On Self Expression

The John Lennon Wall

The John Lennon Wall in Prague

Our family is enjoying an extended visit to Europe.
Our first stop was Berlin, a city with a complicated history under the Nazis and then, for half the city, under the communists.

My initial impression was also complicated, as we careened in a taxi from the airport through town to our hotel. I saw a city with a flair for design, old style buildings mixed with new, people walking and biking, stylishly dressed and often with tattoos and piercings. I also saw a lot of wall paintings and graffiti.

I mentioned, as I was walking with the kids looking for a breakfast place (over night red eye flight!), that while the city was weird and eclectic and attractive, the graffiti was a little off-putting. Annika, AKA Eldest Daughter, who speaks German and had spent the previous summer traveling in Germany and Europe, explained: “Oh no. It’s just a form of self expression which is tolerated here after the war, and after the communists, and reunification.” This shed a new light on the subject, eased my mind and I came to see it as part of the cultural whole of the city.

Unlike home in the US, even older business people will sport tattoos, studs in their ears, or gauges, and subtle adornments of personal styles such as US business casual with red basketball shoes, etc, while walking or biking (Berlin is a very bike friendly city) with a relaxed, practiced ease. I became aware of how conformist I, as a rugged individualistic USA-ian of a certain age, really am.

Towards the end of our stay in Berlin, I was walking with my son, just graduated from college, back to the hotel, when we started encountering tattooed, bearded, pierced,  etc, and relaxed policie blocking off one of the main cross city streets. I didn’t have to wonder long at the cause as we encountered a phalanx of policie leading a huge number of people in a march. We took refuge on the lee side of a street light against the surge of humanity. It turned out to be a demonstration in support of marijuana legalization. Thousands of Berliners, of all age groups, but especially the young, marched by, most smoking pot, with several flatbed trucks in the midst playing electronic dance music, led by the police, including one demonstrator truck with a smoke machine billowing stage fog which I at first mistook for some infernal device consuming huge bales of marijuana. After about a half hour, the march tailed off, to be followed by a team of workers in orange jumpers (not prisoners, stupid American, but municipal workers in bright safety gear) , sweeping up after the paraders, and themselves followed by street sweeping machines. Ah, Berlin, I have come to love you, but perhaps that is the second hand smoke speaking.

On that same day, the city also hosted a massive march in favor of a nuclear free Europe and another in support of the people of the Gaza Strip of Palestine, then (and now) under assault by Israel (and Israel, by Hamas). The tone of the march for Palestine was particularly telling, it was not against anybody, just affirming the right of Palestinians to live their lives with cries of “Free, Free, Palestie!

Next stop, after what must rank as the most beautiful train ride in the world, was the city of Prague in the Czech Republic.

Again with the graffiti, though not as pronounced in the old town where we resided. Prague was spared the bombing of WWII so the old town remains a throwback to several hundred years of cobble stoned streets twisting and turning across the landscape. Of particular interest to our family was the John Lennon Wall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lennon_Wall) (and: see photo at head of post) There is a funny dialog at the top of a small part of the wall, only reachable by ladder. It consists of a large bubble-script graffiti of “FRED” with a gentle admonishment underneath which simply says “Fred missed the point”.

Prague is more “old Europe”, the people not as self expressive as the Berliners, but none the less expressive in their own way. The city hosts a large number of public sculptures placed since the fall of communism and the start of the new republic under the writer and super-hero Vaclev Havel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1clav_Havel) (noted Frank Zappa fan, by the way, go Vaclev!) including one of a map of the Czech republic with 2 human figures, urinating on it. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nb7BAkUS2v8) (This is a country which pays attention in history class and the unfortunate history of Central Europe being caught between Germany and Russia much like poor Belgium is located between France and Germany.)

As I write this, our family has flown the (unlikely direct)  link between Prague and Edinburgh, sampled the pleasures of the east coast of Scotland, have enjoyed the train to London, and are now residing in a small but comfortable flat in the borough of Victoria outside the old Roman walls of the borough of London proper.

I guess this all comes down to our home in the USA and our home on the Internet as world of ideas, contrasted by our experience in Europe. I am transfixed by the doings back in the States, notably the town of Ferguson, MO. I am shocked by the disproportionate, military, response of the police to what has been, in the main, peaceful protests, as well as disappointed by the media response, and the Black Bloc and other militant and disruptive elements attempting to capitalize on the pain of a community suffering from the needless death of one of their own. I am glued to Twitter and the live streams (go! ubiquitous wifi!) and am writhing in anguish at the events there as well as the hateful commentary on the web, for instance, on the crowdfunding page for the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson .

I am also constantly agog at the ongoing hatred expressed towards women and members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media and in the blogsphere. That this hatred, fear and loathing was always present was always known as an academic fact by folks outside of the affected minority communities, but to see the sheer volume of it pouring out through the Internet in words and images has become a staggering, visceral, experience.

When Peggy and I first started Cruzio, we had a sincere political agenda to bring tools to our community to solve our problems in constructive ways, to bring tools to the community to speak the truth of their experience, that we might see common cause to make the world better. When I first became involved with Civinomics, it was for the same cause. For the constructive coming together to build a better world.

In our experience building Cruzio, call it innocence or naivety, we never dreamed we were building a giant microphone with which people would broadcast destructive, hateful, sentiments. In the end, though, it still boils down to personal decisions as we step up to speak.

What will you say, and how will you respond to the spoken when it is your turn? These are choices the megaphone of the Internet makes available to you.

Will your words make something better?

My contribution to the Lennon Wall in Prague:

ferguson

It was painted over the next morning with the large message “God Is Dead” modified later with a “God Is Not Dead”, to which I added a peace sign in the “O” of the “Not” the next afternoon, that’s how dynamic the wall is, and self expression is, in Prague. You say your piece, someone else says theirs, we move on. Perhaps we can all learn something from each other, if we try.

If we can put down our fear, our anger, our hate and our hurt. If we can remember to make things better by our words and our deeds.

2 Comments

  1. Jean Brocklebank says:

    Chris ~ This is an amazing essay. I sense that your real – not virtual – journey to Germany, to Berlin, to Prague, and on to the wee island of the UK has conspired to alter your world view, which you will bring home with you, woven into your consciousness forever more. One is never the same after a visit to Europe.

    I do not know how we get people to discard their hate, their anger, their ugliness as revealed on the internet. I do know that Cruzio offers us all a way to be more civil, more respectful, more compassionate, just as it also affords a culture of hate to blossom. As with everything else, it is the people, not the machine, who are ultimately in control.

    I see the internet as a way toward peace, understanding and compassion, in spite of those who use it as a tool for war, discrimination and vitriol. Thanks to Cruzio for being there. Thank you for sharing your journey and your vision. Jean

  2. Hello.This post was really motivating, particularly since I was investigating for thoughts on this topic last Sunday.
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