Back to the barricades

By GREG COOK  |  October 22, 2008

So now, on the eve of an election in which we look again to replace a Texas president who led the nation into an ill-considered war, Tribe’s project raises questions about the parallels between now and then, and about the effectiveness of politically engaged art and activism. In particular, what is its relevance with Bush on his way out and the prospect of some sort of winding down in Iraq?

Unearthing the past
“The people who engage in civil disobedience are engaging in the most petty of disorders in order to protest against mass murder,” a lanky actor said into microphones at a temporary podium before a small crowd in sunny, leafy Boston Common.

It was July 2007, and Tribe had hired the performer to recite a speech given there in 1971 by Howard Zinn, the Boston-area activist, historian, and World War II veteran, urging civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. “We need to do something to disturb that calm, smiling, murderous president in the White House,” the actor said. The audience applauded.

“So let’s restore the meaning of words,” the actor continued. “And let’s tell the world that the government has committed high crimes, and that we don’t want to continue being accomplices to these crimes. And to do that we have to say that in every way our consciousness compels and in every way our imaginations suggest.” The crowd clapped again — endorsing Zinn’s words as a sort of past-present anti-Vietnam-Iraq, anti-Nixon-Bush charge.

“The two things that the reenactment and the original event have in common are the text of the speech and the location,” Tribe explains. “What makes it so strange is you’re standing in the same place that somebody stood 40 years ago hearing the same speech, but the world has changed around you.”

Zinn, now 86, was invited to the performance but didn’t attend, and he hasn’t seen the video.

But he tells me that Tribe’s project is “a good idea especially, because it’s so important for people to remember Vietnam now that we’re bogged down in a war that has a number of similar characteristics to Vietnam. And since the government has been trying to bury the memory of Vietnam so people won’t think about it . . . This is a way of giving historical perspective to what’s going on now and a way of bringing attention to what’s going on now, but bringing attention in a way that gives some historical depth to what’s going on now.

“I think the Vietnam experience is a very crucial one in getting people to understand that what’s happening now is not an aberration, it’s a continuation of American foreign policy, which has been based for a long time on fear and deception and a militarist approach to world problems.”

Art and politics
Last month in New York, Tribe wrapped up the performance part of Port Huron by staging the sixth and final re-enactment. Now he’s organizing exhibits of videos documenting the events and plans to turn them into a book and DVD.

How to gage Port Huron’s effectiveness? It has already attracted favorable write-ups in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and New York magazine — even though the project is only beginning to appear in galleries.

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