Art 1, Lego 0


Until I stepped off the boat at Alcatraz last April, I had no idea who Ai Weiwei is. But I’m glad that I found out.

Weiwei is an artist and a political dissident in his Chinese homeland. He created an exhibit that was on display inside Alcatraz, but was not allowed to leave China to see it for himself. He’s not a physical prisoner the way that Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island, but when your freedom of movement is curtailed you are, in fact, a prisoner.

I probably would have enjoyed Alcatraz well enough if the exhibit had not been on display, but its presence made it mean so much more. It opened up new parts of the island that I otherwise would not have seen, and it raised issues about incarceration and why governments engage in it. Sometimes violent crimes are involved, but other times a criminal’s only real crime is opposing the powers that be.

To make this point the likenesses of dozens–176, to be exact–of political prisoners were rendered in pixilated fashion, as shown above. It was possible, for those who wanted to, to learn more about the identities of these prisoners, why they were being held as prisoners of conscience, and to write to the governments and make a plea for their release. I’d be lying if I said I remembered who I wrote a postcard for–it seemed like a compelling enough story, though–but it felt like something concrete that could be done on behalf of personal and intellectual freedom around the world.

The pixilation effect was created by using colored Legos against a white background. I realized from the exhibit that Legos have an artistic function that I had not considered before. And the plastic composition of the blocks gave the art a sturdiness that other mediums could not match.

When Weiwei attempted to place a bulk order for Legos in advance of his upcoming exhibit in Australia, the request was denied by he company who make the blocks. They claimed that their products could not be used for making a political statement, and filling the bulk order would signify their endorsement of Weiwei’s message.

The purpose of a business is to sell their product to whoever wants to have it. And bulk orders are the best thing, because it means more sales. Or at least it does unless the block-sellers are themselves trying to send a political message of not wanting to offend the Chinese government. It’s an act of expediency on their part, perhaps, but it will also bring lots of condemnation, as it should.

Art is vital for furthering the human condition on earth. It calls on people to think, to question, and reevaluate the things they either actively do themselves, or passively allow to be done in their names.  I’m certainly willing to say that incarceration is abused in this country, given that more people are behind bars in this country than any other nation on earth (including China, which has several times the population that the U.S. has).  If 30 years of the War On Drugs has proven anything, it’s that legalizing and regulating marijuana might have been part of the solution all along.

Over the next couple of days, I plan to go through my house and see what we have in the way of Legos. My 12 and 16 year-olds aren’t going to play with them any more, and sending what I can find to Ai Weiwei for his purposes will be a tangible effort to aid the cause of artistic expression, and prevent the type of corporate grandstanding that the Lego people are engaging in. And it may also save me the trouble of donating them to a thrift shop someday. It seems like a winning proposition, all the way around.

A day to honor Lincoln


image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

O Beautiful

Obama Selma 50th (18)

I witnessed a moment of history today, watching President Obama’s speech at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. In a nation still marked by racial strife–witness the Ferguson report and the killing of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin–the president did what presidents are supposed to do: lead and inspire the people.

The entire speech is as good a history lesson as you’ll ever find. America is always striving to better itself, instead of returning to an idyllic past that never existed in the first place. The president has rhetorical and oratorical gifts, and he turned them all the way up to 11 today. The moment demanded nothing less.

Thank you for your words, Mr. President. You brilliantly captured the importance of the day, both in recognizing the struggles at Selma and elsewhere, and challenging us to press ahead with the work of making America better in the days ahead. We will all do well to take your words, and the sacrifices of John Lewis and others, to heart.

Paying the price

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

The decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown last summer ripped the scab off a wound that hadn’t healed up yet. It’s a wound that can never heal, not so long as young men can be murdered in a public place, in broad daylight, and left to decompose in full public view for more than four hours. That should never happen in a respectful, civilized society.

In the interregnum between the killing of Michael Brown, and the prosecutor’s decision that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for his actions, there wasn’t much in the way of constructive dialogue about the situation that exists between black and white in this country. The gulf between the races feels wider than I’ve ever known it in my lifetime. And the increased sense of drifting apart concerns me even more.

For every Michel Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, there are many more names that aren’t reported in the media. And each and every time it happens, the names change but the equation never does: Black man+white man+physical altercation=death. And the white man is then believed in court, while the black man has no chance to tell his side of the story. Why? Because dead men make terrible witnesses.

It felt as if the prosecutor in this case couldn’t stomach the idea of putting a white officer on trial, for the act of shooting an unarmed black kid. He was big, he was high, he was a thief, and he got what was coming to him. A hundred witnesses, each one telling exactly the same story, wouldn’t have made a difference to him. In his mind, Darren Wilson was allowed to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner. The platitudes that he spouted off while reading his statement to the media don’t change this inalterable fact: Michel Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson now walks free.

The shooting and its aftermath have already exacted a heavy toll on the financial resources of Ferguson, St. Louis County, and the state of Missouri. Insurance monies will be paid out to the businesses that were destroyed, and that won’t be cheap, either. But all of those things–whatever their final costs end up being–can be tabulated. Damaged or destroyed property can always be repaired or replaced, provided that there is the money and the will to have it done. Parts of Ferguson probably resemble a war zone right now, and they will continue to for a long time to come.

But the real price of the shooting and its aftermath can’t be measured in terms of money. Rather, it is the value of Michael Brown’s life that has been lost, and there’s no way to know exactly what that would be. Maybe he would have done good things with his life, and maybe he wouldn’t. We’ll never get the chance to find out.

But even more impossible to measure–and ultimately repair–is the damage that has been done to people’s faith in the judicial system. If people, whether black, white, brown, or any other hue don’t trust that the system works for them, there’s nothing that will bring that back. So they rage against everything and everything that they can. CNN brought proof of this into our living rooms all night long.

I’ve heard and read the term “exoneration” applied to Darren Wilson, but I don’t think it applies here. Yes, he has cleared a legal hurdle in front of him, thanks to a sympathetic prosecutor.  But the blood of Michael Brown will be on his hands for as long as he walks the earth, though not in a literal sense.

For all the damage he has done, both to Michael Brown personally and to everyone who has been disillusioned by the grand jury’s decision, Darren Wilson cannot possibly atone. He was allowed to walk free in a legal sense, but our society will have to pay the ultimate price for what he did that afternoon.

An idling bus


Yesterday I came upon a bus, idling away as it was waiting to pick up passengers at a community center suburban Chicago.

I walked past the bus, and as I did I felt its large exhaust pipe, spewing warm fumes into the air. I asked myself why the bus was left running, as nobody had gotten on board yet, or was even in sight at that moment. But the engine kept on running, and whatever the combustive process was, it kept on spitting out its results.

This week, a report was issued by the government, confirming what most of us already know: this planet is in trouble. Emissions, in the way of greenhouse gases, are threatening our long-term survival. And yet the bus keeps on idling, and we keep on doing what we’ve always done.

The bus began loading maybe four or five minutes later, and within ten minutes it was on its way. The fumes were still escaping from the bus, but it felt less wasteful because at least people were going from one place to another.

One bus won’t spell the difference between saving the planet and seeing 125 degree temperatures on a regular basis. But the symbolic meaning of an idling bus might be significant. All of us can make decisions to reduce emissions and/or waste. We can’t do anything more than that, but we can do something. And if we want to continue living here, we must.

He loved Big Brother


George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the few books I’ve read multiple times. I first read it back in high school–and it might actually have been in 1984–because a teacher assigned it to me. In fact, I still have the paperback copy that I acquired in the bookstore of a high school that no longer exists. It followed me to college, and has remained in my book collection ever since. It’s not the longest-standing book I have, but it’s certainly one of them.

I read the book again in the mid-1990s, because I was tutoring a high school student who was also reading it at the time. The book had more meaning to me in my 20s than it did in high school. I found that it was still an engaging read.

Yesterday I finished reading the book for a third time, in preparation for a book club discussion at work. I think of this as a perk of working in the publishing industry. The bound version that I have also includes Animal Farm, and I intend to read that shortly, as well. But 1984 was the title at hand, and I re-re-read it, with twenty years of life experience that I didn’t have the last time around.

The funny thing is that I relate to the book’s principal character, Winston Smith, in a way that I never could before. He seemed like a broken-down old man the first times that I read it, and now I’m closer to being him myself. And I found myself frightened of the world Orwell describes, in a way I had never been before.

A world where love and independent thought and departure from social norms aren’t allowed to exist–and the impulses for these things are stomped out through physical torture–is completely abhorrent to me. And yet, as I was reading the book, I found that human apathy and passiveness are the conditions which would allow such a state to take hold. And there’s plenty of those to go around.

Things like science and literature were anathema to the world of Ingsoc, and the ruling Party that Winston upholds before straying from it. The Thought Police was the mechanism that was used to rule society, by any and all means necessary. Winston and his girlfriend Julia hated the Party, and they hated Big Brother, but the Party could not allow them to stray from the societal herd. It’s a vision of society which every single dystopian novel, from The Giver to Divergent, owes an enormous debt.

The book is divided into three parts, and I devoured the final part over the course of a few hours yesterday. I hurtled through the last few chapters, reading of the extreme cruelty inflicted upon Winston in the Ministry of Love. And the final few pages, when the story comes to its heartbreaking conclusion, were read amid the tumult of intermission at a high school talent performance. The bedlam of teenagers greeting the friends and family who had come to watch them perform was exactly the sonic background needed to bring such a compelling read to its conclusion.

At one point in the book, before things go bad for Winston, he states that “Truisms are true, hold onto that!” The book uses the example of “2+2=4” over and over again to impress it’s point on the reader. If the Party says that 2+2=5, loyalty demands that this point be believed. 2+2 could also equal 3, if that’s what the Party decides. And nobody is allowed to think any differently, lest they be tortured as Winston was.

The book broke my heart, particularly when Winston and his former love Julia meet near the end of the book. The Party did a number on both of them, and the result is the type of a numbed existence that no one would ever want to experience for themselves.

Truisms are true, and independent thought–even if it means deviating from what the rest of society believes–is essential. A dying George Orwell posited this many decades ago, and we would do well to keep his words close to our hearts today.


How about some Mitch Dogg?

In response to the #mcconnelling challenge from Jon Stewart, I found one that really seems to work. Depending on where it starts, McConnell’s fist pump with the two older ladies is either at “Swisher sweets” or “ball out.” You can’t lose either way, really.

Thanks to Snoop Dogg, Ray J, Slim, and Nate Dogg, as well as Mitch McConnell and Jon Stewart. It all came together quite beautifully.

Fun with the internet


It’s late and I need to sleep, but this is too funny. The recent campaign ad for Mitch McConnell was 2 minutes of scenes without any words, just a weird music soundtrack. But thanks to something called YouDubber, the soundtrack can be varied to suit your tastes. Try it for yourself by clicking on the link below:

When the screen comes up, leave the top link alone (That’s Mitch, and it’s his party) and paste in a youtube link on the bottom. The start time on the audio can be manipulated, if desired. Then it’s just a matter of hitting the combine button and enjoying the show!

Make sure to put the link on Twitter with the hashtag #mcconnelling. Or just follow the link and see what the online community has already come up with. It’s as much fun as can be had with Mitch McConnell’s visage, that’s for sure.

Jon Stewart nails it


I admire Abraham Lincoln like no one else. I think he is the reason that slavery came to an end in this nation, and he took a stand that ultimately cost him his own life in order to see to it that slavery disappeared. And suggestions to the contrary never have–and never will–make any sense to me.

So when someone comes along to suggest that Lincoln did something wrong by fighting the Civil War to end slavery, that person needs to be called out. That person needs to understand things that they either didn’t learn or have chosen to deny, for whatever reason. And Jon Stewart, with some help from three History professors, did exactly that. It’s a joy to watch.