If a political system were a genre of art, it would constantly invite new practices and perspectives to remain alive. Not necessarily revolutionary, but vitally evolving, linking past traditions with new realities. And yet governments have a staggering tendency to get stuck in ruts that have little to do with creative processes. Stymied systems continue on, with their accumulated corruptions, calluses and carbuncles. Many point them out, with varying degrees of outrage, but the people most complicit, the politicians and those who influence them, soon lose any perspective they might once have had. The improprieties, the fatal compromises seem less and less egregious from up-close, among ethically lazy colleagues. And yes, governments have always resorted to illegalities.
Locally, artists are allowed two minutes during public forum, and we may hang signs in City Hall or bring in a cardboard coffin to symbolize the death of the Burlington College land. Last week Council President Knodell gave Ibnar Avilix more than two minutes because he was in the middle of a poem. Our shenanigans will be tolerated, in their place. But recently I spoke out of turn, when Planning Director, David White, misrepresented the positions of the Planning Commissioners yet again. I was chastised: “We don’t speak out” during the deliberations of the council, said the Council President using the royal “we”; because of course they do speak out, all they want. It is We, the People, who normally do not. We behave ourselves during meetings and don’t resort to what they call “personal attacks”. I myself have been known to counsel a less adversarial approach in hopes of winning over people who don’t yet know how corrupt the system is. Some say vitriolic or even humorous satire “alienates” potential supporters. But does politeness do the trick? When the city held a hearing on the Champlain Parkway last year, they successfully stifled opposition by limiting public comment to notes on index cards! The harder questions were shuffled to the bottom of the pile and ignored. We sat there like cows. Outraged. But cows. When the opponents of the F-35 dared to play a recording of the “sound of freedom” another time, the then Council president, Joan Shannon, hammered the table with a gavel. They have their business to conduct.
And yet, it is not theirs, it is OUR business. We elected them to serve us. But there is something broken in this representative system. Is it that people don’t vote? In Burlington, under 25% of the citizens voted in the last few elections, for varying reasons ranging from despair to apathy. How work within a system that is not working? Can we work within it and outside of it? Does any amount of work within it signal an acceptance of its treachery? Does refusal to work within it at all signal a fatalism that has given up on changing it? Ah! And on the national level things are even more troubling: Should one vote one’s conscience? Dare one not vote? Must one (probably) vote so that the lesser evil wins?
Thoreau, in “Civil Disobedience,” notes that disruption is not always worth the upheaval. But sometimes, he thought, it is. Working within the system is not only desperately slow, but often doesn’t work at all. But sometimes it does. The Coalition for a Livable City has induced the City Council put a public disapproval question on the ballot to vote down the zoning change that could not be stopped by a charade of public input sessions. The results of this vote will be binding and it represents a laudable example of the checks and balances put in place to defend against the railroading of public process that occurs in democracies. Burlingtonians: look for it on the November ballot along with a chance to vote down the use of 22 million dollars of TIF money as a gift for developer Don Sinex (and visit http://www.CLCburlington.org for more information).
But we also continue to work outside of the system. Rather than being outright disruptive, we will tend toward the creative. Yet every good artist knows that things need to be taken apart, destroyed, before they are put back together in new ways. We work to break down the one-dimensionality of the status-quo by speaking in languages that cannot easily be co-opted by the simulated democracy. Languages of art, of irony, of humor, direct action, of beauty and of outrage; languages that cannot be contained by time or space. May these counter-narratives make people think, feel, and live more boldly, more complexly, more courageously, more beautifully. There are ways in which the political system should remain traditional (abiding by the Constitution, for example; keeping consistent). Though art too engages with tradition at best, it has more leeway to innovate. Art cannot replace politics, because it would lose much of its freedom and autonomy by doing so. Although art may seem harmless enough, it is, I venture, one of the most powerful tools we have to reshape the way we imagine and continue to co-create our world. Politics is not an artistic genre and that is why many of us choose to not run for public office. Instead, we work in conflict and in compromise with the political system, in a sort of dance which hopefully we both appreciate. Art can very meaningfully provide us with alternative ways of seeing that would make the conversations taking place inside City Council rooms and U.N. chambers seem laughable, if only their outcomes were not so dangerous.
From the Editor