“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” — Buddha
In spite of the relentless and constant horrors that occur in our daily lives, both at home with the US Supreme Court officially reversing Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion, which had been upheld for nearly half century, and the ongoing sagas of public hearing by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, seeking to lay bare the full magnitude of former president Donald J. Trump’s aggressive attempts to remain in power after the 2020 election, while abroad, members of the NATO military alliance welcomed Sweden and Finland to “accession protocols” as the Russia-Ukraine war in the outskirts of the Luhansk region intensifies, we have no choice but to re-ask ourselves what are the primary functions of liberal democracy’s two opposing parties, the party of liberty and the party of equality? We’ve experienced in recent years the excessive love of liberty that has not only led to a political tyranny of the majority but also the tyranny of public opinion which presides over the possibility of people thinking outside of the equal views of the many.
Just as we thought these emphatic differences between the party of individual liberty and the party of membership that is defined by relationship with others, namely Soviet Communism, the very idea of collectivism of the state in the latter as opposed to liberal democracy, the primacy of the individual in the former has gone away since the end of the Cold War in 1991, we’re indeed reminded of what Alexis de Tocqueville described, as he wrote in the midst of Jacksonian populism in 1830s, that liberal democracy properly understood means to imply that extreme equality and extreme liberty are likely to coincide: “One can imagine an extreme point at which freedom and equality touch each other and intermingle, then with one different from those like him, no one will be able to exercise tyrannical power. Men will be perfectly free because they will be entirely equal, and they will be perfectly equal because they will be entirely free.” As we see on the left the explosion of individuality that seems to undermine tradition or past culture, while on the right the delinking of the individual as likely results of economic conditions that are susceptible to global economy.
Again, in addition to the issue of global repudiation against American liberal hegemony abroad while at home, with the recent shootings during the recent Fourth of July parade that took the lives of seven people and injured thirty-eight others in suburban Chicago, along with twenty-one others who were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde County, Texas, on May 24. Violent images of Columbine High School massacre, Virginia Tech shooting, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Stoneman Douglas High School loom large as an urgent and grim reminder that in this nation civilians own nearly 400 million firearms, and children are more likely to die from gun violence than in any other high-income country. And the dangers young people face from firearms go far beyond school shootings, which in fact account for only a fraction of all gun-related deaths. Here, de Tocqueville’s confession that “It is not good to be alone” seems to predict the growing rates of loneliness that leads to perpetual feelings of anxiety, and suicide. What appears as friendly abundances of consolidated information feeds on our phones, along with endless social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, etc.— are simply poor substitutions for the real things, real people who we can interact with in real time, in real situations, in real space where the art of joining is concretely real. However much fragility American democracy is resting upon, its history has been consistently argued back and forth between the two concepts of equality and liberty: Be it the eighty five articles and essays of the Federalist Papers (1787–88); the two indispensable volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America (1835 and 1840); be it Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essential Self-Reliance (1841) that inspired Henry David Thoreau’s legendary lecture The Rights and Duties of the Individuals in Relation to Government which in turn became his timeless essay Civil Disobedience (1849); be it the editorial brilliance of Margaret Fuller in Dial magazine (1840 and 1929), in addition to her equally essential book Women in the 19th Century, which had a monumental influence on the works of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and endless advocates and activists of International Women Suffrage Alliance, and beyond. Here I should mention the cosmic energy and optimism that came alive in Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871), along with the founding of American Pragmatism, led to Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, was naturally extended to John Dewey in the latter quarter of nineteen century, and so on and so forth. The argument has always been how to activate the space in the middle as a participatory democracy, in the form of a town hall, a public sphere, without which divisions are easily amplified hence giving greater advantages to Demagogue personalities or so-called Strongmen who seek to upset the balance between the fifty percent of that belongs to the tyranny of the majority, and the fifty percent that is solely dictated by the tyranny of the minority. In other words, if the art of joining is non-existent, the rise of a new democratic despotism is imminently inevitable.
It’s precisely in this middle space that we must activate at any time, at any place, and at any condition. Knowing what we do as an evolving community of artists, poets, writers, musicians, among other creatives, is essential in letting our lives be a counter-friction to stop the machine. It’s our most fruitful endeavor to amplify social intimacy, to cultivate slowness of culture over speed that breeds the concept of social distancing.
Happy summer with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. We’re grateful to Nick Bennett for his brilliant work as our director of programs, from having organized several key exhibitions, from Occupy Mana in 2017, Occupy Colby 2019 to our immersive collateral project Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum with a robust interdisciplinary public programming bringing together artists, scientists, scholars, poets, writers, and musicians focusing on environment and climate change. Not to mention his usual aptitude for overseeing our ever-popular daily Zoom NSE (New Social Environment lunchtime conversations), which has reached over 600 episodes. We’re so happy to know that while Nick is attending his graduate school at Hunter College and his eventual phD, he will remain as an editor of our River Rail publication. Meanwhile we welcome Chloe Stagaman as Nick’s successor, who has already shown a natural proclivity for this unique stewardship. We are delighted to have Tyhe Cooper and Elinor Krichmar as full time members of our core staff team. Lastly, we never felt so invigorated to have Louis Block and Jorja Rae Willis as our co-managing directors, both of whom have already established themselves as seasoned leaders. Together with a profound sense of renewal, the Rail is poised to enter a new chapter with endless exciting projects, including the curatorial project Singing in Unison, currently on view at TOTAH through August 12, the Scully Tomasko Foundation through September 1, and at Ricco/Maresca through September 10, as well as our forthcoming part six at Industry City and part seven at Miguel Abreu in September (TBA). Please stay tuned.