Wednesday, August 16, 2006

?Americans Who Tell the Truth?

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

Every so often someone does something so right because it is so obvious and so obviously right that the right thing to do is to support, spread the word, ponder and, you know, be it.

Do the right thing.

The words "Americans Who Tell the Truth" are mildly startling. The implication that all too many Americans, including those in high places, do not tell the truth is easy to understand. Alas, it is the accepted truth.

If the truth isn't right, what is?

Maine artist Robert Shetterly was, like most Americans, horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He did something very different from most Americans and very right for all Americans as, in his words, "... a way to channel my anger and grief." His initial hope that the United States "... would use the shock of this tragedy to reassess our economic, environmental, and military strategies in relation to the other countries and peoples of the world" was soon enough lost. Shetterly began a series of portraits of Americans who spoke the truth, combining his art with their words of truth. He chose people who are Americans in the large sense, not those of the "America, my country right or wrong" persuasion. In his artist's statement he quotes de Toqueville, who wrote, "America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great." Shetterly adds, "A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America."

He started out with the idea of 50 portraits, but it has grown. Shetterly sought out the truth tellers—such varied Americans as Dwight Eisenhower, Cesar Chavez, Abe Lincoln, Chief Joseph, Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Martin Luther King, Ralph Ellison, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, Molly Ivins, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Ellsberg, Malcolm X, Paul Wellstone, Utah Phillips, Cindy Sheehan, Mark Twain and many others. He discovered that " ... in the process my respect and love for these people and their courage helped to transform that anger into hope and pride and allowed me to draw strength from this community of truth tellers, finding in them the courage, honesty, tolerance, generosity, wisdom and compassion that have made our country strong. One lesson that can be learned from all of these Americans is that the greatness of our country frequently depends not on the letter of the law, but the insistence of a single person that we adhere to the spirit of the law."

The portrait of Cesar Chavez is accompanied by these words of truth: "It's amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn."

Molly Ivins' smiling portrait is accompanied by her words, "The best way to get the sons of bitches is to make people laugh at them."

Doris Haddock (Granny D) said, "Just as an unbalanced mind can accumulate stresses that can grow and take on a life of their own, so little decisions of our modern life can accumulate to the point where our society finds itself bombing other people for their oil, or supporting dictators who torture whole populations—all so that our unbalanced interests might be served."

All the portraits are wonderful, all the words worth the price of understanding them.

These paintings are not for sale. They are traveling around the country on exhibit. Eventually, Shetterly says he will give them to a museum or library on the condition they continue to be shown. The exhibit is on line under its name, and a book has been published and can be ordered from your local bookseller. "Americans Who Tell the Truth" is worth checking out, thinking about, emulating.

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