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A Shallow Dive Into A Twisted Mind


There have been, and always will be, a handful of people who believe with all their heart and soul that the world is coming to an end. Eventually, someone will nail it, but in the meantime, there will be a lot of people who are determined to re-enact Chicken Little with the utmost gusto and sincerity. And they may not be entirely wrong in their cause or assessment, even if actions are guided by an existentialism that they can see but others can’t. And that makes them crazy.

As a rule, I tend to think sabotage is most effective when it is precise and gritty. When activists from the same group smashed gas stations in April this year, they hit the nail on the head. Gasoline, unlike a van Gogh painting, is a fuel of global warming. There is a whole planetary layer of stations, pipelines, platforms, derricks, terminals, mines and shafts that must be shut down to save humanity and other life-forms. When governments refuse to undertake this work, it is up to the rest of us to initiate it. That is the rationale for sabotage: to aim straight for the bags of coal.

The author, with the claim to fame of having written “How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire.” which certainly seems like the work of a normal person, initially reacted as poorly as sane people to the throwing of soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

Vincent van Gogh is not responsible for our climate breakdown. He was not the C.E.O. of an oil and gas company or a coal merchant. In fact, van Gogh started drawing and painting while living amid the smoke and cinder in a Belgian coal district. Besides “Sunflowers,” one of his most famous paintings is “Miners’ Wives Carrying Sacks of Coal,” their bodies bent under the weight of the bags; art history knows few works that so powerfully capture the fossil economy’s intolerable burden on the living.

So my initial reaction to the news that two activists from the group Just Stop Oil had tossed tomato soup on “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London was: Oh, no, not another attack on some object with no causal relation to the climate emergency, something innocent and beautiful.

Not quite a rational reaction, as it begs the question of the efficacy of destruction as a means of accomplishing what she believes to be a public good, but at least one that recognizes that “Sunflowers” didn’t do anything to harm the environment, was “innocent and beautiful,” and had no causal connection to the cause. But as the thought processes of a sick and twisted mind play out before your very eyes, you can begin to see how the unduly passionate contort their rationalizations to justify their bad and dangerous acts.

As an aside, many defenders of the crazy emphasize that the painting was covered by glass, so those who were outraged by this utterly futile act of narcissistic stupidy are “pearl clutching,” one of those cute phrases that, once uttered, makes idiocy disappear. The problem is that this glass excuse hasn’t been true of numerous other attacks on paintings, even if true here, and it remained quite possible that the glass, while adequate to protect the painting from nasty, dirty fingers, was not suited to protect it from a can of tomato soup. Oops. As god in my witness, I thought turkeys could fly, which didn’t do much for the turkeys no matter how sincere.

But the author’s momentary embrace of sanity swiftly ebbed into the abyss.

But as the scattershot from the National Gallery ricocheted across social media, eliciting everything from mockery to admiration, I had second thoughts. There might be room for this kind of action, too. As one of the young activists cried out before gluing herself to the wall beneath the painting, “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” Just Stop Oil’s actions seem to have offended establishment sensibilities at a time when a third of Pakistan has been underwater.

Does that argument, that people care more about the protection of a painting than the protection of our planet, justify the action?

The argument is that if I believe my problem is life or death, the most important problem there is and one that must be fixed (how is another story, but I digest), then anything I do, anything, any harm, any destruction, anything, is justified as a lesser problem in the service of a greater problem. Of course it would be terrible to ruin a Van Gogh, but if it saves the planet and humanity, isn’t it worth it? Same with cutting up babies or killing kittens, or anything else no matter how awful or conceptually unrelated.

This is the sort of rationalization that can capture the minds of shallow and passionate, and lead them to engage in any matter of insanity that, to their twisted way of thinking, makes their cause (and incidentally them, our saviors even if we don’t know it yet) pre-eminent.

Unlike others, this act of utter idiocy doesn’t make me want to burn oil or throw tomato soup at any object. I’ve long been an environmentalist, going back to the smog days, the filthy litter along our roadways and the elimination of open natural space so another strip mall can exist. I lack the knowledge to offer any serious thoughts about climate change, but am willing to accept and believe those I trust that it’s real and exceptionally bad.

But none of this suggests that there exists a serious plan to address it. Instead, we have smug little shits throwing tomato soup and their similarly simplistic defenders in the New York Times. Sucks to be you, Muppsy.


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