“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” — Louisa May Alcott
“During the war, the British diplomat, Harold Nicholson, was asked: ‘If you had to choose between the life of your son—who was fighting at Monte Cassino—and the survival of the city of Florence, which would you choose?’. And that British scholar and gentleman had the immense courage to transcend honesty to say: ‘Florence, because though my grief may be unbearable, for centuries to come human beings will still have Florence.’” — From an interview with George Steiner with Wim Kayzer, 1989
As we go through this profound time together—a time of terrific uncertainty that will either connect and unite us or separate and divide us with a greater urgency than we’ve ever experienced in our collective lifetimes—we now have a need to remind ourselves that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we were confronted with other kinds of fear. Be it the fear of indiscriminate terrorist attacks after 9/11 in 2001, or the fear of economic collapse as the stock market crashed in 2008, or the fear of natural disasters caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Here we should add that leading to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump on January 20, 2017, the world was already on edge due to the critical issues of climate catastrophe, economic uncertainty, mass migration, among other political and social crises. This anxiety, whether here in the US or globally understood, can be attributed to the liberal “elites” failing to recognize one simple human matter: “populism” is an outcome of a population demanding simple solutions they crave. Even in the context of a small family dynamic, or say a marriage, when someone is being ignored or neglected, he, she, or they will find ways to be sure his, her, or their voices will be heard, at whatever cost.
“Populism” as a concept has roots in the Progressive Era of the US, especially in the Progressive Party of Robert M. La Follete (Presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1924). “Populism” became an ideological slogan that represents the “people” in utter opposition to any self-selected and self-promoted “elite.” However, just as the color blue was once associated with the Union Army led by the Republican Abraham Lincoln, while red referred to the left-leaning parties, meanings can become inverted. The red and blue colors were changed and interchangeably used by network television as color TV became more popular. For example, in 1972 CBS created one of the first color election maps, with Richard Nixon winning the election in the state of Alabama, which was colored blue, yet in 1981 ABC newscaster David Brinkley declared “the red states are the states we have projected having gone for Mr. Reagan. Red are Reagan. That’s why we chose red.” By 1996, the political terms “red state” and “blue state” had become a household identification, especially with the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and onward. Similarly, “populism” has been in recent years deployed by liberal internationalism and global media as “ordinary people” who have been suppressed by the economically powerful and culturally arrogant minority. At this point, it could swing to either right-wing or left-wing connotations, with the meaning between those that are conforming and those that are in charge of the conforming in the hands of whoever can manipulate it best. David Levi Strauss put it the most succinctly: “Trump has spent his entire life conforming to, trading on, and celebrating our worst cultural tendencies … His call to Make American Great Again is an appeal to erase the political and cultural changes that resulted from the countercultural push of the 60s, in civil rights, social justice, and multiculturalism.”1
As Trump’s fate for reelection on November 3 depends on how his administration mediates the current coronavirus crisis, most of us have come to accept Trump’s malignant narcissism as a symptom of our world, filled with “rampant individualization [where] relationships are mixed blessings,” according to Zygmunt Bauman, “They vacillate between sweet dream and a nightmare, and there is no telling when one turns into the other.” We have come to grasp quickly that COVID-19 is a global pandemic that has no interest of discrimination in any shape or form or to any one of us, including those who think in great extremity of Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, etc. All can be victims. For once, forced by nature, we all are in quarantine at our homes. We’re forced by nature to adjust and recalibrate our rhythm to her rhythm. This is the time when we learn to have respect for time. This is when we come to realize not everything can accelerate at the same pace, and that the speed of acceleration has been detrimental to the essential tradition of humanistic inquiry in the arts and the humanities. This is when reading a book of philosophy, a novel, a poem, listening to a symphony, a jazz or experimental composition, among other similar activities cultivates our deep communion with nature, conscious of the mortality of our bodies from which and through which the true meaning of life and the real pleasure of living can be better understood.
For those of us creative individuals from various communities of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, we all know this is the time to come together, even while working from our respective homes, to spread the love for our world cultures through the act of creation, which requires the slowness of time as a counteragent to the act of destruction, of which speed is a central ingredient. Speed has been Trump’s most effective ammunition, for he understands speed is power. By mobilizing his deployment of speed, for example, through tweeting at unpredictable and irregular hours, the saturation of the so-called “breaking news” is perpetually more intensified. We shall collectively slow down Trump’s speed along with his barbaric use of language by sharing the power of inconclusiveness and humility that can be generated from the arts and humanities. It’s our hope to transgress the conventional by restoring the dignity of the arts and the humanities, at a moment when we most depend on them. While nature is taking her time to heal her body, we too can heal our own bodies through celebrating this month, April, as National Poetry Month. We’re thrilled to welcome Norma Cole, one of our great poets (who is also a visual artist, translator, and curator) as the Guest Critic, which will surely harvest our profound readiness to observe Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22.
Here, I leave you with Fernando Pessoa’s Sonnet XX for your reading pleasure:
When in the widening circle of rebirth
To a new flesh my travelled soul shall come,
And try again the unremembered earth
With the old sadness for the immortal home,
Shall I revisit these same differing fields
And cull the old new flowers with the same sense,
That some small breath of foiled remembrance yields,
Of more age than my days in this pretence?
Shall I again regret strange faces lost
Of which the present memory is forgot
And but in unseen bulks of vagueness tossed
Out of the closed sea and black night of Thought?
Were thy face one, what sweetness will't not be,
Though by blind feeling, to remember thee!
In solidarity, with love and courage,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rail has shifted our operations online. While we’re remaining dedicated to supporting our community of readers, writers, artists, and students more than ever before, we launched on March 17, 2020 our New Social Environment lunchtime conversations, daily at 1pm with special guests to discuss their creative lives in the context of our new social reality. Please join us by visiting the Rail’s eventbrite page for our schedule and for the link to participate. We also want to thank Rail Board Member Michael Straus, who has been a valiant comrade of the Rail for the past 10 years. We look forward to Michael continuing to be a part of our community as an Advisory Board Member. Last but not least, we are grateful to our friend Dorothy Lichtenstein for her generous donation to the Rail, which will surely keep our morale high and steady. Thank you.
- David Levi Strauss, CO-ILLUSION Dispatches from the End of Communication with photographs by Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2020), p.12.