments on Trump’s policies and is explicitly opposed to Trump and Trumpism. At about this time, I was asked to participate in Unstitched States, a digital quilt of reactions to the election. For it, I embroidered a vintage handkerchief with the “terrible thing” quote I referenced at the beginning, Donald Trump’s anti-democratic tweets on flag burning, an analogous passage from the Nuremberg Laws, and my own notes from visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This was my inspiration.)  It’s pictured above.

Questions Three: Should Writers and Artists Continue to Make Non-Political Work Public?

There’s always a demand for art that is non-political. In Nazi Paris, the presses kept printing magazines, newspapers and books, movies were screened, theatrical and dance productions were staged. This required the participation of creative people. Is this unacceptable collaboration? And if so, and if you make your living in the arts, what are you to do?

The writer Jean Guehenno, whose journals became Diary of The Dark Years, 1940-44. Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, decided not to publish anything during the years of occupation, when all publications were controlled by Nazis. His translator, David Ball, writes this:

“He was one of the few intellectuals in occupied France who sensed that what one writes takes on its full meaning only in the context of a historical situation, and that its meaning depends in part on where it is published, and the conditions of its publications.

For writers to accept Nazi control of their publications is a fundamental choice — not to publish at all is another — and it is far more important than the choice of words in their writings. When Paul Valery, whom Guehanno admired enormously published a new poem in the most important literary review in France, which [was] edited by a fascist, Guehenno writes in his diary “I can’t help being sorry to see him go along with the ploy of our occupiers who want everyone to think everything in France is continuing just as it did before.”

 

In our current terms, this is the question of “normalization.” (Colloquially, “this is not okay.”)

Personally, I don’t have an answer to this one at this moment — I need more information about what forms of expression become legally restricted, if any, what becomes practically dangerous to publish or make public. But I will say that while I do admire Guehenno’s absolutist answer to this question: “…never, ever play {the} jailers game, never do what he hoped we’d do, appear in print, for example — appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free,” I’m not sure that silence is the most effective response.  My initial thought is that should it become difficult to make critical work, it’s possible to subtly communicate criticism in any form of art that could pass under a censor’s nose. (I’m thinking here of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, nominally about the Salem Witch Trials, actually about McCarthyism.) So I suppose the next question is, is it worth the appearance of normalization to communicate a subtle message?

More as I have it.

 

 

 

 

 

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Herself · On Politics

Enter to Win a Free “Voter” Stick Pin That’s Good for Democracy

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Fired up about this presidential election? You should really wear one of these pretty little vintage stick pins.  I make them with all sorts of phrases on them, but this week I’m giving away two, that say “Vote” or “Voter.” To enter the giveaway, just go over to Alison Wonderland’s Facebook or Instagram page and follow the easy peasy instructions.

Debate snacks

Politics have been described as sports for nerds. I fully embrace the nerd aspect of that description — my degree is in political science, people. You don’t want to get me started on Plato. And I do treat political events in much the same way other people treat football games. I get together to watch with friends. I make special snacks. I can’t resist showing you our spread at the Vice Presidential debate the other week, which was just the immediate fam.  (Note the cat paw at the top of the photo, my cats are very political.)  And while there is a sports-like aspect to it, let’s not forget that the outcome of the “game” actually amounts to something real. Lives can change. Lives can be improved. Lives can be lost.

When I was in elementary school, I was very inspired by a lesson on Susan B. Anthony, and decided that kids should also have the right to vote. I led a small charge on the school cafeteria, where the voting booths were set up for what I now believe was a school board election. I demanded access to the polling place, and I got sent to the principal’s office.

My 18th birthday very inconveniently occurred less than two weeks after the presidential election of 1992, which meant I missed that election. After which I entered a pious phase and decided to skip all the other local elections, because I didn’t want to pick a political party until I completed my degree and registered for a political party, so as to maintain my objectivity during my studies. This didn’t make a lot of sense, and I was confusing an important principle of journalism with that of citizenship, but hey,  I was 19. I made a lot of bad decisions.After graduating, however, I immediately registered and I simply don’t miss elections. In fact, I get a little misty when I enter a polling place. The franchise is a right and an honor that many people laid down their lives and reputations to secure for us. I am so grateful.

So go vote! Go win yourself one of these pins and by so wearing, encourage other people to vote too.  The fate of our Republic literally is in your hands.

Buy Defiant Sentiments Stick Pin – Vintage Stick Pin – Election 2016

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On Herself · On Politics

Barack Obama is Not a Person 

Barack Obama is not a person.

I am not a person.

You are not a person, either, if you are involved in any kind of a legal situation. Which, as a member of a society under the rule of law, you are by default, although it won’t become apparent to you unless you are either elected to public office, or involved in a legal action.

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the media has been full of conversation about Scalia’s writing style. When I was an undergraduate studying constitutional law, his opinions were was my favorite to read, although I disagreed with almost everything he wrote so amusingly. I’ve always been attuned to language, and so in these past four years, as my divorce and its aftermath became an apparently endless legal quagmire, I’ve been tracking the use of language in legal documents — motions, decisions, and so on. (It is my opinion that lawyers are some of the best writers not widely read in the country.)

I remember looking at the first court filling in the divorce, which I downloaded on my phone, while sitting on a green lawn at a cheese festival in Vermont. I dwelled for a long time on the word “versus” on the first court filing in my divorce, me versus him, him versus me, how did it come so suddenly to that?

Getting back to Obama. One of the things that struck me immediately about these legal filings is that your name is immediately substituted for that of a character, with the use of parentheses and quotation marks.

A few days before Scalia died, I happened to make a list of the characters I have been known as legally in these past four years of conflict:

Alison Stein MarriedNameRedacted, (“Wife”) (“Plaintiff”) (“Defendant”) (“Priority Creditor”).

This shorthand helps everyone to follow along, and, since our system operates on precedent, it helps future lawyers and judges to strip away the relevant information for future conflicts. But it feels strange to be reduced to a character in this way. Everything I am, my memories, my accomplishments, the jokes I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve loved, the tears I’ve cried, are stripped away. What matters only are my rights, responsibilities and various burdens as “defendant.”

I understand that this a dehumanization is part of justice as we understand it. That by stripping away the particulars of a person, you can extract a principle that you can apply evenly to everyone in a similar situation.

Barack Obama is, of course, a person. A person whom you are free to admire, or despise. But legally, he is not a person, he’s President of the United States, a position vested with various executive powers and obligations, among them: “He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court.” (Article II, Section 2)

It seems to me that the Republican Senators who are vowing to obstruct the replacement of Justice Scalia have forgotten that in this instance, Barack Obama is not Obama, but, simply “President.” And they are not individual people with opinions either. Not, Mitch McConnell, but “Senator.” Whatever their personal feelings about the man, and whoever the man or woman happens to be, the rule of law only works if we all agree to be depersonalized in this way, elected officials especially. 

To struggle against this is to call for a dismantling of our entire legal system, which has older roots than the U.S. Constitution, but includes it. 

To struggle against this is to support a system based on personal favors and favorites, which is to say, to support tyranny.

On Herself · On Politics

Barack Obama is Not a Person 

Barack Obama is not a person.

I am not a person.

You are not a person, either, if you are involved in any kind of a legal situation. Which, as a member of a society under the rule of law, you are by default, although it won’t become apparent to you unless you are either elected to public office, or involved in a legal action.

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the media has been full of conversation about Scalia’s writing style. When I was an undergraduate studying constitutional law, his opinions were was my favorite to read, although I disagreed with almost everything he wrote so amusingly. I’ve always been attuned to language, and so in these past four years, as my divorce and its aftermath became an apparently endless legal quagmire, I’ve been tracking the use of language in legal documents — motions, decisions, and so on. (It is my opinion that lawyers are some of the best writers not widely read in the country.)

I remember looking at the first court filling in the divorce, which I downloaded on my phone, while sitting on a green lawn at a cheese festival in Vermont. I dwelled for a long time on the word “versus” on the first court filing in my divorce, me versus him, him versus me, how did it come so suddenly to that?

Getting back to Obama. One of the things that struck me immediately about these legal filings is that your name is immediately substituted for that of a character, with the use of parentheses and quotation marks.

A few days before Scalia died, I happened to make a list of the characters I have been known as legally in these past four years of conflict:

Alison Stein MarriedNameRedacted, (“Wife”) (“Plaintiff”) (“Defendant”) (“Priority Creditor”).

This shorthand helps everyone to follow along, and, since our system operates on precedent, it helps future lawyers and judges to strip away the relevant information for future conflicts. But it feels strange to be reduced to a character in this way. Everything I am, my memories, my accomplishments, the jokes I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve loved, the tears I’ve cried, are stripped away. What matters only are my rights, responsibilities and various burdens as “defendant.”

I understand that this a dehumanization is part of justice as we understand it. That by stripping away the particulars of a person, you can extract a principle that you can apply evenly to everyone in a similar situation.

Barack Obama is, of course, a person. A person whom you are free to admire, or despise. But legally, he is not a person, he’s President of the United States, a position vested with various executive powers and obligations, among them: “He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court.” (Article II, Section 2)

It seems to me that the Republican Senators who are vowing to obstruct the replacement of Justice Scalia have forgotten that in this instance, Barack Obama is not Obama, but, simply “President.” And they are not individual people with opinions either. Not, Mitch McConnell, but “Senator.” Whatever their personal feelings about the man, and whoever the man or woman happens to be, the rule of law only works if we all agree to be depersonalized in this way, elected officials especially. 

To struggle against this is to call for a dismantling of our entire legal system, which has older roots than the U.S. Constitution, but includes it. 

To struggle against this is to support a system based on personal favors and favorites, which is to say, to support tyranny.

Alison's Writing Portfolio · On Places & Travel · On Politics

A Presidential Tour of Austin – BBC Travel

I had a lot of fun researching A Presidential Tour of Austin, a travel story that uses President Lyndon B. Johnson as an inspiration for touring the Texas capital.  The photo above, from the archives of the LBJ Library, shows the president’s interpersonal political style  in action with the tiny Supreme Court Justice, Abe Fortas.… Continue reading A Presidential Tour of Austin – BBC Travel

Alison's Writing Portfolio · Daybook · On Places & Travel · On Politics

Not All Mexicans

I’ve been following the immigration policy debate with interest, especially the emphasis on “border security” — which is itself a code for rather unpleasant conversations about Mexicans. It’s code because here in the world governed by facts, a little place that I like to call “reality,” we actually don’t have a problem with our border.… Continue reading Not All Mexicans

Daybook · On Politics

Impossibly Elastic Sexual Violence

This has been bugging me ever since I read it. A new CDC study attempts to quantify the number of people in the United States who have been a victim of rape and sexual violence, which includes stalking and “intimate partner violence”, a broader definition of domestic violence, and coercion involving reproductive health. The report… Continue reading Impossibly Elastic Sexual Violence