- the process of spreading through and being present or perceived in every part of something.
– Oxford Languages Dictionary
I WISH THE SCULPTURES I am presenting today would not trigger associations of something malevolent, if not evil, pervading the space around us, creeping in, sliding through, erupting through protective barriers and consuming the space we inhabit. It is remarkable work by a Brazilian artist, Henrique Oliveira, who lives and works in Sao Paulo and London, and whose paintings, sculptures, and installations explore the ways in which human-made and organic shapes interact.
His art does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the national and international assaults on human rights, or the authoritarian creep, or the misogynistic and racist slime surrounding us, but I could not force my brain to see it any other way. Then again, that is what extraordinary art does, mirroring the world as is.
It’s not just gloom. It really is a state of fear, or worry morphing into anger, if not rage, when encountering the next bit of horrifying news. People are killed in wars, killed by heat in Asia not known in these dimensions, needlessly dying of a virus for lack of organized protection. Now we learn that the old Christian men (and woman) in power in this country have decided to take rights away that they consider not “historically rooted,” tolerating the deaths of countless women, never mind their loss of control over their own bodies.
- the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.
– Oxford Languages Dictionary
The draft of a leaked majority Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade points to a future that perverts everything liberal democracies have fought for, to an extent that is hard to fathom. It is not just about the right to safe, legal abortions. Alito’s draft opinion explicitly criticizes Lawrence v. Texas (legalizing sodomy) and Obergefell v. Hodges (legalizing same-sex marriage). He says that, like abortion, these decisions protect phony rights that are not “deeply rooted in history.” (Which is, by the way, exactly how Justice Robert Taney argued in the Dred Scott decision: “No African-American, free or enslaved, had ever enjoyed the rights of a citizen under the Constitution. For more than a century leading up to the ratification of the Constitution, blacks had been regarded as beings of an inferior order, altogether unfit to associate with the white race … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”)
Never mind the selective reading of “history.” It was not until the 1820s-1840s that abortion got criminalized in this country. The right to determine the fate of women’s own body has been assigned for over 50 years now, 20% of our 244 years as nation. Not enough history? More importantly, look at the 9th amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by people.” Evolving rights were acknowledged, because not all future developments could be known.
If you connect the assault on the right to privacy, the pointer to the historic past, and the discussion found in conservative think tanks and law schools, we have to worry about assaults on all the rights that have been granted: the right to racially-integrated schools highly among them, to inter-racial marriage, to gay marriage, to life-saving gender-affirming medical care, and the right to vote in fair and free elections.
What sounds like nostalgic longing for a past by retrogressive justices is really a toxic power tool to re-establish complete control over those who served in prior centuries: the poor, the non-white, the 3/5 of person, the female contingents of our societies that were subjected to the preferred standing of property-owning males.
I recommend to read this Atlantic article by Adam Server for the details of Alito’s Supreme Court decision draft. I urge, if you have the time, to go back to an older book, that presciently spelled out what we are embarking on, while analyzing similar movements of the past: Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Arendt wrote this book after World War II had ended, fully convinced that even darker days were ahead, with totalitarian ideals going to surge and rule. Maybe her timing was bit off, but what she feared is slowly emerging across our world. Looking just at our own country, the U.S, inequality has risen to unthinkable heights, elections are under attack in systematic ways never seen before, from simply not accepting election outcomes to manufacturing every possible obstacle to free and fair voting, or means of influencing voters via hidden funds and manipulated mass media.
We do live in a world in which it seems, as she wrote, “as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.” In fact, you don’t even have to organize the masses any longer, if you have found ways to suppress them. Arendt looked back at the history of Nazi Germany in particular, but also European racism and imperialism in general, and warned: Human rights are not to be taken for granted. “To have such rights, she observed, you must not only live in a state that can guarantee them; you must also qualify as one of that state’s citizens. The stateless, and those classified as noncitizens, or non-people, are assured of nothing. The only way they can be helped or made secure is through the existence of the state, of public order, and of the rule of law.“
Think through who qualified as non-citizens in this country before the addition of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. For that matter, refresh you memory of all the “historically rooted” rights women did not have in 1787. Here’s a good reminder. And here is what an evolving legal system that incorporates the enlightenment of our times looks like: White women couldn’t vote before 1920. Women of color couldn’t vote until 1965. Interracial marriage was illegal until 1967. Americans with disabilities act was signed in 1990. Being subjected, subjugated, controlled again seems to be the nostalgic dream of the men who are now able to make the law – or, as I see it, a mockery of it.
Alas, Hannah Arendt also reminds us of another aspect of history – then and now. She pointed to the passivity of many people in the face of authoritarian rule, by the widespread willingness, even eagerness, to believe lies and propaganda. “In the totalitarian world, trust has dissolved. The masses believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” And talking about propaganda – the airwaves, 24 hours after the drop, are filled with uproar over the act of leaking, conveniently suppressing the core of the message, the threatened loss of constitutional rights.
I truly fear, though, that after some initial ruckus, that passivity will hold here and now again. DO prove me wrong, to my eternal delight.
All photographs above are from Oliveira’s work, referenced on his website.
Images below are a compilation, shown before, from my series Tied to the Moon, about women’s experiences and life events, for timely reasons.
Music today is wishful thinking.
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on May 4, 2022.