Sign Language: Symbols of the Coming Bush Fall
February 18, 2003
By the Bernard Weiner, The
is symbol, symbol is sign. Consider:
- Powell goes to the United Nations so that the missile
attacks on Baghdad and Basra can begin -- and, in the lobby
of that grand building, Picasso's "Guernica" painting, which
depicts the horrific results of the Nazi bombing of that
Spanish town, is covered over prior to Powell's arrival.
No use embarrassing the U.S. by reminding folks of what's
in store for Iraqi civilians.
- Ashcroft, in his police-state zeal, begins shredding the
Constitution's Bill of Rights with its guarantees of due-process
of law, and, early on, has the huge lobby statue of the
Goddess of Justice draped and covered over because of its
exposed breast. How appropriate to shroud Justice so that
she can't see what's being done in her name.
- First Lady Laura Bush cancels a poetry workshop at the
White House because she suspects that a number of America's
high-profile poets, in the sacred grounds of that seat of
power, will raise the issue of the coming war with Iraq.
Did you notice the thread that unites these events? In all
three cases, symbolic shrouds are placed over art, so that
nobody will notice the bad things that are being done in American
But art knows. Art sees beyond, often before the general
public is aware of what's going on. (Often before the artists
themselves are conscious of what they're revealing.) Art points
us in new directions that make us think and question.
To those inclined more to rigid-order mentality, art is a
virus that needs to be stamped out, or, at the least, tightly
controlled. ("When I hear the word culture," said Nazi leader
Goebbels, "I reach for my revolver.")
It's all part of the so-called "cultural civil war." Those
who control the signs and symbols control the polity. Thus,
minions are trotted out to denounce artists and their tendency
to look for complexity, ironies, hypocrisies, hidden humor.
To incipient fascists, the world is a Manichean one, divided
into black and white, those who are Good and those who are
Evil ("You're either for us or against us").
And since they are certain that God obviously favors their
side, it follows that those in opposition -- or even (or especially)
those who point the way to other visions of complex reality
-- are part of the enemy forces and must be dealt with.
One problem with authoritarianism -- whatever brand comes
along: Stalin's communism, or Hitler's fascism, or Islamic
Talibanism, or whatever we're moving into in America right
now -- is that it makes art more delicious and tempting. The
public is not dumb and eventually comes to figure out that
the "truth" being propounded by the frightened rulers does
not match the world most citizens actually live in. And so
they begin to seek out and support art and artists and, most
of all, comedians -- those sly artisans, those holy fools,
that can shake the foundations of power with a well-aimed
Musicians, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors, dancers,
novelists, filmmakers, online satirists, comics -- everything
these artists do in an authoritarian society comes to be seen
by the public in the light of the repression visited from
A story to illustrate this point: American avant-garde theater
artist George Coates was invited to bring his visual extravaganzas
to Poland during the dark times there. One of the huge slide
projections used by Coates was of a manhole cover, which image
covered the entire staging area. Various human forms emerged
from the holes -- i.e., real actors came out of holes in the
stage, but, given the projection, they appeared to be emerging
from the holes in the manhole cover.
The audience took this in with rapt silence and then a few
brave souls began clapping. Then waves and waves of applause
and cheering washed over the actors. Coates was mystified
by the audience reaction. Audiences in the U.S. loved this
bit of theatrical magic, to be sure, but nothing like this
After the show, various Polish theater artists came backstage
to talk to Coates and his cast. They nudged Coates in the
ribs and whispered their admiration for his willingness to
confront the Polish Communist rulers by celebrating the "underground."
Yes, what was merely an interesting use of a visual image
for Coates was a cunning reference to the underground resistance
of a budding Solidarity movement. After a few attempts at
explaining himself, Coates simply smiled and nodded as the
Poles heaped praise on his revolutionary "political" art.
Art has power. Art unmasks. Art tells lies in the service
of truth. (Whereas governments lie in order to conceal truth.)
The more lies authoritarian governments tell their citizens,
the more a sub rosa consciousness bubbles up from the culture's
artists and then from its ordinary citizens. It's a slow-growing
and, at times, dangerous movement -- which is why the forces
of reaction try so hard to stomp on it -- but it is an amazingly
strong and vital and resilient force.
Because totalitarian governments rest on fake foundations,
when those regimes fall, they fall with amazing quickness
and ferocity. One day there's a wall, the next day it's torn
down and the celebrations begin. One day there is officially
sanctioned art, the next day those huge statues are toppled.
One day, the culture arbiters and censors are in control,
the next day they are in disgrace -- or in jail.
Americans, still gripped by fear from 9/11, have tended to
be in a state of animated numbness, putting up little resistance
to the machinations of the authoritarian rulers. Similarly,
out of great sympathy for the post-9/11United States, various
nations around the world bowed to the wishes of the Bush government.
Bush&Co., meeting little resistance, interpreted this relative
lack of opposition as full support for their programs, foreign
and domestic. And so they've continued to want more, tighten
the screws more, reach and then over-reach for more. Their
motto and guiding principle seems to be: "We can't be stopped,
so let's just go take it all."
Suddenly, though, Bush&Co. are running into overt opposition.
Their allies abroad are telling them -- to their face -- that
current American policies are mad, wrong, dangerous. More
and more conservative allies at home are warning the Bush
Administration that their dash toward imperial rule abroad
and draconian Constitution-shredding at home is a violation
of what America stands for, and will bring the United States
(and, given the economic interweavings between nations, much
of the world as well) nothing but disaster.
The current U.S. rulers will not alter their course. It's
war with Iraq, full speed ahead and to hell with the rest
of you -- especially ignorant "old Europe," and American dissidents
at home. It's a proposed extension of the so-called USA Patriot
Act, to give the federal government even more martial-law-like
police powers in controlling the society -- the "cover" is
hunting for terrorists, of course -- and to hell with the
protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
These Bush&Co. leaders are so arrogant, so rude, so greedy
and power-hungry, so taken with themselves as God's mesengers
and as the world's only Superpower, so convinced they are
right in the tunnel-vision black-and-white world they inhabit,
that it's clear their days are numbered. It may take a bit
longer to build to critical mass -- and there is going to
be death and destruction and persecution while that momentum
is being built up -- but when the time for their fall arrives,
it's going to be quick and nasty. And we'll finally all wake
up from this nightmare that has crushed our economy, diminished
our moral light in the world, disgraced our beloved Constitution
And at the vanguard of this movement away from the shadow
America and back into the light will be our our poets, our
comedians, our painters, our playwrights, our novelists, and
so on -- "dangerous" artists all, even when they're not political.
They simply see too much, too clearly.
A toast to their hungry vision.
Bernard Weiner, a Ph.D. in government & international relations,
has taught at various universities, served as theater critic
for the San Francisco Chronicle, and written widely for progressive
journals. He is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).