I spent much of last week at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s first national convening, hosted by and cosponsored with the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. It was incredibly powerful to be with artists and allies from all over the U.S. who had joined together in creative resistance to the extreme hate flooding this nation, from the elevation of antisemite Steve Bannon and racist Jeff Sessions to the White House to the appalling escalation of violence against water protectors at Standing Rock—and who understand the importance of working to enact our dreams of cultural democracy even as we resist.
I had the responsibility of giving a talk at the final plenary to mark the official launch of Standing for Cultural Democracy, The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform, offering ten ways to advance toward cultural democracy. Click the link to download a platform summary or the full summary, and to be taken to an online petition where you can endorse the platform. Please endorse it now!
You can also watch the video of the plenary on Facebook.
Thousands of Citizen Artists have been working on this platform for a long time. It is based on the USDAC’s ongoing action research, inviting people across the U.S. to share hopes, dreams, and concerns through art and culture. In dozens of Imaginings, in National Actions from the People’s State of the Union to #DareToImagine to USDAC Super PAC, people have told fierce and beautiful stories of a future they want to embrace. With the help of our National Cabinet, we’ve translated these visions into powerful practical proposals.
All of that happened before 11/9.
Many people gathered here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 have spent the last ten days in dialogue with friends, neighbors, family members living in fear that families will be torn apart by deportation, internment, forced registration. People fear that now more than ever, their communities will be made sacrifice zones, ravaged to feed the bottomless appetite for profit of the hungry ghosts this system breeds. And in the face of this massive insult to the body politic, people under attack and their allies are rising once again to annihilate injustice and give birth to the beloved community.
This platform proclaims and defends the right to culture: the right to be who we are, to show up in our fullness—in both our rich particularity of difference and our transcendent oneness—and to be valued, honored, and treated with respect as a fundamental human right. Some of the platform points will be immediately doable, especially locally—tools we can use to create sites of true belonging. Others are aspirational, pointing us toward the cultural democracy we deserve regardless of who occupies the White House.
The challenges we face under President Trump—racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, institutionalized greed, state-sanctioned violence, and every other form of predatory behavior—are not new. But the level of response is already astounding. We will be working in countless local communities to build on the courageous action already seen from mayors of sanctuary cities, leaders who have declared their refusal to normalize hate, vast numbers of individuals and groups who have already—less than two weeks after the election—taken action in the courts, on the streets, and in their own lives and communities.
Protecting and defending are urgent, essential priorities. The USDAC stands with all who are endangered by policies that deny belonging and further threaten the people. We stand to support and assist all those who are affected by the repression of rights. We will work with you to co-create a network of connection and support, to share skills in planning and executing creative resistance, and to bring as much attention as possible to your courageous work in kindling a shared vision of cultural democracy and putting it into practice.
And while this massive outpouring of creative resistance unfolds, we can’t surrender our dreams because we awoke on 11/9 to this funhouse nightmare of democracy.
A platform is a compendium of ideas for policy and action. Ideas are essential to reveal and explore the true depth of demand for cultural democracy which has been increasingly evident over the years as artists and allies show up everywhere, investing creativity in social and environmental justice. Ideas are essential, but without action they are stillborn. To create the conditions for action, we need a national conversation bringing the right to culture to the fore as a foundation for belonging without barrier, belonging that knows no borders and needs no papers.
A tall order, you may say—noticeably taller than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Never once in all the time this platform was in development did I think, “Oh, we’ll release the platform and the new Clinton (or Sanders) administration will adopt it. Mission accomplished!”
What I did think about while the platform was taking shape was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s August 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered on the tenth anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In it, he paraphrased something that had been said by abolitionist Theodore Parker a century earlier:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Both Dr. King and Parker, as with Moses whom Dr. King alluded to in the mountaintop speech he gave the night before he was murdered, never lived to see the fruits of their labor. Parker died in Italy, of overwork and tuberculosis, a year before the start of the Civil War. A quarter-century later, when Frederick Douglass visited Florence, he went straight from the train station of Parker’s grave.
There is a line of continuous transmission that pumps like a drumbeat through all those who love justice, who see the moral grandeur and culture of possibility that is the best of humanity.
If you put your hand on your heart, and you will feel it pumping now.
We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But we are not in it alone.
Just about every worthy social initiative has been a long time coming. Plessy v. Ferguson, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that legitimated racial segregation, was decided in 1896. How many court cases, years of legal research and strategizing, decades of activism, eons of fundraising did it take to end that doctrine? Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, 58 years later, and that is when the struggle began.
It took just as long for the idea of social insurance, introduced by progressives and unionists, to become law as Social Security in 1935. It took 70 years after the mid-19th century Seneca Falls Convention for women’s suffrage to be ratified by the 19th amendment. The struggle for LGBTQ legal rights persevered for decades before same-sex marriage began to be legalized.
Changing these laws has been just one part of these movements for social justice, and it couldn’t have happened without changing the story first.
History’s pendulum swings. Tearing down can be very fast: a symbol of social progress disappears overnight, generating a tidal wave of disappointment and anger. Building is what takes time. Good parents and teachers know the painstaking investment required to nurture a young and promising life; good farmers and foresters understand permaculture and sustainable harvest; good healers are prepared for the long haul of preventive care; good organizers understand the cultivation that democracy requires.
When the pendulum swings away from justice, what sustains our perseverance?
Cultural organizers and transformative arts workers know this: whatever engages the whole person—body, emotions, intellect, and spirit—the work that braids pleasure and purpose, is the most powerful, the most sustaining, and the most likely to accomplish the great awakening needed now.
That work feeds us because it is love in the service of justice and healing—personal, political, and planetary.
Dr. King’s remark about the arc of the moral universe came late in a long speech recounting the SCLC’s progress and the work that remained to be done. I want to share some things he said first:
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Then he called for a much-needed program that is now point number 10 in our platform. This is 1967, mind you, a few months before he was murdered:
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income.
He went on to say:
[O]ur country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.
If he could be here, Dr. King might say that the United States government has spent 8.3 million dollars per hour since 2001 on war—that’s $20 billion not in one year, but every 10 days. A universal Basic Income Grant would cost much more today, but it would save a significant amount compared to spending on means-tested and often punishing social service programs.
For the last five years, I’ve been quoting something Van Jones said in the midst of 2011 protests against the union-busting of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: “Don’t adapt to absurdity.” He was making the point that over time, if we let it, even what seems preposterous becomes normalized—as was clear on #11/9. Flexibility is one of humanity’s best qualities, enabling us to adapt and advance. But it’s also one of our worst: it can be just as easy to adapt to harm, going along to get along until what has been imposed feels “natural.”
Each person here stands for thousands who have the capacity, conscience, and talent to change the story, refusing to adapt to the absurdity of a system that lavishly underwrites war profiteering, energy corporations that poison the environment, and a massive prison-industrial complex, then tells us it is too broke to underwrite creativity, equity, and justice.
Each person here is a storyteller and a truth-teller for love and justice. The earth-shaking power of our collective energy cannot be weakened by a little thing like an election.
Believe me, I am not underestimating the might of our opposition when I say that our greatest obstacle is the risk of internalizing the oppressor’s voice, allowing ourselves to be overtaken by fear and self-doubt, and believing the propaganda that since there is no chance our aims can be realized immediately, we should postpone them again.
Given that risk, I want to ask you a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, especially when I feel vulnerable to the self-ratifying propaganda of the far right, which 24/7 broadcasts the message that resistance is futile.
When I was paralyzed with doubt, a wise friend asked me this: What would it look like to take yourself one hundred percent seriously?
“What do you mean,” I asked, “you want me to take myself more seriously than this?”
He was asking me to resist the temptation to identify with the world as it is, to reject the world in which we are expected to assimilate the unspoken assumptions and agreements that sustain an absurd order. We are expected to treat that order as normal, even natural, and in some sense right and proper. We are expected to learn our place in it, following the path others have laid for us. If we are in conflict with this received version of reality, we are expected to adapt to absurdity rather than ignore or demolish it.
How seriously can we take ourselves? Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously not only means fighting back, it means knowing and representing our deepest truths, what matters most, our heart’s desires. Taking ourselves one hundred percent seriously means releasing our identification with the absurd world because it is blocking our view of how things could be. It means freeing our minds to see what is really present, rather than whatever others say we should see. It means embracing and inhabiting one hundred percent of our potential as artists and organizers and owning fully the value that holds for ourselves and the world.
This platform is not a plea to some all-powerful ruler who can decree it with a pen-stroke. It is for everyone seeking a response to the fact that in this nation, the right to culture is under attack. We have experienced a long, painful stretch of punishment and persecution by a system that treats identity as a crime: driving while Black, protecting sacred lands and waters, walking in one’s own city, dancing in a public club. Now fear abounds of more and worse to come.
In asserting the right to culture enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the platform stipulates that rights are only as real as the actions and resources used to protect, express, and extend them.
In a few moments, we’ll say more about your power to advance these claims, joining to build a world of beauty and healing, freedom, love, and justice. Right now, I ask you to listen to ten amazing thinkers and doers as they offer the ten points of Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform. We may not be able to fully realize this vision for some time—as Adam said last night, quoting “Crazy He Calls Me” by Carl Sigman and Bob Russell, famously sung by Billie Holiday, “the impossible will take a little while.”
As you consider these ten points, I invite you to put your hand on your heart, feeling the beat that connects us to the ancestors who inspired us and the generations who will benefit from our love.
[Download the Platform to discover and endorse the ten points that Judy Baca, Tunde Ogunfidodo, Martha Richards, Lily Yeh, Roberto Bedoya, Jack Becker, Amelia Brown, Dave Loewenstein, Dana Edell, and Daniel Banks shared at the plenary.]
We ask you to take this platform home—download the full text to read about the tools and examples we’ve shared and take steps to put them into practice, making cultural democracy real.
Let us stand together with the most vulnerable and the most courageous. Let me say it again: We have to be in it for the long haul if we are in it at all. But remember, we are not in it alone. The USDAC is here for you in every way possible. Talk to us, take part in USDAC actions, let us help you figure out how to put the platform into practice in your own community. Let us help each other resist normalizing absurdity.
Earlier, I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now I want to quote another great figure of twentieth century history, Che Guevara, a doctor, revolutionary, writer, and diplomat who famously said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
You’ve heard people talk about love a lot here at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016: Adam Horowitz in his opening plenary, Carlton Turner in yesterday’s plenary. We did not orchestrate this beforehand. I did not know what either Adam or Carlton planned to say. Speaking for myself, love is a word I use in public contexts with that same slight reservation Che expressed. More than once, I’ve written something about cultural democracy and been told that the piece is good, but if I want to be taken seriously, I need to choose a different word than “love.”
Right now, coming off the recent election, with hate looming so large in campaign rhetoric, I see no alternative. The antidote to despair is to glimpse the world we are trying to help into being, to glimpse the beauty and meaning emerging from the gifts of artists of social imagination and to know what is possible. The antidote to hate is love as the always-brilliant James Baldwin defined it in The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Our task now is to live into that love so that everyone we meet understands that though we are many, we are one. This is beautifully expressed in a few lines I will leave you with by the 15th-century poet Kabir, whose work is a converging stream of Hindu and Muslim cultures:
This love between us goes back to the first humans; it cannot be annihilated.
Here is Kabir’s idea: as the river gives itself into the ocean,
What is inside me moves inside you.
Thank you for your caring, courage and grace. For all you have done and will do. Know that you are loved.
Percy Sledge: “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”