warming up to write while processing the ferguson decision
I'd really hoped to have finished rewriting/reinventing the essay I'd planned to post by now, but between my usual morning distractedness and the amount of chatter going around about last night's events, I haven't quite gotten there. I guess I'm warming myself up in public, today.
A black teenager, born in 1996, who did not have a gun, was shot and killed by a white adult whose job is to protect citizens and uphold the law. Boiled down to the most simple statement of fact, this is what we know. We also know that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will not go to trial to determine his level of culpability in the shooting of Mike Brown. The rest of the facts are slowly coming to the surface and passed through a sieve that is worn from too many opinions and generalizations and not enough thought.
As a writer I suffer great disappointment and simultaneous elation at the fact that in 2014 one must be a cable news talking head or a highly published author in order to be a recognizable figure of original thought. The examples we have do their jobs well... Ta-hanisi Coates, Malcolm Gladwell and Melissa Harris-Perry are bastions of deeply considered opinions, but they aren't part of the popular culture rhetoric. Kanye West tried, bless his heart--he just doesn't have the right balance of IQ and crazy to pull it off. Ani DiFranco was the artist-activist I held onto as a college student, but now she's living quietly on a farm somewhere. Banksy's rogue productions are certainly a wide-reaching form of art activism, but (s)he is the closest I can come up with to an American pop-culture superstar who uses their stage to inform while they entertain.
inform while they entertain
There's the rub. When did Americans abandon knowledge for anything that glitters? In an essay on the topic,Jean Bethke Elshtain, who was a political philosopher and ethicist, wrote:
“The American temperament invites wariness toward intellectuals. Because they are generally better at living in their heads than at keeping their feet on the ground, intellectuals are more vulnerable than others to the seductions of power that come with possessing a worldview whose logic promises to explain everything, and perhaps, in some glorious future, control and manage everything. The 20th century is littered with the disastrous consequences of such seductions, many of them spearheaded and defined by intellectuals who found themselves superseded, or even destroyed, by ruthless men of action once they were no longer needed as apologists, provocateurs, and publicists. ”
— Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Why Public Intellectuals?: In an age of ceaseless technological change, the need for historical and ethical perspective on public questions is greater than ever"
Has this wariness turned to indifference, or will the events of last night finally push our celebrity glitterati to engage and discuss? Someone has to get our young people talking, because the skim-the-top, YOLO attitudes prevailing today threaten to follow what seems to be a path of regression.
As I sadly watched the anguished reactions of my friends and colleagues across social media, Nina Simone's rendition of Oscar Brown's "Brown Baby" went on a recurring loop in my head. While we wait for the country to have a real conversation about justice and to whom it applies, let's look to the artist-activists who got our parents (and grandparents, I suppose) talking several years ago.