Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Pete Seeger Was A Movement Musician


If Pete Seeger were still with us, how would he be celebrating his 100th birthday?  Probably by chopping wood.

On May 3rd, 1919, Pete Seeger was born. Many people in the more musical regions of my social circles are currently celebrating his life, for the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, had he lived past the age of 94. Among people I know, so much has already been said about Pete, that I'm hesitant to say any more. But on fairly obsessive reflection around the subject of Pete Seeger myself in recent days, I realize I do have thoughts that might be worth sharing, despite the quantity of verbiage already cluttering the web.

So much has been said and written about him over the course of the past 83 years or so, it's very easy to blend fact with fiction. This is perhaps especially true for people who knew him, but only a little. Does reading a book and having a short conversation with the author give you much more insight into the subject of the book than you would have had without that conversation? Probably not. But it's been six years since Pete died, and I'm six years older. And I'll just say up front here that it's not my deeply intimate familiarity with Pete that makes me feel like I have something to say here -- I barely knew the guy. But we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, and most importantly, we shared the same profession -- I am, and he was, a musician, among other things, but specifically a musician with deep social movement roots. He was a fish swimming in a sea of social movements throughout his life, and he navigated the waters as best he could, to be a helpful, musical part of those movements.

Anyone who visited him at his home mentions the wood-splitting right away. I never visited him at home or split wood with him, though I did sweep a floor with him once. I know how the wood-splitting thing can be, though, having grown up not far away from Beacon, New York, myself, in a wood-heated home in Connecticut, very close to another river that had, like the Hudson, long ago also been poisoned by industry -- the Housatonic. You split a lot of wood to keep a wood stove hot through a northeastern winter. Or up in the hills, through the spring and fall, as well. Pete was reputed to live a very simple life, to the extent that he could manage it, as a relatively famous, at times chart-topping musician.

As far as I know, he never resented the fact that he did well enough as a musician to tour the world and feed his family. But Pete talked on so many occasions in so many ways about how profoundly uncomfortable he was with all the attention. When I was younger I assumed this was just him being humble -- that secretly, he really enjoyed the fame and wealth. But later, on reflection, it's very clear to me that he meant what he said -- and pretty much everything he did in his life as a musician and organizer reinforced his words.

Pete certainly believed in the power of music, and surely wished music, including his music, would be used in many different circumstances -- for the love of music, and for movement-building and community-building of all kinds. But throughout his life, though the spotlight repeatedly kept turning to him, among others, he was working for the movement.

By no means am I suggesting that Pete was anything less than a great musician, musical interpreter, and songwriter -- he was all three. But his desire to just be an effective, musical part of a social movement, and not to be a shining star floating somewhere above the movement, was real.

When Pete Seeger was conceived, millions of people were slaughtering each other in Europe in the First World War. When Pete was a baby, the radical labor movement in the form of the IWW was being brutally destroyed in a concerted national campaign of arson, lynchings, arrests and deportations of union activists, carried out by the federal government. By the time Pete was a preteen, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the heir to the IWW, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was organizing the working class, this time with much greater success than the IWW had had, partially because the federal authorities under FDR were sympathetic to unions. The CIO was led in no small part by Communist Party members. At that time, when people talked about the labor movement, the term was as inclusive as the term "the movement" later became in the Sixties. It was certainly meant to include the farmers and the unemployed, and many others.

By the time he was 17, with the Great Depression still raging, Pete was playing his banjo for the movement, back in the Thirties. Pete and I had a mutual friend named Bob Steck. Bob used to tell me about the movement in the 1930's that he was an active part of, being a few years older than Pete (and also long dead). The Communist Party of the day focused a lot of energy on culture, what Bob called "the culture department." He talked about how while organizing workers into unions was a major emphasis for Party organizers and sympathizers, of similar emphasis was the importance of communication -- and using music and theater and other forms of culture to do that.

The CIO and the Communist Party were building on ideas and tactics that were well-worn, used with fairly spectacular success by the IWW, with its most well-known cultural import from Sweden, Joe Hill. When Pete Seeger was taking the subway around New York City singing for multiple labor and Communist Party events per day back when he was a teenager, Joe Hill had only been executed a little more than twenty years earlier. A typical day in the city Pete lived in at that time involved hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, protesting against capitalism, often being savagely beaten by police. When Pete was a teenager, many of his friends -- including the aforementioned Bob Steck -- went off to Spain, volunteering to fight alongside the anarchists there against fascism. Many of Pete's friends never returned home. Many more would die in the far bigger, global war that occupied much of Pete's twenties.

In the sea that Pete swam in, he was already feeling very lucky to be alive by the time he was a young adult. A child of privilege, but not living in what you might call a privileged time or a privileged position in it, partially by choice, but in any case, long before many other people would be thinking of mortality, Pete's friends were dying, fighting for a cause they, and he, passionately believed in. Call it what you will, Pete disliked labels for his politics as much as he disliked labels for his music. But something involving egalitarianism, liberty, dignity, where everybody has a place to live, enough food, health care, clean water, etc. -- that sort of thing.

He would see the lives of many of his friends and colleagues ruined by McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt, but Pete was, it seems to me, emotionally well-disposed to weather that storm, since he hadn't been looking for the stardom he had just then been experiencing with his first big hits in the early 1950's. He was blacklisted from TV and from lots of other venues, but he could still get gigs on the college campuses. Back during the blacklist, my mom was a student at Oberlin College, which is where she first heard a Pete Seeger concert.

As the Civil Rights movement got off the ground, Pete was there, naturally, going where the movement was. Same for the movement against the war in Vietnam, the movement against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the environmental movement more broadly, the movement against intervention in Latin America, against invading Iraq, and, not long before he died, even Occupy Wall Street.

But it was natural for Pete to do these things, not because he was such a special guy with a heart of gold or whatever else -- though he surely was -- but because that's what you do when you're in the movement and you're a musician. Pete was just a person. He was born into one of the greatest periods of social upheaval in the history of civilization -- the 1930's in New York City. He stood on the shoulders of the IWW, along with everyone else in the movement at the time, and he swam in the waters of the CPUSA, the CIO, and the social movement more broadly that these organizations were also just part of. Pete learned during that incredibly exciting, incredibly deadly period of history what the struggle was all about, what it meant to be a movement musician, and the role that music played in building and maintaining social movements.

What Pete learned from people like Bob back in the 1930's was wisdom from a social movement that he spent the rest of his life sharing in so many ways. So did millions of other people who had the great privilege, or the curse, to be young American communists in New York City during the Great Depression and the world-historic social movement that it helped to bring into existence. Millions of lives were profoundly impacted by that thriving social movement, about which so much has been said, about which so much more needs to be said.

Bob Steck got home from Spain, after serving 16 months in one of Franco's concentration camps. He became Director of Activities for Camp Unity, where he spent a lot of time hanging out with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Clifford Odets, Paul Robeson and other musicians and playwrights, who spent summers there along with lots of leftwing families from the New York region, performing, doing workshops, writing songs, skits and plays. In addition to his work at Camp Unity, Bob taught history in the New York public schools for thirty years.

I mention Bob only because I think that people like him, who were the people on the streets of New York who were largely responsible for imbuing Pete with his awareness of the world and his place in it, were serving the movement with the same sort of humble spirit that Pete gave to the movement. For Bob this meant running a summer camp and teaching history to poor kids in New York for most of his working life. For Pete it meant making a lot of music and doing a lot of organizing over the course of his life -- which only coincidentally put him in the spotlight a hell of a lot more than any high school history teacher is ever likely to be in.

Both Bob and Pete were raised by progressives, so they likely would have been progressive anyway, had history unfolded differently than it did. But they were fundamentally shaped by the 1930's and the social movements of the period. If you knew many other leftwingers from Pete's generation, the signs of a movement organizer are obvious.

What I think confuses people to some extent is that, for one thing, we live in a society where the cult of the individual is a dominant force. But also, the movements and organizations that existed when he was young have changed over time, and in most cases don't exist anymore. The character of movements change, too, in different times and places -- there are a lot of notable differences between, say, the labor movement of the 1930's and the environmental movement of the 1970's, as well as a lot of similarities that could be easily overlooked.

Some movement organizers in the 1930's were on the payroll of organizations that later ceased to exist, or from which they were purged, or from which they developed political differences. For some, that's when the organizing ended. But for many others, their movement orientation wasn't tied up with the Communist Party, the IWW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other organization, celebrity or political figure. They were movement organizers, movement musicians, and if the movement didn't find them, they kept doing their thing as best they could until the next wave came along, trying in various ways to poke the water and make it happen. That was Pete's orientation, quite clearly.

Most of what I've written so far are conclusions I could have reached from reading Pete's Wikipedia entry. But my own personal experiences bear out these sorts of impressions very clearly, of Pete as popular educator, organizer and promoter of things bigger than himself. The best way I can think of to summarize my personal experience of Pete Seeger, which also confirms all of my suspicions about the man, is that I essentially met him for the first time on at least three different occasions. Each time we met, it had been long enough since the last time that he clearly wasn't making the association, or had forgotten about the last time. Each time was an entirely different context, and each time his response was consistent -- to use his knowledge and position to promote the movement, to promote good communication, and to promote other artists.

Pete was only in his seventies when we first met. He looked old -- white people who spend a lot of time outdoors are especially prone to wrinkling -- but he was still very energetic. I sent the lyrics to a song I had just written, back in 1995, about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. His response was to call me at my mother's house and invite me to perform at the Clearwater Festival. Years later I sent him another lyric, and his response was to send me back sheet music for it which he had just written, for me to use if I wanted to. But then, during the course of what many of us were calling the Global Justice movement, when I was getting a lot of interesting gigs in the late Nineties, I had a show with Pete Seeger at the Grassroots Radio Conference. When we met again there in Jefferson, New York, it was evident that Pete had heard of me before, but didn't realize we had already met several times. (Not that I asked, but it was clear that he thought we were meeting for the first time.) Once again, years later, a check arrived in the mail for $100 and a note indicating he had just discovered my music, and requesting that I send him all the CDs I had ever recorded.

Without, I hope, appearing to brag, the point is that Pete had his finger on the pulse of social movement activity. The reason why we saw each other and had other forms of contact on so many occasions in the late Nineties and early Naughties was specifically because those were the years when I was very much plugged in to two different overlapping social movements active around that time, which we could roughly characterize as the Global Justice movement and the Antiwar movement. He was hearing about me because he was plugged into those movements, too, just as he had been with previous movements. There are many other artists who can share similar stories about Pete.

I believe the last time I saw him in person was on February 15th, 2003. I guess he would have been 83. He was with his wife, Toshi, who I had briefly met before at the Beacon Sloop Club and maybe elsewhere. We were behind the stage at the antiwar rally which the antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, had organized. We were waiting to do our bits, each of us were to do one song. It was way, way below freezing, with a harsh wind whipping between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. My friend Brad Simpson was rushing around -- he was one of the organizers, at the time working for the War Resistors League. His former employer, Amy Goodman, was there, along with former South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid organizer Desmond Tutu and a bunch of other folks, including my singing partner at the time, Allie Rosenblatt.

Loads of mainstream media were there, too, but without exception, they were all glued to every word and every facial movement of Danny Glover, who was there, too, looking magnificent and impervious to the cold, unlike the rest of us shivering mortals. (In retrospect, those camera lights may have been very warm, and he may not be superhuman after all, but who knows.) Pete and Toshi were sensibly dressed in warm winter jackets, but I was concerned about the very red bits of exposed skin on his face, as he sat on an uncomfortable little chair in this very cold, dimly-lit tent.

I don't remember what we talked about. I'm sure I was trying to be cool, and not slobber. I was just glad that Pete wasn't currently in the limelight enough to warrant the cameras of the TV stations when Danny Glover was standing five feet away, and we could just chill, if you will, and be anonymous together. Bruce Springsteen's album, the Seeger Sessions, would come out three years later. Pete was reportedly annoyed by Mr Springsteen's choice for the title.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

For All the Bicycles in Denmark



Of ghost bikes and bike lanes.

I grew up on a bicycle. At least once I learned to ride. Somehow or other I didn't manage to do that until the age of ten. But starting then, the bicycle became the ticket to freedom and independence, as well as another way to appreciate the natural world and get a lot of exercise.

For many people who grew up in suburbs similar to the one I grew up in, what I'm describing will be familiar. Looking at it from this distant vantage point, and back at the time, the reason is and was obvious. It was all about infrastructure. Walking from my suburban home to the town center took an hour or more. I only did that when there was too much snow on the roads for anything with wheels to function. Biking it took a fraction of that time. The nearest video arcade was several miles beyond the town center. Walking there and back would have been a day-long event, but by bike it was just a good little workout.

All of this will be familiar to many. And then what happened next will be, too. At the age of sixteen I got a driver's license and inherited an ancient Volvo from my parents, which they were passing on to me both out of love and kindness but also because the car was deemed to be no longer reliable enough to use for their interminably long commute from Connecticut to Long Island, which they both had to do multiple times a week. From the time I got that driver's license and car, I rarely rode a bike.

There are so many forces in the society I grew up in, suburban America, that pushed me and most other teenagers and adults in that direction. With a car it becomes easier to go still further than you could easily do with a bike, and so you do, for lots of very good reasons having to do with important things like getting an education and making money. And there's the question of your dating prospects and all those other social pressures.

But fundamentally, it comes down to infrastructure. Young teenagers in the suburbs of America often become serious bicycling enthusiasts because the distances they'd need to go by walking are impossible, there's no mass transit to speak of, and nobody wants to ask their parents for rides all the time if they can help it, for a whole variety of different reasons. Once they're driving cars, however, the whole equation changes. Now they can really participate in the society, as it has been designed to function -- by car.

And it's not just the distances people often need to go that is the main problem here with infrastructure. It's not just "how it is" in a sparsely-populated place like so much of the US is. The spreading out of the population, in the way it spread out, were choices made by people and urban planners, governments and corporations.

Still we are fed on a steady diet of the mantra that we are personally responsible for the climate crisis and we have to do things like eat less meat and ride bicycles more. We are told this in so many ways, from early childhood. But despite all the propaganda, in the most bicycling cities in the US, the percentage of people commuting to work by bike on a regular basis is in the low single digits. Contrast that with cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where it's the majority who is getting around by bicycle or mass transit.

Is it something peculiar to the Danish or Dutch psyche that makes their entire societies as bicycle-obsessed as your average suburban American teenager? Or is there something else at work here? Obviously, it's once again about infrastructure, laws, what's easy, what's possible. Denmark and the Netherlands being flat countries of course is hugely influential in this, let's not minimize that. But there are many other flat parts of the world that do not have a dominant bicycle culture going on, such as most of the American midwest. In Denmark, on the other hand, it's prohibitively expensive to own a car or fill its tank with gas, while bike lanes are everywhere, and they're all full of people of all ages riding in them.

You're also not risking your life by taking a bike ride. Here in Portland I see new ghost bikes cropping up everywhere -- white-painted bicycles that friends of those killed while riding a bicycle often put up in their memory, and to serve as a statement. The statement can be many things to many people -- it can focus on the individual responsibility of the drivers not to text and drive, not to drink and drive, etc., and/or it can put the spotlight on the need for better, safer infrastructure, like real bike lanes, tunnels, and bridges.

Meanwhile there are cities in Scandinavia that have achieved zero annual traffic fatalities of any kind. They have done this not by relying on humans not to make human errors, but by creating infrastructure that makes a fatal accident very difficult to have. In Copenhagen, for a driver to hit a bicyclist, they generally first have to drive through a line of parked cars that separate the car lane from the bicycle lane. It is not a matter of crossing an imaginary line represented by some faded paint job they're calling a bike lane, such as at least 99% of the so-called bike lanes in the United States, in my conservative estimate.

The UK, incidentally, is just as bad for bicycling as the US, with no real attention having been paid to this form of transit in the development of the infrastructure of the country. So the idea of Extinction Rebellion activists being slandered by the mayor of London and most of the British media for tying up not only car traffic but mass transit as well, on the basis that if they really cared about the environment they wouldn't cause problems for commuters on the Underground, is a lot like someone saying because 2+2=4 and using the Underground saves petrol, using the Underground is the solution to the climate crisis. It's very elementary school logic that falls apart immediately upon inspection, but it is totally mainstream logic, from Saddiq Khan to the BBC, and it is pernicious.

London and other British cities are ecological disasters with industrial-era infrastructure that is crying out for radical transformation of the sort that only massive government re-prioritization of values and massive infrastructure investments can hope to deal with -- as is very much the case in the cities of the US and many other countries. Only after spending so much time in Denmark did I come to realize to what a tremendous extent it is all about infrastructure, and the priorities of a democratically-run society. Danish democracy has been controlled by active bicycle-riders for a long time, with bicycle infrastructure spending being a significant part of the national budget every year since around the time I was born, and what has been achieved is obvious.

Telling people to ride their bikes more often in places like London, Glasgow, New York City or Chicago is like inviting people to die early deaths from either getting hit by a car or breathing the air made so foul by the dominance of the private car for the functioning of these societies as they are. Telling people to ride their bikes more often in Denmark, well, it's not necessary. It would seem like a very strange thing to do. How else are you going to get around?

To the stooges of the real estate speculators pretending to be viable political leaders who like to preach about mass transit and social inclusion while they reign over societies where rampant speculation on the real estate market means people are forced to live in further and further suburbs with less and less infrastructure and more and more dependency on the private automobile for their increasingly difficult prospects for survival, we must say no, this stops now, the solution is not your band-aids – it is a total transformation of the physical infrastructure of the society, and serious, effective government regulation of the housing market.

With all respect to those many good friends of mine who are actively striving to make Denmark an even better, more ecological and more inclusive society, it is already an entirely different reality from what we know in places like the UK or the US -- including in the supposedly progressive hot spots like Brighton or Seattle or wherever. In fundamental ways, it bears no resemblance.

In Denmark, the question is almost never "shall we ride or drive?" It's almost always the former. Yes, there are fewer bus routes than there used to be, and this is not the right direction to be going in, but the point is, it's still nothing like anywhere you've probably been, unless you've spent time in the Netherlands. These are the societies you get when you create the infrastructure for it. If you don't create that infrastructure, you don't get that society. We can do it, too -- but first we have to stop deluding ourselves that the way forward involves anything other than society-wide collective action, of the sort that brought Denmark its bike lanes.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

If I Had A Hacker



After Julian Assange's arrest and the resulting explosion of the internet last weekend, I attempt to pick up some of the pieces.

This past week has been one of those weeks when the internet seemed to explode, as it does every so often. Analyzing the patterns in which the rubble hit the ground after the blast, there is an overwhelming sense of mass confusion. Questions and condemnations are everywhere. Who does he really work for? What are his real interests? Who wants to extradite him, and why?

In one moldy crevice of the internet we have people convinced that he couldn't possibly be a rapist, he was set up, the women are crisis actors. In another fetid corner are those loudly proclaiming that because he may be guilty of these accusations, who cares if he's extradited to the US for entirely other reasons?

And then, in still another myopic little hole, the loyal Democrats, convinced that anyone who calls out Hillary Clinton as an imperialist stooge of Goldman Sachs must therefore be working for both Putin and Trump. And, therefore, so what if Julian Assange is thrown to the wolves in Alexandria, Virginia, along with Chelsea Manning?

I get the powerful sense that people don't know what to believe. When faced with a situation where there are many different interests involved, putting forward different perspectives for their own particular reasons, there is a tendency for people to retreat into irrational little corners and shout obscenities at anyone who tries to talk to them.

It is, however, through the opposite of this kind of retreat and shout mentality where we can begin to understand the world around us. It's imperative that you first turn off your TV. With talk radio or talk TV like Fox or MSNBC, all you get is repetition of positions, rather than analysis of real information. But repetitive propaganda of a liberal, conservative, fascist, socialist, or other nature is not what we need. To understand the world, you need more information, not less -- a broader array of angles from which to view the same situation, not more ways to beat a dead horse.

Cutting to the chase, Julian Assange is wanted by the forces of empire in Washington, DC, both Democratic and Republican, because he helped expose US war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is no longer a suspicion, but we can now say since his arrest in London it is a fact. Whatever he thinks of the relative pros and cons of the two ruling parties in the US, however he has treated people on an interpersonal basis, whether or not his organization has accepted donations from the right or wrong people now or historically -- while all of these questions are certainly relevant broadly, they are not relevant to the basic reason why the US has been trying to resuscitate the moribund Espionage Act of 1920 to go after whistle-blowers and journalists -- or, in the case of Julian Assange, whistle-blower/journalists.

Chelsea Manning got 35 years. Her future at this point is very uncertain. There is no reason to suspect that the Justice Department will be seeking any less of a punishment in their case against Assange, which is being pursued for the exact same so-called crimes -- the crime of exposing war crimes. This is why Julian Assange should be defended.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

How Do You Strangle A Corporation?



In this week's missive we explore the question: how do you strangle a corporation, when it doesn't have a neck?

Some of my more regular listeners may be tired of hearing about the fact that the rent on my apartment in Portland, Oregon has more than doubled since I moved to the city twelve years ago. But as President Trump fires half his staff because they're basically not fascist enough, I must return to the doubling of my rent, because it is the living room elephant. One pollster I heard yammering on the radio one day said that the single factor that most effectively represented in a nutshell Trump's base of support were people whose standards of living had decreased over the previous ten years. One of the main reasons for the marked decrease in quality of life for so many people in the US and many other countries, especially since around the turn of the millennia, has been the skyrocketing cost of housing.

How easy is it to say "we're full" and then blame the most recent refugees and immigrants on the lack of affordable housing? Is it any surprise that this would happen? Did the wrecking ball deregulators of the housing market intentionally encourage a rightward, xenophobic shift in politics in order to distract attention from their ever more cannabalistic tendencies, as increasingly the billionaires and hedge fund managers don't invest in the volatile stock market, but in the housing market. That is, they invest in the human need to keep a roof over our heads. They bank on the notion that as long as most people somehow manage to be resourceful enough to keep paying the ever increasing rents, they can keep on getting a return on their investment, until -- until when? When every year the rents rise several times as much as wages, when is the breaking point?

For many years now I have been wondering, trying to answer the perennial question, how do you strangle a corporation? Unable to answer the question myself, I took to asking audiences at my concerts. I think it was in Olympia that someone answered, "one at a time." It's not good enough, though. And all the songs I wrote about strangling my landlord helped my mental state temporarily, but as the rent continued to increase, these moments of creative catharsis became ever more fleeting. What we need are solutions -- both songs and arson may have their place, but then so do band-aids.

Meanwhile, the solutions exist, and they're easy -- they just require that the state not be controlled by real estate developers. Because when people other than real estate developers or other money-grubbing pond scum are in power, then there's the prospect of actual democracy taking place. This can potentially involve legislatures imposing things like rent control. In the US, this is entirely within the purview of state legislatures to do -- but the vast majority of them have instead banned the practice over the past several decades, making sure that municipalities cannot pass their own local rent control ordinances.

In the US, the movement against gentrification is frankly pathetic. Nowhere are there ever sustained or large protests, housing occupations, or rent strikes. All of these things have happened in the past in the US, but that was a long time ago. I am a proud member of a tenants union in Portland, but it is an anemic organization, bereft of popular participation, funds, or most anything else aside from a handful of dedicated, enthusiastic, and often stressed out organizers. I'd suggest that the reason for the fact that when we have protests in Portland or Salem we're lucky if attendance is in the triple digits is twofold -- it doesn't help at all that most of the media is about a hundred times more interested in covering Trump and anti-Trump than in covering basically anything else. Especially if it's an issue like housing, which directly affects the billionaires and investors who own most of the media. Much safer to cover Trump and anti-Trump, along with supplementary team sporting events, always skimming the surface of any exploration of the actual policies lying beneath the rants. Whether the refugee children are put in cages or not does not affect the bottom line of the real estate developers, speculators and investors that quietly dominate so many of our lives.

The other main reason for our sad little protests is we profoundly lack optimism in the possibility that we might actually reverse course, rather than just slow down the inevitable.

Buried in the headlines, very intentionally, I'm sure, among many other intentionally buried or otherwise horrifically mis-reported stories, is the growing movement against the trend of ever-increasing rents and ever-increasing corporate profits in Berlin. In Berlin, protests against gentrification such as the one last weekend involve tens of thousands of people in the street. This would be a decent crowd for a national or even international protest there, but this is mainly just Berliners.

Like Portland, Berlin was recently a city full of artists and cafes and vibrant communities of all sorts, where rent was cheap and life was full of possibility. That all changed in Portland, and it's been changing in Berlin, too. But unlike in Portland, where rent used to be cheap because the economy wasn't good enough to support many people who could afford to pay high rents, the city of Berlin -- both east and west -- remained affordable for so long because the lion's share of the housing was public -- owned by the government.

Hundreds of thousands of units were sold to private corporations in recent decades in Berlin, and the result has been gentrification and rapidly rising rents, largely imposed by corporate conglomerates that have absolutely no interest in sustainable community or human rights, but only in the bottom line for their wealthy investors from places like New York, London and Oslo.

This is exactly what's been happening in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. But unlike our straggly group, often outnumbered by the politicians within the building we're protesting outside of, to say nothing of their staff, Berlin is rising up.

There are many explanations for this difference, but chief among them is the fact that Berlin has a recent history of great, widespread, and inexpensive public housing. People in Berlin, and more broadly in Germany as well as in many other countries, generally grew up with the notion that the government -- again, both in the east and in the west -- has a responsibility to adequately house the citizens of the country. It has long been understood there to be part of the social contract -- why we have a government.

Someday, maybe we'll re-learn this lesson in the United States. In the meantime, may the people of Berlin please show the world how to properly strangle a landlord when the landlord is a faceless corporation -- socialize their property for the common good.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Before the Flood



I am, it might reasonably be said, a climate refugee – though a very comfortable one. Escaping the forest fires to run a little cafe in Denmark is hardly a sacrifice. But if the cafe might be a good retirement plan for me, it won't be for my children – far too soon, the whole country in which Cafe Hellebaek is located will likely be underwater.

There is something so powerful about gazing into the distance over a large body of water.  Especially when you know that water is connected to all the other water in the world's oceans.  It's a most thought-provoking experience.

This little village on Oresund, the inlet separating Denmark from Sweden, is a place I keep coming back to.  The reason is because my friends here, people I've now known for many years, live here, in a bit of an unconventional situation.  Where they live, and where I stay most of the time when I'm in Denmark, used to be a castle.  The castle burned down and was replaced by a police training academy.  When that later closed, it was purchased by my friends, who ran a school there for many years.  Now there's no more school, and the buildings are used for many other purposes, mostly involving the act of caring for others in one form or another -- whether it's looking after troubled youth, leasing space for the local municipality to house refugees, or training volunteers to do development work in Angola and other countries around the world.

One of the aspects of touring in places where I don't live, but visit often, is I see reality in snapshot form.  I meet the baby who is a toddler only a couple visits later.  I see a woman who used to come to my gigs anytime I'd play in Copenhagen when she was a teenager.  Now she's in her thirties and is a member of the Danish parliament.  A lot happens in between visits.

One thing that happens is the middle-aged people get old, and the old people die.  It's very systematic, I've noticed over the years, and there are no exceptions to this rule.  The middle-aged people who stay healthy often become very active old people, as active as ever, until they're not, anymore, and they slow down, and eventually die.  Such was the case with my friend Lars-Peter.  I met Lars-Peter and Mette when they came to a concert I was part of, a tribute to Pete Seeger in Copenhagen.  Lars-Peter was a founding member of the particular strain of the folk school movement that became known as Tvind in the 1960's.  Mette came in later, as a teenage windmill-builder in the 1970's.

I've mentioned the story of the windmill in a previous weekly missive, as well as in a song I wrote about it.  It's an incredible story.  When Mette was a teenager and Lars-Peter was a young man, they and hundreds of others, with the support in one form or another of thousands more, built the biggest windmill that had ever been built, and then proceeded to give away the patents for it so others could do the same.  It's a story not only of scientific breakthroughs and engineering brilliance, but of collective action of the most profound and impactful sort.  The windmill they built, Tvindkraft, is still running and providing electricity in the town of Ulfborg, in western Denmark.  Far more significantly, though, this windmill became the model for industrial-scale windmills, and essentially gave birth to one of the biggest industries in Denmark -- windmill-building.

Lars-Peter was one of the best storytellers I ever met.  I wish I had recorded any of his stories.  He died of leukemia, and in his last couple years had very little energy.  But when he could get out of bed, he could still be in great storytelling form until close to the end.  In his role as headmaster of a school that educated kids by taking them in buses from Denmark to India and back on a regular basis, Lars-Peter saw the world in ways that very, very few people get to do.  And when he did most of his traveling, it was in countries that were experiencing massive popular movements and, in several cases, revolutions.  Pick a country in Africa or the Middle East, Lars-Peter had lived there and seen or participated in world-historic events in it.  (It's me saying this, not him -- he was far too humble a person to make such claims himself.)

Of course there are others of Lars-Peter's generation still going strong, but the writing is on the wall.  As I sit here in this little cafe beside the water that I'll be helping to run this weekend and for most of this summer, which is part of the property the old school is on, I often think of Lars-Peter's stories of the 1960's around the world, and also of Mette's wonderful tales of her experiences a bit later in the evolution of the Tvind folk school movement, when in the 1970's she and others decided to build the windmill that changed the world.  (There's a crash course in mechanical engineering, if ever there was one.)

And then, unavoidably, my thoughts drift back to the present -- and to the future.   A couple Fridays ago I was hearing a news story about Greta Thunberg, about how she and other students have been skipping school every Friday to protest against their government and other governments failing to address the climate crisis with the level of commitment that would be required to actually really do something about it.

I texted my 13-year-old daughter, Leila, asking her what she was up to.  I don't normally text Leila on a Friday morning, since she usually has her phone off while she's in school, but I had a hunch.  What are you up to, I asked.  She wrote me back right away with a picture of herself and some of her friends as they were marching across the Burnside Bridge, walking the two miles or so from their middle school to the other side of the river, downtown, where City Hall is located.

Hundreds of kids skipped school that day in Portland, and in many countries in Europe the numbers were much higher.  On this visit to Denmark -- my first since last autumn -- I have discovered that the Extinction Rebellion meme has taken root among many young people here.  I gave a couple young folks a ride from Odense to Copenhagen recently.  One of them has spent a lot of time in the struggle against the giant coal mine devouring the Hambach Forest in Germany.  The other one was often making statements along the lines of, it seems so hard to feel engaged with this topic -- whatever the topic may be, as long as it doesn't relate to the climate crisis -- when in our lifetimes this whole country will be underwater.

Every time he said something like that it was obvious he really meant it -- this was not an intellectual exercise for him at all.  I tend to get really animated whenever I'm talking about anything that I'm remotely interested in, whether it's related to war and peace, rent control, worker's cooperatives, collective action, music, food, sex or whatever.  But in the face of the coming flood, it's easy to see how such passion about things other than the climate crisis can seem a bit misplaced.  It can seem, even, like a form of denial.

I dropped my riders off in Copenhagen, where I was meeting up with a couple of friends -- Elona, who was moving from one apartment to another, and Ask, who was helping her move, along with me and my unexpectedly gigantic rental car.  Ask builds boats of the most wild description, the kinds of structures that you've never seen before and will always remember, if you see one in the water.  He's an expert welder and designer, but what motivates him the most is the desire to do something about the climate crisis, using his boat projects as educational tools in various ways.

He was telling  me about his latest efforts, and I was telling him about my plans to run this cafe.  You're a climate refugee, he informed me.  I hadn't thought of it quite like that before.  I pay rent in an apartment in Portland, Oregon, I support my family, I have work, no one is threatening my life as far as I know, the city I live in has a low crime rate, and Trump has not yet started rounding up the Left and sending us to camps.  But, as I told Ask, one of the reasons I'm so keen to run this cafe is not only because I love Denmark, which I do, but because in recent years Portland has been home to the world's worst air, on some days beating Beijing and New Delhi in that grim competition.  The main cause is the forest fires, which are getting bigger every summer, occasionally destroying whole cities, burning hotter than ever, with faster winds than ever -- all climate crisis stuff, though there are many other factors involved.

I mentioned Ask's climate refugee comment to my friend, Kamala.  I'm not sure the term refugee is appropriate, I said.  Temporarily displaced person, perhaps? she suggested.  Thinking more about it I realized the term "climate refugee" is perfectly appropriate.  As anyone knows who has followed the refugee crises in the Middle East or Latin America today, the first people to get out of a bad situation are those with the most ability to do so -- the ones with friends and relatives in other countries, who are usually also the ones with good jobs, dual citizenship, and very useful things like that.  We don't think of these people as refugees as readily as we think of those who had no options but to board leaky boats in the Mediterranean or walk across the Sonoran Desert.  But they're all refugees, regardless of whether they were able to escape by means of a commercial flight, a valid passport, and a nice apartment in Denmark, or by raft or on foot, with only the shirts on their backs.

Either way, being a climate refugee in Denmark is profoundly ironic.  Why?  Because according to more and more widely accepted projections of what is likely to happen over the course of the next several decades, after all of the ice melts, there will be no more Denmark.  The entire country will be submerged, along with the Netherlands, northern Germany, most of the eastern seaboard of the US, and so many other parts of the world.  If I do end up moving with my family to Denmark to escape the world's most toxic air, we can be fairly certain that we will become refugees again, running next time not from fire, but from flood.

Welcome to Cafe Hellebaek.  Come let me make you a drink, before the flood that will likely destroy it sooner or later.  The generation that built the world's biggest windmill might not be around to see the country sink, but Ask's generation likely will.  My hope is that those who will be living through this century's impending global cataclysms might have some brilliant new ideas for how we might navigate the waters that are rising around us, after the windmill-builders are all gone.

My hope is that people like Ask, my children and others likely to still be around at the other end of this century will still be able to sit in a cafe, sipping a hot drink and looking out at the water -- wherever that cafe or that water may be, however much the flood line rises.

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