A Mind of One's Own (with apologies to Virginia Woolf)

It's all about perspective, isn't it? Tony Snow learned that recently. He stood up for President Bush's rights of "executive privilege" in refusing to let his staff testify under oath before Congress. Snow seems to have forgotten a column that he wrote in 1998, according to the Chicago Tribune: "Evidently Mr. Clinton wants to shield virtually any communications that take place within the White House compound on the theory that all such talk contributes in some way, shape, or form to the continuing success and harmony of an administration. Taken to its logical extreme, that position would make it impossible for citizens to hold a chief executive accountable for anything." (Late note: Snow's personal perspective may have changed also. Unfortunately he has cancer which has spread to his liver).

I much prefer Theodore Roosevelt's thoughts in 1918: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." What would Teddy Roosevelt have said about the FBI's National Security Letters under the aegis of the U.S. Patriot Act? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/22/AR2007032201882.html

Hillary Clinton has a similar difficulty in deciding where she stands. When asked if she agreed with General Peter Pace's statement that homosexuality is immoral, she waffled and said, "I'm going to leave that for others to conclude". She voted to go to war in Iraq, yet says now that she would end the war. But that was before she stated that she would "keep a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military." And those hapless soldiers "would no longer try to protect Iraqis from sectarian violence even if it descended into ethnic cleansing." So we would have a war without a name, with impotent soldiers unable to fight. Is that really so different from the situation that we find ourselves in right now? (See George Packer's article "Betrayed" in the March 26 issue of the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/26/070326fa_fact_packer.)

This kind of political waltzing is not confined to any one party or candidate. We have devised a system where people will say anything to get what they want (in this case, votes) and then say the opposite to get other votes. Is it any wonder that government statements are discounted by most of us? Reporters, for example, were at a loss to understand what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meant recently with these words: ""What would make this trip a success for me is if I can establish that we have now a common approach to moving forward on developing, articulating a political horizon. And by common approach, I mean that I can in parallel talk about the same issues, establishing this mechanism. And by mechanism, I really mean a set of elements, a set of questions that we're going to ask and explore." Questions, anyone?

And what about those government statistics? Inflation, the Fed tells us, is "measured" and "under control". I just got a 33% increase in premium for long-term care insurance. That doesn't strike me as measured. Perhaps this elusiveness is best illustrated by actor Eddie Izzard. Nancy Franklin of the New Yorker magazine describes him this way: "Izzard's easy charm leads you to believe everything he says at the same time that you're increasingly aware that you have no idea when he's telling the truth." The essential question is, does Izzard, or the Administration, know what the truth is anymore? Or is the truth simply what sells today?

In art we know that perspective involves a starting point and a vanishing point, or at least it has since the Renaissance artists first proposed it. This system for creating depth on a flat surface first appeared in Florence, Italy, during the young 1400's. It was an architect named Battista Alberti who first described the rules of perspective to other artists. Carrying that idea one step further, Leonardo said: "The most praiseworthy form of painting is one that most resembles what it imitates". Today we would challenge that assumption: art imitates nothing; art is its own reality.

But NASA and the advent of the computer have turned the Renaissance theory upside-down. NASA literally destroyed our unquestioned perspective, the one that placed humanity at the center of the universe looking out at everything else. When NASA's scientists built a sphere and pasted the first photographs of the moon inside it so that they could experience what being in space meant, what it really meant was that our ego's got squashed. We weren't the center of space after all. In fact, as Carl Sagan wrote, our planet's niche in the universe is like "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." Suddenly up and down were meaningless, as were under and over. There was no discernible starting point, and the vanishing point was of such magnitude that it was all but illusory.

In an era of unprecedented change, we have to adapt our beliefs to some new realities or we risk becoming dinosaurs in our own time. I'm sure that Grover Cleveland, in 1905, deeply believed his words: "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote". Even now, digital art, with its radical alterations in perception, remains a visual foreign language for most people. It will take time, well after my lifetime or yours, for that shift in visualization to become pervasive. In the meantime we cling to our old myths of following the yellow brick line to completion. Don't forget, however, that the Wizard in the Emerald City was a fraud, well-meaning but impotent. Are politicians frauds? They mean well, and perhaps the only way for them to reach the Emerald City on the Potomac is to promise everything to everyone. It would be a refreshing relief, however, to find just one candidate who dared to state the truth without spinmasters and armies of public relations mouthpieces. I have a mind of my own: is it too much to ask that a candidate have one also?

c. Corinne Whitaker 2007