Issue 94, Summer 2004

The Justice Department’s disdain for constitutional rights has triggered resistance—in the Supreme Court, no less. As we go to press, the Court has just affirmed the right of individuals detained as “enemy combatants” to consult with lawyers and to contest the grounds for their detention before a neutral decision-maker.

Echoing the sentiments of civil libertarians, the Court observed that “[i]t is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that … we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.” In a pointed rebuke, the Court noted tartly that “a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”

Hopefully, the Court’s recognition that “the rights of the Nation’s citizens” are not suspended by war will generate appreciation for how constitutional principles enhance government in a democracy. Free, open and vigorous debate is critical precisely because such debates help generate sound policies that are more widely understood and embraced by the public.

Perhaps the Supreme Court decision reflects the leading edge of an attitudinal shift. If so, it would be welcome—as Steve Kurtz (see Off With His Head) can attest. His indictment is the most recent reminder of an official orthodoxy that rejects unconventional views and chills what might otherwise be a lively and inclusive national conversation on issues ranging from terrorism and patriotism to science, technology, and politics.

Artists like Kurtz contribute to civic discourse in crucial ways. The arts create a forum and opportunity to consider all manner of questions—whether about patriotism, which Dread Scott ponders in What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, or genetic alteration of food, which the Critical Arts Ensemble addresses in Free Range Grains.

Using the tools of creativity and imagination, the arts introduce subtlety and reveal ambiguity; resist pat answers, over-simplification and superficiality; challenge assertions of fact, opinion and authority; and provoke controversy. With surgical precision art can dissect the human condition and expose its dark side and inner conflict. If not through literature, painting, theater, film, music and dance, how could we fathom the depth and variety of human experience? How else could we imagine a different reality?

John F. Kennedy observed that “art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” Repressive regimes around the world stifle artistic expression because they understand this; in this country, we seem to stifle it because we don’t.