Confronting America’s Legacy of Gun Violence and Racism: An Interview with Arlen Parsa

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As yet another bout of shootings have occurred in the United States (in Atlanta, Ga and Boulder, CO), defenders of the Second Amendment are already summoning the Founding Fathers to justify continued lax gun regulations, drawing again into stark relief the tensions between Jefferson’s first two principles of “life” and “liberty.” Representations of the Founders just like their ideals remain fluid. Just as defenders of the the U.S. Republic’s first principles harken to the the Founders, so are vanguards of our contemporary social justice climate also returning to the Founders to make their own cultural critiques.

The documentary filmmaker and artist, Arlen Parsa, like so many others, chose to challenge the contemporary cultural climate in the United States by altering its hallowed imagery. Parsa took John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” (1818) and placed red dots over all the men who held slaves. In this way, the artist aimed to efface those men in the name of enslaved peoples normally nameless in the historical record. Here is our interview with Parsa.

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AoR: Can you describe the impetus for your image? What was the historical context of its creation?

Arlen Parsa: On August 31, 2019, I went to bed deeply frustrated about gun violence in America.

Like 26 other days that summer, the final day of August had ended with a literal bang. Another one of those awful mass shootings, this time in Odessa and Midland Texas where a gunman shot 32 people. His youngest victim was a 17 month old child.

Inevitably, as soon as news of the shooting broke, there was a chorus of politicians offering their well-practiced “thoughts and prayers” instead of calling for action and reform. Maybe it was the fact that Odessa was already the third such mass shooting that month, but people seemed very quick this time to jump to the phase where we all collectively shrug and say “but nothing will ever change,” because of how some people interpret the US Constitution’s Second Amendment.

When it comes to guns, America has an enormous, slow moving hostage situation. We are being taken hostage not by a person, but by an idea. The idea that we must accept children’s bodies in Newtown, Connecticut, or Parkland, Florida, or Odessa, Texas as a kind of human sacrifice to uphold one very narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment. It’s the price we pay for freedom. Or at least the price we are all forced to pay for some peoples’ idea of what freedom is.

So I woke up the morning after the Odessa shooting determined to say something about our relationship with our country’s long dead navigators–the founders. In some quarters today, they’re viewed as infallible, despite the fact that they deliberately gave us a process to amend and reinterpret their ideas–signaling that even they knew their wisdom had limits. Like many amendments, over time our understanding of the Second has dramatically shifted, and could certainly shift again if there was the political will to do so. With these thoughts in my head, I got up early on September 1st and started searching Google for information about how many of the Declaration of Independence signers held enslaved people. It was a pretty blunt point to make, but the morning after another horrific shooting didn’t seem like the time for subtlety.

As I wrote in my tweet, “Next time someone puts [the founders] on a pedestal and says we can’t question their judgement on guns or whatever, show them this image.”

AoR: 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia. The New York Times and other outlets memorialized this history in various ways, and to much controversy and debate. Were you inspired by these projects when you created the image? 

AP: This might be the first time Age of Revolutions publishes a food metaphor! I often think the cultural and political discourse in America is like a constantly changing sauce that we’re all stewing in. No matter where we stand on an issue, we’re all soaking up the flavor of the day.

When people contribute new ideas to that discourse, it’s like adding fresh ingredients to the sauce. The intellectual stew that was boiling in the Revolutionary War era was different from what we have simmering today, but there were certainly ingredients that we can still recognize. Just like everyone else, I’m shaped by what I see and learn about from others.

I’m a documentary filmmaker, not an academic. But I think it’s really exciting to see historians, political scientists, sociologists, and other academics engaging with the public directly on platforms like Twitter. While the biggest lecture hall might fit a few hundred students, you can reach thousands online in an instant. My Declaration of Independence tweet has been viewed by over 8 million people according to Twitter’s analytics tools. And I didn’t have to pay a dime to get my message out there – the audience took care of spreading it among themselves.

Of course, a tweet thread is not nearly as in-depth as a semester-long course you could teach on the framers, or even an hour-long documentary I might make for PBS. But it’s a single discrete idea that people can understand in an instant, whether you agree with the point I was trying to make or not. It seems to me that a lot of the learning people do after they leave formal education is centered around short ideas or standalone lessons like this.

It’s important for academics to talk to the public right now. There are so many people flooding the internet with information that’s false or robbed of its context that if experts don’t speak up and share their knowledge with the world, the tide of false information will drown us all. We’ve already seen the results of some of that. I’m sure you can think of examples without me even needing to cite one.

Thanks to the internet, the era we’re living in is defined by the free flow of ideas. If scholars boycott the “information superhighway” for their ivory towers, the sauce will become too salty.

AoR: How has your perception of the image shifted in light of George Floyd’s murder and the prominence of Black Lives’ Matter protests in 2020?

AP: The raw facts of what happened in the past don’t change very often, but our understanding and interpretation of them certainly does. And the events of 2020 have led a lot of us to become more thoughtful about our relationship with the past. Especially important figures from our past.

When I learned about the founders in grade school there was hardly any mention of the fact that some of them were slaveholders. This was just an asterisk in a few of their biographies that was all but ignored to leave room for the “important” stuff.

Looking back, that was a tremendous weakness in the telling of history. The fact that someone like Jefferson held more than 600 people in chains while he was writing about freedom and liberty wasn’t just an oddball asterisk to his story–it was probably one of the most fascinating and confounding parts of his story! Something to zoom in on, not something to relegate to a footnote.

How could we possibly hope to understand the past in a comprehensive way if we don’t confront these contradictions head on? In school I learned that George Washington had wooden teeth. Nobody told us that Mt. Vernon has the receipt for dentures made from teeth pulled out the mouths of enslaved people. A mature society should not need to sweep these things under the rug. I hope we’re maturing today.

There seems to be an ebb and flow to how viral information gets shared online. It often happens in waves. Here are some numbers to explain what I mean. When I originally tweeted the image in 2019, I believe it got something like 25,000 likes on Twitter. Every few months someone would come across the image and share it again, and a few more people would see it. But partway through 2020 it took on a life of its own. It’s now at 115,000 likes, the majority of which happened around the week of July 4, 2020, when Americans more readily confront the legacy of founders. With the sauce of that particular moment, the image took on a different importance in many people’s minds and they found new ways to interpret it.

Although big social movements inevitably have their excesses, I think this opportunity to reexamine ourselves and our past is generally a good thing. People are so hungry right now to understand things around them, and the internet gives us an incredible tool to help people contextualize the world in which we live. Having a clear, unmuddled picture of where we came from helps guide the directions we need to go in the future.

If all we can manage to do is look at people who founded our country as infallible gods, it’s pretty hard to fix their mistakes. A one-dimensional view of the framers as geniuses is dangerous, and holds us back from progress. History can hurt.

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