The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues
FEB 2021 Issue
Publisher's Message

Dear Friends and Readers,

“If voting changed everything, they’d make it illegal.” — Emma Goldman

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” — Plato

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” — Dante Alighieri

As we’ve endured the four long, gruesome years under the Trump Administration that ended by the failure of the former President’s infamously instigated insurrection on January 6 (14 days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on January 20), most of us felt compelled to reflect on endless flaws, shortcomings, and perhaps the very imperfection that democracy itself has warned us in the past, especially with the wondrous ambiguity that was written by the framers in the 7 articles of the Constitution and the 27 amendments to the Constitution, which intricately evokes open interpretations: virtuous vs. wicked, conscientious vs. immoral, dutiful vs. insolent, among other pairs of extreme polarity, all of which are thankfully rested upon a system of checks and balances that ensures no one brand of government dominate the others, while institutionally cementing differing points of view. In retrospect, we ask ourselves: how did Trump lie his way to the White House? We should first revisit the question: how did Trump deploy speed and technology for power? Second, from countless conspiracies promoted by Trump, say, from Barack Obama’s “Birtherism,” Obamagate, Trump Tower wiretapping, voter fraud, ISIS members posing as Syrian refugees, wind turbines causing cancer, among other similar claims created to downplay global warming and the coronavirus pandemic etc., etc.; to his clever use of three-word phrases (“Drain the Swamp”, “Lock Her Up,” “Build the Wall,” for example, which echoes Karl Kraus’s words on the rise of Hitler in 1934, “the secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so they believe they are as clever as he”), namely Stop the Steal, where did all begin? Third, where do we go from here?

First of all, it’s not that dissimilar to how Mussolini learned to mobilize the celebration of speed, technology, violence, youth, and industry through his friendship with (Filippo Tommaso Emilio) Marinetti, who he met in 1919, to create Fascism, or say how Hitler hijacked Nietzsche’s notion of the Superman while willfully spreading the Nazi besmirch “Lügenpresse” (lying press). Equally as effective, the Nazis deployed radio to quickly reach mass audiences rather than the standardized convention of newspaper, Trump too took to Twitter as his preferred tool, as he would tweet at unpredictable hours, and as many times as humanly possible. Which we all had witnessed with great horror how all the media and network television programs tried to analyze throughout the day in their so-called “breaking news,” prompting Trump’s tweets to constantly stay on the headlines every minute, every hour, every day that indeed consistently fed his daily lies with efficient pace in occurring repetition—what was called a “tweetstorm.”

Secondly, in response to Trump’s liaison with conspiracy theories, and Trump’s role as a “cult leader,” we should be reminded again that in the 1960s, fueld by the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement, the women’s rights movement, protected by freedom of speech, the right to peaceful protest, and the right to petition the government in the First Amendment, the counterculture movement was created on the premises of peace, love, and happiness. By the 1970s and onward, however, the same freedom of expression spurred all sorts of narcissistic personalities to create their own cults, often formenting violent faiths, including Charles Manson, Reverend Jim Jones, David Koresh, for example, then we gradually came to acknowledge the fast growing alliances linking conspiracy theories to what is called “leaderless resistance” as one form or another of self-styled terrorism among other white nationalist groups. There is a long history of former military men who had transformed themselves into key figures in the white power movement. Just to name a few, George Lincoln Rockwell (WWII veteran and founder of the American Nazi Party), Richard Butler (WWII veteran and founder of the Aryan Nations), Louis Beam (Vietnam veteran and Grand Dragon of the Texas KKK), and one ideal example of leaderless resistance, namely Timothy McVeigh (Gulf War veteran and Oklahoma City bomber), all more or less shared a similar view of their enemies: Jews were viruses; Black people, other people of color, and homosexuals were the symptoms. Here, we should notice two more things: one, if we were to think the Germans feeling unjust, in how they were punished by the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler’s rise to power by stoking their nationalist pride seemed unmistakably justified; the same then can be said of how it all began with the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, leading to the end of the Cold War in 1991, the shocking terror of 9/11 in 2001, the financial crisis of 2008, and other nameless crises that fed on people who were isolated, hence becoming easy targets to be exploited on topics of shame, fear, bigotry, ignorance, and a whole string of other ill-favored human attributes. As many tech giants, such as Google, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter began to grow with rapid pace, so did Atomwaffen (“atomic weapon” in German, a White Nationalist terror cell and internet forum), and especially Infowars, and its founder Alex Jones, who had hosted Roger Stone and Trump as guests on his show during the 2016 election. What Jones and Trump shared in common, put simply, was the more outrageous the lie, the more explicit the use of dehumanizing language, the more clicks they received the better, all the while social media platforms algorithms were designed to multiply the clicks billions of times over. In short, the blogosphere is where conspiratorial dark arts thrive. Conspiracism has become an accepted norm in marshaling political power that exploits the divisions within the country’s population, which eventually led to the recent division within the Republican Party itself. On one side, Mitch McConnell, who, however much he despised Trump’s overt racism, saw an opportunity to secure hundreds of federal judges and tax cuts for the wealthy. Not until he had witnessed the insurrection that swayed him to change his mind by declaring the legitimate presidency of Joe Biden. On the other side, led by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who by gesturing their support of Trump’s big lie about the election being stolen from him, they in fact were equally eager to send Trump away for good, so they can replicate his successes in the next election at the expense of their theatrical allegations of voter fraud.

All in all, they either were complicit with Trump’s lies, or they were covertly bought by Trump’s sales pitch “you believe my lies which compels me to repeat them.” Either way, we all now can see they were nothing but selfish opportunists whose actions invoke Alexis de Tocqueville’s words “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step towards revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” To those who perceive Trump as a martyr, they should realize by now, even if he’s not as crazy as he appeared in the last four years, he had calculatedly said more crazy things every day, in order to exploit people who are crazy in order to make more money for himself and his family. This is what we refer to as a conspiracy entrepreneur par excellence. One gigantic achilles heel Trump, McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, among other in the GOP have in common is none of them are true believers. Trump was not ideologically driven as world famous dictators we’d learned from history were. That was why Trump and his last theatrical performance in the insurrection failed, which led to profound disillusionment and intense disintegration among these leaderless resistances, who long for a real demagogue with a real ideology.

Lastly, “[h]istory is a mighty drama, enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background, who among us wouldn’t aspire to dream of the future rather than living with the weight of the past?” Thomas Carlyle once famous remarked. Still, let’s not be passive and be kept separated from one another! We must learn how to be together, and how to protest in peace, and petition our government officials when they’re corrupt and no longer care for our people, especially the ones that were once called “the deplorables.” We at the Rail send President Biden and Vice President Harris our collective salutes, filled with enormous hope and optimism for all humankind.

With love, courage, onward, upward, and in solidarity, as ever for 2021,

Phong H. Bui

P.S. This new year is filled with substantive updates: First, we dedicate this issue to our friend, one of our most celebrated and visionary art historians, curators, and art critics Barbara Rose (1936–2020), whose writing, curatorial practice, teaching, and mentoring, especially among the younger generation of artists and scholars with such love, care, and dedication to the general welfare of our art community is unmatched. The Rail’s tribute to Barbara is forthcoming. Second, we’d like to say thank you to JC (John Cappetta), whose contribution to our team has been so invaluable both for their wonderful work as our Social Media Manager and bright spirit that sparked our daily enthusiasm at the Rail HQ. We welcome Elizabeth Lothian who succeeds JC with remarkable grace and confidence. The same salutation is extended to Maisy Card who joins Will Chancellor as our new co-editor of the Rail’s beloved and popular fiction section. Also, we deeply appreciate Tyler Clarke and Emily Dean whose times with our production team have been essential to the fluid mediation between our daily NSE (New Social Environment) lunchtime conversations and the various deadlines of our monthly print and online issue. Both Tyler and Emily were thrilled to pass the batons to John Belknap and Tyhe Cooper. We send our best wishes to JC, Tyler, and Emily in their new journeys, knowing they will be forever part of the Rail’s family of minds. Belated birthday greetings are sent to two of our treasured board members, Juliette Cezzar and Scott Lynn, and to our luminous consulting editor, Raymond Foye. We’d like send our deep gratitude to Tomas Vu, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Alejandro Conteras, Bichang Liang, Shuai Yang at the Leroy Neiman Center for Print Studies along with those among our long-time friends and supports who are making their generous contributions in a variety of ways to celebrate our 20th year anniversary throughout this year. Lastly, we congratulate our beloved Aggie (Agnes) Gund who was given La Legion d’Honneur, the highest Civil and Military honor that can be conferred upon a French citizen or foreigner. Our hearts were filled with pride and joy in knowing Aggie is joining a constellation of brilliant stars from Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Miles Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney to Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, Robert Redford, and few remarkable others.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues