Hey, Arts Nonprofits: Words Aren’t Action, Sympathy Isn’t Empathy

Yes, we know you care. Yes, we know you “stand with” Black people. Your words are lovely. Now get away from the keyboard and start taking action.

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Clockwise from upper left: Birmingham, Minneapolis, New York, Kent State, Vinnitsa, and Memphis.

We interrupt our usual program of post-COVID-nonprofit-arts-organization-new-normal articles because it would be tone-deaf to engage in that conversation this week. If the current crisis somehow stalls or if it seems appropriate to continue, I have five of those articles in the hopper. The current crisis, on top of the other current crisis, is at hand.

In November 1983, ABC aired a made-for-television movie called The Day After. It followed a small group of people in Kansas who survive a nuclear bomb. One hundred million people watched it. Super Bowl ratings.

It didn’t have to be great cinema — that was not its point. It served as a warning that nuclear proliferation had an ultimate price.

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Before it was a commonplace thing to do with TV programs, ABC aired an after-broadcast program called Viewpoint; a panel discussion included Elie Wiesel, Henry Kissinger, a pre-apologetic Robert McNamara, Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft and William F. Buckley. The science of the movie was determined immediately to be inaccurate (there is no such thing as a survivable nuclear war), but the key in the discussion was the US-USSR arms race. Wiesel, a theologian who survived the Holocaust, really didn’t fit with the other members of the group in that he was neither scientist nor government official. At 24:04 of the recording above, he said:

Not being a nuclear specialist in any way, I’m scared. I’m scared because I know that what is imaginable can happen. I know that the impossible is possible… I’ve seen this before….Maybe the whole world, strangely, has turned Jewish. We are all facing the unknown. We are all, in a way, helpless.

Later, Weisel agreed with Kissinger that English pacifism not only had been unintentionally responsible for much of the atrocities of World War II, but it would be responsible for a future nuclear atrocity. A non-violent answer simply would not work.

Well, the whole world has turned Jewish. The whole world has turned into four students at Kent State, hundreds hosed down in Birmingham, hundreds more on strike in Memphis, 26 little kids gunned down at Sandy Hook, and thousands of families caged at the border with Mexico. The whole world has turned into these people:

The whole world is you. What are you going to do about it?

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Black people have been killed in this country for centuries. The relevance of that statement is arguable. What is wholly relevant is that it’s still happening. Regardless of the best intentions of my friends and colleagues in the nonprofit arts industry, words of support have no meaning when they are not followed by action. Indeed, we’ve seen this before.

My eighth grade history teacher proffered that to discover why historical events happen, it behooves the curious mind to ask, “Whom did it serve?” In that vein, whom does it serve to preserve an unjust peace to prevent a revolution? For Black people, non-violence has not really worked since racists killed Dr. King in an act of violence meant to discourage acts of violence. If you want evidence, it’s still happening. So who benefits from the lack of revolution?

Governments? Check. No potential overthrows.

White folks — even tolerant white folks who are absolutely beside themselves with worry? Check. Anything not to have a difficult conversation.

Jews? LGBT community? Latinx? Asian Americans? Native Americans? “Hey, we have our own problems. Get the spotlight off of us!” So, yeah. Check.

Maybe Dr. King was the only person in the world who could have changed the American treatment of Black people and turned it around through non-violence. After all, it took acts of violence, trickery and guerilla warfare for the American colonists to gain independence from England. It took 19 Saudis, engaging in a single, obscene, despicable act of violence, to fundamentally change Americans’ way of life.

It could even be said that an unintended act of violence called COVID-19 has changed the way we see the greed of big business more than any book by Robert Reich. Certainly, it has changed how we define the words “essential” and “non-essential.”

Which brings us to the point: if you (or your nonprofit arts organization) do not actively help, then you are actively hurting. Words are not help. They’re nice, they’re mellifluous, but they’re not active help. Words no longer matter. Black people are still getting killed. It’s still happening. Simply for Living While Black.

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I have seen any number of arts organizations post full-on letters of support on social media and on their own websites. They follow the same pattern: we’re shocked, we’re appalled, we’re sorry, we stand with Black people. Some talk of “empathy” (when they really mean “sympathy” — there’s a difference). Some baldly promote their next artistic event written by a Black writer, as proof that somehow they really mean it when they say they care. It sounds a lot like “Some of my best friends are…,” and we’ve seen this before, too.

Organizations have power. Nonprofit arts organizations, which currently have no in-person programming, have the time and the manpower to help. Poetic statements of support that are followed inevitably by crickets is not help.

Register voters. Raise awareness to your subscriber base and offer ways for them to help. Raise funds for organizations that provide bail for protesters. Call every Black artist from the last 10 years and find out how they are. Ask them what you can do to help — and then do it. Call your member of Congress, your governor, your senator. On election day, if you live in a state where the racists make it mandatory to vote in person, set up an army of people to bring people to and from the polls. Work with nonprofits who do this already and offer help. Pay your artists to entertain while voters in Black neighborhoods wait in long lines. Do something that I haven’t mentioned because you have the power — of groups of members, of followers, of fans. Individuals (like me) have limited power, but we can do a few things. You can do a lot. The whole world is you. The whole world is waiting.

Just stop telling the whole world that you care. It comes off as empty praise, redolent of hollow promise. It is reminiscent of an old Flanders and Swann quick sketch:

A: I hate war.
B: I hate war, too.
A: Yes, but I wrote a letter.

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