Whirled View: a look at work politics and most everything else

Friday, 23 December 2005

Monkeying Around with Guadalupe


Art, science and politics have converged recently to deliver a message that should have been obvious: you can’t win a battle of words or ideas if you won’t engage–and strongly.


Just this week came the eagerly awaited decision in Kitzmiller et al v. Dover, which held that “intelligent design” is warmed over “creationism,” aka religion, and may not, therefore, be taught as science in the public schools of Dover, Pennsylvania. Although some reporters, predictably, turned up Dover locals willing to snarl, “My gran’daddy was no ape,” the scientists who testified on behalf of parents suing to abort their school board’s attempt to undermine the authority of the theory of evolution were able to prove to the law’s satisfaction that nothing’s necessarily mystical about complexity in biological organisms. The Dover decision doesn’t yield a binding precedent for courts throughout the country, or even the state, but the transcript of testimony alone provides powerful ammunition to other school districts besieged by those intent on insinuating Christian doctrine into science curricula.

Now here’s the point I wish to pound home: this science-friendly decision wouldn’t have been possible if reputable scientists weren’t willing to make the case, to argue the obvious, to debate the fundamentalists.

A documentary screened on December 11 as part of the Santa Fe Film Festival illustrates the opposite effect: a lost opportunity. Viewers accused director Cynthia Buzzard of doing a thoroughly mediocre job of representing the First Amendment guarantee of free speech to which she herself was committed, she confessed, somewhat reluctantly.

The film Bikini Virgin on Trial attempted to encapsulate a controversy that had Santa Feans angrily choosing sides a few years ago.

A computer-generated non-traditional version of the deeply revered Virgin of Guadalupe was displayed at the New Mexico state-funded International Museum of Folk Art. The exhibit itself was publicized as an avant garde presentation of “cyberarte” by several Latinas, which should have signaled it as no occasion for pious genuflecting. Even so, in the spirit of the defenders of “intelligent design,” who were unable to articulate their corrective to evolutionary theory, some of the most vociferous objectors to the novel Guadalupe proudly asserted they’d never laid eyes on the objectionable image.

Where did the artist, Mexican-American Alma Lopez of Los Angeles, go wrong? Meaning: in what way did she depart from tradition (often considered a sin in its own right)? Compare the images shown here. The traditional Virgin of Guadalupe folds her hands in prayer. She casts her eyes modestly downward and to the side. She’s a shrinking violet, and her woman’s body is so overdraped you can't tell if it's male or female. In short, she’s represented as a respectable European woman back in the days when women had no rights, when they dared not look anyone straight in the eye, when fading into the background was propriety, when women’s position and posture put them always in the position of begging, which is also to say, of praying. In those days, a woman’s body was a matter of shame, a reminder of the humiliating sexuality in which humanity was trapped, and the more it was concealed the better. She was legally the chattel of her husband or father.

There is nothing inherently saintly about such an abased image. Were all male saints of the same era represented in such skulking postures? Hardly. Many engage us (or evil) fiercely. They judge us. They dare us to be saintly, too. But open challenge was not the male-preferred womanly ideal, and so the early Christian women who served as leaders or financiers of the Jesus movement or who fiercely defended the faith as gutsy, big-mouthed martyrs were not the role models handed down over the centuries.

Alma Lopez, Catholic by birth and upbringing, takes on this anachronism. She conceived of the Virgin as a strong, confident woman who can meet anyone’s gaze, who isn’t ashamed of the fact that the body that contains her is female. And the label “Virgin in a Bikini”? Not from Lopez herself, but reactive rhetoric, for effect. To outrage, to titillate, to amuse.

Anyone who actually looks at this Guadalupe, will see nothing sexy, nothing erotic. This is the physique of a female farm worker, chunky, sturdy, strong. She’s not a 14th century gentlewoman. She’s a laborer who does stoop labor, a worker who picks strawberries for the minimum wage, or less. She has her hand on her hip, she looks us in the eye, she dares us to think for ourselves. She reminds us of striking workers in the Central Valley, not bimbos posing for Playboy or Penthouse.

But the 38 minute film doesn’t help us to penetrate these and other nuances of the controversial Guadalupe image. Alma Lopez is given a few moments to explain her intentions, while the protestors get seemingly endless time to express their outrage, their sense that Hispanic culture and its Catholicism have been abused. When film director Cynthia Buzzard was asked about this apparent imbalance during the question period after the screening, she said, “I thought the protestors sounded so outrageous there was no need to provide an explicit counter.” She also said, “I wanted to be objective; I didn’t want to impose my view.”

But she tried so hard to be fair she overcompensated. She sabotaged the critique of the critique. She produced a film that gives greater support to those who would limit free speech than to its protectors. She handed an easy victory to those who would muzzle her (and Alma Lopez) with no apology, if they had a chance. What’s worse she produced a film they could use in the process.

This happens too often among liberals. All too often they are too smug or too diffident to make the case that needs to be made. All too often they are cowed by stiffling notions of political correctness, as in Santa Fe, where too many Anglos assumed that the protestors accurately represented the heart of Hispanic culture when the curator herself was Hispanic and many of the protestors were bused in Anglos, who weren’t even Catholic.

Similar miscalculations and self-defeating tactics have hobbled the Democrats (and the secular branches of the Republican Party) in Congress for the past five years. With few exceptions, they have not made the case for a more intelligent (and effective) response to terrorism or to the economy, with predictable, if delayed results, and they have allowed civil liberties to be badly curtailed. Now that they sense that the bullies are weakening, however, they are closing in for the political kill. They are speaking out and finding–Surprise! Surprise!—that many Americans agree with them. Think how much less lost ground there would have been if they (and the press) had countered, right from the start, the politics of fear and secrecy, of double-talking wealth redistribution, of brazen power-snatching, with the fact-based politics of confident constitutionality over the past five years.

But more Americans also need to be aware that demagogues love to use religion and religious symbols to silence effective political debate.
Posted by Patricia Lee Sharpe on Friday, 23 December 2005 at 08:53 AM | Permalink ShareThis

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