September 25, 2008

Peter Hong is Now the News

The Newseum is a new cultural history center in Washington D.C. which seems to have been designed specifically for people with attention deficit disorder who like big shiny things. My own experience of visiting was in turns surreal, alarming, and a freaky reminder of what shaped this citizen's own cultural history. But I'll begin at the beginning...

When you enter the cavernous glass enclosure that is the Newseum, you are politely asked by one of the volunteers how precisely you plan to have your Newseum experience - - will you start in the interactive news area, at one of the theaters, or at one of the various permanent exhibition spaces? My first impulse was to respond that I'd like to have it alone, thanks, but instead I said "Oh I think I will just explore everything, just wander." This was not the correct answer. Rather than have my own experience, I was advised by the volunteer to watch the orientation film in the media room to my right. And to do so NOW, thank you. Only after being oriented should I proceed on, and explore this wonderful beacon of light, this paean to freedom of expression.

Um, no.

My first stop was in the exhibition area displaying (through text, photographs, audio news clips, video, etc.) the "Story of the News"; of particular interest were details about the underground news movement during World War II. Another compelling exhibition presented the impact of press freedoms (or lack thereof) in countries around the world, and one honored journalist who have died while covering conflicts. Yet another exhibition area contained a section of the Berlin Wall and a display of international coverage of the end of the Cold War.

I was getting the message: news is truth, and truth news, especially in times of war. And then I entered the grotesque, gaudy, shiny, loud multi-level shrine to the events and news coverage of 9/11.

It was at this moment that I realized the Newseum was a Cliffs Notes version of the segments of history that are deemed to matter only to people of my generation. I came of age in the Reagan era, in that neoconservative wordcloud about welfare moms, the crack epidemic, tearing down that wall, wilding, AIDS and the devil, free markets, trickle down. This summer was my 20th college reunion, and this fall it will be 24 years since we re-elected Reagan, 24 years since I walked out of the student union at my small liberal Midwestern college on the morning after the landslide election and saw this phrase on a sign hung from a tree: "What Have We Done?"

I decided I needed some air.

There is an outdoor balcony at the Newseum that offers a great view of DC, and just inside the museum on this level is a display area containing the front pages of newspapers from around the world. This display is continued on the street level, outside, so that anyone can come up to the museum any day and read wide range of headlines (in dozens of languages) and stories deemed newsworthy at the moment. After exploring the balcony and the view, I went back inside and started to read the front pages, and realized a young man with a college t-shirt on was doing the same nearby. His t-shirt was from Carleton College, my alma mater.

I acknowledged him as a fellow traveler (a recent graduate) and we talked about the campus, the current college president, the state of things. With all the zeal of a recent convert, he encouraged me to go back to campus some time and to stay connected. I demurred. I told him that when I was on campus, it was a strange era for a conscious person: College Republicans were coming up and taking over, sexual harassment issues were just (barely) being grappled with, divestment, race (and the significance of it), and disease were the campus issues of the day. There was actually nothing enjoyable about that time.

My sense of displacement from the reality we all supposedly share did not begin at the Newseum, but that certainly accentuated it; being at Carleton in the 80's is likely what started it. Even then I could not (as many could and still cannot) reconcile the real and the rational with what was coming out of the mouths of our political leaders. And the very young and impressionable adherents of the Reagan Revolution on our small but relevant-in-the-zeitgeist-campus functioned in a manner that I found confusing, and then, outright scary. The campus was fully co-ed, but the College Republicans were well-mannered, hardcore misogynists all. Among other activities, they defended - - through complaint, publicity, rumor, threat - - behaviors by male students and male professors that were frankly indefensible. They caused damage.

Flash forward 20+ years: this is the summer of the "history changing" campaign, the possible beginning of a revision to a philosophy of governance, a possible re-emergence of valuing something like contextual thinking, of pragmatism. An inkling of a movement forward.

And meanwhile in St. Paul, the grown up Reagan Revolution-ites, including my classmate from Carleton, Peter Hong, are (like Newseum's wall of images of 9/11) forever, horrifically, stuck in time...and doing exactly what they have always done.

September 9, 2008

The Great White North

Whiteness is in the news a great deal these days, as Sarah Palin is being paraded across the national stage, presented as the whitest woman with the whitest values from the whitest state in the nation (the lives and histories of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Palin exemplifies that Northwest "frontier spirit", otherwise known as sneering small-town contempt for the non-Alaska world. She is the ultimate anti-Obama.

I was in Toronto when she made her debut at the Republican Convention and the denizens of that northern city were not very impressed one way or the other. They have their own version of whiteness up there, and it is quieter and more refined that what those "Alaska hicks" put on display. Alaskan whiteness pales (yes I said it) in comparison to Toronto's, and the cool demeanors there make Palin see m hysterical by comparison.

In celebration of all this relentless whiteness, I visited the McMichael Collection (a private museum and estate originally founded by art collectors in Ontario in the early 1950's and later donated to the Canadian government) which houses only Canadian art. Specifically, the McMichael has a huge collection of work from the Group of Seven, and six of the Seven are actually buried on the museum's bucolic grounds. So essentially the McMichael is a shrine to the memories of the pristine landscape of Ontario-that-was, and a shrine to the memories of a group of dead white male Canadian painters.

These artists gained renown in the 1920's through capturing the landscape around them with both a nationalist and a theosophist bent, displaying through their art the spiritual essence of their world in a unique way (the lives and the artwork of the native citizens of the area notwithstanding.) Much of the work, particularly Harris', has a strange, soft geometry of form. Emily Carr, of Vancouver fame, was later an appendage of the Group of Seven, to her detriment I think; only one of her paintings was on display here.Thankfully there was a small collection of First Nations artwork at the McMichael as well, to give some counterweight, and the paintings by Alex Janvier were totally fascinating.

Fascinating, too, was the experience of walking the grounds and seeing the natural models for many of the Group of Seven's subjects: white pines, horsetail, the white-golden light on the trees. I was impressed with the organic art history lesson around me. As I walked I could grasp what the Group of Seven sought to do, to (forcefully) imbue their canvasses with an intense spiritual or emotional sense that was so very fleeting in the real world. They loved their place and wanted to sustain it, but only the beautiful parts. That was what they wanted you to care about. And that was all they wanted you to talk about when you talked about their country. They used a warm method but the message was cold: the newly settled European-white world of Canada, its landscapes and country houses and lakes, was the world that must be defended.

Of course Alaska has a similar un-peopled beauty, and Palin and her compatriots obviously feel that they are the chosen managers and defenders of this possible northern launchpoint for the Rapture. And they too want you to care and talk about what matters most in that management and in that defense -- in the very whitest terms.