Perhaps the only profound thing said by Stokely Carmichael during the Black Power era was that power is the ability to define. That is what we are seeing in Iran by the second: thousands upon thousands of citizens refusing to allow a moment to be defined by the guys in power, who are known to play rough and bloody until you knuckle under, spitting out teeth and breathing red bubbles. This is not new. Freedom is always about the cost of being inside of the dialogue and having the latitude to offer an opinion or a perspective that just might be outside of the halls of functioning power.
As we watch Iranians beaten and shot by the men whose job it is to represent the naked force of the state, it is not hard to recall all of the terrible images of “the Southern way of life” that helped to fuel the civil-rights movement because those images brought our country closer to its ideals. Television pulled the mask off and ripped loose the layer of bucolic facial skin until we saw all of the intimidation, torture, and murder distinguishing the true tissue. The sheer unconstitutional nature of that “way of life” below the Mason-Dixon Line became clear in the execution of laws intended more for containment than any actual form of civilized democratic life. Segregation always meant either the quiet or the violent form of a race riot.
As we watch Iranians beaten and shot by the men whose job it is to represent the naked force of the state, it is not hard to recall all of the terrible images of “the Southern way of life” that helped to fuel the civil-rights movement because those images brought our country closer to its ideals.
The Nazis understood the power of cameras and were sure to clean up their act for the 1936 Olympics when the world, civilized or barbarically colonized, came to visit and watch athletes sweat and pant their way to victory or to defeat. Hitler and his gang were not yet ready for everyone to know what the Jews of Germany already knew: Shovel after shovel of totalitarian dung was about to hit the fan.
Monsters like Stalin and Mao, who were in a photo finish with Hitler for the bloody crown of best and most thorough repression conceived in modern times, also knew the power of cameras. Big liars and even bigger murderers know that factual images have the power to tear new assholes beneath the seats of totalitarian pants. That is why news in film or word is one of the first things to be banned, obliterated, or so distorted that it becomes not news but press releases for the government.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the Nazi propagandists were unaware of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a work in which an innovative cinematic genius and the pure superstition of hard-core racism created a highly influential and toxic masterpiece essential to the justification of that “Southern way of life.” As Griffith, the first redneck genius of Hollywood, would have it, white women and the social order were to be defended at all terrorist costs to Negroes. Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz said it another way, “Kill the blacks!” That would usually bring about resentful order among the darkies.
As usual, however, the trouble had by black Americans mirrors much of what goes on in the modern world when plenty of bull jive has been pumped into the game.
Since the 1960s, Eastern European writers, African novelists and filmmakers, and the new writing emerging from China all cohere to give us a collective vision of repression that can no more be justified by context than rape. We find that, as Susan Sontag discovered late in her life, there was more to what was wrong with communism than merely not having had the time to get it right, which was always the explanation for why it was so consistently screwed up. Actually, it was most pure when it was not democratic, when it showed no respect for individual rights, and when it substituted propaganda for what would have been a more than uncomfortable truth.
Whatever we think about the various representatives of paranoid bile, the ideological bulldogs who never answer the whistle of reality, and the seemingly endless line of bullshitters who have been either in charge or in enormously influential positions—like the totalitarian Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy—our form of democracy is built for and intended to eventually handle what was once known merely as the truth but is now called “transparency.”
Barack Obama renewed American patriotism by reiterating throughout his campaign a collective rallying call to epic historical recognition. He made it clear how all Americans had benefited from the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the abolition movement and the Civil War, collective bargaining and women’s suffrage, the victory over European fascism during World War II, and the civil-rights movement. All of those things were responses to what was found to be wrong with the way the world worked at large or how our own world worked.
So our future president made it clear that this nation is as much about its vision of freedom as it is about the battles we have fought with the establishment comprised of our own shortcomings. With that redefinition of patriotism, Obama snatched love of country from the greasy jowls of Rush Limbaugh and the crew. They have not gotten it back, either: Their model is now out of date because it is based on too much denial of the blue facts rising from our national history. Pride free of denial is a new plateau and, as we can now clearly see, many are called but few are chosen from the most determined and mindless version of the conservative ideology.
Russian communism was perforated and perhaps mortally wounded by the technology that overcame the well-established efforts of the party to dominate the definition of democratic Western life, which was richer and freer on every level but had been stridently denied for decades until satellite dishes, videotapes, and so on brought the horrible truth home, straight, no chaser. In short, the truth did to the Reds what it had done to the rednecks in our own land. It let everybody know exactly what they were and how ruthlessly their system was given to the desperate pornography of propaganda.
If the Iranians do well enough, things could change so much for them that they might someday produce their own version of Barack Obama, someone whose ascent from among the lowly was made possible by how technology was used to counter the dehumanizing stereotypes it once held so firmly in place.
The tragic optimism of our democracy means that we can face even the most hideous aspects of the truth, perhaps learn from them, and move on to meet our newest troubles, all of which are as inevitable as the human will to do battle with them, like it or not.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.