Who's up to the challenge?
Art is in the eye of the beholder, much like watching & judging the figure skaters I suppose. Life often imitates art—or is it the other way around? Anyway, I think it’s good to live life creatively and with an open mind. This doesn’t mean that I have to accept everything thrown at me, nor that something which isn’t tasteful to me should be discarded or banned. I’m comfortable with other points of view, even if I totally disagree with them. I believe in individual liberty and I justify the need for freedom not by appealing to Natural Rights but to utility.
Freedom is a good thing because it promotes the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being,” wrote J.S. Mill. Both individuals and society benefit if people are encouraged to think and act freely! Totalitarian cultures & regimes produce a certain kind of people, who are not very likely to be inquisitive and confident enough to seek change. Some of our practices today we think as normal and rational—like equal rights for all the races and genders—have been considered “abnormal” and against the “natural order of the universe” for much of human history! [Do you know that slavery still exists today? Yes, the selling of human beings!]
I also subscribe to the Harm Principle, that is, a person can do whatever he wants as long as his actions do not threaten or harm others. Government’s interference with individual liberty in order to protect a person’s “own good” is not “a sufficient warrant,” as Mill noted. Of course there are those who argue that certain speech threatens the fabric of society and therefore should be purged. I simply don’t agree. Making others uncomfortable is no reason to stomp freedom and fee speech. Socrates, Galileo, and Jesus were among those individuals who irritated their societies. Yet, their non-conformist ideas benefited society, even helped transform it!
Being progressive liberals means that we recognize the need to keep the dialogue going and open, even if we don’t accept all that’s being put forward. The marketplace of ideas requires active thinking and constant evaluation, but nevertheless it’s an exciting exercise. Humans are capable of reason—we know this much—but they don’t always act in the light of reason. Obviously when you have to struggle for survival, you don’t have the luxury of a dabbling in philosophy; even serious introspection & reflection is out of reach when you’re dead tired. Modernity has brought leisure time and ..laziness; so, sometimes we’re slower in developing a better understanding of the world, and in building a better, freer, more rational society.
Age of Enlightenment?
Institutions (formal or informal) that propagate uncritical thinking, fear, and superstition have inflicted great harm to humanity. Yet, they too should have the protection of free speech, even if themselves are enemies of free (dissenting) speech!
Recently, I paid a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City where I spent several hours being challenged. Yes, it was a challenge to understand what the heck those artists were trying to tell me. I don’t know that much about art, and I often wondered whether the artist’s creation was a message to the world or an expression meaningful only to him and couldn’t care less what others thought about it. Anyway, MOMA has some odd-looking pieces that defy explanation and even description! But, that’s OK with me. I wasn’t there to buy artwork, not to adopt any particular artistic style as my favorite. However, I came out of the museum elated. If that art can do this to me, it’s worthwhile in my estimate.
Why do people fear something they don’t understand? It must be a primal reaction. It is, though, a political and cultural reality, and many people operate with such an attitude. I bet you that the reason some of the right wing-nuts who are opposing the port deal today is because they fear all Arabs; while the neo-con view of the world is 95% America, 3% water, and 2% “all other”. Further, we have too many bigots and racists in this country, and anyone who doesn’t realize this lives in a blissful parallel universe. I think I can speak for the liberals I know and for a great number of other progressives when I say that our objection to this deal has nothing to do with racism, xenophobia, or temporary insanity! It’s is the past conduct of those involved in the deal—both sides—that we don’t like. What is to like from cronyism, incompetence in handling national security issues, on one side, and helping terrorists move & hide their finances on the other side?
Tools of the Taliban?
I think the conservatives and the Taliban of all stripes are afraid of things they don't understand, that why they destroy other people's temples, art that is different than their brand, and, ultimately, they de-humanize the others. This de-humanization helps to justify all sorts of attrocious behavior. Sadly, even a democratic country like the US has demonstated such terrible behavior in times of crisis. I believe that it is our duty as citizens to speak up; as a matter of fact it's our patriotic duty to criticize ill-conceived policies and question the rulers when they're wrong. We can't give up our civil rights, our hard-won freedoms in exchange for some unquantifiable security. In the end, those who give up liberty for safety not only deserve neither--as Ben Franklin said--but unfree people aren't safe from their own rulers! Think about it; history is a good teacher.
I become very skeptical when someone employs the politics of fear to try to "convince" me about the need for action, or, for me to give up something. The creation of the Devil has been one of the most ingenious inventions, for it has motivated & scared people into submission. The language used by those in charge (either of our government or our ..salvation) bears this stamp, "the evil empire," "the axis of evil," "the evil doers", etc. Bush has raised the stakes by asking us [when he asks anyway, which isn't always] to give up more than the previous generation during the Cold War, because now the war on terror has no end and is everywhere!
Come on, we have so many means at our disposal for making this life a meaningful one--meaning that every individual decides for him/herself. We can all be Renaissance persons to some extend; it takes an effort, but we don't have a good excuse for being lazy and not use the best tool we have at our disposal. [What's that?!!] We can create our own art and blaze our own trails. Otherwise, we'll spend our lives in perpetual immaturity. That can't be a good thing I reckon.
Pictures by GP from the exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.