“One of the best ways of enslaving a people is to keep them from education.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” — Carl Gustav Jung
“Diversity is so much more interesting than uniformity” — George Spindler
Now that the pendulum of our fragile democracy has fully swung from the right to the left once again, what and how are we to respond to President Biden’s first 100 days in office? We, fellow Americans, are totally immersed in our process of healing, recovering from the profound social neglect of the forgotten men, women, and children among the middle and working-class communities that led to the creation of Donald J. Trump and his pernicious cohorts. As we in New York City have been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for one full year this month, which has taken the lives of more than 500,000 Americans, and has aggressively decimated our economy with the loss of nearly 10 million jobs, in addition to the imminent global crisis of climate change, while at home confronting racial injustice and immigration policy, we can only imagine the astonishing weight sitting upon the shoulders of the Biden administration.
With hope and optimism, hours after his inauguration on January 20, 2021, Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and overturned the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. With calm delivery and effective deployment of action, by April 30, (President Biden’s 100th day in office), the administration aims to have nearly 100 million Americans vaccinated, and to increase the vaccine supply through the Defense Production Act so schools can be safely reopened. Similarly on the dual crises of racial injustice and climate change: with the launch of racial equity initiatives, overseeing how resources and diversity for minority communities can be maximized, Biden provides more funding for community health centers along with PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) that prioritizes relief for minority-owned businesses; almost, if not all, of the environmental regulations his predecessor had rolled back, Biden had reinstated, along with a robust mandate to incentivize green products and eco-friendly goods. Finally, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy regarding the US-Mexico border, to all Central American countries, and those in the Middle East had been rescinded, while at home Biden denounced “racism, nativism, fear, demonization,” or any form of domestic terrorism associated with white supremacy.
As we are moving ahead towards a clear path, paving the way for greater unity and prosperity with exalted spirit, as America is quickly learning how to appreciate the calm, cool, collected, and oldest president in US history, Joseph R. Biden, we’re reminded again of President FDR’s (Franklin D. Roosevelt) famous refusal to let polio undermine such a determination to forge his strength of character, that was in fact at the heart of his underdog appeal to American voters. It’s true that we, as human beings, are products of both comfort and resilience, and only learn, under grave circumstances, to admit that “[h]istory does not repeat itself, but it does instruct,” as historian Timothy Snyder stated. There are similarities in our collective desire to call forth our humanly possible perseverance to rise above hard times at the present time of the Biden administration, as with FDR’s own time during the Great Depression of the 1930s: just as the economic collapse, caused by a lack of regulation in Wall Street, overproduction, ill-timed tariffs, among multiple other factors, led to the October 1929 stock market crash, so the COVID-19 pandemic arose in NY in March 2020 and forced the whole world to slow down at the brink of the global emergence of nationalism and demagoguery, and at the expense of the global economy. We’ve also recognized, just as FDR and President Biden share their shortcomings, as mentioned earlier, their respective First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Jill Biden have crossed paths in their roles as teachers, educators, and above all their firm beliefs in the indispensable function of education at the heart of the nation and its people’s well-being.
While it is commonly known how Eleanor Roosevelt had exerted considerable influence on the New Deal, as both an advocate for, and critic of, FDR’s ambitious reform programs, especially having lobbied the President to sign the executive order in creating the Federal Project Number One (also referred to as Federal One) as a group of projects under the WPA (Works Progress Administration), we still marvel at the total amount of 4.88 billion dollars allocated by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, $27 million of which was spent in providing jobs for artists, musicians, actors, and writers. It’s totally impressive to think of the five divisions of Federal One in the following: the Federal Art Project, which employed artists to create murals, paintings, sculptures, photography, and more for public spaces—and many artists we’ve come to admire emerged out of this program; the Federal Music Project employed professional musicians to perform across the country while elevating music appreciation, and documenting musical activity in the US; the Federal Theater Project employed 15,000 directors, actors, playwrights, and other theater workers in the field to stage performances for 30 million across the nation; the Federal Writers’ Project hired 10,000 writers and journalists to write local histories of each of the then 48 states as part of the American Guide Series books, the essential Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, and other publications; and finally, the Historical Records Survey (originally was a part of the Federal Writers’ Project), employed thousands of writers to document resources including soundex, indexes of military records, school records, newspapers, maps, etc. The question for First Lady Jill Biden is what and how can she undertake a similar aspiration to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was able to materialize and launch Federal One during the Great Depression, and reimagine, reconstitute, and retool such vital forces of creative energy through the arts and the humanities at our present day. The key difference is how to mobilize both together with the equally important role that sciences have played in the recent discovery of the vaccine, and their future contributions in expanding green energy, among other possibilities to bring greater harmony between our man-made environment and our natural world. In other words, if the unity of the arts, humanities, and sciences can be brought together to not only help heal the social and political ills, and the pandemic, it surely can elevate the essential relationship between education and creativity, while cross-pollination among artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, dancers, scientists, and other creatives is urgently encouraged in real time as they tend to mobilize in cycles. As John Dewey once shared with us, “democracy must be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife,” education itself must be recreated without “nostalgia.” If we know how to nourish creativity by providing platforms and opportunities to our artists, they’re capable of creating on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.
Onward and upward, with love and courage,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the extraordinary lives of our friends: the legendary poet, painter, social activist, co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–2021); the visionary painter, sculptor, and writer Bob Witz (1934–2021); and the most subtle painter of abstraction, James Bishop (1927–2021). Their works and legacies have and will inspire our lives and commitment to what we do at the Rail as we move forward to a new chapter with a new president. We would like to welcome the esteemed writer on theater, opera, and film, Charles Shafaieh as a new Editor-at-Large. We’d like to welcome the remarkable painter, and tireless advocate for the arts and humanities, Tony Bechara as a new member of the Rail’s board of directors. We’re grateful that in spite of Tony’s decision to reduce his philanthropic activity, apart from being the Chairman Emeritus of El Museo del Barrio, a trustee of BAM, and of Studio in a School, he has graciously accepted our invitation to join our board, just in time to celebrate the Rail’s 20th year anniversary. Please stay tuned for our forthcoming and exciting events and projects throughout this year.