Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tone of Voice

First, a little something from Neil Postman's wonderful 1985 work on the end of public discourse, Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being drained by laughter?
I had that passage on the brain today when I happened upon Paul Street's latest blog entry.

Go have a look at Street's brief message to so-called Congressional Progressives. It's good stuff. Now try this: print it and read it out loud. Read it aloud to yourself, to your friends, to your television screen. Don't hold back. Full voice. Shout. Say it like you mean it ('cause you do).

This is the tone we need to use. This is the tone we use not on easy targets like that menu of criminals known as the Bush Administration and related national and multi-national rat bastards. No. This is the tone we use on the possible allies, the would-be friends who for one reason or another just cannot seem to do their jobs, be responsible, and -- as Street echoing Spike Lee says -- do the right thing.

Enough being sweet. Enough being friendly. Time for the tough love to kick in. And this idea reaches across national borders. It's not just about asking democrats in the US Congress to impeach the lying, cowardly, soul-less, asshole of a puppet ruling the planet. Not just about that. We need national governments throughout the world to do their jobs, to stop working against the interests of their people by continuing to do business with the thugs at the top in Washington. Rumsfeld's retirement was not enough. Yes they all need to be stripped of their cushy jobs as ambassadors, cabinet members, World Bank presidents, civilian advisers and whatever. But they also need to be on no-fly lists. Listen here: none of us on this side of the Atlantic want America's war-mongering, neo-conservative backwash soiling the streets with their presence (unless they're being dragged in belly-cuffs to the International Criminal Court), earning money with their bullshit speeches, or enjoying themselves at all, ever. Ever.

How embarassing will it be if people like that human shitstain Rumsfeld get the Kissinger treatment around the world only to continue to live comfortably in the States. So Street is right: put impeachment back on the table, and now that there is something like a non-reactionary majority in the US Congress, the gloves should come off.

* * *

Don't get me wrong. With the criminals behind the occupation of Iraq behind bars the work will be anything but finished. It is really just an excercise in empowerment. While it will be official government business to bring Bush and Company to trial and put them far, far away (locked up tight, for as long as their miserable bodies breath the air they've been pleased to foul), it is up to individuals to mend the damage we do of our own accord. To what extent are individual members of a destructive culture blameless? What amount of personal responsibility should each of us take? I have in mind here the problematic disconnect between asking corporations and governments to take more (and better) action against environmental degredation while people are pleased as punch to work for them, first of all, and secondly to consume wildly out of proportion with anything approaching sustainability. Ending the reign of scum like Bush (and you British could do your part by taking down your cowardly war criminal lap dogs as well) is a very small part of the larger project of ending our own hyper-consumerist, ultra-materialistic, planet-murdering lifeways.

Or does anyone disagree?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Go Ask Your Democrats

On the mid-term elections in the US earlier this month:

Congratulations! If you are an American -- and with US military bases scattered across the globe, who isn't? -- you are now the proud owner of a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party, the absolute lousiest bunch of political criminals the United States has had to offer since, well, the Republicans.

But before you get too tipsy celebrating the trade-off of a handful of Republican scumbag liars for a handful of Democrat scumbag liars (and the switcheroo between outgoing War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the incoming CIA agent taking his place), here are some questions you may want to ask your local, state, and federal Democrats:

1. When will the USA Patriot Act be repealed?

2. When will the Military Commissions Act be repealed?

3. When will the last US troops leave Iraq?

4. When will funding for Israel's brutal and illegal occupation of Palestine be cut off?

5. When will the US join the International Criminal Court, and sign and honor the Kyoto Treaty and the International Landmine Ban?

6. When will the legislation authorizing a gigantic concrete fence to be built between the US and Mexico be killed?

7. When will the tax code that unjustly favors the wealthy (in particular those who do nothing to earn their money) be changed?

8. When will the resignation of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who thinks of the Geneva Conventions as "quaint", be demanded?

9. When will John Bolton, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who has said "[t]here is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States" be fired?

10. When will Vice President Dick Cheney, who has carried out secret meetings on energy policy and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, be removed from office?

11. When will US corporations, businesspeople, and investors be made to take responsibility for the havoc their extraordinary unaccountability causes throughout the world?

12. When will the US nuclear weapons arsenal be dismantled and the program to build more destructive weapons shut down?

13. When will those responsible for the policies of torture and extraordinary rendition be brought to trial for their crimes?

14. When will the SOA / WHINSEC be shut down?

15. When will Diego Garcia be returned to its people?

16. When will reparations be paid to the victims of aggression authorized by the United States Congress?

17. When will the US pay its dues to the UN?

18. When will the US stop meddling in Latin American affairs?

19. When will the US Congress adopt an acceptable and sustainable stance toward the rapidly crumbling global environment?

20. When will the US Congress adopt a humanitarian, rather than a corporate or religious fundamentalist, policy on alleviating the scourges of hunger, AIDS, and other diseases in the Global South?

21. When will the US Congress break up the media monopolies that have decimated political discourse?

22. When will the US Congress defend the supposed ideals of its Constitution by opening up political discourse to more than the two ruling corporate parties?

23. When will access to healthcare and affordable housing be made available to everyone living within the US?

24. When will the US start pushing a version of "globalization" that globalizes labor, repeal harmful trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, and withdraw its support for backwards and ineffective IMF and World Bank policies?

25. When will US Congresspeople give the xenophobic rhetoric a rest?

* * *

Now is a good moment to recommend Paul Street's post-election Empire and Inequality Report for his merciful take on what should be done with the Bush Cabal. Of course my list above is just a start, and an easy-going one at that. None of the questions are particularly nasty, or motivated by polticial ideology. There is a great deal of triumphalism going around, and now that Democratic supporters are exhaling their big sighs of relief, the pressure is off. Certainly the establishment would prefer a slightly less reactionary version of itself to a public so fed up that it removes its blinders and no longer sees a difference between the two criminal parties.

But more importantly, it should be obvious to everyone that in Washington, where (let's be honest) nothing but the label has actually changed, none of our very real problems are going to be addressed or solved. Think for a moment about what those problems are, and consider where (if not in Washington) and how (if not politically) they might be dealt with.

Monday, October 30, 2006

How to Vote

Next week, a veritable handful of people in the United States will be voting in midterm elections. Provided the right people vote for the Right party (and both of the war-criminal business parties in the US are right-wing), some of those votes may even be counted.

Many commentators say the election will be a referendum on the continued taxpayer-funded bloodbath in Iraq, while others say it will reflect the response of Americans -- politically discerning as they are -- to various financial and sexual indiscretions of a small selection of the sleazeballs in the US Congress.

Little people push the little buttons on their little computers and stories about the Republican Party's imminent implosion appear in cyberspace.

I will not be taking part in the electoral fiasco in the United States next week, though I am registered in New York State to do so. The American political system, wrongly known by some of the more deluded among us as a "democracy", is fronted by the soulless, morally absent underlings of the business-class bastards fast-tracking the planet to unlivable, who would strongly detest the will of the people were they to know what it is. It is fronted by supposed employees of the people, who openly and proudly declare their support for torture and proto-fascism, encourage rampant xenophobia, homophobia, and ecocide, push narrow-minded conservative agendas into private lives, and use scare-mongering to claw their way to the top of the American political shit-heap.

I don't feel at home as a participant in this.

At what point should people cease to cooperate with the systemic destruction of their planet, conducted under the false guise of "democracy"? At what point ought people discontinue their active legitimization of rule by criminals happily signing away on murder, torture, bogus science, the weaponization of space and diplomacy as a series of enormous concrete fences throughout the globe?

The idea that Americans could vote this all into extinction if they wanted is a myth. As proof I could submit what occurred in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004. But I prefer to think of a more important indicator of that myth. If Americans went to the polls next week in record numbers and swept the Democrats into power in local and national elections, what would change? Democrats would enact foreign policy to more effectively control the planet, with a better marketing campaign to go along with it. At home it would be business as usual, with a nod here and there to minimally slowing down the environmental destruction that is the American way of life. A few states might even allow people to control their private lives, regardless of their gender or sexual preferences.

But not one person from the party in power would challenge the mega-corporations actively consolidating their control of for-profit healthcare, prison management, news media, energy distribution, and so forth.

Look around for a moment on this here internet and you can find example after example of elected and appointed government officials brazenly denouncing democracy whenever it fails to line Yankee pockets. I wonder if it is even possible to name a single country to the south of the United States that has never had its democracy tampered with by its most unneighborly northern neighbor.

This is what Hillary Clinton, the incumbent junior Senator from New York, had to say last week regarding elections in Palestine earlier this year: "If we were going to push for an election, we should have made sure we did something to determine who was going to win."

Not only do I refuse to vote for people who hate democracy, I refuse to vote against them. Asking who one votes for in a rigged democracy is simply asking the wrong question.

If you live in the United States and can vote (that is, if you are neither a victim of the horrendously racist American judicial system nor what Americans have shamelessly taken to calling an "illegal"), and you truly feel that you must vote, there is at least one candidate worth supporting: Rosemarie Jackowski.

Rosemarie Jackowski is a dedicated advocacy journalist and activist working for social justice. A victim of continued abuse and miscarriages of justice, she is the Liberty Union candidate for Attorney General of Vermont.

In a response to a Burlington Free Press editorial endorsing the incumbant attorney general (a response that all of Vermont's major newspapers have refused to publish) Rosemarie writes
My global view includes a deep respect for the law. The most important qualification for the office of Attorney General is an absolute, unwavering commitment to Justice for all, young and old, rich and poor...NO politics, NO cronyism, and NO excuses.
She advocates the creation of a citizen watchdog group to monitor the policies of the office of the Attorney General, an end to paying for testimony during trials, and independent investigations into AG wrongdoings. Perhaps best of all, Rosemarie Jackowski knows exactly what kind of analogues can be drawn between an unaccountable Vermont Attorney General working against the interests of the people, and a similarly out of control, though more dangerous, United States Attorney General.

Whether or not you vote, consider passing on what I have pasted in below to friends and relatives who do. Rosemarie first entered it as a comment at Mickey Z.'s a few days ago.
NEVER VOTE FOR AN INCUMBENT -- Rosemarie Jackowski

Voting for an incumbent is like going back to the same dentist who pulled the wrong tooth the last time.

Voting for an incumbent is like going back inside your camping tent even thought you were just bitten by a snake there.

Voting for an incumbent is like re-marrying your spouse even though she cheated on you the last time around.

Voting for an incumbent is like getting in a plane with a pilot who crashed his aircraft last time he went up.

Voting for the incumbent might mean that you need a change in your medications.

Voting for the incumbent is like taking your computer back to the same repair shop, even though last time they told you that your computer needed a lube and an oil change.

Voting for an incumbent is a vote for “staying the course”.

Voting for the incumbent means that you believe that things can never get any better.

Voting for the incumbent signals the end of all hope for change.

Voting against ALL incumbents is the perfect way to achieve term limits.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mafia T-Shirt

The other day I saw a boy too young to be choosing or buying his own clothes wearing a black t-shirt with the word "MAFIA" silkscreened in big, bright letters across the front.

What gives?

Why is the suggestion of organized crime and a willingness to protect one's financial dominance with violence the kind of thing a parent would want to emblazon on the chest of their eight-year old?

It's almost as bad (as in irrational and dangerous to the child's psychological development) as wearing a t-shirt displaying a national flag.

I'm no expert on the subject, but I suppose organized crime's star began rising in the pop culture with dramatic films (and to a lesser extent books) that dealt with archetypal human relationships in the context of mafia violence and related misdeeds.

I take no issue with films like The Godfather (or even the substantially lesser quality soap opera The Sopranos) if observers are able to effectively understand and critique them. One doesn't need to admire the anti-heroes played by the likes of Pacino and DeNiro in order to admire their abilities as actors, or to comprehend the world their characters inhabit, or to appreciate the skill with which writers, directors, editors and cinematographers tell those characters' stories.

Hollywood does not seek from viewers understanding and critique. It wants to move product. It works hand-in-pocket with its ugly sister The Fashion Industry and myriad other "product"-producing relatives. It has also (and less dramatically) made the image of reckless soldiers engaged in the act of murder (for personal or national honor) a positive one. Ditto for filthy, gunslinging, genocidal cowboys, playboy secret agents, and go-it-alone cops who blow up as much as possible before personally bringing the bad guys to justice.

I want to know how it comes to be that people are pleased to accept the values of valueless and escapist entertainment as their own.

I know: wearing a mafia t-shirt or buying yourself the same car that James Bond drives doesn't necessarily mean that you favor organized crime or having sex-crazed, alcohol-drenched spies undermining impossibly evil plots around the globe. But the planet is full of real-life, non-celluloid organized crime, violence, and simple thuggery. It takes an enormous amount of what is truly criminal activity to keep a relative handful of people driving BMW's, or the masses clothed in the products of sweatshop labor.

Not everyone is going to watch a Hollywood film and immediately dissect it from a left perspective. But one might think twice before dressing children in clothes more suitable for the political and corporate mafiosi treating the planet like a disputed streetcorner in gangland.

Wouldn't that be refreshing: if the cutthroat psychopaths running the planet traded in their power suits for t-shirts accurately emblazoned with descriptive words like "mafioso", "gang leader", "hitman" and "dick" . . . ?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Unask the Question.

Today I reluctantly picked up some groceries at the not-so-friendly (and oh-so-corporate) Albert Heijn, a cultural icon far more ubiquitous than any other in The Netherlands. While one of the most shocking things about visiting a grocery store in the US is the initial confrontation with the illusion of choice, here in NL the mess is tidied up and the choices are narrowed down, often to this or that. This or that usually differs by no more than a few cents. The ingredients (of packaged food, of which we buy rather little) are often the same. Much of what you buy at Albert Heijn tastes like either cardboard or organic cardboard.

Heading out of the shop this evening (with the only kind of fresh parsley one can buy there: wrapped in plastic foil) I was approached by a young woman canvassing for some organization.

She: "Do you live in The Netherlands?"
Me: "Yes."
She: "Do you have a Dutch bank account?"
Me: "What's this about?"

. . . at which point she showed me some of the World Wildlife Fund material she was handing out. I thanked her and said that I had been a supporter for years (true) but had stopped some time ago.

"Why?" she asked, and what I should have said is that WWF focuses on damage control rather than the root causes of environmental degredation.

I should have said that it compromises too often on a range of issues (including logging and seal hunting). I should have said that a tactic based on asking people in our ecocidal culture to cough up a few euros per year (while continuing to maintain their materialistic and consumerist attitudes) was bound to fail. I should have said that an organization set up to protect animals that doesn't explicitly promote not eating them is a contradiction I will not support financially. I should have said that WWF's slick and even cheerful style is discordant with how serious the trouble is. I should have said that WWF's hierarchical structure reveals that it embraces exactly the kind of thinking that put the global environment in the state it's in.

But what I said instead is "WWF's not radical enough."

"So you're a Greenpeace person," she responded.

I guess I deserved that.

Should it trouble me that Greenpeace is the most radical environmental organization that a WWF volunteer could think of? Or that she assumed I must donate money to some organization. I am perturbed by this faulty line of questioning. Such thinking is not unique to inquiring into which environmental organization one writes an annual cheque to. More than once, for example, I have been asked if I'm a democrat or republican.

Or if I was for or against the document erroneously called the EU constitution.

Or if I'm a Protestant or a Catholic, a Christian or a Jew, a capitalist or a communist.

I have been asked if I am pro- or anti-abortion, if I'm pro- or anti-Israel, if I'm pro- or anti-war, and whether I support the troops or not. I have had to identify myself as left- or rightwing, over- or underage, married or single, travelling for business or pleasure. I've been told to love it or leave it, to watch CNN or FOX, to wear Nike or Adidas, to use a Mac or a PC, to drink Coke or Pepsi (or coffee or tea). In the US I am welcome to keep my mouth shut or shout my head off in designated "free speech zones".

But of course the ayatollah of all the inane, black or white, up or down, hot or cold, in or out questions that I have been confronted with is the line that seeks to cut our very planet in two.

Are you With Us or Against Us?

It's a question that needs to be unasked. The world I live in is not made up of ones and zeros, and no lines, real or imaginary, divide it. There is no such thing as a legal or illegal immigrant, "them" or "us", "yours" or "mine" unless we accept the questions posed by these false designations. Separation walls and the fascist laws that go along with them are symptoms of a culture that happily plays heads or tails with entire populations.

Nope. Not me. Too narrow. I am one-hundred percent, without question, pro-choice.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Shame (Gregor Samsa-style)

As any regular reader of the irregular writings here knows, supporting artistic freedom and rejecting censorship is important to me. There are moments, however, when humanitarian concerns trump artistic freedom.

I am not sure how I feel about the current trial of Simon Bikindi, a popular Rwandan singer accused of inciting genocide with his music. I am not sure about it because it would set a precedent that would see a good deal of the musicians in the US up on charges of incitement to war crimes.

Surely every patriotic song, from the most hideous country-rock pro-war pap to Ray Charles' otherwise wonderful rendition of "America the Beautiful" have served useful support roles in US wars of aggression over the years. (Jimi Hendrix' "Star Spangled Banner" is a notable exception.) Whether these artists intentionally supported the horrors or -- like the Nazi misappropriation of works by Beethoven, for example -- were simply exploited, can be questioned. But what if making a work of art is in itself cruel, inhumane, dangerous, or murderous?

Last night I performed music in an art gallery where just such a work was exhibited. The work was so sickening that as the artist -- whose name will not receive any popularization here -- set up her work I literally shouted "that's fucking disgusting" more than once. (The artist, drunk, cordially introduced herself later.)

What was the work in question? The artist chose to express herself by placing a translucent box full of live cockroaches atop an overhead projector. As the evening progressed and the lamp of the projector heated the box, the cockroaches, subjected to intense heat, were tortured. For the first hour or so they were absolutely frantic, becoming progressively more aggressive toward each other, and then one by one they were cooked to death, while survivors crushed each other up against the presumably cooler edges of the projection surface. To the depraved delight of some in attendence, this was all visible, many times enlarged, on a wall of the gallery.

I feel intense shame at the part I played in this. Why? Several days ago some friends and I were invited to perform at the after-party of an exhibition opening. For a small fee. Upon arriving at the gallery and seeing what was going on I didn't refuse to play. I didn't refuse to get paid. Aside from loudly registering my discomfort (which probably had as much to do with my low-level insect phobia as my high-intensity objection to anything being tortured) and complaining (read: bitching) about the work to people in the audience after I was finished playing, I didn't deal with the problem. We started our first set with a text of mine that indirectly addressed the issue, but this had been planned in advance, before I knew what kind of horrible shit I would be witnessing. Shame on me for standing on a stage with a microphone, witnessing torture, and "respecting" an artist's right to conduct it.

And what about the audience? I spoke to some people who appreciated the aesthetic effect of giant cockroaches crawling on the walls (we feel at home amidst a hundred Gregor Samsas, no?), but felt this could have been done with film, and thus without degrading the artist or the observers or torturing living creatures. Of the hundred or so people who spent any time in the gallery last night, only one person needed to pull the plug to make the point that needed to be made. But no one dared. A room full of artists and musicians, all apparently creative, all engaged in an orgy of torture (read: destruction) ostensibly on the grounds that to turn off the torture device would be an infringement on someone's artistic freedom.

But it wasn't art we witnessed. It was Abu Ghraib. It was Guantanamo fucking Bay. Projected on the wall was any number of individuals demeaned, tortured, and murdered, demonstrating some sadistic bastard's definition of everything from "freedom" to "justice" to "democracy" or whatever (I've lost track of the inane justifications). Just as last night in the smoke-filled, alcohol-infused art gallery, today we witness and we stand agape. And we do nothing.

We witness well over half a million murders in somebody's "global war on terror", one of every four US veterans of it returning home with a disability (if at all), the legalization of torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge, a million unexploded US-made cluster bombs sprinkled on a tiny patch of Lebanese soil (are they called bomblets because so many of them destroy children?) and it gets me to wondering: who are the cockroaches around here?

Perhaps the work last night would have been a decent sociological experiment if several dozen living beings (yes, oh yes: with feelings) hadn't been sadistically tortured for "art's sake". But they were. And the mark of shame is with all of us who stood on and did nothing.

Pull the plug. Pull the plug. Pull the plug.


There is a somewhat similar work by Chilean-Danish artist Marco Evarissti: ten living goldfish swimming in ten food blenders. It is the work that made the artist famous (the director of a museum exhibiting the work was taken to court and fined for animal cruelty). Although I personally dislike the work, and I dislike the implication (that it is okay to make a point about human morality by imprisoning a living thing and subjecting it to potential violence), I do not think this work approaches the cruelty of the work I witnessed last night. Why? While Evarissti's work places the mortality of the work's subject directly in the hands of the observer, making the violence implicit, the overhead projector was placed out of reach and the violence was explicit: fundamental to the work. To follow on my metaphor above, the torture and detention centers of the US empire are similarly "out of reach", but the off switch is right there in your hands.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Shakespeare and McChesney and Nichols

I spent three weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2003. After a week in Mexico City, and nearly another in Oaxaca, I landed in the mountaintop city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. I spent one afternoon lying in a hammock reading Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and another reading Our Media, Not Theirs. I just found the notebook that I kept on that trip. From Shakespeare:
"Our doubts are traitors,
And makes us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt."
Lucio, I.iv

"Who is it that hath died for this offense?
There's many have committed it."
Isabella, II.ii

"O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant."
Isabella, II.ii

"I had rather give my body than my soul"
Isabella, II.iv
And from Nichols and McChesney's Our Media, Not Theirs:
"Because the fight we propose is first and foremost a struggle for democratic processes, the potential base of support includes everyone in the population who favors democracy over plutocracy. In short, the traditional distinctions of left and right are not decisive categories. The more accurate split is between up and down, those who benefit materially from the corrupt status quo, and those who do not."

"Perhaps the strongest indictment of corporate journalism is that the preponderance of it would be compatible with an authoritarian political regime. So it is that China has few qualms about letting most commercial news from the United States inside its borders; it can see that this low caliber of journalism is hardly a threat to its rule."

"At its worst, in a case like the current war on terrorism, where the elites and official sources are unified on the core issues, the nature of our press coverage is uncomfortably close to that found in authoritarian societies with limited formal press freedom."

"[T]he cheerleading from American newspapers and television commentators [serve] as a reminder that the sympathies of those who enjoy the freedom of the press in the U.S. do not lie with those who seek to preserve basic freedoms and democracy in other lands."

"This is a generation that is under pressure from the media it consumes to be brazenly materialistic, selfish, and depoliticized: devoid of social conscience. To the extent one finds these values problematic for a democracy, we should all be concerned."

"The fundamental challenge at this point is not convincing people that something should be done. . .[t]he challenge is to convince people that something can be done."

"When faced with organized money, the only recourse is organized people."

"[W]e need to weave the project of radically changing the media into the braidwork of the larger movement for peace, democracy, and social justice."

"All the organizing in the world won't amount to a hill of beans unless there is something tangible to fight for, and to win."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Record High

Here's a little piece of news from the US that seems odd from here: Democracy Now! reported yesterday that in 2005, more than three quarters of a million people in the United States were arrested for violations of marijuana laws.

This is, ahem, a record high.

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, enforcement costs US taxpayers up to $12 billion per year, a sum that (according to figures from the National Priorities Project) could provide more than:
2.5 million people with health care or
100,000 affordable housing units or
1,300 new elementary schools or
2.1 million univesity scholarships or
190,000 music and arts teachers or
19.5 million homes with renewable electricity or
173,000 port container inspectors.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it!

[recommended soundtrack: "Smokey" off Funkadelic's Hardcore Jollies, 1976]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Friday, August 25, 2006

This week they said...

"The lesson of every movement in US history is that being right is only half the battle; being loud helps, too."
---Bill McKibben

"The terrorists hate our freedom, so by eliminating the freedom, we can stop the terrorists from hating us."
---Boing Boing

"It's going to take so much more than talking to an opinion pollster or walking into a voting booth to punch the cards for a now opportunistically anti-war Democrat. The Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld cabal should be removed before the next appointed quadrennial extravaganza and before the launching of at least an air war on Iran."
---Paul Street

"[According to the Center for Global Development] much of the US's aid . . . was contingent on the purchase of US goods, and so was in fact a 'backdoor subsidy for American interests.'"

"Are there words in the English language suitable for the impeachable serial war crimes you are intimately involved in committing not only in Iraq but also now through your encouragement and supplying of the once again invading Israeli government?"
---Ralph Nader [in an open letter to George W. Bush]

"More than anything else, the two most popular television shows [Big Brother and The Weakest Link] are public rehearsals of the disposability of humans. They carry an indulgence and a warning rolled into one story. No one is indispensable, no one has the right to his or her share in the fruits of the joint effort just because she or he has added at some point to their growth, let alone because of being, simply, a member of the team. Life is a hard game for hard people. Each game starts from scratch, past merits do not count, you are worth only as much as the results of your most recent duel. Each player at every moment is for herself or himself, and to progress, not to mention to reach the top, one must first cooperate in excluding the many who block the way, only to outwit in the end those with whom one cooperated. If you are not tougher and less scrupulous than all the others, you will be done by them -- swiftly and without remorse. It is the fittest (read: the least scrupulous) who survive."
---Zygmunt Bauman, Society Under Siege (2002)

"As force is always on side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free and most popular."
---David Hume (1758), quoted today by Mickey Z.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Enlightened Despotism in the 21st Century

"Everything for the people, nothing by the people."
---attributed to Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

I have had enough of people defending the big heart of billionaire Bill Gates. There is nothing special about criticizing the Bush Administration's woefully insufficient and damaging stance toward the AIDS crisis, and there should be nothing special about a person worth fifty billion dollars giving half of it away.

While people are quick to commend him for his philanthropy, nowhere that I have seen -- and readers, correct me if I'm wrong -- has Mr. Gates lashed out at the root causes of much of what is wrong in the world: the incredible and shameful accumulation of wealth in a world of deprivation (that Gates himself, as the richest individual on the planet, typifies).

The Bush Administration's juvenille and patronizing "ABC" policy (abstinence, be faithful, use a condom) is not difficult to criticize. From his position as a well-known business leader, Gates is correct to insist that women be empowered with the tools to protect themselves, and that research be shared and non-proprietary.

But Gates knows, like no other, that business is business. Since the beginning of his career, Gates has been a powerful advocate of proprietary software. That's how he made his billions. Another business leader -- beholden, as they all are, to the rising stock portfolios of their shareholders -- might be making billions in proprietary pharmaceuticals or agriculture. Business interests are also defended -- at the expense of human lives and the destruction of the environment, always at such expense -- by the essentially violent policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and the impossible demands they make on war-torn, disease stricken countries ravaged by resource extraction (read: theft) by the so-called developed world.

To put the lives of the people suffering the most in the hands of those suffering the least is to remake the model of the enlightened despot of an earlier age. Allowing anyone the power and influence that comes with the accumulation of wealth, and then hoping they will use it in generous and humane ways, is simply backwards and wrong. The emiseration of the Global South is not due to benign causes, whatever closet racists and apologists for predatory capitalism may suggest.

I would like to see Mr. Gates turn on himself, to point his finger not at intermediate causes of problems -- such as the horrendous but unsurprising stance of the anti-humanitarian Bush Administration on, well, anything -- but on root causes, such as the massive divide between rich and poor and the rich world's giving with one hand (when it so chooses) while always taking with two.

* * *

Related: must-see documentary The Corporation.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Weekend Quotes III

"They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people . . . Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder . . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles."
---Eugene V. Debs, as quoted in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States

"In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed."
---Ralph Waldo Emerson

"When first introduced into English vernacular, the concept of 'political' was a war cry and a call to arms. It has lost that meaning since . . . it was originally coined as critique of reality but later transformed into 'objective description' of reality as its heralds and missionaries turned into that reality's administrators."
---Zygmunt Bauman, Society Under Seige

"If you are not frightened yet, you have not been paying attention to recent world history . . . You better check out what happened to the people of Diego Garcia, when the U.S. military decided that it wanted their island as a military base."
---Rosemarie Jackowski, advocacy journalist and Vermont Attorney General candidate

"If this is the best god can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being."
---George Carlin

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Had Enough Yet?

I just learned (reading the always stimulating weekly review at Harper's) that the US has now been occupying Iraq for as long as it was at war with Germany in the 1940's. Trivial though this piece of information may seem, it does beg some attention. Back then there were quantifiable successes to fight for in Europe, among them the liberation of the death camps (mainly accomplished by the Soviets) and the removal from power of a racist, supremely aggressive, militaristic regime hellbent on occupation and slaughter.

Fast forward to now. The US is uncontroversially (unless you are insane) guilty of the supreme crime of aggression. Its military prowess is beyond the wildest dreams of the German National Socialists. Instead of liberation, the US offers the people of Iraq a country poisoned by depleted uranium, littered with prisons and torture chambers -- call them concentration camps if you like -- and deprived of its archeological treasures. Entire cities have been filled up with gunfire and emptied of families, businesses, communities, and histories. Iraqi men are imprisoned and tortured seemingly for being Iraqi men. Back in the Homeland, media ownership rules have been modified substantially enough to squeeze out any legitimate public discourse about what is occurring; indeed, to squeeze out anything but corporate cheerleading for the imperial project, even as the White House has closed its press room for "renovations." The world's largest embassy is being built in Baghdad by utterly unaccountable contractors -- call them war profiteers if you like -- while recruitment efforts for the military in the US are stepped up, training is shortened, tours of duty get extended, and the dead are hidden from view.

This ends when you say it does.

The slogan had enough? will be used this fall by American Democrats (far too many of whom have spinelessly supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq at one point or another) preceding the November elections. I don't put much stock in the American political system, and I value the Democratic Party about as much as I value whiney dirt with a blue suit and hairspray, but the slogan is useful. Now that the US has been at war with an abstract noun in Iraq longer than it fought Nazi Germany, and is slowly but surely assuming its own fascist garb for the 21st Century, ask yourself if you've had enough. Start a conversation with someone, with anyone, anywhere. You don't need a pretext. Just ask them. Had enough? They will say yes. Ask yourself. You will say yes. Now what are you going to do about it?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Cheerleading for (Certain) Democracies

One bad thing about weekends is there's no Democracy Now! to download. This is one hour essential to each of my weekdays. To keep the rhythm going on Saturdays and Sundays I recently started listening again to NPR (American National Public Radio), however I can only handle a brief listen before getting thoroughly fed up with its news programming. I used to listen nonstop to the NPR member station in Ithaca, New York in the late 90's, so I got to hear fantastic programs like Alternative Radio along with what I believed then to be decidedly non-commercial radio programming.

So what a surprise it was to tune in Sunday morning and hear an NPR member station broadcasting a program called "Newsweek On Air". Produced by Newsweek itself, within seconds I felt that I was actually hearing something akin to a video news release, a faked news story produced by a corporation or the government for the purpose of deceiving the listener into believing the segment was actually journalism rather than propoganda.

The very obviously very scripted interview I listened to sounded like nothing more than outright cheering for the empire. (This may be nothing new for some readers, but for my girlfriend and I it's an intrusion; we have constructed a television-free world for ourselves in which corporate pap disguised as fair, accurate, balanced, or true must be actively sought out for criticism.) Newsweek's imbecile guest---one of its magazine commentators---was telling the inane co-hosts that "Muslim culture" was, in fact, amenable to "democracy" because of all the, you know, important facets the two have in common. Like what? asked the inane co-hosts. Says the imbecile guest: like private property.

Earth to planet Earth: private property is not a facet of democracy. People with imperial agendas are always confusing democracy and capitalism. That is why whenever a population makes a democratic choice to reject some aspect of capitalism or empire, the Empire always complains about "threats to democracy."

The Vietnamese want communism? Bomb them. The Palestinians want the right to self-determination? Bomb them. Iran wants to nationalize its oil? Sponsor a coup. Transparent, highly monitored elections have occurred recently in Venezuela, Lebanon, and Palestine, in which opposition to empire has been proclaimed loudly by voters. No wonder there is such hostility among defenders of imperialism to these governments.

But then, what did the imbecile Newsweek commentator have to say about democracy in the Middle East? He talked about "successful" new democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and about advances in the Gulf States, Jordan, and Morocco (which I sort of think of as being in northwest Africa, but whatever). Absent in the cheerleading of corrupt governments under American occupation or monarchies for chrissakes was any mention of the open democracies we are actively crushing in Palestine and Lebanon.

Why is an NPR station broadcasting insipid shit from Newsweek? They have their agenda. On mine is a daily dose of Democracy Now!.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

More Quotes at the Weekend

"There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. The line that divides them is not clear. But the Penal Code distinguishes between them by the useful concept of premeditation. We are living in the era of premeditation and perfect crimes."
---Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Rebel

"As the physicists are busy engineering the world's annihilation, the social scientists can be entrusted with the smaller mission of engineering the world's consent."
---Peter Berger quoted in Noam Chomsky's Problems of Knowledge and Freedom

"The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists, who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."
---George W. Bush, 10 August 2006

"Weeks before September 11th, this is going to play big."
---anonymous White House official, 11 August 2006

"[T]his culture's destructive urges can yoke all circumstances to its advantage."
---Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words

"When a nation calling itself "the Jewish state" oppresses people, it is not surprising that the victims tend to develop a hatred of Jews. This equating of Israel's crimes and all Jews is of course unwarranted, and one way to mitigate this unfortunate association is for Jews to forthrightly criticize Israeli wrongdoing. Blanket endorsement of Israeli crimes by non-Israeli Jews just confirms the anti-Semites in their stereotypes. Anti-Semitism has become much more pronounced in the Middle East in recent years. But the solution is not to drop bombs on everyone. (Some will immediately reply, "so you want us to go quietly to the gas chambers?" as if the two choices in the world are behaving like sheep or behaving like ogres.) [...]

"When the director of Israeli military intelligence declared in 2003, "Better Palestinian mothers should cry and not Jewish mothers" he was expressing a view not only deeply immoral, but tragically ineffective, for the result of such brutal policies is likely to be weeping by Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis alike."
---Stephen R. Shalom, Lebanon War Q&A

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Quotes At The Weekend

[Note: I am attempting a regular feature for this space to encourage meaningful discussion leading to action. You may consider these brief passages in the context of the previous week's news if you like, or in context of the larger crisis of creativity.]

"Endless money forms the sinews of war."
---Cicero (106-46 b.c.e.), Philippics

"Speaking of costs and effects (the sole way of speaking that 'makes economic sense'), no other form of social control is more efficient than the spectre of insecurity hovering over the heads of the controlled."
---Zygmunt Bauman (1925-), Society Under Siege

"[W]e ourselves are no longer able to choose our problems. They choose us, one after the other."
---Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Rebel

"With all due respect for the undeniably pivotal role of corporate-imperial media mendacity and bias, I think Americans are running out of excuses for narcissistic and infantile indifference to the mass murder being carried out with their tax dollars and by their policy makers and allies. It strikes me that photographs, clips, and stories about the criminal carnage inflicted on Arab people and communities by the blood-soaked-butchers who rule the United States and its client state Israel are readily available to any moderately interested American who knows how to search the Internet, read a newspaper, or watch television."
---Paul Street

“American progressives need to wake up to the fact that they are just as big a part of the world’s problems as the Republicans, so long as they insist on living the American lifestyle. As long as they continue to thoughtlessly consume the world as if it were their birthright. All talk and no walk. Buying organic toilet paper and voting for evasive Democratic hacks just isn’t going to cut it, guys ... Here is what I consider the most important philosophical question anyone can ever ask themselves: ‘What is the question to which my life is the answer?’”
---Joe Bageant

“You want to know why we don’t rebel? We still think we have something to lose. That’s what’s stopping us. As soon as we realize we have nothing left to lose we’ll be dangerous.”
---Derrick Jensen

(Thanks to Mickey Z. for those last two.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

For-profit Racism

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
---Albert Einstein

Are we there yet? Below is an excerpt from Robert Fisk's most recent appearance on Democracy Now! Fisk has been reporting from Beirut for three decades.
On the ground, when you're here, when you see the wounded, see the dead, you realize the immorality, the obscenity, the atrocity of statesmen, as they think they are, claiming that, you know, it isn't yet time for a ceasefire. A hasty ceasefire would not be a good thing, as Condoleezza Rice said. 24 hours before, I saw a picture of her on a beach in Malaysia. And people remember this. People remember this. In the hospital it was a young man who said -- turned to me, he said, “Why have you done this to us? Why have you done this to us?” And the woman I was talking to said the same: “Why does the West want to do this to us?” [...]

What’s going on in southern Lebanon is an outrage. It’s an atrocity. [...] It’s against all morality to suggest that 600 innocent civilians must die for this. There is no other country in the world that could get away with this.

...I wrote in my paper last week, there were times when the IRA would cross from the Irish Republic into northern Ireland to kill British soldiers. And they did murder and kill British soldiers. But we, the British, didn’t hold the Irish government responsible. We didn't send the Royal Air Force to bomb Dublin power stations and Galway and Cork. We didn't send our tanks across the border to shell the hill villages of Cavan or Monaghan or Louth or Donegal. Blair wouldn't dream of doing that, because he believes he's a moral man, he’s a civilized man. He wouldn't treat another nation like that.

But when the Israelis treat Lebanon like that, it's okay, and Blair doesn't want a ceasefire. You can’t have a real ceasefire. In other words, we've got to have the Lebanese on their knees to sign the dotted line, before we give them a ceasefire.
Fisk's comments underline the inherent racism in what the world's pathetic political leaders are allowing to occur in Lebanon. If not racism, what else could it be? Surely no one wants to suggest that this war of aggression is actually collectively and personally profitable to people like Blair and Bush and other post-Enlightenment leaders who want this violence to continue. Behind their cowardly pseudo-diplomacy, there is the real sale of real weapons to real people. It is to the credit of Israel's neighbors and others who have called repeatedly for an immediate ceasefire that they do not bring it upon the aggressor nation in this conflict by force. That would be very bad. But someone is signing off on all those weapons being used. There are actually people out there who directly profited from the development, sale, and use of the weapons dropped on Qana and innumerable locations like it. Analogies to the crimes of German, British and American corporations during the Holocaust would be far to easy for me to make. So I'll let you make them yourself.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The IDF is Out of Control and Must Be Stopped

The Israeli Defense [sic] Forces keep secret the details of where Hezbollah rockets land. Why? They claim that publicizing the information would help Hezbollah improve its targeting.

Question: if the IDF is really about defending the right of Israelis to exist, as so many of its supporters falsely claim, shouldn't Hezbollah be encouraged to improve its targeting? Or is the IDF defending something else? Jonathan Cook, an independent British journalist based in Nazareth, wrote recently:
It is obvious to everyone in Nazareth, for example, that the rockets landing close by, and once on, the city over the past week are searching out, and some have fallen extremely close to, the weapons factory sited near us.
When Hezbollah misses an intended target---a weapons factory or military installation, for example---Israeli and Palestinian civilians pay the price. Does this work both ways? Not really. While Hezbollah's targets are meant to be kept secret, Israel's targets in Lebanon are widely known and have included the UN. I suppose that when one conducts crimes it is better for there to be no witnesses, and the Israeli government has never really been a friend of international law.

Friend or no friend to international law, aggressor nations in the conflicts in Lebanon (and Iraq) (and Palestine) (and Afghanistan) will always claim that military personnel (variously called enemy combatants, insurgents, terrorists, militants as contrasted with US or Israeli "soldiers") use civilians as human shields. Cook writes in the same article about Western expectations of its adversaries:
any Lebanese fighter, or Palestinian one, resisting Israel and its powerful military should stand in an open field, his rifle raised to the sky, waiting to see who fares worse in a shoot-out with an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet. Hezbollah’s reluctance to conduct the war in this manner, we are supposed to infer, is proof that they are terrorists.
So there is the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure. The free movement of the people has been prevented in the name of hampering Hezbollah's ability to transport weapons and troops. But do the ends justify the means? Is the terror struck in millions of people in Lebanon---and the destruction of families, cities, livelihoods, and now ecosystems as well---worth the highly questionable damage the Israeli army is inflicting on Hezbollah? Is it worth the international outrage at the Israeli government's crimes? Is it worth the comparatively mild retribution (for lack of a better phrase) inflicted on Israel's civilian population?

This is the part where I make an obligatory reference to the fact that Hezbollah is doing bad stuff too. It is. Supporters of Israel's appalling policy of continual violence often point to its right to defend itself from terror. That would be fine, if the IDF was not a terrorist organization itself. How else can we explain what happened today in Qana? True, leaflets were dstributed to warn the people there that to remain at home was to become a target. But how to leave home when Israeli F-16's have already indescriminately destroyed roads and bridges throughout the country?

Before a single rocket was launched on either side, the apparently bad people in Hezbollah offered to negotiate a prisoner swap.

So what else beside leaflets has the IDF distributed? There is the allegation of white phosphorus use. White phosphorus has been in the news lately---the US has used it on people in Iraq and Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Venable of the Defense Department [sic] had this to say in November 2005:
Yes, it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants...[T]he combined effects of the fire and smoke - and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground - will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives.
So: leaflets, chemical weapons. And cluster bombs. Meanwhile, the US is shipping weapons containing depleted uranium to Israel.

When they do it, it is called "terrorism"; when we do it, it is defending one's right to exist. Unconscionable. As I write, the BBC reports that Israel has proclaimed a 48 hour limited halt to air strikes over the south of Lebanon. A ruse, this, and only after Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has apparently succeeded in his goal---stated immediately following Hezbollah's taking prisoner of two Israeli soldiers in Ayta ash Shab (Lebanon)---of "turn[ing] back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years". Indefensible.

So: what is preventing the US government from insisting on an unconditional ceasefire from both sides? Lebanon is asking for it. All of Israel's neighbors are demanding it. We've reached the end of this here fact-filled article of mine, and it is time for the punchline. Here it is.

Thanks to Justin Podur and Leila Mouammar for inspiring this post.

Friday, July 21, 2006

All Bombing is Terrorism

All bombing is terrorism. All wars are wars against children. These photographs document two war crimes, though I admit that "war crime" is a term that can only exist in an insane culture, in which war can be something other than a crime.

The top photograph documents a girl who has been brought out of an underground shelter in Northern Israel long enough to inscribe messages on bombs that will later be used by the Israeli army in their murderous attack on the people of Lebanon. Language is important here: the overwhelming majority of the casualties of Israel's aggression are Lebanese civilians, not members of Hezbollah's army. Who brought the girl to this artillery position in the north of Israel? Who taught her to smile at war? Shouldn't she be taken far away from the hideous people who staged this scene, who encouraged her, who allowed her? Can anyone give me a reason why the people responsible for the physical and emotional welfare of this child should be permitted to maintain custody of her? Why should they be forgiven?

The bottom photograph shows a Lebanese girl. Dead. Murdered. Weapons made in the United States of America killed her. They were used by young Israeli people who were forced by insane laws and rabid societal pressures to join their country's belligerent army. Maybe the weapons had been inscribed. People make fortunes from the production and sale of weapons like the one that killed this girl. It is also quite profitable to invest in the companies dedicated to killing children. Who knows, maybe your stock portfolio includes a company making the machinery that turns little girls into statistics for Israeli generals to gloat over.

Turning our attention away from the sunny Mediterranean for a moment, I would like to point out that the Bush Administration, but more importantly the entire United States Senate, has officially backed the Israeli government's despicable violence. The entire goddamn Senate, and perhaps most notably that bloodthirsty political demon angling for a shot at the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The House of Representatives [sic] is expected to do the same. Why the hell not?

How dare they? What a bunch of indescribably horrible people. What do we wish for them when we turn out the lights and try to sleep while others, elsewhere, duck into shelters or have their families blown into a thousand little pieces? Should we say the prayer these vile excuses for human beings say at the end of their inane political speeches? Should god, their God, their Christian God, their God formerly of forgiveness but now marching in lockstep to murder the meek, rape women, poison water and steal land and construct on it bases, prisons and weapons factories---should their God bless America and the thugs running it?

The violence must stop. We (if you're reading this it doesn't matter where you're from) have a hand in the violence and a responsibility to stop it. You paid for the bomb that destroyed that little Lebanese girl (and hundreds of thousands like her from Lebanon to Gaza to Iraq to Afghanistan). Perhaps you even invested in it.

We have to put ourselves between the next little girl and the bullet or the bomb aimed at her.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Don't Wait. Don't Hope. Do.

Herman Hesse says...
We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, affliction, or infamy. We kill when, because it is easier, we countenance, or pretend to approve of atrophied social, political, educational, and religious institutions, instead of resolutely combatting them.
This is true, and obviously so. But having our eyes open to the horrors of our time, or theoretically disapproving of the institutions which propogate these horrors, is not the same as acting on what we see or what we know.

Opportunities for acting conscientiously abound, and begin the moment a sensitive individual wakes up in the morning. They present themselves as exchanges with others, as chances to be decent, to be what Vonnegut calls courteous and Martin Luther King called a "creative extremist". Failure to see, failure to disapprove, failure to act, are as easy. So easy they're commonplace. They're what almost everyone seems to do. All the time.

Someone asked me this week "what can I do?" Again. We were talking about local versus global action, and human beings as inherently compassionate and striving toward peace versus human beings as inherently thugish and striving toward violence. I didn't really know, specifically, what he ought to do. I still don't. But I know he can do something, which is the imperative. He doesn't need me to imagine his path to action.

(An aside: of course we could talk about strategies and tactics, and about positive vision, but only if he had one. Discussions of positive vision only go so far with those who have yet to get beyond opening their eyes, or yet to recognize that, beyond the horrors, there are alternatives. Or yet to allow for the possibility that rape, murder and torture are not necessarily hallmarks of the human condition.)

And yet I see in myself something akin to the "what can I do" line of questioning: a kind of waiting for the "go ahead" to do some truly meaningful work--not that it would be very meaningful if it were officially sanctioned. I see in others, as in myself, a tendency to wait for the best moment to "resolutely combat" atrophied social, political, educational, and religious institutions. I realized this only recently. I don't know what I'm waiting for. I don't know what we're waiting for. Waiting is getting us nowhere.

I'm reminded of a question posed by Israeli commentator Tanya Reinhart: "Is it more ethical to refrain from trying to save anyone until it is possible to save everyone?"

Answer: it is not.

Waiting--for a movement, for a bright idea to come along, for a leader--implies hope, and hope can be a bad thing. Whatever it will be, it will not be hope that will get us beyond the horrors. On this subject there is an important little essay, Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen. I recommend it without reservation (and thank Mickey Z. for bringing it to my attention). I recommend not waiting. I recommend not hoping. I recommend being a movement of your own.

PS: for an apparent work of art relating to the Reinhart quote above, click here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Arundhati Roy says...

From this week's Democracy Now! interview with Arundhati Roy:
AMY GOODMAN: [What is] the role you see of the artist in a time of war?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight. But in a country like India, I'm not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists. It's all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think artists should do?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it.
I wholeheartedly agree. During the discussions following my solo concert in The Hague in November and the duo concert with Rafal Mazur in Kraków in April the question was repeatedly raised. The emphasis would vary...

What should artists do? What should artists do? What should artists do?

...but the problem questioners had was the same. There is this bad idea--most certainly fostered and encouraged by the State, by educational methods, and by the entertainment industry--that artists should just "do their thing". The Dixie Chicks should just play country music. George Clooney should just act. I should just make music (it has been suggested once or twice).

Yes. And politicians should just lie, and corporations should just pollute, and military personnel should just follow orders. Hey, what's an F-16 for, but to use it!

No one is exempt from taking sides in crises such as the ones that have engulfed the entire planet now. By "taking sides" I don't mean--and I don't think Arundhati Roy means--embracing an ideology or maintaining somebody else's position. I mean taking the side of people and the planet. But beware: if you take the side of people, of living things, you will almost always be setting yourself up in opposition to large corporations and the governments that cover for them.

I can already hear some people saying: but there have always been these crises and there always will be. Fair enough. Then: no one was ever exempt from taking sides, and no one ever will be. Perhaps there will always be affronts to social justice, to peace, and to environmental sustainability. But can anyone honestly believe that as a consequence people should ignore such affrontery?

"Exempt" implies rules, or authority, and is therefore an unfortunate word choice on my part. Everyone is "exempt"; there is no single moral code, and I (like you perhaps) simply do not trust the makers and executors of laws, disembodied, corrupt, and unable to reference in their work what it feels like to be human. And yet: failure to take sides is a taking of sides. How can an artist (or an accountant, or an architect, or an advertiser...) not take a position when confronted with the dangers and injustices of the world? How can that position not manifest itself in an individual's work?

Let me correct myself: not the dangers and injustices of the world, but those of one's own culture, and so, to some extent, one's own making.

It seems to me that the person who asks "but what can I do?" has yet to realize the need for something to be done.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Albert Camus says...

The following passage from a 1957 interview of Albert Camus relates closely to my previous post and the discussion that followed. It is published in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (Vintage International, New York: 1995). In general, I support Camus' view.

INTERVIEWER: The notion of art for art's sake is obviously alien to your thinking. That of "commitment" as it has been made fashionable of late is equally so. Taken in its present meaning, commitment consists in making one's art subservient to a policy. It seems to me that there is something more important, which is characteristic of your work, that might be called inserting that work into its time. Is this correct?

CAMUS: I can accept your expression: inserting a work into its time. But, after all, this describes all literary art. Every writer tries to give a form to the passions of his time. Yesterday it was love. Today the great passions of unity and liberty disrupt the world. Yesterday love led to individual death. Today collective passions make us run the risk of universal destruction. Today, just as yesterday, art wants to save from death a living image of our passions and our sufferings.

Perhaps it is harder today. It is possible to fall in love every once in a while. Once is enough, after all. But it is not possible to be a militant in one's spare time. And so the artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena. Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art. It seems to me that the writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time and that he must take sides every time he can or knows how to do so. But he must also maintain or resume from time to time a certain distance in relation to our history. Every work presupposes a content of reality and a creator who shapes the container. Consequently, the aritst, if he must share the misfortune of his time, must als tear himself away in order to consider that misfortune and give it form. This continual shuttling, this tension that gradually becomes increasingly dangerous, is the task of the artist of today. Perhaps this means that in a short time there will be no more artists. And perhaps not. It is a question of time, of strength, of mastery, and also of chance.

In any case, this is what ought to be. There remains what is; there remains the truth of our days, which is less magnificent. And the truth, as I see it at least, is that the artist is groping his way in the dark, just like the man in the street--incapable of separating himself from the world's misfortune and passionately longing for solitude and silence; dreaming of justice, yet being himself a source of injustice; dragged--even though he thinks he is driving it--behind a chariot that is bigger than he. In this exhausting adventure the artist can only draw help from others, and, like anyone else, he will get help from pleasure, from forgetting, and also from friendship and admiration. And, like anyone else, he will get help from hope. In my case, I have always drawn my hope from the idea of fecundity. Like many men today, I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of spitefulness--of nihilism, in short. It is essential to condemn what must be condemned, but swiftly and firmly. On the other hand, one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised. After all, that is why I am an artist, because even the work that negates still affirms something and does homage to the wretched and magnificent life that is ours.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pre-concert Speech #2

[The following text is an English draft of comments I will make in Polish before a duo concert with my good friend Rafal Mazur on Saturday 22 April at Bunkier Sztuki (the "Art Bunker") in Kraków. This will be the inaugural event of a series that will examine improvised music and art. Some of the text below is borrowed from the comments I made before a solo concert in November 2005.]
I have been asked to talk about the role improvisation plays in my creative output, which might be interesting if we were living in a world at peace, and in a culture of creativity, where the development of the intellect was encouraged. But we are not living at peace, our culture is destructive, and intellectual curiosity is not encouraged, and so talking about the role of improvisation in my music may seem frivolous at best and decadent at worst. As we all know--or should know--our culture invests far more in enriching the wealthy, protecting the powerful, poisoning the planet and refining the instruments of war and the language of deceit than it invests in art (to say nothing of our shamefully small investments in education, in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, sustaining the natural environment and so forth).

Thus, when asked to discuss publicly any of the finer points within my discipline my first thought is to address how the discipline itself might respond to the insanely destructive culture within which it is situated. What is the potential for my music--for anyone’s music--to deal with the very real global crisis? Perhaps I ought to first ask: should individuals engaged in abstract creative endeavors attempt to respond to problems of a political nature? I believe that at some level we must. We are on the brink of a human-instigated global catastrophe. To be an artist is to volunteer oneself to be the eyes, ears, mouths, and hands--the sensory organ--of the culture. Artists, as participants in a dominant culture that is severely destructive, have a strong obligation to address the destruction. Or in the words of Noam Chomsky: the closer a problem is to being our responsibility, the greater our moral obligation is to do something about it.

Bearing this in mind, a large part of my work is concerned with creatively addressing the critical necessity of alleviating the crisis my culture has brought to the world. My preoccupation with global diplomatic and environmental meltdown might at first seem to forge a strange partnership with abstract experimental music. But in fact the problems of the world and the challenges of my discipline emerge from the same source: communication.

Our culture abhors communication. That may be surprising for some to hear, for it is true that we are bombarded nonstop with communiqués from the corporate world and the state. We are surrounded by information. We are cornered by media, trapped by entertainment, and strangled by telephone wires, internet cables, and the invisible lines of satellite networks. Still, our culture hates communication. We live in a world of jealously-guarded borders, of immigration laws, of nationalisms and imperialisms. These form an antithesis to communication. Our governments and our media are virulently xenophobic, and this too is an affront to communication. Here’s a tip: when you’re being told about the wonders of modern communication, wonder about the money changing hands at the other end of it. Think about how one-sided the supposed communication is. It’s not communication if you don’t get to take part, and if you were encouraged or permitted to take part, the powerful would have to give up their power, the wealthy would have to share their wealth, and the very profitable wars--supreme insults to communication--would have to cease.

What real communication that does exist--either perceived by the powerful to be unthreatening or so abstruse as to hover below the radar of officialdom--is something precious that must be constantly defended. And we have to defend our right to communicate by communicating. We have to meet. We have to talk. We have to play. And we have to render obsolete the pervading threats to our continued ability to communicate. 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.

To be here to talk about and then perform my music is a privilege for me. I hope that Polish people still remember that to attend or host such a meeting is also a recently won victory. For you and I, at this moment, the horrors are elsewhere. But they are occurring somewhere. The music that I will play this evening, abstract though it may be, exists in the context of these horrors. Recognizing and understanding this is a first and important step. Experimental abstract music ceases to be either decadent, or frivolous, or benign, when one considers that through making it its practitioners are able to meet and communicate with people around the world. I have a choice when I am invited to present my work of whether to remain in the cloistered environment of the arts and limit my exchanges to technical and practical issues of how my work is made, or to open the dialogue to bigger and, I think, more important issues. If I choose the former, I might defend my artistic choices, but not my continued ability to make and share them. If I choose the latter, it is through such meetings, such communication, that we begin to trivialize inane laws and rabid propaganda-fueled xenophobia, and dismantle homicidal, if not suicidal, imperialisms. It then becomes possible to inhabit a space in which we challenge and solve the problems that we face. Or this: we become creative.

But perhaps all music potentially does this. What is it about so-called free improvisation that could be said to address more directly our crisis of communication? What differentiates the value of various methods of composition? (Because that is all improvisation is: a method of composition, as is notation, as is chance, as is memory, as is recording, as is allowing for mistakes, as are algorithms and other systematic ways of organizing audible parameters.) I do not think there is a significant difference in the value of one method over another. In fact I cannot think of a single piece of music that doesn’t use a few methods in combination. I don’t want to advocate free improvisation as some kind of “socially responsible” music to the exclusion of all others, but I do think it has some characteristics that are compelling at the moment. To improvise--to improvise well--is to think on one’s feet, to adapt to a situation, to communicate regardless of the challenges. It is to give the listening of the performer the same importance as the listening of the listener, thereby bringing the observer and the maker closer to each other. By sharing the experience, the act of creation becomes more transparent. The makers--those in control of the creative decisions-- must constantly reevaluate the experience of the listeners, while the listeners are not only invited to take part in appreciating the goal, but the process as well.

Here’s a thought experiment: what if the methodology and goals of business and politics were the same as those of free improvisation? What kinds of positive values would be emphasized and what kinds of negative values would necessarily disappear? If business and political leaders did what free improvisers do, we would first of all have decisions made for the mutual benefit of all, rather than the empowerment of a few. We would have transparency, solidarity, consideration, willingness to change, diversity, pleasure, and participation as both goals and processes. Gone would be unilateralism. Gone would be the profit motive as the prime value. Gone would be the scenario wherein he who says the most, and says it loudest, wins--when improvised music is conducted in this manner, everyone loses. Improvisation encourages tolerance and patience. Modern-day politics encourage intolerance and fast, poor decision making.

And so on and so forth. This is simply a rhetorical exercise, but I hope the point is clear. There are values implicit in the way one makes art as well as the context in which one chooses--or must--make it. And my strong belief, in opposition to that of many other musicians who I respect--great composers like Stravinsky and Lutoslawski among them--is that music is not merely about the organization of sound. Music is about organizing ourselves. To me, to suggest music is about sound would be like suggesting architecture is simply about space, or the health professions are simply about medicine. When music is viewed as a social phenomenon--rather than as a trade, for example, or as a tool for corporate enrichment--its true communicative power may be reasserted. Only in the context of the social value of music, and not merely its artistic value, can the cultural significance of whatever methods one chooses to work with be properly considered.

Before it was taken over, first by the record industry and then by Wynton Marsalis, jazz had social significance. Before youth became a commodity for corporations to market, rock and roll had social significance. Before it was relegated to its current position as a museum curiosity, art music had social significance--think for example of the consequences of Bartók’s ethnographic research, of the political daring of his work in the midst of Europe’s nightmare of nationalisms. And long before that counterfeit 50 Cent traded the color of his skin for the chance to advertise diamonds, hip hop had great social significance.

What kinds of social significance can music have? Can any music save the world? No. Can it be what we listen to--what we perform--while we attempt to dismantle the criminally insane and apocolyptically dangerous grip corporations and governments have on the world? Absolutely. If I am doing any one thing as an artist, I am consciously making and promoting that music.