Speech at the Phillips Museum Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA, September 22, 2005

Speech at the Phillips Museum
Franklin and Marshall College,
Lancaster, PA, September 22, 2005

It is an honor to be showing my work in conjunction with the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, opening tomorrow. In culture where "Radical Peace Group" is a pejorative term; where showingthe true cost of war in the mainstream media is considered "unpatriotic," the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which brings true cost of war to the general public, is absolutely incontrovertible.

And you must remember what groups such as the American Friends Service Committee are up against: the complete lack of respect for language and honesty that our political class represents: After all, we live in a society where the President of the United States, while preparing the country for a dubious, and perhaps even illegal war, had this to say in November of 2002:

"The president outlined a far-reaching moral-mission for his presidency: 'I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals - there is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace. We're never going to get people all in agreement about the use of force, but action - confident action that will yield positive results - provides kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind and show themselves that there has been - you know, something positive has happened towards peace.'"

When morality, war and peace get moshed together into a toxic stew, fed to us through the tube of the mass media "objectively" as news, we must really begin to ask just who, as citizens, are we to be loyal to? Just what does "patriotism" mean in a society such as this?

Should it represent loyalty to a president whose "moral" vision is to use war as a means to achieve peace, all while foisting spurious reasons for initiating this war on an uninformed public? Or should we, as is demanded by the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, be loyal to a truly moral vision, demanding the facts - no matter how gruesome - so that we can make an informed decision about which is more important to us: the American Power Structure or the ideals that have made America great, for they are surely two different things?

Here, surrounding us today as represented by my Human Rights Painting Project, are portraits of a group of people that certainly were patriotic, though to their highest held ideals, and not to the state in which they lived. And it is this patriotism - that to the highest aspirations of the human being - to which we all must aspire.

I have two specific philosophical goals of the Human Rights Painting Project: The first, and perhaps most important, is to help break down the barriers between "us" and "them" - to show how these categories should only relate to what is in the heart, not to the color of the skin or a person's religion or any other signifier.

The portraits in my exhibit bring home that human rights issues cross all religious, ethnic and geographic boundaries; no group of people are free from implication. Additionally, we can see from the tremendous variety of ethnic and geographically diverse peoples represented here, that no single class of people abdicates its responsibility to fight for what is right. The question of those who fight for or against the fundamental rights that should be accorded to humans comes down to a matter of the individual heart - some people live up to their highest ideals, while others give in to their basest desires.

A second purpose of this project is to highlight that the ideals of Truth, Justice and Freedom are only ideas, until someone is willing to die for them. In a society where we start a war in the name of peace, words are meaningless unless people are willing to make them real through their beliefs and, more importantly, actions. It is through the belief and the willingness to die for this belief, of such figures as Wei JingSheng, Sowore Omoyele, Jose Ortega, Jose Gallardo and others represented in this exhibit that make of these ideals a reality - bring them living into our lives.

It has been a tremendous honor for me to partner with Amnesty International for this project. This group does show patriotism to the highest ideals of humankind, while eschewing fealty to any state or temporal power. As such, Amnesty can often find themselves at odds with specific countries, when they point out the moral failings of this or that government. This past May, for instance, Amnesty International released a report citing "growing evidence of U.S. war crimes" in the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and labeled the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as "the gulag of our times."

I think that this is unfair - Guantanamo is not "the gulag of our times," but a gulag of our times. There are plenty of gulags to go around, from North Korea and Syria to China, Tibet and Columbia - in fact, in a majority of the countries of the world, no doubt. Nonetheless, we in America like to have at least the appearance of the moral high ground - whether it is true or not - and so our vaunted leaders reacted with a righteous outrage to these charges.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rebuffed such a comparison. President Bush said the comparison was "absurd" and Vice President Dick Cheney said he was offended by Amnesty's assertions.

Far from examining our own actions, the idea of "patriotism" - to State and not to ideals - was called into play, and Amnesty International was painted out as anti-American by our leaders.

I, myself, experienced this same dichotomy between fealty to ideals or loyalty to state, albeit in a very small way. I had an exhibit of works from this series planned in conjunction with the UNESCO Center for Peace, at the Frederick County Public library, in Frederick, MD this fall. When one of the Frederick County Commissioners got wind that an "Amnesty Painting Exhibit" was going to be shown on county property, he said that he didn't want Frederick County property used to house an "Amnesty" event, as Amnesty International is "anti-American."

I hope that the issues raised by the Human Rights Painting Project demand that we ask ourselves: what, then, does it mean to be "American?" Does being "American" mean exhibiting a blind fealty to power -- or does it mean demanding that those in power uphold the principles that everyone claims makes America great: Truth, Freedom, Democracy, Religious Tolerance etc.?

Ultimately, this chasm between fealty to State and fealty to Ideal is the gravest problem of our times: the willingness of people at all levels of society to abandon the struggle for Truth and Justice - a struggle for which the personages represented in this exhibit were willing to die for - to serve power. We must ask ourselves, which is more normal of our species, those who commit and accept the committing of these crimes of power, or those who are willing to fight against them?

The Human Rights Painting Project tries to bring these stories and ideals to you in a personal way - stories of those who face this stark choice between fealty to power and fealty to their ideals. And, as you can see from reading the biographies, when one chooses Ideals over Power - and when I say "Ideal," I really mean a dedication to the highest aspirations and potentialities of the human being - that person runs a very real risk of having to make profound sacrifices in terms of lifestyle and, even, life itself.

Especially today, when human and civil rights are being squeezed in the name of "safety," we need to continue to raise these issues in any way that we can. Even more importantly, all of us need to feel personally implicated - we cannot plead ignorance or moral neutrality; there are too many people willing to commit atrocities in our name for that posture!

There is a Spanish saying: "Tu indiferencia te hace complice;" - your indifference makes of you an accomplice. These are not times when moral neutrality is an option, as the people in power, as we can well see, have no moral center. They exhibit through their actions no ultimate belief that there is something of higher importance than their own personal will to temporal power.

The narcissistic love for power by those in power plus the shreds of democracy left us does, however, give us an opening - as leaders will change when forced to by their constituents.

We are beginning to see this dynamic now, as President Bush loses his veneer of political invincibility - and all of a sudden, those that followed him in lock stop through an illegal war, the evisceration of the social safety net, the rape of the poor to lard the rich, have begun to find their squeaky little voices. Not because their beliefs have necessarily changed; only because the political winds have shifted.

With a political system such as this - where the cream rises definitively to the bottom - it is up to us, all of those here in this room, and those who know us and those who know those who know us to provide the moral center that is lacking in our elected leaders. While they cannot be counted on to develop a moral core themselves, they will respond to the potential of losing their jobs - and vote and act accordingly. We must provide this impetus for them to change their political positions, even if their hearts are unmovable.