Slammed at work, so my post on AQOI will be delayed. In the meantime, here's a liveblog of the event,.
Today's post is not going to spend a lot of time talking about the content of AQOI. The event continues, and each week gets refined a little bit, which is good. They're learning + improving. This week's installment was quite moving and invigorating, and I came in unconvinced that this was a good reason for impeaching Bush, but left feeling like it actually made a lot of sense. Don't get me wrong, I clearly think what's happened and is happening in New Orleans is reprehensible, and if I believed in hell, I'd believe there was a place in it for Bush based just on that. But impeachment is a specific legal and political process with specific parameters. Does this qualify?
It turns out... yes. Because of something called (if I remember correctly) the Stafford Act, which specifically places the President at the top of the chain of command for disaster relief and prevention. So the case for impeachment starts with the warning Bush was given 24 hours before the hurricane that it was coming and it was going to be very bad. His response: bubkis. That alone should be argument to remove him from office.
But that's not actually what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about today was the audience for AQOI, and the experience I had there last night which left me... troubled... riled up... inspired...angry...unsure.
The event itself (including its audience) seemed to me symbolic of everything both good and bad about the American Left. On the Good Side: Passion. Commitment. Courage. Speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Solidarity with the afflicted. Articulate, principled explanation of what is going on and why it is wrong. These are the things that make me proud to be a leftist. A real care for the greater good, and a passionate belief that it must be fought for by all of us. I was inspired by the event to write the post about the war ont he poor
But I also think it's important to talk about what isn't working in the American Left right now, and why we're having trouble building anything. This all became startlingly clear during the second half of the evening, a Q+A session moderated by Alec Baldwin. I want to focus a bit on what to me was symbolic of greater problems not because I want to indict the event, which I think is an important one, but rather to highlight where the Left as a movement has room to really grow and develop. This is criticism offered out of compassion and concern. A friendly challenge, let's call it.
1) Even when talking with and about the unprivileged, the privleged dominate. Last night's panel discussion was moderated by Alec Baldwin and he and Lewis Lapham (the only white men on the panel seven) took up a plurality of the discussion time. One of the black women on the panel had to introduce herself to the audience. One of the panelists-- a displaced middle aged black man who had been living in public housing-- was barely asked a question.
2) Lack of focus. One of the great beauties of the Left has been our ability to connect the dots between various struggles. To see the ways that sexism and racism intersect, or how economics intersects with everything, to see how these various movements and issues connect. This can make talking about a specific issue very difficult, however. Does anyone remember all of the Free Mumia and Legalize Marijuana signs during the Republican Convention or Iraq War protests? Baldwin is clearly interested in how money plays into all of this, and it's an important thing to look at, and he's well read and very good at connecting the dots, but the dots take him (And the rest of the panel) frequently quite far away from the issue at hand-- Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and the criminal negligence and corruption of our government in response to it.
3) Close mindedness. At some point, Baldwin asked permission to go a bit over to ask a question, at which point many in the audience shouted we have our own questions! When they opened up the floor to questions, no one they called on asked any. What does that say? What does it say about us that we don't want to learn, but rather want to tell? What does it say that when we have a learned panel of experts we don't ask them anything? Finally, at the end, one woman asked a question. She said I'm not sure I support the impeachment of George Bush. I think he's done wrong, but I wonder about whether its the appropriate action. It'll open up the door to the Republicans doing the same thing to Democrats on specious grounds and it will paralyze the government. Why do you think impeachment is worth it? To this question, the woman next to me audibly booed and the woman behind me said (quite loudly) Why is she asking some stupid question about impeachment? Who wants to talk about THAT? To which I turned around and reminded her that the name of the event is A Question of Impeachment. The woman in the front of the row had asked a question that (a) was on topic (b) was inviting disagreement to her own unpopular opinion and (c) sought to learn something. The crowd's reaction was dismay and hostility that she had voiced her unpopular opinion in the first place.
4) Eating Our Own. I think that ultimately people were really really riled up by the topic in a way that I hadn't seen at the other events and, honestly, hadn't seen since college. I think this is good. What's happening in New Orleans is an outrage, and sometimes the lack of outrage one sees on a day-to-day basis is totally fucking crazy-making. The problem: Where could we vent our outrage? There was no place to put it, so rather than reinvest it, we threw it up onto each other. I honestly think that was at the root of the other three issues, it was a deeper root than Baldwin's shortcomings as a moderator (I didn't hate him or anything, I just wished he was a panelist because the chief orientation of a moderator has to be outward towards the people speaking... but I digress). We didn't know how to productively use the energy and outrage and, rather than delay gratification of that energy and using it creatively, we got angry. Not having anyone other than each other to get angry at, we took it out on each other. It's hard not to get demoralized when this happens.
What all of this leads to is a big ole Trouble Building Anything. I think addressing these issues, really seriously looking at them personally and collectively is the way forward. In the meantime, I'm going to try to take the energy and inspiration and outrage and put it towards something. More on that as it develops.
Okay, so now having actually been in person to one of the Question of Impeachment events, I feel better qualified to discuss it as an event. I guess it’s the theatre part of the theatre blogger in me, but I can’t help but evaluate experiences like this on multiple levels. There’s the part of me that listens to and takes in the event, and the part of me that critiques the event on what could probably be dismissed as style grounds.
First, though, let me describe it. A Question of Impeachment is really multiple things in one evening. Tonight’s topic was Torture and Extraordinary Rendition which also happens to be the article I find the most persuasive. It starts with a lengthy Preamble, in which a variety of secondary sources (many from the times of the Founding Fathers) are put together like a Harper’s Readings section on impeachment. The basic thrust of this is that it is totally appropriate- indeed it is our civic duty- to impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These sources are read by a variety of performers (including The Daily Show’s Aasif Manvi!) who remain seated until their final line of text at which point they stand up. As they talk, images appear on a screen, often of the people who the text is taken from, sometimes of general crowds protesting etc.
Next, Gina Gershon appeared to read a short piece of testimony from a man who had been waterboarded during the Algerian resistance. He described the waterboarding and his own responses to it. From there, a special guest appears to be the attorney for the prosecution. Tonight’s guest was Michael Ratner. He read into the record three witnesses. When they were done, we took a short break and then there was a reading of a short play about Abu Ghraib and then the panel discussion, featuring all of the witnesses plus some more guests (more on this later).
Just to quickly get the critic part of my brain over and done with, I’d say that the most effective parts of the night were Gina Gershon’s reading and the witnesss depositions. Said depositions were themselves augmented by evidence, which was read by the actors who had performed the preamble.
The least effective part of the evening was the preamble. It was, given the audience for the event (largely people who believe in the impeachment of GWB) wholly unnecessary. Using actors to read portions of the public record relevant to the subject at hand (the waterboarding description, the transcripts of Alberto Gonzales in from of Congress etc.) was far more potent. I wished the evening was a little more loosely structured, rocketing like a documentary back and forth from an expert giving learned testimony to John Yoo’s torture memos etc. And within this looser structure, excerpts from dramatic works that involve the issues could be used as well. This way, the theatrical and the political would be more fully integrated. This, I should say, was probably impossible given time and availability constraints.
Which is not to say the evening was in any way a failure. Once the preamble was over, it was a good event (if long! Three hours on a school night!), and given that I’m well versed in most of these issues, I’d say it was a good learning experience as well. And, honestly, both moving and inspiring. If you get a chance to check out the video clips when they go up, I highly recommend doing so.
The undisputed rock star of the event was Bruce Fein. I don’t know why that was, but I’d hazard a guess—he’s (A) a Republican who is (B) very passionate about the need to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Him being a Republican is important... it makes us feel less crazy when well respected people we're normally inclined to disagree with agree with us. He was also probably the most comfortable public speaker of the group. Several times he almost sounded like he was going to cry with righteous fury on at least a couple of occasions. Also, I think he made the most important specifically pro-impeachment argument of the night: Bush has built a loaded weapon with his Presidency. That loaded weapon is out of control Executive Power, which is most obviously represented by Bush’s belief that he can suspend the laws of the land and the Constitution in order to allow us to perform truly heinous acts on the bodies of clearly innocent people. Oh, and he can kidnap them off the streets of Europe and ship them off to Syria to do it as well. This is why he needs to be impeached. The Executive branch is never going to voluntarily give up power. We need to be worried not just about what Bush will do but about what the next President (and the next and the next) will do with the powers that Bush has claimed and that Congress has allowed him to have. This, I’d argue, is the most worrying part of a potential Hillary Clinton Presidency. That she can’t think of one newly-claimed executive power that she’d do away with without “studying the matter” first is troubling in the extreme (and my main reason for not supporting her).
Fein also had the most concrete immediate thing that Congress could do to rein in the Executive Branch. Bush has declared us at “war on terror” a war that stretches the entire globe and has no end. He has assumed via claims of Commander in Chief authority immense powers to fight that war (claiming, for example, that his Commander in Chief responsibilities trump his obligations to follow the Constitution or the Geneva Conventions). Congress could pass a resolution declaring the country not at war beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq and restricting any Presidential war powers to dealing with those two situations. When he said it it sorta seemed like… well, duh! Of course!
The most interesting argument of the night came from a Psychologist who was on the panel. She said that post 9/11, the rhetoric of America had to do with injured manhood, with the President Being a Man and showing that we’re strong Men (that the terrorists knocked down two phalluses was probably not lost on anyone either). And as she put it “when manhood is threatened, violence inevitably follows. And I think on some level we all knew that”. So in other words, the rhetoric of injured manhood helped to terrorize us all of the state, because we knew we were gearing up for the kind of ass kickin’ that is the global version of beating up your family.
One thing that I thought was odd about the evening was that race was never discussed, specifically w/r/t the question “why are the American people putting up with this?” All sorts of things were talked about—fear, dissociation, cognitive dissonance, complacency etc.—but no one ever said “look, no one really thinks this can happen to them, it’s happening to brown people, largely poor brown people, in other countries and we just don’t care about them that much”. That to me seems the most obvious and logical reason for our collective silence. It’s happening to an other not to us. The problem is, by the time it happens to us, it’ll be too late. First they came for the Jews and all that.
The other thing that Bruce Fein said to close out the evening was that we cannot get discouraged by our lack of immediate success. Abolition took decades. The women’s suffrage movement took the better part of a century. Taking our country back and restoring Constitutional cheques and balances isn’t necessarily something we’ll succeed in in a week. Nixon was pushed out of power by a broad population coalition. We need to get working.
First off, before delving in, I'd just say that this post is entirely a response to / examination of this really great post from Leonard about A Question of Impeachment. In it, Leonard repeatedly raises issues of groupthink and preaching to the converted that I think are worth looking into.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I don't always have a big problem with preaching to the converted. After all, converts are the ones who show up to Church. Hopefully you get the converts whipped up enough, and they'll bring their friends. And then you convert their friends and the cycle continues. This is how an audience for work- whether that work be Richard Foreman or Creflo Dollar- gets developed.
The Right in America has proven itself much much better at organizing than the Left, which should be both shocking and shameful, given the Left's history with Unions. I think it is worth looking at some of the things they've done that have made them successful, so that we can learn some appropriate skills and lessons. One thing I've noticed is that you never hear Conservatives worry about people preaching to the converted. They worry instead about getting more converts.
Lefties, on the other hand, worry incessantly about preaching to the converted. And I worry on some level that there is a strand of self-loathing to that, another version of Groucho Marx's famous line I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. In other words, the people who agree with you on some level don't really count. But if they don't count, how are we supposed to organize anything, or gain any kind of strength in numbers?
That being said, this kind of organizational strength can get out of control. And that's when it crosses the specific line that gets people quoting 1984 (as Leonard does on a few occasions in his post).
So here's my first question... What is that line?
To me, that line is the conflict line. When a group cannot handle or brook conflict within itself, it's in serious trouble. This means that part of organizational and group development has to center around how to both have conflict constructively and grow using conflict.
The second thing Leonard raises that I'd like to respond to is this:
I do understand that this was a political inquest, a legal fantasia for the purpose of re-activating already-active political fighters. But the Culture Project, in my view, has a responsibility to set a higher bar. Let them provide mythical Bush and mythical Cheney a mythical defense to let a mythical jury (the very real audience) arrive at mythical conclusions. Each side's arguments can be strong and must be unafraid; evidence must be unquestionably germane. Let the case not be a slam dunk. Let its results not be a fait accompli. Without true suspense, this is not theatre.
This reminded me a bit of a conversation I had recently about Omnium Gatherum, a play I actually quite liked. Lots of people are very critical of it--particularly of its preaching-to-the-converted-ness. After all, the play (in which a dinner party literally in hell contains stand-ins for various thinkers and attitudes in America who discuss 9/11 related issues) has nothing but obvous contempt for the right wing viewpoint represented by the Tom Clancy stand-in character. My response was (and remains) but after 9/11, there was no place in the media one could go to to have a conversation like that. No one was willing to put on a bunch of leftist voices and let them debate various issues. The debate being had was (and still to some extent, is) between center-right voices and extremist right voices. In that wider cultural context, Omnium Gatherum was fulfilling an important civic function-- keeping alive attitudes that were being glossed over everywhere. As to whether it worked as drama or not, I guess that depends on what one thinks is required to say something worked as a stage play.
So I feel a bit conflicted about what Leonard is talking about here. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with Leonard's desire to see a trial "the American way" as opposed to "a kangaroo court, a third-world, democracy-mocking injustice system that Americans were once trained in their civics classes to disdain". And as I said in my post yesterday, I'd be interested in seeing a debate about whether or not the Iraq war was illegal, as opposed to a discussion that assumes it is. I'm guessing that it was this aspect of the event (the lack of debate) that lead Leonard to compare it to the Two Minutes Hate that Orwell describes in 1984.
But (here's the other side of the conflict) I worry that this ignores the broader context that this event is happening in. In Orwell's 1984, the Two Minutes Hate is unleashed by the overwhelmingly powerful majority against a minority so powerless it might as well not exist. It is used not to cause any real substantive change towards the minority's power (they have none and might not even exist) but rather to control the majority and keep them in line. A Question of Impeachment, in terms of a national cultural conversation, is a gathering of minority voices who are not even heard within the opposition party. The event's tagline They took it off the table so we put it on stage is a direct reference to House Speaker (and "San Francisco Liberal") Nancy Pelosi's claim that impeachment was "off the table" for the Democratic Congress. And this power dynamic necessarily changes the nature of the event.
Furthermore, because what we're talking about are views that are basically verboten in mass culture, perhaps there is less of a need to present the Case For Bush (or at least the Case Against Impeachment) because the entire rest of the culture is making/assuming that case already. We walk into the room already indoctrinated against the idea of impeaching Bush, and already informed (if we watch cable news anyway) of the Right's viewpoint. That is because that viewpoint is the viewpoint of the dominant culture.
In this context, is it necssary to re-present that view that we already know? (This question can of course be flipped around and say "in the context of us all thinking Bush should be impeached, is it necessary to present a case for impeachment at all?" and I recognize that).
So I guess what the question really comes out to is... what is the nature and purpose of the event? Is the purpose to provide succor and ammunition to those who seek Bush's removal from office? Is it to try him for the specific articles? To open up a larger discussion about whether or not impeachment will work to stem the tide of Corporatism and its sister poison Militarism that threatens our nation? Leonard certainly seems to have come away from the event confused on this very question. Perhaps the blogosphere's further forays into the event over the next few weeks will help sort it out.
And of course the follow up question is... what do we want the nature and purpose of the event to be? Leonard's already stated his idea-- a real mock trial of Mock Bush and Mock Cheney. I'm not sure what I want it to be, but then again, I haven't been there in person. Yet. We'll certainly have more of all of this next week, when we actually attend AQOI, but in the meatime, these questions will have to do...
UPDATE: A webcast (with video!) of the event can be found hereAnd Leonard Jacobs provides a detailed (and smartly conflicted) take on the evening here.
Last night was the first event (After the opening night party/film screening/extravaganza) for The Culture Project's A Question of Impeachment. The assembled unveiled and discussed...
Article I: Initiation and Continuation of Illegal War. Participants include Colonel (Ret.) Ann Wright, Elizabeth de la Vega, Hendrik Hertzberg, Ray McGovern, Larry Everest, and David Swanson. Performers include Kristen Johnston, Willie Garson, Nana Mensah, Chris McKinney, Courtney Esser, and Scott Cohen.
I'll keep updating this post as more stuff comes in, but in the meantime, The Culture Project has their own liveblog of the event itself which can be read here.
UPDATE: Some random thoughts from me. First off, I was not able to attend last night's panel discussion, because of a pre-existing commitment, but I will be at all of the others.
Looking over the liveblog, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of discussion of the actual Article of Impeahcment but rather discussion of the idea of impeachment itself. This is probably due to the fact that this is the first event of the series, but I wonder (and perhaps those who were there last night can tell me) if there was much discussion about whether or not Bush had, in fact, initiated and continued an illegal war and in what ways.
I write this for a very specific reason: I believe that America's conduct during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly been frequently, even systemically illegal. I am unsure, however, that the war itself was illegal (for the record: I opposed the Iraq war vehemently from the beginning and waffled on the War in Aghanistan). So I would absolutely be interested in talking about that. I'd especially be interested in talking about that with people better versed in domestic and international law than myself. Given that this is something I'm unsure about, maybe such a thing would help get me some clarity.
It seems the evening assumed a specific viewpoint in its audience which from a dramaturgical perspective, is a tricky risk to take. (Digressively here... I felt the same way about Young Jean Lee's Church which seemed to assume that I had particular attitudes both about religion-- that I didn't like it-- and my own life-- that it felt shallow and hollow to me. Those people in the audience I knew who felt both of those ways were profoundly affected by the show. People I know who didn't conform to both of those things including myself respected the show greatly but did not seem as affected by it).
I don't mean this necessarily as criticism so much as observation. Reading the live blog, it seems the event was mainly focused on the prospects and idea of impeachment and widespread social action itself. Once you accept this, there was a very interesting conversation about impeachment that happened last night at The Culture Project, with some debate about what it means and why do it and whether to do it etc. So here are somethings I was stuck by:
1) What's the matter with us? Many of the panelsits hinted at a question I've been thinking about. Which is not so much about apathy as about ineffectualness or complacency. Namely... we might think Bush and Cheney should be impeached (I certainly do) but very very few of us are doing anything about it. The Democrats have coopted our political anger and passion to make it about 2008 as opposed to about the fundamental question of what kind of country do we want to live in? Meanwhile we seem to be in an odd activistic limbo-- the old ways of protesting (big ole marches, for example) don't work. But suggest something larger or different-- a general strike, a collective nonpayment of our taxes, impeaching the President-- and people immediately go that'll never work, it's preposterous! It's as if we've accepted that things are going to go a certain way but also want to get upset about this thing we've accepted. I say we because I feel this way too. Maybe the Left has just really truly lost in this country and the only thing we can do is start getting organized for the future. I just worry it might be too late by then. (Allan Bushman addresses this at the end when he says we just have to try a bunch of shit and see what works and what doesn't. I think that's a pretty good idea, we just have to accept the fact that we're going to fail a lot and not get demoralized by that)
2) Impeachment as a tool / The Stakes I think McGovern's point about the stakes of this impachment thing is well taken. The Bush administration seems hellbent on going to war with Iran. Impeaching Bush and Cheney is a way of stopping it. It might not work, but it is a possible way to stop Bush going to war. Intersting.
3) Paralysis... A Good Thing? This leads me to a point I've heard a few times... the problem with impeaching Bush and Cheney is that it would paralyze the Government and put us through another long slog/difficult time. To which I think (especially after reading the live blog of this event) my reaction is... so? We're in a very difficult place as a country. I would argue, we're in the midst of a long crisis that started somewhere around September 12th of 2001. I don't necessarily think-- especially given how much fucked up shit it is doing-- that paralyzing our government and spending some time looking at what we've done over the past few years is really such a bad idea. Joe Biden seemed to offer that he wants to wait until they're out of office and then prosecute them and throw 'em in jail. The panelists explicitly rejected this idea.
Anyway, those are just a few thoughts. There's a lot in there to unpack, so why not take a gander at it (the link is at the top of this post) and let me know your thoughts?
UPDATE: For coverage of Article One, Click here.
Hello there. My name is Isaac Butler and this is my blog Parabasis. My two main topics historically have been theatre and politics, although the blog has grown a wee bit more digressive over the last year. As the Culture Project continues to ask A Question of Impeachment, I've been asked to be the Official Blogger for the ongoing event.
What that means is that I'll be posting a weekly table of contents of coverage on AQOI that'll be happening in the blogosphere. Most of this coverage will be written by theatre bloggers such as myself.
If you'd like to have a look around this blog, please feel free to do so, and leave a comment should you read anything you want to respond to. And if you want to visit the old Parabsis site, feel free, although it's really quite old.
Politically, I'd say I come closest to being a Democratic Socialist, with an interst in social justice. Theatrically, I'm a freelance director who focuses primarily (but not solely) on new work.
Here's some politics, culture and impeachment stuff to look at, if you're so interested:
(1) Back in January 2006, Elizabeth Holtzman called for the impeachment of President Bush in the Nation.
(2) In June 2007, Bruce Fein made the "Conservative case" for impeaching Vice President Dick Cheney for Slate.com
(3) Seredipity has a quite good web-based table of contents for why we should impeach Bush
(5) Several of the panelists at AQOI have written for Harper's Magazine. Here is the magazine's quite delightful website.
(6) Jason Grote is a playwright and blogger whose work I greatly respect. Here and here are examples of some of his work for Comedy Central. Here is a great example of one of his impassioned rants about the state of our country.
(7) Two other theatre-and-politics hybrid bloggers you should probably check out are playwright Matt Freeman and director Mark Armstrong, the latter of whom is recently back from a sablogical. I just made that word up.
(8) Two bloggers who will be covering events for us are James Comtois and Leonard Jacobs. They both write primarily about theatre, although Leonard also keeps us well abreast of Arts Advocacy issues and writes occasionally about politics as well.
(9) As for my own blog, I've written recently about politics and art. Here I write about the quixotic quest for Conservative Theatre. I also recently wrote a four part post called "Our Moment" about politics, culture and art. Part 1 is here, part two is here part three is here and part four is here.