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Hollywoods Drama

Strike! After an 11th-hour bargaining session between representatives of the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed, the Writers Guild called a general strike on Nov. 5 for the 12,000 scribes covered by the guild. It has been almost 20 years since the writers last walked out, a 22-week marathon that cost the industry half a billion dollars. This time the stakes are even higher. The entertainment industry has expanded rapidly in the past two decades, and the defense and aerospace industries that fueled Los Angeles’ growth have collapsed, leaving entertainment with ever-larger economic influence on the region’s 13 million residents.


“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce,” Cesar Chavez once said of his work organizing California’s farm workers, “it is always about people.” It may be hard to feel the same sympathy for Hollywood hipsters as for laborers facing harsh conditions in California’s fields. The labor troubles writers face, however, are also primarily about people, not just famous wordsmiths but hundreds of thousands of others whose livelihood depends on the labor and capital of the entertainment industry. This fight also has repercussions for organized labor elsewhere in the United States. The United Auto Workers were recently forced to accept painful rollbacks of employee benefits after short strikes against G.M. and Chrysler. In an era when management triumphs over labor at every turn, could the most gripping drama in years come not from Hollywood’s pens, but from its pickets?

From Great Silence

Very little is known about the Mexican folk artist Martín Ramírez. After immigrating to the United States and working a series of railroad jobs, he was institutionalized in 1931 and spent the next 30 years in mental hospitals, deaf and by all signs mute. He was ultimately diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Ramírez composed most of his work while in the hospital, where later in life he was given his own space and materials. Probably many of his pictures were thrown away, but some remain thanks to a psychologist who recognized his talent. A collection of his work—featuring his signature renderings of trains, caballeros and Madonnas—is on display at the Milwaukee Museum of Art through Jan. 13, 2008.

Self-taught, Ramírez had no connection with the outside world, much less to the art world that traditionally nurtures such talent. His story is a reminder that art can flourish in the most unlikely of places, and that the mentally ill can have rich imaginative lives. Ramírez reportedly never spoke a word while he was in the hospital, yet in his art he found a means to communicate, and 50 years later his drawings—especially his towering, mesmerizing Madonnas—still invite contemplation. In an earlier age he might have been appreciated as a visionary, a man who despite his suffering found consolation in silence and work, and through his art offered the same to others. That he was locked away until his death in 1963 is an indictment of society’s meager ability to engage the mentally ill.

Women and Human Freedom

Five religious sisters of the Poor Clare community in Raseli, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, were dragged, beaten and had their clothes torn on Oct. 25 as they returned to their convent from a family rosary prayer gathering at the home of one of their Catholic employees. The attackers were members of a fundamentalist Hindu organization that favors sati (the ritual suicide of widows). All five sisters were hospitalized, one with a broken leg. Another sister required seven stitches to her head. Their offense, according to the fundamentalists, was encouraging conversion to Christianity.

The Catholic archbishop of Indore, Leo Cornelio, spoke out strongly against the attack and the prevailing climate of intolerance: “We have been suffering silently, but it looks as if the fundamentalist organizations take that as a weakness on our part. It is an attack on women and human freedom. India is a democratic country and this cannot be tolerated; our religious freedom is non-negotiable.”

On Nov. 1, Christians held a massive candlelight rally, and that evening a 27-member delegation led by Archbishop Cornelio met with the state governor to inform him of the serious situation and to ask for an inquiry into the attacks on the Christian community, on Muslims and on members of the Dalit caste. Under the circumstances, defending the rights of all minorities demonstrates the church’s full commitment to human rights. It is incumbent on the government to fulfill its duty to protect the rights of all.

Intolerance and violence are equal opportunity offenders. This attack by Indians on Indians, on Indian women in particular, demands an outcry of protest from political leaders and from potential investors.

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