Saturday, November 26, 2005

Experimental Music vs. American Thanksgiving

The following is a slightly edited version of some prepared comments I made on 24-11-05 (American Thanksgiving), preceding a concert of solo saxophone improvisations I performed at <>TAG in The Hague.
Let me just mention how this evening will run. I will say a few words now, and then I'll perform for between 45 minutes and an hour. We'll take a short break to get some drinks, and then regroup to talk for as long as you're interested and about anything that comes to mind (yours or mine). We can discuss the music, what I am about to say, or the weather, whatever you like. I want to mention that I am speaking and performing tonight not only for people at <>TAG in The Hague, but also for a number of people listening via internet, and I would like to thank Mickey Z. in Queens, New York for promoting this concert to his online readers. Check out his important work at

Now allow me to explain why I'm performing this concert in this space tonight. About six months ago my friend Fernando Rinc√≥n Estrada and I started hatching a plan to get me over this December to Bogota, where he lives and teaches composition, so that I could do a performance and workshop on improvisation, saxophone technique, composition and so on. Since I am one of the audio curators here at <>TAG, I used my enormous power and influence here to schedule a try-out for the Colombia meeting—(which has, in the meantime, been postponed until the Spring).

Some of you may know that a large part of my work is concerned with creatively addressing the critical issue of avoiding a human-instigated global catastrophe. Tough work. Given my preoccupation with global diplomatic and environmental meltdown it might at first seem strange that I then spend so much time preparing a solo concert of experimental abstract saxophone improvisations. We could talk all night about the various ways one might choose to address the horror of our time—indeed of any time—but what I want to mention are two items in particular.

First, experimental abstract saxophone improvisations cease to be either decadent, or benign, or both, when one considers that it would be through such work that I might meet and communicate with people on the other side of the world. I have had some experience in this. In fact, that is what I am doing here now, in a country other than “my own”. I am a visitor, an observer, and a participant engaged in a dialogue with a cultural scene which is radically, I assure you, different from the dominant cultural scene in the country of my birth, and it is only through exposure, through such dialogue that this important fact becomes apparent. I have an Israeli friend who recently had the opportunity to meet and talk in Istanbul with artists from places like Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Such an act is bizarrely illegal according to the laws of their countries (and I suppose shunned in some Israeli circles as well). But it is through such meetings, such communication, that we begin to trivialize inane laws, rabid propaganda-fueled xenophobia, and homicidal, if not suicidal, imperialisms. It then becomes possible to create a space in which we challenge and solve the problems that face us all.

We have to meet. We have to talk. And the pervading atmosphere of xenophobia that has touched all of us in this room is a threat to our future.

And that brings me to the second point. This space, this organization, <>TAG, is explicitly about communication. And not just the communication between artist and observer, but the communication amongst artists, across disciplines, amid different aesthetics and inclusive of various backgrounds. This is damnned important stuff and I am glad <>TAG exists to support it.

In addition to our handful of listeners across the Atlantic, I want to make another connection to the Americas today. In the United States people are celebrating “Thanksgiving”, a national holiday referencing a semi-mythological peaceful harvest meal between Natives and White settlers in 1620 something. We Americans are taught from day one about the greatness of our country, and this is the second great act of American benevolence (the first being the story of the racist pirate Christopher Colombus “discovering” an entire half of the planet and “rescuing” savages from the horrors of non-European civilization).

Anyway, we all know, or should know, how the rest of the story of the birth of the US played out. Over the glorious years of the supposed “civilization” of the Americas millions of Indians were slaughtered to pave the way for European settlers. Before oil was the power commodity of choice a trade in people made fortunes for Enlightenment-era political and business elites. The story continues to play itself out now, with the assumed Euro-American right to the control of resources around the globe the dominant factor in our wars on the environment, on sovereign nations, on peoples’ right to communicate, and on children. I’m not suggesting that our systemic racism—the racism inherent in American society as exposed recently by Hurricane Katrina, and the racism inherent in xenophobia (instigated by corporate globalism via the profitability of the arms trade and the pilfering of resources, for example)—I’m not suggesting that such injustice is unique to the US, or to Western Europe for that matter. I am not exonerating the limits on press freedom in Turkey, or the limits on free speech in China, or the theocratic totalitarianism of Saudi Arabia or Iran. But in the same way that communication starts with us, here, now, the reduction of savage world-encompassing violence begins with us. We can stop it when we want to. We can stand up to injustice not just when it’s convenient, and not just when it threatens us directly, but as a way of life.

I want to clarify that it is not illegal for me to speak with Colombians, for example, and that a meeting about experimental music will not directly prevent the horror, for example, of my country’s horrendous drug wars and its consistent meddling in Latin American affairs. But the ability to communicate, as we’re doing tonight, as I hope I will be able to do in Colombia in a few months, is something precious that must be constantly defended. And we have to defend our right to communicate by communicating. When we fear each other, when we scorch the earth, when we poison the food and water, deprive children of education and healthcare, and systematically ignite hostilities (most often for profit), we implicitly reduce the likelihood of being able to engage in the kind of communication that uplifts us all. I am genuinely thankful for this opportunity to share my music with you, but as long as injustice and violence reign as the building blocks of global society—with my own country at the helm—I can do nothing but work against it, even as a performer of experimental saxophone improvisations. As a resident of the Netherlands, as a citizen of the US, and as an artist at large in the world, I see that as my obligation tonight and always.
I hope to have a link soon to an archived excerpt of the performance, and a transcript of at least some of the lively discussion that followed the concert. The spontaneous informal debate on the role of artists in society and the value of creatively addressing the crisis of communication and humanism raised a number of important questions and lasted for two hours after the concert. My thanks to all who contributed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Addendum to "No Wrong Moves..."

A number of related items have come to my attention since my last post.

Police in New York City now apparently have the right to conduct random searches on the subways. Is this new, or newly discovered? I have the same question about the now-raging phoney debate on the "shoot to kill" policy of British police. New or old, it shouldn't matter; these are horrendous, authoritarian affronts to civil liberties and--most importantly--do not increase security.

Subway searches may make some New Yorkers feel safe. I suppose there are those who rest easy when they fly because some poorly-trained, disinterested security workers--who probably are not allowed to unionize, by the way--rummage through a few bags. As George Carlin has said of the absurdity of airline safety "You could kill a person with the Sunday New York Times." Indeed, and in more ways than one.

But seriously. Seriously.

To follow up on the BBC's web reporting of the situation in the UK: a recent headline indicates that Jean Charles de Menezes, murdered by undercover police on the London Underground, may have been in the UK on an expired visa. (UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has claimed otherwise.) What is disturbing here is not only that the BBC seems to be furthering mainstream media's adopted role as an apologist for the occassional accidents of an ostensibly benevolent society, but that they are laying the rhetorical framework for a round up of anyone with questionable residence papers.

I have read the BBC's articles over and over, but I haven't seen any acknowledgement of the fact, and it is a fact, that Menezes was murdered. Meanwhile, here's what Tony Blair had to say, according to the BBC: "We are all desperately sorry for the death of an innocent person. I understand entirely the feelings of the young man's family. But we also have to understand the police are doing their job in very, very difficult circumstances and it is important that we give them every support."

Yeah. Try saying this out loud: "An innocent man was murdered by over-zealous police. We must support them in this difficult work."

The BBC further reports: "The prime minister said the police would have been criticised for failing to act had the man turned out to be a terrorist." Actually, Tony Blair would have been rightly criticized for leading his country into an unnecessary war of aggression, fanning the flames of cross-cultural hate, and leading the children of muslim immigrants into further confusion and disillusionment about their place in British society, but no one would expect mainstream newspapers to fully report anything remotely similar, except perhaps when deriding "far-left" opinion.

Such criticism would not absolve criminals (such as suicide bombers) of guilt for their heinous acts, but it would correctly dispel the notion that the shooting of innocent people on the Tube, or the potential failure of police to prevent another bombing, was a "mistake". Dante reserved a ring in hell for those who knowingly make "mistakes" they plan to apologize for after the fact.

Maybe the Menezes story disturbs me so much because I have been a "foreigner" for six years. My friends and I have to arrange paperwork annually to secure our right to stay (this increases in difficulty every year since 9/11). I know plenty of people who could, for any number of reasons, run when approached by a group of heavily-armed unidentified men. Darker-skinned friends might have expired visas--as might I, though with my acceptable skin tone I am not likely to be suspected of blowing things up, unless it's from the comfort and safety of a warplane soaring over Iraq or Afghanistan.

I will not have police shooting my friends in the face on suspicion of terrorism that amounts to nothing more than racial profiling. If the police want to profile people for crimes, the most dangerous people on earth are grey-haired white men with dark suits. But I guess they don't ride the metro.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

No Wrong Moves. We Shoot To Kill.

I knew it.

I knew that poor guy was no terrorist the moment I saw the headline on Friday.

Lately, all it takes is reading the BBC's headlines to know how sinister the methods in which we--that is, the so-called western democracies--are sliding towards an open embrace of fascsism. In this I am elaborating on the viewpoint of Chicago-based political analyst Paul Street (see his recent blog entry here for details).

If you find the term "fascism" odious (don't we all) and impossible as a descriptive term of Anglo-American political culture, I wholeheartedly suggest reading Umberto Eco's 24-page essay entitled "Ur-Fascism" in his Five Moral Pieces. Get it here. See for yourself if fascism, as Eco experienced it as a child in 1930's Italy, isn't in an advanced stage in a self-righteous democracy near you.

Meanwhile, check this out: four operatives most likely connected to al-Qaeda blow themselves and nearly 60 other people up in London on July 7. Long predicted by US and UK intelligence sources, as well as by the mayor and police commissioner of London (and everyone I know), the only thing that surprised anyone was how relatively mild the attack was. Everyone knows, furthermore, that the attack was motivated by the same grievances behind the attacks in Madrid and New York, i.e. Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, including the pre-9/11 US military presence in Saudi Arabia, the wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq, and continued support of Israel's occupation of Palestine in violation of international law.

The bombing in London, in the words of Paul Street, were "a gift to the jingoistic and regressive hard-state right and its police state agents." Instead of emulating last year's sane and appropriate response of Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who removed his country's 1,300 troops from Iraq following the bombing of Madrid's commuter trains (adhering to the will of the Spanish citizenry--fancy that), Blair and his government immediately began talking, well, bullshit self-righteous cowboy talk. This is at once offensive to the memories of the victims of the London attack and arrogant in the highest degree--consider Blair's (and Bush's) completely dishonest linking of the attacks to their rich boy pseudo-philanthropy meeting at Gleneagles.

First up--and this is just a BBC headline, no in-depth research here into the real goings-on of the empowerment of the fascist state--is the "UK global extremists list", designed to prevent entry to the UK of individuals accused of "unacceptable behaviours" including "preaching, running websites or writing articles which are intended to foment or provoke terrorism" in the words of home secretary Charles Clarke. Sounds benign and useful enough, until you stop to think about the extraordinarily narrow definition the West has for the word "terrorism" and the pointed way in which such powers are going to be abused.

Question: will Richard Perle, former chairman of the American Defense Policy Board and lifetime prince of darkness, ever be denied entry to the UK? Certainly his numerous articles and activities advance a policy intended to foment or provoke the official state terrorism--that is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets" (CIA) "calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons" (UN)--that the US and UK are presently enacting in Iraq.

Answer: of course not. "No known group self-identifies as 'terrorist'" says the Wikipedia entry on terrorism, and new laws aimed at preventing it, like the "Global extremists list" and the recently renewed US PATRIOT act, simply expand the racism, fanaticism, and fear-mongering of the responsible governments.

Next, then: two weeks to the day after four suicide bombers blow themselves and others up in London, four detonators explode in...London. No casualties, but you might think the British--ahem, English--government might get serious about the very real danger posed to its people. Listen, the grievances are valid, even if the tactics ain't. So what do the BBC headlines following the second--luckily unsuccessful--attack tell us? That Big Brother watched carefully via His myriad CCTV cameras and maybe at some point someone will know something about someone. Even London mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone joined the chorus following the first bombing.

CCTV cameras.
Laws that strip the populace of hard-won civil liberties.
What else?

Here we go: the day after the second bomb attack in London--this past Friday--undercover police officers follow an electrician from a house they are spying on to the underground in Stockwell. They approach him, he bolts for the train, and they plug him with five shots at point-blank range.

All the official bastards in London are so very very sorry for this really quite honest mistake at a difficult time. The media reports make much of the fact that the victim, Jean Charles de Menezes, was a Brazilian national. Are you getting this? A brown man, but not an Arab. And, don't you see? He ran to the station. That's a no-no in our particular fascist handbook. The BBC has repeated uncritically the position of the Metropolitan Police that the "shoot to kill" policy will remain in force.

I am not proposing a conspiracy theory here, but the fact is, there had to be an innocent person shot dead by undercover cops on the London Underground on Friday. Why? It gives the authorities the same air of unpredictability, mercilessness, and unaccountability that the US felt it was necessary to demonstrate when it bombed Serbia in 1999 (as just one example among many). This is the only way these blundering (and dangerous) idiots, after allowing two terrorist attacks and murdering a completely innocent man on the tube, can possibly continue their state terrorism abroad and fascism at home.

Stay off the grass. Or we'll blow your fucking head off.

Can anyone really believe that "fascism" is too strong a word for a government sending its severely traumatized population the message: No wrong moves. We shoot to kill.

Friday, July 22, 2005

It's Because of the Americans...

Overheard fragment of a conversation on the street in Grahamstown, South Africa, the night of July 7th:

WOMAN: But why did this happen?
MAN: It's because of the Americans.

Below, more on this subject and others. I hope to have reflections from my time in South Africa up soon.

John Pilger: These Were Blair's Bombs
Blair brought home to this country his and Bush's illegal, unprovoked and blood-soaked adventure in the Middle East. Were it not for his epic irresponsibility, the Londoners who died in the Tube and on the No 30 bus [on 7 July] almost certainly would be alive today.
Paul Street: Gifts to the Jingoistic Right
...Smiling turned Somber George Bush pretended not to welcome [July 7th's] all-too predictable attacks, which were certainly expected at some point by planners in the National Insecurity State. He seized the opportunity to say that “the contrast between what we’ve seen on the TV screens here, what’s taken place in London and what’s taking place here is incredibly vivid to me. On the one hand, we have people here who are working to alleviate poverty, to help rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS, working on ways to have a clean environment. And on the other hand, you’ve got people killing innocent people. And the contrast couldn’t be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill—those who have got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.”

Insofar as anything is happening at the G8 summit to reduce poverty, save global ecology, or overcome AIDS, we can be sure it is in spite of the White House’s best efforts. The Bush administration is a zealous, dedicated proponent of militantly regressive, so-called “free-market” economics at home and abroad. The essence of Bush’s corporate-financed domestic and global policy agenda is massive state protection and subsidy for the already super-opulent combined with savage market discipline and coercive state punishment and regulation of the poor.
Christian Christensen: "... Objective Like Us?"

Doug Ireland: Remembering Herbert Marcuse

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Discredited

I have been thinking lately about the concept of the discredited. It is shocking to note that what should be and has been discredited somehow remains acceptable by people and the press that ought to serve them (but doesn't). The examples of this are so obvious, and the discredited so utterly discredited, that it hardly seems necessary to repeat what is already reverberating in cyberspace, in print and television news, and in places where people still talk to each other about things that matter.

Still, to make sure we're on the same page...

I am thinking of the major news stories of this past month, of people like George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Tony Blair. These people have been so thoroughly discredited, you would think they'd simply disappear to save their hides. Volumes have been written about their lies (and the mass-homicidal results), yet these guys continue to run the world. Nothing sticks to them, and (as I've mentioned) they tend to promote each other instead.

I am thinking of Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov's regime has long been known to deal in human rights abuses, and yet the world was shocked (for about twelve seconds) to hear about a bit of force used by the army to quell some sort of rebellion. I call that type of use of force "massacre". Uzbekistan, partner of the US in its "war on terror". Ha.

I am thinking of how the US and French presidents (and the German chancellor) stood shoulder to shoulder with ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin at a massive Soviet-style military parade commemorating the Soviet sacrifice during the second world war. I want the rich and powerful men in the dark suits to attend a silent parade of those of us horrified by the fact that the Soviet sacrifice included stopping on the banks of the Vistula River and watching as the Nazi Army leveled Warsaw.

And I am thinking of the anti-Bush rally my girlfriend and I attended in Amsterdam earlier this month. The rally, organized by a long list of left-wing political parties and other institutions ostensibly to protest the invitation Prime Minister Balkenende's center-right government extended to George W. Bush to commemorate the end of the second world war, was shocking to behold. Let me be clear--if I haven't been--that an opportunity to make public my opposition to Mr. Bush and his criminally insane adventures on this planet is heartily welcomed. We thought that supporting a local effort to demonstrate opposition to Bush's visit to The Netherlands was worthwhile. But when we arrived we were greeted by a small crowd waving large red flags with depictions of Mao, Lenin, Che Guevara, and the hammer and cickle.

[I am no expert on the subject, but I believe there is a great difference between the activities of Che and of those represented by the other symbols that greeted us. To my knowledge, Che Guevara has not been discredited (though the McDonaldization of his image has been unfortunate and certainly ironic) as Lenin, Mao, and the Soviet political system have.]

How these organizations could hope to attract people to what would otherwise be a relatively popular cause ("keep that sociopathic rich kid cowboy war criminal out of our country") with thoroughly discredited iconology is beyond me. My girlfriend grew up in a Soviet satellite, and could easily estimate that none of the flag-wavers had spent much time on the wrong end of a queue for highly rationed and sub-standard food. Furthermore, shouting slogans about Bush being a murderer while waving a flag with Mao's face smiling down would be hilarious (would it?) if we weren't dealing with the deaths of very many real people.

In Poland a few years ago I saw a billboard for Media Markt (a major European electronics retail chain) that utilized Lenin's image and Soviet-era iconology to encourage people to buy shit that plugs in. I was struck by how the billboard wasn't torn down within seconds of its being placed on a busy street corner. Ten years ago, no one would have imagined that Lenin could successfully be resurrected in a former Soviet satellite to hawk electronic gadgetry, those darlings of late-term capitalism. Will Stalin peek out from banner ads in a few years to sell me life insurance?

Perhaps, and a few months ago my brother spotted some sort of investment bank in New York called "Superfund". Once upon a time, Superfund was a project of the US Environmental Protection Agency to clean up areas completely destroyed by industrial pollution, and no one who wanted to attract clients would give their capitalist endeavor such a name. A superfund site was the embarassing shit-house of an irresponsible industrial culture that thought it would last forever. Now it's an investment bank. Seriously.

Times change. People forget.

Here are some articles I collected this month that I highly recommend:

Mike Whitney: Free Speech in the Crosshairs

Paul Street: King George, Prince Abdullah, Global Warming, and the Torture of Thomas Jefferson

William Rivers Pitt: Criminals Belong in Prison

Mickey Z.: The Good War Myth: 60 Years is Enough

Dahr Jamail: Sketchy Details

John Halloway: Can We Change the World Without Taking Power

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Dangerous Precedents Set for Intellectual Freedom

The controversy surrounding Ward Churchill will have a huge impact on intellectual freedom in the US and should not be ignored. The right-wing attack on Churchill specifically and intellectual freedom in general does not automatically justify what Churchill wrote, of course. That's a completely separate issue, one which might be debated in a reasonably tolerant and literate society. The mainstream liberal/left has washed their hands of the issue; they won't risk getting involved. How long can we afford to be so short-sighted? As Michael Albert points out, Churchill is an easy target (not unlike Afghanistan and Iraq). The reason for concern now is that this will lead to more bold attacks on less controversial targets.

The best writing I have seen on this whole issue is from Robert Jensen in his article Ward Churchill: Right to Speak Out; Right about 9/11.

In this context, I picked these quotes up from an article by Mickey Z. ...

Eugene Debs: "Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth."

William Burroughs: "Modern man has lost the option of silence."

Lenny Bruce: "Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say 'fuck the government'."