Disturbing Images as Social Criticism
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article appeared as a "Speaking Out" column in the March 7, 2002, Boulder Weekly.]
Few have visited the old concentration camps and seen the photographs of Jews hanging from posts and piled in mass graves without weeping. I saw Schindler's List in a California community that's largely Jewish, and I'll never forget the violent sobbing in that theater.
I saw Picasso's "Guernica" and contemplated the horrors of war. My grandfather used to tell me stories of how a bomb cut his friends' bodies to pieces during WWII. He had to go out and help clean up the body parts.
"The Rosa Parks Story" on CBS showed the great atrocities inflicted on African Americans just half a century ago.
If we were to follow to its conclusion the strange logic of some Boulder activists, the Holocaust museums should be shut down, Picasso's painting should be taken down and shredded, grandfathers should stop telling children about the horrors of war, and film makers should destroy the prints of socially disturbing films.
To publicize a Feb. 25 event, the University of Colorado's Campus Libertarians distributed a poster that showed a masked, black-clad, jack-booted government storm trooper assaulting Lady Justice with an submachine gun pointed at her throat. The woman obviously symbolized Justice; she wore the traditional blindfold and had dropped her scales. The words "homeland security" were printed on the figure of the government storm trooper. The figures were superimposed on a copy of the U.S. Constitution-that was in flames. The poster advertised a talk about civil liberties.
A few Boulder activists were offended by the poster. They tore down copies of the poster. They placed stickers on some posters that read, "This promotes violence against women." The posters were prohibited in the residence halls. The Cultural Events Board, which helped fund the event, changed its policy on approving posters because of the controversy. A few callers complained to the Office of Sexual Harassment.
If the poster promotes violence against women, then so does the film Boys Don't Cry, for which Hilary Swank won an Oscar. The film shows the brutal beating, rape, and murder of a transgendered woman.
Of course, Boys Don't Cry was criticizing violence, not promoting it. No sane feminist would destroy copies of the film or record over it, "This film promotes violence against women." Was the film disturbing? Of course. Did it make people cry? Yes. Are its social criticisms needed in our society? Absolutely.
So why was the Boulder poster treated differently by some activists? I hope it doesn't have anything to do with unfair stereotyping of libertarians, who after all advocate the civil rights of all persons.
The treatment of the Boulder poster by a few activists is reminiscent the how some right-wing conservatives treat art. Rather than seek out the social meaning of particular works of art, the critics reflexively condemn anything with violent or sexual content. Do reactionaries of the left achieve better understanding?
I recently read Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451. In the book, "firemen" burn books and the homes where books are found. But as the head fireman Beatty explains, the government censors only followed what popular culture already demanded: sweep controversy under the rug, don't offend, don't criticize social problems. In the world of the firemen, people give up serious thought in favor of mindless entertainment, with all social problems safely out of consciousness.
Beyond the poster's symbolic meaning of the government assaulting justice, the poster portrays events that have actually happened in America. At the February 25 event, the Campus Libertarians handed out copies of a Denver Post article that describes a warrantless drug raid in Pueblo. Storm troopers who looked pretty much like the figure on the poster busted into a home, held the residents at gunpoint, and dragged two of the family members off to jail. The ACLU has filed suit against the agencies involved.
David Kopel and Paul Blackman describe another incident in their book, No More Wacos:
"On September 5, 1991, sixty agents from the BATF, DEA, U.S. Forest Service, and National Guard-wearing painted faces and camouflage-raided the homes of Sina Brush and two neighbors in Mountainair, New Mexico. The door was kicked in, and Ms. Brush and her daughter were handcuffed in their underwear and forced to kneel in the middle of a room while agents ransacked their home. No drugs were found."
Perhaps Kopel and Blackman's book is too disturbing. The violence against women it describes is bound to make people cry. Maybe the book should be taken off the bookstore shelves and shredded. Maybe its pages should be stickered over so nobody is upset.
Ironically, Kopel was the guest speaker Feb. 25. (He had nothing to do with the artwork of the poster.) He made an eloquent case that our security is enhanced by freedom and harmed by government attempts to restrict civil liberties.
But a few Boulder activists never heard Kopel's message. They were too offended by artwork that criticized social violence. Kopel's message mirrored Bradbury's in that both authors believe civil rights are ultimately protected by the people. But of course that requires people to think about the social problems that surround them, rather than shut out social criticism because it happens to be disturbing.