Some thoughts on life, death, and music, after a movement fades.
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Sunday, December 26, 2021
This may sound either arrogant or forgetful, but I could not possibly remember the number of times I was in the same room or at the same protest as Desmond Tutu. And the main reason I know he was there is because I was there listening to him speak, often from a distance of not more than two meters or so. I say this not to associate myself with the great man -- though I'll forgive you for thinking I'm a terrible, narcissistic name-dropper -- but just to be sure we all know this all really happened, because I saw and heard it.
It seems very important to mention, because of the way this man is already being remembered by the world's pundits and politicians. As anyone could have predicted, Tutu is being remembered as the great opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa, who was one of the most recognized and most eloquent leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle there, for most of his adult life.
Being a leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa was probably the greatest achievement of the man's life work, and it should come as a surprise to no one that this is the focus of his many obituaries, along with the Nobel he was awarded in 1984. After Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, he was remembered by the establishment in much the same way, as a leader of the movement against apartheid in the US. The fact that he had become one of the most well-known and well-loved voices of the antiwar movement in the United States and around the world at the time of his death has largely been written out of the history books, a very inconvenient truth.
But as with Martin Luther King, many of the same political leaders commemorating Tutu today would have been unlikely to mention him a day earlier, lest Tutu take the opportunity to speak his mind. This is certainly why he was not invited to commemorate his friend and comrade, Nelson Mandela, at Mandela's funeral eight years ago.
Like King and so many others, we can be sure that all the praises of Desmond Tutu as the great moral compass of the world will be made safely, after he's dead. Before then would have been much too dangerous, and he was best ignored until then -- at which point his passing can be used as an easy way for liberals and conservatives alike to talk about how they also opposed South African apartheid, eventually.
Looking back at Desmond Tutu's life, searching for various references to protests I recall him speaking at, there's a headline from the Washington Post on February 16th, 2003 -- "thousands protest a war in Iraq," in New York City the day before. There were at least half a million people at the rally, on one of the coldest winter days anyone could remember. What I recall most vividly is being behind the stage, which was even colder than most anywhere else at the protest, because it was also in the shade. Huddling amid the frozen metal scaffolding were a variety of leftwing luminaries, including Desmond Tutu, Danny Glover, and Susan Serandon, who were getting all the attention from the representatives of the media that did bother showing up, allowing me to hang out with Pete and Toshi Seeger, since no one else wanted to talk to them, or me.
The following year there was a rally in Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts against Israeli apartheid. It was very windy, and there were hundreds of people filling the area in front of the big church there on Boylston Street. I don't remember who else spoke, but Tutu was the main speaker, and he spoke at length, after I sang "They're Building A Wall" and other songs related to the anti-apartheid struggle in Palestine, as it was an event in solidarity with Palestinians. Being such a well-known leader in the struggle against South African apartheid, when he would compare Israeli apartheid to the South African version, this was just the kind of support the movement to boycott Israel needed, and Tutu did his best to provide it, over and over again.
There were three overlapping social movements in the early 2000's that I was involved with as a musician, all of which Tutu was deeply involved with. I apologize for speaking of these movements in the past tense, but none of them are anywhere near as big or active as they were in the early 2000's. I'm talking about the global justice movement and the movement to cancel debt in the Global South, the movement against Israeli apartheid, and the movement against the US/UK invasion of Iraq.
At the time I wondered how it was that Desmond Tutu was showing up at so many of the same protests, conferences, and other events I was attending, promoting, or singing at. There was a lot going on, and at the time I didn't know Tutu was actually living in the United States much of the time in the early 2000's, as a visiting professor in both Georgia and Massachusetts. There were a lot of other South African radicals at so many of the rallies, especially around the global justice movement, such as representatives of the South African trade unions. The South African poet, the late Dennis Brutus, was everywhere back then as well.
Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. The journalists, when given the job to cover Desmond Tutu, generally did so when it had something to do with South African apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired, etc. The journalists aren't present elsewhere. Their bosses didn't send them to cover the protests Tutu was speaking at in Boston or New York, for the most part.
Lots of other drafts of history are then rewritten, for the text books, and for the obituaries, when once again Desmond Tutu's centrality to the struggle against South African apartheid will be highlighted, with most everything else papered over or ignored entirely. Others will recall Tutu's service to the global social movements that arose in the decades after apartheid, to which he gave the full weight of his moral standing -- whether these movements were covered by the corporate press or not, whether most of us knew these movements existed or not.
Yes, for those of us who were involved with the social movements that were active when Tutu was a spry young man of 70 or so, we will remember him as a fierce critic of capitalism, of Israeli apartheid, and of US and British wars of aggression. And we know why he is being praised now by media outlets and politicians who have had no time or space for him since 1998 or so.
Desmond Tutu failed to remain in his historical place. Had he played his cards differently in the post-South African apartheid period, he could have been a very rich and even more venerated man, winning lots more awards and schmoozing with the world's power brokers. Instead, before his official retirement from public life at the age of 79, he spent his seventies campaigning around the world as part of social movements for equality, dignity, and peace, and being a thorn in the side of so many of the rich and powerful people praising him today.
Dead people can't speak out in their own defense, which makes them much less dangerous than when they were alive (especially if they died of natural causes). So it's up to those of us who are still here to speak, and to remember. Long live Desmond Tutu. Long live Desmond Tutu's vision of a world free of oppression -- a world in which so many of the politicians praising him today would be in front of a truth and reconciliation commission tomorrow, if Tutu were calling the shots. Amandla awethu. Our time will come.
Saturday, December 18, 2021
Some end-of-the-year reflections on the state of the gig economy.
While much of the world is busy with more immediate concerns like where their next meal is coming from or how to find shelter from that incoming mortar round, others are celebrating their impossibly good fortune, with Facebook's version of the metaverse coming online, at least in very basic form. Coincidentally timed just as the Omicron variant took hold of the world, with the theaters and cinemas shutting down again and all the theater-goers and every variety of gig worker going back home, or seeking other forms of entertainment -- or employment, depending.
Those writing the strange history of this pandemic might come to consider August, 2021 as the brief renaissance period, the early stages of the Delta variant, when it was possible to say something like, "I had a great tour of Denmark." But now even Denmark's viral coping mechanisms are no match for the new variant, and they're shutting down theaters and cinemas, too.
As prospects for concert tours in early 2022 are looking pretty bleak, you can bet I'm not the only musician thinking about how to get the best sound quality out of a Quest 2 headset. I'm behind the curve as usual, and have no such headset, but what's cooking here is fairly easy to smell. A month ago I was all ready to quit doing gigs on the internet altogether -- sick of it, like so many others. But that was a long time ago. Now there's Omicron. And along with it, the metaverse.
Only midway through 2020 did I eventually learn how to make live music sound good on a livestreamed internet broadcast. (The key, aside from fast bandwidth and a good mic, is disabling the compression.) Way behind the curve. And I still have no idea what to do with TikTok. But it is one of the necessities of being a modern gig economy worker of any kind to have to keep up with technology, or be left behind. A musician today without a Patreon account is as antiquated as a cafe that doesn't have a website, or can't process debit cards.
Future economists will surely look at early 2021 as a brief bit of respite in the saga of the ever-worsening state of affairs for the working class in the United States -- and for gig economy workers, and workers with children, in particular.
For gig economy workers with children, it was pretty impressive, if you jumped through all the right hoops. I'm one of many musicians who will readily admit we did better in 2021 than we had done since the music industry collapsed so many years ago.
For so many if us, 2021 began with what felt like the rise of some kind of a social democracy. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program meant that gig economy workers qualified for unemployment, which was new for the vast majority of us. (It's true that PUA technically went into effect in 2020, but because of the fact that our state unemployment systems are still mostly running on Fortran, it took until 2021 before the checks started coming in.)
And then, before PUA's expiration, the expanded Child Tax Credit kicked in, and for several months some of us were receiving money for being unemployed, plus money for having kids! It was like striking gold, or living in France or something. And even with all that income, we still had our free health care here in Oregon. Wild stuff. (I spent the extra money recording albums and hiring musicians and engineers, of course.)
But then, as suddenly as the Child Tax Credit and the monthly infusion of $300 per kid had begun last summer, it ended several days ago, they say. Maybe it will eventually get renewed, but if it does, it's unlikely to have enough support in Congress to last another year. At a cost of less than 5% of military spending, this tax credit brought millions of families out of poverty, but it was too expensive.
The year began with a taste of the middle class life, with the beginnings of a notion of what it might be like to live in a society where the government actually looked after the interests of the regular people, where having children didn't sentence so many people to years of impoverishment. And the year ended with all that nice stuff ending.
Back to the grind, but with Omicron shutting everything down to boot. And then came the latest rent increase. Did you get one, too? The notice taped to our door informed us that as of April 1st, our monthly rent would go up by $100, bringing it to over 250% what it was when we moved into this apartment in 2007.
And I mention this not only to dwell on my own family's sorry plight, but because our situation is completely consistent with the experiences of so many millions of others across this country, where the cost of housing has been mushrooming year after year, far beyond the rate of inflation, and far, far beyond the rate of anyone's income increasing, except for CEO's and hedge fund managers, like our landlord.
So for this particular gig worker, it seems quite like it's a question of getting another job, or figuring out how to make a Quest 2 headset work with a mandola. I'll meet you on the metastreets. Or next time you call an Uber.
Saturday, December 11, 2021
On the same day some journalists received the Nobel Peace Prize, another journalist is being held in a London prison, facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars in the US.
Meanwhile, many of the same media outlets that were informing us about the Nobel ceremony made no mention whatsoever of the fact that a journalist imprisoned in London, England had just become one step closer to being extradited to the US, where he faces a potential 175-year prison sentence. On the very same day as the Nobel ritual, the judges of the Royal Courts of Justice declared that they trusted the promises of the lawyers from the Biden administration who assured them that Julian Assange would not be tortured in prison.
If the rulers of the western world weren't still fighting the Cold War -- and Cold War 2.0, the War On Terror -- then Julian Assange would long ago have received the Nobel Peace Prize for which he was already previously nominated. And he wouldn't be in a British prison, facing extradition to the US, either.
This has been said many times by many people far more eloquent, and more famous, than me. But to find perspective like that these days, you'll have to look somewhere other than BBC and NPR. In fact, just to find any coverage at all of this extradition trial, or any of the many outrages surrounding it, such as the CIA plot to extrajudicially assassinate this Australian journalist on the streets of London that was being considered in 2017, you'll have to look to Al-Jazeera or RT.
When I was in London in October during the latest hearings around US efforts to extradite the founder of Wikileaks, to face trial under the Espionage Act as a hostile foreign intelligence service, the march Julian's supporters organized, which ended with a rally in front of the Royal Courts, began in front of the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
If you're a long-term, regular listener to the BBC, as I am, for better or for worse, then you'll know that Julian Assange and Wikileaks were once celebrated on BBC's airwaves, and by many other networks, as ground-breaking high-tech opponents of secrecy and censorship who were exposing scandals and war crimes and bringing down corrupt politicians everywhere. But that was a long time ago. For years now, on the rare occasion Julian Assange is mentioned on the BBC, the outrageous details of his persecution are hurriedly avoided or quickly papered over, so that they can have yet another guest from the US State Department on to tell us about what dangerous secrets he exposed, and then find a reason to once again mention the allegations from Sweden which have since been dropped, and never had any relevance to the US's case against him in the first place.
The case against him does have the interest of much of the world's press, outside of places like the US and the UK. And he has the support of a veritable who's who of politicians, journalists, and other people with principles, who aren't serving the interests of the neoliberal machine. And so, while the leadership of both major political parties in the US and the UK regularly condemn him as a high-tech terrorist, which is what Biden called him, Julian's supporters can be found among the ranks of the authentic opposition, no longer leading their party, in members of the British parliament such as Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgon. While the servants of empire running the BBC choose the stories and the guests interviewed for them, the real defenders of press freedom and journalistic integrity are to be found within the ranks of Julian's most vocal supporters, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, or former whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg.
It's one thing to be a consumer of mass media, and to see how coverage of Julian Assange and Wikileaks has changed so dramatically over the years. But I can also confirm, from at least one small vantage point, just what an impact these changes have had on the public.
When there was still at least performative levels of interest in some sectors of the liberal establishment in the idea of persecuting the Bush administration for war crimes, and Daniel Ellsberg was calling on the new Daniel Ellsberg to please come forward, along came Chelsea Manning, exposing many horrific war crimes committed and covered up by the US military. In progressive circles, there were only good things to be said about Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and exposing war crimes.
Exposing war crimes under Obama was much less fashionable, though, and publishing State Department cables that exposed the corruption of the Democrats, along with many other governments and ruling parties around the world, seemed to cause Assange's public support to plummet. The allegations of sexual impropriety that arose at the same time from Sweden were then permanently available to focus on by the media, a convenient vehicle for avoiding any of the real reasons so many American politicians were openly talking about killing this man, live on TV.
There were many years when if I mentioned Wikileaks or Julian Assange at a show, usually in the context of introducing a song about Chelsea Manning or the Collateral Murder video, there would be spontaneous cheers from various audience members. Only a few years later and a mention of Julian will frequently result in some guy (always a guy) denouncing him as a rapist, a stooge of Vladimir Putin, a supporter of Donald Trump, or all of the above. People feel so strongly about one or more of these charges that someone will frequently actually interrupt a song to denounce Assange from the audience, once they realize a song is about him. At the end of such a song, applause will be tepid.
The media's Cancel campaign, in effect, worked. So much of the public seems, by my informal observation, to be incapable of seeing the case against Assange for what it is, as an attack on fundamental principles of investigative journalism. If they believe the allegations from Sweden are something other than a smear campaign, then they're rendered unable to defend investigative journalism or whistle-blowing, if Assange is involved. As with other Cancel campaigns, anything having to do with the individual being canceled is toxic, and any association with the person being Canceled is an implicit endorsement of anything they ever did wrong, or were accused of having done wrong.
While the individual's personal behavior, in this case, and the charges against him can and should be separated from each other by anyone with a brain, let alone anyone concerned about the freedom of the press, all I've seen points to the deepest possible integrity.
The risks taken by Chelsea Manning were as obvious to her as they were to Daniel Ellsberg when he did the same sort of thing decades earlier. At the time that Julian called me on my phone almost a decade ago, he was thanking me for writing the song I wrote about Chelsea's heroic efforts, which was being used on a Wikileaks benefit album. At the time, Chelsea Manning was in prison, and Julian was not. I agreed with Julian about Chelsea's heroism, but spent most of our brief conversation praising him for all the fantastic work he has done to expose war crimes and corruption around the world. I'm sure I made him uncomfortable with my fanboy behavior, but I couldn't help myself.
At the time we spoke, I imagine Julian was already making plans to seek refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy, as legal machinations surrounding the US's case against him continued. In the years since his various forms of imprisonment began, the unmistakable impression I get from his circle of colleagues, supporters, and friends is the best and the brightest are still on his side, Canceled or not. Along with his more well-known supporters such as the former Labor Party candidate for prime minister, his fiancé, Stella Moris, is one of the most effective organizers I've ever met, and the two young children they managed to have together are brilliant and beautiful kids, in spite of the fact that they only can see their father by visiting him in prison.
As is par for the course, some of Assange's vocal supporters showing up day after day when things are happening at the Royal Courts include vaccine skeptics and lockdown opponents. It's not at all surprising that a man who is most well-known for exposing actual conspiracies to cover up actual war crimes would be well-loved by other people who want to expose conspiracies. Without judging them or the legitimacy of the conspiracies they believe are happening, it is absolutely inevitable that anyone facing the kinds of charges Assange is facing would have such supporters. If the western press bothered covering this trial or the man on trial these days, they would surely focus on the most bizarre tin hat wearer available.
But as the appeals continue and Julian Assange continues to be held in prison by the British government for the crime of journalism, as other journalists receive the Nobel Peace Prize for doing the same sort of work, Stella Moris and many other people regularly remind us of the case of another journalist, Jamal Kashoggi. He was reviled by the Saudi royal family for the same kind of investigative journalism for which Rappler is being awarded and Wikileaks is being condemned. And he was chopped into pieces in a gruesome assassination carried out at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
As revealed several months ago by a brilliant investigation by Yahoo News reporters, the CIA had similar plans for dispatching of Julian Assange, also on foreign soil, in England rather than Turkey. Would the Royal Courts of Justice have extradited Kashoggi, too?
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
While the pandemic has brought some people together to confront a common foe, it has also exposed many divisions, and created others.
My own perspective on many things -- especially on questions of how social and political change does and doesn't happen, how communication does and doesn't happen; on how divisions in society may be understood, and how common ground can be found -- has been an evolving one.
It seems very useful to go back twenty years, before addressing the present day. I could go back further, but in terms of my own lived experience with these sorts of things, there's only 2001.
By "these things," I mean events so earth-shatteringly impactful that they change everything, and cause huge numbers of people in society to question all their assumptions and start over again.
There are many events in many societies that fit this description. They may be events that are local, geographically, or local to a particular segment of society. For example, for Chileans, the coup in Chile in 1973 was such an event. Not so much the case outside of Chile.
The spate of assassinations of prominent political figures in the 1960's in the US (the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton and many others) brought on a whole lot of questioning throughout society. This was all mostly before I was born, but at the same time, my childhood took place in the shadow of these assassinations.
I was born in 1967, so I pretty much wasn't paying attention to much of what was going on in the world around me until the 1980's. But certainly from the 1980's until 2019, although a lot happened during those years to make one wonder about a lot of things, there was one event that was a "before and after" event for pretty much all of US society during that time, and it occurred on September 11th, 2001.
Certain aspects of what took place at that time seem particularly relevant in the context of the current pandemic.
I don't know if it seems strange for younger people today to consider, but prior to 9/11, a huge percentage of US society had no idea where either Afghanistan or Iraq were. This was despite the fact that the CIA had spent decades working with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to violently overthrow the government there, despite the fact that Bill Clinton had bombed Afghanistan only a few years earlier, despite the fact that the US had bombed Iraq into the Stone Age ten years earlier, despite the fact that UN sanctions against Iraq had killed half a million Iraqi children, according to a UNICEF report released not long before. The memories of Americans are short and selective, an amnesiac normality aided and abetted by a very corporate-controlled political system and media landscape.
I was involved with the movement to lift the sanctions on Iraq, and one of those people protesting the various aforementioned invasions and bombings in the 1990's, and I was a regular consumer of a wide variety of mainstream and alternative news sources throughout the decade. I was involved with the global justice movement, whose focus was on economic policies of the IMF and the World Bank, and economic inequalities generally. And the environmental movement, with its focus on saving the last of the giant trees and opposing fossil fuel projects of various kinds. Iraq, Afghanistan, and US militarism in general were barely on the radar of these movements, and even less on the radar for most of society.
When the attacks occurred, skyscrapers were burning and collapsing, and thousands of people in the US were dying on a single dramatic day like that, a whole lot of people were suddenly spending all their waking hours trying to make sense of what seemed to them to be their newfound reality.
This took many forms, but basically involved everybody asking the most basic types of questions. Suddenly everyone was a political pundit with an opinion on international affairs, US foreign policy, and the role of religion in society (just like all our friends and neighbors today are amateur epidemiologists). From whatever vantage point they started with, everyone was wondering the same kinds of things. What just happened? Why did it happen? Who did it? Who facilitated it? Who is trying to use the event as an opportunity to further their political agendas, or to derail other agendas?
By my observation, the kinds of questions people asked and the conclusions they came to depended a lot on where they were at politically prior to 9/11. For some people -- like especially for those already in the evangelical Christian orbit, or involved with Republican Party politics, 9/11 was proof of the evils of Islam, and folks signed up for military service right away, ready to fight the dirty jihadis. For others, such as those with a background in the peace movement, this was the chickens of US foreign policy coming home to roost, and one more reason to end US imperialism -- to save the lives of New Yorkers, along with Iraqis and Afghans and so many others.
But for the many people not involved with or at least thinking actively about US foreign policy and Middle Eastern geopolitics, as well as for those who were, there were still a wide variety of other factors to consider and conclusions to draw.
Many people asked the most fundamental of questions: did this really happen? That is, can I believe the basic facts being presented? Is it true that planes were hijacked by members of a terrorist organization called Al-Qaeda, who then flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in the process killing thousands of people and destroying two skyscrapers, plus a third building in lower Manhattan as well?
For those of us who knew the recent history of the CIA training the Mujahideen along with the Pakistani secret police, the billions of dollars a year that went into that effort for such a long time, and the kinds of terrorist organizations the CIA and the ISI were funding and otherwise maintaining, and of course for those who were aware of Al-Qaeda's less successful effort at taking down one of those buildings in 1993, the idea of what had just happened, while shocking, was not altogether off the radar of possibility.
But it sure was off the radar for a lot of folks. And either way, people who wondered whether government officials and media collaborators were somehow making up this whole story had a lot of reason to be suspicious. Twenty years ago, there were a lot more people older than me around, and loads of still middle-aged folks who had vivid memories of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. For those not aware, this was the entirely manufactured confrontation off the coast of Vietnam which was the justification for the US to declare war on the government of Vietnam, ultimately leading to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, and tens of thousands of American soldiers.
Regardless of anyone's conclusions around the direct or indirect knowledge or involvement in 9/11 by US or other state actors, it was abundantly obvious to most anyone with any background on the left of things that the forces of empire in the US had every intention of using this cataclysmic event as an opportunity to further their imperial goals, such as those seen as left unfinished by then-President George Bush's father, the first President Bush, who had bombed Iraq before his son did, and before Bill Clinton did.
A very large number of people in US society, and around the world, were actively opposed to the invasions, the chemical warfare, the prison torture, the hooded extraditions. At the same time, the ranks of those opposed to US imperialism were composed of all sorts of different people, and it would be fair to say that one of the main fault lines, one of the biggest issues creating a toxic fissure within the movement, was the question of believing or not believe what had become known as "the official narrative" of 9/11. This meant different things to different people, but to many it was a question of whether 9/11 was "an inside job" or not. (And the answer in terms of where one falls on this question partly has to do with how we define the term "inside job," thus the quotes.)
And wherever anyone's beliefs fell on the spectrum of possibilities in terms of who knew what and who did what, the fears that many people had about the future tended to revolve around the same things:
Would the empire-builders dominant in both ruling parties in the years immediately following 9/11 now have their way, militarily occupy Muslim countries, and set off a cycle of war and terrorist attacks and refugee crises around the world like never seen before? Would millions of innocent people, especially in Muslim countries, now be paying the price for the actions of these 19 men (or whoever was responsible for the planings on that day)? Would the military-industrial complex in the US now expand and become even bigger and more hegemonic? Would the rights of people within the US and around the world be even more threatened by growing surveillance states, on the basis of protecting the public from terrorist attacks? Would some semblance of democracy survive all of this?
Having been previously involved with many different aspects of the American left prior to 9/11 I can say with great confidence that much of the movement against war and militarism and the police state that sprang up in the weeks and months following 9/11 was not composed of people who had been recently involved with the left. As with most social movements, so many of the participants of this one had never been to a protest before. Others had, but not since the Sixties.
From my personal involvement with this new (at that time) movement, it was made up of people who had voted for both major parties, and many who had never voted at all. It included a lot of people who had no involvement with activism of any kind, but suddenly felt compelled by events to get involved, because they felt it mattered so much now. And it also involved no small number of people who already had a left orientation. Especially folks who were already long ago convinced that the CIA had a role in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, and that the US military fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Fast forward to the present period, beginning in March, 2020, and for the first time since 9/11, so many of the same dynamics have been repeating. The difference now has been that it's all wider, deeper, and completely global.
First with the discovery of the virus, and then with the first bouts of lockdowns and contact tracing efforts, later with the advent of the vaccines, then with the various vaccine mandates and vaccine passes of one sort or another, and yet again with everything changing all of a sudden as a result of the Delta variant and now Omicron, each new dramatic development has given rise to equally dramatic responses among certain sectors of society, pretty much around the world.
From my vantage point, the reactions some people have had at the various stages of pandemic developments thus far have varied a lot depending on the country people are from. I speak as one who tours mainly in a dozen or so countries, so I have a lot of familiarity with people in a number of places, though far from everywhere. Where there is widespread trust in the government, particularly in the public health sector, such as in Denmark, there seemed to be a widespread uniformity in the response of the vast majority to the temporary vaccine pass system that was implemented there, and other such restrictions, some of which have since been lifted, since they worked.
In the US, Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries, there has been much more discontent. While it is clear in all these cases that the rightwing politicians and rightwing media are a big part of fostering sentiment against vaccines and vaccine mandates, it's also clear that the reason such sentiments are stronger in certain countries than they are in others has a lot to do with how much distrust in government there is in a society.
And the distrust is well-earned. Memories are short, but not so short that everyone has forgotten the deceptive way the US, UK and others were taken to war in Iraq in both 1991 and 2003, with the lies about the plugs being pulled on the incubators in Kuwait, and the many more lies in preparation for the next round of bombing and subsequent occupation, about the weapons of mass destruction that never existed. General Colin Powell lied 31 times in a row at the UN, if I recall.
Those who were consuming the media of the day will recall that both the pro-Democrat and pro-Republican press -- that is, the entirety of the corporate and "public" media -- were fawning over themselves in patriotic worship of the president and his visionary leadership in the face of the terrorist threat. And now that a pandemic threatened the health of everyone, should the same people be condemned for distrusting the same media and the same politicians who spent so much of the recent past lying to them? Obviously, it doesn't work that way for many people, and they can't make that disconnect.
The more scientifically-oriented among us might wish those who don't believe in getting vaccinated or wearing masks, etc., who distrust the US or the British authorities' advice might take the same advice coming from pretty much every other public health department from every country, state, county, city, or other such entity around the planet, from Cameroon to Cuba to Canada to Cambodia.
But even if people accept the idea of getting vaccinated and such, it may indeed be another matter entirely to expect people to have faith in their respective governments that the amount of information involved with things like contact tracing is something they want to entrust to their local secret police.
A lot of people in the world have both recent and very negative memories of times when the authorities were so interested in the details of peoples' lives and movements. It should be no surprise at all that vaccine hesitancy is highest in some of the most disenfranchised parts of many societies -- not necessarily because of a lack of access, in the particular instance of Covid-19, but because of a distrust of the authorities born out of history, whether we're talking about Black folks in Alabama or former subjects of the Stasi in eastern Germany or people on the streets of occupied West Belfast.
The ranks of those who are more concerned about a looming police state than they are concerned about the pandemic includes a lot of folks who have no background on the right, by my abundant direct observation in multiple countries. (And before going on tour and seeing so many people in the real world, it was already clear from lots of online interactions that this was the case.)
Unfortunately, just as real as the diversity within the ranks of those who we may describe as vaccine hesitant, or lockdown hesitant, or mandate hesitant, are those many people among the ranks of my fellow leftists who seem to spend much of their waking hours condemning this lot as fascists.
Hearing the anti-lockdown activists on the streets of London and Brussels talk about freedom, and use provocative terms like "vaccine apartheid" and "vaccine fascism," while spreading the idea that maybe the vaccine is worse than the virus, it's easy to get angry and denunciatory, but it's also worse than useless.
Not only do the denunciations not change hearts or minds, they help solidify what is either a nascent or real relationship between belief in a growing variety of conspiracies and association with the political right, and they sever potential connections between the left and these people with legitimate concerns when it comes to the balance between rights and obligations -- concerns that have also been drummed into them at school and through a myriad of other ways their entire lives, in places like North America and Europe.
I'm not suggesting that the arguments of the anti-mandate crowd are correct, or that the rights of the individual trump our collective obligations to society. But I am suggesting that when we're talking to, talking about, writing to, or writing about the anti-mandate crowd, we can stop calling them fascists, or inferring that most of them are members of the far right. Because a whole lot of the time, it's pretty evident they're not.
You could shout, "misguided libertarian!", but it doesn't have the same ring to it. Maybe just not shouting would be better.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
It seems like a good moment for a little reflection on the the past couple years. A lot has happened, and a lot hasn't. What has happened, among other things, has been a whole lot of police brutality, racially-motivated killings by police, a whole lot of media coverage of this sort of thing, a whole lot of protests and riots, and a whole lot more media coverage of that. What hasn't happened -- what hasn't been reflected in all of this -- are significant political or economic changes that might begin to address the ever-deepening inequities in this extremely polarized society.
It's December, and I suddenly feel compelled to engage in a little end-of-the-year reflection.
Before I continue with this bit of analysis, I want to make it abundantly clear that I speak as a participant, not only as an observer. Like millions of other people in the US, I have spent a lot of time on the streets over the past couple years. Unlike many of the young folks marching in the streets over the past couple years, who quite naturally are doing this sort of thing for the first time, I've been at it for a while now, participating in other social movements that came before this one as well, in the US and in many other countries, since I'm lucky enough to make a living as a working, touring musician, primarily playing for different elements of the left, mainly in North America and Europe.
There are a lot of young folks I know who are very traumatized by a whole lot of police brutality and other terrible things they have been dealing with. In so many cases, as much as they are traumatized, they are also trying to figure out what the hell just happened. It's often a lot easier to make sense of things after the fact, rather than during, so that's very understandable. My perspective on what's been happening has also been evolving, and I sure hope that in the process of analyzing events, I don't come off as someone who thinks he knew everything to begin with. This is not an "I told you so" piece of analysis, and I hope it doesn't come across as such. It's just an earnest effort to make sense of a few things, from this particular middle-aged radical in Portland, Oregon.
The role of the corporate and "public" media and the Democratic Party apparatus in events of the past few years must first be understood, it seems to me.
I became politically active as a child, in the late 1970's. This is also when I started reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and watching news programs on TV. Certainly from the time I was 12 in 1979, up until 2016, the modus operandi of the corporate and "public" media was to almost completely ignore us ("us" being the radical left social movements of different periods). Thus, when thousands of people were being arrested for trying to shut down nuclear reactors, when a million people gathered in Central Park to protest against Reagan's preparations for nuclear war with the Soviet Union, when ten thousand people surrounded the Pentagon and shut it down for the duration, when a train ran over protesters trying to prevent arms shipments to Central American dictatorships, and many other things that happened just in the early 1980's alone, the press was virtually silent. If you knew about the protest in Central Park or the munitions train that ran people over in California, it was probably because you were there, or your friends were there, or you were reading very local press.
The same continued to be true with the global justice movement in the late 1990's that saw so many meetings of the corporate elite around the US and the world shut down through the actions of tens of thousands of people committing civil disobedience and blocking the streets everywhere, shutting down entire cities for days on end. Outside of the local press, which had to cover these events -- local press can't not mention the fact that tens of thousands of people have shut down the center of your city, or the tens of thousands of riot cops occupying it -- it was crickets.
When thirteen million people around the world -- including at least half a million in New York City -- protested against the imminent US invasion of Iraq, on February 15th, 2003, this made the news. But all the many other antiwar protests before and after that one, often of a similar scale, were almost completely ignored. I could continue with lots of other examples.
There were exceptions to this rule. The two biggest ones were the sustained national and global media coverage of Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey initiative in 2005, when she and many other folks (including me, briefly) occupied a stretch of road outside of President Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch, and then again during the Occupy Wall Street movement that I was also involved with, to which local, national, and global media gave blanket coverage.
Overwhelmingly, when media did cover the peace movement or the movement for economic justice, the coverage was designed to dismiss or ridicule. I long ago lost track of the number of protests I have attended where if the media showed up, they spent most of their time filming the hippiest-looking bongo player in the crowd, and then they left.
From the time Trump was elected, until the time Biden took office, for a full four years, this formula for corporate media coverage radically changed. Suddenly, although any protests related to the housing crisis or US foreign policy or just about anything else were still systematically ignored by the media, when people showed up in any numbers to protest against Trump's policies related to immigration or to his generally racist orientation, there was blanket coverage. This continued to be the case after the murder of George Floyd, which helped give rise to the movement that the media dubbed the Racial Justice movement.
As part of the media coverage of the movement, media outlets all over the country began to do a lot more stories about historical events. What was for most people in the US a basically hidden history of institutional racism, lynchings, pogroms, police violence, mass incarceration, and so on, was being systematically exposed. What was not being systematically exposed at all by the same media outlets was the history of multiracial rebellions, multiracial organizing, multiracial labor unions, and multiracial cooperatives of all kinds, that has been a constant, powerful thread in this country's history, along with the police, pogroms, and prisons.
So what happens when the media tells you every day about the history of racial injustice, with hardly a mention of the history of multiracial struggle aiming to transform society? When all you hear about are the unions that kept out people of color, but nothing about the unions that rejected that nonsense? When it's all about the massacres, and nothing about the uprisings? When Oklahoma is known only as the place where the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre happened, but not as the place that gave birth to the multiracial Working Class Union that was crushed by the state several years prior to the racist pogrom?
And then what happens when, along with this warped coverage of history presented in the media, the media also continues to ignore any protests that aren't related to their neoliberal conceptualization of racial justice?
I don't think most young people marching in the streets over the past couple years -- or most of the older folks as well -- are aware of the way the corporate media coverage of us has changed so radically in the past few years. I doubt most of us are aware of the agenda involved here, or how it has shaped what has been going on on the streets, but it has undoubtedly been profound.
One manifestation of the media coverage of the protests, and the media's efforts to educate us about some of the history that has been kept out of the textbooks, has been a whole generation of young people who should be forgiven for believing that nothing much was happening on the streets before 2016, or 2020 even. A whole generation that should be forgiven for knowing a lot about the history of institutional racism in the US, and virtually nothing about the history of multiracial unions or uprisings.
Many of the people organizing and speaking for the movement that was on the streets of the country for much of 2020, in particular, clearly fit the description. I say this as someone who has sat through a hell of a lot of bad speeches in my time, most definitely including 2020. Whatever fantasies people may have about their intellectual independence and the sophistication of their political and historical analyses, we are all massively influenced by what the media covers and doesn't cover, just as we are massively influenced by what we did or did not learn in school. In all the speeches I heard in Portland in 2020, I never heard anyone mention the multiracial Industrial Workers of the World or the multiracial rebellion in West Virginia in 1921, the biggest this country ever saw.
What we do hear about every day, however, is how privileged white people are to be white in this society, and how we white people need to change the situation we created, and use our power as the privileged group in society to change things. The lack of change is implicitly evidence of the lack of interest in change on the part of white people. If you have been educated by CNN and PBS, all of this perspective would make good sense, since this is the perspective actively implied, and sometimes even stated outright, by one pundit after another -- as well as by one young speaker after another at the protests in this and other cities across the US through much of 2020 in particular.
Without knowledge of the history of multiracial organizing, but with lots of knowledge about the history of racial oppression; without knowledge about the way the capitalist class systematically uses race and ethnicity as a tool for dividing and conquering the working class, but with lots of knowledge about organizations dominated by white people that followed the institutionally racist line and discriminated against people of color, it's easy for some folks to start thinking of terms like "privilege" as an actuality, rather than as a relative concept.
As we are marching around the streets of Portland, walking around the thousands of tents occupied mainly by homeless white men, it's quite a disconnect to manage to think of these people as privileged in any way. It would seem evident that any concept of actual privilege in this context is clearly ridiculous, requiring a total denial of lived reality in order to embrace. The concept of relative privilege is much easier to make sense of, but if it is not understood in the historical context of privilege being used as a tool of oppression -- divide and conquer -- then it's a concept that is worse than useless.
Why not just useless, but actually worse than useless, you may be wondering? Is this dude just playing with language because "worse than useless" sounds more impressive than just plain "useless"? No. Understanding the concept of relative privilege without understanding its basis in divide and rule capitalist politics, starting about 500 years ago in what is now the United States, is worse than useless, because it plays right into the hands of the capitalist divide-and-rulers.
Once we are casually identifying groups within society -- within the ranks of the working class super-majority in the United States -- as more or less privileged than the other, and we are not constantly connecting this relative privilege to tools of oppression, we are implicitly or often explicitly saying that the solution here is those elements of the working class who are less discriminated against than others need to fully understand their relatively privileged position, and do something about it.
What we are supposed to do is always necessarily unclear, other than reading books and overcoming our internal biases and shopping at Black-owned businesses. It's pretty obvious to any casual observer of the US that white working class people reading books and overcoming their internal biases isn't going to accomplish much. But making the real changes that need to be made -- for example, providing every member of society with great schools, high-quality, guaranteed housing, and universal health care -- would clearly all go so much further in creating real equality than anything else that might be done by those in power.
But these are not the demands I'm hearing much about at the protests. Sure, if you're paying attention, you can read about these kinds of demands in Black Agenda Report (Glen Ford, rest in peace). You can hear them in the speeches of Al Sharpton and William Barber and Angela Davis. Getting rid of the police is a wonderful idea, but as long as there are a handful of extremely rich people and a majority of people of all racial backgrounds living in some form of poverty -- which is the reality in this country -- getting rid of the police is a nonstarter, because the rich won't let that happen.
The rich? Yes, the ones in power, who we never hear about at the protests. Not the white working class -- the rich white people, who actually elect most of the Congress and most of the state legislatures, and make up the ranks of those bodies as well. Did you know most of the people in the Congress are millionaires, and the Democrats on average are wealthier than the Republicans? These are the folks who are in power, not me, or most of the people reading this. Not that you'll hear about who really runs the country on PBS or CNN, or in most classrooms across the US. They prefer their illusions of democracy -- a democracy that just needs to get more inclusive, since it's obviously already working so well for all the whites. (Just ask the guys in the tent down the block.)
When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder, there were a few anemic little protests in the US -- nothing like what many in power were anticipating. Why? There are a bunch of explanations, I'd say. One is that the ongoing reality of police racism and police brutality across this country has been out of the news since Biden's election. That's the biggest reason. The second-biggest reason, or at least my best effort at making sense of the situation, is that the movement that was so dominant on the streets for much of 2020 and 2021 has effectively eaten itself alive.
Once again, my analysis here is based on lived reality, not on reading corporate media reports. There are only so many protests people can attend where a majority-white crowd has to listen to a teenager lecturing us about the history of racial oppression in the US, who has some vague idea of who Fred Hampton was, but who has never heard of the IWW, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Socialist Party, or the Communist Party. There are only so many lectures one can stomach about the hundred-year rule of the KKK in the South, without any mention of the multiracial movement against the Klan that has been a feature of southern life from the hundreds of interracial communes formed during Reconstruction to the Freedom Rides to the Greensboro Massacre.
Along with the usual factors like police brutality, the Circular Firing Squad -- as us more ecumenical movement people like to call the less tolerant among us -- has effectively strangled the life out of this movement, undoubtedly with massive support on the part of the secret police. (You know, the secret police that we don't have, but do, as demonstrated by the Cointelpro papers and lots of more recent evidence.) And this callout mentality was a natural outgrowth of the skewed, NPR-sponsored understanding of current reality and history. If we don't have an understanding of how divide-and-conquer capitalism works and has worked for the past several centuries, but we do have an understanding that some people in society are more privileged than others, this very piecemeal perspective will naturally produce the cancel culture.
That is, if you think your enemy -- the obstacles to your progress in this racist society -- include some of the white folks standing in the crowd with you at a march, then that's very convenient, because they're easy to find, unlike the people in power. If you think progress lies mainly in any average white person learning about, deconstructing, and overcoming our racist upbringing, then it's very easy to see how sensible it must seem to denounce anyone who has a less sophisticated understanding of institutional racism than you do.
Unfortunately, though, this tendency mainly plays into the hands of the powers-that-be, which is not at all accidental. This is why the corporate media overlords and associated political class are engaging in the program of political education that they are engaging in -- not because they're suddenly waking up to the realities of institutional racism. They want us to eat each other alive. They want us to think that history is basically an irredeemable mess of terrible atrocities. They don't want us to know about the real history of multiracial, anti-capitalist struggle in this country, that has been so thoroughly repressed, and then hidden from the record, or relegated to the margins of the radical left periodicals that hardly anyone even knows about, let alone reads.
If this was a movement that, as a movement, truly understood the nature of power, of capitalism, and of the media, then it could have real impact. What we have instead, which anyone would know if they've spent much time on the streets of Portland over the past couple years, is a movement that, when it was still happening, was actively reviled by significant elements of the general public. Within the movement itself, significant elements were constantly fleeing the ranks of the movement, alienated by both the speeches and the tactics involved.
Again, this is not theoretical, I'm talking about what I saw, take it or leave it. I'm all for dumpster fires in principle, but when people light a dumpster on fire, most of the crowd leaves. This is a simple illustration of the dynamics within the movement that I saw time and again. When the speeches are mostly condescending, people don't come back, no matter how strongly they feel about the underlying reasons they came out onto the streets in the first place. When civil disobedience means randomly blocking traffic on busy roads full of regular people trying to go to work or pick their kids up from school, this doesn't make a movement popular. Most people can easily understand the idea of shutting down the courts or the prisons or the big corporations that run society, but blocking traffic on random roads and pulling dumpsters into them tends not to garner much public support. Personally, I love it. But I'm not talking about myself here, I'm talking about building a movement. Or why this one died.
Whatever is coming next, I hope it's a movement that understands who the enemy is, and who it isn't. But you can be sure that CNN, PBS, the FBI, and a lot of other powerful forces in society will be doing their best to confuse us into attacking each other, instead of our corporate masters.
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