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Restorative Justice, Restorative Language
“The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.” - Malcolm de Chazal, Sens-Plastique
On the day after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, a video emerged of a woman daring to taunt an armed Russian soldier: “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” (Watch here.) Effective underdog resistance foretold.
The soldier, for his part, bears the woman’s curses with discipline; he too is victim to an autocrat’s miscalculations - the result of attempting to bend reality to a false narrative. Nevertheless, this soldier in life or death will have a difficult time considering himself a liberator, if he ever did.
The sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower, is now a symbol of courage and defiance against aggressive force.
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto - “nothing human is alien to me.” It must be that I share temperamentally in (Roman African playwright, 2nd century BC) Terence’s sense of generalized humanity in himself: rarely do I fail to discover some connection to an unusual or unpopular perspective, I can entertain almost any claim, and the contrarian more than the mainstream favors my biases of ascertainment. So, for me, the label “Russian disinformation” isn’t enough to disqualify further inquiry into a variety of assertions being put forward about this war.
The greatest weakness intellectuals have is fear of being stupid - fear of being duped. You can see how exploitable this is, and propagandists (or, people with agendas) take advantage with expertise. The set-up premises are you can’t trust the media and you can’t trust the government or the current administration; therefore you’re a fool to believe any information coming to you through the usual means - of course, then, you can’t trust your own judgment, based on suspect sources of information.
In humility, one can dedicate oneself to being truly, correctly informed; in curiosity, too, pleasure in knowledge - one can activate a striving to understand all that is human, attempting to engage at its capacity one’s human understanding. What, then, would be more attractive than the hidden, the secret, invisible forces, the overturned boulder, action at a distance, whispering of echoes, underbelly of the dragon? With mainstream sources of information discredited, what’s on offer are the hushed truths, the lowdown - what’s been covered up by the powers that be - shrouded realities only a few dare to know against authority and popular opinion. A select few, an elect. Notice how vanity nudges humility aside; nevermind total wacko conspiracy cults like QAnon (although the same psychological mechanisms apply, just upon a more absurd basis), sophisticated indoctrination/disinformation/distraction campaigns feed into the smugness of intellectuals, their second greatest weakness: thinking themselves superior to others in knowledge and being in the know - likewise eminently exploitable.
As for Putinist claims specifically, they continuously shift. At this point, few rational Americans seriously credit Russian framing of the war as an operation for liberating and denazifying Ukraine. It wouldn’t hurt to research the Maidan Uprising for yourself, as well as the Azov Battalion, if you haven’t already - due diligence. Was or was not the CIA involved in the former and how much is the latter a continuing internal neo-Nazi threat to Ukraine? I won’t interpret this research for you or settle unsettled - and unsettling - questions with faked conclusiveness (unlike pro-Putinist distortions intent on undermining Western unity in standing by Ukraine). I will pass along my own fascination with such studies and the impression that both are issues but neither disqualifies how evident it is that Ukraine is fighting for freedom and an incipient, if flawed, democracy, while Putin and Russia are waging a war of aggression against a sovereign nation and are guilty of war crimes.
But I didn’t mean to get into details: the weeds, sunflower stalk entanglements, thick and twisty cords hacked down, snaky on the ground. Facts in question and specifics don’t matter, nor even the viewpoint or interpretation. That’s not what makes propaganda what it is - as I’m trying to define it here, frankly in the pejorative rather than neutral sense: a crossed line, a breach in integrity, bad faith in the pursuit of truth. My recent entries on Art and Activism led to participation in recorded, public discussions of where the line is between poetry and politics, how persuasion and agitprop can sometimes achieve the level of art, and yet more often politicization has art devolving into posture and rant. To be sure, all works carry an implicit ideology, flagrant when politics are up front; so, basically, it can be said everything - every communicating effort - is propaganda. Then again, like Russia changing the goalposts of its war aims as they’re being frustrated by resistant forces with stronger morale (because right is on the Ukrainian side), to revert back to a generic meaning of propaganda as applicable to all art, argument, or advocacy is changing the goalposts of definition.
definition, defination invasion propaganda fraud vs. nation-defining new vision defination
As appropriately as the sunflower symbolizes valiant struggle in defense of Ukrainian nationhood, the plant is native to North America, indicative of Western sway in this identity-creation of Ukraine. The sunflower stands upright in its soil, sways to freedom, basks joyously in daylight, infusing itself with the power of the sun - face of a dancer leaping in delight of being alive.
Against such a vision, and the by now nearly universal condemnation of the invasion and its atrocities in Western public opinion, Putinist propaganda efforts are relentless and insidious. Here, without the need even to attempt to sort out facts from falsehood as definitive, the designation “propaganda” is used to recognize the weaponization of both truth and lies to advance an agenda. It’s only going to get worse the longer the conflict lasts.
Disinformation, misinformation, stealth. Propaganda places the exchange of information and ideas in a state of war. Its slant and sides-taking are nontransparent, its agenda surreptious (at least during what’s made to appear as objective argument, passionate advocacy, good faith discussion). In actuality, this is war - and the undeclared enemy is you, the reader, the receiver and target of disinformation. A side goal is to convert you too into a disseminator of its messaging, sower of discord, a witting or unwitting underminer of Western and U.S. institutions, a paid or volunteer, true believer and/or useful idiot operative of the troll factory.
Inquiry - always - by all means. Then, best judgment. Schoolkids everywhere know sunflower seeds are good for chewing, however often you have to spit out the hulls.
If the greatest weakness of intellectuals is fear of being duped, the greatest strength of lovers is fearlessness of being made a fool of; proud to be fools for love, they dare their vulnerability. They dare their suffering. They dare their cause. Such foolhardiness doesn’t only apply to romantic love, but also to the love that is art and creativity - for lovers and artists, lovers and poets, love is real. Betrayal of its reality is death to its reality. Also, lovers of wisdom, lovers of truth. You either sacralize the object and source of your love - or you’re no lover. For love of the world, love of life, raise your loves above money and power: this is real strength, more real than realpolitik. This is how people prevail for freedom and an open society, for liberal democracy, for love of what’s real within ideals it’s so difficult to be unironic about - for Justice, Beauty, and Truth in earnest capitalized starts - and for the everpresent Future pursued with trust as the great strength of every Divine Fool!
That’s a lot. There’s more to life than politics and zeal. God knows, sunflowers aren’t subsumed in symbols! God, nature, and van Gogh…
“The sunflower is mine in a way.”
Also, in planning triptychs, Vincent van Gogh thought of his sunflower paintings like “torches” or “candelabra,” such as conceived by him to flank his La Berceuse.
The artist’s anguish/gratitude: “I feel the desire to renew myself, and to try to apologize for the fact that my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude.”
Antonin Artaud meets the artist’s immediacy in Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society: “…I see the bloody red face of the painter coming at me, from a wall of eviscerated sunflowers…”
Nothing but a painter, Van Gogh, and nothing more, no philosphy, no mysticism, no rite, no physcurgy, no liturgy, no history, literature or poetry, those bronze-gold sunflowers are painted: they are painted like sunflowers and nothing more, but to understand a sunflower in nature, it's necessary now to go back to Van Gogh; just as to understand a storm in nature, a stormy sky, a plain in nature, it will be forever impossible not to refer to Van Gogh.
Into the art, beyond nature, more than nature. Right there. Although van Gogh died having sold only a single painting his whole life, within twenty years exhibitions of his work had other artists trying to find their art in the sunflower - if not trying to find for themselves what van Gogh rendered of immediate perception, “and nothing more,” of its appearance in existence.
Klimt, I love Klimt, yet I’ll leave only a link to the glitter of his viny, stylized figure of 1907 (following a 1906 van Gogh exhibit at Galerie Miethke in Vienna), erotic embodiment in the composition - The Sunflower, 1907 by Gustav Klimt - you can almost see bent nape and shoulders, and crossed arms under the couture of lavish velvety leaves, Klimt’s painting so much more decorative than the wilt of his protégé Egon Schiele, decay being another way to get beyond earnestness, ideals, and philosophy to the direct real: no romantic projection, no whitewash, no imposition of concept (overwrought) over rot.
During the era of my free spirit work (on Kindle, Free Spirit Unleashing), I sought Free Spirit solar strength, renewal, sun-harsh happiness in the sunflower; we had them growing one summer in our side yard, amazing stalks as tall and taller than I am, sturdy in the grip as staffs, wieldy as wands. Recently, I updated my Substack “about” page with a sunflower author photo from that time long passed (2015): click and scroll down, About Poetry, Thought, Word Magick
To complicate sunflower immediacy, reality, and symbolism further, there’s Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower: on the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.
Relentless Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal tells a Life-Time decisive story from when he was in a concentration camp in what is now Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that had been thriving up to the moment of the invasion. I won’t summarize the book’s story - Wiesenthal’s story of a key, personally “historic” incident in his life, with universal implications - but the title I will explain: the sunflower, to him, was a symbol of glory misplaced, an injustice, because the graves of Nazi soldiers had sunflowers planted on them, whereby he could expect for himself, and soon, no more than what any Jew of that place and time could expect - a mass grave or smoke and ash spewed into the sky by nonstop crematoria. We know the ashes of the Jews fell on mass graves and also on the graves of German soldiers where sunflowers grew and as well into the gardens of the camps’ commandants’ houses. Did sunflowers grow in those gardens? Likely. Ashes settled into the yards and flower beds where the dogs and young children of commandant families dug and played.
To Jews who for generations have grappled with knowledge of population-wide collaboration and enabling of Nazi genocide, represented by such titles as Hitler’s Willing Executioners, with the area of the world connecting to Ukraine described as Bloodlands by historian Timothy Snyder (written years before he became a leading denouncer of the techniques of tyranny in our time, including latest disinformation tricks from Putin’s Russia meant to foment disunity in the West), nothing could be more offensive than the parroting of preposterous claims of denazification or that Ukraine’s Jewish president was somehow compromised by his country’s equivalent of our alt-right militias, any more than Biden can be considered up against it because of extremist groups and therefore has to answer to the Proud Boys. As if such claims were somehow sympathetic to U.S. Jews’ sensitivities regarding anti-Semitism, rather than quite the opposite: a trivialization of history and deep memory. We know the history (esp. Gen X jews raised on B’nai Mitzvah, the dangers of cults, and the Holocaust); and indeed, to go further back in time, my wife Manya and I have parallel family backgrounds with great-grandparents fleeing pograms and cossacks in the area near Chernobyl. The tragedy today is the destruction being unleashed on a 21st Century Ukraine where Jewish communities only recently - triumphantly, given the past - have begun to flourish.
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Best now to let the sunflower rest in its domesticity and ornamental presence, beyond the reach of projections and analytic impositions. Tend to and appreciate while we can whatever loveliness of a home space we can keep; the sunflower and all garden flowers and picked flowers in vases are contributors to just that, peace of undisturbed daily life. Our friend across the street this past month brought over a neighborly gift:
& in mind of my son Gryphon, teenage film aficionado extraordinaire, here’s a link to Post Malone, Swae Lee’s "Sunflower" (from Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse).
Meanwhile, today is my daughter Hero’s 22nd birthday, so here’s sending her love and sunny sunflower wishes!
Back before the problem of disinformation came to a head for me due to the war on Ukraine, I was turning over a phrase used by Dustin Pickering, the “noble and honest host” of multiple programs on New York Parrot TV (the NY-based global news outlet where in January and February I participated in those aforementioned discussions on poetry and politics): he talked about poetry as “restorative language.”
In parallel, during that same period, I happened to be in dialogue about principles of restorative justice with students and experts in the field. Amy Beal - who, with her husband, lives half her time on a sailboat out of Annapolis, free-spiriting a dream - brought to her graduate class a question I posed in my first official P, T, WM entry (Sparks of Inspiration - and Resolve): “Where and how can we have any power over the personal impact on us of current public events?” Thanks to Amy and Alanna Ojibway, program manager at Vermont Law School’s National Center on Restorative Justice, I participated in one of their weekly online “RJ Chats” as a guest speaker. While in discussion I remained, as I am here, centered in universals of radical subjectivity (i.e., the inescapability of personal factors as decisive to understanding), this centrality had its pivot on recent experiences from my immigration rights activism with Sanctuary DMV and Congregation Action Network.
Sanctuary DMV, quite consciously, implemented defined restorative justic practices to internal and intragroup conflicts when I was active with them; moreover, a restorative justice ethos was implicit in each group’s mission of supporting people in confrontation with the cruelties of our immigration system. In its training of hundreds of volunteers in the Washington D.C. region, SDMV emphasized the harms of criminalization and dehumanization as rhetoric and politics; note how this largely was a matter of educating and raising awareness of violent uses of language, that which is purposely used by malevolent authority to lay groundwork for inhumane action; and yet that same gets internalized by the culture, possibly by the volunteers themselves, and it requires considered orientation to one’s words and conduct in order to do the good intended rather than contribute further to devastion.
Conscientious use of language - opposed to its brutalization and corruption - as a practice of care and healing is… restorative, transformative of thought (and spirit), and a tool for restorative justice.
During the RJ Chat, people from around country of a variety of backgrounds, ages, and career experiences shared their impressions of what it will mean for them to engage professionally in forging alternatives to the carceral state. The commitment is intense. The practicality - again, personal. Whether the focus is mending of harms by offenders with their victims and communities or reform (or abolition) of institutions perpetrating harms through centuries of systemic racism, classism, and caste criminalization, the fulfillment of repair depends on cooperation, reciprocity between both sides, and at times, crucially, on relinquishing of power for the sake of the greater good, or simply, doing the right thing. For the process of restorative justice to work, offenders need to be brought around to admitting and confronting their harms. This is difficult in the best of times, if not far-fetched when the perpetrator is in power; and completely impossible in a state of war.
“If you want peace, work for justice.” - Pope Paul VI and bumper stickers. Yet, it's as right to say amidst breakdown: if you want justice, work for peace.Otherwise the sunflower grows on the grave of the oppressor - although maybe that’s nature establishing its own triumph over evil and denial of any lasting constraint on exuberance of the life-force.
In war, justice is left to be sorted out later.
In the practice of restorative justice, how much depends on the offender? It takes a state of civility even to begin the process; nor will a false civility imposed by the oppressor or implicitly demanded by an oppressive system - or hiding an aggressive agenda - suffice.
Here’s something: with the practice of restorative language (including poetry, if poetry is restorative language, as Pickering suggested) not everything depends on the receiver. That’s solace, if interest or cooperation or good will is not to be relied upon. You can only concentrate, then, on yourself and what you do and what you offer your interlocutor or the society at large. Ultimately, even in advocacy and social action, what you do doesn’t depend on the receiver. No, it depends on the deliverer, on one’s own side, whether for artistic integrity or worldly integrity, good art or good citizenship, you can only do your best, your good, on your side.
& restorative language is a good definition of poetry, not exactly coincident with le mot juste, the right word, the just word, since the wild word might be more just to the edge or originality of the task - or the weirded word, the stretched or syntaxed word. Anyways, it is a matter of inner turning and facing and caring for one’s words.
Over time, as a practice, as a rule, your personal singular use of words empowers them, infuses them with your character - and so grows the power of your words, that’s their magick.
There’s mastery of what arises in the moment and strikes. Then there’s what infuses over time the charge of character: congruence, moral authority, the ringing true of wisdom. The same words aren’t said or written the same way by different people; they aren’t heard the same way either - their resonance distinguishes a lifelong signature.
& such resonance is restorative. If our overused, decrepit words have lost touch with their roots and source, there is a path back to that sacred meaning - wondrousness of aptly and accurately putting words to things, putting mind to things. Devotional restoration, re-sacralization of the word.
Anything less is poeticizing, philosophizing, or worse - lies, falsity, propaganda.