The Arty Semite

The Best Intentions: The Culture Project's 'Blueprint for Accountablity'

By Joshua Furst

  • Print
  • Share Share

Monday night at New York University’s Skirball Center, The Culture Project presented its sold out “Blueprint for Accountability: Rule of Law: Torture, Democracy, Privatization, Habeas Corpus,” another of their decade-and-a-half long string of attempts to mix social activism with artistic production.

As Brecht and Orwell and Abbie Hoffman showed, when art and politics are united in an expansive, aesthetically compounding way, the end result can catapult the audience not just intellectually, but emotionally, cellularly toward action. The tradition lives on in the plays of Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill, in Bolano and Coetzee’s best work. The Culture Project itself made a searing statement with their production of “The Exonerated.” That piece consisted of actors reciting — embodying — the oral testimony of wrongly convicted death row inmates to build a case against the death penalty in America. It was stark and direct and wrenching.

Blueprint for Accountability wasn’t nearly so unified. It combined panel discussions with film clips and dramatic readings in an attempt to lay out the historical context of the past 10 years of U.S. foreign policy and make the case for pressing the Obama administration to take decisive action on a number of fronts. It promised to give the audience direction, clarity, in the fight.

Each element of the presentation served a function, even if those functions had little relation to each other.

The film clips provided a historical tutorial, tracking the development of international human rights law from the Nuremburg trials through the creation of the Geneva conventions. One clip detailed the various ways that the U.S. government has used the CIA to circumvent democracy in foreign countries and shirk accountability for its actions. Another reviewed the case against Blackwater. There was a fifteen minute clip from Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. The most bracing and urgent clip of the evening outlined the case of Fahed Hashmi, a U.S. citizen of Muslim descent who was arrested for having let an acquaintance — who turned out to be transporting blankets to Al Qaida — sleep on his couch one night and who’s been held in solitary confinement for three years now.

The panel discussion, by far the most compelling part of the evening, brought insiders, activists and journalists together to debate the subjects the films presented. Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, sat knee to knee with Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal and outed CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson. They were joined periodically by Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Allen Keller of Physicians for Human Rights, and Rose Styron.

This was where the drama in the evening resided. There were calls to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to establish international laws by which to hold mercenary groups like Blackwater accountable for their actions, to roll back the sweeping executive powers established during the Bush administration, and frequently, forcefully, to loud cheers from the audience, to prosecute Bush and Cheney for war crimes. Dr. Keller told the crowd breaking news about his organization’s new findings that the Bush Administration had performed “illegal methodical experimentation on torture in Guantanamo,” and urged a congressional inquiry. But every time a real discussion would get going, it was cut off so that we could hear from the actors.

The actors. It was as though the Culture Project had wanted to stage a panel but was worried that no one would show up. Live Shrieber, Julianna Margulies, James Spader, Matt Dillon, Mariska Hargitay, stars of stage and screen, one and all, each of whom read a first person narrative or two, testimonies and letters and chapters from books. What were they doing there? What did they add? Glamour, I guess. Celebrity. But their contributions were redundant and disruptive and wholly beside the point. They gave the proceedings the feel of a gala, a ritzy charity event.

But who were they speaking to, and what were they proposing their compatriots do?

I’m not sure.

Jeremy Scahill said at one point in the discussion, “Lawyers in these dark times have become the real freedom fighters.” There are a number of reasons for this, one of which being that lawyers feel comfortable at events like this one.

As for the rest of us? We were told to appeal to Obama, to create “a blitzkrieg of grass roots support” for the cause, to go out and match the Tea Partiers sign for sign.

Those in attendance at the Skirball Center last night were only one rarefied sliver of the left. Sure, Haymarket Books, the publishing arm of the International Socialist Workers was there hawking books by Chomsky and Mike Davis and Wallace Shawn. But the excessively well behaved audience consisted almost entirely of New York City’s moneyed elite. There were bespoke suits in pastel colors, silk blouses, tasteful strings of pearls. There were $400 haircuts. A passel of men with stubble beards so carefully groomed one might think they’d had each hair pulled individually from the upper regions of their cheeks. These are powerful people, I’m sure. They can sign petitions and have their names recognized. They can talk and talk and talk, to each other mostly, with great authority over their subject. They, like the lawyers Scahill lionized, feel comfortable at galas and events like the one put on by the Culture Project last night. What I’m not so convinced of is that they can effectively sway public opinion, no matter how many placards they hoist. These are not the sort of ambassadors of the cause to inspire hope and give direction to the lower 98% of the American populace who know at a glance that they don’t belong among such people.

It makes me more than a little bit sad, because no matter how right the message, it’s not going to have much effect if the only audience it’s appealing to is what the right rightly calls the liberal elite.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Culture Project, Skirball Center, Blueprint for Accountability

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.