Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Trolls' Toll

I'm doing a west coast tour next week, and the wackos are back, trying to intimidate gig organizers into canceling my little acoustic gigs, calling up farmers and people hosting house concerts to tell them I'm a Nazi.  Welcome to my life in 2022.

I write a lot about politics, capitalism, social media, and the music industry.  Sometimes about how all of these things intersect.  Today will be no different, except with an emphasis on mental health. 

I write about these things because I think about them so much, and I do that because they dominate my life.  It's a good life, but there's a lot of room for improvement.

Broadly, over the past few days and weeks, aside from the usual backdrop of massacres, floods, fires, and famine, Ticketmaster has been in the news.  The company is a massively profitable monopoly, making billions while so many other elements of the industry they largely run wither and die.  And then they can't even operate a website well enough to manage a Taylor Swift concert tour so that her fans can buy the wildly expensive tickets they're selling, with their profit-maximizing algorithm, that basically allows them to charge as much as they can get away with.

Along with complaints about Ticketmaster, the music industry is in the news lately because of so many bands cancelling tours.  Looking into it, the reasons for this that keep coming up revolve around the crazy economics of touring under the circumstances of an ongoing pandemic with wildly rising prices for everything involved with traveling, and mental health.  These factors can't easily be separated from each other.  I don't know if anyone has tried to figure out who is canceling tours solely for mental health reasons, and is unaffected by the economics involved.

Around three decades ago I was hosting open mics in the Boston area every week.  There was an older guy, a poet, who was a regular.  He was really good, and he often talked about the mental health of artists, and how sad it was that so many poets were depressed or suicidal.  This was right around the time that Kurt Cobain killed himself, so there was plenty of broader context for his concerns.

There was a study from shortly before pandemic times that found that musicians are three times as likely as normal to suffer from depression or anxiety.  The study explored various reasons for this.  One particularly interesting observation is that this situation exists across the board for musicians, from those eking out a living playing in local bars to those packing stadiums.

There are big differences in the lives of musicians, some of whom are very rich and some of whom are very poor, to take one example of those big differences.  But the similarities appear to be more powerful than the differences, at least as far as inducing depression and anxiety goes.  Whether you're hopping freight trains or traveling in a tour bus, touring can be very isolating.  

A typical experience with the touring life for musicians at all levels involves relatively short bursts of intense activity and social connection, such as a gig, followed by long stretches of relative isolation, such as being far away from most of your friends or family in someone's guest room or in a hotel room or some other unfamiliar location, or back in an overly-familiar location such as a tour bus or a red-eye flight.

There is a thrill, with lots of measurable chemical components, to performing, followed by what might often be comparatively like sensory deprivation, being alone in a car or van.  The basic principle applies, whether you're playing for a crowd of fifty or fifty thousand.

There are many other common factors, such as the precarity of the profession.  If you're used to packing living rooms for house concert tours, you wonder whether next year you'll get all those volunteer hosts wanting to book you again, and whether enough of those octogenarian folkies will be alive to attend next year's shows.  If you just wrapped up a stadium tour, you're wondering whether you'll have a top 10 hit next year, to warrant the management company's interest in organizing another one.

At all levels, the experience of being on stage is addictive.  At all levels, loneliness is lonely.  At all levels, there is a profound uncertainty about what next year might hold for you and your profession.

Is it worse than it used to be?  The study seems to be one-of-a-kind, so I don't know what data we'd try to compare it with, from the twentieth century, for example.  The music industry has dramatically shrunk and become much more economically precarious over the past 25 years, so I would surmise that things have gotten harder for a lot of folks, across the board.

Another reason things have become more stressful across the board, I have no doubt at all, is due to the impact of what they call social media.

Even in the early days of Facebook, studies were finding that the more time someone spent on the platform, the more depressed they tended to become, even if what you were doing was generally just looking at the nice pictures your friends were posting.  Add the more obviously negative and extremely common behaviors of so many people on social media, like insults, bullying, or harassment, and it's altogether much worse.

Before the internet, and especially before social media, if people wanted to say something about an artist, they could talk to their friends, or perhaps they could write an article in a newspaper.  If they wanted to communicate with an artist, they could write a letter to them care of their record label, and hope they actually saw the thing.  Aside from publishing an article somewhere, hosting a radio show, or talking to a room full of your friends, there was little opportunity for grandstanding or virtue-signaling, in comparison with the age of social media posting.  If someone had something to say that was intended for an artist to hear, they could write to the artist directly.  If they wanted to make a public statement, there were options, but they generally involved an editor or producer's input.

I don't know the percentages, but I think it's fair to say that a lot more artists than you might think read their fan mail, and even responded to it, in the days of print media and physical mail.  In the age of social media, I'm quite certain this has not changed.  This probably comes as no surprise when we're talking about the folkies on the house concert tours.  But from my own, admittedly limited personal experience with knowing people who have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, the rock stars (as well as the media stars, and members of parliaments around the world) get up in the morning and check their email and the notifications on their phones, just like the rest of us do.  They may have staff helping them filter some of the incoming, but the basic phenomenon is the same, along with the associated emotional burden.

I had been thinking about writing something on this subject when I read about all those bands cancelling their tours on the grounds of mental health maintenance.  But over the past couple days, I've been reminded that although I'm generally in a good mood, this is a very personal struggle for me, too.

It is often said by people that even if they get a hundred messages of support or praise, it's the one attack message featuring the false allegation that tends to get their attention.  This is a basic human tendency that probably has all kinds of origins and makes all kinds of sense, as problematic as it is.

Even if you're not in a position to receive daily messages of praise from people you've never met, I'm pretty sure you can put yourself in my shoes here.  Just imagine, if you will, that every morning when you wake up, like me, you see a few notifications from people commenting on YouTube and other platforms that you're an amazing musician, you should be famous, this song is so great, etc.  But then you also get a Google Alert about a minor news story in San Francisco that, among other interests, the guy that just trespassed onto the Pelosi's residence and swung a hammer at Paul Pelosi's head was at some point a big fan of my music.  That sticks out, doesn't it?  That was my morning two days ago.

Then the next day, yesterday, I got an email from Todd in Eugene, host of the house concert I'll be doing there coming right up.  Seating is limited, so as is normal with house concerts, people have to RSVP, and Todd's phone number is on the posters.  He got a phone call from a woman telling him in no uncertain terms that I am a Nazi.

The socialists, communists, anarchists, and other folks from ten different countries who praised my music on YouTube yesterday were all very nice, and each comment felt like a kiss on the cheek.  But hearing that someone called Todd to tell him that the person he was hosting for a house concert was a Nazi was more like a punch in the stomach.

Sectarianism and division in society -- including bizarre forms of sectarianism within the left, that could result in a left-identified person declaring that a fellow member of the left is a Nazi -- is nothing new, and is obviously not limited to the internet.  Neither are phone calls or smear campaigns, which have both been around a very long time now.  But the capacity for large number of people to engage in the kind of one-dimensional thinking that could possibly have someone from a left background coming to the conclusion that this guy who by all appearances and according to all of his recordings is obviously a leftwing musician is actually some kind of closet Nazi has never been as worrying a phenomenon as it is today -- certainly not in my lifetime.

Other studies that peppered the airwaves throughout the pandemic have been about how stressful lockdown and all that has been for most people, with general levels of depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide going through the roof.  This is, as far as I understand, the case for people of all walks of life, though it's surely a lot worse for some than for others.

And once again, for society at large as with professional musicians, so many of the factors involved are similar for everyone.  None of us were on tour during lockdown, and everyone was to one degree or another spending too much time online, specifically on social media platforms.  

But whether it can be empirically demonstrated or not, my hypothesis is that the polarization and conflict that is systematically produced by the basic ways the major platforms are designed -- each with their own built-in system for creating division and conflict, or at least for allowing it to bloom -- is one of the biggest common factors in the general rise in feelings of alienation in society over recent years, and for the flowering of fringe sectarian ideas that would otherwise have a very hard time finding much of a local audience anywhere.

For more specifics on the particular ways different platforms do this work of creating division within society, I can recommend books, documentaries, and also the essay I published last week.  To find out how many people there are on the ground in person who think I'm a Nazi, you'll have to come to one of my gigs.  I'm doing a west coast tour, playing in Eugene, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, San Francisco, Ashland and Cave Junction between December 7-13, including a protest outside of Twitter HQ on Market Street at 11 am on the 10th.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Trolls, Mastodons, Wikipedians, and the Condition of Our Communications

We've been watching the drama playing out with Twitter, in particular since it was taken over by the world's richest man.  In the search for alternatives, Mastodon is in the news a lot lately.  Meanwhile, if you do a search on Google for the inventor of the electric toaster, the fourth link down will tell you about the guy who set up a hoax page on Wikipedia about it having been invented by a Scottish guy, and the fifth link down is a serious website promoting Scotland, including a serious story about the nonexistent Scottish inventor of the appliance. 

Far more worryingly, for me, anyway, among a lot of other inaccuracies on the Wikipedia page about a guy named David Rovics, is that he is apparently accused of antisemitism and Holocaust denial due to having interviewed the wrong people on his YouTube channel.  The accusation that David talking to the wrong people on his YouTube channel makes him an antisemitic Holocaust-denier is backed up by the citation of a link to an anonymously-written article in an online publication that has no editor, but which apparently meets Wikipedia's terms as a legitimate source.

Under the rule of viral retweets and YouTube videos, online disinformation campaigns conducted by intelligence agencies and freelancers alike, and algorithms oriented towards promoting anything sensational -- algorithms that don't even have the capacity to judge the accuracy of what is being promoted -- increasing numbers of people are realizing that we are in the midst of an information dystopia of terrifying proportions.  With profit-driven corporations completely in control, people are looking for alternatives, and not finding them.

There has never been a golden age for effective grassroots communication that I know of, and the idea of creating a perfect framework in which this could happen is very complicated and fraught with myriad pitfalls.  But it's pretty easy to see what kinds of factors tend towards facilitating meaningful discourse and effective organizing among people using different means of communicating with each other -- one-on-one and more broadly -- and which factors tend towards sowing confusion and conflict.  And as the corporate comms landscape continually evolves, it seems helpful to take stock of some relevant aspects of how things were before, where we are now, and the potential directions in which we're headed.

For anyone my age, or anyone who has studied the history of the latter half of the twentieth century, why I say there was never a golden age is obvious.  Prior to the internet, communications were carried out by a wide variety of other means, both mass and very local.  There were the big, corporate propaganda outlets that we know and despise today, and then there was also a wide array of local media -- local commercial and community radio stations, local print publications, etc.

Anyone who has been involved with journalism at all, and has worked with an editor, knows that editors can, and often do, play a crucially important role in the process of doing good journalism of any kind.  By the same token, people who have worked for corporate-owned outlets can easily tell what kind of influence the corporate owners have on decisions made by editors about content, which investigations get funded and which don't, and so on.  Any editor who says they're truly, completely independent of their publication's corporate owner is simply lying.  (Ask them after they retire, and you might get a more honest answer.)

Through a combination of deregulatory reforms and changing technology, the last two decades of the twentieth century saw the collapse of local print and radio journalism.  Before, local reporters might do terribly biased coverage of local events, but then they lost their jobs, and now in so many cases if anyone is going to hear about something that happens somewhere, it will at least at first be from someone's cell phone video posted on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or in recent years, TikTok.  Then the various forces at work on those platforms do what they do, with some videos getting a lot of attention, and then getting spun in different ways for different reasons by different players on the communication landscape, with other videos just sitting there, barely viewed, commented on, or spun at all, whether by nefarious actors or well-intentioned people.

As we reflect on the pros and cons of the past and present media and social media landscapes in an effort to hopefully forge a less dystopic future, I think it's worth dwelling for a moment on the late 1990's, not as a period that can or should be exactly reproduced, but as a moment in time when the internet had become a popular thing, in very widespread use, but the Big Tech companies and their platforms had not yet become dominant.

What was significant about this period, especially, was the ubiquity of the moderated email list.  Prior to what we now all know of as the social media news feed, the email list ruled supreme.  If you were around and organizing anything, whether a protest or a festival or a concert tour or whatever else, prior to 1995 or after 1995, you know what I'm talking about.  Prior to 1995, before most people had email addresses and were checking their email more or less daily, if you wanted to reach people, your main options were getting the attention of a media outlet -- increasingly difficult with the collapse of local media already well underway -- or you could spend a lot of money on postage stamps and a lot of time writing addresses (or printing, peeling, and affixing stickers with addresses) on envelopes and postcards.

When email, and email announcement lists, came along, most of us stopped doing these expensive mailouts, pretty much overnight, and we never really looked back.  But there was a reason for this -- the well-run email list could completely replace the expensive, time-consuming mailouts.  It worked pretty much just as well, but it was basically free.  But now, in addition to having your own email list, there was also the phenomenon of email lists moderated by other people who you could send relevant announcements to, and once the moderator checked to make sure it was a legitimate post, they'd let it go out to the list.

Eventually, by the early 2000's, the Big Tech platforms we're familiar with today came into existence, and took over.  They did this intentionally and methodically.  Their method was the same as the methods of other monopolistically-inclined corporate behemoths of our times, and prior times.  First, with massive financial resources, they operate at a loss if necessary in order to offer a very useful service, for free.  This way, they kill off competing services or methods of communication or methods of organizing.  Then, once they've taken over the spaces they were looking to dominate, they start charging, in any number of ways, some of which are obvious only to some and not to most users, and this is also part of the strategy of control they're practicing.

So, for example, at first the Facebook news feed, when it came into existence, was a chronological feed of posts from your friends or people you followed.  This made it extremely useful for anyone using Facebook as a means of organizing anything.  The more followers or friends on the platform you had, the more likely more people were to see your posts.  If they thought whatever you were sharing was interesting, each time there was a good chance of your post getting shared a lot, to folks who weren't even following you on the platform.

As a result of the Facebook feed being so incredibly useful for folks like me back then, many of us (not including me) abandoned our email lists entirely.  Many people who used to spend most of their time online reading and writing emails were now spending most of their time on one or more corporate-owned platforms like Facebook or YouTube.  

Once they got us all roped in, they changed everything, dramatically, overnight, but again, only some people noticed.  If you had a lot of followers and were using the platform to promote events, tours, songs, etc., you noticed right away.  Suddenly it was crickets out there.  If you were, however, like the vast majority of Facebook users, just following friends and posting random stuff, you probably didn't notice anything change.  Perhaps at some point you might think, hm, I seem to be seeing fewer posts from Rovics these days, but then, you'd be seeing lots of other posts of interest from other people you knew, so it wouldn't be so obvious.  And then soon, maybe again you were seeing posts from those musicians you were following, and maybe you didn't notice that the reason you were now seeing their posts again might be because of the fact that it was "sponsored."

Of course, it remains tantalizingly the case that posts can still go viral on any of these platforms, and this can be a very good thing for people involved, if what's going viral involves the promotion of an event or a new book or something, for example.  But it became overwhelmingly the case that now, with the advent of Facebook and the rest, you were now paying to promote posts, much the same way you had to pay to send out postcards to people on your mailing list, pre-internet.  The fear many people had that the government was going to start taxing us per email sent or received never materialized, but Facebook figured out how to do it, through the back door.

Each of the other major corporate platforms that have managed to keep a big chunk of the attention of a large portion of the world's population have their particular attractions and problems.  Twitter's attraction is that it continues to be a chronological news feed, more or less, and the one that everybody else interested in that specific phenomenon continues to use.  If Facebook and Instagram are where most people keep track of what their friends are up to, Twitter is where people keep track of what the journalists, politicians, activists and celebrities are putting out there.  Anyone in any space that used to have any interest in press releases put out by anyone is today on Twitter.

The upside of a chronological feed like Twitter for people with a big following is they will be heard by a lot of people.  This has obvious benefits for promoting or organizing anything, without spending a lot of money.  But if you developed your large following on Twitter by spouting sensationalistic disinformation and you have a cult of worshippers eager to retweet everything you put out there, whether you're doing this on your own volition or being secretly paid by the KGB, no one is really moderating anything.  

Or, to put it another way, there was, at least until Musk, some degree of monitoring of content from certain accounts, which even involved flagging or banning on occasion.  But the extent to which consistently-produced and well-made content from popular accounts can get attention always seems to overwhelm any efforts at moderating content.  Combine these problems with the ease that an account with few followers can have at gaining the attention of anyone looking at a Twitter thread of interest, in order to sow doubt about a person, organization, or idea, and you have a massive societal problem, a platform which is just ridiculously easy to hijack for the purposes of smear campaigning and spreading disinformation, whether you're an independent actor or a foreign intelligence agency or whoever else.

YouTube, in search of the highest profit margin, tries to keep people watching as long as possible.  The formula is sensationalism, provoking emotional reactions from viewers, with no regard to the veracity of any of the material the platform automatically plays for anyone who goes there looking for a particular video.  Whatever the start point is, the next videos may or may not be related to the last one, but they will be connected algorithmically -- they'll be videos that YouTube's algorithms think will keep you watching longer.  This means generally that within a few videos of watching whatever content you started out with, if it was related to climate change, a few videos along you'll be seeing one about how climate science is a hoax.

As Twitter seems to be suffering a meltdown, Mastodon has gained a million new members.  This is still small potatoes, and nowhere near the kind of numbers needed to become a new sort of gathering place for society.  As imperfect a space as the major platforms are, this is what they have become.  A sort of corporate commons.

Last time everyone was talking about deleting Facebook, Reddit was the talked-about alternative.  Facebook Groups are fashioned after Reddit's Subreddit system of organization.  My own experience since joining Reddit several years ago is once you find a well-moderated Subreddit that's oriented around something you're into, the system of upvoting and downvoting content results in a lot of people seeing higher-quality content, once they're tuned in to Subreddits of interest.  But both the Subreddits and the Facebook Groups rely on volunteer moderators who can become easily overwhelmed if there is any organized trolling going on on the groups they're trying to monitor, which is often talked about by Redditors, for good reason.

This same phenomenon is clearly in evidence with Wikipedia, as well-intentioned a project as it is, with its network of volunteer editors around the world.  Organized efforts on the part of ill-intentioned actors who want to smear the reputation of an individual with a page can be effective.  Without even looking beyond the page about me on there, this is evident.  Most of the content on the page was clearly written around 2005, some of it is misleading and very out-of-date.  Without any volunteer editors updating much of the page for the past 15 years or so, it's not hard to imagine how easy it would have been for people wanting to smear someone with nonsense about antisemitism to do so -- "citation needed" is the most common phrase you'll see on Wikipedia, but what constitutes a legitimate citation includes publications with anonymous authors and no editors, which are really nothing more vetted than someone's blog.

Within the realm of entities we have come to call social media we can also include music streaming platforms like Spotify.  Or maybe I just mean Spotify, which has become the dominant music streaming platform -- the space for music -- much as Twitter is the space for the news feed, and Facebook/Instagram the space for finding and keeping up with most of your friends, both actual and virtual.  Spotify is where people, especially younger people, curate and listen to and share their music.  It's a big deal, and from the vantage point of a user, it's easy to see why.  Pretty much all the music of the world is now on there for free listening, and the platform's algorithms, by which they queue up the next song in the playlists they create based on the musical selection you started the Spotify session with, are amazing.  The dramatic lowering of the payouts to musicians per song streamed has been a phenomenon led by Spotify and copied by most of their competitors, but it has allowed the platform to become the place where people now listen to music -- another monopoly, basically.

We have lost control of our comms, and given them over to vulture capitalists, who have handed us back some profit-driven, conflict- and disinformation prone semblance of what we were looking for.

Describing the present, disastrous state of affairs is a lot easier than doing something about it, to be sure.  But it's also essential to know where things are at, in order to begin to consider what needs to be done about it.  One of the aspects, at this point, in terms of where things are at, is despite what people like Mark Zuckerberg are fond of saying repeatedly, it's not true that there are little platforms waiting in the wings to become Facebook or Spotify or Google's next major challenger.  In most cases, competitors will be bought or copied.

Facebook/Instagram are the living room, at this point, it's a monopolistic entity.  The stereo in the living room is run by Spotify.  The geezer sitting on the couch is reading Twitter, and watching YouTube.

Starting a platform that might challenge what these corporations have come to represent is about like trying to convince your friends and family to move to a different country.  Some adventurous types will be raring to go, but most will wish you luck and stay where all the rest of their friends and family are.

In another world, the social media monopolies could be regulated for the common good, and run transparently, rather than by secret algorithms.  If this negatively impacts the corporation's bottom line, that's fine, of course, if we're talking about the common good, not corporate profit, being the bottom line.  

It's not possible to overstate the negative impact on society, and on us as individuals, when so much of what we see online is determined by secret algorithms.  Whether we hear about local events or mainly see pictures of our friends' babies and pets mixed in with the latest massacre, whether we stumble across intelligent commentary or bathing suit pictures or antisemitic conspiracy theories, day after day, is ultimately too important to leave to a secret, for-profit corporate algorithm.

Many other forms of regulation are in order, in a remade world.  Looking back at the age of local media, it's easy to see that the bias of media owners and the drive to appeal to advertisers had a very negative impact, generally, but the existence of journalists covering local events otherwise had many merits, as did the existence of editors verifying facts presented by reporters and those they interviewed.  Could we not have a society with plenty of local journalists and editors, who aren't working for profit-driven corporations?  We can, in fact.  Such societies actually already exist.  

And if we can do that, then why not democratically decide what a news feed algorithm should look like, or if there should be one at all?  And a video recommendation algorithm, and music recommendation algorithm as well?  And payout rates for content creators even, perhaps?  Why not have this all be concrete and transparent, and not designed to promote sensationalist disinformation so much of the time?  Why not a payout system that is designed for the long-term survival of content creators, rather than the growth of the corporations that are trying to monopolize the world's eyes and ears?

Making Facebook or YouTube's algorithms transparent, or reforming Twitter, Reddit or Wikipedia to make them less prone to trolling still won't eliminate organized smear campaigning conducted by well-resourced governments, corporations, etc.  Human involvement which probably doesn't just rely on volunteer labor is essential, whatever that might look like.  AI is no replacement for all the unemployed journalists and editors of the world.  

But if we were, very hypothetically, going to start somewhere, I'd suggest we start with the algorithms.  If we can't get control of the algorithms, there is no question at all that they will continue to control us.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Failure's Silver Lining

After 27 rounds of annual talks that amount to just a bunch of corporate hot air, we're hopefully that much closer to the tipping point when people give up on relying on the capitalists to save us.

Even the bushy-tailed liberal pundits increasingly are having to admit what is abundantly obvious, that the leaders of the world have abjectly failed to cut back on the deadly pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere which are now leading us to a future of ever-worsening climate catastrophe.  And even if leaders of countries like the US actually start following through with what have so far been a long series of completely empty promises, it's way too late to prevent the feedback loops that are already happening. 

The glaciers will continue to disappear, the ice shelfs will continue to break apart and melt, the oceans will rise, the loss of the permafrost will let all the methane stored down there out, this is all going to happen, unless miracles are real and there really is going to be a Second Coming, or visitors drop in from another galaxy with magic wands who can do some terraforming and turn our planet back into the Garden of Eden.  Otherwise, after the catastrophes the Earth has in store during the rest of the 21st century, we have the 22nd to look forward to -- or whoever's left alive by then does.  The 22nd century is when we won't be talking about how much the global temperatures or the oceans have risen, but by what time the third planet starts looking like the second one.

I personally know a number of climate scientists.  They're all universally horrified by what they are seeing, now, and even more by what the future has in store, which looks a lot like the greatest environmental calamity the Earth has faced since the meteor that hit the Earth and led to the fifth mass extinction event here, 65 million years ago.  We are now past the tipping point in terms of prevention.  Regardless of whether we all stop burning fossil fuels right away, right now, we can only at this point make the disaster less terrible.  It's no longer preventable -- the cycles of mass extinction, burning of the forests, melting of the polar ice, mass methane release, rising oceans, desertification of much of the world's surface, etc., is all well underway.

Hopefully I'm just telling you things you already know so far, we're on the same page as far as climate science goes, and you're wondering when I might get to my thesis.  Here it is.

As the climate scientists say, the systems around the planet that determine how the climate changes, when major dramatic developments occur in different parts of the world, are complex, and often impossible to predict accurately.  For example, at some point the Gulf Stream will move dramatically to the west and not return to its current position.  When this happens, it will affect Europe's climate in a huge way.  But exactly when this move will take place, whether it's next year or several decades from now, is much harder to be sure about.  In other words, they can tell we're close to a tipping point, when a tip is imminent, but exactly when the actual tip occurs is very hard to say.

Individual people, communities, and entire societies also have tipping points of all sorts.  When some aspect (or many aspects) of life becomes unbearable for people, they eventually react.  This can take so many different forms.  In the popular imagination, or at least big parts of it, when a people or a significant population within a given society reach this tipping point and start reacting to their circumstances as a group, this is a terrifying thing.  Images from Lord of the Flies or the Walking Dead or a zillion other dystopic, imagined worlds are evoked.

Of course there's no question that anything people have done to each other in the Walking Dead pales in comparison with what people in the real world have done to each other.  Things can get very dark indeed, and we have plenty of cases of organized genocide to attest to this fact, from every continent aside from Antarctica, at some point or other.  

But the human story is also one of social movements and uprisings that have achieved magnificent things.  I'm not attempting to suggest that we can avoid so many of the horrors that lay in store for our planet, our species, and so many other species we share this thin blue atmosphere with.  Although, who knows what possibilities there might be.  But what I would just put out there, in the hope that it might, amid the darkness, have at least a slightly therapeutic effect, is that when a people, a community, a society reaches a tipping point, where the status quo is no longer bearable or sensible for huge numbers of people, what can happen, what often has happened regularly throughout world history, are social movements and rebellions that take so many forms.

And what I would say about mass movements forming and taking hold of the hearts and minds of large groups of people is, first of all, it's about as hard to predict when they're going to really take off as it is to predict the tipping point for when the Gulf Stream might migrate to the west, but the pressures leading in the direction of this happening are clear, in both cases.  Either way, whether it can be predicted accurately or not, once a forward-looking social movement gets off the ground and the various forms of social movement infrastructure start taking shape, if you're ever lucky enough to participate in such a movement, despite all the many pitfalls and dangers involved, it will likely be the most memorably positive experiences with human solidarity and community that you will ever have.

Whether "most men live lives of quiet desperation" as Thoreau postulated, poll after poll in modern times indicate that a very large percentage of society is chronically lonely, anxious, and depressed.  While there may or may not be a panacea for this condition, my own personal experience, and that of many others, is that being part of a social movement is the best cure there is for anyone who feels isolated or pessimistic, or even just bored.

It's not just because social movements tend to be threatening to and opposed by the powers-that-be in ways that can result in death, injury, imprisonment, different forms of blacklisting, etc., for some or many of those participating in it, which naturally makes them exciting and generally not so boring.  The main thing, it seems to me, is that when you have huge numbers of people collectively acting for the common good, and generally putting the interests of the movement first, what happens is magical.

At times like these, where in so much of the world it seems like nationalism, xenophobia, drilling, and digging are the order of the day, it's easy to forget -- or never to know in the first place -- how transformative social movements can be, for individual participants and for societies.

Historically, it is overwhelmingly the case that when good things happen in the world, a social movement was mostly responsible for it.  We in the US live in an age of tent cities, mass incarceration, and environmental devastation, to be sure.  But so much of the prosperity that does exist here and in so many other countries in what we used to call the industrialized world exists because of the mass movements that ultimately came to be known as the labor movement.

The existence of multi-party democracy in Europe was a direct consequence of the uprisings of the 1840's, that were born of social movements.  A social movement built the first industrial windmill.  Social movements have, on many occasions, taken over cities and regions of different countries, and run things better, despite all those trying to prevent their success, from Shays' Rebellion to the Rent Strike Wars to the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas, and innumerable other examples.

If you examine a historical social movement or live through one, you'll see that movements have a life to them that gives rise to every form of creative expression.  The best books, music, plays, and ideas for how the world could be transformed for the better come out of social movements.

I don't know what the tipping point might be when a really big swath of society here in the US or many other places come to see that there is no hope for the future if we rely on the capitalists who created this disaster to get us out of it -- when people collectively realize that we can and must find another way forward.  In order for such an idea to take root, people have to have a general sense of the possibility of changing things -- a sense of optimism in the possibility that a social movement might conceivably do that.  But when that does happen again -- and if history is any judge, it will -- I can guarantee that a whole lot of people will find meaning in life and experience the best that humanity has to offer, whether we succeed in navigating our way towards a sustainable future, or go down fighting.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Sitting At A Broken Table in Portland, Los Angeles, and Sharm El-Sheikh

In the past few days, so many things have happened on planet Earth.  To mention just a few:  the only renter on the Portland City Council lost her seat, after the last one lost her seat in the previous election.  The Recording Academy announced some of the nominations for the Best Song for Social Change category in their upcoming Grammy Awards ceremony.  And the 27th annual Conference of the Parties climate talks began, in a US-allied military dictatorship called Egypt, where people who hold a protest tend to be considered dangerous terrorists and thrown in squalid, overcrowded prisons, never to be seen again. 

While these things don't all necessarily need to be mentioned in the same paragraph, they are definitely all intimately related, in many ways.  For one thing, there are a whole lot of farces going on.

Biden is in Sharm El-Sheikh making all kinds of promises he has no intention of keeping, promises which were already broken a long time ago.  In my rapidly-gentrifying home state of the past 15 years, Oregon, the pundits are bragging that we have such progressive governance here that we have rent control, and one of the chief advocates for this alleged rent control was just elected governor.  What they don't mention so much is that this rent control is a joke, currently allowing landlords to increase the rent by 15% per year -- far more than most people's income tends to increase each year, if it does.  And not mentioned is the disturbing trend in Portland City Council elections over the past two election cycles, namely the loss of the two renters the body has ever had on it, one of whom was also the only Black woman ever elected to the council.

Absolutely key to the whole question of carbon emissions in this country will be the development of radically different policies in areas like urban development, suburban sprawl, and mass transportation infrastructure.  The unregulated capitalist insanity of the prices of houses and rents doubling every few years is so overwhelmingly obviously going in exactly the wrong direction, as it necessitates ever-expanding suburbs, growing dependence on cars, and longer commutes, not to mention ever-growing tent cities everywhere.  The idea that there are national leaders going somewhere else in the world to talk about dealing with the climate crisis, while at home this is what is happening literally everywhere in the country, is completely, transparently nuts.

It is reported in the press that due to the repressive environment in the Egyptian military dictatorship -- which is never referred to as a military dictatorship, I just added that part for accuracy -- there isn't much in the way of climate-related protests going on, or protests of any kind.  The lack of protesters only serves to emphasize the presence of many more representatives of the oil companies at the conference than there were at the last one, in Scotland, which had plenty of them.

The protesters, of course, don't have a seat at the table, but we're told their presence, when there, helps inspire the delegates at the meetings to be more committed to doing something.  This is assuming that commitments any of them make mean anything, after they completely failed to meet commitments made at previous meetings.

With these sorts of meetings, there's always some kind of a mix of people coming with different aims.  There are those representing poor countries being devastated by climate change who of course want to attend these meetings, in the hope that their situation can't be made any worse in this process, at least.  There are NGO types hoping to have some kind of a useful impact on the inside, along with the oil company lobbyists hoping to neutralize any such useful impact, and the western leaders with their empty platitudes, getting most of the media attention.

And then there are, usually, those on the outside.  At the climate meetings, mostly those on the outside have been people holding alternative conferences and protests they hope might get some attention and have some impact.  At various points in various places there have also been people on the outside gathered with the intent of shutting down the meetings, thus making the point that they're useless meetings full of rich people lying about their intentions, and trying to blame other people for the planetary disaster capitalism has created, while making sure to do it all in a way that's profitable for the corporations making the electric car batteries and windmills.

The NGO types on the inside and lots of other folks in there are good people, trying to do good things, no doubt.  Most of them are aware of how broken the table is, but it's the only table in the room, so they sit at it and act hopeful.  Some of them mention that the table is broken, others hint at it, most try to ignore the obvious, which is often the least awkward thing to do in these situations.

But fundamentally, and very unfortunately, these representatives of mostly capitalist-oriented countries whose governments have long ago been captured or rendered inert by the corporate elite are incapable of solving the problems they have created.  Capitalism creates these problems, and the capitalists make sure anyone or any alternative system trying to solve these problems becomes corrupted or is overthrown, as long as they are in charge.  This is what the CIA and the US military do, primarily, and this has been the case since US foreign policy began.  It's all very well-documented by the victims of US foreign policy who have lived to write about it, you just won't have heard about it on American TV, or in your history textbooks, in all likelihood.

Trying to solve the climate crisis by having meetings with the leaders of the corporations and the countries that are actively making the crisis much worse by the day reminds me of trying to reform the Recording Academy by introducing a Grammy award for the Best Song for Social Change once a year.  Which I learned about from the recent news announcements that the song likely to win is from the dissident Iranian pop star who recorded what has become the theme song of the movement on the streets there since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini.

Granted, the Grammys are a small thing compared to the end of the world, but they're as related as one Russian nesting doll is to the next one.

The major record labels that are the foundation of the Recording Academy have been actively making sure that their industry, the music industry, would pump out formulaic songs set to work within the strict confines of industry-approved music genres with lyrics that consistently dwelled within acceptable, apolitical parameters for a century or so now.  Granted, they have allowed occasional exceptions, especially during periods of mass social upheaval.  Other industries do that sort of thing, too, as do governments.  But the tendency of this industry has been to create a select few, meticulously-managed pop stars, performing and recording material written for them by industry songwriters behind the scenes, sitting in cubicles in Los Angeles.  This has been true for a long time, and it still is, today.  Any effort under such circumstances to try to promote songs for social change will inevitably miss anything that isn't already part of the corporate music industry landscape.

Whether most observers might find commonality between the Oregon elections, the Grammy awards, and COP27, these developments of the past week all illustrate the same phenomenon.  They're all Band-Aids over festering wounds.  

The "rent control governor" gets elected in Salem while the renters lose their seats in Portland and everyone's rent doubles over the course of a few years.  The president visits a dictatorship to talk about climate change while his own party is telling the oil companies they need to do more offshore drilling.  The Recording Academy continues to do its best to hype up and pump out the next crop of ultra-fashionable song-and-dance stars, while finding a good excuse to mention the existence of songs for social change once a year.  And the Earth spins round again.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Why the Neofascists Are Winning the Argument Against the Neoliberals

The new, extra wingnutty right wing of the Republican Party is set to take over the House of Representatives.  Which is, perhaps, especially alarming, because, as the name implies, it is the more representative of the two houses of Congress, for sure.  (In the other one, Wyoming gets the same number of votes as New York.) 

Democrats, and many of those supporting them as the lesser evil, will wring their hands in disbelief at the fact that so many people can vote for people who are clearly in denial of basic realities.  They will be overwhelmed with sadness to think that so many of their fellow Americans support these candidates that they see as obviously bigoted in so many ways.

While I also think most Republican politicians are terrifying, the main reason they're able to do as well as they're doing is because they have rhetorically outflanked the Democrats to the left.

There are of course many other reasons for elections to go different ways, depending on external factors that may or may not have anything to do with the government in power or those vying for power.  Even if the drastic rise in prices of food, fuel, mortgages, and rent were not all caused by the current administration, it's the one in power when these things are causing such havoc, and one version or another of this is playing out in countries around the world, all at the same time.

But now perhaps more than ever, in this age when algorithms, disinformation, and anti-social media feeds have long ago replaced any kind of independent analysis for most people, the victory of the Trumpists and their brethren in places like Italy and India represents a victory for neofascist rhetoric.

For centuries, those seeking to rule the world have been well aware of the popularity of concepts like fraternity, equality, and liberty.  When competent social democrats or various other types of governments are in power and able to provide some semblance of a society that seems to value these concepts, they tend to do well.  

But when the people running the show give lip service to these sorts of notions, while actually, in the view of many, they're serving the interests of a faceless elite or a foreign power?  Then their commitment to these sorts of socialist values rings hollow, and people are much more open to other kinds of thinking.  Traditionally, what neofascists or National Socialists seek to do is to create a narrative that embraces the popular socialist ideals (whether or not they're embraced under such a term as "socialist"), with the intent of using any rhetorical or electoral advantage they may achieve to attempt to strengthen their grip on the various reins of state.

How have the wingnuts achieved the rhetorical high ground, in the view of so many people?  Basically, by embracing longstanding leftwing tropes, that all generally have a lot more than a grain of truth to them.  Some examples:

Rigged elections.  While it is no doubt the case that the Republicans going on about the 2020 election being rigged are talking a whole lot of nonsense, when you get down to the actual specifics, pause for a moment to consider the meta situation here.  Details aside, you have one group of people saying an election was rigged, and another group saying it was "free and fair."  

Do you think our elections are free and fair, my fellow Americans?  With most of the Congress being rich people, does the system seem fair to you?  Have you not been hearing about Political Action Committees and their corrupt influence for several decades?  Have your friends not been campaigning to repeal the Citizens United decision for many years now?  Details aside, who wins this rhetorical argument being "rigged" and "free and fair"?

The government is run by an out-of-touch elite.  This is a statement of the obvious for most people in the US, and it used to be a statement that rang socialist.  These days you're more likely to hear it from a Trumpeter.  This is obviously made even more ridiculous given that Trump is very rich.  But it remains the case that the average Democrat in Congress is worth a bit more than the average Republican, and the ranks of the Biden, Obama, and Clinton administrations were chock full of Ivy League graduates.

From the vantage point of rhetorical power, however, it's not so important that the Republicans be able to defend themselves against the out-of-touch elite characterization.  They need only wait for the Democrats to stuff their feet down their own throats as they attempt to defend their lack of elite status by pointing to the diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation of their politicians, skirting around the class issues, and appearing like an out-of-touch elite in the process.

The government represents special interests.  This is true, obviously, and is an idea that has been propagated for very good reason by progressives for centuries.  Whether the government generally is acting on behalf of a few big property owners or a whole lot of tenant farmers has, for example, been a contentious issue for most of the existence of Europeans and their descendants in North America.  Most people tend to see it's pretty obvious government is usually on the side of the rich.

So then when we have Republicans making the case that the Democrats represent special interests, but that those special interests are marginalized people?  The Democrats, who also represent the rich, along with the Republicans, are left making weak denials about how they really also care about white people.  The fact that by representing the interests of the rich they really don't represent the interests of most people of any race or gender makes the denials about representing special interests hard to believe.  Once again, the Republicans don't need to defend their representation of special interests.  They just need to lean back and watch the Democrats trip over themselves as they fumble the ball.

The government is lying to us and keeping big secrets from us.  There's no doubt that administrations run by both parties have been engaging in lots of surveillance of people and infiltration and disruption of progressive groups as well as occasionally rightwing networks, running programs like Cointelpro, for a long, long time.  It's not just the left that has known about this.  Lots of people are suspicious of these sorts of secret police activities.

So Trump, in his brilliance, took boxes and boxes full of secret papers home with him after losing the last election.  By doing so, he baited the FBI into raiding his home and taking the secrets back with them, which they eventually did, in time for the midterm elections.  Without needing to do or say much of anything, the Republicans can just watch as the Democrats defend the FBI raid by talking about the safety of CIA agents overseas and the importance of the Rule of Law, emphasizing their connection to and concern with the Deep State.

The government and its Free Trade policies don't care about the working class.  Trump pulled out of the free trade deals the Obama administration had been working on, with both Europe and Asia.  That was a popular move with a lot of people.  So were the tariffs against Chinese imports.  The left and advocates for labor have for decades been talking about how wrong it is for American corporations to outsource and relocate to places with lower labor and environmental standards, but both parties supported the continuing deindustrialization of the US and outsourcing of production to places like China.  

Finally Trump came along and did something about it.  That's how it looks to a lot of folks.  Not that he did the right something, but he did something other than continue the status quo of unequal trade relations, is how a lot of people look at it.  What are the Democrats left with, rhetorically?  Defending the free trade deals that led to the deindustrialization of the United States.  They can once again beat themselves, just by being honest about their political position, with the Democratic Party's progressive faction, which also used to oppose these transnational trade talks of the global elite, being a thing of the past.

The government cares more about policing the world than taking care of its own citizens.  This is nonsense, of course.  The government -- led by both parties -- has been an imperial outfit for a very long time, sending its military might around the world to defend corporate interests, or prior to that, the interests of the slave-holding elite.  Talk about democracy and freedom for the countries the US invades has always been just talk, and a whole lot of people are aware of this.

Trump talked about this sort of thing, too, a lot.  He sounded downright anti-imperialist at times.  He talked about pulling the US out of NATO regularly.  And now with Biden the enthusiastic leader of NATO and the free world, on the brink of starting World War 3 with Russia while doing massive military exercises off the Korean coast for the first time since Trump called them off five years ago, the US looks a lot like global cop again.  Most any opposition to these policies in the Congress these days is on the Republican side of the aisle.  For their part, the Democrats just wrap themselves in the Ukrainian flag and thoroughly embrace global cop-dom.

I know this isn't the way a lot of people who are ensconced in progressive politics and socialist thinking look at the US political landscape.  But the way a whole lot of people see things, this election is a choice between one party that says our elections are free and fair and represent the people's will, and another who says elections are rigged.  One party that says they represent the people because they look like the people, and another party who says that's just political theater.  One party that says American democracy is set up to serve the people, another party that says American democracy is broken.  One party that says there are important reasons we need to keep a lot of things secret, another party that takes the secret documents home, only to have them re-possessed by the powers-that-be.  One party that says free trade leads to the ultimate betterment of all, another party that says all this free trade stuff has just made China rich.  One party that is willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on military aid to Ukraine, another party that says we need to stop being the global cop and look after our own people.

It's easy to see how a progressive-minded person might see Trump's vision as more progressive than Biden's.  This is why fascism develops a certain amount of appeal to a lot of people when there is no real socialist or other left alternative making itself known.  When the real alternative is lacking, the fake alternative can outflank the liberals on the left, convincingly enough for a lot of people -- as evidenced, I would argue, by our current political reality, here in the US, and in Italy, India, and a growing number of other countries.

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...