Monday, July 4, 2016

Grey is the color of the Fourth of July

It is the Fourth of July weekend, and I noticed a couple of days ago the lack of decorations as I drove around.  There were a few flags in the commercial district of a neighboring town, a couple of buntings at the entrance of a subdivision, but that was about it.  There was talk of fireworks, hot dogs, and a long weekend. But what exactly are we celebrating?

We took a few of our out of town family members this week to visit some new traveling exhibits at a local art museum, featuring a collection of post- World War 2 Italian sports cars, a gallery of fantastical contemporary paintings, and a children's art space which delighted our niece.

Back in the corner of the second floor was also an exhibit of Soviet photographs and film.  These framed and curated works were the visual propaganda tools designed to re-educate the masses who were largely at the time vulnerable and illiterate.  The basic idea was to use art as a means to depict an utopian society, united and strong, and to eliminate any dissent, mostly under Stalin's fierce rule.

Black and white pictures showed small children standing in rows, dressed exactly alike.  The men depicted were strong and athletic, the women cheerful in their identical peasant scarves, an image of happiness and equality.  But the harsh and stark reality of the totalitarian regime was what it really looked like. Not shown were those caught in the crossfire of the political power struggle,the millions starving or slaughtered just because they chose to differ, chose to speak out the truth against government oppression, or just because of rumor and prejudice.

I looked around the exhibit hall at the black and white photographs and huge colorful posters.  And at the same time, I was very conscious of the visitors in the gallery who were glancing at the images.  With few exceptions, no one there was old enough to even remember those decades of Soviet oppression.  The Soviet Union dissolved twenty-five years ago.  This is dusty curious history to them, two-dimensional artwork, an afternoon's entertainment, the stuff of boring history classes.  Let's move on to the speedy Italian racing cars.

They have no idea what any of this really meant.  Don't color outside the lines. You have no right to question. Nothing to discuss.  No disagreement allowed.  Conform to the prevailing mindset... or suffer for your dissent.  One stray word and you lose everything, your profession, your family, and all too often you were never seen again.

One of my favorite books is Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya who suffered unbearably in a remote Soviet prison, sentenced as a young woman to seven years in a labor camp for the crime of writing poetry.  Grey was the color of the ragged uniforms of the political prisoners in that dreadful confinement. But Ratushinskaya grasped the hope that as long as there were grey uniforms, there were still people willing to speak out for freedom.

Freedom means that everyone doesn't agree.  Our strength is not in being all the same.  We all have different opinions and traditions and beliefs.  And that is what liberty is all about.

On the Fourth of July, we come together not to celebrate our sameness, but the beauty of our differences and liberty for all.

Wear grey
and love your neighbors.

The Fourth of July was not designated as a long summer weekend, or to commemorate the end of a war, but to celebrate the Declaration of Independence that was signed on this day 240 years ago:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life,
and the pursuit of Happiness."

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