Home > Crossing the Abyss By Grant Oliphant

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3/1/2017
By Grant Oliphant

 

Crossing the Abyss

A common aphorism has it that “one man with courage is a majority.” Most of us instinctively don’t believe that. Most of us think one man standing athwart the tide makes for a powerful photo but a predictably tragic ending.

Still, that faith in the power inherent in every citizen has proven right so many times in the centuries since it first appeared. Rosa Parks taking her seat on the bus. Young black men staking their claim at a lunch counter. The Kent State protestors placing flowers in the barrels of the National Guardsmen sent there to crush them. The wounded soldier in Iraq defying impossible odds to rescue his fallen brother. Nelson Mandela writing in his prison. The brave Chinese protestor blocking the path of a tank at Tiananmen Square.

Lives were lost in those struggles. But the heroes at the center changed something important about the nature of the struggles they were but small players in. Courage gave them a vastly louder voice.

Sometimes I think of my father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant who in his heyday was a raging tornado of satire who directed his social commentary every day at the lies told by the powerful, their secret wars, their worthless promises, their incessant greed, their smug hypocrisies. Death threats were common and in those days he was foolish enough to keep a “Bullshit” stamp on his desk that he applied liberally to the hate mail before marking it Return To Sender. Monumentally stupid by today’s standards but, as he told me later, he had no intention of being silenced.

One man or woman with courage can turn the tide of a movement, a battle, or even a culture. My father was hardly alone in speaking out so openly, but in his singular, mocking way he helped lance the boil of a country’s Nixon-era delusions. So did many other artists, journalists and commentators, each one an island, each one a perpetual hair’s breadth away from crossing some unforgiving line and losing their job, credibility or possibly their freedom.

I think of this in the context now of the war being waged by the new administration in Washington against journalists and by extension—through proposals to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—against arts and artists and the creative telling of the nation’s story as it unfolds.

There are two glaringly obvious reasons why the arts and journalism are vital to the fate of the Republic now. The first is the easier of the two to understand and to embrace. We are a deeply divided country. In a recent meeting with our board, Angela Glover Blackwell noted we are divided not only by race and poverty but also by place—rural and urban, city and suburb, coastal and midland. And I would add we are divided now, too, by media, by the websites we choose to believe and the radio shows we listen to. We live in a society where we can carefully curate our own personal version of truth and cling desperately to it for as long the delusion can last.

People we once might have thought of as neighbors have become simultaneously invisible and alien to each other, human-sized pockets of empty space that we fill with the demons of our own fears, suspicions, stereotypes and hatreds. A country so riven, suffering from a shockingly diminished ability to see and hear across its lines of division, must find a way to help its bitterly fragmented people rediscover their common humanity, the truth of their actual lives, and their shared stake in the success of the American experiment.

Just a generation or two ago Thomas Merton warned an America only then beginning to struggle with the disconnect between technology and deeper meaning: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” The abyss that now separates us from each other and even from our own understanding of ourselves has grown wide enough to swallow our decency and civility whole.

Normal persuasion can’t bridge that. You can’t argue your way past closed ears. But the arts can find a crossing, as they have so often in human history. So can good, solid reporting. Both can tell the story of what’s happening to and between us in deep, personal terms. Both can help us see each other and, uncomfortably, ourselves. Both are tools of rebuilding a shared culture and a shared destiny, and without robust journalism, arts and culture we risk sliding ever deeper into a tribal era of infinite fragmentation, fertile ground for autocrats and oligarchs to rule.

The second reason arts and journalism matter so much now is a bit harder to love and harder for many Americans to accept. If one side of the coin of their value is their ability to bring us together, to heal what is broken, “to comfort the afflicted,” then the other side is their capacity to “afflict the comfortable.”

Think of all the great works of literature and art and journalism that have challenged the status quo, asked whether people can (and have a right to) trust in the safety of their medicines and food, the health of their air and their water, the integrity of the buildings they live in and the homes they sleep in. Think of all the powerful stories that helped us move past ancient stereotypes to see and embrace the right of people to be treated equally regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity.

Time after time majorities of one did that—one voice with courage becoming two activists, and then four, and then a crowd, and soon an unstoppable wave. And the tools of that wave, what undulated them into being and swept them along, more often than not has been art, culture, and journalism – poking and prodding and informing and agitating us along a path away from the status quo toward someplace different.

But it’s precisely the propensity for good art and good journalism (the kind decried by critics now as “fake news” or “lamestream”) to challenge us, to prick the comfy little bubbles of privilege we hide behind, that makes them so hard to love. Art and journalism are not just a bridge; they are, at the same time, just as the framers of our Constitution intended, beautiful catastrophes of disruption. They ask the questions others don’t dare to; they shine light where truth hides; they root out the lies and phony masks we hide behind; they dare us to look beyond our narrow lives and convictions.

Art and journalism provoke. And let’s face it, we do not like to be provoked.

My father’s son, raised with a deep suspicion of power and a deep distaste for social norms no one seems able to explain, I have always believed this to my core. But even I have had to relearn my love for the provocative power of art at various times in my personal and professional lives. When an artist is under attack for expressing an unpopular point of view, the only reasonable response in a free society is to defend the right of the artist to express himself or herself freely.

The right of artists and journalists to tweak the nose of power, to challenge what we believe, to criticize those in high places, to hold accountable people who otherwise might anoint themselves kings, cannot be abridged because we find it at times uncomfortable. It is that very discomfort that tells us they are doing their part in maintaining a healthy society.

The very real possibility that the tiny levels of federal spending for the NEA, NEH and CPB will be eliminated has so obviously nothing to do with balancing budgets or fiscal prudence. It is an attack, pure and simple, on independent and potentially critical voices. It is an expression of disdain for the magical ability of art and journalism to knit our country and its people back together again, and of cowardly antipathy toward those who dare speak unpleasant truths to power.

That fight still lies ahead and must be engaged with a clear eye for what’s really going on. It’s not about the budget. It’s not about money. It’s about voice. Make no mistake: it’s about voice.

For now, for our part, the Endowments has decided to increase its normal grantmaking in the arts and creativity by $1.5 million this year, an increase of nearly 17 percent. This additional investment will not go to doing more of what we already do. While still being shaped, we expect it to deepen connections with our sustainability and learning work, broaden our engagement in neighborhoods and schools, and connect us more directly with artists who are using art to promote social justice and social change. Meanwhile, we are taking a deep look at how we can strengthen our commitment to public media in our community, especially through outlets such as PublicSource that are committed to producing sound investigative journalism in an era more in need of that than any in our lifetimes.

We are a regional foundation. We look at what’s happening in the country and the world through a local lens, a community lens. But we believe that it is here, at this level, in cities and regions like ours all around the country, where we will begin to build bridges across the abysses that separate us from each other and from who we really are as a people. It is here that we can find the common ground that really is the only place we all can live.

 
Written by

Grant Oliphant

President

 

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