This past Friday evening, I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC for a tribute to Leonard Bernstein. It was a full evening of beautiful, moving selections from various musicals showing Bernstein’s eclectic musical talents, passion for optimism and love amidst the darkness of our times, as well as a true commitment to address issues of injustice and oppression.
Walking on the outdoor terrace on a beautiful late summer evening in DC, viewing the landscape of iconic DC buildings and landmarks, including the neighboring Watergate, I was aware of the grandeur and majesty of the architecture of the Center which opened in the early 70’s. Whether one likes the architecture or not, the building awakens in us a reminiscence of a time in Washington DC, that, despite political ideology, abuse of power, bipartisanship or racial and economic inequality, there was a deep understanding that in order to maintain and grow as a culture, society or even civilization, we need to honor, cherish and nurture the arts in all forms.
It is rumored that when asked to cut finding for the arts to pay for the war effort of World War 2, Winston Churchill responded with, “Then what are we fighting for?”
Standing on that terrace during the intermission, my heart open and inspired by the transcendent music and nostalgia for a past era, I reflected on the current state of the arts and arts funding in this nation and the utter breakdown of decorum, respect and civility in our Executive and Legislative branches. I thought to myself, “How did we get here? How did we get to the point where we sit and watch our country be taken over by a celebrity, his rich cronies and religious zealots who have turned governing into a reality TV show or video war game?”
I’m sure each one of us has our own spin on the story. Looking at it from an historical perspective, one might say it started with President Reagan and a fraction of our country who have systematically weakened our education programs and support of the arts, and broke down necessary regulations to keep the rich, the media and corporations in check. There are many in this country who have been guided into a mistrust – and even hatred – of artists, intellectuals and those advocating for the pursuit of truth. Tax breaks for the rich and missiles have become more attractive to the average American over the arts and liberal arts education.
Upon signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts in 1965, Lyndon Johnson said: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
After the intermission, one of the most poignant selections was a number from a not-too-well-known musical Bernstein wrote with Alan Jay Lerner in 1976 called “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”. In response to the Nixon scandal, it was a chance to reflect on how the integrity of our nation, represented by the White House (the house of the people) had been infiltrated by corruption and a breakdown of the highest values of this country. It is a beautiful, lyrical, melancholic piece called, “Take Care of this House”, which was sung by the character of First Lady Abigail Adams.
It was quite ironic that just the day before I led a Peace Meditation called “Occupy Your Heart” in front of the White House in honor of the United Nations International Day of Peace. A group of us sat in silence while tourists and protestors from around the world were impacted by our heart-filled stillness, modeling the first step to Lasting Peace – the silence to be able to listen in a respectful way.
I’m including the lyrics to the Bernstein number for you to see:
Here in this shell of a house,
this house that is struggling to be.
falling through the hall,
coming straight through the wall,
is hope staring down at me,
but there’s nothing you can see
sadness will flow down a cheek
courage stand out like a tree
Joy, joy is as bright
as a comet in flight.
but hope isn’t easy to see.
Take Care Of This House
keep it from harm
if bandits break in sound the alarm
Care for this house
shine it by hand
and keep it so clean
the glow can be seen all over the land.
be careful at night,
check all the doors,
if someone makes off with a dream
the dream will be yours.
TAKE CARE OF THIS HOUSE
be always on call
for this house is the home of us all.
Be careful at night
check all the doors
if someone makes off with a dream
the dream will be yours.
TAKE CARE OF THIS HOUSE
be always on call,
for this house its the home of us all.
I have to say, it was chilling and painful to sit in this prestigious theatre listening to this beautiful, heroic number with many people most likely representing all aspects of the political spectrum, all of us reflecting on who currently occupies that very house. I can’t speak for others, but it was a visceral moment of recognition sitting in the juxtaposition of this elevated experience in this arts center and at the same time feeling the reality of the state of our country. The person currently occupying the White House represents a nation that has lost its vision and covenant for decency and basic dignity for all.
This song is a call to action to each of us to be sure to care for the integrity and sovereignty of our nation. Yet here we sit, in our “dress-up clothes”, with some level of affluence and privilege, no more than a mile from the White House, and passively watch us lose everything that house represents and that is rightfully ours.
“How did we get here?” I thought again with tears in my eyes. In past blog posts since the election in November, I have named a few possible reasons:
- We stopped listening
- We stopped showing respect to those who are different
- We have allowed the consumer giants and corporate media wear us down into a state of apathy and confusion
- We have allowed the loudest in congress to bully us into submission.
- We have bought into the idea that our representatives in congress and in the White House – who originally were hired to serve us – have now taken control and expect us to serve them.
In the Netherlands, where I lived for many years and learned how government can be different and more amenable to the needs of the people, an elected representative in Parliament is called a “law keeper” or “a holder of the law”; this implies that it is the people who ultimately MAKE laws and their job is to execute and uphold those laws. In the US, we call our members of Congress, “lawmakers”; we sit passively and hope they create policy and laws that empower the people, and we don’t seem to be able to act when they don’t.
As I sat there in that theater, I asked, “what would it be for us to take back the control, bring our country back to diplomatic and respectful leadership, and have a real say in the laws that are created?” I wish I had the one magic answer that would solve it all. I of course believe the methods and practices of Respectful Confrontation offer a clear way to approach the issues. I suppose I have some ideas of where to begin:
- Take the time to listen to people who are different and gather new information you don’t have in order to collaborate on new solutions that empowers all. Be sure to listen to understand and not to rebuke.
- While there is currently probably no way to find common solutions and collaboration from those on both extremes of the political debate – right or left – recognize that the number of people in the middle far outnumber those on the extremes. Start finding common ground with them. You will be surprised how much you have in common that can be the basis for new solutions.
- While we have serious issues around discrimination, inequity and inequality, to name a few, let’s discover that the longer we battle each other, the more power we give to our common adversaries who have cleverly pitted us against each other – the very wealthy, big business, corporate interests and the war machine.
- Recognize that we don’t have to use bullying tactics to confront a bully. You can still “occupy your heart” and activate “respectful assertiveness” in order to ensure that your voice is heard, you claim your rights, as well as develop the resilience and patience to persevere and create lasting change, not temporary fixes.
- Lasting peace can only come about if we are you willing to “occupy your heart”. Look within yourself and recognize how you may be contributing to the current situation, show empathy to those who are different, and develop skills to have the difficult conversations with respect and understanding, while still ensuring your safety and the safety of others.
- The arts, literature, the humanities, developing the intellect, respect for facts and history, cultivating the capacity to think for yourself and imagining a more enlightened future is essential for our survival. Get off social media, put down your phones and connect with real people. Create something new.
I leave you with the words of the iconic American race and peace activist, Grace Lee Boggs:
“A movement begins when the oppressed begin seeing themselves as pioneers in creating new, more human relations and thus advancing the evolution of the human race. Confident of their own humanity, movement builders are able to recognize the humanity in others, including their opponents, and therefore the potential within them for redemption.”