Tonight I was at the laundromat because our washing machine died and we’re putting off buying a new one. It’s been ten years since I’ve done laundry with strangers. I took along my quarters and fabric softener — and my copy of The Sun. Standing next to the washers, I read “Domisylum,” by Brian Buckbee [August 2004], and it induced a peculiar kind of euphoria. I smiled, laughed, and wanted to read it aloud to my fellow washer persons, but who could have heard me above the din of whirring dryers?
Until I read David Barsamian’s interview with Howard Zinn [“Rise Like Lions,” July 2004], I had forgotten how much art influenced my development as a young activist in the 1960s. As a working-class student attending high school in an affluent suburb of San Francisco, I was blessed with teachers who courageously assigned such books as All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse-Five, Animal Farm, and The Grapes of Wrath. Reading these books helped yank me out of my alienation and into the streets, where I joined other students marching to protest the war in Vietnam and the draft.
Zinn’s research and writing helped to educate thousands of activists like myself. But it was the words of poets and writers that gave me hope, without which I would not have cared enough to participate in the movement.
There is a burgeoning movement in the arts toward activism. It insists that we exit our individual boxes, connect with others, and create change as well as art; that self-contemplation is a questionable luxury as the earth drifts toward disaster. I am heartened by this trend, but seem unable to join the movement.
I recently sat on a panel with other artists, most of whom were also activists. One of them proclaimed that it was imperative for artists to stop navel-gazing and look outward. I thought of the self-portrait I was working on, and my guilt mushroomed. I reacted defensively, but inside I felt she was right. Surely I could produce work that was more useful. Had I retreated to the safety of contemplation because I was too scared to assert myself?
I once heard a meditation teacher tell about living at a monastery in Thailand near the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. A group of American Quakers came to help the war refugees and stayed at the monastery for a week. In the distance could be heard the engines and explosions of war. The Quakers asked the monks, “How can you just sit here meditating when there is so much suffering going on and so much work to be done?” By the end of the week, though, the Quakers understood: this was an island of peace, a living example of how life could be.
I am deeply grateful to the artists whose ideals lead them to activism. We need them desperately. But I also know that through my own work I have healed my heart’s pain. When our inner wounds have healed, we have more energy to volunteer, to organize, to dance.
What’s Howard Zinn’s point [“Stories Hollywood Never Tells,” July 2004]? Of course Hollywood isn’t candid about American history. Of course Hollywood places profit “before art, before aesthetics, before human values.” Why bother pining for a world in which Hollywood’s priorities are reversed? Life would be great if beer weren’t fattening, too, but no amount of wishing is going to make it so.
Zinn’s essay also ignores the fact that when a reform movement tries to co-opt a previously hostile or indifferent system — such as the movie industry — the movement changes as much as the system, if not more. It’s debatable whether the made-for-TV version of Christianity is on balance more Christian or more commercial. If your only knowledge of Christianity came from TV, you’d likely think Jesus is an imaginary friend who wants you to live a comfortable, middle-class life. Why expect that real American history would fare any better at the hands of Hollywood than Christianity has under the auspices of television?
The stories Zinn cites — the Sand Creek Massacre (committed by the Colorado militia, and not the United States Army, as he writes), the Ludlow Massacre, and others — have been told, and told well, in books. They are there for anyone who wants to take the trouble to read them, rather than wait for them to be served up at a movie theater. If you want American history to come with popcorn and a Coke, you’re going to get more junk food than truth.
The problem isn’t the message Hollywood sends; the problem is Hollywood itself. Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. If you want proof, tune in to Air America Radio. In the limited time I’ve spent listening to it, it has been just as shrill, just as unreasonable, and just as incapable of convincing anybody as right-wing radio. If we expect to build a progressive democracy, we won’t do it by employing the same methods used to promote a passive, consumerist society.
Howard Zinn responds:
Dan Elliott is correct in his understanding of Hollywood and its inherent inability to present history in a way that is critical of the establishment. I also agree that the system will absorb us before we can co-opt it. But I do think it’s possible to infiltrate the system from time to time and use it for good ends. Yes, people can read All Quiet on the Western Front, but the film brought the book’s antiwar message to many people who would never have read the book. Paths of Glory is another powerful antiwar movie that somehow made it through Hollywood. Few people have read about the Ludlow Massacre, but if the story of it were turned into a film, it could reach large numbers of people and have the same emotional and political impact on them that reading about it had on me. We need to create alternative cultural projects that are free of the profit motive and not subject to corporate control, but I don’t think we should stop trying to use the system, even if we fail 90 percent of the time.
I was struck by Clemens Kalischer’s photograph on the cover of your July 2004 issue, perhaps because I’m a choral singer too.
That the photo depicts a woman singing Brahms’s Requiem seems particularly appropriate. Brahms wrote his Requiem in German — the native tongue of the audience — instead of in the traditional Latin of the Church. He also wrote his own words rather than relying on biblical texts, as just about every other Requiem did. Although a Requiem is, by definition, a funeral Mass — Brahms was mourning the death of his mother — this particular Requiem is in many ways a celebration of life and includes not just mournful dirges but joyful, dance-like passages. The music itself is, of course, soaring and transcendent, and yet accessible to singers of all capabilities.
Maybe I think too much, but the photo seems to mirror what good writing is all about. It requires practice and discipline, but the rewards are divine.
In “When They Get to the Corner” [July 2004], Sy Safransky writes, “In a monastery, God is all you need; in a hospital room, God is health.”
In the sixties, I had a lumbar fusion, which at that time kept one in the hospital for days. I made friends with an older Mexican orderly, a quiet, intelligent, funny man who came in to change my bedsheets.
The shock of the operation stopped my bowels from moving. Having had no bowel movement for days, I could feel death quietly, slowly entering my body. On the third day my orderly friend gave me an enema and set me up on the bed-pan, and there was a sudden and complete evacuation. The feeling of death left me. Watching my face, he said, “Out in the world, it’s gold and silver; in here, it’s piss and shit.”
I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Sy Safransky’s Notebook. But his essay “When They Get to the Corner,” about his daughter’s car accident and injuries, grabbed my heart. I was riveted by his beautiful story of love and vulnerability.
I’ve just left my sons’ room, where I watched them sleep, safe for the moment as we hurtle into an unknown future.
Sy Safransky responds:
Following the publication of my essay, I received numerous letters expressing concern about my daughter’s health. Happily, Mara is completely recovered: able to walk, to run, and, when she reflects on her good fortune, to leap for joy.
Over the past several years I’ve been moving toward a vegetarian diet by eliminating one kind of meat at a time. Veal and lamb were easy. I was able to give up pork after hearing stories from people who knew pigs. But I’d never heard a good cow story until I read Marilyn Hoegemeyer’s Readers Write about the tame heifer who followed her around the farmyard [“Lessons,” June 2004].
Before reading that piece, I’d promised to make meatballs for a dinner party. I kept my promise, but as I worked the slimy, pink, sticky meat with my hands, I thought of the animal it had once been and how it had been slaughtered. I imagined Hoegemeyer calling to her cow as it went off to die, and it looking to her for protection. I made the meatballs with attention and gratitude, and they tasted good, but I couldn’t enjoy them.
I was about to let my subscription lapse because I was tired of the whiny, angst-ridden fiction you’ve been publishing lately. Then I settled in on a plane with the June 2004 issue and began reading Tim Melley’s “Behold.” I laughed so hard I shook. Later I passed the story around at a gathering of my large Catholic family. It brought back memories of the old priest in our rural church who, lacking an organist, brought a boombox to the altar and played hymns he had recorded in his scratchy, off-key singing voice. Even my parents couldn’t keep a straight face.
As an observer from both sides of the Veterans Administration system, I can say that seldom is a VA nurse sufficiently connected with her patients to come up with a story like Sybil Smith’s “God in the Smoke Room” [May 2004]. She writes with an uncanny empathy toward veterans. I honor and congratulate her.