Theory Teacher's Blog

Symbols and the Art of Civil Discourse

Palin's map as reported in Washington Post

I want to reflect on the nature of political symbols and art, but before I do, I’m going to summarize a series of events that I’m sure all readers of this blog already know. On January 8th, in Tucson, Arizona, a man tried to assassinate representative Gabrielle Giffords, resulting in serious injury to her and the deaths of six others. Because she is a Democrat and the gunman appeared to ally himself with the Tea Party movement, the event was turned into a symbol after the media immediately asked whether Americans had lost the capacity for civil discourse and respectful, honest debate and whether this tragedy was not just the lunatic action of a self-appointed assassin but an effect or symptom of a broader cultural problem in America. Consequently, a tragedy that was very real for some became symbolically meaningful for the whole nation, as its symbolic meaning was contested and debated. Mainstream media and bloggers added fuel to the fire as the political Left and political Right accused each other of inflammatory, factually inaccurate, and irresponsible discourse that encouraged this sort of violence. In particular, the day after the incident, The Huffington Post observed [here] that Sarah Palin’s website had a map with gun sights targeting several politicians, including Giffords. Palin and other right-wing bloggers defended themselves (e.g., here and here.) Many Democrat and Republican politicians tried to reunite the country, rediscover common ground, and transcend the blame game — a moving example of that being President Obama’s speech [here] at the memorial service for the victims.

The obvious question for us students and teachers of cultural theory is a rather old question: are symbols such as the gun sights on Palin’s website causal of violence? Most have responded that no, blaming her website for that is like blaming heavy metal and rap music when a teenager has emotional problems. Others have suggested that we should read both the website and the tragedy as two separate cultural symptoms of the same underlying cultural problem. In any case, because this question of causality often leads to rather flimsy theoretical speculation, I’d rather think of other questions such as the more political question of how to move forward.

So, my specific question today is this: what can art do to transform a negative symbol into something more positive and productive?

And I ask this question in part because there are a number of separate events surrounding the tragedy that the media has paid less attention to. One of these is the Arizona government’s decision to ban any public school curriculum that includes focused study of any particular ethnic history [here]. Another is Fox News’s pundit Glenn Beck who has targeted not just politicians but also university professors [here]. Beck’s fans have made frequent death threats against one professor in particular, Dr. Frances Fox Piven. One organization is currently petitioning the Fox television network to be more responsible [here].

I was thinking of productive artful responses to all of this horrible stuff, and contrary to what most politicians are saying (including Obama), I don’t think we can simply all agree to be nice and civil all of a sudden, because the issues that divide us and the complex circumstances (especially the high unemployment rate) that feed this anger are real. What came to my mind during Martin Luther King day was the hip hop video “By the Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy, released back in 1991 when I was a sophomore in college, about the Arizona governor’s refusal to honor the Martin Luther King day. One of the reasons this song came to my mind is that the university where I work did not honor Martin Luther King day this year, and I think it should have. Also, last year, Chuck D and other hip hop artists revisited that song in response to Arizona’s new immigration policies — see this interview with Chuck D and my post about the new songs.

The music video artfully juxtaposes actual scenes from King’s nonviolent civil rights movement with the violent fantasy of a militant revolt. The video goes back and forth between these two ideas as if to present us with an ethical dilemma — two options or two political strategies — the option of nonviolent civil discourse and the option of guerrilla warfare. The clever editing of the video several times places Chuck D in the scenes, as if to suggest that no matter where (or when) we are, he will be there as an angry witness to what is going on. The enraged lyrics [here] protest Arizona’s decision and denounces both political parties for not following through on the legacy of Martin Luther King. Back in the early 1990s, Public Enemy’s response disturbed many for seeming to imply that King’s principles of nonviolence were ineffective strategies (in part because the leaders of the civil rights movement were assassinated, as the video shows) and that a more militant approach is necessary if black people are to overcome the racist policies of the American government in the 1980s. In light of the tragedy in Tucson, this video might seem especially troubling since its expressions of rage and hostility seems vaguely similar to the rhetoric of some Tea Party members.

Public Enemy's Logo

However, I don’t think fearfully reading their music video as a disturbing call for violence is a correct or useful reading. I really like the video for the same reason that I like all of Public Enemy’s art (and also the classic movie Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, arguably one of the best movies ever made, which was also controversial at the time for the same reasons as Public Enemy’s music was controversial) — precisely because it artfully stages an ethical dilemma and conflicting ideas about who we are and who we want to become. I don’t think art can respond to a political problem by indulging fantasies of American unity and common ground in ways that avoid the immanent potential for political violence. One of the things Public Enemy has always done well is expose how racist ideologies continue to operate in American culture and in the mainstream media. Even Public Enemy’s name and its logo is meant to evoke the contradictions, as they celebrate themselves as dangerous and a threat to the established order at the same time that they demystify the racist ideology that assumes all black men are potentially dangerous and a threat to order. For example, it would be wrong to read their song “Don’t Believe the Hype” simply as a criticism of racial profiling just as it would be wrong to read it simply as a call to black militancy. The song suggests that the members of Public Enemy are both dangerous and not dangerous – they are both what white people fear them to be and not what white people fear them to be, both at the same time. Such is the beauty and complexity of their art as it embodies the very ideological contradictions it critiques.

To put it another way, representations of violence have the potential to incite violence, but artful representations of violence encourage us to reflect on the meaning of symbols and may lead us towards more civil discourse. (They also encourage us to not believe the hype.) We can see how Public Enemy’s logo is actually the exact reverse of the gun sights on Palin’s map. Palin’s gun sights target others, but Public Enemy’s gun sights target themselves. They are meant to remind us of all the black leaders who have been assassinated by whites (and hopefully also remind us that never once in our nation’s history has a black person ever tried to assassinate a white person for political reasons, but thousands of blacks have been assassinated by whites), but they also evoke a complex spirit of solidarity — we are all potential targets of violent rage that may flare up at any moment and we also at times all have feelings of rage against others. Therefore, speaking as a university professor who is very disturbed when other university professors such as Frances Fox Piven are threatened by media personalities such as Glenn Beck, I like the idea of artfully flipping the script on the gun sight symbol. Recently, some people on FaceBook adopted the Public Enemy logo as their profile picture in an expression of solidarity with all those who have been targeted. Doing so reminds me of the classic movie Spartacus. In its most famous scene [here], when the Roman army questions all the slaves in order to find Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt, all of the slaves respond by saying they are Spartacus; in other words, everyone is Spartacus. As an artful response to a national tragedy and the vitriolic rhetoric in the media, adopting Public Enemy’s logo as our own (no matter what your political affiliation may be) is obviously not an example of the civil discourse we all hope would be the norm in the mainstream media, but it might lead to the production of an intelligent civil discourse that doesn’t compromise the Real by ignoring or marginalizing certain groups of people.

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January 23, 2011 - Posted by | media

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