Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Spirit of Healthy Dissent

Michael in front of the House of Burgesses,
Williamsburg, VA, mid-September 2011.
A few weeks ago, when Michael and I were in Williamsburg, I picked up a few pamphlets, one of which was printed on the Foundation's colonial-era, moveable-type printing presses. One of the hand-stitched booklets I purchased was Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Another was Poor Richard's Pamphlet No. 11: An Anonymous Account of the Boston Massacre. And finally, I also bought the slender, Williamsburg-printed Summary View of the Rights of British America Set Forth in Some Resolutions Intended for the Inspection of the Present Delegates of the People of Virginia Now in Convention, written by a "native member of the House of Burgesses". What's the House of Burgesses, you ask? It was Williamsburg's (and by extension, Virginia's, governing body, where elected officials presided for a greater part of each year). It is bicameral, with two parliamentary chambers, one dealing with British colonial concerns and the other with Virginia's localized conerns). I include a picture of Michael, standing in front of one side of the House of Burgesses. The circular window indicates that it was a governmental building.

Revolutionary pamphlets with hand-sewn quires, no bindings
I find a great deal of inspiration in these old printing processes and incendiary pamphlets, compositions that fuelled the Revolution. It's also compelling evidence that language is truly an agent of change. Yet now, things have altered so radically within the last fifteen years, that it seems print is completely obsolete. How do you distribute revolutinary material now? Of course, via the internet. Not only do you have a greater broadcasting capacity, but the cost is minimal. And yet, yet...there are so many people distributing "revolutionary" (the air quotes appear around revolutionary on purpose) material that it's difficult to be heard at all. The sheer number of voices undercuts almost every message but those voiced by the loudest or most popular figures. Of course, the internet promotes democratic expression of ideas, and this is wonderful. At the same time, however, voices that have genuinely compelling and thoughtful messages are often lost in a cacophony of pseudo-intellectual noise and other totally opinionated garbage.

Inside the printer's shop, Williamsburg, VA
mid-September 2011.
A few years ago, for ZMagazine, I wrote a review of Signs of Change, an exhibition charting the modern history of international revolutionary paraphenalia. You can read the review here. I started the essay with a quote by George Grosz, a quote that I pulled from his 1925 essay "Art is in Danger". Grosz wrote, "...come out of your seclusion, let the ideas of the working people take hold of you and help them fight this rotten society." Here, Grosz was telling the intellectuals to come down from their ivory towers and get involved in a progressive movement to effect positive social change. He wrote this shortly after the rampant inflation that crippled much of Germany. Perhaps more significant is that he wrote it after he had been to Russia, saw the impact of Communism on the people, and had begun to stray from its ideology. 

I still find Grosz's quote to be significant, particularly as a writer. Do I believe in art for art's sake? Without question. But I feel that at least some artists and writers have a responsibility to engage in a kind of political warning system...that is, extrapolate from the data we have--in this case, particular elements of the status quo--and determine where these current variables might lead us should they persist. For example, (these are, of course, very specific and narrow variables) if students continue not to care about their studies, if they continue to collect their Pell grants and government funds without investing the time necessary to earning degrees, if they are never taught (or never absorb and understand) the fundaments of our political system, if they continue to cling to restrictive labels that facilitate their movement through the education system without truly working for what they receive, what will happen to us as a nation? How easily can we be conquered by savvy (even not so savvy) manipulators, who tell us what we want to hear? Is this what the men writing revolutionary pamphlets--including The Declaration of Independence--had in mind? Did they expect that we would be come a nation of slackers, surly and opinionated but unable to produce any factual details to substantiate them, even though they are often expressed with both middle fingers raised?  

Moveable type printing press, Williamsburg, VA
mid-September 2011.
 It's this realization that makes me want to write. I imagine where these variables, if unchanged, will lead us. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is why I wrote "Conceived in the New Liberty", where people actually burn copies of The Constitution because they are manipulated into believing it no longer works for the nation (and because burning the facscimiles gets the attention of television crews, who offer a kind of fleeting celebrity). This becomes the point at which the country descends into martial law. I myself see this descent coming, and in some ways, it's already here. Other writers have seen this potential, too. Take Vonnegut's Player Piano for example, or better yet, Orwell's Animal Farm. I wonder, are students even required to read this book anymore? And if they are, would they understand its implications or would they simply accept it at face value, as a story about talking animals in a farm yard? I truly wonder about this, given my own experiences in the classroom.

In the spirit of revolutionary pamphlets and dispersing views that counter popular notions, I've just purchased some ad space for Literary Outlaw on both Scholars and Rogues and Liberty News Forum. I've done this before, specifically for American Soma, which helped me sell two copies (one of which went to England) and landed me an interview with Jeff Farias on his radio show. At the time, I advertised on Truthdig, but their rates have gone up exponentially. What had, in 2009, cost $50, now costs $400. So I opted for something more economically viable for my piggy bank. We'll see if these two blogs accept the ad, first of all (for ads must be approved before running), and what traffic it might generate. We shall see....

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