Liberty locked up, and other tales of the cityIt's been a busy week in Gotham. A sad note was the death of Richie Pérez, fondly remembered as a Puerto Rican protester against racial injustice, with a generous spirit and an artistic and theatrical imagination. Here is a tribute by Ted Glick, and another, with photo, by Omarr Lee.
A couple of days ago we got over to see the just-opened blockbuster exhibit, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557. It's a beautiful display, but a disappointing presentation. It covers the final, fragile period of the empire, founded in 324 when the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital to the shore of the Bosphorus, razing the little port town of Byzantion to build "New Rome" -- which later visitors called Constantinople. The show begins in 1261, the year the Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christians took their city back from the western Catholics who had seized, pillaged and trashed it in 1204. The reborn empire barely extended beyond the walls of its capital, Constantinople, and was extinguished in 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror battered down those walls with cannon and made it the capital of another empire, the Ottoman. The show goes on to 1557, the date that a German scholar invented the labels "Byzantium" and "Byzantine" -- from the name of the little port that Constantine razed. The exhibit is full of beautiful objects, mostly icons of the Theotokos or "God-bearer" (i.e., the Virgin Mary), Jesus, saints (especially the military saints, Demetrios and Michael and George), and so is a must-see just for the visual splendor. The explanations in the audio guide and the labels, however, explain nothing. They don't mention that the "Byzantine" (he called himself "Roman") emperor Manuel II and his successors were vassals to the Turks, forced to pay tribute, and that Manuel was even required to join the Turkish chief on military campaigns to subdue other Christian cities. The show gives no historical or social context -- all we see are the eternal icons, the highly stylized representations of a faith that was becoming every day more tenuous. Well, you'll just have to read my novel if you want to learn more about the intense social conflicts and the peculiarly intimate relations between Ottoman Turks and "Byzantine" Christians in this period. And I hope you'll have the opportunity to read it soon.
We (my partner & I) also saw Tim Robbins' play "Embedded". Great politics, not great theater. Still, it's important at this moment, to remind us all of how grossly distorted has been the news about the Iraq war (Iraq is here called "Gomorrah"). Most of the dialogue is taken from actual speeches and memos from the "Vulcans" (as apparently they call themselves), Cheney-Wolfowitz-Powell-Rice-Rumsfeld & Baby Bush. Jessica Lynch (here renamed "Private Ryan" -- sound familiar?) is portrayed pretty faithfully. The show has no climax -- it just ends after one more disheartening episode of soldiers, men and women, dying for no cause they can understand while reporters have little chance to do more than amplify the phony stories of officialdom.
And the reporters are still sucking up to their White House sources. The Falluja massacre of those four renta-a-Rambos is described as "despicable" and "bestial," and it was horrible. Not really "bestial" -- beasts don't act that way -- but horrible in a specifically human way, the cruelty of vengeance, out of the need to recover lost honor. The explanations by most of the US press have been laughable superficial. Most seems to think that Iraqis should be grateful for having been, as Washington puts it, "liberated." We understand so little of a culture of honor and shame.
And speaking of what we have trouble understanding, mostly -- like most peoples -- it's ourselves. This past week we rented Michael Moore's Bowling in Columbine. It raises the question we ought to be posing to Bush and Tom Ridge and all that crowd: How is it that the world's most powerful country is also the most frightened? Part of the answer is that our leaders want to keep us terrified. It keeps us from noticing that "terror" is not the enemy, it's their weapon. Check out Mike's Department of Homeland Security.
Oh, and a last item: Lady Liberty locked up. Did you see that report in today's NYT by Mike McIntire, Extra Fund-Raising Put Off Statue of Liberty Reopening? The reason we haven't been able to visit the statue is because the private Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation didn't want to spend any of its own abundant funds to patch up the infrastructure (staircases and so forth) and install more security (an extra exit stair from the platform). Instead, it insisted on asking Americans to send in Folgers coffee can lids and charge expenses on American Express cards, and asking for money from WalMart. The foundation is prudently saving its millions so as to pay its chiefs their handsome salaries in perpetuity -- the top man gets $345K a year, a couple of others are getting over $200K, so they can't afford to spend a penny on the statue.