I’m going to give this post a subtitle:
Where the Author Makes Synaptic Connections Between the Beer Summit, George Washington, Race, South Park, an International Conference in Cancun, Malcolm Gladwell, Babies with AIDS, Thomas Jefferson, Théodore Géricault, Beach Access, Healthcare, and Human Agency.
The current (August 17/24, 2009) issue of The Nation prints an op/ed on the recent brouhaha over the detainment of a black Harvard professor by a white middle class cop. The whole episode and subsequent media coverage brings to mind The Jeffersons, a season eight episode of South Park, where Michael Jackson’s move to South Park is complicated by a cabal of cops intent on putting anyone behind bars who attempts to be “black while rich.” Both Gary Younge’s commentary and South Park point to the ingrained racism of individuals rather than problems with the system itself. Using the example of cab drivers picking up fares, Younge states,Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (the Athenaeum portrait)
“Racism discriminates against people on the grounds of race. Just like it says on the packet. It can be as arbitrary in its choice of victim as it is systemic in its execution. And while it never works alone (but rather in cahoots with class, gender and a host of other rogue characters), it has political license to operate independently.”
Just a week before Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in his home, Obama addressed the NAACP,
“We’ve got to say to our children: Yes, if you’re African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades. That’s not a reason to cut class… No one has written your destiny for you…”
The implication here is that if you’re willing to yank on your own bootstraps hard enough, you can lift yourself off the ground.
About eight years ago I was invited to attend an international conference on health care resource allocation. The meeting was small, about 200 people (mostly physicians) and included ministers of health from developing countries, the head of UN AIDS and the EU’s global health care initiatives, and me. At the time I was collecting unused HIV meds and sending them to a clinic in South America. You’ve heard of microeconomics? I was micro-health care resource allocation.Unknown Artist's Death of Washington Dec. 14 AD 1799
At the meeting, one of the speakers asked people to raise their hands to vote as he counted from one to five. The question he posed was, “How much influence to individuals have over their own behavior, one being complete control and five meaning that their behaviors can be attributed to various factors beyond personal control, like income, education, genetics, and other things?” I don’t think a single hand went up before four, and most of us raised our hand on five.
Folks like Malcolm Gladwell can point to an exceptionalism that implies human agency (it only takes 10,000 hours of bootstrap pulling), but if you’re an HIV-positive baby born in Sub-Saharan Africa, you can most likely strike “astronaut” off your list of goals, along with surviving to puberty.
A similar concern around agency befuddled our founding fathers, and in particular, Thomas Jefferson. When crafting the constitution, Jefferson’s concern was for future generations and the fundamental right of the population to consent to their particular system of governance. Those who fought in the war and elected our first congress consented to be governed by their actions. But what of the generations to follow? If you just happened to be born in America, how do you “consent to be governed?” Jefferson’s solution was to create a constitution that expired after a generation—nineteen years by his calculation. But the convoluted rhetorical solution the founding fathers arrived at was tacit assent. If you don’t rock the boat (or bear arms against the status quo) you’re giving your tacit assent to the existing system.Emanuel Leutze's George Washington Crossing the Delaware
Often the language of the revolutionary war was couched in metaphors of slavery. Patrick Henry called the insurgency, “a question of freedom or slavery.” From Rhode Island to South Carolina, inflamed rhetoric created the fear that British control would reduce Americans, “to the most abject slavery.” This conflation was stated most succinctly by George Washington,
“The time is now at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves. Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission… We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die.”
The unfortunate outcome of these lines of thinking was to see tacit assent to slavery by blacks, bound to the paternalistic image of the slaveholder. This scenario gets represented in images of George Washington’s deathbed, which according to François Furstenberg,
“promoted a paternalist vision of slavery grounded in bonds of affection. Slaves might not, admittedly, have given their formal consent to their status. But the obvious bonds of affection linking them to their masters—the tears they shed upon Washington’s death, for instance—seemed to signal a tacit assent to their enslavement.”
The “Live Free or Die” mythology surrounding the American Revolution forces subsequent generations to believe in the fiction of a choice between personal agency and tacit assent to the status quo. Obama regurgitates this myth when he implies that all Americans—regardless of race—can write their own destiny. The harm in a belief in agency comes from the subsequent idea that problems caused by racial and economic inequality can be fixed by admonishing African leaders to be less corrupt, Muslims to be more tolerant of difference, and kids in the ghetto not to engage in criminal activity. By placing the power to change social and economic injustice on the individual, it absolves society of the difficult task of creating systemic change that ameliorates obstacles to these problems.
Besides looking at cable channel cartoons, I’ve also been looking at Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Géricault sketched out many versions of the episode, from the mutiny, to the subsequent cannibalism, and eventual rescue. Unlike some of his studies, there are no severed body parts in the final painting. Géricault captures an early sighting of the Argus, as it searches—not for survivors, but to retrieve gold left on the grounded ship. In the moment depicted in the final canvas, the Argus does not see the raft; rescue would not come for several days. In the final painting, Géricault lays out a complicated story. At the apex of the pyramid of figures, a black man signals with what appears to be a tattered piece of flag. The person with the least personal agency in normal, early 19th century European contexts is the one taking action. The figures of Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard (the ship’s surgeon and geographer respectively) whose written account, Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse, faisant partie de l’expédition du Sénégal en 1816, partly informed Géricault’s depiction, are depicted near the mast, arguing over the reality or illusion of the speck of a ship on the horizon. As the crest of the figurative grouping washes out to the edges of the raft (and the foreground of the painting) Géricault depicts death and despair. Because paintings are normally read foreground to horizon, the works emotional cadence moves from despair, to debate, to hope, to taking action.Théodore Géricault's Study of a Torso for The Raft of the Medusa
In 1918, the year the Raft was exhibited at the Paris Salon, viewers would have been quite familiar with newspaper accounts of the shipwreck—as well as Savigny and Corréard’s book. It seems obvious in the final work that the darkest moments had yet to come. In one sketch, Géricault shows a survivor gnawing on a cadaver’s arm. When the fifteen survivors were rescued (of the 150 that first set out on the raft) strips of human flesh were hanging to dry in the sun. So while Géricault gives the apical figure—a black man—the power and resolve to act, there are no heros. Bootstraps were not for yanking one from a dire situation to resolution, but a meal between the quickly exhausted supply of food and the dive into cannibalism.
While I was in Cancun for the Healthcare Resource Allocation conference, I took the little combis (privately owned vans) that ran between the 12 miles of sand spit where the resorts are packed shoulder to shoulder to the old town of Cancun (and its one gay bar). Back at the hotel, I would have to walk past the front desk to get to my room. If I passed with a white person, nothing would happen. If the individual were dark (a local resident), they would be stopped, made to show ID and asked to register and leave a deposit, or leave. Once you passed the gauntlet of private property security, you could reach the publicly owned beach, walk up and down the surf and enter any hotel at will. Closer to home in Malibu, where gated mansions are packed shoulder to shoulder and impede access to the public beach, a similar situation occurs. In one case, the solution is to tell people with dark skin that if they work hard enough, they can purchase a $500-a-night room or buy their own coastal property. In California, the other solution is to create systemic change, cutting easements that allow public access to the beaches between the private homes. Of course the Malibu landowners would prefer the Mexican system, and periodically tear down the signs that point out the access routes.
Comparing Géricault's and Leutze's vessels, is it any wonder that the French acknowledged the necessity of systemic change, creating universal free healthcare, while America offers the myth of personal agency.