Saturday, December 31, 2011


Twenty eleven. I really liked the part where so many people, in so many places, in so many beautiful, creative ways, for so many reasons, in so much solidarity, with so much determination, looked the Establishment in its ugly face & said fuck off already.

An apt theme for the past year, as I experienced & observed it, would be community. It describes the successes of the socio-economic awakenings, the challenges to political establishments, the encampments, the risk-taking of activists for social justice & self-determination, the widening scope of movements against war & to protect water, soil, air, forests, rivers, cultures.

In a year largely defined by people taking to the streets, my year was spent, for better & for worse, less in the street than on the road. I travelled more heavily this year, to perform, than in any other year of my life. It has been utterly fulfilling & I look forward with enthusiasm to more. Everywhere I went I met people eager to create & strengthen the community of experimental & independent music & art. A polemic: real music & art cannot be expressed in market terms, & is a crucial component of societies actively challenging the political, economic, & cultural hegemony of the Establishment.

The following lists are an attempt (probably incomplete) to articulate & thank, in one place, all the wonderful people, venues, & organizations who are nurturing meaningful community in the places I performed & exhibited my work in 2011. What an honor! What a privilege!

Tad Michalak (Burn Down the Capital), Dan Smalls Presents, Tom Orange (Cleveland), Kevin O'Brien Cain (Buffalo), Squeaky Wheel, Brandon Hawk (Dayton), Joel Peterson (Bohemian in Exile series, Detroit), Gabriel Beam (Robinwood Concerthouse), Bubba Crumrine (Ithaca Underground), Martin Blazicek (Bludny Kamen, CZ), DC Sonic Circuits, Vicky Chow (Contagious Sounds, NYC), Santo Pulella (Head West), Mike Kramer ((h)ear Festival), Adam Schatz (Search & Restore), Paul Baldwin (Black Sparrow), Pete Lebel, Stephen Pellegrino, Anne Wellmer, Dewi de Vree, KG Price, Kaleid Series (Chicago), Quiet Cue (Berlin), U-Ex(perimental) (Utrecht), Peter Bradley (Schoolhouse, Guelph), Harold Arts, Jacob Kart (Chicago), Marie Guillerey, Gregory Clow, Joseph Hess, Aaron Hefel (Counter Productions), Thom Elliot (Pleasuredome), Jessica Puglisi, Sam Sowyrda, Rozz Tox (Rock Island IL), Good Style Shop (Madison WI), Nowy Wspanialy Swiat (Warszawa), Bomba (Kraków), Kevin Ernste (Cornell University), Brad Thorla (Anabell's, Akron), Stephen Crowley (Iowa City), Culture Shock & The Westy (Ithaca).

Rafal Mazur, Ensemble Klang, dj sniff, Reuben Radding, Andrew Drury, Red Trio, Joe Sorbara, Paul Dutton, Chad Taylor, Jonathan Goldberger, Alyssa Duerksen, Lindsay Gilmour, Chris Seeds, Michael Stark, Zaun Marshburn, Ryan Zawel, Hank Roberts, Walt Lorenzut, Ross Haarstad (Theatre Incognita), KBD, Dan Friedman, Heather Seggar, Alter Koker, Mark Alban Lotz, Dick Toering, Johanna Varner, Antibody Xtett (Manuel Miethe, Anna Kaluza, Max Andrzejewski, Stephan Bleier, Nico Meinhold, Wolfgang Georgsdorf), Johnny Dowd, Krzysztof Wolek, John Ritz, Margaret Lancaster, Nils Hoover

Deerhoof, powerdove, Matt Bauder, Hyrrokkin, Nick Millevoi, Fred Thomas, Alter Koker, Seth Graham, Andrew Weathers, Tristan Trump, Forget the Times, Rowan (Shelley Burgon), Rambutan (Eric Hardiman), Holland Hopson, Matta Gawa, Mouth to Mouth to Mouth, Sid Redlin, Arrington de Dionyso, Steve Baczkowski, Sinjo Thraw Mash, Loop Goat, Chris Seeds, Frass Accolades, Wind Farm, Stephen Pellegrino, Joel Peterson, Joe Panzer, Raphael Brim, Mall Mutants, Michael Attias.

Matt Bauder, dj sniff, Tomek Choloniewski, Matt Wright & Evan Parker, Jason Ajemian & the HighLife, Hyrrokkin, Red Trio, Jennie Stearns, Matta Gawa, Go-Go Beuys Band, Big Mean Sound Machine, Travis Laplante, Colin Stetson

Dana Billings, Michael Perkins, Jason Ajemian, Edward Ricart, Brett Nagafuchi, Danny van Duerm

Krzysztof Wolek (University of Louisville), Marek Choloniewski (Studio of Electroacoustic Music, Academy of Music in Krakow), Michael Hersch & Oscar Bettison (Peabody Conservatory), Joe Sorbara (University of Guelph)

Greg Baise (WCBN 88.3FM Ann Arbor), Needles Numark (Upstate Soundscape, Buffalo), Tom Orange (Brewing Luminous, Cleveland), Taran Singh (Taran's Free Jazz Hour), Ken Waxman (Jazzword), Bartosz Adamczak (Free Jazz Alchemist), Guy Sitruk (Jazz à Paris), Mechanical Forest Sound

This Heat, Deceit; Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden; Cabaret Voltaire, Micro-Phonies; Einsturzende Neubaten, Kollaps; Pere Ubu, Dub Housing; The Stooges, Fun House; Nas, Illmatic; Wire, Chairs Missing and Pink Flag; Death, ...For the World to See; Television, Marquee Moon; Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blank Generation.


Friday, December 09, 2011

US Stands Up For (Selected) LGBT Folks

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state in the Obama Administration -- an administration with a truly repellent record of human rights violations, with a trail of policies aggressive toward civil liberties and civil rights -- made a speech recently at the United Nations in Geneva elaborating the US stance on rights for LGBT folks. As words go, they are good words. Only hateful, vile people want to dictate the private lives of others, sort us by who and how we love. I wonder, though, how the government can dispatch its secretary of state to lecture the world on human rights while so actively and aggressively pursuing human rights for some. What kind of cognitive dissonance does this lady have to be practicing in order to declare that gays are people while America's drone aircraft circle no less than six countries, regularly -- regularly -- murdering children? When people captured as children for the crime of defending themselves from American warlords still await some sort of stilted trial at Guantánamo Bay? When American funding for the immiseration (not to say the eradication) of Palestinian people continues? When Obama's own preference is for an imaginary world happily chumming along on endlessly toxic energy sources? When Americans are targeted by the president for assassination abroad? And target by the system for assasination at home?

A sensible, compassionate person doesn't trust the likes of Hillary Clinton, of course, doesn't trust anyone she's politically associated with, doesn't vote for such people. Skip the pseudo-righteousness and check an excerpt I found that was left out of the speech:

"From Afghanistan to Palestine, from Pakistan to Mexico, from Iran to Guantánamo Bay, the Obama Administration has an important message about the rights of LGBT people. If you live in these places your sexual orientation should not be a barrier to human rights. The US policy of hating and fearing the lot of you, gay or straight, is that barrier. We vaguely tip our hat to civil rights for the gay communities in our client states. The rest of you can eat hot drone."

And here are some reactions from around the world:

"When the flying robot dropped that bomb on my house, killing me and 14 members of my family, I died secure in the knowledge that my sexual orientation played no part in the war crime that was my murder. I died because, well...who the fuck even knows anymore? But not because I was gay. Thanks, Hillary Clinton, for clearing that one up for everyone."
-Gay Afghan Ghost.

"Israel is a mecca for gay people. Very open minded. Even gay soldiers can shoot at us for no reason!"
-Gay Palestinian kid

"When we heard Hillary the Clinton's speech about the importance of equality for gay people worldwide, we realized that the invasion the Obama Administration recently initiated of our country had absolutely nothing to do with the similarly recent discovery of oil here."
-Gay Ugandan environmentalist, in hiding

"We are thankful to Ms. Clinton's declaration that all people have rights, regardless of their sexual orientation. Also Mexicans! We assume the American drone aircraft now hovering overhead are there to protect us from the constant influx of American guns."
-Gay Mexican maquiladora worker

"I always knew there was nothing wrong with my way of life, and grateful to the Obama Administration for all the moral support."
-Gay South American hedge fund manager

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hell No We Ain't Alright

Hurricane Irene made me think about Hurricane Katrina. I imagine I'm not alone in this. It made me wonder: how have things changed? How have they stayed the same? How have they improved? How have they gotten worse?

Have a listen to the three great tracks below - by Mos Def, Public Enemy, and the Legendary K.O. - made in the aftermath of Katrina. Check the lyrics. These are songs that gave voice to widespread anger and outrage over the Bush Administration's non-response to the tragedy that befell New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005. But they also speak, powerfully and timelessly, to backward national priorities, institutional racism, poverty, police brutality, anti-war sentiment, and other pressing issues that continue to receive scant attention in the post-Bush era.

Intelligent people (but few in positions of power or influence) wrote and spoke insightfully at the time about Katrina's extreme strength and destructiveness as symptoms of climate change. Six years later Hurricane Irene is a manifestation of the same. Though disaster preparedness may have improved, the discussion about climate change has been largely left out of the vocabulary of those who govern and report.

Hurricane Irene coincided with a weeks-long mass mobilization of environmental groups in front of the White House. Hundreds of people from around the US are lining up to be arrested (over 500 arrests as of this writing) to raise awareness of the Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that will carry highly toxic oil from the Alberta tar sands (an environmental catastrophe in and of itself) in Canada, through fragile ecosystems in the US, to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for global export. The State Department has signed off on the project and it is up to Obama to make the final decision of whether or not the Keystone XL is in the national interest. Climate scientists and environmentalists have declared loudly and clearly that the mining of the tar sands is an enormous "carbon bomb" and is absolutely counter to the urgent need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Obama, remember, has signed deepwater drilling permits in the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His administration stacked a seven-member advisory panel on gas hydrofracking with insiders from the energy industry. He is a recipient of large campaign contributions from the nuclear industry, and a zealous supporter of it.

It is certainly curious. One could see the racism, hatred and deceit of George Bush and his administration unmasked, not only in the whole of his years-long, bloody war on terror, but also in moments like the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since he entered office Obama has been cultivating his own hatred and deceit, with his bloated war on terror, his ever-expanding drone bombing programs, and horrifically malfeasant energy projects. His refusal to deal honestly with climate change and his willingness to sign off on one environmental disaster after another begs the question: is there anyone he doesn't hate?

(Post script: have a look at this article from the New York Times, about the devastation from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene to communities in Upstate New York and Vermont. It is also typical of the reporting I listened to on NPR over the weekend: devoid of any mention of climate change. It's like reporting "bombs dropped on houses" but failing to mention who dropped the bombs. Oh but I guess they do that too.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Another Great Insurrection

Among the disappointments out there, some are great, some are small. I want to mention one that is a little smaller than those I usually speak to. Amidst the turmoil in the UK this week, 150 independent record labels have had much of their stock destroyed in a warehouse fire in London. (I imagine those labels will appreciate some digital sales to help them bounce back without putting pressure on them to move physical stock, if you're so inclined.)

In London (and other English cities) there is mass civil unrest that some folks call riots and some folks call insurrection. The initial spark was the institutional racism of the police state and the way it intersects with economic oppression and other class issues. These issues often affect musicians and artists whose work is not expressed in contemporary economic terms.

So I hope that people who love the great music on some of the affected labels can appreciate how important it is to lend sympathies (and solidarity, and material support) to the marginalized over the oppressive. I think it is mindless, privileged drivel to dismiss the unrest and property destruction outright as the work of thugs and criminals. Only politicians and the BBC speak with such willful lack of subtlety or understanding.

There are folks venting legitimate grievances. And surely there are people coasting along and enjoying the chaos. And surely there are brutes in the streets taking advantage of it. But these brutes, it must be said, are far outmatched in their brutishness by the people in power, who wage aggressive war in faraway places, who dangle education beyond the reach of those who need it, who force an eternity of nuclear devastation on the soil and water, who enact policies that further marginalize culturally meaningful pursuits (like making good music and getting it to the public).

I think it is important not to vilify the insurrectionists and their legitimate grievances in the same sentence as we regret the damage seen by these independent labels. What is the incidental burning of records to the intentional burning of villages? Speak of strategy and effectiveness in expressing anti-establishment unrest, sure, but not in the absence of a clear, outright condemnation of a systematically racist political establishment that would burn our records, our instruments, and our children in a flash if it was economically expedient.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Same Wars 2011

Not long after Barack Obama began his term as US president, I wrote a piece called The Same Wars, the premise being that the Bush Administration wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were indistinguishable from the Obama Administration wars in those same places. I was writing this in the context of the phony torture debate in the spring of 2009, when there were still people around who would look you in the eye and speak well of Obama. Blind faith is so strange. There are fewer of those people around these days.

I think it's time to re-up this notion of sameness. It is uncontroversial to note that the Obama Administration has surpassed its predecessor in the prosecution of illegal, unjustified warfare. The United States now openly commits naked aggression on the people of six countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya. Prosecutable acts of aggression in each and every case. There is no justification for the drone attacks, the torture dungeons, the sprawling military bases, the checkpoints, the detentions, the home invasions, the daily humiliation, all the continued killing. Do we respond with tears or rage to the spiralling humanitarian crises in many of the places that the US and its NATO allies choose to either target with ammunition or ignore altogether?

Almost daily we hear of entire extended families wiped out by bombs that some rat-bastard US spokesperson claims were mistargeted, or malfunctioning, or anyway it was the victims' fault for living in close proximity to persons designated targets of illegal, extra-judicial killing. We hear of the US economy tanking but the bombs are made by wealthy corporations in the US. We hear of warlords and dictators whipped into a killing frenzy as though this justifies the invasions, occupations and "surgical strikes", even though it happens every goddamn time and you have to be a complete anti-historical moron to think this time will be different. Beyond the mendacious NPR/CNN blather about local folks "on the ground" praising their own victimization at US gunpoint, we hear from people committed to self-determination and forced to struggle not just against their own local oppressors but against the rogue superpower as well.

And then we hear other things, atrocities committed in other fields, the wars fought on other fronts. Acts of war committed in the form of oil spills. Legislative war against poor people and the working class. Propaganda wars, where Loughner and Breivik are lone crazies but any Arab's righteous anger is taken as evidence of impending jihad, and passengers on ships bearing letters of solidarity to the imprisoned people of Gaza are considered terrorists.

I say this over and over again because it never stops being true: the war is against clean air, clean water, clean soil. We are forced to accept bitter terms of defeat as access shrinks to unpoisoned food not grown on mutated farmland. The Fukushima catastrophe - that the reactor was even built in the first place! - was an act of war against the future, and that war extends to multiple fronts as reactors around the world are allowed to remain open, allowed to leak yet more toxins into our beleaguered ecology. (Where does that miserable asshole Obama stand on nukes? Look into it, it's not pretty.)

The global climate has gone utterly haywire and do-nothing politicians sit on their hands and do nothing but talk about how to enrich the rich. It's a war. They say "debt ceiling crisis" and if you don't hear "phony crisis propaganda" then it's working. I used to read and write about creeping fascism but that adjective - creeping - has become too tame. It's marching full stride. Outright racist religious fundamentalists vie for control of the US government, vie for the opportunity to become beneficiaries of corporate incentives to legislate in corporate favor, and the country's first black president continues to bomb black and brown people and their villages to dust. (The next US president might hate African-Americans, it's true, but will she have the blood of as many Africans on her hands as the current president? Time will tell, if we let it.)

The secretary of state is supposed to be a woman but state governments can choose with impunity to restrict women's reproductive rights. Men and women with soft palms and robust bank accounts deny workers the right to advocate for themselves. The government of my home state of New York decides to extend marital rights to same sex couples, provided they are willing to live in a place held hostage by toxic gas drilling corporations.

Earlier this summer, over in The Netherlands, the government waged what the famous Dutch composer Louis Andriessen correctly called a war on the arts. Arts budgets were slashed or erased in that haven for cultural freedom and funding, even while the US secretary of defense was next door in Belgium exhorting NATO countries to spend more money on the alliance's war machine. My friends and colleagues took to the streets of The Hague to oppose these tragically backward policies. It was an impressive show, both by the committed artists and their supporters and by the security forces, who played out their own little Greek street scene by beating down a few non-violent protesters.

Why has the war extended so far as the cultural sector in a place like The Netherlands? Why has it extended as far as a youth camp in Norway, where a footsoldier of white, racist, misogynist fundamentalism massacred scores of children one morning last week?

These are the same wars. When I marched in Amsterdam and London against the assault on Iraq before it began, none of my musician colleagues marched with me. They shrugged it off. Everyone has their own way to politics and so forth, so I write without judgement. But when it came time for them to take to the streets to agitate for their interests I am not sure that the "anti-war" folks rushed to their side. A little solidarity goes a long way. I take the extraordinary, decades-old struggle playing out in Egypt as an example: diverse groups standing up for each other (even after the Western cameras have gone on summer holidays).

When we realize that these offenses and atrocities are the same wars being fought, we can begin to strategize and not be left scratching our heads in confusion and frustration as we lose yet another battle. I don't have to know a soul in Yemen to understand that the bombs exploding there sound the same as the mountaintops of West Virginia being blown to pieces in some sleazy corporation's relentless pursuit of coal. I don't have to be deeply engaged in the day to day politics of Libya to know that when a mother loses her child to NATO bombs her sorrow is as real as the sorrow of a grieving mother in Oslo in the aftermath of Breivik's American ultra-right influenced killing spree. The children near Fukushima and the whales swimming in the Pacific take in the same radioactive toxins. Malnourishment stings as sharply in Detroit as it does in Mogadishu. Apartheid was as wrong in South Africa as it is in Israel. Freedom movements in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia deserve international solidarity as surely as similar movements in Egypt and Tunisia.

We ought to stop acting as though our daily horrors are some new thing cooked up out of nowhere. I think it's delusional to think we can be successful environmentalists without being committed anti-war activists too. We can't fight successfully for gains in education, or the arts, or civil rights, or reproductive rights, without realizing that we are fighting a war that is fought not only on the legislative level, but with guns and tanks and bombs as well. Worker's rights at home won't cut it if we don't pursue freedom for those enslaved in sweatshops abroad.

Our narrow self-interests will not win the day. The men and women in state and national capitols, and those in the corporate boardrooms, and those in the television studios, and those in uniforms at drone command centers, or in tanks, or at checkpoints, are of a piece with the Loughners and Breiviks. They're all of a piece with the energy fundamentalists at Exxon and BP and the rest who are pouring oil into rivers this summer. For fucking profit! You can probably figure out a more subtle way of saying it. But say it, get with it, because it's true: a war is swirling around you and you have agency over how you engage it.

These are the same wars. Enough with the false dichotomies between different actors in the same suits, between corporations and governments who want the same thing, between adversarial countries. You can fight or flee. But the earth is small, and they've got it surrounded, and you can't flee. So fight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thoreau Day

Yesterday, July 12, was Henry David Thoreau's birthday. I celebrated. I consider Thoreau a hero and a constant source of inspiration. His were practiced examples of how one might live in accordance with their values.

Some people have asked me, if I don't celebrate Thanksgiving, or American Independence Day (July 4th), or religious holidays, what do I celebrate? I think Thoreau's life and work are worthy of celebration.

So I invited twenty friends over, we grilled up some hamburgers, got wasted and lit off a mess of fireworks. I'm kidding of course. I took a walk at Treman State Park, not far from home, by myself. It was a hot, dry day but at five in the afternoon, and in the occasional shade of the woods, the weather was pleasant enough. From the lower park I walked along the Gorge Trail until it split and then I took the Rim Trail to the upper park. From there I took the South Trail back down to the lower park. It's a well marked loop, paved in some places, popular. Some mildly strenuous moments if you're not accustomed to walking uphill. Something like five miles total. It took me a bit under two hours.

The woods around were alive with chipmunks and squirrels busy chasing each other and fussing about in the trees. I did not catch sight of a single bird. I have walked this trail many times, in many seasons, and always see newts and salamanders but this time not one. Mosquitoes and flies were out, and I have been on walks where they drive me nearly to a panic, but they weren't so abundant now. I saw one frog, after an hour or so of walking, and it made me very happy. I see and hear very few of those, though I think they should be plentiful here and in this season.

I saw no fish in Enfield Creek, in the pools that punctuate the falls. On my last walk here I saw many, but they were all dead. I saw no sign of raccoons, or skunks, or foxes, coyotes, deer, yet the roadsides everywhere here are littered with their fresh or rotting corpses. No prints of bear paws in the dirt tracks.

There's so much here I cannot name: trees and plants, soil and erosion patterns, what flowers when. I didn't take the kind of walk that I imagine Thoreau would have taken: slow, deliberate, carefully observing details and relationships. I walk fast, each step a step away from roads and computers, governments and corporations, self-promotion and other peoples' news. Like HDT, I imagine, I spend time in nature to assuage the loneliness and isolation of the contemporary urban (and virtual) environment. Walking alone on a narrow track in the woods (no phone, of course, and no money jangling in my pocket) I feel the opposite of alone. I feel utterly connected, to myself, to my surroundings, to time.

The contemporary urban and virtual environment encroaches on this, and hideously so. I wonder what it would be like if HDT took this walk with me. He would surely point out numerous, wondrous things that I miss. This gorge, its waterfalls, its trees, the way the flora changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically as I walk from one glacially formed ridge to another, has much to marvel at. But I hear HDT asking -- or maybe it's the voice of myself as a child, 25 years ago -- "where did everything go?" Fellow mammals are busy dying under the wheels of fuel efficient automobiles, pines disappear as invasive insect species lay siege to them, the water, ever more toxic, chokes the fish, the sky above is littered with airplanes and satellites.

Thoreau spent his 44 years observing and reflecting on the world around him. He called bullshit on the way civilized people treat each other, the way money and property perverts them, the racism and warmongering of politicians. He has inspired generation after generation of environmentalists, civil rights activists, people clamoring for self-determination, people struggling against war. What a hero. What a thing to celebrate.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Independence from America Day

I propose an Independence from America Day. Can we celebrate that?

I declare independence from the pirate spirit of Christopher Colombus that defines the United States: find abundance that is not yours; subdue or kill anyone enjoying, defending or even willing to share it; transport it elsewhere for personal gain; leave behind you a wasteland, a graveyard, and look for more treasure. As with the Caribbean in the 1490s, so with Iraq today.

I declare independence from the English entrepreneurs who set up camp in Jamestown in 1607. After some rough seasons and plenty of help from the Powhatan people, they managed to establish a global trade in tobacco and force indigenous onto reservations or indoctrinate them in schools and churches.

I declare independence from the religious fanatics who began their invasion of Massachusetts in 1620. I declare independence from their intolerance, their patriarchy, their witch trials. How would they have treated someone like me in the mid 17th century?

I declare independence from slavish adherence to the U.S. Constitution, an old rag written long ago by a group of racist businessmen who didn't get it right -- unless "getting it right" is this, what we've got, after 224 years to perfect it. Raise your hand if you've had enough of these depraved white men in Washington arguing over what "the Founding Fathers" meant in the 1780s. Who gives a shit? They're dead and it's 2011!

I declare independence from slavery. A century and a half after the Civil War was fought (not over slavery, mind you, but state rights) slavery is still rampant. As for African captives in South Carolina in the 1850s, so with the girl who sewed your shirt in a Mexican maquiladora, or assembled my computer in a Chinese "free industrial zone", or scrubbed the toilets at a Saudi oil rig.

I declare independence from the westward "pioneering" that laid waste to culture after culture in the pursuit of what another pathological national movement once called lebensraum. I declare independence from the continued denial of justice to the survivors of the genocide perpetrated on American indigenous people.

I declare independence from the United States flag, because it is the same flag that waves over 1,000 military bases around the world. It is the same flag that NASA astronauts stuck on the Moon, which the US bombed several decades later.

I declare independence from "The Star Spangled Banner". A national anthem about war is a dead giveaway for what the nation is about. And it grates on my ears. And it embarrasses me when musicians perform it. And why don't they sing songs about sports at sports events?

I declare independence from the idea of American citizenship. What besides this connects me to the other 300 million Americans? What besides this connects us to each other and not to those who live and work and study and love in the US without citizenship? What connects me to a technologist in San Francisco, or a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, or an energy consultant in Houston, more than to a poet in Shanghai or a violinist in Damascus?

I declare independence from the oft-repeated hogwash that "nothing is manufactured in the US anymore." Incorrect! From tear gas canisters to bullets, from guns to missiles, from tanks to helicopters, from warships to jet fighters, from satellites to drone aircraft, from nuclear power stations to nuclear bombs, plenty is manufactured in the United States! Business is booming. Automobiles. Prisons. Pharmaceuticals. Oil and gas wells. Logging roads. Genetically-modified seeds. Financial meltdowns and bailouts. Shitty movies.

I declare independence from Capitalism, from the theft of land and resources, the poisoning of rivers, forced labor, consumerism, planned obsolescence, market fetishism, and the rest that turns people's souls into mountains of invisible money. I have in me the genetic and intellectual memory that humans are social creatures. We depend on each other. My family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues are not enriched by the immiseration of others.

I declare independence from sham democracy, from uninformed consent, from indoctrinated idiots droning on about shit they don't understand, from "the democratic process" when we are voting on how to kill the oceans, how to talk about torturing people, how to bomb them, how to eradicate plant and animal species, how to sell out the education of young people, how to cook the planet.

I declare independence from celebrity fetishism, from an industry that rewards political and sexual -- to say nothing of artistic -- criminals with air time, that teaches young girls to become hypersexualized dimwits. I declare independence from the culture of self-obsession and selfishness.

I declare independence from space exploration. It's a bait and switch. Hey, explorer, you want to explore something? Explore how to get all the goddamn plastic out of the oceans and out of everybody's endocrine systems.

I declare independence from nationalism, perpetual war, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. I declare independence from propping up Israeli apartheid, Saudi tyranny, Afghan warlords. I declare independence from forcing a failed way of life on the poor of world, at gunpoint, every time there's a natural disaster, and making them pay for it, and calling it humanitarian aid.

I declare independence from dropping bombs, setting landmines, firing rockets, issuing weapons, stationing troops, "winning hearts and minds", abandoning veterans, erecting walls and barbed-wire fences, slaughtering innocents, covering it up, doing it again, calling it collateral damage, doing it again, saying "war is hell", doing it again, insisting that the killing is humanitarian in nature, doing it again and getting promoted.

I declare independence from perpetual ecocide, from clearcutting forests, from chemical spills, nuclear tests, monocrop agriculture. We are not stewards of the Earth. Nature doesn't need our "help". Shut down the nuclear power plants, the coal mines, the gas fields, the oil wells. Turn off the lights and sit in the dark for a day and think about how to turn the lights back on. I guarantee you that the sun will rise in a few hours.

I declare independence from state terror, from being afraid to speak out because they'll drag me through mud and leave me in a prison cell, from being forced to insist on "non-violence" while they pummel me with rubber bullets, tear gas, riot gear, or just their shitbrained nationalist ideology.

No flags, no myths, no factory farm animal carcasses charred on gas grills, washed down with fizzy corn syrup, while watching gunpowder explode in the sky.

Fuck all that noise. I declare independence from it, and it feels great, and I'm celebrating when and how I want to.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Next Revolution is Now

I just caught this opinion piece by David T. Little in The New York Times. The line of inquiry is eminently fascinating and frustrating to me. After giving some background on himself, Little asks whether music should be political, divides political music into "revolutionary" and "critical" categories, names some historical and contemporary examples, and claims that our "historical moment" is no longer revolutionary. I should clarify he is writing within narrow confines for a series the NYT is running on "21st century classical music". I am still troubled by many of his conclusions, as are some of the commenters online.

I read it and thought "no, no, no". "Political" gets treated as a mannerism, or a device, or something from which to derive content. But music is a social phenomenon. What are the social implications of the way we make music? I don't see this addressed in the piece, and I think this is the most important political question we must ask ourselves as music makers.

We delude ourselves if we think we can walk into the halls of the establishment and decry them to any effect, let alone tear them down -- not to say we shouldn't try. There are repercussions for doing so, of course, and a sense of self-preservation often impels us to find some good in whatever stages we can get access to.

Still, "political" needs to be in the context of our music, not just the content. What are our allegiances? What devils do we make deals with to find an audience? That Thoreau quote I always bring up is relevant here: "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence." What's the use of writing a piece about the evils of war without calling out, before the concert, after the concert, the names of those who make war?

I imagine that as compensation for the things I say about American politicians I probably won't be invited to perform at the Kennedy Center anytime soon. That's OK. I just hope that by saying those things (like, for example, Obama is a fucking war criminal for the continued indiscriminate drone bombing and night raids perpetrated on civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan) other folks will be encouraged to live lives of political consequence -- to cast their whole influence. Imagine if I wrote my Elegy for the schoolboys at Ghazi Khan and left it at that! You might know about the atrocity at Ghazi Khan -- ten innocent people, nine of them boys, woken from their beds, handcuffed, and executed by US Special Forces in December 2009 -- but you wouldn't have that reminder from one more person, made at every opportunity I have, that such an action is a war crime and Obama bears culpability.

This is a paragraph in which I take a deep breath. (And parenthetically say that my work is not solely devoted to the trial of the current US president, whoever that may be. This is just an example.)

I suppose what I'm feeling at this moment is that the NYT piece that Little penned played it safe. We need to not do that. We can talk about political music, sure, but then let's talk about politicians. Inevitably, we're going to be talking about war criminals. Inevitably. In our music let's do whatever it is that moves and inspires us and moves and inspires our listeners. But when we write about it, about politics, let's get specific, name names, consider actionable offenses, ask how the Nuremburg laws apply, that stuff.

I imagine that, writing for the NYT, Little was not commissioned to think beyond certain self- and externally-imposed borders, specifically those of the economy and etiquette of classical music. Of course music will be politically benign if from the outset we accept the constraints that cause it to be so. "Political" needs to be context, not merely content. Little imagines that this "historical moment" is not revolutionary. But we are amidst many historical moments right now, making music in shiny concert halls and grungy basements and within and around various ideologies. And I think beyond the constraints and the borders imposed by convention, revolution certainly happens, needs to happen, is happening now.


PS: h/t to Dutch composer Samuel Vriezen.
PPS: this is a reaction to Little's opinion piece, not Little or his music.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Message from America


If you deny our state workers' unions the right to collective bargaining,
we will occupy state capitols.

And if you savage the economies of Latin America for a century,
we will re-elect you.

If you cut funding for education,
we will organize school walk-outs.

And if you grind children into dust in Afghanistan for nine years running,
we will re-elect you.

If a gallon of gas costs more than $4,
we will scream bloody murder.

And if you sell out our pristine wilderness to oil & gas companies,
we will re-elect you.

If you threaten to defund Planned Parenthood,
we will organize & we will protest.

And if our soldiers abroad make a habit of raping people under occupation,
we will re-elect you.

If your sexual indiscretions are made public,
we will shame you in our corporate media.

And if your torture regime is made public,
we will re-elect you.

If people on the other side of the world risk their lives for self-determination under authoritarian rule,
we will demand you support their struggle.

And if you tighten your authoritarian grip here at home,
we will re-elect you.

A Piece On/Of Propaganda

All of this is true, that you are being lied to. Fooled, tricked, misled. You are being deluded, hoodwinked, cheated, defrauded, disenfranchised. You are being conned, duped, influenced, brainwashed. Your arms are twisted. Your hands are tied. Your back is against the wall. You are cornered, trapped, caged, coerced. Patted down, beat up, worked over. Deceived, manipulated. Your thoughts are controlled, your ideas are not your ideas. What you know about the world and how it works is false, dangerously so, fatally so.

As sure as privacy is a thing of the past, you will learn to unremember independent thought. Groupthink is a reality and your thoughts are it. You are a party to mass delusion. There are entities that will not abide ideas that they themselves did not source. You have never had a dangerous thought in your life. Your speech betrays your long conditioning by a despicable cadre of public relations experts.

When you have information you can trust, you can navigate it to form your own opinions and map out a way of being in the world. When you plot a course based on lies and deceptions, your steps are unsure, your movements irrational, your trajectory a farce.

You are bombarded with loaded information at every turn. Your life is utterly mediated. In print. On screen. Across radio waves. In classrooms. On billboards. At the office water cooler. People are even hired to walk around and nonchalantly extol products, films, brands. They are paid to subvert personal taste and desire merely by being overheard. You know the names of 100 poisonous products that you voluntarily put in and on your body each day, but cannot name the songbird singing outside your window, or the tree he is sitting in. And this according to plan.

Is it okay? Are you comfortable with it?


Into the struggle to scale down America's rampant militarism strides the propaganda of the Pentagon. Into the struggle to heal the hurts of industrial civilization stride million dollar corporate greenwash campaigns. Into the struggle to know our selves, our desires, our needs, step unscrupulous public relations firms.

We are meant to feel like inadequate, unattractive outsiders unless we buy the right future junk. We are meant to feel contempt for science, for facts, for recognizing the consequences of our actions: all is right in the world the white font on a bright green background happily declares. We are meant to believe that security and peace come through the prosecution of endless war and the long, righteous arms of American imperialism.

This is really happening. Is it a conspiracy? How do we negotiate our daily lives when such juggernauts of influence bear down on us so consistently, so forcefully, without reproach of conscience?


Propaganda, from the Latin word that means "to propagate", didn't always carry a negative connotation. Propaganda is the targeting of receivers' emotions for the purpose of disseminating ideas and promoting specified actions. It differs from rational discourse in that it appeals to feelings and not reason. It is selective information, yes, but it doesn't have to be bad, or dishonest. Just like not all violence is evil--think of a lioness killing an antelope to feed her pride--not all influence is wrong. Bertolt Brecht, a playwright of conscience who lived in times of aggression and deceit not unlike our own, was a type of propagandist in his extraordinary work. So was George Orwell. So was Emma Goldman. Heroes, all, and we can name our contemporary analogues.

Now, however, power structures of incalculable evil stretch over the entire planet and out into space. We live at a time when interconnected sociopathic oligarchies actively and explicitly threaten the existence of our species, and that of many others. And yet these contemptible few constitute such a small part of the population that their authority can be toppled by an informed movement of dedicated individuals. (Witness the fact that a mere ten percent of the population of Egypt ousted the dictator Hosni Mubarak last month.) In order to maintain the global authoritarian order of industrial civilization, it is necessary for the majority to believe that all is well. Join the imperial army to bring about peace. Pay the companies that make you feel inadequate, that poison you, to make you feel better. The only kind of environmentalism that will be tolerated must be ineffectual. (The kind of environmental activism that actually works is deemed "eco-terrorism", and you're not a terrorist, are you? Are you?)

We are beaten down, prodded, invaded, demeaned, pushed around, infected with and waterboarded by propaganda aimed at breaking our will to challenge it. Is it a conspiracy? Is it okay? Is this really happening?

To echo Noam Chomsky, whose Manufacturing Consent (written with Edward S. Herman) is an essential text in the comprehension of contemporary media propaganda, consciousness raising is the first step in lifting oneself out of oppression. The biggest challenge to overcoming propaganda may be the failure of its targets to recognize themselves as such. The propaganda of the Pentagon, of profit-driven greenwashers, of the PR firms, is the brittle, easily overcome ammunition of a cowardly, paranoid, hate-driven authoritarian minority. Recognize it for what it is and the tide begins to turn.

I am a propagandist. Proudly. I am not fair. I am not balanced. I am not neutral. Because all this is really happening. Enlist.


[Written for The Ithaca Post to publicize an event sponsored by the Park School of Independent Media at Ithaca College that featured investigative writer John Stauber and civil rights advocate Lisa Graves speaking on PR and the Pentagon. Stauber and Graves are the founder and current director of the Center for Media and Democracy based in Madison, Wisconsin.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Imperial Theater of Barack Obama

I did not intend to write on the incident in Tucson, Arizona last week, where a deranged and impressionable young man named Jared Loughner stands accused of killing six people and wounding thirteen others with the bullets of his semi-automatic Glock 19. But the dissembling words of US President Barack Obama yesterday were cutting in a deeply personal way.

A common refrain in my work is the violence our culture perpetrates on children. This is not only because I experienced it so close and so devastatingly. In 1988 one of my younger sisters, Sybil, was killed when a car smashed into her as she was crossing a street after school. She was nine years old and every bit the bright light that Christina Taylor Green, a victim of the Tucson attack, seems to have been, every bit the bright light that all kids, everywhere in the world, tend to be: energetic, creative, talented, funny, sensitive, full of love, curious, charitable.

Years ago, as I went through a process of abstracting my personal tragedies and grief--attempting to dismantle the formulation that one death is a tragedy and a million are a statistic--I found resonance in the words of Howard Zinn: All wars are wars against children. The work of Derrick Jensen was also influential to me in this context, particularly his notion that most aspects of industrial civilization--how it abuses its environment, miseducates the young, objectifies women, loathes the "other", twists language--are "strangely like war". I see strange wars perpetrated against children throughout the culture and it makes my stomach turn.

Last night, by chance, I happened upon the transcript of Obama's eulogy for the six people killed in Tucson. (The environmental organization, which I follow on facebook, linked to it, adding that the speech "beautifully shows the humanity we're all working so hard to save.") I avoid watching or listening to political speeches, especially if I haven't read them first; I am as susceptible as anyone to the manipulations of a good performance. So I read the speech and was nauseated. Here is a piece of utterly unscrupulous imperial theater, even without the tenor and cadences that have made Obama so frustratingly beloved by so many.

For the arch-defender of war that Obama is to say the things he said--to applause and adoration--about how the incident should be reflected on and how the victims should be honored, seems beyond perverse to me. Audacity indeed. Even as the Nobel Peace Prize-winner spoke, armed drone aircraft under his command continued their mission of circling and dropping bombs indiscriminately over far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And what did he say? "None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future."

But one would be a fool to expect Obama, who spoke these words on the occasion of a memorial service for six innocent people, to examine all the facts behind the tragedy or to challenge old assumptions. Not even for a day did Obama halt the atrocities at his command in honor of the victims in Tucson. He did order a moment of silence on the Monday following the shooting, but I suspect little girls in southern Afghanistan could hear the continuing roar of American warplanes overhead.

What else did he say? He said God Bless America. Peppering his speech with bits from both the Old and New Testaments, Obama (or his speechwriters) sought to express spirituality (and perhaps a specifically Christian angle) while forgetting that, at least in Dante Alighieri's vision of Hell, there are special places for fraudulent and violent politicians.

God bless America, Obama. And god bless its little girls, and little girls everywhere. Little girls suffering from the continuing American Predator drone attacks. Little girls suffering from the continuing war on Afghanistan. Little girls suffering from the continuing US occupation of Iraq. Little girls suffering from American material and political support of Israeli occupation in Palestine. Little girls suffering from American dismissal of climate change. Little girls suffering from American economic policy. Little girls suffering from corporate healthcare. Little girls suffering from corporate welfare. Little girls suffering from American institutional racism. Little girls suffering from the horrid notion of American exceptionalism: what a mean, uncharitable conviction creeping through its mainstream political culture, imbuing its people with the cognitive dissonance necessary to applaud a war criminal for gentle words offered back in eulogy! But only to little American girls.

And so on and so forth. To say nothing of little boys, and women and men. Pseudo-liberals who idolize Obama like to remind his left critics that he is not a superman. We are mocked for holding him up to his own rhetoric. I understand, as George Monbiot put it, that hypocrisy is the gap between aspirations and actions. But where are the actions that signal aspirations? They have military operational titles. They are apparent in signatures to laws and decrees that bolster empire. And to hell with little girls.

Call back the jets and the tanks and the soldiers, Obama. Call them back, every last one. Close the military bases littered across the planet. Defuse and decommission each and every nuclear bomb, submarine, and power station. Signal aspirations, impossible though they may be to realize in a capitalist democracy, to end wars against children, even if it means ending your career. End your wars.

It must be difficult to organize a funeral or memorial service, especially for tragic deaths. I would not want to have that job. But if I did, and the memorial service was for victims of violence, I would rule out inviting someone with a proven record of violence against men, women, and children. It was not mere hypocrisy on display. I may be a hypocrite, sitting here typing away at this computer and despising the hurts of industrial civilization. But I believe Obama's performance goes beyond hypocrisy, beyond cognitive dissonance and into the realm of deliberate political and emotional manipulation. If it's not pure theater then it's pure insanity, and if it's not that it's puppetry. As with his predecessors and successors and the perpetrator in Tucson, we can "examine all the facts" that lead not only to lone tragedies, but to systemic tragedies. One little girl killed is a tragedy. So are two. And so are a million.

What else did Obama say? "I want to live up to her expectations. (Applause.) I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. (Applause.) All of us--we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations. (Applause.)"

Then stop committing the atrocities.