“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened that any other nation, but gathering in her ability to repair her faults.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
“History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly, and what appears not to move at all.” — Fernand Braudel
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” — James Baldwin
Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, as most of us know at this time, the profound anxiety, fear, and anger we’ve been experiencing during the Trump presidency have deeper roots in the flaws that we ourselves, the people, along with our elected officials have neglected to address: the endless critical issues in our political and social lives. First, social solidarity brought us together through our struggles against the war in Vietnam, along with the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, which when the war in Vietnam ended in 1975 caused a significant moral defeat in the American psyche with the estimate of over 1 million Vietnamese casualties and over 58,000 American lives lost. In consequence, what was once the voice of the people—the so-called public intellectual—left for safe haven in the academy, hence losing their stance in national politics. Secondly, what brought the end of the Cold War, dating from the 1947 Truman Doctrine to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, had generated a prolonged period of amnesia while our political system and business sector were making deals that profited their self-interests and wealth, they completely abandoned the well-being of the suburban middle class and rural working class poor across the country—that essentially led to the creation of Donald J. Trump.
We generally acknowledge the United States as an empire since World War II. As many previous empires had on occasions exercised what Nazi political theorist Carl Schmidtt once said: “politics begin with the definition of the enemy,” we now acknowledge a transition from having no enemy between 1991 and Trump’s election in 2016 to having two enemies in both Russia and China. We also see the division of the two parties and their supporters amplified: while the Democrats are obsessed with Vladimir Putin and Russia, and the Republicans with Xi Jinping and China as respective scapegoats, both equally obsessed with the “Breaking News” of mainstream media that is supportive of either side. We wonder why, they and all of us together, have never talked about our own failings, never once discussed the self-examination or self-introspection that is at this moment absolutely required, as Stephen Kotkin observed, “The Trumpian moment is an opportunity. The best of the United States is there to be rediscovered, reinvented, and repositioned for the challenges the country faces. If properly understood, Trump could be a gift.” The questions of this self introspection are: Where are we? How did we get here? Where will we be going?
While in the midst of this pandemic that has derailed Trump’s deployment of speed and caused the decline of our economy, the divisive politics of rich vs. poor, white vs. Black, and people of color lazily demonized as immigrants, most of us have begun to see Trump as a master manipulator of our social fragmentation. To the unaccountability of the elites, the politicians, and CEOs of big business corporations alike that essentially led us to where we are today, many of us are reminded that the way the Constitution was set up was to prevent these majorities from exercising tyrannical power over minorities—ultimately preserving the power of the people.
Our social unity or solidarity in the middle enduringly and perpetually mediate the pendulum swing to the left and to the right for a four-year election cycle each, where if one policy gets passed from one party, it will likely get overturned by the other. In all truth, social solidarity means and requires voices of reason and courage working in union. We must therefore be reasonable and courageous in undertaking difficult issues, including explicit decisions made by various institutions that cancel timely and important exhibitions, in spite of the controversies they evoke as public receptions, be it Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space (a traveling exhibition that began at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland of the artist’s drawings and videos organized by independent curator John Chaich, showing how mediated images of systematic oppression and violence against young African American men in contemporary American history have contributed to our fear, empathy, and perceptions) back in March, or the recently postponed and much-anticipated Philip Guston Now (a major traveling retrospective of one of the most beloved and profoundly important artists of our time, which was set up to open in July 2021 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., then subsequently travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter and the President of the Philip Guston Foundation, responded with emphatic clarity: “Half a century ago, my father made a body of work that shocked the art world. Not only had he violated the canon of what a noted abstract artist should be at a time of particular doctrinaire art criticism, but he dared to hold up a mirror to white America, exposing the banality of evil and the systemic racism we are still struggling to confront today.” This is as clear as it can be universally said of what we’re going through following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, and the ensuing racial unrest and protest across the country. By the mere creation of endless labeling to neatly fit into different categories of political correctness, identity politics, or diversity without equality, the neoliberal left is once again shooting itself in the foot. By avoiding confronting and absorbing complex and real experiences of human existence in any work of art, however traumatic and horrific, there is a failure of human communication in any form, rather, it is simply an act of refusal to forge a path towards understanding and reconciliation.
The defense of these critical issues of human spirit embodied in the arts and humanities is the sole reason why the Rail was created in the first place. We’re proud to stand in solidarity with our creative ancestors, our brothers and sisters from various cultural backgrounds, genders, and ages, through thick and thin, up and down, sideways and in all directions of our collective struggles. We’re poised and thrilled to celebrate our 20 year anniversary with you all this month. We continue the will and courage to cultivate cross-pollination in the arts and the humanities, instead of being kept insularly in the academy with highly specialized categories, all the while presenting these diverse voices with utmost care, dignity, and without censorship. Lastly, having kept the Rail free with relentless patience, we’ve finally experienced what we refer to as “spill-over readership,” where readers from one field of discipline begin reading something about another field, and vice versa. Having reached an international readership of nearly 2 million people last year, we’ve finally gained our confidence, strength, and courage to walk up and down the stairs while “thinking without a banister,” to borrow Hannah Arendt’s dictum. By having created our increasingly popular series, the NSE (New Social Environment) daily lunchtime conversations—the day after Trump declared his administration’s 15-day quarantine along with the hideous phrase “social distancing”—we’re poised to mobilize our creative communities as an antidote to everything Trumpian: we are bringing our friends and colleagues together every workday to amplify how socially close we are, while celebrating slowness in the act of creation during our in-depth conversations that at times can last as long as three hours, and which always end with a poet reading a few of his, her, or their poems as opposed to Trump’s manipulative “social distancing” and “speed” to spread chaos and thus fear, as well as vulgarizing the beauty of our language.
It’s time to stand up for our culture. It’s time to come together in the middle to open up all the difficult dialogues that have been silenced for too long. It’s time to move onward and upward swiftly, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it.”
Phong H. Bui
P.S. Due to the pandemic, our 20 year anniversary will be celebrated beginning this month until October 2021. We’ll keep you all posted on our forthcoming projects and events, including WE THE IMMIGRANTS, among others in the coming days, weeks, and months with terrific anticipation and enthusiasm. We’d like to thank Gina Telaroli for her editorial brilliance and dedication to our Film section as co-editor, and congratulate her on her new position as Managerial Editor of MUBI’s film criticism site Notebook. We also want to welcome Henry Adeson as our new Production Assistant and Gabriel Richardson as our Distribution Coordinator.