AWTT at 20

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In January 2022, AWTT turned twenty years old.

I’m seventy-five years old and still as hungry for experience, knowledge, understanding, and courageous role models as I was at fifty-five. People my age are usually clearing the decks–holding garage sales, packing for Goodwill, setting boxes of old books and ugly crockery at the curb, writing codicils to the will. But as time grows shorter for me, I want to drink deeply of the world’s best distilled time–keep adding exemplary citizens to this company of truth tellers, strengthen this pictorial indictment of corruption and violence, reinforce this bulwark against racism and hypocrisy, polish this mirror of love and justice, deepen this catalog of inspiration. Americans Who Tell the Truth has tried to be a lantern that throws its light forward and back–knowing the truth of the past’s struggles for justice is essential to seeing clearly the obstacles and possibilities in the future.  

That last sentence sounds suspiciously like the old saw warning that either we learn our history or we’ll be doomed to repeat it. What twenty years of this project has taught is something else. Powerful people often study the history of exploitation, the tricks and methods of corruption, precisely so that they can repeat them as long as their victims will submit. Early on I learned this from Frederick Douglass: “Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them.” Douglass understood the psychology and mechanisms of power as well as anyone you could ever meet while traveling through our history. Some people who have learned their history well will impose injustice again and again. Others, who have also learned that history, will, like the people in the portraits, resist injustice again and again. Our job is to learn the courage of history so we can resist and change it.

These days the flame of my anger at injustice still burns brightly; yet, navigating the world’s injustices is like running a gauntlet of moral insults. The burden of continual injustices and angers is more than one person can bear–or should. And consequently I’m constantly replete with admiration and love for the people I’ve painted who so fiercely bear those burdens. 

However, I’m also less confident that this country will solve its environmental, social and racial justice issues, and more amazed at the depth of ignorance, racism and belligerent nastiness in some quarters. One is tempted to contend that this ignorance is willful. And it may be in part, but I prefer to think it’s the result of cynical leadership stoking the flames of prejudice and racism. I prefer that explanation because it offers a way out–more honest and deeply informed teaching and leadership (which just happens to be the mission of AWTT). Better teaching does not offer a quick, magic exit from the maze of our own prejudice, partisanship, violence and environmental devastation; it offers a string to follow out of the darkness. 

AWTT began as a personal statement against the lies of the George W. Bush administration in 2001-2003, lies used to justify making preemptive war on the country of Iraq (a war as morally reprehensible as Russia’s attack on Ukraine today). That attack was a purposeful war crime, a crime against humanity presented to the American people as a war necessary for our security. With AWTT, I attempted to speak truth to power, to find a defiant means of practicing citizenship in a country committing imperialist crimes. By aligning myself, through the portraits, with the legacy of resistance to injustice, I could separate myself from status quo America while, at the same time, feel less alienated from its spoken values–distanced from this country’s acts, closer to its words. I was using art to create a Here I Stand ultimatum by naming with whom I stand.

Just as the past twenty years have been punctuated more and more frequently with  extreme weather events, so too our history has been assaulted by extremities and crises–political, constitutional, economic, moral, and physical. The air is so dense with historical dust, hardly anyone can see back twenty years to the criminal acts instigating the Iraq War. The visibility is so poor, it seems all we can do is struggle to see our own feet, much less peer weakly ahead. The recent past is a disappearing shadow, the future full of frightening uncertainty.

And yet, if we don’t remember the truth of this past, it can deteriorate into irrelevance and be used as a model for the next president of how to get away with an illegal war.

Who really cares that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz, et al., are war criminals? They take their honored place in a long roster of imperial criminals who were never held accountable. In a country that thrives on imperialism, it’s no surprise that the imperialists themselves, no matter how egregious their crimes, are rewarded. They dispense a bit of their reward to endow libraries, university buildings and public spaces so that they are remembered as exemplary and generous spirits. Perhaps a Wikipedia footnote may suggest some involvement with questionable policy. Ho-hum.

Twenty years ago I felt that creating AWTT was like making a whistle stop tour across America, crisscrossing the heartland from coast to coast, traveling forward and backward in time, picking up courageous citizens as we chugged along, each posing for a portrait in the dining car, then urged out onto the platform of the caboose to shout rousing truths to people lining the tracks as we slowed through towns and cities, past schools and colleges, libraries and union halls. Early on I insisted that most speeches be about the duplicity of war and war making, but then the focus shifted to racial injustice, indigenous genocide, sexism and corporate exploitation. Environmental and climate change activists elbowed in, insisting on the urgency of their warnings. Impatience overtook the entire trainload; all the portraits demanded to speak at once. Some of those who heard that righteous, raucous AWTT chorus called it cacophony; others recognized it as intersectionality. The portraits have become a multitude, all infused with love and courage and each would proclaim–along with Whitman (the first portrait):

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks
         to his own funeral drest in his shroud…

                                                           --from Song of Myself

There’s a bitter controversy these days about what’s called Critical Race Theory (CRT), a term that, as far as I know, had not even been invented twenty years ago. Its name suggests something academic and elitist, abstract and confusing, a bludgeon wielded by a bunch of angry, self-righteous, liberal PhDs to force innocent white 5th grade boys and girls in Texas and Florida to relinquish their benign, patriotic world view, make them ashamed of their lineage, turn them against their parents and country, and ultimately hate themselves. By those lights, Critical Race Theory is a mean-spirited attempt of one group to oppress another and force them to interpret the world their way.

That’s absurd. CRT’s intent is to say to Americans that if we want to talk about our history and how that history has shaped our institutions, our economy and its lopsided distribution of wealth, our unequal education system, the psychology of our various peoples, we need to tell the truth about what that history is. It’s like we’re in 9th grade biology class and we are given frogs to dissect. Some politicians decide students  can learn everything they need to learn about frogs by dissecting tomatoes. Tomatoes are prettier. . . .They don’t make us think about our insides. Real history is about our real insides. If we don’t see what’s really there, we don’t inhabit our own history, we don’t understand how the organism works. Not understanding is the epitome of exceptionalism: such a stance insists there’s no way exceptional people, like us, could possibly have a brutal, racist, misogynist history. So, therefore, we don’t! We’ve had the experience but have excused ourselves from the burden and truth of its meaning. 

When we have, occasionally, set out on a course of reckoning, like Reconstruction after the Civil War–attempting to align our values with our behavior, changing the present to correct for the injustices of the past–powerful white people, north and south, chose instead to embrace Jim Crow and the malignancy of forgetting, so the profit and control of those injustices could fester and multiply. When we allow ourselves to forget the humanity of the victims of our hypocrisy, the flaws of the founding fathers loom bigger than ever.

Honest identity has to be about remembering, about reconciling in the presence of the truth rather than in the shadows outside it. It would seem that truly exceptional people would choose to take a long gaze in the mirror.  At the close of the George W. Bush administration, one of Barack Obama’s first acts was to declare that he would not seek any legal accountability for the crimes committed by Bush and his cronies, among them lying to the American people, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture.  Obama was choosing forgetting over remembering, the comfortable stupor of amnesia over the tough rule of law. He chose to paint the mirror black. When the powerful choose to forget, they dismiss the value of the lives of all the people harmed by the injustice. In order for us to maintain our innocence and political equilibrium, we erase what we did. This is not the same as saying, “The past is the past, let’s move on.”  It’s saying, “The past never happened. All those people who were victims of our behavior are collateral damage to our entitlement, martyrs for our righteous cause. The greatness of America absolves us from counting and naming them.” 

Those injustices didn’t just happen once and disappear. They were woven into systems of dominance and profit, a social and economic legacy that continues today. That’s the true history and there's no point calling ourselves Americans if we don’t include the experience of all Americans and those harmed by Americans, the experience lived and the experience suffered.

Imagine that you've decided to undertake a vision quest into your national identity, a long trek through unfamiliar long-denied territory. On the horizon you see  steep mountains, jagged, with high treacherous peaks.  Smartly, you decide to go into your local, official history guide shop and purchase a map. You kneel down by the trail and spread out the map. You’re surprised to see no mountain range mapped in. Should you be relieved? If the mountains are not on the map, maybe they don’t exist? No, you’re smarter than that. You return to the guide shop and say, “This must be the wrong map. There’s no mountain range.”  The politician behind the counter sighs and says, “Oh, we left out the mountains because the way through is tricky and challenging; it might give you the wrong idea about what a beneficent country this is. Better to walk in circles on this side of the mountains.”

But we know if you want to call yourself an American, you need to traverse those mountains. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. Infuriating. It’s dark and sad. It’s humbling. Makes you feel guilty for events you feel you can do nothing about. It’s also exhilarating. Inspiring and wondrous. The mountains are full of caves. You’ll find Jefferson Davis living in one, John Wilkes Booth in another. You’ll stumble into Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams. Then, the Georges–General Custer and George Wallace. But also John Brown. You’ll find Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan and Daniel Ellsberg, Caesar Chavez and Grace Lee Boggs, Ella Baker and Barbara Johns.

An issue that has come up obliquely but never directly addressed in the twenty years of AWTT is the question of the relationship of heroes to democracy. I’ve been reading the book Looking For the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, by Elizabeth Samet, in which she says, “...heroes should be understood as inherently undemocratic.”  What she means is that it’s an easy (lazy) temptation for people to look to heroes to solve their problems, wanting heroes to relieve them of the responsibilities of being good citizens and organizing together for change. The worship of heroes in a horizontal society gradually turns the axis to the vertical, the hierarchical; hero worship may shrug into the cult of personality, then autocracy. Democracies can subvert themselves in many other ways, too–such as allowing for extreme income disparity, allowing special interest money to control political policy, promoting a form of freedom that allows the powerful individual to have no responsibility to the community, or using secrecy to hide government actions, teaching flattering myth rather than complicated reality. That’s why we have maintained at AWTT that the portraits are models of courageous citizenship. We do not place them on pedestals. They are selected as real, complex human beings, whose acts for the common good can be emulated by all of us, any of us–need to be emulated by all of us! The saving grace of a healthy democracy is not a handful of heroes but a culture of engaged citizenship inspired by the courage of truth tellers. Courage invigorates democracy; hero worship enervates it.

While I was thinking about the danger of hero worship, it occurred to me that another form of it plays out on a national scale when the myth of the country is maintained to be flawlessly heroic. This is the idea of exceptionalism, i.e., we are the indispensable and always good country whose simultaneous embrace of military power and democratic values entitles us–ordains us!–to dictate the world’s distribution of resources, the naming of values, and the direction of history. We are the hero country. It should be obvious how such a stance corrupts democratic discussion at home and demands the antithesis of democracy among nations. Professing exceptionality is a euphemism for self-righteous superiority. It’s a form of national sanitizing where all the country’s deeds–noble as well as abominable–are sanitized into one flawless identity. The country’s citizens are encouraged to believe and act out this mythic perfection.

The question at the heart of AWTT is simple: Do we want to construct our identities from complex truths or from easy and flattering untruths? An identity shaped by complex truths is as humbling as it is freeing. Then we can see the world as it is and shoulder the necessary responsibilities. Voltaire is famous for saying, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I am exhausted by living in a country that justifies the atrocities it commits as the epitome of patriotism. Let’s ennoble ourselves by insisting on believing in the justice and hard work of our own ideals. Let’s commit citizenship for the common good.

When I was a teenager, I read for the first time about Jainism, a religion practiced by millions of people in India. Jains believe in extreme non-violence. What particularly caught my attention was their habit, which seemed laughable and obsessive, of sweeping the ground before them as they walked. To injure a single tiny ant or little beetle was to injure the soul of a creature equal to themselves. We Americans knew how silly that was! We casually step on ants and beetles with no consequence–or so we thought. Today, as we reel from the cascade of species extinctions, Jainism appears the far more sensible relationship to Nature. Moreover, we have been in the habit of sweeping, too–not in front of us to avoid harming other creatures, but behind us so we don’t remember. For twenty years it has been the mission of Americans Who Tell the Truth to teach responsibility for the injustices we create and provide role models for how to remedy them for a just society.