An Artful Rage Machine To End the War

millennium spectacle
everybody put on a show
slip the little prince in the back door
21st century here we go
digital whiplash
so many formats so little time
while out in tv nation
under darkening skies
the resistance is just waiting to be organized

— “Millennium Theater” Ani DiFranco, Reprieve (2006)

Tonight around the country we are honoring all those whose lives have endured tragic setbacks due to the war. I wish to honor Baltimoreans and Baghdad citizens who are not receiving basic health services, or decent schools, not to mention housing, people who do not have enough food, clean water or electricity here in Baltimore and in Baghdad, all who are endlessly traumatized because of the mangled values of empire.

I have just been at a fantastic community arts conference at the Maryland Institute College of Art. At this meeting, a small group of us decided to dedicate ourselves for two days to the idea of making an effective rage machine. (The term ‘rage machine’ was coined by one of my partners, a Detroit-based prison-reform artist originally from India via the United Arab Emirates!) This theme or metaphor seemed relevant to this evening’s gathering, so I will link it to efforts to end the war.

What might constitute an effective rage machine to end this war?

I believe that artists must be part of such a machine. Artists must join and sometimes even lead rage machines if the machines are to be effective. I’m wearing a shirt that says Choose Your Weapons and there is a pen, a guitar and a paintbrush on my shirt. These are gentle tools, gentle weapons. I call them weapons of mass persuasion. To this image of a guitar, a pen and a paintbrush, I would add a theater mask and dancing shoes, or bare feet if that’s how you prefer to move.

At Chesapeake Citizens, we use subversive and humorous music and movement in scary places of power to gently deliver brutal but truth-telling sights and sounds where they’re most needed. These moments give us strength for future actions, as well as a much-needed laugh instead of our usual tears, rage, sense of isolation and fear.

While doing these ridiculous actions, with our silly costumes and our blunt, exposé language, we exert everyone’s innate right to absolute freedom of expression, anywhere, and all the time.

I have finally begun to understand the existential artistic and political struggles of the jazz musicians, abstract painters and writers who lived behind the Iron Curtain. (This complicated comparison of circumstances merits a thorough exploration, better suited for another occasion.) Creative assertions of our freedom have symbolic importance, especially when we are standing inside our government buildings, because we do own them after all.

In poll after poll, a majority of Americans has made it abundantly clear that we want to end our country’s occupation of Iraq, yet our wishes have been ignored again and again by the politicians. As some would say, we have been ‘disrespected.’ So why not return the favor, and ‘disrespect’ the discredited politicians back? And how about taking ideas, words and imagery from the arts? Artists around the world have given us all gifts, rich traditions, from which we can take inspiration.

For instance, I see most politicians as bloated cartoon creatures reminiscent of Spanish artist Francesco Goya prints from about 200 years ago. Many of these are satiric critiques of public figures, and ravaging indictments of war. I recommend viewing Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” or “The Disasters of War.”

And I think of the words of the late Soviet dissident poet Joseph Brodsky:

At sunrise, when nobody stares at one’s face, I often
set out on foot to a monument cast in molten
lengthy bad dreams. And it says on the plinth “commander
in chief.” But it reads “in grief,” or “in brief,”
or “in going under.”

— from Elegy, 1985, translated from Russian by the author

I am reminded of the outstanding leadership of former Czechoslovakia’s playwright-turned-President Vaclav Havel.

I frequently imagine the identity shifting, discipline, and political courage contained in the life and self portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, as well as the peoples’ murals created by her sometimes husband, Diego Rivera.

I have read that singing gave many Civil Rights activists the unity and strength to engage in strikes, boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and even to endure jail time.

And I have repeatedly read Howard Zinn’s amazing little book Artists in Times of War. There are ideas for all of us in that book.

Since I believe that an effective rage machine to end this war should utilize all the arts, including public theater, it was heartwarming to read about all the creative protest actions that took place inside the straight-laced beltway today. Today on the streets of DC, over one thousand people — boisterous students, knitting grannies, veterans, musicians, masked ghosts of war, and other citizen activists — engaged in a series of bold actions. Business-of- empire as usual was temporarily disrupted on some streets, in front of some buildings.

In the coming weeks I will gladly read reports and watch videos of all the fun and drama that occurred simultaneously in different locations throughout the city.

From this expanding model of collective political street theater — targeting not just corrupted government but also quiet corporate Goliaths such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Enterprise Institute — people will gain inspiration, greater cooperation, and new organizing skills for the continuing struggle for peace.

In spite of this day’s sad anniversary, surely the appearance of an artful rage machine in our nation’s capital marks the beginning of a new phase of 21st century American agitation — at last, an empowering and media-attracting addition to collective D.C. actions to end the Iraq occupation, bring the troops home, and live out our shared destinies in tranquility and abundance.

* edited script of talk from ‘Baltimore Winter Soldier Speak Out,’ March 19, 2008.

** Thank you to Jim Baldridge of Veterans for Peace for organizing the Baltimore Winter Soldier Speak Out.


To view video of event by Bill Hughes.

For footage of Iraq Veterans Against the War Winter Soldier testimonies.

For reports/images of March 19th actions.

Diane Wittner is an artist, teacher, and director of Chesapeake Citizens. Read other articles by Diane, or visit Diane's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rich Griffin said on April 14th, 2008 at 5:32am #

    Thank you for sharing your ideas!! I believe that progressives have got to start embracing our own culture more fully through support of our arts – this means to go and see “Body Of War”, to make t-shirts, to do street theatre, do create “rage machines”!!

    The other day I saw a man with a clipboard, a black man, with a HUGE t-shirt of Barack Obama. So I decided to ask him about his candidate, what were his positions? As usual, the man had no idea what Obama’s positions were – what he knew was he was a “black” man (he’s half white, and half black). But I asked him the question that stumps all Obama supporters: “what leadership has Obama provided as a United States Senator?” – of course, he couldn’t say anything in response, because he hasn’t provided any leadership on ANYTHING at all! If you read his books, you will read that he doesn’t really have passion over any issues.

    I love your t-shirt!!! I would wear it if I had one!! (:

  2. evie said on April 14th, 2008 at 6:50am #

    Excuse my bluntness – but …

    Joe Blow needs leadership. And although Obama/Hillary are not offering anything new – neither are progressive troupe leaders selling t-shirts and slogans.

    The black man Rich speaks of, supporting Obama, may be totally clueless but that is how I see “progressives” – artsy fartsy self-serving clubs, who mistake self-indulgent theatrics for passion; histrionic white folks with jingles for “rage” – who claim to dream of sharing utopia with millions of people who want nothing to do with them.

    The “progressive” movement today is entertaining, not revolutionary. And the rightwing machine say thanks.

    We need an MLK or MX or RFK but we get groupies selling mugs and t-shirts and slogans. We get Obamas, Clintons, Kerrys, Naderites and Greenies and Kucinichs. They’re allowed, they’re safe. No passion, just job seekers.

    Stop funding the government – but most folks don’t wanna lose that refund, rebait, or chump change handout Big Daddy guv puts in their pocket now and then, apparently clueless that as “dependents” of the State they have no power.

  3. hp said on April 14th, 2008 at 10:01am #

    ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.’

  4. Diane Wittner said on April 14th, 2008 at 3:46pm #

    Evie I wholeheartedly agree that until people assert our economic power – by holding back on giving gov’t our money AND by organizing effectively to take apart destructive corporate control of our economy -we are wasting our time in lots of ways; our money is funding the war and in tax time I may as well just hand a meager check to the CEO’s of Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, Blackwater and so on. I also agree that race – and class and ethnicity – is an overwhelming (if we choose to let it be) barrier in today’s progressive movement. Finally, I, too, bemoan the lack of leadership: we need leaders to help us all united on the values we all share, and to rise above party affiliation and issue differences in the right ways. In my article, I wanted to remind folks that the arts can be – and have been – used to bridge seemingly intractable differences, bring on (even reluctant corporate) media attention to change public opinion, and give people hope and inspiration when there seems to be none left to give.

  5. Gary Corseri said on April 14th, 2008 at 11:35pm #

    If I agree with Diane, I find that I am also in agreement with Evie, with whom Diane agrees “wholeheartedly.” What a nice community we share!

    But there is a textual difference here, a tonal difference. Evie laments the lack of leadership on the Left and–especially among artists of resistance and protest–a lack of seriousness. Well, okay, I can see that, too–but I don’t see that in Diane’s call for a Rage Machine. Yes, Evie, too many artists want Woodstock 2008–the rain, the mud, the frolic. But Diane knows we’re well past that. Some of us have actually grown up. We saw how Woodstock Nation was subsumed by the Me Decade and the hyper-commercialization of the Arts. We don’t want to re-animate Bob Dylan. He was fine in his time, but the American dream, whose loss he was already lamenting, is dead and gone with Bush-Clinton-Bush and we need a new dream–a global dream, an eco-dream, and artists can help shape and sing that dream.

    We do need MLK, as Evie writes–and we need to remember that King was a visionary and an artist as much as a religious and political leader. This came clear to me recently when I re-listened to King’s “Mountain-top” speech just before his death. King says: “Mine eyes have seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeennnn the glory.” It takes about 6 seconds to get through that word “seen” because King isn’t speaking there, he’s singing–he is transformed. He had the vision, he had the passion. If artists can infuse their work with that kind of vision and passion, then they will be the kind of artists who can lead politically, heal, and create a sense of wholeness again.

  6. evie said on April 15th, 2008 at 4:49am #

    King was an artist. Willing to risk and die for his dream.

    I think the average person is more aware of what’s going on than they’re given credit for. I know cab drivers and waiters who have a better grasp on political reality than most writers and artists today.

    What I don’t see today is courage. Everyone knows how far they can go against the State and remain somewhat safe – and that’s as far as they go. Understandable. If the average Joe Blows is as ignorant and backward, bitter?, as portrayed – why would anyone want to risk anything to lead them.

    I appreciate not getting my butt chewed here for being somewhat adversarial.

  7. D.R. Munro said on April 15th, 2008 at 4:56am #

    I see what you’re saying Evie, and you make good points.

    But the thing that gets me is that now, apparently, a majority of the country is against the war. If I remember correctly, before the invasion a majority of the country was FOR the war.

    This says to me that it is sheer economics and poor military planning that has lead most into the opposition. If the economy was booming, and we napalmed women and children for only two months (instead of five years), the war would be deemed a raging success.

    This says to me that the majority of people are against THIS war, not war in general. They are against wars that aren’t swift and crushingly decisive. So the moment they have to suffer and risk their cushy lives (the war need not be justified to help this point), they want out. They are only against this war for self-serving reasons.

    I don’t know, maybe the last few years have made me too bitter and jaded.

  8. Diane Wittner said on April 15th, 2008 at 8:31am #

    So glad my piece has stirred up quality debate on what I also believe to be the right and most difficult issues! Thanks all! That is the best result one could have from online idea exchanges!

    Perhaps you are right D.R. with that depressing idea – that Americans in general aren’t against war per se, just this awful one. Yet I still want to be generous in my view of my fellow Americans. So I attribute this phenomenon to post long term WWII mis-education and very clever ‘mis-framing’ of issues – led by the rightward-leaning ever-stronger corporate media echo chamber – that has successfully taken hold of most white people’s minds. (And let’s also admit race as a factor in many public opinion conversations.)

    Still can we at least agree that people in general would rather have a small part of their income help keep people healthy and give them decent education and clean affordable transport and so on? So D.R. given my belief that most people just want basic needs met for themselves and others, I believe ‘progressives’ – for lack of a better term – can’t give up on efforts to create a better society…in spite of the fact that – as both Evie and Gary say – the commercialization of creativity has almost thoroughly destroyed political protest cultures and has branded the brains of our otherwise energetic and risk-taking young people with the desire to just own more stuff.

    Yes, the commercialization of protest music from the 60’s to the present is a terrible and brilliant example of this process of co-opting (and successfully rendering harmless) important political discourse and potential for action. And yes, we need to reclaim the idea of arts for action, first by creating a clever and indestructible ever growing media storm of our own. People are trying.

    In my article, I deliberately did not speak about all that I find troubling in the strategies, motivations and sometimes limited creativity and today’s peace movement. Though I, too, am mostly distressed, and have strong views, my objective in focusing on March 19th political street theater in DC was to be appreciative of this new element. This is the second time street theater has been successfully deployed in DC. In Oct. ’07 outside Congress, crazy wonderful actions – that, again, disrupted business as usual and receive at least media attention – were organized by NoWarNoWarming and others. So even if we are in a discouraging moment, people are learning about how to attract media attention and how to confront govt in more effective ways. We need to also turn more and more to K Street, i.e. the corporations that control our government. This happened both in October and in March’s actions.

    Forgiveness (of ourselves and others) for failed actions, recognition of mutual efforts, and learning from both successes and failures — these are critical at this sad juncture in the anti war movement. And endless opportunities still exist for courageous actions that make a difference. We need look no further than past political and economic actions from the US and around the world, as well as keep in mind that the arts offer more ideas than we will ever need.

    Evie, as for the need for true courage, I have noticed that it is sometimes from ‘thinking outside the box’ that folks find new ways to be courageous, ways that fit the crisis at hand. Want an example? Just recently, high school and college students from Baltimore Algebra Project wrapped crime scene tape around Maryland state government buildings in Annapolis because the state government has repeatedly failed to provide city schools with desperately needed minimal funds that is their legal due. These courageous teens were jailed for wanting decent schools! AND their actions and objectives were covered in corporate TV and print news all over the state.

  9. Bill Moyer said on April 15th, 2008 at 9:50am #

    Nice essay Diane. I’d also like a copy of that t-shirt, and love the idea of a rage “machine” an actual contraption or a choreography of rage to symbolize deliver to the front steps of those who deserve its attention and media attention for their particular offense.

    I’d invite folks reading this to view an actual contraption that we at Backbone Campaign built called the “Penta-Gone.” Here’s a video of its transformational choreography at its March 4th debut in Portland OR. The outside surface has the pentagon budget accompanied fly corporate logos of those who market and profit from war. The 15 interior panels offer an alternative view of security, a just, sustainable, and humane security. Please see one minute video here:

  10. evie said on April 15th, 2008 at 9:53am #

    Diane – that’s great about the teens. Did their action bring the needed funds?

    I’m the first to scream about the predicament of public education. So disgusted that my youngest never saw the inside of a public classroom, homeschooled 12 years.

  11. Robin said on April 15th, 2008 at 10:05am #

    I have greatly enjoyed the powerful discussion here and the viewpoints expressed that I feel all address parts of the whole picture. My own contribution here is to say that not everyone is courageous and able to take actions to support the things they believe in for a huge number of reasons. These reasons may include issues of personal growth, and current financial, educational or life circumstances and responsibilities. Every person must weigh the whole array of their life, values, passions. And not every person has the time, intelligence, support and developed ethical framework to “put their life on the line”.

    That being said, I personally view generalized cynicism and generalized judgement of the life and choices of other people to not be all that useful. I see it as spreading a negative blanket over the array of actions that individual people can take and would take to make changes that, when all are added together, can begin to make a difference and change the tide. To judge people harshly and cynically who aren’t taking the actions we think they should be taking, in the way we think they need to be done, I see as cutting off a million interconnected sources of change that we couldn’t possibly be able to imagine all the positive benefits of over time.

    I see it as vital to encourage people to take action where they are, at whatever “level” of commitment they are and to be grateful rather than condemning. I can see the importance of calling (rather than shaming) people to live more courageously, outside the box, more in line with their deep values, etc. I support and applaud the contributions of each of you (especially Diane, I am impressed with your insight and the way you move with the discussion) in this discussion and am grateful for your passionate commitment to “the cause”.

  12. evie said on April 15th, 2008 at 2:51pm #

    Gratefully, most of us in the ’60s Civil Rights movement didn’t wait until our lives were financially, educationally, or personally ready before making a personal commitment to progress/change.

    We can do little to nothing individually. Rosa Parks knew she was not alone when she refused to give up her seat (it was a planned and supported act of disobedience). There was one cause – equal rights.

    Today’s “progressive movement” struggles to make one another look good and feel better inside their small circles of multiple “causes.” It’s limiting, produces mediocrity, but no hurt feelings and everyone a star. There is no strength, only soothing phrases. No commitment, but a promise to do at a later date. No passion, but plenty of emotional affect.

    Which is why McCain will be the next president.

  13. hp said on April 15th, 2008 at 2:52pm #

    The one problem with ostracizing cynics, ignoring them, downplaying their opinions and generally making them out to be a sort of ‘enemy,’ is that they are right nine times out of ten.
    A perfect example of misguided (good) intentions mixed with, perhaps, a little false pride, leads to errant conclusions.

    That said, Robin, I do agree and admire your empathy for people in general and their individual positions in life, especially.

  14. D.R. Munro said on April 15th, 2008 at 6:10pm #

    I’m a cynic and an absurdist, and I know that you aren’t attacking cynics, but I see a different view.

    I think what HP was saying about misguided choices is correct. A healthy dose of cynicism will prevent someone from, for lack of better words, shearing the sheep. I think not employing any sort of cynicism or skepticism toward ANY subject is a poor idea. Both of those are the corner stones to the study of philosophy – question everything; don’t believe anything until you have proven it true, either empircally or rationally.

    Perhaps I put too little faith in people, but I think you put too much.

  15. Rich Griffin said on April 16th, 2008 at 2:59am #

    I remain puzzled as to why so many intellectuals don’t get how important culture is! I’ve also been interested in how wealthier people are so dismissive of poor people. We who are poor are always ignored!

    Why is it whenever we embrace our own culture we are attacked from within?? We NEED to celebrate! We need street theater! We need to be encouraged to do so, not told all the time how we are wasting our time, much better served being cynical and raging in intellectual words. Culture is critically important in bringing about the progressive changes we desire!

  16. Diane Wittner said on April 16th, 2008 at 5:31am #

    Great comments, all.

    Bill – if we choose to define an artful rage machine by its holistic attention to detail and focus, its media-getting ability, its inventiveness, intent and effectiveness – even if long term influence is difficult to measure in early moments – I’d say that yr Backbone Campaign creations may already fit this category. The large and bold progressive agenda backbone puppet, the new Procession for the Future creations sure are a great contribution. And – in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve worked with Bill on these – even the January ’07 silly policy bobby lobbying day in DC, the word-based policy projects such as the long standing ‘Conversations with the [Progressive} Cabinet’ online interviews and last June’s Progressive Cabinet Summit may be artful rage machines.

    But, yes, too, visualizing some new specific large sculptural moving creation that delivers – in just the right locations – a physical thing that is needed —- could be interesting, as long as lots of media are pre-planned and in place to spread the word….My first thoughts go to Charlie Chaplin’s 1930’s movie “Modern Times” BUT he is trapped in industrialization and mechanization in this film, and the metaphor would need to be shifted so that the machine itself doesn’t destroy/alienate us but is what unites us and keeps us going.

    Evie – Now I can already feel you wincing and wanting to reply to my comments above in a way that may be tough to hear. So I implore you to be generous in your views of others’ intentions and creative impulses, and, most of all, keep in mind that past actions and disappointments don’t necessarily presage the future! As for the Baltimore Algebra Project students, no the city has not yet received the school funding it is due (very complicated subject). BUT these young kids are receiving more and more attention with each passing year. They are part of a new national initiative related to the Algebra Project called “Quality Education As A Civil Right.” AND by the way, I admire you for homeschooling your youngest for 12 years!

    Robin – Your comments are just what we who are hard on ourselves need to hear. Thanks. Again – full disclosure, Robin is a respected friend, a composer, pianist extraordinaire, and a spiritual person who is an inspiration to all who know her.

    h.p and D.R. – Don’t get me started on my problems with western philosophy or rationalism; I’ll literally be online typing all day. I am a skeptic (watch one of my Chespeake Carolers youtube videos and you’ll get it) of course. Even if I am secretly a cynic, for the sake of my children and for the other young people in my life – neighbor kids, nephews, nieces, my students etc – I am pretending to be hopeful. In my view, it’s the only way to go.

  17. hp said on April 16th, 2008 at 9:46am #

    Diane, sincerity is everything.

  18. Bob Bethany said on April 20th, 2008 at 6:27am #

    The movie “HAIR” is the finest Psychological Anti-Warfare film ever made. It does not resort to violence to make its point, war is bad. The movie has a lot of 60’s music and dance. It seems the movie critics in 1979 only saw this film as a comparrison to the musical “HAIR” and completely missed the point. The last series of scenes is cleverly done and quite emotional. I have heard of psychological warfare. This is the opposite. Remember, this movie inPsychological Anti-Warfare Designed to End War. Thanks Bob

  19. Bob Bethany said on April 28th, 2008 at 2:37pm #

    The movie “Hair” makes people feel bad about war by using psychology, not by showing scenes of violence. The movie is made like this. 2 hours of exciting music and dance. Everything is happy, euphoric, Nothing bad is said or implied. Notice the excessive amount of movement in almost every scene. Adds to the excitement. Then the series of scenes at the end of the film is in contrast to the rest of the movie. The scene of soldiers marching into the rear of an airplane headed for war is meant to look like cattle going to slaughter. Very memorable.