“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
“Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Paul Virilio, in a 2008 film, Itineraries of Catastrophes (produced by our friends Sylvère Lotringer and Iris Klein) screened at a recent tribute to his life and work at the Rail HQ (with Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky, David Levi Strauss, McKenzie Wark, and our Senior Art Editor Thyrza Nichols Goodeve) said two things that strike a sober reminder of why and how Donald J. Trump became President of the United States: “[I]f time is money, speed is power. This is why we are constantly in a race.” And “[H]umility is tomorrow’s virtue, humility is truth.”
First of all, how could anyone forget what White House policy adviser Stephen Miller said of Donald Trump, in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN (January 7, 2018); he’s “a self-made billionaire who revolutionized reality TV and tapped into something magical that is happening in the hearts of this country.” The comment is sad but true. Trump has a keen awareness of how most people are not invested in the responsibility of their own moral actions, and hence desire justification—without ever thinking about it—from a force greater and more stable than themselves. Trump thrives on exploiting the psychology of humiliation on the part of the weak by the strong (and the weaponization of white victimhood, as beautifully summarized by Trevor Noah on the October 4, 2018 episode of The Daily Show), which eventually leads to backlash. Like a bent twig theory, if the twig is pulled too far, it will whip back to its bender. We should not forget that, having created his own reality TV show The Apprentice, a spectacle of cruelty so to speak where adrenaline is built on speed—the surrogate truth in his own court—Trump understands when the distinction between truth and lies vanishes there is no basis for rational discourse whatsoever, and that chaos and disorientation gain momentum to his own advantage as a despot. He recognizes how to mobilize media and social media as measurements of attention spans and uses his twitter unpredictably at different times of day and night to carry out endless distractions from facts. His tactic is simply the deployment of constant noise and speed. While we’re arguing or trying to analyze what was being said, however inaccurate or offensive the language might have been, he has already moved on to the next tweet. We can barely keep up with his speed, it’s as though it’s a race in which whoever gets there first will hold power. This is how Trump seeks to obtain total dominance.
As our First Amendment is relentlessly under attack, especially with immigration, the Muslim Ban, and defamation of the press—referred to by Trump as a “zero-tolerance” policy and fake news—Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 landmark essay Two Concepts of Liberty offers a plausible and helpful mediation between negative and positive freedom, the former being the freedom from outside interference while the latter being freedom to act upon one’s will. A subtle and important difference lies between these two because, as the adage goes, “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” The basis of liberty for some necessarily requires the restraint of freedom to others. Perhaps this is what Virilio meant when he proposed humility is tomorrow’s virtue. The very notion of being freed from pride or arrogance seems urgent at this moment in time. Having attended the Paul Virilio tribute at the Rail HQ on Saturday evening, November 27th and the Irving Sandler tribute at the Whitney on the following evening, Sunday November 28th, acutely evident was the shared humility and love that these two remarkable teachers, sages, bestowed in their work. The Rail is poised to carry and build upon their profound legacies, and we hope that desire spreads.
As 20,000 copies of this issue in print hit the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens along with 10 to 20,000 daily online readers, just five days before Midterm elections, we hope our freedom of speech is not a compensation for our freedom of thought.
We’d like to send our congratulations to Dr. Vivian Pan who was unanimously elected by the board of directors of the Studio in a School (SIAS), succeeding its founder and Chair Agnes Gund, as well as Edward Harding, Kathryn McAuliffe, Roy Simpson, and the late Richard Roob. Founded in 1977 during a financial crisis in New York City, when public school art education budgets were dramatically cut, SIAS’s sole purpose is to offer visual arts education taught by professional artists to students in Pre-k through high school in New York City and nationally. And with the recent creation of the Studio Institute, which shares professional learning partnership programs, arts internships, and research grants in local and national forums, the legacy of this indispensable institution is securely passed on to a new leader. As a proud board member, I seek to work with Dr. Pan and my colleagues to grow of this rare and valuable living organism.
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the eleven victims who were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services. We’re sending our deep condolences to their family members, relatives, and friends. May their souls rest in peace.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.