Musings on Photography

The Tuba Man

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 5, 2008

Yesterday was a really good day and normal day and a really bad day, and the good and the bad and the ordinary have contrived to haul my sorry butt out of bed, wide awake, some two hours before I usually get up. My head is full of conflicting thoughts and I’m guessing that writing the whole muddle up is the only way to exorcise them, and so while this all skates far away from photography and art, and skates dangerously close to some subjects I have tried hard to avoid on this blog, I’m going to write it and post it and ask for your indulgence with the proviso that it won’t happen again very soon.

Yesterday was election day where I live (in the upper left hand corner of the USA). That’s the day many of us leave our homes and jobs, and go to the polling places, and we cast our ballots saying who we want to run the government. For the past half decade or so, my wife and I have been poll workers, checking people’s registration and helping them feed their marked ballots into the machine, etc. And I’m one of those stubborn souls who has regularly voted in every election for the past three decades.

So allow me to describe what I saw yesterday as I worked at the polls. I live near a small town, and yesterday some hundreds of my neighbors all trudged through the icky rain to the polling station in a meeting room at the elementary school – the one with the art made by the first grade class on the walls. There was the usual motley assortment of humanity – store clerks and lawyers and doctors and stay at home moms and farmers, teenagers voting for their first time and elderly folks who have voted many times. And these perfectly ordinary people came, and they made some marks on sheets of paper and they fed these bits of paper into a machine. These ordinary people, aware that the election was implemented by other ordinary humans subject to ordinary human failings like honest mistakes and greed and thirst for power, cast their ballots with some confidence that the election would not be perfectly fair nor perfectly honest but also with some confidence that it would probably generally express the will of the voting populace. That is, I’m sure the voters in my little town and everywhere else were generally aware that elections are not perfect and that people on both sides of the political spectrum cheat, etc. But these perfectly ordinary people went to the polls and voted anyway. They did this despite all the hatred and acrimony and cheating that’s part of our political process, and these perfectly ordinary people (at least the ones I saw) did it without screaming with rage and without fisticuffs, and in fact although I’m quite confident that about half of them disagree violently with my political views, I had absolutely no fear that I might be harmed by anyone.

And the amazing and delightful thing is that in a couple of months, a new set of people will take over running the government, and the old set will stop, and this will happen without tanks in the street and without people getting killed. We call this system ‘democracy’, and as Churchill wryly observed, it is the worst possible system of government, except for all the others. It’s a system with holes in it you could drive a truck through, and yet despite that fact that it’s a horrible, flawed system prone to a host of errors from ranging from ballot box stuffing to the usual political duplicity, it’s a system that has a property I greatly admire – it works pretty well, and it’s been working pretty well (and getting better) for a couple of hundred years. The times and places in history where the transition from one set of rulers to another has been filled with bloody violence are so numerous we can’t count them and on the face of it it might seem like a peaceful handover is impossible, and yet a bunch of perfectly ordinary folks went out yesterday and negotiated this transition by the simple expedient of making a bunch of marks on a bunch of papers and agreeing to be bound by the marks made by everyone EVEN IF THEY DIDN”T MUCH LIKE THE RESULT.

This has been happening in the US for so long that we by and large take it for granted, but it’s an extraordinary and beautiful thing. Humans are flawed, and while humans can produce great beauty they can also be nasty, brutish, selfish and stupid (often all at once), so the fact that we have a system which works so well should produce in us a delighted reaction similar to the realization that you can grow tasty, healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers by fertilizing them with animal feces – an unexpected but beautiful and delightful result.

So if you’re angry about our political process or the outcome of the election, I’d like you to take a moment and reflect. H. L. Mencken, with his usual trenchant wit, remarked that “democracy is the idea that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” I pretty much expect that those of us in the US are about to get it good and hard, but despite this I’m delighted to be living in a time and place where ordinary people can direct the government peaceably by the perfectly ordinary technique of making marks on paper (or the equivalent) and agreeing to being bound by the results.

So that’s the beautiful part of my day. There was also an ugly part to my day, which I will now describe. Again this will take a bit of time and space, so I beg your indulgence.

For the past two decades, my family has often gone in to Seattle to take in art – sometimes concerts, sometimes opera, sometimes ballet, but most often theatre. And, for nearly two decades, we’ve often been delighted by a fellow we came to think of as The Tuba Man. The Tuba Man would sit in a spot that had good acoustics, and he’d play the tuba, and people would stop and listen, and sometimes people would drop money in his tuba case. Street musician, if you will, or perhaps busker. I won’t say that The Tuba Man occupied a large part of my thoughts, but he was there, often enough that large numbers of people thought of him as The Tuba Man. My kids delighted in dropping money in his case, and my family was sad when construction at his usual spot forced him away for while, and then we were delighted when we saw him again near his old spot next to the Opera House. Along with many tens of thousands of other folks, we thought the Tuba Man was funny, eccentric, quirky, delightful, friendly, harmless, and that he would be there, playing the tuba, forever.

And yesterday, I found out that five people accosted him near his usual spot near the Opera House, and they beat him mercilessly for no understandable reason, and on Monday, Edward McMichael, known to me and many thousands of others as the gentle, amiable, and delightful Tuba Man, died as a result of this beating.

To say that this makes me angry is an understatement on a par with saying that the entire universe is a little bit bigger than a breadbox. It fills me with formless, inarticulate rage. My anger makes me shake violently. My anger woke me four times last night, each time shaking me so violently that I worried I’d wake my wife with the reaction.

I am angry that five ignorant young punks have done this foul thing, and that in all likelihood, they don’t even comprehend the murder let alone what they’ve done to the Seattle community. I’m horrified and appalled that, taken in perspective, this is not even an extraordinary event.

I am confused. I’m confused because people can disagree so strongly that they do things like this, and write things like this, but they can still manage to peacefully negotiate that conflict by making marks on bits of paper, and yet at the same time and place, five ignorant thugs killed The Tuba Man for no reason I can understand. I’m confused and angry that, when my family goes to the theatre, we have to take precautions lest we become victims of the same sort of scum, and that as a result I have think about and prepare to respond to that sort of violence.

I’m so confused and angered by this that it makes me feel like I’m going to throw up. I don’t think I’m going to stop being confused and angry for a really long time. It’s kind of hard to think about art and photography when I’m so angry and confused, and I am desperately hoping that some walks with the dog and the camera will be of some help in getting past the confusion and anger. I am once again reminded that humanity seems like a good idea in theory, but the implementation really sucks.

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