Thursday, December 29, 2022

Before You Comment

Some thoughts on nuanced thinking and effective communication, especially on what they call social media.

Pete Seeger was well-known in certain circles for replying to every letter he received in the mail.  He didn't have an email account as far as I know, and although he was still alive and kicking by the time Facebook was ubiquitous, he never got on it as far as I know.  Noam Chomsky is very much still with us, does do email, and is also famous for replying to all his emails, though as far as I know, he's never gotten onto the corporate social media platforms. 

They're so much more famous than me, and I honestly have no idea how they do it.  Or perhaps I do know, and the answer is they're not trying to communicate with their friends and comrades or with the general public on platforms like Facebook or, especially, Reddit.  Perhaps you're not on Reddit, either.  Most people aren't, but 1 out of 3 young adults are.  I don't know how many people read my essays posted there, but it's a very significant platform for disseminating such content if you know a little about how to navigate the Reddit landscape.

OK, really, keeping up with my email isn't a problem.  But even attempting to participate in many of the conversations that my essays provoke among the few thousand people out there who seem to be reading them regularly is very challenging.  I want to encourage people, answer questions, and I'm genuinely interested in other points of view that disagree with mine.  And of course it's always nice to read the praise, and as folks on Facebook tend to know, commenting on a post tends to push it up in the algorithms, so more people might see it.

I know that some people will just use a post as a springboard to have a conversation or an argument with whoever is out there, and it's not even directed at me, in particular.  Other times people are looking to engage with me on the subject at hand.  I don't know how it is for all the other folks out there who publish essays and have a few thousand readers, but I'd be very curious to know about how it is for them.  What I do know is what it's like for me, and to the extent that this information might be helpful for anyone else, I thought I'd share some thoughts on social media and communicating.

The first thing I'd like people to know before they comment on a post, if they don't have ill intent, is to be aware that some people out there do have ill intent.  Reddit is not a safe space.  As useful as the platform is for communicating with like-minded people and for sharing information, the platform is full of toxic trolling behavior on the part of some users, and the volunteer moderators are generally too busy to deal with this problem effectively.

So, when I'm posting something on Reddit, I'm both hopeful that it will hit a nerve in a positive way in the community in which I'm posting, as with on Facebook and other platforms, and I'm simultaneously attempting to prepare myself for the inevitable snarky digs from people with handles like JoeHillbilly and SheepShaggingFarmer.  If you want to read the constructive commentary, you have to see those comments, too, there's no way around it.

When one is trying to steel oneself to not be too put off by the horrible stuff some people say ad nauseum on these platforms, it tends to instill a general feeling of hyper-alertness to the next toxic comment, among people like me.  So if someone who is perfectly well-intended wants to make a joke that is open to interpretation, they can be sure that I'll be likely to interpret it in the darkest sense possible, and if it can be interpreted as an insult, I'll take it as one.

Toxic trolls and misunderstood attempts at humor aside, the intended audience for these thoughts here are the folks who want to engage in real, serious, critical dialogue on Reddit or Facebook, in the comment section after a post.

The first thing I wonder is why do it at all?  By posting something serious or critical that seeks to start a dialog in a comment thread, you are inviting not only other serious people to discuss something with you, but you are also inviting the trolls, inevitably.  Of the more serious people wanting to discuss something, some will have read the essay, others will have only seen the subject line, and there's very little common ground involved either way.  This is not a room full of actual people, all having the same conversation.  That is an illusion we create in our minds.  Some of these people commenting have ill intent.  Others may be bots.  Do we really want to try to have a sensible conversation with trolls and bots?  That's what we're doing, like it or not, by trying to have a discussion in such a forum, and I find it just doesn't work, and it's also maddening.

For real communication, direct messages are better.  If you just want to grandstand in a public comment section and you're not really trying to engage in dialog, that's another matter.  But if real dialog is desired, the comments section isn't where that is going to happen successfully, most of the time, from my experience.

But either way, whether it's a public comment or a direct message, I have more free advice on how to do this effectively.  

What I find most common among the folks who have critical things to say about something I've written is they don't understand what I'm really saying, and based on a misunderstanding of what I'm saying, they share with me their feedback on that misunderstanding of what I'm saying.

Avoiding this kind of thing isn't so hard, but it requires a bit of intellectual vigor, which I think everyone is capable of.  The first thing to do, if you think an author is saying something that you disagree with, is find a quote where the author is saying what you think they are saying.  If you can't find anything anywhere in the whole piece that illustrates the point the author is making that you're disagreeing with, consider the possibility that what you think the author is implying may not be what the author thinks they are implying.  Instead of assuming you understand what is being implied, despite the lack of anything you can quote that supports your assumption, and then responding to what you think the author is implying, just ask a question.  "It sounds like you're implying this, though you don't say it directly.  Is this true?"  Then wait for a response.

One of the main reasons it's so useful to take the time to find an actual quote from a writer that illustrates the point you think the writer is making (which you think you disagree with), is that the writer may not in fact be making the point you think they are making.  You may be simplifying the point they're making, for whatever reason.  You may be turning their nuanced perspective into something more black-and-white, known in some circles as setting up a strawman.  As maddening as nuanced perspectives can be, they may not fit neatly into someone else's ideological schema.  

Some examples of the sorts of things that come up often for me are people who seem to be under the impression that criticizing US foreign policy implies some kind of blanket support for all of the enemies of the US, or that being interested in public dialog with people from the right implies that someone agrees with the rightwing narrative.

The type of thinking that these kinds of assumptions illustrate is simplistic, and dangerous.  Nuanced thinking is much more reflective of reality, and therefore better.  I highly recommend it, whenever you're communicating in any forum.  We won't change the awful algorithms or eliminate the toxic trolls with nuanced thinking, but if it caught on, it could be a really great step in the right (left) direction.

Monday, December 26, 2022

An Autopsy of the US Left

“In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”  
        Jean-Paul Sartre
All the various media platforms I follow are doing their end-of-the-year specials.  I thought about doing one, too, but it feels too much like spinning my wheels in a snowdrift.  

All the summarizing of recent events makes me think about the trajectory of various other things, though, such as the broader scope of history that brought us up to this point that we're at at the end of 2022.

It was talking with longtime Green Party activist, and at this point, my old friend Nathalie Paravicini over Christmas Eve dinner that got my mental juices flowing with regards to writing an RIP for the US left, though.  It's notable when someone who's been consistently involved with organizing for over two decades, who was once the co-chair of the national Green Party when it was at its peak, to comment that "the left is dead." 

I'll hasten to add here that both Nathalie and I are fairly obviously committed to the notion of revitalizing the US left, which should be evident in terms of what the both of us are up to in life.  But the comment rings true not only to me, but to so many others I've talked to, particularly since last February.

The entirety of Ukraine became a battlefield in February, and this has dominated the year-end summaries across the western press.  In many other countries there have been large and spirited popular demonstrations calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, or rejecting the idea that NATO bears no responsibility for starting -- or negotiating an end to -- this conflict.  But not here in the country that is providing the vast majority of the military aid to Ukraine.

In fact, though annual military spending in the US has grown from $700 billion when Biden was Vice President to more than $850 billion now that he's the commander-in-chief, as US-made bombs continue to rain down and cause death and destruction in a country that is currently facing famine as a result -- I'm talking about Yemen, of course -- the last really largescale demonstration against US militarism that I'm aware of that has taken place in the nation's capital was in the fall of 2005.

How did we get here, to this point where the notion of the workers of the world being pitted against each other and killing each other en masse isn't even worth someone organizing a protest that involves more than a handful of people calling for negotiations, or even making a pretense of attempting to hold the empires behind the conflict responsible for their long histories of imperial slaughter?

I often think of that quote of Jean-Paul Sartre I opened with.  Perhaps a little more in the wake of the World Cup.  In that final, very dramatic match, there was nothing inevitable about Argentina's victory over France, which came down to penalty kicks.  It could very easily have gone the other way, despite all the narrative about Messi's supposed destiny and all that.

Most activists and organizers coming out of leftwing movements tend to cling to a kind of revolutionary optimism.  They know there's no chance of a campaign succeeding -- let alone a chance for a bigger kind of success like the creation of an egalitarian society -- without optimism.  They know there's no hope without hope.  The great orators among them like to say things like "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  Whether they really believe this stuff is often another matter.

I first met Bob Steck when I was in my twenties, and he was in his seventies.  When I was born, Bob was the age I am now, incidentally -- 55.  Bob died 15 years ago.  He was born in 1912 and grew up among the socialist farmers of the midwest.  As a young man he went east, and spent most of his adult life living in or in the general vicinity of New York City and the Hudson Valley, which is where I met him, in northwestern Connecticut. 

When I met Bob he was recently retired from spending thirty years teaching history to high school students.  Bob played an outsized role in the history of the twentieth century himself.  He answered the call to go to Spain and join the Republican side of what they called the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  Bob spent much of his time there in one of Franco's prisons, was incorrectly judged while there not to be Jewish by German Nazis who visited one day (Bob had a very small nose), and narrowly avoided execution, by being part of a prisoner exchange, coming back to New York two years after he hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains to join the war.

Bob and I talked a lot about history.  Actually, it was almost all we talked about.  Bob's assessment of the history of human civilization was that the main thing that characterized the whole process was the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.  Although his most life-defining event involved losing a war to the forces of fascism, which ruled Spain for several decades after the war ended, despite his disillusionment with the Communist Party over time, Bob was an eternal optimist.  His wife, Jo, was not, which made for many slightly tense moments in the conversations in which she deigned to participate, though mostly she just let him be his optimistic self with little more than the occasional eye-roll.

I think about Bob because there are so many other moments in history that bear some resemblance to the Spanish Civil War -- moments of great promise that ultimately don't go as hoped.  The history of the US left is full of such moments.  

This is also true of the history of Spain and many, many other countries.  My focus in this little missive is the US left, but for those paying attention to global news, there are key moments in countries often discussed as places full of corruption and dominated by gang violence, where things were going in a very different direction, and would very likely have continued to do so, if not for US intervention.  

Haiti under Aristide was producing most of the food the people needed.  The US backed the coup that overthrew him, and put a stop to that.  When the recent history of Haiti is talked about in the news, they rarely go back as far as the 1990's, when the popularly-elected priest-turned-president was overthrown with Papa Bush's approval.  Would Haiti be in the disastrous situation it's now in without the US undermining Haitian democracy for centuries?  We'll never know.  Would there be so many refugees fleeing Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador if the US had not so severely undermined all of these societies by supporting military dictatorships, or by stealing their money and sanctioning their economy, in the case of Venezuela?  We'll never know.

Back to the US.  If we're following my autopsy narrative, there are certain key moments in history where the left, or what we may for our purposes refer to as the left, was in a tremendously influential position in society, to the point where everything was at a sort of crossroads, and then the opposing team -- the powers-that-be, the state, the ruling class, the 1% -- developed their strategy and made some new moves that changed the equation, or perhaps they were (also) aided by external events in changing all the rules. 

My autopsy could begin in 1919.  The Industrial Workers of the World had achieved things that no other organization had done before.  They formed a nationwide union with millions of members and millions more supporters that emphatically welcomed the working class into the fold regardless of race, gender, or national origin.  With their popularity and pioneering tactics, they had become such a threat to the status quo that the US government saw fit, for the first time in its existence, to form a national police force, which they called the FBI.  After all the World War 1 propaganda and so many prison sentences meted out to members of the IWW who opposed the war, along with prison sentences on so many trumped-up charges, after the execution of Joe Hill by firing squad and so much more, the IWW was still a major force in US society.  With the formation of the FBI, two years to the day after the Russian Revolution, the Palmer Raids were launched, which saw union halls burned to the ground all over the country, many people killed, tens of thousands rounded up, thousands deported to Europe, the entire leadership arrested or forced to flee the country.

These concerted efforts to destroy the radical, multiracial American union movement of the day did not succeed in immediately wiping out the IWW, but they were the beginning of the end of this working class movement's heyday.  The 1920's saw some impressive outbursts of activity -- including the biggest armed uprising of workers in US history, which was also a very multiracial one, in West Virginia.  But by and large, the radical labor movement had been suppressed, and wouldn't have a sustained resurgence until after the stock market crashed in 1929.

The 1930's saw another moment that was pivotal, and could have gone in so many different ways.  The ruling class feared an armed uprising led by left elements prior to FDR's ascension to power.  The New Deal dampened such talk dramatically, with so many more people benefitting from government programs to feed, house, and employ the formerly hungry, unhoused, and unemployed.  Unions succeeded in their organizing campaigns more and more throughout the 1930's, despite the Great Depression and chronic unemployment across the country, because the federal government did not oppose their efforts, very unlike a generation earlier, when it was the IWW rather than the IWW's heir, the Congress of Industrial Organizations doing the organizing.

This progressive government was the one that brought the US into World War 2, which was far from the overwhelmingly popular war depicted in the history books.  My great aunt Betty Chamberlain's journalism during those years attested to this fact, with so many accounts of those who had many questions about the situation they found themselves in, with so many of the young men drafted and gone to fight the Japanese Empire on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

1946 was the biggest year for wildcat strikes to date, a clear indication that there was still a tremendously militant working class movement, the same left movement that had been so dominant on the streets of every city in the country as well as in so much of the countryside, throughout the 1930's.  How might this movement have developed, if not for the very concerted efforts of the bipartisan US ruling class in rekindling what had become the latent Cold War with what had just been their wartime ally, the Soviet Union?  If the US ruling class hadn't then seen fit to make the war economy permanent, what possibilities might have existed for an internationalist socialist movement in the US, of the sort that was thriving in the 1930's?  We'll never know, but if we look at Scandinavia and many other countries in Europe where this Cold War system and extreme military spending did not become the norm, and where similarly large and militant labor movements also existed in the 1930's, perhaps we can guess.

Without such forces in the ascendancy, fighting against so many forms of inequality, the US instead saw a retrenchment of the forces of racial apartheid and anti-communist propaganda, and war after war, both overt and covert, waged against popular movements and elected governments across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Europe as well, in the post-World War 2 period.

With the rise of the movements for racial equality in the 1950's and 60's, more moments of tremendous possibility.  What might have come of the Poor People's March on Washington Martin Luther King was preparing to lead, if not for his assassination?  On a broader level, how might the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement -- two largescale and extremely popular, nationwide mass movements -- have developed if not for the FBI's nationwide campaign of disinformation and violence against these groups, including dozens of assassinations and heretofore unknown forms of subterfuge, as documented in the Cointelpro papers?  We'll never know.

In my own adult life, constituting the 1980's to the present, by far the most hopeful period of radical left potential was represented by the global justice movement that could be said to have begun with the uprising of the Zapatistas in response to the devastating North American Free Trade Agreement coming into effect on January 1st, 1994, and seizing the attention of people across the United States with the popular movement in Seattle that saw the meetings of the World Trade Organization shut down in November, 1999.

This movement was truly global, and represented the first time in decades in this country when there was a real understanding being forged between the labor and environmental movements, and so many others who saw the commonality of their cause against the capitalist machine that sought to both destroy our environment and keep our wages as low as possible.  With the rise of the internet, global alliances were forming at a rapid pace, and the global elite could hardly meet anywhere on the planet without tens or hundreds of thousands of protesters shutting down or seriously curtailing their fancy meetings.

In the US, this movement was one that began and grew under the rule of a Democratic president (Bill Clinton), and as such, it bore none of the hallmarks of a partisan movement that was hoping things might get better with the election of another Democrat.  We had a Democrat, and he was all for mass incarceration, oil drilling, and speeding up the global race to the bottom with free trade agreements aimed at circumventing regulation by elected governments and lowering environmental and labor standards everywhere.

With the election of George W. Bush, this movement didn't lose steam, though it continued to face widespread police brutality and serious efforts on the part of the corporate media and police departments at disinformation.  What succeeded in taking the steam out of the global justice movement in the US -- though not in many other countries -- were the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.  The movement proved unable to meet the challenge of the new circumstances, with the rise of rabid patriotism and nationalism in the US, and the massive mobilization of the militarized security state, for which 9/11 was the perfect excuse.  And then there was the widespread propaganda associating the global justice movement with Al-Qaeda.

Where might the global justice movement have led, if not for this huge turn of events?  We'll never know.

The next moment in my historical narrative when so many people in the US came together with hope for real change was in November, 2007, when Barack Obama was elected president.  With great naivete, millions of people, both within and outside of the US, actually, believed Obama was going to prosecute war criminals from the previous administration and enact policies that would greatly improve the lives of the working class.  Not that he ever said he would do either of these things, but nonetheless there was a widespread belief in this kind of thing happening, and it's why so many people got involved with his campaign, along with his spellbinding oratory and good looks.

Despite, at the beginning, controlling both houses of Congress, the Obama administration continued Bush's bailout of the banks, without any meaningful bailout of the people, who lost their homes in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.  The banks got bailed out, and none of the thieves running them did a day in prison for their financial crimes against society.  The people lost their homes or saw the cost of staying in them skyrocket, while the bankers that immiserated them got off scot-free, just like the war criminals who tortured their terrorist suspects at black sites all over the world under the previous administration.

How might the politics and the polarization in the US have developed during and in the wake of the Obama administration, if not for its failure to live up to the hopes of so many, its failure to meet the growing needs of the growing numbers of struggling Americans, whose expenses continued to rise as their earnings continued to stagnate?  What if the hope so many people placed in his election saw war criminals imprisoned, troops withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the people bailed out from the financial crisis of 2008, rather than the banks?  What if, instead, criminal bankers were also prosecuted and sent to prison, instead of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning?  We'll never know.

If even a Democrat's Democrat like Obama can't be against militarism or put the brakes on runaway capitalist insanity in this country's ridiculous real estate market, then who shall people turn to?  With so much of what might be identified as the left morally invested in the idea that despite all evidence to the contrary, this man is a progressive like FDR or something, where do reasonable people turn?  Who gets to harness this antiwar sentiment, this sentiment against US taxpayers supporting all of these imperial occupations of other countries, seeing their sons and daughters killed or returning home broken?  Not the we-must-support-Obama left, that's for damn sure.  

If there was still an organized left left that opposed militarism, we'd be seeing it on the streets today, but it has never returned to the streets of our capital cities in any significant way in many years.  Opposing militarism, empire, and what they like to call the Deep State is now increasingly the purview of the right, since these positions seem to have been abdicated by the left.  By the same token, since the collapse of the global justice movement in the US, opposition to free trade deals is now also the domain of the right as well.  (If this seems strange, it's probably because you're over 40, remember the global justice movement and the antiwar movement that followed its demise, and haven't gotten used to our new reality yet.)

What if the right hadn't managed to capture the hearts of so many people who are tired of sending troops to other countries and seeing their children die or come home broken?  What if the right hadn't managed to convince so many people that with their opposition to some free trade deals, they are more interested in the prosperity of the forgotten man?  What if the left had somehow managed to cut through the news and make the case for internationalism, solidarity, socialism, and opposition to unregulated capitalist insanity, and of course undemocratic free trade deals and invasions of other countries, by opposing the Obama administration's wars and bank bailouts loudly and in the streets in large numbers?  We'll never know.

To be clear, in all these cases I'm not just describing missed opportunities, but an opposing team consisting of the leadership of both ruling parties, that understands the threat it faces from an organized left, and will tend to do everything possible to destroy any sufficiently threatening movements of the left that arise, through all kinds of different means, some of which may lead to radioactive fallout.  

My biggest hope isn't that the next iteration of a left mass movement in this country finally manages to defeat the forces of capitalism, apartheid, and empire, to be honest.  My biggest hope is that my children might live to see such a movement have a chance to exist at all, in a world that has not yet been forever transformed by its first nuclear winter.  There's certainly nothing inevitable about such a movement managing to arise before that happens.  But I can dream.

Friday, December 23, 2022

In Defense of Nepo

It's not necessarily related to the holidays, but it is related to family, so maybe it'll provoke a couple of good dinner-table conversations.

I've just learned from BBC Newshour what a "nepo baby" is.  They say it's been a commonly-discussed term on TikTok since last February.  In the past few days it's been all over the mainstream news sites.  For those who missed it, "nepo" is short for "nepotism," and we're talking about the famous directors and actors and such whose parents are famous directors and actors and such.  A piece in the Guardian says Gen Z is now discovering that TV and film is not a meritocratic industry. 

Whether or not this is generally a new discovery for most of Gen Z or anyone else, it's slightly refreshing to read about all the rich and famous stars who are the children of rich and famous stars.  I've been talking about this phenomenon for a while now, but in the past couple years the general narrative has had more to do with race reductionism rather than nepotism -- endless stories in the liberal press lamenting the overwhelming whiteness of the rich and famous actors and directors.  While there are a whole lot of white people who are rich and famous, along with their children, the whiteness narrative tends to miss the fact that if being white could make you rich and famous, there would be a lot more rich and famous white people -- instead, the overwhelming majority of white people are neither rich nor famous, like every other racialized grouping of humanity.  The nepotism narrative gets us far, far closer to reality.  Most of these folks may be white, but the fact of being rich and famous is the main determining factor here in whether their kids follow in those footsteps.

It has been observed by many astute people that there is much less social mobility in the United States than there is in Europe, overall.  There are reasons for this, which have little to do with race, and everything to do with support for the arts and other professions by governments, and access to things like free or inexpensive higher education by a much bigger percentage of the population.  

While the notion of European levels of support for the arts and other professions is a wonderful idea, the nepo baby narrative -- that a rich and famous actor or director being the child of a rich and famous actor or director is evidence that Hollywood is not a meritocracy -- has limitations.  

While it's no doubt the case that becoming a famous actor or director tends to require much more than mere talent, if we look at the arts more generally, along with so many other professions, I don't know if anyone has the exact percentages, but over many decades of being in certain circles -- namely artistic and academic ones -- my observation has been that a disproportionately large number of the best musicians, actors, visual artists, as well as intellectuals, are the children of parents with similar professions or passions.

People don't talk about this as nepotism, generally, because we're not talking about either wealth or connections here.  If, for example, you made a career out of touring and playing in small venues for a few dozen people each time, and then your kid ends up doing the same kind of thing, this is inevitably because your kid has managed to develop their own audience.  A handful of people at each gig, at best, might be there because they know your parents, and no one will be there because you had a hit, because if you (or your parents) had a hit, none of you would be playing in small venues like that.

But there is a disproportionate likelihood that the kid ends up being a performer like the parent, nonetheless, and this is because that's the way real education tends to work.

Studies have found that regardless of what's going on in school, if a small child has parents who read to them most nights, this is the biggest factor in determining how quickly and how well they learn to read.  It's not a popular notion in conventional schools still today, but researchers like John Holt and many others long ago demonstrated how children tend to learn through modeling behavior of adults, through example, rather than by being "taught."

Even without wealth, fame, or Hollywood connections, just surviving as an artist in the modern world, perhaps particularly in the US, is a very tricky thing to pull off.  From my personal experience as the child of a composer and a pianist, it would be impossible to list all the advantages I had from just growing up in their household, listening to them practice music, watching my father get into the head space for writing music, and perhaps especially seeing and being involved with some of the logistics involved with trying to promote concerts and workshops, helping my dad maintain his mailing list, putting postage stamps on envelopes, learning about how you're unlikely to get more than 5% of the people you send stuff to coming to your events, learning that this is totally normal.

Since being raised by musicians and becoming a professional musician myself, I've met so many more musicians, not just contemporaries of my parents, but my own contemporaries.  I didn't set out with the expectation that other musicians I'd meet would also be the children of musicians, but my informal observation over time has been that while this phenomenon is by no means universal, it is disproportionately the case that the best musicians I meet were raised by musicians, or by artists of some other variety.

The vast majority of musicians, actors, writers, etc., that I know are working other jobs to make ends meet.  The vast majority of artists I know who are surviving solely from their artistic endeavors are just barely managing to do so.  But the fact that they've managed to have anything that we might call a career in the arts, for many of them, has so much to do with the fact that they have been learning from a very early age that this career path even exists.  

So, I may just be being provocative by titling this piece "In Defense of Nepo."  Really, I'm writing in defense of apprenticeship, of mentoring, of real education, rather than the kind most of us get in most schools.  

Schools here in the US do not prepare many people for a career in the arts.  Sweden, on the other hand, incorporates the arts into public education very well and has an amazing system for helping people launch artistic careers after they're done with school, which are the main reasons why Swedish songwriters produce more hits per capita in the English-language pop charts than anyone else.  

But without that kind of backup from the state, more traditional forms of learning will inevitably be dominant.  This will be true for artists who were born into wealth and fame, and those who weren't, but the same principle applies either way, whether you grew up among the jet set in a mansion in LA with John Williams, or puttering around in an old Volvo and making music beneath the staircase in a dank basement in the suburbs of Connecticut with Howard Rovics.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Techtatorship and the Coming Botmageddon

What's about to happen to global society with the rise of Artificial Intelligence is truly terrifying to consider.

Massive technological developments are extremely disruptive to societies.  In capitalist economies, technological developments are especially disruptive, because those in control of new technologies tend to be the capitalist class, who use the new technology to increase their profits, leaving all those adversely impacted by the new reality to fend for themselves. 

Technological developments that could potentially have made life easier and the workweek shorter for so many people, such as the industrial revolution and the many waves of industrial automation that followed, generated massive profits for the capitalists, and helped create a significant class of middle managers, bureaucrats, and all those providing for their middle class consumption patterns.  But for the majority, farming parcels of land, working in the factories, or losing that work to automation, it was an entirely different story of misery and early death.  Only the establishment of a largescale labor movement over the course of a century of struggle began to significantly change this picture (along with the rise of cooperatives and more authentic versions of democracy in some countries) and allow for members of the working class to live decent lives.

The computer age has been similarly disruptive to societies around the world, with new waves of people losing their jobs to new forms of automation.  Ask anyone who used to make a living as a switchboard operator, typist, or film processor.  The rise of the internet has compounded this phenomenon exponentially.  Ask anyone who used to work as a travel agent, journalist, store clerk, or recording artist.

As Big Tech gathers ever more money and political influence, monopolizing more and more of our time and attention, pushing out or buying up the competition, the power of the personalized, secret algorithm to keep us all glued to YouTube or having arguments on Facebook or shopping on Amazon has become ever more clear.  

I have written a lot about the influence of these secret algorithms, both because they have such an outsized impact on all of our lives, and because most people seem to be completely clueless about how much impact they're having, or even that they exist at all.  Meanwhile, the secret algorithms keep on determining to such a huge degree what we see or don't see, whether pertaining to news stories, what our friends and associates are up to, or what music we hear.

What I suspect is coming over the next decade or so will be so much more impactful on us all that the changes wrought by the coming of the internet, the microchip, or the assembly line will truly pale in comparison.  I'm talking about Artificial Intelligence.

For those who don't really understand to what degree their lives are being intensively manipulated by secret, personalized algorithms already right now, the next decade will be particularly shocking and disorienting.  But I'm sure it will be shocking and disorienting for all of us, regardless.  (Alongside other shocking and disorienting developments such as continued climate change, crop failures, fires, floods,  famines, wars, mass migrations, etc.)

I'm far from the first to make this observation about the impending new reality that AI will give rise to, nor am I the first person to be terrified by the prospect of our AI-dominated future.  Much more intelligent people than me have been saying these things for decades.  But now, along with a lot of other people who have been online over the past couple weeks with a bit of time to spare, I get it, too.

When the guy lost his job at Google last fall for going public with his belief that the secret AI chatbot he was having extensive conversations with was actually sentient, he was widely ridiculed.  The ridicule came overwhelmingly from people who, like me, had never even come close to having a conversation with a chatbot that seemed remotely like a human conversationalist.  That changed when Open AI's new chatbot came online at the end of November.

I could tell you about some of the conversations I've been having with this chatbot, or about all of the analysis of ideas and history it has engaged in at my prompting, or about the many poems, songs, stories, and opinion columns I have had the chatbot write.  What I'd really recommend, though, is while this chatbot is still online for people to use for free, check it out -- spend a couple hours giving instructions and asking questions at openai.com and find out for yourself what the fuss is all about.

The Turing Test has been exceeded.  It is fully capable of speaking in either proper or colloquial English, or whatever other kind of English you fancy (Shakespearean, modern teenager, whatever).  The technology is already fully in place for this human-like intellect to be matched up with a voice and a face, seamlessly, in video form at least.  It could be anybody, pretty much.

Talking with this bot is a lot like talking with Commander Data on the Star Trek set.  It's like talking with someone with a vast breadth of knowledge about everything, but who hasn't had much experience in the real world.  Like an impossibly-knowledgeable and impossibly-fast teenager of some kind.  I have no doubt that this will change, and soon enough it will be more like talking to an impossibly-knowledgeable and impossibly-fast young adult.

Even with this chatbot out there and nothing else, it's easy to imagine the loss of jobs in so many fields, including journalists, writers of all kinds, coders, and soon enough musicians, songwriters, and artists of all kinds.  And under our capitalist system, these out-of-work programmers and writers will just be more unemployed people -- not more people enjoying the good things in life that could potentially come along with AI taking over most formerly white-collar occupations.

But the coming seismic changes in all white-collar workplaces around the world is only the tip of the iceberg.  It's not even what I find terrifying.

The social media tech giants are already dominating our lives -- our communications, our ability to make sense of the world around us -- with secret algorithms.  What is to possibly stop them from introducing AI chatbots into the mix?  

The point of the secret algorithms, as I mentioned, is to keep us glued to YouTube, arguing on Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, etc.  If AI chatbots can assist in keeping us doing those things -- and they most certainly could, it's very easy to imagine -- then they will be introduced on those platforms.  And like the secret algorithms, the chatbots will be secret, too.  And who will be told which of the online entities engaging with you are chatbots, and which are humans?  

And when intelligence agencies and big-business hacking networks and other nefarious actors get ahold of this technology, what then?

They can tell their chatbot something like this:  create five hundred social media accounts, with each account simulating a real person who posts a lot about whatever divisive thing you want -- why Jews are greedy, Blacks are prone to criminality, trans people are all pedophiles, Russians all want to take over the world.  Have each of these five hundred fake accounts publish an essay every so often about why David Rovics is an antisemite, or why labor unions are bad for the economy, or how the tech billionaires will save us all.  And these don't need to be essays, these can be livestreamed videos of someone talking who could be anyone they are told to be, or choose to be.

Let's put aside the popular sci fi premise of the AI taking over the world and running things for the benefit of computers instead of mammalian life forms like us.  Long before anything like that happens, we are staring in the face a near future that is fraught with the possibility that sometime very soon, we will have no way of knowing for sure whether we're engaging with chatbots or humans.  We'll have no idea if there really are thousands of people who are actively promoting some bizarre conspiracy theory, or if they are all bots given the same instructions by one person somewhere in the US or Israel or Russia or North Korea.

Under the right (wrong) circumstances, with no regulations successfully implemented, with nefarious actors (such as Big Tech corporations, intelligence agencies, etc.) using such powerful technology -- which we may as well consider an inevitability, since it is one -- we will soon have absolutely no sure way of knowing who is real and who isn't, what popular opinion is and what it isn't.  This technology will be able to make the most sophisticated propaganda machines history has ever produced look like a toddler playing with magnetic letters on a refrigerator door in comparison.  And to the extent we're not already there, we're right around the corner from this reality.

For better or, mostly, for worse, it will soon be the case that nothing we see on a screen can be trusted as real.  Just about everything we see online will be driven by secret, personalized algorithms along with every possible conception of the term Deep Fake.  The only people we'll know are authentic will be those we can touch, in three dimensions, with no screen or microchip in the room.

But once we fully arrive at this new reality, how many of us will realize we're there?  And what might we do about it?  Our choices, I believe, will be along the lines of either we join the Borg Collective, or we collectively unplug.  

"Unplug" is an easy word to type, but what that might possibly even look like, or how it might be done, I have no idea.  That our alternative to unplugging is a future not unlike the Borg Collective, run by nefarious actors in control of the most sophisticated AI, I have little doubt.  

Most technologies, from the simplest ones to the most complex, can be used for good or bad purposes.  And given historical precedent -- including very recent historical precedent, up to and including the present -- under capitalism, we can expect the worst.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

West Coast Tour Reflections

It was a busy and thought-provoking week touring parts of Oregon and northern California, with the "accountability-seeking" cancellation campaigners failing to cancel any of the gigs, much as they tried.

I got home yesterday afternoon from a week-long tour that took me from Portland to as far south as Santa Cruz, and back up again.  I almost made it to California in the fall of 2021, but Covid-related travel insanity at the time meant a canceled flight that couldn't be rescheduled in time to get to the gigs I had planned there.  This time I did the tour in a rental car, no flights involved.  And thankfully, rental car rates have gone back down from the crazy prices they were at just a few months ago, as has the price of gasoline.

So this was the first time since the pandemic hit that I have been anywhere south of the Portland area, here on the west coast, and definitely the first time since the pandemic hit that I've had five gigs in a row, or enough to possibly warrant being called a "tour," or at least a mini-tour...  

As my regular readers and listeners are probably too aware, since around 2013 I've done very little touring in my own country, the USA, due to a lot of different factors, mostly related to economics -- a chronic lack of support for the arts here combined with vanishing venues, Spotify starting their free tier, skyrocketing costs for everything with precipitously falling earnings per gig, and the collapse of most of the various social movements or political tendencies I used to play for all the time, here in the US.  I still tour in Europe a lot, and I'll be doing more of that soon, and writing about it, surely.  But at this point, doing gigs in my own country has become a particularly special thing that happens only rarely, so when it does happen, perhaps it provokes even more rumination than touring in places I visit more often might do.

There are certainly good friends in Europe that I don't manage to see every time I'm there, but for the past week, every day has involved seeing old friends who I hadn't seen in physical form, or in some cases in any form, for many years.  Every day has also involved seeing places I hadn't seen in years, which were once very familiar.

On Wednesday, December 7th, I walked downtown, picked up the rental car, took it back to my apartment, filled it with various items, and headed south on i-5.  The flood of memories began at that point, and didn't stop until I got back to Portland.

I learned a long time ago that the time when you're most likely to have a recollection of some kind is when you're doing something that you've done a lot before.  Driving down the i-5 corridor in either direction is something I've done so many times, it would be impossible to count at this point.  The first time I took such a road trip, minus the gigs along the way, was around thirty years ago.

Stop number one was Eugene, to do a house concert at Todd Boyle's place.  Hardcore Rovics fans may be familiar with Todd's name, because when he lived in Seattle he made high-quality live video recordings of some of my gigs up there, and put them on his YouTube channel, where they've gotten a lot of views.  

President Bush the First nicknamed Portland, Oregon, "Little Beirut" because of how he was treated by the local population when he came to visit in the early 1990's.  But by my own personal recollection, Eugene had an even more militant crowd.  Exact numbers will never be available, but it's probably fair to say that at least half of the couple hundred folks that made up the Black Bloc element that smashed windows in Seattle during the WTO protests in 1999 were from Eugene.  As people may or may not recall, the WTO protests involved around 60,000 people blocking intersections and getting teargassed and arrested for doing so, and around 200 people smashing the windows of corporate outlets in Nike Town, who got the lion's share of the press attention.

It was depressing but not particularly surprising that the only gig organizer on the tour to receive phone calls from people calling me a Nazi was Todd in Eugene, getting calls from people with local 541 area codes.  Todd was not dissuaded, since he knows I'm actually against fascism, not for it, as he told the folks who called, who he invited to the house concert to find out for themselves.  

I met up for an early dinner with a couple of friends who recently moved to Eugene.  Among the various interesting things I learned over dinner was the fact that they had invited other local folks to come to the house concert, who informed them that the guy they were talking about (me) was a Nazi.  In the end, no one showed up who seemed to think I was a Nazi, but who knows how many people might have been there, if not for these bizarre allegations floating around certain corners of society.

Seeing the 20 or so folks who packed into Todd's little place provoked lots more memories.  There were people there I hadn't seen in I guess 17 years, if memory (and a search engine query I just did) serves.  Some moments are especially etched in the timeline.  Bill Rodgers, aka Avalon, was found dead in his jail cell on December 21st, 2005.  The last time I saw some of the folks there in Eugene was in Prescott, Arizona, at the infoshop where they and Bill organized the last gig I recall doing there, a few months before Bill died, fist in the air, plastic bag over his head, facing decades in prison for Earth Liberation Front activities.

Other than the presence of some unknown number of anarcho-puritan cultists who think I'm a Nazi, Eugene reminded me very much of Eugene, which can't be said for many towns these days.  By my brief observation, it's still a sleepy college town full of hippies old and young, and of course lots of students.  As Todd observed, there are no major corporations that have their hub in Eugene, so the avenues for making lots of money are more limited there.  The more ambitious types that way go to other places, and leave Eugene for the hippies.  Of course, as with every other second-tier real estate market, prices are rising there, too, but it's not nearly as crazy as it is in, say, Portland, at this point.

Europe has experienced hotter-than-ever temperatures in recent years, but most people in northern Europe, where I play a lot, have never experienced the kind of heat we had on the west coast in the summer of 2021.  One thing I found universally to be the case at all these west coast gigs was I didn't need to explain what a Heat Dome is, or what 116 degrees Fahrenheit feels like in a building without shade or air conditioning, or what that means in Celsius (47).  Everyone knew, viscerally.

Another universal thing was as far as I know, no one had been particularly familiar with what's been going on for the past 2-1/2 years in England and Scotland, with sledgehammer-wielding activists smashing up Israeli arms producer, Elbit Systems' factories constantly, and consistently having juries find them innocent of any wrongdoing, including as recently as earlier this month.  This remarkable story is as unknown to the US left as it is in Scandinavia or the UK, the last parts of the world I was touring in, and spreading the good news.

My first gig in California, the day after a very long and occasionally snowy drive from Eugene, was in Santa Cruz.  Keith McHenry, the founder of Food Not Bombs, organized a little benefit concert on the occasion of the thousandth day of hot meals being served in Santa Cruz outdoors, throughout the pandemic.  

While in most of the country the old peace and justice centers, infoshops, and leftwing book stores are closing rapidly, and have been doing so for many years, in Santa Cruz, the Resource Center for Nonviolence moved into a much bigger building.  If I had known, I might have tried harder to promote that gig, because the old Resource Center couldn't fit more than twenty people in it, as I recall.  The new one has an auditorium that seats 200.

Throughout the downtown area there is clear evidence of the impossibly high cost of housing and lack of sufficient services in the city, which of course is not unique to Santa Cruz.  Walking down the main drag or other nearby streets, in every direction you can see the damaged, limping or wheelchair-bound, often drug-addicted people dying on the sidewalks, along with huge numbers of vehicles that are clearly permanent homes to people long ago priced out of more conventional dwellings, like houses or apartments.  In other words, it looked a lot like Portland.

As with Portland, the face of the city of Santa Cruz has been radically transformed for the worse over the years.  In Portland this is a very recent phenomenon, like mostly since I moved here in 2007.  In Santa Cruz, it goes way back, to the 1989 earthquake that levelled the downtown core of the city.  I lived in Berkeley in 1987, and also visited Santa Cruz back then.  It would be hard to overstate the contrast between the sleepy little hippie college town it was back then, to what it is today, with the downtown looking like an outdoor shopping mall.

Among the many familiar faces at the Resource Center was a guy who goes way back in antiwar movement circles, who has in recent years been vocally opposed to what he sees as prematurely-approved vaccines and authoritarian government overreach in many areas related to pandemic policies.  He was wearing a t-shirt that clearly outlined his positions around these things.  I was sad but not surprised to hear that random people in town sometimes tell him to his face that he's a Nazi -- that's the word they use -- for having these beliefs.  But Dudley is definitely not a Nazi.

According to David Solnit, the heavily-bearded, sparkly-eyed Keith McHenry has the classic look of the leader of a peasant uprising, and I completely agree.  The best part of my visit to Santa Cruz was the hours unintentionally spent with Keith and another friend in the parking lot after we ostensibly left the Resource Center, being regaled with stories by Mr. McHenry.

There are very, very few people who have had lives as interesting and wild as Keith's has been.  As many times as I've seen him and heard about what he's been up to, there are always stories I had never heard, and he rarely repeats himself.  Two of the themes that tend to stand out to me is how thoroughly, obviously targeted by the authorities in San Francisco, Taos, Orlando, and other cities that he has been, and how much he has been targeted by freelance wingnuts as well, constantly trying to slander his name and accuse him of all sorts of things.  I have every reason to believe that all of the allegations against him are patently false, but when I mention Keith's name in my travels, it's never long before someone says they heard Keith was guilty of this or that transgression somewhere down the line.  The rumor mill worked well, even before Twitter came online.

The first city I ever lived in, other than New York City when I was very small, and the post-industrial city of Richmond, Indiana, where I went to college for a year or so, was Berkeley, California.  This is where I stayed each night during my visit to northern California.  Really, in Kensington, which is where you end up if you go from Berkeley to the Berkeley hills, and keep on going.  When you get to the end of the line, where there are no more houses or other buildings, you see what looks like a beautiful park, but which is actually the vast lands surrounding the Lawrence Livermore labs, where, as I sat in my friends' guest room overlooking the ridge where Lawrence Livermore's property begins, I heard on the news about the first successful experiment getting energy from nuclear fusion, which happened while I was there. 

Also while sitting in that Kensington guest room I was alerted to a story in the news about one Cameron Whitten being suspended from his position on the board of a Portland-based foundation he started, because of as-yet-unknown allegations of unacceptable behavior on his part from various coworkers.  This story is of particular interest to me because this young man has done immense damage to the careers of some of the best organizers in the city of Portland, most notably Margot Black, founder of Portland Tenants United.  Perhaps now all those who unquestioningly believed Cameron's completely vague assertions from an article he wrote five years ago will think twice before they do that again, next time someone makes vague assertions about someone else.  I can only hope.

The protest planned for last Saturday at Twitter HQ got rained out and postponed til the next week -- it wasn't a little drizzle, either, but a major rainstorm, during the time the protest was to have happened.  So, the event I organized this little tour around wasn't happening, but that's how the cookie crumbles.  The rain stopped by mid-afternoon, but I walked around Berkeley in the rain anyway -- I brought a big umbrella with me from Portland.  Much of the walking I did over the weekend, up til Sunday evening's gig in Berkeley, was with old friends who live there in the East Bay.

Most of my friends around there are a bit older than me.  I turned 13 in 1980, but they were adults by then.  I don't want to exaggerate how many other people on the more anarchist end of the left there are who look at everything the way I do, but I'm far from the only one who seems to think we took a seriously wrong turn a very long time ago, with the embrace of tactics as far back as the 1930's like dealing with a rising rightwing movement through means of widespread street fighting and campaigns to get events canceled (anti-platforming efforts, which also date back at least as far as the 1930's).  As understandable as such campaigns are for any antifascist on an emotional level, these tactics have been consistently disastrous.  They have only emboldened the right, and perhaps helped in no small part lead to Hitler's ascension to power in Germany in 1933.  

But if you question these tactics today in certain circles, you'll be dismissed as a Nazi.  No, I'm not exaggerating.  It is, as one friend in Berkeley put it, a closed feedback loop.

If every time someone in your network of friends and activists who suggests we're going about things the wrong way is going to be dismissed and ostracized as a Nazi, and then kicked out of the scene, canceled, leaving the group with the remaining members who think that street-fighting, dumpster-burning, and event-canceling is the way to go about making social change, then it's inevitable that this group will become more and more insular and cultish.  Folks in the Bay Area who are familiar with the scene in the Pacific Northwest tend to think the element of the anarchist scene that has totally lost the plot is very heavily concentrated in these parts, and I wholeheartedly agree.  We need to win arguments and organize proactively, not spend our time attacking the bad people and making them more popular.

While it's not hard to find bizarre sectarian behavior and identity politics in the Bay Area, every time I go back there, the presence of multiple generations of leftwing society actively engaged in the scene is very evident.  In Portland, it seems that half the people I meet just moved here a few months ago.  In the Bay Area, by contrast, there are many left cultural institutions still there since they were formed during the 1960's renaissance, or during the punk wave in the 1980's.  Other local cultural institutions in the East Bay, such as the one I played in last Sunday, opened much more recently.  Many of them are in a particular neighborhood near the Berkeley-Oakland border, where there used to be many more such institutions, in an area where there is now a conspicuously large four-lane road.

Lest anyone get the impression that paving over leftwing institutions is not also a Berkeley tradition, the battle over People's Park continues.  An iconic struggle dating back to the year I was born, things are not looking at all good for our side.  The university appears to be on the cusp of finally driving out the multiple generations of activists who have kept the park a park over all these decades.  The trees have been cut down and are currently lying on the ground, along with a bulldozer, which is currently surrounded by folks in tents trying to stop "progress" one more time.  Eric Drooker is the most recent brilliant artist to make a poster for the resistance to the bulldozing of the park. 

Amid the neighborhood with places like the La Peña Cultural Center and the Arthouse Gallery and Cultural Center is the Long Haul Infoshop, where the Slingshot Collective was having a meeting when I dropped in (I have a piece in the current issue, incidentally).  Across the street from there is the Irish Republican pub and music venue, the Starry Plough, where another old friend, Ed Biow, had arranged for us to have dinner with several members of the family of Pedie Perez, a young man who was shot to death by the police in Richmond, California, in 2014.

After another marathon drive from Berkeley up to Oregon, via a wonderful visit with more old friends, Pat and Sandy of the duo, Emma's Revolution, after lots of conversation, singing together, eating some delicious home-made toffee, and salivating over Pat's baritone guitar (I want one), I had a little concert in Ashland, Oregon, where I saw another old friend who was having the very disturbing experience of being called a Nazi for being critical of Covid-related policies.

The folks organizing the show in Ashland were involved with the local community radio station, among them Jason Houk, whose home was destroyed by fire when so many others in southern Oregon were, in latter 2020.  Throughout the region there is a palpable tension around the approach of the next fire season.

On the way to the final gig of the tour, in the town that might be the hippie capital of Oregon, Takilma, I stopped for several hours in Grants Pass, for another good visit with an old friend, Michael Franklin.  

I first met Michael around twenty years ago, when I was still very actively touring all over the US by car.  He and his partner, Angela, lived in Missouri, and organized lots of house concerts there, among other things.  Sometime after I moved to Portland, they did, too, and we saw more of each other for some time.  We largely fell out of contact around a decade ago, when they moved to southern Oregon.

If I toured in the US the way I used to, I would surely have been seeing more of Michael and Angela, and all the other folks I saw on these travels, but if you're not doing gigs there, southern Oregon is very far away from Portland.

I figured they had been priced out of Portland, like me and my family probably should have been long ago, but it was only on this visit in Grants Pass that I learned about how they had essentially been hounded out of Portland by detestable anarcho-puritans campaigning against them, affiliated with the now-defunct Red & Black Cafe.  

The last time Michael and Angela and their 10-piece gypsy punk band did a rabble-rousing driving tour around the US, around a decade ago, more than half of their gigs were canceled at the last minute by local punks who believed the nonsense rumors being pumped out on Facebook from these "anarchists" in Portland who were accusing Michael of being a "violent transphobe," which was and is patent nonsense, on both counts.

In our discussions of this whole phenomenon that we both have way too much experience with, I talked about how in the anarcho-puritan scene (as I call what some refer to as "the Nexus," among other terms) there is a widespread tendency to believe the victim, or anyone who claims to be a victim, always, unquestioningly.  To do otherwise, according to the anarcho-puritan ethic, is to be a Nazi of some kind. 

Always believe anyone who claims to be a victim.

"How did that work out for Emmett Till?" Michael wondered, rhetorically. 

A very, very good question. 

I drove the several hours from Takilma to Portland, listening to a fascinating podcast series about North Korean hackers.  I returned the rental car, and walked past the unhoused people dying on the streets in the near-freezing temperatures, got a burrito, and discovered as I walked over the Morrison bridge that there's a local tagger who has my initials.

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...