Girl Interrupted at Her Music

The painting “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is shown.

(Image: Johannes Vermeer)

“Girls” Interrupted: On the Breathtaking Leadership of Generation Z

Carry on, Students Interrupted: in precisely the way Vermeer’s painted girl averts her gaze and in so doing shuts down the imperious authority that looms—not in a leisurely way but steadfastly, as committed choice.

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter who made profound narrative images, pictures set in the stoniness of dry paint that nevertheless contain movement. They have trajectories, like stories do. One of his best-known is “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” (1658-61). This one, permanently installed at The Frick Collection in upper Manhattan, pictures a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 years who is being schooled presumably on the cittern, a Renaissance era guitar. She is educated by a man many years her senior, a man who noticeably presides over her. He presides, that is, rather too much, is both too encroached on her personal space and too wrapped around and curtaining her. As to the girl, Vermeer’s subject, she looks the other way. For all her tutor’s efforts to crowd and dominate, to train her focus on matters he brings to hand, this girl is occupied by some other matter, indeed some other urgency. Whatever crisis that may be, it is perceptible in her facial expression and in the intense, almost painful craning of her neck, her gaze demonstratively turned toward her viewer.

That Girl is Vermeer’s subject; and she is not being schooled; rather she has refused the education imposed upon her; rather, she is saying something, but what? That she looks away is not subtle. No—this girl’s rejection of the authority swathing her, blocking her light, is sharp and jarring. It is as if she is interrupted by something truly ghastly, something that calls to her in the voice of Antigone, something like a genocide. Whatever that “something” is, the Dutch painter has taken pains to show that she considers it vastly more critical than whatever her too-invasive education concerns on this day.

That is to say, Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted” is a metonym for Generation Z. Her posture in relation to her education matches their posture in relation to theirs. She, a simulacrum of today’s encamped student. Her male instructor, stand-in for the authoritarian institutions comprising today’s university system and its failed leadership. Certainly Vermeer was thinking about power, about sexual and institutional politics, in applying his brush strokes to this canvas. Certainly nearly every U.S. college where encampments have been installed has not seen fit to tolerate their students’ insistent focus on Palestine, their unbroken, virulent concern for the genocide in progress, a genocide that now advances into and ups its own appalling ante in Rafah.

Girls interrupted, gazes averted, necks craned, in your strength, your lionhearted giftedness, your principled politics, be undaunted as you herald the righteous call to justice, humanity, life, and, most importantly, to love.

And now they are stopped—by Harvard’s refusal to let 13 graduates graduate. Harmed, physically and viscerally, by an extremist attack at UCLA that was allowed to carry on for hours; the next day, adding more insult to more injury, the police came back to brutalize the students once again. Harmed, by the felony charges unleashed on them by the combined force of the administration of the City University of New York and the state—the deceitful, violent lawlessness of the Eric Adams administration. Harmed for life in being given criminal records unlawfully. The lives of those students have been cruelly interrupted because they interrupted the power the institution holds over and drapes around them, as in the painting. But those punishing disciplinary interruptions lose all legitimacy because their purpose is to continue a genocide. No criminal at all, today’s student is criminalized because they protest mass slaughter and manufactured hunger. Meanwhile, their college leaders remain too gutless themselves to speak out about that which they know to be wrong. Wrong unequivocally, wrong under the rule of law, wrong under Antigone’s natural law.

One encampment sign reads, “They’re afraid of how strongly we love.” Indeed, they are. What Vermeer represents in a visual narrative, the encampments represent: a cessation of the ordinary, they take participants out of entrenched societal and political structures, outside the schema of daily life. The individuals external to them experience a similar effect, if in reverse. As occurred in the time of Occupy Wall Street, outsiders, neighbors complained of interruption, disturbance, and aggravation inexplicable even to themselves. They do not know why they feel annoyed and call the police and file that complaint, but they do. Perhaps it is precisely because, like Occupy, the encampments constitute a substantial and sustained interruption of the everyday, perhaps it is because they are liminal spaces, uncharted and unscripted but also constructive, energized, hopeful, bastions for the flourishing of art as well as alternate forms of co-mutuality and education. Not just today but throughout the history of protest, encampment participants “look away” like the painted girl, their spontaneous consent undone for a time, the authority others hold over them interrupted, by them, if only momentarily.

As Judith Butler wrote, “There are other passages.” Other ways to live, other social formations, other ordinaries, futurities, visions, dreams, worlds that are possible. That is a critical resonance emanating from these encamped, these “squatter” protests; those who experienced them are speaking and writing about just that—the magic, the novel kinship, the distinct mutualities of those spaces. Clearly today’s protester-student has a vision for the future that is vastly unlike those projected and hoped for and molded by today’s politicians and corporate CEOs. It keeps being said, though never proved and never documented, that today’s college students “don’t know what they’re doing.” (The coward’s response to courageousness.) That they are brainwashed, duped, led around by the nose by we-don’t-know-who, that they’ve been intentionally “radicalized” by their faculties or by we-don’t-know-who.

Hillary Clinton, and many of her generation and her political ilk, fail to understand this, fail again by denigrating these student leaders, by declaring that they “don’t know very much.” What a shock it was to hear those words given so much evidence to the contrary, given the intellectual acuity and articulacy of so many college students that is visible and audible literally everywhere right now. They don’t know very much, she insisted, about history and not just U.S. history but that of “many areas of the world,” quote, unquote. So, “history” is lost on these “alarmingly” “radicalized” students, so says Clinton, students who’ve shown, who keep showing that they know a great deal about that subject especially.

Those comments stand as some of the most embarrassingly ironic of the moment, for it is Clinton herself who misrepresents history, shows herself to be the ignorant person in the room by admonishing Palestine for not having accepted the “come-ons” of her husband and boiling down a complex political quagmire to the simple “failure” to swallow the political suggestions of a place called the United States which has colluded in Israel’s oppression of Palestine ever since LBJ. Everything would be fine in Palestine, she protests, if only they’d done as Bill told them to do. In this, Clinton appears not just politically tone deaf but also unethical in giving herself “time” to lambast protesting students who risk everything in the fight for justice but in finding no time, not one half of one minute, to comment on the genocide itself. No—bringing only condescension, condemnation, and a grotesque display of supremacism, Clinton makes no space in her discourse to call for a cease-fire, for the resumption of peace talks, to advocate for anything humane or anything at all. A woman who considered herself fit to run this country, who once held the post of secretary of state, does not see fit to call out war crimes committed with relentless abandon against the people of occupied Palestine.

So much for ethical, effective leadership that might have come from my generation. But that genocide is, as we know, the entire point. My generation, my Union, the PSC CUNY—one more exemplar of the matter at hand. Last Thursday a public meeting of the delegate assembly was held for which one agenda item was the resolution calling for a number of important actions, including divestiture. It was said by self-identified “progressive” delegates that the resolution then before the union “went too far.” Why—because, in solidarity with students the world over who risk it all in encamped protests that likewise make this demand, it calls for the union to call for City University to divest from Israel. (The union isn’t listening to our students, the constituency the entire university edifice was built to serve, probably because, like Hillary, they believe the students “do not know very much” despite being those students’ teachers.) Demonstrated last Thursday was clear evidence of a concerning deafness, like Clinton’s, to what is happening in the world today and why. That the union leadership suffers deafnesses and blindnesses, further illustrated in the president’s choice to speak first and against the resolution. But how, pray tell, could the resolution have had any chance of succeeding then? That generational deaf, blind gap was demonstrated finally in a 114-40 “no” vote last Thursday.

The union that is supposed to protect and defend the major share of the labor pool at the largest public university in the world voted, by a wide margin, to not divest from extermination. That a leadership overhaul is necessary is both a given and a matter for another time. For now, let it be clear that we either were not paying attention or we forgot that previous generations have not had, have not shown the boldness and dedication of Gen Z in response to the 76 year bludgeoning of Palestine. Let it be clear that we either did not bother to know or we forgot—now eight months into merciless, pitiless, heartless slaughter and starvation now augmented, shockingly, in the very place Israel has said all throughout this horror was safe, Rafah—that for several dreadful grief-stricken months those same students had been protesting, holding rallies, sit-ins, die-ins, shouting out to the political world until their throats were so raw they could no longer speak—Stop the Genocide! Palestinian Lives Matter! At first they appealed to the world’s conscience, assumed that crying out for a genocide to end—the unambiguously righteous call, the unequivocal Antigonean claim—would be heeded. But they were wrong. We were wrong. I waited for that; I was wrong.

No—the world was and remains deaf to justice, its political leadership carrying on even now in smug barbarity—supplying the weapons, stood still now, with almost 40,000 dead in Gaza, in solidarity with the racist, rogue, fascist regime now governing Israel. It became clear, painfully, only after those several months that no one but no one was listening, that the global community of nation-states—other than those countable on one hand—was ignoring all the protests and all the protesters, the voice of the people those thousands of politicians were elected to represent, summarily erased.

As occurred in the movement to free South Africa, today’s struggle has become about divestiture. Its central call, now: “Disclose! Divest! We will not stop! We will not rest!” Giving up not being an option for Gen Z, the struggle was forced to morph, to train its focus, in response to the fact that any world actor or agent with the capacity to stop the ethnic cleansing in progress, to render unlawful and restrict the supply of armaments or intervene to achieve a cease-fire, failed to or, like Secretary Clinton, has been unwilling. With unconscionable arrogance, with a ruthless kind of viciousness not seen in international politics in over half a century, they simply and entirely disregard the residents of planet Earth. We, the world, the people en masse, call and call and call again for the killing to STOP. But our elected leaders, our university leaders turn from us—their backs to us, their stance one of absolute denial: See no, hear no evil, their only protest: “What genocide?”

That most of those leaders ought to resign, give over their posts to student and other Gen Z leaders—to Shruthi Kumar, to Maha Zeidan, to Britt Munro or Lily Greenberg Call or Sally Abed—goes without saying. Today’s student activists are not perfect, the encampments, not perfect, mistakes are made in any endeavor, be it political or otherwise. But Gen Z is not failing in the most vital way: to answer the call of justice, the call of their moment and of the present century. The civil rights challenge of our epoch is twofold: abolition—from mass incarceration, racism and (racial)capital, the migrant crisis, the climate emergency—and, the abolition of Palestine. What Clinton, a self-identified feminist, fails to recognize is that today’s feminists are not just educated, they are also intersectional thinkers, which means they have a keener, more nuanced understanding of matters political, social, interpersonal, and historical. They know, for example, that Covid-19 and climate change and their and their children’s futures are inextricably tangled and that the urgency of the triptych is lost on many of their leaders whether in the educational or the political sector. They understand that we cannot separate the overturning of Roe v. Wade from the deaths and the woundings and the chronic and generational trauma of all those mothers and grandmothers in Gaza, all those little Gazan “girls,” their lives more than interrupted more than brutally. Today’s feminists know, and this is perhaps Clinton’s most disgraceful oversight, that anti-racist struggle is of a piece with the struggle for Palestinian rights, safety, and sovereignty; that the loss of affirmative action is tethered to the utterly despicable loss of life in Gaza, to the fact of more than 80,000 wounded, to all of what has been interrupted for them for the remainder of their lives if they survive their injuries.

Today’s feminist is not “Hillary Clinton.” Her name is Shruthi Kumar, who gave a brilliant valedictorian speech at Harvard in solidarity with the 13 prohibited from graduating. Her name is Anne Jones, an 82 year old British woman who cycled up a treacherous mountain to raise funds to build life in Gaza. Her name is Maha Zeidan, a young woman just graduated from the University of Toledo College of Law who gave one of the most splendid graduation speeches I’ve ever heard. Her name is Lily Greenberg Call, perhaps the bravest, smartest, and most ethical member of the Biden administration, now resigned from it, resigned over Gaza. Her name is Britt Munro. Her name is Serene Jones. Their name is Judith Butler. Their names are Maya Peretz-Ruiz and Sally Abed. (Also on the leadership of Standing Together, Sally was the first Israeli woman of Palestinian descent to be elected to a council post—still, the newly elected representative from Haifa gets arrested at a protest.) Their names are Rula Daood and Alon-Lee Green. His name is Motaz Azaiza. His name is Michael Roth. His name is Macklemore. Their names are Mark Ruffalo and Jonathan Glazer. Her name is Alana Hadid. She is a peacemaker; they are peacemakers; their name is withheld: “‘They want to split us up and divide us, because they’re afraid of what we can accomplish with consistency, with principle, and an unrelenting focus on our demands,’ said a student who declined to give their name.” All these feminists, these “girls” interrupted whether girls, boys, or trans persons, they interrupt their own lives, their own educations to stop a genocide they cannot abide.

Let it be clear the degree to which my generation is failing, not just failing students and not only by not understanding or not respecting them, but failing simply and purely—politically, morally, failing justice full stop. Let it be clear that the Good Fight of the 21st century is being fought and won by Generation Z. Hillary Clinton, the PSC CUNY, and anyone else who may still feel uncertain—hear this: As persons of conscience in a world that has misplaced its moral center, it is our responsibility, no—it is our duty to support them. Those who remain humane in this time of inhumanity, those with eyes wide open, who listen with all of who we are—mind, spirit, body—we hear you, Generation Z, we recognize the sacrifices you make and you risk. (Remembering Whitman: We “are with you, you men and women of a generation.”) You are breathtaking, to us, in fact. No—not because you are flawless, because you are fearless, because you are persons of conscience, and you are right. You are in the right and on the right side of history. Carry on, Students Interrupted: in precisely the way Vermeer’s painted girl averts her gaze and in so doing shuts down the imperious authority that looms—not in a leisurely way but steadfastly, as committed choice—whatever you do, Gen Z: stay the course of your chosen interruption, your backs turned to the normalization of brutality. (Whitman again: “We do not cast you aside” but “plant you permanently within us.”) Girls interrupted, gazes averted, necks craned, in your strength, your lionhearted giftedness, your principled politics, be undaunted as you herald the righteous call to justice, humanity, life, and, most importantly, to love. (Whitman, once more: “Appearances now or henceforth, indicate what you are.”) Show the world the way, build the future you want to see, make this planet the place you willingly choose to occupy.

And Occupy it. Remember, because you looked the other way, you are driving our fallen world toward the good and the just, not away from it. Toward love, not away from it. We—Hillary Clinton’s generation, my generation, my father’s generation—have failed. Yours has not. Turning your gaze, like that Girl, you turn the gaze of the world, you force the people, finally, at last, once and for all, to see Rafah.

All Eyes On Rafah.

As Netanyahu spews his lies.

And the struggle continues.

And the death toll rises, day by day.

And the beatdown of Palestine goes on…

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.