In the late 1960s, when I was a college student, I went to a teach-in at the Brattle Theater just off Harvard Square. It was 1967, I think, in the winter, at night, standing room only. The speakers were activist writer Noam Chomsky from MIT, historian Howard Zinn from BU, and psychologist and writer Dr. Robert Coles from the Ed. School at Harvard. Three committed, brilliant men. (No women.) They discussed the history behind the escalating war in Vietnam and then civil rights issues in the American south.
A couple of things are fresh and still concerning to me about that night. Howard Zinn’s quiet, sharp, ironic humor felt unquestionably right as he explained the colonial history of the French and U.S. in Southeast Asia. Chomsky’s meticulous command of facts and policy seemed impregnable, making the U.S. role in the war outrageous. I and the crowd of students were hungry for the reassuring and harsh judgmental affirmations of these two men. But Dr. Coles’s willingness to entertain doubt and ambiguity rather than condemn anyone for actions which seemed cruel and racist surprised and angered the crowd. Zinn and Chomsky described the brutality of southern, white sheriffs like Birmingham’s Bull Connor and Selma’s Jim Clark. There was no questioning the despicable violence of these men. That was true. I suspect not a single person in attendance did not judge and condemn them.
Except Dr. Coles. He said that, yes, both men behaved like moral monsters, but that there was likely more to them than that. They may love their families, be kind to their children, generous to friends. In his halting, perplexingly soft-spoken manner he cautioned us not to be too quick to judge. The audience began hissing, and finally, like a swarm of yellow jackets, hissed him into silence and off the stage. We were in no mood to extend empathy to men like Connor and Clark, nor to anyone like Coles who suggested that their humanity was not completely eclipsed by their racist actions. Hadn’t they surrendered their right to sympathy, their right to moral complexity, because of what they had, unrepentantly, done? We not only wanted to claim the moral high ground but build a bunker to challenge access.
In my mind’s eye were some drawings and etchings Leonard Baskin did about this same time. If you don’t know them, look them up. The Sheriff, a large ink drawing from 1965 is typical. The fat, naked sheriff, in profile, is sketched with light, halting lines. A few spots, like intense ganglions, are accentuated–especially the black hole of an eye, the deep predatory nostril (yes, a nostril can look predatory), and a long, half-open, thin-lipped, tiny-toothed mouth at once mocking and cruel, amused at its own cruelty. The effect is to have the viewer feel that the entire sum of this man, his entire worth, has been concentrated in the frightening viciousness of his face–both a literal and psychological portrait. To call this sheriff a sadist seems lenient. He’s horrifying. This is true. I suspect that most of us in the audience, even if we didn’t know Baskin’s drawings, imagined these sheriffs looking like that–inside their clothes and inside their heads. These men–with their firehoses, their snarling dogs, their church bombings, their KKK robes, their participation in lynchings–were irredeemable. Isn’t that true? Wasn’t Baskin right?
Or, was Baskin’s condemnation not so much too harsh as too easy?
Many years later, coming from a very different perspective, I have painted portraits of Sister Helen Prejean and Bryan Stevenson for my Americans Who Tell the Truth series. Both of them work with prisoners on death row–some of them guilty, some not. About all of these prisoners, they frequently say the same thing, “We are all worth more than the worst thing we have ever done.” If that is true for murderers on death row, and can be an argument against their execution, is it not also true for the racist cop who put them there?
Righteousness of judgment is appealing. It clarifies good and evil and what to do about it. Righteousness takes the quake and the quicksand out of the moral ground we want to stand on. But it can also be the hard, flat earth whose edge we might sail off of into a kind of moral oblivion. Not the moral oblivion of the perpetrator of violent, racist crime but the moral oblivion of people who are so sure of rightness that they indulge their judgment and vengeance. Embracing humility about certain kinds of judgment in no way lessens the need for our unrelenting efforts to correct injustice and stand with its victims.
William Sloane Coffin said, “If we lessen our anger at the structures of power, we lower our love for the victims of power.” We can show love for the victims and hold perpetrators accountable while remembering that they are also expressions of our compromised culture. Art that tells the truth of injustice is essential; art that encourages vengeance perpetuates it.