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American Gothic

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I'm sending this post from Cedar Rapids, Iowa instead of my usual desk in Claremont, California. We were drawn to the heartland this year to celebrate the July 4th weekend for a number of oddly converging reasons.

Sasha Waters, a filmmaker and professor at the University of Iowa, is making a full-feature documentary on Grant Wood's 1930 painting American Gothic, and she asked me to appear in the film as a commentator on the politics of the painting (from the vantage of political theory rather than art history or cultural history). For instance, in the 1940s American Gothic was used as a war recruitment poster, requiring only the added caption: "Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

In my own writing about the painting (here and here), I've emphasized that the term gothic holds both reverential and horrifying connotations. Speaking very generally, I would say that Americans have viewed American Gothic only or largely in the former regard (namely, as a painting that celebrates Work, Family, and Religion), whereas I've maintained that Grant Wood's artistic -- and political -- genius is revealed in his ability to depict a demonic side to that famous couple right alongside his apparently appreciative rendering.

In his book Achieving Our Country, philosopher Richard Rorty advocates that the progressive/political left in the United States ought to portray themselves as steadfastly pro-American rather than publicly "gothicizing" our national shortcomings. Grant Wood's painting, however, would suggest that Rorty's stark separation between affirmation and critique presents a false alternative.

So...Sasha and her assistant taped my segment last Thursday on a sound stage in Iowa City, with a huge photograph of the original carpenter gothic homestead (from Eldon, Iowa) as the backdrop. Sasha did not know that I grew up in nearby Cedar Rapids, which was Grant Wood's boyhood hometown, too. Thus the trip afforded me an opportunity to visit my elderly parents.

My father's declining health, both mental and physical, can no longer be denied. It's hard to talk with him about it -- literally, because he refuses to wear his hearing aid. As a twenty-year-old, he served fifteen months as a machine gunner on a Navy destroyer in World War II, and all of that ratta-tat-tat rumble took its toll on his eardrums. On this trip I learned that he refused to sign up for VA medical benefits -- too proud. He's withdrawing further from worldly concourse. Yesterday he took me aside and asked whether I would like to keep his picture of that Navy destroyer, the U.S. Gatling.

This July 4th weekend also marks, coincidentally, 30 years from my high school graduation, and so I was able to attend the gala reunion (no one wore a leisure suit, by the way). Class of 1976. Spirit of '76. George Washington High School (Grant Wood's alma mater, too). L'America c'est moi. Except that my generational cohort never had to fight a war.

This July 4th weekend is also my wedding anniversary, so I brought Kim and the kids along with! On Friday we attended a "Freedom Festival" event on the lawn of Brucemore mansion (a monument to the city's bygone manufacturing era). The U.S. Marine Corps Jazz/Rock Band provided the entertainment, and lots of C.R. families enjoyed the upbeat music. I noticed that the place was crawling with Marines, mingling throughout the crowd. I saw one young marine hobbling on a prosthetic leg. His shaved head looked like a large kernel of popped popcorn, mangled, misshapen, with cracks and crevices all over. I recognized that leg-head injury combination from this war: when the IED hits your caravan, your feet take the brunt of the initial impact of the explosion, and then your rag doll body is propelled upwards to perhaps 100 feet into the air. If your helmet stays on, you might survive the fall, but you'll need some mash-unit brain surgery quick.

My eyes well up. This young man's sacrifice hits me in the gut and the heart. Then my innards turn to anger: If you send our young persons, in the prime of their lives, off to war, that war better damn be well justified.

Meanwhile, my own 6-year-old boy comes up to me and wants to know whether he can take home one of the Marine posters that the recruiter has been handing out. My son thinks the poster is cool because it reminds him of the Power Rangers animated TV show.

Overall, the Cedar Rapids economy has received a hefty infusion of recent investment. Penford Products and Archer Daniels Midland are spending a total of $390 million to boost ethanol production. But the tourist industry remains sluggish. I marvel at all of the museums that have popped up in the city since I left 30 years ago.

We take a fantastic tour of a new museum: Grant Wood's studio at 5 Turner Alley, where he lived from 1924 to 1934 and where he painted American Gothic. Wood's creative use of space in that loft (over a mortuary garage) was stunning -- confirming to me that he deserved his early reputation as "the Christopher Columbus of American Art." We also visit the large stained-glass memorial window that he completed in 1929, housed in the Veterans Memorial Building. The window depicts Lady Republic overlooking six soldiers, each one representing a different war in the history of the United States.

Then there's the Czech museum, commemorating another of the Midwest's pioneering pocket communities. The Iowa Islamic Heritage and Culture Center features the Mother Mosque of America. And then there's also the relatively new African American Historical Museum & Cultural Center of Iowa.

If you press the button on the Frederick Douglass exhibit at the African American Museum, you hear a recording that begins with this line: "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed." A James Earl Jones-like voice continues to read from Douglass' 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

To my mind, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" contains some of the most beautiful, most biting, most moving words ever written attesting to the meaning of American independence and American freedom. Douglass's eloquence -- his command of the King's English -- is truly astounding. But that section, while sincere, is also a set-up for harsh rebuke: How could it be that a freedom-loving people could turn around and subsequently use their freedom to enslave others? Douglass says that he refuses to provide arguments that the Negro slave is entitled to liberty: "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed."

My thoughts wander to the recent, contemporary debates over a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. I can imagine a latter-day orator invoking Douglass's legacy in a sequel speech: "What to the Gay Person is the Fourth of July?" The Democrats, if they want to provide leadership, ought to read Douglass's speech for inspiration and conviction. At a time like this, scorching irony, not risk-averse triangulation, is needed.