Monday, October 31, 2022

If We Divide, They Will Conquer

This article appears in both the physical and online versions of Slingshot #136.  Slingshot is a wonderful anarchist newspaper going strong since the 1980's, and they put out a fabulous thing called the Slingshot Organizer -- the 2023 edition is available now!
The left, especially in the United States, has become more of a circular firing squad than it’s ever been. Left people calling out other left people for their perceived transgressions, microaggressions, or language use has become far more commonplace than left organizations or movements actually challenging those in positions of power. 

There are reasons we got to this point, and there is a way out. The way out starts with understanding how destructive the exclusive culture of so much of the left has become, and how to build an inclusive movement based on the ideas of solidarity, and having a forward-thinking vision around how we can build a new, egalitarian, sustainable society.

These are bleak times. The ongoing catastrophes of climate change are picking up the pace dramatically. There are major wars ongoing, the potentially imminent prospect of nuclear war. There are billions of people around the world going hungry. The real wages of the average worker are falling fast as food and energy costs skyrocket, along with the prices of houses, mortgages, and rents. Far right politicians and parties are in the ascendancy in the US, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, India, Brazil, and many, many other places. Some elements of the population face particular forms of persecution and discrimination, due to factors like skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.

We are far from achieving an egalitarian society, where everyone has enough of all the good things in life, by virtue of being alive, not because they’ve managed to work two jobs and step over the dead bodies on the sidewalk, in order to pay the ever-increasing monthly rent for their moldy apartment.

The social movement inspired by the killing of George Floyd that was on the streets of the US throughout the summer of 2020 and beyond has at this point died a pretty horrible death. With so many of the best organizers across the country having been targeted by cancellation campaigns and rendered inert, leaving progressive networks and organizations paralyzed with an inability to function under the circumstances, it’s a fairly obvious moment to take stock of the situation. How did we get here?

It’s a complicated answer. The US is a country with an astounding degree of inequality between the rich and the poor. The degree of inequality between the classes is wildly greater than any other difference between members of the population. The inequality in the US is worse now than at any point since the Age of the Robber Barons, around the turn of the 20th century.

In a country with such severe inequality, maintaining stability is a challenge for the capitalist/landlord class that is in power. They have employed various techniques. One of the perennial ones include giving concessions to certain parts of the population while withholding them from others, in order to continually foment division within the population, with some elements wanting to hold onto the crumbs they’ve been given, and others wanting their share of the crumbs that have been withheld.

Despite these efforts at divide and conquer, huge sections of the population frequently manage to see past these strategies, and form movements across the lines of race, national origin, region of the country, rural vs. urban, and so on. Notable examples of intensely inclusive social movements that accomplished great things include the radical, multiracial, immigrant-led labor movement of the early 20th century, and the civil rights movement that followed it, which shared many of its strategies and goals.

In the ongoing efforts of progressive forces in society to make a better world, or at least a less miserable one, there have at various points been widespread understanding of the methods used by the capitalists, their witting agents, and their unwitting collaborators. The IWW, for one, produced volumes of educational materials such as the Mr. Block cartoon series in an effort to create an awareness among the ranks of the working class (of all backgrounds) about these methods of divide and conquer practiced by the oligarchs in charge.

The IWW recognized the vital importance of including all of the working class in their One Big Union. In so many cases for the first time, they welcomed people of color, women, and others who had so often been excluded from joining unions in the past. The bosses still used their favorite technique of hiring strikebreakers from a different race or national background when workers of another race or national origin were going on strike. This technique successfully broke strikes and led to what were called race riots.

Particularly in the wake of the exposure of the FBI’s massive, secret Counterintelligence Program known widely as Cointelpro, in the early 1970’s, elements of the progressive movement became more keenly aware than ever about the many methods of destabilizing and breaking apart organizations and social movements that were widely employed by the secret police.

Meanwhile, the general tendencies within the left that had existed for centuries continued to exist. At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’d suggest that one way we can understand two major tendencies that have long been a big part of the left around the world might be to look at how some movements, groups, and individuals orient towards a more narrow definition of common interests, or a broader definition — a more exclusive definition or a more inclusive one.

The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s also broadly recognized how race had been used as a tool for division. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many other leaders of the movement deeply understand the importance of leading a movement that sought the betterment of the entire working class. Typical of MLK’s thinking, when he was shot to death he was about to lead a massive march on Washington called the Poor People’s March, that explicitly was to include poor people from all backgrounds.

Later, at the end of the 20th century, the global justice movement that arose in response to the wildly growing divide between the rich and the poor both within the US and around the world recognized how the interests of the labor movement and the interests of the environmental movement were being systematically used as a tool of divide and rule, and this movement went about different ways to unite “Teamsters and turtles.”

But there has also long been the more exclusive left tendencies. If they didn’t exist, Cointelpro makes very clear, they would have been manufactured — and in many cases, they were. If they didn’t exist, the corporate-controlled media would give us the exclusive narrative, and assign it to groups and individuals, hoping it sticks.

The corporate media rarely mentions the existence of a working class that has broadly common interests, such as housing, health care, education, jobs, a clean and sustainable environment, etc. Rather, it prefers to focus on all the different ways society is divided, other than by class. If class enters the picture, it’s only in the context of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

This is a divide and conquer technique on the part of the corporate media and the class that owns the corporate media (the ruling class). And it’s one that many, many people in our society have enthusiastically participated in, thinking that by talking about how oppressed they are and how privileged other people are, they will hopefully eventually advance the interests of the marginalized group(s) they identify with.

To my knowledge, it’s a tactic that has historically failed dramatically, and is doing so again now. With the advent of “social media,” the capacity for social movements, and society in general, to become sectarian, polarized, antagonistic, and otherwise broken, is multiplied. As well-intentioned as so many people calling for the liberation of different marginalized groups are, with the help of highly selective corporate media coverage and narrative-creating, along with extremely destructive social media algorithms that are designed to foment conflict, all we’re really left with is a circular firing squad, and no one is left standing, except for the ruling class, who no one in the squad seemed to be aiming for.

It is clear that our movement is broken. The liberals currently in power are failing to provide for the population, as usual, and the rightwing is using the failure of so-called liberal democracy (that is, capitalist pseudo-democracy) and the hopelessly divided band of identity-obsessed people shouting at each other that we once called the left as a stepping stone in their ongoing rise to power.

If there was ever a time when we needed to find common ground with as big a section of the working class as possible, and create an egalitarian society before the fascists take advantage of our society’s divided state and destroy everything, that time is now. While the building of such a movement is an endlessly complex and challenging proposition, we can be sure that the path we’re on — the path of trying to build a movement that’s based on attempting to make some elements of the working class feel guilty for their relative privilege while other elements of the working class work on getting accepted by a broken capitalist system — is not going anywhere good.

When you’re in a hole, the best thing to do first is to stop digging.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Talking "This Land Is Your Land"

Woody Guthrie, Portland Tenants United, and the Persecution of Margot Black



Apologies to all my friends who have already spent far too much time beating this dead horse at People's Music Network gatherings over the past several decades.  Most of the world weren't at those gatherings, so this is for them.

First, I want to talk about Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land Is Your Land."  Later I'll explain how this relates to the founder of Portland Tenants United, Margot Black, and her ongoing persecution.

At the risk of tooting my own horn too hard, up top there is a video taken by my friend Tony at a show in Los Angeles that took place around the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill.  There were a whole bunch of great acts taking part in the event, and most of us got together on the stage at the end to sing one of show organizer Tom Morello's favorite songs.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as a sort of socialist American anthem, which is exactly what it soon became, popularized by Woody's friend, Pete Seeger, and many other artists.  The verses in the song build on the theme that our country should belong to the people, to share, rather than for the rich to profit from.

It surely didn't take long for some people to look at the lyrics of the song from the vantage point of settler-colonialism, however.  As someone who has been singing these kinds of songs professionally for most of my adult life, including lots of Woody Guthrie songs, I have tended to avoid this one.  I completely understand where Woody was coming from when he wrote it, and I share the dream for an equitable distribution of everything everywhere, very much including in this horrifically unequal land.  But if you're, say, a white guy who finds yourself singing this song on an Indian reservation, you might find it a bit awkward, for fairly obvious reasons -- not because of anything in any of the verses, but more just how the chorus itself, or even just the title of the song, can come across, especially if the very intense 1940 context of socialism vs. capitalism is not fully understood.

The song, however, remains popular to this date, among a wide diversity of people from all over the US and the world (as demonstrated a bit by the video up there).  On the occasions where someone requests the song at a show I'm doing, I'll sometimes sing it, but with an introduction, explaining the context and how the song is generally viewed by those who sing it, and how it's been sanitized over the decades, which has helped contribute to the way the song can be even more easily misinterpreted.

One day at a retreat for Portland Tenants United, a PTU member sang "This Land Is Your Land" around a campfire, but not without first giving a lengthy introduction to the song, much like the one I just gave.

Why do I mention this and how is it connected with the persecution of Margot Black?

First of all, for those of you reading this who are not living in Portland, Oregon and immersed in local politics, Margot wears many hats and has many skills, but for the purposes of this piece, she is the founder of Portland Tenants United.  Since she was hounded out of the organization she founded, she has remained very relevant as a tenant organizer, recently playing a central role in winning a victory for tenants facing eviction in Tigard by the Hamilton-Zanze investment group, and just this week winning another victory, working with tenants in north Portland who were facing the same fate with their landlord, the Green Cities corporation.

Having seen Margot in action as an organizer and in many other capacities, it's easy to say that she's one of the most effective organizers in Portland, or anywhere.  What she has managed to accomplish on behalf of tenants rights generally around here, and for specific groups of tenants as well, has been often noted in the press and by people around town generally.  As someone who has been a PTU member since soon after the group was founded, participating in many PTU events over many years, who has continued to be involved with any other organizing Margot has been doing since she left PTU's board, I would be one of the many to emphatically agree with the chorus of Portlanders who are wildly impressed with and deeply thankful for Margot's commitment to the well-being of all of us renters.  The battle continues to be an uphill one, but it would be worse without Margot's efforts, no doubt at all about that.

OK, so that's who Margot is.  And when did her persecution begin?  Actually it began when she was born.  If you've ever heard her speak about her background, she was raised by a mom with terrible mental illness, often living on the streets, which is ultimately a big part of why she became such a passionate advocate for the rights of renters later in life.  But in terms of the persecution I'm referring to in this piece, it began with a rambling essay published by a former member of PTU, full of innuendo, but with absolutely no concrete allegations whatsoever related to Margot in it, written several years ago.

We can only speculate about why the piece was written, or what actual issues the author had with Margot, since the meandering article made absolutely no concrete allegations at all.  We are left only with the notion that if we are to "believe the victim" as properly modern identitarian progressives, we don't need to know what the specific allegations actually are.  If someone felt unsafe, especially someone deemed to be from a more marginalized background than Margot's, that's enough, and now Margot is a perpetrator of abuse, who needs to be held accountable.

The problem from the outset, however, was that there were no actual allegations against Margot for her to be held accountable for.

For anyone familiar with the bizarre machinations of what some call the Nexus, or the politics of guilt and virtue-signaling that passes for left discourse these days, once this hit piece was written about Margot by an obviously very troubled and fairly prominent former PTU member, the flood gates were opened.  

The way this works, in Margot's case and in most other cases where the phenomenon of "accountability-seeking" is in play, is like this:

  • you start with an organizer such as Margot, who gains some kind of notoriety because she has accomplished things, such as Portland's Relocation Ordinance
  • some people then see someone like Margot as a person with power, or at least influence
  • anyone in a position of power or influence is then a person to whom you can "speak truth to power" at, do some virtue-signaling, and feel important about when you attack them
  • when the attacks result in people or organizations distancing themselves from Margot for fear of being attacked next, the attackers can see this as a sign that they were right in the first place
  • any time someone like Margot gets media attention because she just participated in a press conference or won another victory on behalf of a group of tenants, this is seen by the Nexus as another opportunity to "seek accountability" and publicize the supposed fact that Margot is somehow or other avoiding "accountability"
With each new cycle of this ongoing process -- the most recent one being a confused group of "accountability"-seeking, very recent transplants from California posing as members of the "tenants rights community" who can't organize themselves out of a paper bag -- the rabbit hole gets deeper, and the original allegations get more and more unclear.

In the latest hit piece against Margot -- obviously timed to coincide with her involvement with this most recent, successful tenant organizing effort in north Portland -- there aren't even any allusions made to what her original offenses were supposed to have been.  There are links to other hit pieces written about Margot, which themselves also do not contain any concrete allegations of any kind.

In my efforts to get to the bottom of all this, the closest thing to a concrete allegation that isn't about someone's tone of voice is that a member of PTU -- who wasn't Margot -- sang "This Land Is Your Land" around a campfire, with introduction.  This allegedly made someone feel unsafe.

What is the smearing of the good name of Margot Black really about?  A lot of things -- none of them having anything to do with Margot being a bigot of any kind, or otherwise doing anything that should result in public denunciations, unless it's coming from a disgruntled landlord.  My top hypotheses for why someone who isn't a capitalist would have it out for Margot is that some people can't handle confident women in leadership positions, or they're jealous, or they're opportunists who are more interested in taking someone down in order to climb up some imaginary ladder a little higher, who are not thinking in terms of victory for the struggle, but more in terms of moral purity, or a very twisted notion of "safety."

But as a renter in the city of Portland who has been involved with the struggle for the capitalists to be accountable to the suffering renters whose lives they are destroying, along with so many other renters who are and will always be fans of the woman who has done so much to make the city of Portland and the state of Oregon at least a little more accountable to tenants' rights, I will close with these thoughts:

Long live Margot Black.  May this land someday belong to you and me -- not the investment groups, the hedge funds, or any of the other landlords.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Notes From Scandinavia

In late September, as I was preparing for spending most of October on tour in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, I got an email from the good folks at the Slingshot Collective, asking me to contribute an article to the collective's longstanding radical newspaper.  I set about writing a piece on how we might endeavor to avoid a fascist future in the USA.  When I had a few days free in Copenhagen in between lots of gigs, I finished the article.  The basic premise is that the US left needs to stop arguing about who's more oppressed, and start organizing the working class, rather than letting the far right be the only ones doing that.

This, of course, is far easier said than done, given the dismal state of affairs in the dis-United States, with both the Democratic Party's mainstream as well as whatever passes for the left these days mainly offering some form of guilt-driven identity politics in response to the growing appeal of the far right, and the right's claim to represent the interests of the forgotten people, the working class.  Despite the recent growth of xenophobic political parties in parts of Scandinavia, and the widely-covered elections in Sweden that saw a center-right governing coalition come to power, there are many reasons why Scandinavia still has lessons to teach much of the rest of the world.

The more I have traveled over the decades, the more I have come to realize that while there are big regional and global trends and social movements, the socio-political situation in each country is distinct.  For example, we in the US associate the global justice movement with the last few years of the 1990's and the first few years of the 2000's, but in most of the rest of the world it started earlier and fizzled out much later.  In some parts of the world it never fizzled out at all.  And while platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are used widely on both sides of the Atlantic (and most everywhere else where the platforms aren't banned for one reason or another), the tendency of these platforms to produce a misinformed, polarized population in places like the US and the UK seems to be far less pronounced in some other parts of the world, such as Scandinavia.

So, while the general atmosphere on the left in the US in particular is in recent years largely one of despair and resignation in the face of a rising neofascist threat and continually declining living standards for most people in the country (among other big problems), it's a very different atmosphere in Scandinavia.

This, of course, is from my vantage point.  If you talk to many people on the Scandinavian left, you'll hear about how things are sliding constantly in the wrong direction -- as with so many other countries in the world, the influence of US-style unregulated capitalism as a model for what they call "growth" is pervasive.  Scandinavian countries are not immune to things like banking scandals and calls to privatize formerly public things such as healthcare services, railway networks, and so on.  And as anyone who follows news from Scandinavia at all is aware, Scandinavian countries are also not immune to xenophobic ideologues rising to political prominence, and in Sweden's case, being part of the governing coalition.

I'm just back home in Oregon from spending 24 days traveling around Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, playing a concert most of those nights, usually in a different city or town, hanging out with a wide variety of people in between, who are generally people from the area, or folks living there.  I thought I'd write another wee travelogue about the tour, with an emphasis on some of the kinds of things that people from the US might find most interesting.

First of all, a general travel tip:  if you're ever traveling somewhere and renting a car to get around in for one reason or another, generally these car reservations can be canceled with no charge to you, so it's always a good idea to check on rental car prices again in the days just prior to your departure.  I did that, and discovered that prices for rental cars had gone way down since I reserved mine.  The Opel Corsa I drove all over Scandinavia in cost me $4 a day.  Cheapest car I ever rented.  Looking online at the time I rented the car, I noted that prices for rental cars were cheaper than I had ever seen, in all the major European cities I checked, but they were cheapest of all in Copenhagen.

If you're paying attention to news from Europe at all, or news from most of the world, for that matter, the cost of living crisis, particularly with concern to energy bills and the price of food (not at all unrelated), is given a lot of attention.  On the ground in Europe, I can say beyond any doubt that this stuff is very much on the minds of most people, and is affecting them personally.  Not necessarily quite the way folks from the US might imagine, though.  I've already mentioned how cheap rental cars are currently.  Gasoline is only a bit more expensive in Europe than it is in the US, as far as car travel goes.  Most of the price of gas is set by OPEC, and when it's as high as it currently is globally, the relatively high taxation in Europe doesn't raise the price that much more than you'd find in California.

Particularly in Denmark, the economic situation has affected folks in my circle of friends and acquaintances deeply.  Nobody I know is going hungry, but folks on limited incomes are dealing with the cost of heating their apartments quintupling.  The rise in interest rates has meant for some Danes I know that their mortgage payments have suddenly risen by hundreds of dollars a month, because they have Variable Rate (formerly known as Subprime) mortgages in Denmark, too.  In Norway, if the energy costs go up beyond a certain amount, folks tell me, the government pays for 90% of the bill, so the Norwegians are generally doing better in that regard, but the rise in the cost of gasoline and other commodities affects them, too, depending of course on their income and such.

Despite the economic situation, by my observation and by the observation of the business press, loads of people are still traveling.  As usual whenever I'm in Scandinavia, I didn't see some of my friends and colleagues because they were on holiday or otherwise traveling in some far-away tropical place.  Many Scandinavians are more familiar with southern Europe than they are with neighboring countries.  (Kind of like how someone from Ontario is more likely to have taken a trip to Florida than they are to have visited New Hampshire.)

Along with the economic situation generally, another constant topic that arose in my travels was related to elections -- both the election Sweden just had, and the brief election season that kicked off in Denmark, as it happened, a few days into my visit, on October 4th.  And then, of course, the ongoing war between neighboring Russia, and Ukraine.  Just before I boarded a plane to head to Copenhagen, the Nodstream pipeline had been bombed, just off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm.  

While there was a general sense of impending doom related to the war in Ukraine, which doesn't tend to feel like something most people have any sense of agency to do anything about in Scandinavia, when it comes to the rise of rightwing political parties and ideas, or the tendency towards more privatizing of the commons, what is most striking to me throughout Scandinavia is the lack of resignation on the left.  People are engaged, and fighting for their future, in many different ways, and have not generally been overcome with the magnitude of the situation.  They are also living in a very different world from that which those of us in the US know.  There are no tent cities full of homeless Scandinavians, for example -- not one.

Which is not to say there aren't marginalized people dealing with unstable housing situations, disabilities of all kinds, addiction, and discrimination in many forms.  After singing at a small peace rally in front of the opening of the Danish parliament in Copenhagen on October 4th (when they announced the upcoming elections would be happening), my first concert for an indoor audience was the following day, in Denmark's second-biggest city, Aarhus.

The organizer of the gig, Pino, is very open about his struggles with housing and addiction in prior years, and he spends much of his time since I've known him working on behalf of other people dealing with stuff like that.  He often gives walking tours of Aarhus, telling people about how hard life is for some people in the city, recounting tales of police brutality -- sometimes right in front of the police station, much to the annoyance of some of the cops.  As you'll find in so many other cases if you look into a lot of things in Europe in particular, positions you might assume are volunteer are sometimes not. Talking to people about police brutality and marginalized people in Aarhus for Pino is a paying gig.

At the little gig Pino organized, in a one-room community center (not counting the bathroom) called Amok were a mix of local folks from my email list and friends of Pino's.  Pino's circles always include a variety of marginalized folks or others somehow or other involved with the social welfare system, and these days that means lots of Ukrainian refugees.  

Ukrainian refugees made up about half of the audience at that gig.  I would generally describe most of them as women younger than me, many with kids around the ages of my kids, and then a few older people as well, including a couple of men obviously far too old to be in the military.  Before my show, they were sitting inside Amok together, singing Ukrainian songs together.

There are punks in Kyiv, but these Ukrainians were not people you'd normally see in a place like Amok.  They all looked like they'd fit in better at the mall, judging from their nice clothes.  I wouldn't doubt that in most cases they were wearing the only jackets they had managed to leave Ukraine with, but they were nice jackets, not yet old enough since the war began to start to get ratty.  

One of the Ukrainians spoke good English, and was translating some conversation for me now and then.  (If I don't mention names it's because I'm erring on the side of caution, not because I don't remember her name.)  I asked her some questions that I'm always curious about these days when I meet Ukrainians.  Were there any draft-age Ukrainian men trying to get out of Ukraine?  No, she said, there weren't.  She was passionately in favor of resisting Russian aggression, but didn't seem offended by my question, anyway.  What did she think of the treatment of refugees in Denmark?  While she was impressed with how it was for her fellow Ukrainians, she was horrified to learn about how it was for the Muslim refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan there in Aarhus.

At some point a Ukrainian woman came in, beaming from ear to ear, making an announcement to her friends in Ukrainian.  I asked what she said.  The translation came, that she had just gotten her own "permanent apartment" in Aarhus, as it was described.  I'm not sure of the exact arrangement there, but it sure sounds like stable housing.  She was a refugee, and had not been in Denmark for more than a few months at that point.  Prior to getting placed in an apartment, the Ukrainians are staying in a dormitory-style place with shared kitchens and bathrooms and such.  I asked if each of them has their own bedroom, and was told that they did, unless they had a kid, in which case they shared a room with the kid.

Back in Copenhagen the next day, I hear a lot from people about the rise in energy costs and the speed of gentrification.  At the anarchist infoshop, Bogcaféen Halmtorvet, the talk is about the prospect of needing to move to a different location.  And while other people had already mentioned the quintupling of their energy bills, Ronni at the infoshop has done the math, and it is cheaper to eat out at a lot of local restaurants than it is to cook at home.  Who knows what the future holds or how they do it, but the fact is, most restaurants are not raising their prices to reflect the soaring cost of keeping their ovens running.

Just recounting tidbits from my October travels chronologically, the next two gigs I had both represent something profound that you'll find in Scandinavian countries, and some others.  That is, very large community spaces that may have been more or less squatted initially, but which are now legal and supported in many ways by local authorities.  And let's also add that when I refer to "local authorities" in various corners of Scandinavia, we may be talking about one of the more left parties or coalitions of left parties.  The most left parties are often kept out of national government, but sometimes control local government.

First there was a trip across one of the world's longest bridges, from Denmark to Sweden, and further on to Jönköping, and a place called Kulturhuset, a massive old factory that's been fixed up at great expense since the last time I saw it, a few years ago.  There are dozens of rooms for all kinds of different activities, including performance spaces and workshops of all sorts.

The next day to a very small town about an hour's drive west of Copenhagen where you'll find another massive old ceramics factory called Makvärket that is being transformed into a center for all sorts of activities, very much along the line of the one in Sweden, but not quite as far along in the process. Makvärket is attracting more and more people who are moving to the area from Copenhagen, who are forming a wonderful scene around this huge community center, with lots of young children.

The next three gigs, taken chronologically, also can serve as an illustration of how nonsectarian the left can be.  One day I played at the bookstore of a small Danish communist party full of lovely people who, last I checked, still believe the Danish government should be overthrown.  The next afternoon I played for a fine collection of anarchist punks at a place by the side of the railroad tracks in the middle of a huge construction site in Aarhus called Sidesporet, and that evening at a well-attended event hosted by the furthest-left socialist party in the Danish parliament, Enhedslisten ("Unity List") which has been growing steadily ever since I first came to Denmark in the 90's.  Introducing me was Anne Hegelund, who is running for parliament, and likely to win.  The following day in Roskilde was another event hosted by Enhedslisten, with more speakers running for political office, along with a very successful Activist Speed-Dating session.

Enhedslisten and other organizations like the Socialist Youth Federation (SUF), together with community centers of all sorts with access to funding from various government agencies for cultural activities, make it possible for left ideas and culture to be propagated consistently.  The evidence of this phenomenon is overwhelmingly obvious, as demonstrated by the continual stream of new, young people at gigs in Scandinavia that are organized by such groups. 

The next two gigs, again taking this chronologically, were in large community centers in the center of two of Norway's biggest cities, Trondheim and Oslo.  Both of these social centers at some point burned down, and both were ultimately rebuilt at government expense.  Both are beautiful buildings with lots of rooms for all sorts of activities, including live concerts, of course.

I would often fly when including Trondheim in a tour.  It's at least a 6-hour drive from Oslo to Trondheim, and there's no real population center in between.  Norway is big, at least when traveling south or north.  My old friend and organizer of many things, Bjorn-Hugo, came down from Trondheim to Copenhagen to attend a couple events there and drive up to Trondheim with me.

On the way up, I discovered -- or rediscovered, perhaps -- another piece of infrastructure, not unique to Scandinavia but very popular there as well as created there, Spotify.  You may laugh, as I've had my music on the platform since it came into existence.  But I never truly became a user until the trip to Trondheim.  

In recent years it's become more and more clear that of all the different platforms where people might find music, Spotify is the one that does the best job of introducing new people to new music that they'll probably like.  I've long noticed this from the vantage point of the artist asking folks coming to a show for the first time how they discovered my music.  But as a user, driving up the coast of Norway, it became clear to me that Spotify's algorithms are amazing.  We listened mainly to psychedelic rock music from the 60's, starting with a fairly obscure band called July, and we proceeded to listen for hours to the most impressive selection of obscure psychedelic rock bands from the 60's you could ever hope for.

Along with the concert in Trondheim at the infamous UFFA punk rock community center, local organizers used the occasion of my visit to put on a protest rally in the center of town in support of Palestinians, against the ongoing atrocities being committed by the Israeli military in particular, the ongoing annexation of the West Bank, the ongoing siege of Gaza.  

While I wouldn't for a moment discount all the time and effort that went into planning the rally, what was especially notable about it was the stage setup, which bears describing in some detail.

In the beautiful center of the city of Trondheim, beside a large pedestrian-only area with space for thousands of people to gather, there is a covered stage with a built-in sound system. Anyone organizing an event can reserve the place and they'll be given a little training in how to use the equipment, and they'll be given a key to access it. Speakers, lights, and curtains can be lowered and moved around with buttons until you get everything the way you want it. By plugging a little mixing board into the sound system, and using the mic and mic stand provided, we had everything we needed for speakers, solo performers, or even bands, though the drummer has to bring their own drum set...

I've written in the past about Svartlamon, the community in the city of Trondheim I fell in love with a long time ago, where I've always stayed when I'm there.  Once a squatted neighborhood, now approved of and even publicized a bit by the municipality, it's not like places like Svartlamon are in every city, by any means, but it's hard to imagine places like Svartlamon or Christiania continuing to exist for decades on end in many other parts of the world.  As with the many other pieces of social and physical infrastructure that keep societies -- and subcultures, and social movements, and ideas -- alive and thriving, communities like Svartlamon play an outsized role in this never-ending process.

Two of the next three gigs I had were in venues called House of the People -- Folkets Hus.  The origin stories of different Folkets Huses vary, but they are always community centers, accessible by people in the community to put on events like concerts, community kitchens, and all sorts of other things.  The show at the Folkets Hus in the town of Smedjebacken was organized by an award-winning artist and political cartoonist, my old friend Julie Leonardsson.  

And Sweden, as it happens, makes itself a good place for cartoonists, journalists, editors and others involved in putting out a newspaper.  As I learned from one of the folks at one of the papers, if you have at least 2,000 subscribers, the Swedish government will pay for you to hire six full-time staff members.

Julie was also the husband of the late Anne Feeney, my old friend and touring partner, who met Julie a few years after we first became acquainted.  Along with visiting Julie and playing for a wonderful audience at the local Folkets Hus, I was on a mission to retrieve Anne's guitar from Julie, so it can eventually make its way to Anne's daughter, Amy Sue Berlin, in Texas, where it will be actively played by Amy, on and off stage, when it eventually makes its way all the way there from its current hideout in Copenhagen.

In Gothenburg the community center the brilliant Stockholm-based songwriter and another old friend and touring partner of Anne's, Jan Hammarlund and I played in was Marx Engels Huset, a very nice five-story building in the center of town owned by the Swedish Communist Party. 

The day before I flew home I was introduced up close to another piece of the Scandinavian infrastructure of the very well-established kind, one of the reasons why so much of the most cutting edge science comes out of Denmark, the Niels Bohr Institute.

The gig at the last of the Folkets Huses I played at, one with a particularly radical, 60's-era history to it, in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen, featured a well-traveled audience.  Several folks came from across the bridge in Sweden, some travelers from Ireland came via Greece and Berlin, still with some Thessaloniki tear gas in their clothes, and from Germany and Massachusetts there were two climate scientists, with keys to the Institute.  Michael showed me around the mysterious-looking pieces of equipment with which he is intimately familiar, having to do with extracting ice cores in places like Greenland and Antarctica, and how they isolate the gases and examine the dust particles and figure out all kinds of stuff about how screwed we are at the present moment in geological time. 

I'm not sure how these little observations about the past month's travels might come across to folks in Scandinavia, but I'm pretty sure for most people in the US who haven't traveled much outside of the country, a lot of what I've described might sound like a very nice fantasy.  At the same time, I hope it also serves to explain a little why we have such a widespread problem with historical amnesia in the United States, so little continuity from one social movement to another, and why our social movements tend to be so spasmodic in nature.  We profoundly lack infrastructure.  Like we lack basically all the infrastructure I've been describing here.  That's the infrastructure that sustains people, maintains a certain degree of optimism, and allows communities to truly function as communities, rather than something we call a community, but only mean that in the abstract sense.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Why Real Artists Don't Like Capitalism Or Identity Politics

And Other Things You'll Never Hear On NPR


There is an intense convolution of logic, or any kind of holistic understanding of the world around us -- of politics, of industries and corporate behaviors, or human behavior -- that goes on within the confines of the liberal media.  I'm not talking about the QAnon media, but the media that most of the people reading this probably read or listen to at least occasionally -- NPR, BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. the Guardian, etc.  As far as I can tell as a reluctantly avid listener and reader, they all operate under the principle that if you're going to talk about class or inequality in the United States, this should only be done in the context of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.  This of course also applies to talking about class or inequality within the arts.

It's not at all that the liberal media ignores white artists.  But when they give us some interview with a white artist who has put out a new album, we are treated to the cozy background story the artist worked out with their record label, about how they grew up like any other normal kid, but they were just a little extra geeky and recorded music in their brother's bedroom until they suddenly found themselves on top of the charts.  Omitted is the mention of the fact that this normal suburb was in the county of Los Angeles, and the artist's allegedly normal middle class parents were successful film directors.

In another segment we'll hear an interview with a BIPOC playwright who has gotten a play on Broadway for the first time.  There will be questions about the play itself, perhaps, but the questions will largely focus on the disadvantaged background of the playwright.  What's it like to write a play when you know the majority of your audience (like the majority of the US population) will likely be white?  What's it like to write for the White Gaze?  What's it like to work in an industry dominated by white people?  Do you think you'll ever get another play on Broadway, or is this a 2020-influenced one-off?

Occasionally there will be a story about the way the music industry shrank down to 20% of its former size since the turn of the century, in the new economy dominated by Big Tech corporations.  Occasionally they'll talk about the hedge funds buying up all the residential and commercial real estate, making it virtually impossible for independent artists or venues to survive, with the ever-growing cut being demanded by the financial institutions that are now everybody's landlords.

But mostly we don't hear about the collapse of these industries.  It is now assumed that touring musicians go back to their day jobs when they get home, to start paying off their tour-related debts, or else they're subsidizing their life through crowdfunded patronage or inherited wealth of some kind.  It is assumed that if an independent band wants to make a record, they have to have a successful crowdfunding campaign first.  Same goes increasingly for publishing a book, with a publisher, or making a documentary.

It is within these circumstances of collapsing artistic industries and the rise of Big Tech that the reporters ask their BIPOC guests how BIPOC people might be featured in the mainstream artistic industries centered in the unaffordable capitals like Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville.  But they're never asked questions like, how do you find it trying to make it as an artist in the context of a collapsing industry?  Only questions related to how they might find more of a place within it -- like finding a corner of the basement of the building, amid the rubble, but the questions are never contextualized that way.

The white artists are never asked what it's like to be a white artist in a majority-white country singing for mostly white audiences.  It would, I suppose they suppose, be like asking someone what they think of the sun rising in the east.  Another question they never ask the white artists, or any of the artists, is what is it like working within an industry that is so exclusive that most of the artists you've ever heard of were in one form or another born into the industry?

In the music industry you have a pretty bizarre combination of circumstances.  There are various longstanding narratives being methodically pumped out.  One is about artists who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.  (Being born into a well-connected family of working artists is rarely one of the stories.)  Another is the antiracism that supposedly permeates the music industry, and the youth in particular (always the youth, of whatever generation).

If the industry is disproportionately excluding marginalized people (which it most definitely is), the preferred liberal media narrative focuses on white artists appropriating the work of other people in various forms, and getting rich and famous off of it.  This appropriation can involve a writer attempting to write from the perspective of someone from a different race, gender, etc., or an artist adopting the style or using content created by marginalized people.

When the reporters -- often themselves working for outlets that are owned or funded by the same corporations responsible for producing films and TV programs and publishing music -- interview artists from backgrounds the interviewers acknowledge as marginalized, the consistent focus is never about how the arts could be sustained for everyone in society in a generally egalitarian way, that does not give unfair advantage to rich, well-connected people.  Rather, the focus is on how the collapsing shell of what was once called the independent music business, or off-Broadway theater, or Broadway theater, or what were once called the "major labels," could better include marginalized people in the bomb shelter beneath the collapsing building.  

Though they don't put it that way.  The answer, so goes the liberal media narrative, is not about reforming a corrupt industry, or embracing an alternative to a society based on cutthroat, landlord-driven capitalism.  It is about getting white artists to give space to BIPOC artists, realize our privilege, stop hogging the spotlight, stop playing music from other people's cultures, and stop writing from the perspective of someone who's not just like we are.

It reminds me of the reporters who used to ask Britney Spears why she wears so little clothing.  As if she, with all her agency as a twenty-something pop star, decided on her style of dress on stage.  Or if she had any influence on her outfits, as if she were responsible for the pop music industry's requirements for their stars.  This is part of the media narrative of the self-made pop star with agency.

Now that I've set the stage a little in terms of the kind of discussions in the liberal media that I'm talking about, I'd like to take you way back in time, before we return to the present.

Going back as far as any archaeologists can surmise, in every corner of the world where there have been human populations, people have been playing music.  They've been singing, playing flutes and other types of wind instruments, as well as stringed instruments, both fretted and bowed.   As with spoken as well as written language, no one knows where the first flute, fretted instrument, or bowed instrument was made.  They're likely to have developed in different parts of the world, independently of each other.

Going back as far as any historians know, there has been some form of the bardic tradition in cultures around the world.  Around the world there has been the tradition of musicians and storytellers traveling between communities and sharing the news and thoughts of the day with people, along with traders and other travelers.

It has often been noted by historians that port towns tend to produce a disproportionate number of forward-thinking radicals, because of the tendency within port communities for people to interact with a wide variety of people from other ports.  I'm sure the same can be said historically of traveling artists, for the same reasons.

The music industry was a much later development, only going back a little more than a century.  The industry created the up-from-the-bootstraps narratives for its artists just as it created music genres, and which types of people belonged in which genres.  The corporations in charge, and the blatantly racist state in which it was functioning -- the United States, in particular -- dictated these practices.  Rock and roll was defined by the industry as white music.  Rhythm and blues was defined as Black music.  If a rock band wanted to have a Black member in the band and be commercially successful, for most of the existence of the genre, both north and south, this was virtually impossible, and just generally not allowed by those who called the shots, which, contrary to popular mythology, has rarely been the artists.

But without an analysis of the massive institutional problems within a hopelessly corrupt, corporate music industry that exists in the context of a society run by a government that supports the arts about 1/100th as much as they do in Europe, regardless of which party is in power -- a government that pretends to be completely helpless to do anything about the overall, general demise of the arts in this country as a means of making a living for people -- we are left with some kind of identity politics trench warfare.  

The problem, we are informed by the pundits, backed up by the rare artist they might find who is willing to amplify their position, is cultural appropriation, and the solution is for people to be empowered to tell their own stories, and for people from a more privileged background not to do it for them.

On the face of it, it's a great idea, people telling their own stories, of course.  It's also just words.  Without addressing the systemic problems of people who aren't rich and well-connected having any hope of accessing the relatively few positions of stardom and influence that are available, let alone making any kind of a living from being musicians, actors, playwrights, etc., we're left with the notion that if artists -- especially more privileged ones, never clearly defined -- did better at staying within their own cultural silos, there would somehow then be more room for marginalized ones to be heard.

I'm pretty sure it doesn't work like that, in terms of more marginalized artists being heard.  There are so many obstacles in the way, that won't be overcome with platitudes, or by white artists attempting to somehow amorphously "give space" to marginalized artists, as they all struggle to survive -- but with fundamental reforms to a totally broken system.  

One thing that all this extremely and intentionally vague talk of cultural appropriation will likely accomplish, other than stirring the pot of the news cycle a bit more, is to create more barriers to mutual understanding in society, and in the world.  People can make all the accusations they want, and they can feel as guilty as they can feel, but neither the accusations nor the guilt will change the fundamental fact that the best, most ground-breaking art throughout human history has always been born out of people playing each other's music, and getting into each other's heads.

If the troubadours from anywhere in the world were ever told that in order to tell the story of a place or an event or a people, you need to be from that place or from that tribe or you need to have personally witnessed the event in question, they would have thought this a very strange notion, presumably, since the evidence available suggests that they certainly never embraced the concept, anywhere, or at least not for very long, in the broad view of history.

This is one of the many instances where the line of questioning from the liberal media on the subject of the arts completely misses the boat.  No real artist would ever say you should stay in your artistic silo.  Don't believe me?  Try to find one.  Any artist who is serious about creativity embraces artistic traditions they may not be familiar with, as well as ones they are familiar with.  This is fundamental to being a creative person, and fundamental to the history of creativity itself, on planet Earth, anyway.

Anyone who has written a song from the perspective of another person that is effective -- that conveys the story and the feeling around the person in a way that transports audiences to the place, time, person in question -- knows that among the greatest achievements as a writer of any kind is when you are able to transcend the confines of your own self-definition, and embrace the wider humanity that's out there.  Not only embrace the stories and perspectives of people who don't look like you or aren't from your country or region, but even people who are from another time period, who you have no chance of ever even meeting, let alone being.  

Any artist who has fully embraced the creative process knows that transcending the confines of our self-definitions, the confines of the cultural perspective we were raised with, the confines of all the different boxes we have always been told we belong in, characterized by things like region, class, race, gender, religion, family background, and whatever else, is absolutely fundamental to making art that anyone would ever consider to be great.

The pundits don't know this, perhaps.  And the capitalists would rather convince us that the problem is our internal biases or stage-hogging tendencies.  But whatever internal biases or stage-hogging tendencies any of us artists may have, the biggest problems facing working artists today of all backgrounds can be found in a broken capitalist infrastructure that won't be repaired with the Band-Aid of identity politics.

A Tale of Two Narratives

Was it a peaceful gathering, a riot, or an insurrection?  That depends on who we're talking about, and who's talking about them. Eve...