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.