Saturday, July 20, 2013

“I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts.”

“I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts,” Andy Warhol once wrote.  (I've got Warhol on the brain because I just wrote an essay about a show of his work at the Dayton Art Institute.) 
When the George Zimmerman verdict happened, I had all of this stuff swirling around in my head:  Warhol , Skittles and gunshots, TV outrage, a murdered kid and the murderer going off scott-free.  At the time, when the verdict came out, I was kind of overwhelmed and exhausted by it.  Sick really of the whole stupid thing because it just seemed so awful.  The image of George Zimmerman, obviously having comforted himself by overeating, sitting in a suit, on the verge of tears because of relief but also a dread of having to live the rest of his life in hiding, and then the images of Trayvon Martin, all kind of strangely symbolic, from the hoodie to the Skittles, from being hugged and kissed by his dad to blowing pot-smoke-rings and showing off a hand-gun, all of it just a bunch of images that seemed to have been appropriated, Warhol-style, and transformed into what people wanted them to be on Facebook, Twitter, whatever platform you name.
This whole situation has played out like an art project in a lot of ways.  Which is really a rotten thing to say but true none-the-less.  A political cluster-fuck got fueled by bite-size fruit candies, canned iced tea, neighborhood-watch zealotry, and scrapes on the back of the head.  All the moments were turned into political stances, and everyone on TV and everywhere else have used the killing as a way to proclaim how they want to be seen and understood.
“I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts.”   
Yup.  Warhol.  "The artificial" and "the real" feed into one another, until everything has a sort of squalid glamor, but the true feeling gets eaten alive by the way you are supposed to feel.  I kept tripping myself up philosophically, thinking about the jury and the stand-your-ground bull-shit and Zimmerman's sad-sack existence, and Martin's not having any kind of existence anymore outside of the images we want to associate with him.  Skittles versus hand-guns.  Little boy lost versus thug. 
I really want to feel just sad. 
That's it.
It's just plain sad. 
But that's outside of the real, outside even of the artificial.  Feeling sad is a response to the confusion caused by not wanting to be a part of the circus and the silly, messed-up way politics are both practiced and represented.   A boy got killed.  He might not have been innocent but who is?  And an idiot with a gun, a Barney-Fife-in-waiting, made a huge and impossible mistake.  I guess you can use the situation for anything you want, but I want to use it as a way to mourn not just death, but the whole godforsaken universe.
And then President Obama yesterday stuns the world by kind of saying the same things I'm trying to say.    Here, the last portion of his talk yesterday:
You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.  I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.  And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.  And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.  And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.  And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
It's kind of a ramble and not.  He was stumbling through because I think he really meant everything he was saying and yet there really isn't a way to convey what he was trying to get at in the context of "politics" and "press briefings."  As he says, it's not really productive when politicians "try to organize conversations."  No soundbites or federal programs are going to make any difference, he seems to be saying, unless we start separating the "artificial" from the "real." 
Everybody has to shut up, reinvent their brains, and come at it anew. 
I don't know if that will ever happen.  I don't think President Obama does either.  Which is why I think he might be the only leader who can make anything happen.  Not because he's African American, or because he "could have been Trayvon Martin."  But because he seems to sad and lost, and I think that's where we all should be coming from right now.  We all just need to be sad and lost together for a while, and then start trying to find our way out together, without propaganda and without artifice.  We need to get real.