Monday night at New York University’s Skirball Center, The Culture Project presented its sold out “Blueprint for Accountability: Rule of Law: Torture, Democracy, Privatization, Habeas Corpus,” another of their decade-and-a-half long string of attempts to mix social activism with artistic production.
As Brecht and Orwell and Abbie Hoffman showed, when art and politics are united in an expansive, aesthetically compounding way, the end result can catapult the audience not just intellectually, but emotionally, cellularly toward action. The tradition lives on in the plays of Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill, in Bolano and Coetzee’s best work. The Culture Project itself made a searing statement with their production of “The Exonerated.” That piece consisted of actors reciting — embodying — the oral testimony of wrongly convicted death row inmates to build a case against the death penalty in America. It was stark and direct and wrenching.
Blueprint for Accountability wasn’t nearly so unified. It combined panel discussions with film clips and dramatic readings in an attempt to lay out the historical context of the past 10 years of U.S. foreign policy and make the case for pressing the Obama administration to take decisive action on a number of fronts. It promised to give the audience direction, clarity, in the fight.
Each element of the presentation served a function, even if those functions had little relation to each other.
The film clips provided a historical tutorial, tracking the development of international human rights law from the Nuremburg trials through the creation of the Geneva conventions. One clip detailed the various ways that the U.S. government has used the CIA to circumvent democracy in foreign countries and shirk accountability for its actions. Another reviewed the case against Blackwater. There was a fifteen minute clip from Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. The most bracing and urgent clip of the evening outlined the case of Fahed Hashmi, a U.S. citizen of Muslim descent who was arrested for having let an acquaintance — who turned out to be transporting blankets to Al Qaida — sleep on his couch one night and who’s been held in solitary confinement for three years now.
The panel discussion, by far the most compelling part of the evening, brought insiders, activists and journalists together to debate the subjects the films presented. Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, sat knee to knee with Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal and outed CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson. They were joined periodically by Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Allen Keller of Physicians for Human Rights, and Rose Styron.
This was where the drama in the evening resided. There were calls to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to establish international laws by which to hold mercenary groups like Blackwater accountable for their actions, to roll back the sweeping executive powers established during the Bush administration, and frequently, forcefully, to loud cheers from the audience, to prosecute Bush and Cheney for war crimes. Dr. Keller told the crowd breaking news about his organization’s new findings that the Bush Administration had performed “illegal methodical experimentation on torture in Guantanamo,” and urged a congressional inquiry. But every time a real discussion would get going, it was cut off so that we could hear from the actors.
The actors. It was as though the Culture Project had wanted to stage a panel but was worried that no one would show up. Live Shrieber, Julianna Margulies, James Spader, Matt Dillon, Mariska Hargitay, stars of stage and screen, one and all, each of whom read a first person narrative or two, testimonies and letters and chapters from books. What were they doing there? What did they add? Glamour, I guess. Celebrity. But their contributions were redundant and disruptive and wholly beside the point. They gave the proceedings the feel of a gala, a ritzy charity event.
But who were they speaking to, and what were they proposing their compatriots do?
I’m not sure.
Jeremy Scahill said at one point in the discussion, “Lawyers in these dark times have become the real freedom fighters.” There are a number of reasons for this, one of which being that lawyers feel comfortable at events like this one.
As for the rest of us? We were told to appeal to Obama, to create “a blitzkrieg of grass roots support” for the cause, to go out and match the Tea Partiers sign for sign.
Those in attendance at the Skirball Center last night were only one rarefied sliver of the left. Sure, Haymarket Books, the publishing arm of the International Socialist Workers was there hawking books by Chomsky and Mike Davis and Wallace Shawn. But the excessively well behaved audience consisted almost entirely of New York City’s moneyed elite. There were bespoke suits in pastel colors, silk blouses, tasteful strings of pearls. There were $400 haircuts. A passel of men with stubble beards so carefully groomed one might think they’d had each hair pulled individually from the upper regions of their cheeks. These are powerful people, I’m sure. They can sign petitions and have their names recognized. They can talk and talk and talk, to each other mostly, with great authority over their subject. They, like the lawyers Scahill lionized, feel comfortable at galas and events like the one put on by the Culture Project last night. What I’m not so convinced of is that they can effectively sway public opinion, no matter how many placards they hoist. These are not the sort of ambassadors of the cause to inspire hope and give direction to the lower 98% of the American populace who know at a glance that they don’t belong among such people.
It makes me more than a little bit sad, because no matter how right the message, it’s not going to have much effect if the only audience it’s appealing to is what the right rightly calls the liberal elite.