A Contagion of Courage

Where is that first Republican? Where is that Republican who will stand up and say Enough!

Who among them will say I will no longer collaborate in the unconstitutional, undemocratic policies and actions of this regime; I will no longer be a sycophant chuckling mild criticisms of Trump?

It’s not as if we don’t know how this ends. Whether or not they admit it, everyone understands that when that first congressperson or senator or cabinet member or party elder grows a spine and starts stammering some truth, a second will haltingly step up, and then another, faster, and then a great crowd will stampede to desert the sinking ship, because by then that will be the safer thing to do.

But where are you now, John McCain? You who have for a lifetime coasted on long-ago courage and past pride at being a so-called maverick? You know now you’ll never be president. But this is the chance, your last chance, to change the course of history by example. Why have you chosen instead to indulge in repetitive dyspeptic tirades against Hillary, to embarrass yourself with sclerotic meanderings, and to pound the Senate hearing-room table in sputtering rage to interrupt Senator Kamala Harris in her questioning of witnesses?

Where are you, Senator Lisa Murkowski, you who were defeated by Tea Party extremists in your Republican primary, yet dared run as a write-in candidate, and win. Where is that defiance now? Where are you, Colin Powell, in this crisis when your country needs the former integrity of your voice? Where are you, Senator Susan Collins, or you, Governor Christine Todd Whitman, or many others? What will it take for even one profile in courage to be found among you?

While your own GOP colleague lies in critical condition from gun wounds, not one member of his party–despite all the standard cliché expressions of concern and prayers and being united as one big American family–not a single Republican has mentioned the epidemic of guns in this country and its direct consequence: the epidemic of gun shootings. Your friend and colleague might bleed and die, but you don’t want to offend the NRA.

Is it too much to expect even a shred of honest decency from our elected legislators? We’ve already given up on the idea of the business world having principles—despite all those misty-eyed, idealistic TV commercials launched by the Koch brothers. But sometimes even a cynic can be shocked at how deftly censorship under capitalism is conducted, corporate style. Who needs showy book burnings when you can quietly cut funding?

Example: The New York Public Theater’s in-the-park, free, new presentation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” American Express withdrew its support from the production, and two other high-profile corporate donors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, withdrew their financial support from the Public Theater entirely.

Staged in modern dress, this production depicts Caesar as a Trump-like figure in appearance and mannerisms. Now I’m sorry to break it to you that according to both history and Shakespeare—spoiler alert!—Caesar gets assassinated. Hence the “controversy.” The assassination is not what the play is about, of course. The play is about power and its corruption and abuse, about the eagerness of the mob to be bought off by crumbs and rhetoric, about the destruction of the assassins, about violence begetting more violence, ambition, betrayal, indecision, age, and more. (By the way, it’s also about husbands not listening to wives’ advice.)

For 400 years, in every country and language on earth, Shakespeare’s plays have been and still are being staged to reflect the reality of those times and places. The plays are always relevant and timely because the artist gazed deeply into human nature. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” has been performed in togas and tuxes; it’s been set in Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain, in a multinational corporation, in a failed state with an African warlord, and on another planet in the future. I’ve seen it many times, including once with an all black company, and not long ago with an all female cast set in a women’s prison. In 2012, The Acting Company staged a production with an Obama-like Caesar. No one objected when Caesar was slain in any of these presentations. Over recent decades, some productions of the play have been shut down—in Romania under the late dictator Ceaușescu, in the former USSR and its satellite states, in China, in Saudi Arabia. Portraying the assassination of a despot apparently is objectionable only to those who can’t fail to recognize themselves on stage.

So what precipitated this latest corporate cowardice? Extreme-far-Right media—Breitbart, FOXNews, Salem Media, the Blaze, Newsbusters—and Donald Trump, Junior, who tweeted “How much of this “art” is paid for by tax-payers?” and “When does art become political speech and does that change things?”

Junior, Junior, Junior. Art is always political speech–though unfortunately the reverse is not true. What’s more, art always changes things, sometimes instantly, sometimes over eons. Political speech is constitutionally protected speech, as is art. And by the way, Junior, when they can earn anything, artists are taxpayers—unlike your father.

But the far Right rattled its swords and many saluted. The National Endowment for the Arts, whose funding is already threatened by the Trump regime, felt compelled to issue a denial of any financial connection to the production. The City of New York is holding fast with its financial support for the Public Theater—insert a Bravo here. Still, we need to contact Delta Airlines Foundation or at Delta complaints; and Bank of America. We shouldn’t forget The American Express Foundation. We need to let them know that when they genuflect to Breitbart and FoxNews they have to answer to us: the majority of their customers. I’ve lodged complaints with them and I urge you to do so.

As for the politicians? The fault, Paul Ryan, lies not in the stars but in yourselves.

It’s not as if pols or CEOs lack models of courage, after all. There are billions of models—from the woman squatting on her hut’s dirt floor in the 18th hour of labor to deliver her twelfth child, to the Muslim first-grader starting school knowing he’s the only one of his kind his classmates have ever seen, to the woman testifying at the trial of her rapist, to the gay teenager daring to bring a same-sex date to the prom, to the Grandmothers for Peace groups marching with their walkers. We need to recognize such courage, honor it. We need a contagion of such courage.

So today let’s stay with those models who are artists, because to be an artist is to practice, of necessity, a daily discipline of stained, ragged courage, simply to stay alive and work. To be an artist is an act of absurd optimism, to live one’s life suspended mid-air in the leap of faith that others, no matter how numb or bitter or brutalized, can be reached by honesty and beauty, that they secretly hunger to be reached, that they hunger for what they cannot name—but the artist can. To be an artist is to be unable to cease acting on that belief, no matter the cost—because the artist shares that hunger, and was born, blessed, and doomed, to feed it.

Armando Cañizales loved Beethoven and Telemann, but left his viola at home when he went to the demonstration. He was 18, talented, and a shining example of Venezuela’s state-run program that draws and trains classical musicians from the country’s working-class barrios: the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation, known to Venezuelans as El Sistema (the System). For four decades, the state-financed program has trained hundreds of thousands of musicians across social classes, an achievement unheard-of anywhere else in Latin America and one the entire music world envies. El Sistema was founded in 1975, by José Antonio Abreu, a conductor working with a beginning class of 11 students in a parking garage. Its prodigy, Gustavo Dudamel, became an international star and now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. El Sistema is a source of national pride, and its nonpartisan position has been protected by successive governments, no matter how their politics varied.

But the current spasms polarizing Venezuela are severe: food shortages have driven people to forage from dumpsters and the lack of medical supplies has cost lives. People have taken to the streets, but so have riot police and guardsmen. That particular day, Armando decided it was time to join the protests. As teenagers throwing rocks retreated from a line of soldiers, Armondo walked slowly forward, alone, arms outstretched, palms turned up.

The shots rang out with percussive rhythm.

Memorial concerts for their young friend were played by orchestra members, including Dudamel. But now other musicians are following his example, leading in the front lines of protests—carrying their instruments, playing. The world rightly remembers the image of a student standing alone and unarmed on a wide Beijing avenue, facing down a column of massive tanks during the Tiananmen Square uprising. For me, that image is now joined forever with another one.

On a May afternoon, Wuilly Moisés Arteaga, 23, painted his helmet the blue-yellow-and-red colors of the Venezuelan flag, stood with a crowd of demonstrators, and began to play the national anthem on his violin. Tear gas canisters exploded around him, and the other demonstrators fled. But he stood there, alone, armed only with his instrument, facing a phalanx of riot police in full armor. And he played that violin.

National Guard vehicles surrounded him. A guardsman grabbed the violin by the strings and rode off. Arteaga wouldn’t let go of the instrument and was dragged from the motorcycle through the streets. Finally, he couldn’t hold on any longer. Bloodied, he then pleaded with the officers to return his violin. One gave it back to him—in pieces. Weeping over the broken violin, he vowed to return to the protests.

Where is the sole Republican figure who can muster a scintilla of Arteaga’s courage, who is willing to be dragged through the streets, who will keep moving forward through acrid plumes of gas, keep blinking at riot police through tears—but keep moving, keep moving forward, keep playing the violin?