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Praying at the Altar of Democracy

AMERICAN_FREEDOM_by_rtrev               There exists often in our ideas of government and law a virtue of holiness. The notion of democracy as institutionally supreme, the notion of three branches of government, the notion of political parties, and notion of neo-liberalism enjoy a sacred place in our political culture. Because these notions seem unchangeable and in some cases ingrained in our Constitution (a holy text), one must grapple arduously to imagine anything new. While there may exist no ready alternative to democracy, surely there may reside in the recesses of our imaginations avenues through which we might improve democracy. I do not mean to propose anything specifically but rather elucidate the flexibility of our political culture. Although many American citizens remain dubious of the effectiveness of our current system, it offers us the chance to constantly desecrate the altar of the status quo. But not for long.

Despite many Americans acknowledging the imperfection of American democracy, one experiences too a staunch defense of its principles. Defenders of the Constitution, for example, speak with the rhetoric of fervent missionaries; for many, democracy is no political system but rather a religion. In the same way that many religious sects misrepresent and contort the meaning of sacred texts, so too do groups of citizens warp the Constitution in their favor. This, of course, can be a positive attribute of our laws and amendments, the extent to which they can be interpreted. This power lies in the Supreme Court, but problematically, many American citizens inform their political views based on mis-readings of the Constitution. In the face of change, they shout down dissenters in favor of democratic salvation.

Take, for example, the right to free speech. Americans enjoy the ability to say or write anything, with the exception of libel and “treason in words?” In the age of the internet, however, one experiences a new phenomenon of the anonymous commenter, which has helped create an online vocabulary of vitriol and insults. This reliance on the freedom of speech has continued to gain traction, the idea that one should be allowed to say anything: this includes, however, threats of violence, murder, and rape. In the wake of the highly publicized #Gamergate, for example, internet commenters frequently threatened the life and livelihood of feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian.  When certain websites suggested curbing these violent comments, many claimed that this would become censorship. For many, any infringement on free speech is the barring of free speech altogether. I don’t mean to talk especially about free speech, but rather use this as an example in which the Bill of Rights becomes unclear. Does the right to free speech trump the right to safety? We encounter the same predicament in public in the form of street harassment: does a man have the right to scream across the street and inform her he wants to sexually assault her until she bleeds? (Yes, I know, drastic examples, but they happen every day both in public and online).

In what ways, then, are we ignoring paths through which we might improve democracy? In another thread of thought, in what ways have we already deviated from the ideal of democracy? In 2014, a study from Princeton and North Western revealed that the political system of the United States is more oligarchy than democracy due to the significant impact that individual business interest groups have on policy change (Source: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9354310). Through rampant funding of politicians and funds, businesses have ensured that the power of American politics belong to the elite.  If economic elites, then, control the government, what does that say of our democratic system? When defending the democratic ideals of the United States, this defense becomes arduous when one considers the unfair role that money plays in the political culture.

We often forget as Americans that democracy is not a solely American enterprise, but instead that democracy has become the most widely used form of government in the world; there exist, then, various incarnations of democracy, all of which arose post-Independence. This also means, perhaps, that the ideas espoused in newer constitutions might in fact be better.

This essay, after all, is not to suggest specific change, which would require more evidence and support, but rather to plant an idea—we are not perfect. Democracy is not holy. The United States Constitution is no sacred text. Just as our laws were written by men, they can be unwritten by men (and women and those who don’t identify with either gender). In order to truly envision a radical new America, we must stop praying at the altar of democracy. We must smash the idols. We must revise the holy book.

Pilgrimage: The Big Sleep

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Today classes start back at Tübingen University after a one-week break after a preparatory German course. To call this course arduous would be a disservice to true labor the world over, however, though I did find the course incredibly helpful.  But now I begin tomorrow in earnest, begin a new semester of university at a new school, new country, in a new language, with a new culture to overcome. A tall order, no?

But today I would like to praise the benefit of my long break, or rather my “big sleep.” I have been in academic hibernation for some time now, though I find my time outside of the classroom just as instructional as my time inside the classroom. I have been, after all, working dilligently on a new novel and many poetic projects. Once I arrived overseas, I began helping to orchestrate poetry events back home in Charleston. I have been anything but idle.

I do enjoy my time off. It allows me to delve face-first into things I would otherwise never experience. I have been able to make tremendous progress writing not one, but two books; I have done a first edit of one book and managed and almost-complete first draft of another. In the meanwhile, I have been building a Twitter/Facebook/blog following in anticipation of the release of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Recently I decided to take up drawing, learning how to draw even simple things, which up until now has been beyond me.

I am feeling optimistic. Although a tidal wave of business approaches, I hope to continue writing and working with conviction, with a sense that I will accomplish much in the coming months. At the same time, I wish not to spend all my time with paper and pen in hand. I take advantage of this opportunity to live, to be free in cities I’ve never visited before, to speak with interesting people. These interactions will almost surely translate to new material in short stories and novels to come.

But today is the last day of utter freedom. I have finished writing almost 2,00 words today, though I intend perhaps to write more. Then I will take a bottle of champagne to the park and drink cheap mimosas in the warm tickle of sunlight with friends. I will speak German and look toward the sky. I will finish whatever book I’m currently reading with frantic helplessness as the plot kidnaps my consciousness. I will write, yes, but more importantly I will live. I will wake tomorrow at dawn with a new initiative, a broad, fresh band of obstacles to overcome.

Poem: “Puddle Jumpers”

New poem. Check it out.

Leave thoughts below.

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“Proletariat Love” – Derek Berry

Check out this love poem recorded for National Poetry Month.

 

 

Filmed in front of the glorious Cologne Cathedral. Leave your thoughts below.

 

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National Poetry Month Poem #2: “Jack Bellamy”

#‎NationalPoetryMonth‬ 2/30. This persona piece follows the fictional narrative of an older gay man arrested on charges of sodomy during the 1960s and subjected to electric shock therapy to aid in his conversion.

“According to the American Psychiatric Association, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness. Freud had alluded to homosexuality numerous times in his writings, and had concluded that paranoia and homosexuality were inseparable. Other psychiatrists wrote copiously on the subject, and homosexuality was “treated” on a wide basis. There was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualized as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated.” – PHIL HICKEY

 

National Poetry Month Poem #1: “Canines”

Check out my first poem video for National Poetry Month’s 30-for-30 challenge. The poem is called “Canines” and depicts the author’s struggles with body image and self-acceptance through the lens of monstrosity.

Enjoy and share your thoughts below.

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Pilgrimage: Stuttgart 21 Project; History Is Under Construction

 

Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.

In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.

One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.

For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.

In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where  future funds will come.

But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later  a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.

Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):

 

(Alex Domanski/Reuters)

(Alex Domanski/Reuters)

Policemen use water canons to remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

Policemen use water canons to remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

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Polizei räumt Schlosspark

Policemen remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

 

What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.

“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.

The question, then, remains:  is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?

 

The Autonomy of Public Space and Art Museums

When visiting the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart today, I encountered the art of Joseph Kosuth, an American conceptual artist who came to prominence in the 1960s. Much of his art questions the value and restrictions of art, expressed through neon letterings, physical books, and copy-printed definitions of words such as “meaning” or  “idea.” Today at the museum, I spent an insane amount of time trying to translate the text of six books at wooden desks, each under a clock indicating different times. This piece creates an interesting thematic comment on the effect of time, how the time and space in which a text is read changes the meaning of the text. All of Kosuth’s art installations evoke a similar form of communication, asking the audience to react or comment upon his ideas.

For this reason, I scrawled  a stick figure in pencil on the blank wall of the art museum next to one of Kosuth’s installations. The guard there (a kind older woman) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was claiming this space as my own or rather inviting the question of ownership. She didn’t stop me, though I’m sure they will wash away the stick man I drew under Kosuth’s neon message.

Visual Space Has Essentially No Owner.

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This piece struck me for some reason. He questions, within the context of a gallery, the sanctity of the gallery. Where art exhibits express that the viewer should not touch or disturb the art, one must also confront the relationship of viewer and art. One view of art, anyways, insists that art cannot exist without the viewer’s eye, since sight itself evokes an image. Without an eye to perceive the art, the art cannot truly exist. This is, of course, debatable. In the same way, art might mean nothing without people to comment upon the art. What does a painting or installation mean without an audience?

If visual space has no owner and the “art museum” is a space for art, then does not the evocation of this idea invite people to draw on the walls? To perform trumpet in the halls of the art museum? To dance, to become art or make art themselves? To reclaim the spaces we have deemed holy, not only the streets but the museums, the galleries? If art must exist in galleries, then why ask the gate-keepers for permission? Why not thrust your voice into the conversation, for the sake of being heard? Claim not ownership but autonomy, because no one’s really stopping you.

And when an a museum guard taps you on the shoulder to ask what the hell you’re doing, answer, “Art.”

She might smile and comment, “I was wondering when someone would finally try that.”

Pilgrimage: Saint Patrick’s Day in Germany

No one, for the entire day in Germany, pinched me for not wearing Green. I’ve been waiting for this moment since 1st grade. Also, apparently it’s “a bit weird” to skip down the street with a joyous countenance as you listen to fantastic songs by the Wombats, feeling as if you’re in a movie and gliding straight through some fantastic adventure.  They also seem a bit perturbed by someone sitting in a trance as they stream the new Kendrick Lamar album on Spotify. The Germans, I believe, can party, but they provide clear and definite borders to places of work and play. They are the living emodiment of the cliche-frat-honors-student-matra work hard, play hard. As seriously as do Germans take work, do they also take their play: a stern businessman might wander into the park, strip into the nude (pubic nudity is allowed in certain areas), and proceed to lay on his back and drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, to only ten minutes alter re-dress and return to work in some skyscraper, the austere mark of a German returning to his face.

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Where these spaces of “play” and “work” become blurred: cafes, bars, where a professors of theology reads the Qur’ran aloud to himself beside a table of rowdy young students PROST!-ing for the fourth time in an hour, suds of hefeweizen splashing down their mugs. But not so mugs with green beer. Here, there exists on Irish Pub and exactly one Irish party this evening. This is to me surprising, because any chance to glorify binge drinking to social drinkers can make bars sees serious green (in this case: money). Otherwise, St. Patty’s has barely been mentioned (other than of course by me) asking others if they knew today was St. Patty’s Day.

Hong Kong: no.

Australia: no.

Italy: no.

Japan: no.

Denmark: Yes, because they can drink.

Otherwise, the day passes on unmarked by puke puddles or garish green baby onesies. Today people sat in parks and spoke lightly (not nude, these imaginary people) of things other than cultural appropriation or how drunk they’re gonna get tonight. The sun winks at us from above, in on this cosmic joke. Below us, a swatch of green, green, green-as-shamrock-on-the-Lucky-Charms-Leprechaun green.

 

 

Pilgrimage: Augustiner Stadt Museum for Art

What I learned at the Museum of Art in Freiburg (old art, new art is next on the list):

1.) Vampires cannot enter here because there exist too many crosses. Most of which are made completely of gold.

2.) Flemish master artists typically enjoy painting four things: Bible stories, shipwrecks, fruit, and dead birds.

3.) I would love to have a pocket-sundial made of gold, just to carry around, pop out, angle in the sun, and figure out perhaps the celestial time and date at any given moment.

4.) The entire museum is a retro-fitted church and a very cool place for the architecture alone. Climb to the top and you can see the rafters above.

5.) Worth the trip for the organ alone. I’ll post a pic on Facebook later.

Augustinermuseum_Skulpturenhalle

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