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."