Saturday, January 7, 2023

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.

Even when it's not a time of global pandemic, economic crises and major wars, the transition from one party to the other one, in the US's two-party duopoly, can be confusing.  The values espoused by the party when it's in opposition tend to be radically different from the values embraced when it's in power.  In this age when most of the media has adopted an obviously partisan position, for the most part dropping any pretense of objectivity, the transition can be especially jarring. 

I write this on the second anniversary of the storming of the Capitol.  The Congressional hearings on the subject have dominated the headlines across the liberal press, along with extreme weather, inflation, fear-mongering about the Chinese government, and the vilification of any Russians who aren't yet in exile.

In 2020, as you may recall, during the dark days of Trump's presidency, the righteous anger of whoever it was who was trying to burn down the nearest police station was more or less celebrated by the liberal press, and certainly given immense amounts of publicity, which made every self-respecting dumpster-burner feel more important, regardless of whether they liked or disliked the coverage.  

I thought the idea of taking over a police station and turning it into something more useful was wonderful, in principle.  Of course this is a high-risk strategy with high potential costs, but these things have been done on many occasions in the past in many different countries, so when it was happening on the streets of Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, I was one of many cheering it on with songs of praise.  Some of the folks involved were known to be loudly listening to my songs as they attended to the barricades, and this makes me very proud.

But just one year later, with the police stations still intact and no more regular efforts to torch them going on, with the police brutality continuing unabated but with no more media attention given to it, mysteriously, the liberal press has radically adjusted its narrative, to focus on condemning those violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol.

When the Capitol was being stormed, my anarchist friends tended to feel remorse, not for the fact that the Congress was being attacked, but that it was being attacked by such a confused bunch of nutters, rather than by our lot.  And perhaps most worryingly, the folks laying siege to the Capitol had, and have, a solid base of popularity among a large portion of the American electorate.  To try to imagine a time when anarchists laying siege to the Capitol might have broad popular support, I think we'd have to rewind the clock a very long way back.

Looking back at 2020 media coverage with the relative clarity of hindsight, the liberal press settled on a simplistic, guilt-ridden, race-reductionist narrative which served to support the various activities of people on the streets, while serving to minimize or discount any efforts at connecting the dots, and risking the possibility that this racial justice movement might develop a sharp class analysis that could be threatening to the status quo.  Instead, the media successfully maintained the focus on what individual, privileged white people needed to do to reform themselves and stop being so racist, allowing the powers-that-be to continue to use racism and xenophobia as tools in their divide-and-profit toolbox.

The rewriting of recent history by the liberal press is even more impressive than the way they rewrite history that goes further back, because these people were definitely around to witness what was going on two years ago, presumably.  But at least here in Portland, nightly efforts to burn down one or more police stations by enthusiastic and very politically-motivated and well-organized folks now get generally characterized as peaceful marches, with any violence being defensive in nature.

Now, I can happily get behind all kinds of explanations for how the violence of the oppressed is defensive in nature, but to call a siege on a police station with rocks and flaming objects a peaceful protest is a bit of a stretch.  It kind of invites the conservative media to be equally creative in their descriptions of Proud Boy invasions of Portland, or thousands of people breaking into the Capitol building.

The other day on Oregon Public Broadcasting there was an extensive interview with a person I'll not bother naming who was openly supporting those who would use physical violence to prevent someone they deem to be offensive -- rightwing, transphobic, or whatever else -- from holding an event, making a speech, having a concert, or from having an online platform, if they can be deplatformed there, too.  This tactic was politely described by the guest as one of the tools in the antifascist's tactical toolbox, along with other things.  There was no serious pushback from the host about this tactic being problematic.

The conservative media, on the other hand, describes this sort of tactic using words like violence, intolerance, and censorship.  Whether or not rightwing groups necessarily need the encouragement to respond in kind to this kind of tactic and attack left events in so many different ways, they're getting plenty of encouragement to do just that, with this kind of narrative being promoted on OPB and across the liberal media in the United States.

It's fascinating to me how many intelligent-sounding people, including historians, they can interview on NPR who find all kinds of lessons that history can teach us about the present day, except for the ones me and my friends tend to take in.  And certainly, depending on your vantage point, where you're focusing your attention, what blind spots you might have, etc., it's easy to concentrate on one vast area of historical exploration, and avoid other ones.  My own understanding of the significance of the same historical events has also changed over time.

Reading about the early 1930's in Germany, there are lots of notable aspects to life as it was there then.  As with so many other places in the world at the time, there was a raging economic crisis, which, combined with other factors, hit Germany hard.  Poverty was widespread, as was various forms of resentment related to the war that had recently taken so many lives, and left so many others traumatized.  

A leader arose who said he would make Germany prosperous and proud again.  That he'd drain the swamp and solve the problem of a parasitic elite.  That he'd put an end to the chaos on the streets.  

For years, there had been pitched battles on the streets of cities across Germany between the left and the right, the communists and the fascists.  The left was more numerous, more committed, and more dominant in these battles.  But the constant conflict was disruptive, harmful, and sometimes deadly for many people in society, including the direct participants from both sides.

Adolf Hitler wasn't elected in a majority vote, but he was invited into a coalition government, which he then methodically turned into a dictatorship one step at a time, with the support of his growing National Socialist movement.  Once he had command of the military, there would be no more street battles between the left and the right -- with the left, along with certain elements of the right, being rounded up, killed, sentenced to prison, or eventually to gas chambers.

But for the average white, Christian German who didn't stick their necks out politically, the new dictatorship certainly did come along with a more prosperous and more organized country, without the revolutionary upheaval, strikes, and street battles characterized by so much of the period from the end of World War 1 to Hitler's ascension to power in 1933.  Only after the war began and the bombs were falling on German cities did a lot of those regular Germans begin to learn that Hitler's extremely twisted version of "socialism," after delivering a bit of progress and prosperity, would then lead to tens of millions of people being killed and so much of the world lying in ruins.

But before that all began, the media in Germany -- and in many other countries with a much freer press -- praised the man who had brought the left to heel, they gave kudos to this strong leader who had put an end to the chaos in the streets.

While we may enthusiastically support the idea of laying siege to a police station, causing the police to strategically flee, and turning the place into a community center -- while we may enthusiastically support the idea of doing this to every police station in the country, not just in Seattle -- let's not rewrite history and call this kind of effort a peaceful march.  It may be a great idea, but it's a great idea with potential negative consequences, as with the rewriting of history in order to make reality fit a precarious, misleading narrative.

By the same token, let's also not pretend that we think elections in this country are free and fair, or that pharmaceutical companies want to save us all from disease, or that the Democratic National Committee is interested in ending racism, liberating Ukrainians, or seriously dealing with the climate crisis.  

Just because the people pointing out that the liberal press and its adherents are completely hypocritical, partisan, and spreading disinformation are often themselves rightwingers who are doing exactly the same sort of thing doesn't make them wrong when they're making observations about the liberals.  They're right to point these things out, and any honest, sensible person who can see that should readily acknowledge it.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

From "We" to "I" (and Back Again?)

What can we learn from which pronoun people use in comments and messages on social media?  A lot.

I spend a lot of time trying to read the tea leaves, to interpret the changes I observe in society and in my life within it, and what it all means.  What makes this effort feel like more of an art than a science is the multiplicity of factors involved with all the changes. 

Why, for example, has there been such a precipitous drop over the past decade in the USA in the number of people who claim to be professional artists on their tax forms?  Well, for one thing, because there are so many fewer people able to make a living as artists now than 10 years ago.  But why is that?

That's when the multiplicities come in.  There are too many factors.  The rise in the cost of housing for artists who rent, the disappearance of so many venues, the increasing shortage among the remaining venues of places where you don't have to pay to play, and the widespread loss of merch revenue due to free streaming corporations, are some fairly obvious ones.  For artists (like me) who used to largely make our livings playing for students at colleges and universities, where the gigs were paid for by student groups with budgets, the disappearance of this circuit around 20 years ago was devastating, as it was for all the folks who used to travel and speak or do workshops with those student groups all over the country.

If you were watching these changes take place in the US scene, while also touring a lot in other parts of the world during these same years, the differences became easier to observe, and far more stark, especially between Europe and the US.  So many more centrally-located, free venues to make use of in Europe, so many organized networks of people, so many subsidies for the arts in so many forms for venues and groups to take advantage of.

When you understand this context, with the shrinking numbers of artists in the US and a much more stable scene in Europe due to 100 times as much government support for the arts there, among other factors, what I experienced during the grassroots movement against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan across the USA from 2001-2008 or so is that much more revealing.

That was precisely the time period when the venues were disappearing in earnest, and the college circuit was rapidly drying up -- broadly, for so many artists, not just for me.  But it truly didn't matter in terms of audiences or money, for a while, because of the antiwar movement.  Touring in Europe or touring in the US back then were very similar experiences in terms of audiences and money, despite the tremendous differences between them in terms of the existence of institutions and support for the arts in Europe, and the lack of these things in the US.

The antiwar movement, basically, completely made up for these differences, through the wonders of local, grassroots organization.

It's been a truism for over a century that when radical movements wane everywhere else in the country, they can still be found in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For all the chaos wrought by Big Tech and the real estate industry there, this seems to be still the case today.  I reflect on this as I'm organizing another little tour of California, only a couple months after the last one, although I've hardly been anywhere else in the country aside from the west coast in years.

Looking at comments and messages from people from different places, I see a pattern emerge, that reminds me of how different it used to be, during that aforementioned antiwar movement.  That movement also happens to mostly predate the reign of social media, so the comments and messages back then also came in different forms.  

But the pattern is clear, and evident today.  From folks in California or Europe a typical message begins with "we."  We would like to invite you to do a show hosted by our group.  From most anywhere in the US outside of California these days the messages begin with "I."  I'd love it if you came to Virginia, or Ohio, or Utah, because I'd love to catch one of your shows.  A lovely comment, but of a very different kind.

Once again those many different factors arise, when I seek to explain this stark difference.  Are we generally more individualistic here in the US, compared to Europeans?  Did we more fully embrace social media and more fully become victims of its pitfalls?  Maybe the answer to both of these questions is "yes."  And certainly there are those differences in support for the arts in Europe compared to the US.  

But the "I" vs. "we" messages still stand out.  It is, I think, more than anything, about organization -- or lack thereof.  With functional social movements such as the antiwar movement was for a time, most of the time and energy of most of the participants went into building local networks and holding local events, and secondarily, participating in getting local folks to DC or San Francisco for big national events.  So if you were singing antiwar songs and touring in the US, you'd be getting a lot of "we'd like to organize an event" messages from local groups.

The "we" messages from Europe are written by individuals, of course, but they're from individuals who represent a booking collective at an anarchist social center, or a local branch of a union, or someone from the booking committee for a festival, or someone organizing the cultural component of a left party conference.

The "I" messages from the folks across the US are clearly written by people coming from the same sorts of political tendencies, with the same sorts of musical tastes.  The difference is their isolation.  The political tendency is that of a subReddit or Facebook discussion group, not a group that holds physical meetings in a physical location every Wednesday evening and has a committee of people dedicated to organizing physical events, in the real world.

If the Americans had a nice free community center to use, and an arts council offering to fund anything they might want to do in there, this would, no doubt, strongly encourage individuals to form groups.  That's how good social planning, and urban design, work -- they encourage this sort of thing.  Without that, and with the "aid" of social media, and the lack of a social movement to counter these atomizing tendencies, we're left with a bunch of disparate individuals and their nice but usually impotent "I" statements.

I wish so much for the day when I can once again share the good news about all the "we" statements I'm getting from across the US, and the travels that could result from them.  In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to pursuing those "we" statements in 2023, which continue to emanate mainly from Europe, and California.

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...