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Plain Talk

Stages of Resistance
Roberta Levitow stands to the left of the frame wearing a black jacket, sunglasses, and bright red fingerless gloves. Behind her, a section of wooden fence, beyond which lies a gray river running through a yellowing field.

This piece is part of a new Lark blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.


PLAIN TALK

They toppled and desecrated Jewish grave stones in Philadelphia and St. Louis.[i]  They burned and sent bomb threats to mosques in Washington, Colorado, Indiana, Vermont, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts.[ii] They set up road-blocks to catch illegal immigrants in Oregon.[iii] Who could have imagined swastikas in New York City subways,[iv] my grandchildren sobbing as their political leaders behave like rude adolescent boys,[v] children terrified to use a school bathroom? Women and babies fleeing through snow drifts in Canada to seek asylum from the Unites States of America[vi].

A tsunami of hate is disguising itself as nationalism and isolationism. I fear that the waves of this tsunami will sweep us along like broken branches, and uprooted trees stumps will tumble by. The tree stumps smash into the kind face of our neighbor across the street who suddenly remembers his journey from poverty in India, or our friend across town who remembers the life-threatening phone call he received after a journalist broke her oath and put his comments about the dictator in her fluff piece, or my relative with the memory of registering, and then the star on the coat, or my colleague who remembers the rifle butt of the soldier in his face for a Facebook cartoon.

Like in the shadow puppet play I saw in Indonesia, it’s midnight and the forces of darkness threaten to overcome. Tacit acceptance of these abhorrent acts has re-awoken the traumatic memories of a nation overnight. Cruelty terrorizes us.

Perhaps I am too easily intimidated. I grew up in a family with Polish-Jewish traumatic memory and a grandmother whose bedtime stories warned, “Watch your back; it can happen again; they will come for you anytime.”

I fear that the tide of history is about to engulf us again. I was barely twenty the last time history swept me off my feet and into the street. Throughout my college years I demonstrated, marched, rallied, and created political theatre against the war in Vietnam.  The mood was convulsive and divisive. But, I was younger then; it was, oddly, a more innocent time. Again, I feel afraid of saying, of doing, of thinking thoughts that might expand my FBI file or bring back the sting of tear gas in my eyes. Maybe this time the whip of a baton, the holding cell. Or, the anonymous harassing letters, phone calls, macabre images, and death threats.

A few years ago, I read The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce (published under the pseudonym "Andrew Macdonald" in 1978.)[vii]  Pierce was the founder of the National Alliance[viii], the largest neo-Nazi organization in the U.S. In the book, lynchings of Jews and Blacks signal the great race war has begun against the “mud races.”[ix]  Bodies hang from all the lamp posts of Los Angeles. The book was in my public library. Pages were carried by Timothy McVeigh when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.[x]  Dylann Roof, facing the death penalty for murdering nine African-American church-goers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015, was following its playbook.[xi]

In November 2016, Fox News reported:

One such group, the National Alliance, was actually founded by Pierce, The Turner Diaries author. …. A post-election commentary posted on the National Alliance's website called Trump's victory "a move in the right direction" and "a temporary reprieve for the United States of America as a majority-white country."

Terror doesn’t come to me from the Muslims or Mexicans, that I know. It is coming to me from this new government and its policies, the repellent actions of hangers-on, and a precipitous abyss between defenders and opponents.

STAY IN THE BOAT, PUSH OFF FROM THE ROCKS

Holed up in my studio at a creative writing retreat in Wyoming, I find my creativity overtaken.

I write this in peaceful February silence and isolation. As much as I want to believe “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”[xii], everything around me careens towards a pervasive sense of doom.

Last night around the dinner table, a novelist from the Mid-West sitting next to me said he felt like the eight of us were the last survivors of a great apocalypse. Last week, I sat at a lunch table in California and someone showed me a memento from her years under Communism in Poland - a Solzhenitsyn novel hidden in a plain prayer book cover. She and her husband fled Poland; now they talk of fleeing the United States.

My physician says she sees more physical symptoms attributable to high stress, psychiatrists report increased visits for anxiety syndrome, days are spent anxious, nights are spent sleepless.

Today on a walk amidst the cows and wild turkeys, my fellow writer eschews resistance. She prefers the wisdom of non-attachment and martial arts. My brother studied Aikido, non-resistance. “Yield and overcome, ”[xiii] wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. I studied Tai Chi.[xiv] I learned how to accept the attack, let the force and weight of your opponent cause their downfall. With non-resistance, you stand your ground, you position yourself to receive the assault coming, you let your opponent’s energy work for you, and you watch your opponent topple as you gracefully turn your shoulder.

DON’T TREAD ON ME

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[xv]

  • Habeas Corpus[xvi] and Miranda Rights.[xvii]
  • Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly.[xviii]
  • Separation of Church and State.[xix]

This authority comes from our founding documents:

  • The Declaration of Independence![xx]
  • The Constitution![xxi]
  • The Bill of Rights![xxii]


We studied these in Public Schools[xxiii] that were once and still can be the pride of our country and an inspiration to the world.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands. One nation. (Under god). Indivisible. With Liberty and Justice for all.”[xxiv]

We are patriots. Let us stand up for the flag, no matter how tattered.

IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME

A crisis of moral action. What describes that better than an ancient Greek play? Opposing viewpoints in Greek plays battle rhetorically while the audience’s surrogate, the Chorus, weighs the moral virtues of the principal characters. What better way to show a people that opposing viewpoints co-exist on every great moral question: hubris versus humility, revenge versus forbearance, natural law versus state law?

We know Antigone: Creon is King of Thebes. His niece, Antigone has two brothers, one loyal to the King and one an insurgent. The brothers kill each other in the fight. Creon refuses the insurgent a burial. Antigone cries that loyalty to a brother over-rules the laws of the state and she buries him. Creon throws her in prison. But, Antigone was beloved and betrothed to King Creon’s son Haemon. When Antigone’s death is discovered, Haemon kills himself. Creon is left alone devastated. We, the Chorus are left to reflect upon the tragic waste of life.

In this time, are we not thrust out of the Chorus and onto the stage? Then, we must play the Antigones against the Creons!

And yet, we Antigones must reach out to those who march under King Creon’s banner…

If this play ends as written, we will all go down, along with our country.

THE RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

Every friend I have who has lived in a place of terrible violence implores me, “don’t stop talking to one another.” I know genocides, “don’t dehumanize one another.”

We have to find our common ground.

In the 20th century, many of us thought we were a people who could leave history behind us – the wars, the famines, the atrocities, the centuries of resentment, the ancient land battles. We were delighted to find ourselves, children of former enemies, working and sitting together in classrooms, at dinner tables, in offices and shopping malls. The beauty and grace of the illusion of a-historicism! It was never true – not for those who lived here before white settlers arrived, and not for those ripped from homelands and delivered as cargo on ships. Now, we have 241 years of history behind us and none of us can avoid the weight of it.

Our country was founded on highest hopes along with betrayal, dispossession and grievance. Our great narrative includes competing mythic world-views complete with their own “alternative facts.”  If your family settled the West, you choose Cowboys. My family fled pogroms in Poland, I choose Indians. When your family cannot track back beyond the arrival of a slave ship on the Atlantic shore – you live forever in the shadow of Slavery.

Whatever our story, our fates are tied now like the threads of a single blanket. We are already woven together and new strands are being added every day. We must reconcile to our life as one people.

Beware! We are doing grave harm to one another. These harms will not soon be forgotten.

Let’s forget the melting pot. We can co-exist as “first among equals.” Besides, I’m not quite ready to be greeted by the Button-Molder in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt[xxv], who insists that Peer toss his soul into the smelting pot so that some new button will be forged out of all that once made him entirely unique in the universe.

WINTER

As I look out now on a grey, snowy morning, I see a prairie in deep winter. A forest of tree sticks slumber. The deer, wild turkey, pheasant, and rabbit hop silently by my window searching for hidden grass.

The other evening, three of us sat around our dinner table drinking wine and telling stories. One spoke of growing up on a Native American “res” in South Dakota and dedicating her life to writing and representing the truths of her people; the other spoke of growing up in South Africa and the transformative capacity exercised by South African artists and writers to topple Apartheid.

Stories matter. As artists in the United States, we have a central role to play in our social discourse. We create events that provide safe spaces for difficult conversations. We listen deeply and acknowledge the harms done to others. We embrace paradox and live comfortably in ambiguity. We are jokers and truthtellers. We give people back their capacity for joy. We can imagine alternative scenarios in intractable situations. We make the unbearable bearable through beauty. We dwell in compassion for the human experience.

Yes, we are a proud nation of individuals who treasure our individuality and our individual rights. We cannot be tamed or broken like wild horses. We accept no masters. We are proud, unruly, creative, and innovative, with some of the world’s greatest resources at our finger-tips.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”[xxvi]

This sorrowful winter will break someday. My sudden volcanic rages and lingering sadness too will end. Nature is beautiful but she can be cruel and too many will have suffered greatly before this spring comes. Some of us will not live to see it. But as surely as these cycles still follow the twirl of our plant around our sun, the time is coming.

In the shadow play, the forces of good arrive with the dawn.

Until then, we stand for our core beliefs, we tell our stories, we celebrate beauty and we do not lose faith in one another’s goodness.

Resistance.

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