Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Life and Death in the Shadow of Genocide

As the bombs continue to rain down on Gaza and the world races ever closer to World War 3, in the rest of the world, life goes on, as does death.

For my entire lifetime and far beyond it into the past, my country has been perpetrating unspeakably terrible crimes around the world, involving long periods where you can wake up every morning knowing that since you went to bed, your country's foreign policies have definitely and violently taken the lives of several hundred or more innocent people, whether due to carpet-bombing in Vietnam, rounding up and slaughtering communists in Indonesia, killing all the Indians in Guatemala, demolishing entire cities in Iraq, or any number of other things.  

No matter how involved you may be in trying to change the ways of your government with concern to such abhorrent policies, no matter how deeply you feel the pain of the victims of the empire you live in, you somehow have to continue to get up in the morning, brush your teeth, make breakfast for the children, and live another day of life, such as it is.  For all of us, to one degree or another, we must compartmentalize the suffering of others, or we'd stop reliably doing things like eating, sleeping, and being good parents.  But unless you're a member of the blissfully ignorant or successfully brainwashed sectors of society, the compartmentalization is always only a matter of degree.

For whatever combination of reasons, perhaps because of the scale of the carnage, the industrial nature of the slaughter, the plainly genocidal rhetoric coming out of the Israeli establishment, matched by practice, perhaps also in combination with the iconic position Israel holds in the popular imagination of the US establishment and all the high-tech weaponry we're constantly shipping over there, events of the past three months have tended to cut through any efforts at compartmentalization for me, and for so many other people I know.

It surely also makes a big difference that there are journalists on the ground in Gaza filming their own deaths and the deaths of everyone around them.  I recently heard from someone from Sudan who was wondering if I might have a song to write about what's happening there, the thousands killed and the millions displaced by the fighting between two factions of the military that's been going on since last April.  I don't have a good reason why I haven't written a single song about that war, while I've written twenty about the war on Gaza.  I'm sure it would be different if there were an English-language TV station covering events in Sudan the way Al-Jazeera is covering Gaza.

Like so many others in my somewhat Palestine-oriented social circles around the world, I go through the motions of living another day of life, appreciating more than usual the wonderful little institutions full of other happy children and fun, engaged adults working and playing with them.  Not only because the scene contrasts so unbearably with the wounded survivors of massacred families huddled together and shivering in the sewage-flooded streets of Rafah.  But also because with the children taken care of, I can focus entirely on whatever I'm going to do that day to try to bear witness to and raise awareness of the genocide that is unfolding in all its horror by the day, forever hoping that the next song might somehow have an impact.

Meanwhile, life in all its beauty continues, along with death with all its regularity.  Beauty that at another time I would have captured in photos and videos and shared on Instagram.  Death that at another time I would have written a remembrance about and published it somewhere, had only one person died.

Yesterday it was taking longer than planned to get home from an outing with the little ones, and they were talking about going home, and why they were looking forward to getting there.  My seven-year-old said "I love home because there are video games and board games in it."  My four-year-old said "I love home because it's warm, and there's a heater."  

It's easy to imagine why Palestinians have the highest rate of heart attacks in the world.  I'm not Palestinian and I don't live under Israeli occupation or bombardment, but my heart could barely stand the contrast between how part of it was melting due to these adorable children talking about going home, and part of it was frozen with the thought of the clattering teeth of the toddlers with no blankets suffering through another freezing night in Gaza while the bombs fall around them.

There were a couple of gatherings with family and friends during the holidays, but these were houses with a Palestinian flag planted in the yard in one case, and a "boycott Israel" bumper sticker on the car in the driveway of the other one.  Nonetheless, this was a week with more than a little shopping, cooking, and gatherings involving visitors, good food, and merriment, along with a lot of very dire adult conversation on the sidelines.

As bleak as I feel so much of the time lately, the idea of disrupting holiday events in order to tell shoppers that there's a genocide going on always feels to me like we think we're telling them something they don't know, which seems arrogant.  Sure, I don't feel much like partying these days, but most of these shoppers have kids that they're trying to give a good life to, just like parents everywhere want to do for their kids.  The fact that they're out singing together or visiting Santa isn't necessarily an indication that they don't care about Gaza.

In other societies, when people take over the streets it's not seen as a disruption to business as usual by most people, because it is society itself that's in the streets, which is abundantly obvious to anyone there, in cities like London, or Havana, or Amman.  The football fans in so many countries around the world displaying massive banners in the stadiums aren't disruptive fans -- they are the fans.  Particularly when it comes to certain football clubs with a reputation for being leftwing or associated with a national independence movement of one sort or another, these banner-hangings are not at all controversial.

In any case, whether we're disrupting shoppers in the US or taking over the stadium in Spain, while we try to do what we need to do, feed the children and such, it's not just life that goes on, but death as well.  Not only the deaths of hundreds of women and children each day under the rain of Israel's bunker-busting missiles, but all the other random people who live and then die, some of whom happen to die during a time when a whole lot of other people are doing that, in a more dramatic fashion.

A number of people have died in other parts of the planet, since my attention has been obsessively elsewhere.  By far my least favorite of them, and the only one that I publicly acknowledged thus far, was Henry Kissinger, in song.  But around the time he died we lost Shane MacGowan, as well as the woman with whom I first heard Shane MacGowan's band live, Jo Custy.  And then in the past 24 hours or so, both John Pilger and Klee Benally.

Henry Kissinger famously became a centenarian before he died.  John Pilger made it to 84.  I have been reading Pilger's essays, watching his documentaries, and reading his books since I can't remember when.  Supporters of imprisoned journalist and fellow Australian, Julian Assange, will be familiar with Pilger as one of the ones who consistently stood by Julian, regardless of what kinds of wild accusations were being made about him at the time.

I guess it was a couple years ago now that I was on top of an open-air double-decker bus that had been rented by the Don't Extradite Assange campaign, providing a bit of musical infotainment about the imprisonment of Julian Assange through the very loud sound system built into those buses you can rent.  As the sound from the bus bounced between the tall buildings we were driving past, we occasionally had to duck to avoid the branches of trees that had grown downward faster than the tree-trimming crews could keep up.  

At some point during the ride I noticed that John Pilger was sitting nearby, and nobody was bothering him at the time, so I did.  It was my first and only time meeting him in person.  I thanked him for all his great work, particularly for writing the history of Australia, A Secret Country, which was where I first got the low-down on how the CIA overthrew the Australian administration of Gough Whitlam in 1975.

The awful bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip had been going on for seven weeks when the headlines informed me of the death of Shane MacGowan.  It was during the same week that I also learned of the death of Jo Custy.

Coincidences happen, of course.  But this was a fairly strange one, as they go.  Shane MacGowan, for those who don't know the name, was the leader of the Pogues as well as the Popes, and was one of the greatest band leaders of modern times.

Many people would credit MacGowan and the Pogues with being the musical pioneers of a sound that is sometimes referred to as Celtic Punk or Folk Punk.  You can read about the Pogues, and me, among others, on the Folk Punk page on Wikipedia.  Giving them the credit for inventing this musical genre is probably more about the workings of popular culture, who gets a hit and who doesn't -- for the record, Alistair Hulett's band, Roaring Jack, was absolutely doing Celtic Punk in Alistair's adopted home of Australia back in the 1970's.  One of their great songs was about the CIA's overthrow of Gough Whitlam, "The Days of '75."  But they never had a hit.

In any case, Shane MacGowan and all of his bands were amazing.  The one time I heard MacGowan live was post-Pogues, in the summer of 2000.  

I was doing my first tour of England and Ireland.  I had been living in Germany, briefly, and so I thought I should try to do more gigs in other European countries, and I organized a tour from emailing contacts in folk music-oriented publications that listed folk clubs and who to contact about playing a gig at them.  No one in England knew me or my music yet, and most of the gigs barely had attendance in the double digits.

The first gig on this little tour was at the Crawley Festival.  I think it's the only festival gig I ever got by emailing the festival organizers.  The main thing I noticed at a small festival in England, there in a mostly working-class suburb in between London and Brighton, was that you could sing songs related to the labor movement without people thinking you were from Mars, which was very refreshing.  Otherwise the gig itself was nothing special.

Being at the festival was, though, because that's where my traveling partner and musical accompanist Rich Caloggero and I met Jo Custy. 

One of the first things I noticed about Jo, aside from her being small, energetic, and wearing leather, was that she was Irish.  Until just recently I thought Shane MacGowan also grew up in Ireland, but he actually was largely raised in another London suburb, by Irish parents.  Jo did grow up in Ireland, but had been living and working for years in England.

Her enthusiasm for this little suburb and for this little festival were a joy to be part of that weekend 23 years ago.

There are different sorts of festivals.  Some are off on a farm in the countryside, from small ones like Glastonwick to huge ones like Glastonbury, and most people coming to the festival bring tents and camp there for the duration.  Then there are festivals hosted by little towns like Crawley, where most people are coming for the day from some nearby suburb, to which they will return at the end of the evening.  But a few people were using the space allotted for camping at the Crawley Festival, and although she lived very nearby, Jo was one of them.

We waited at the front of the stage along with 200 or so others for Shane and the Popes' set to begin.  They eventually arrived, two hours late.  Consistent with his reputation, Shane appeared to be staggeringly drunk.  At times I wondered whether he was as drunk as he appeared, though, because the performance, though not on schedule, was fabulous, featuring some of the best accordion-playing I've ever heard, whoever that accordion player was.  A man in a wheelchair directly in the front of the stage shouted "rubbish!" enthusiastically after every song, I remember.

Jo decided to join Rich and I on our visit to Ireland, and to set up a gig for us as well, at a pub in the city of Ennis, where she grew up.  The crowd was large and enthusiastic, and included many relatives and friends of Jo's.  I remember meeting her brother, who was as big as Jo was tiny.

I also remember that after the gig we were all upstairs in another section of the pub, hanging out.  Some drunk guy was flirting with Jo in a way she did not appreciate, and so she took what probably seemed like the easiest way out of that situation at the moment, and sat down on my lap.  I held her affectionately and the conversation with various folks including Jo's brother continued.

While Jo was sitting on my lap, the drunk guy who had been harassing her sat down next to me and slightly behind me, and whispered into my ear.  

"You're a dead man."

I remained calm.  He was drunk, I reasoned, and he was also surrounded by friends and relatives of the woman who was sitting on my lap, for whom I had just given a concert.  I don't think this guy had been at the show.

Having gotten no reaction from me, he whispered the phrase again, adding the question, "did you hear me?"

"Yes, I heard you," I replied, without moving, Jo still sitting on my lap.

The drunk guy left, and I never saw him again.

Shane MacGowan made it to 65.  Jo died much younger.  I recall the Jo I met as being younger than me, so I think she might not have hit 50 yet.  After our travels together in 2000, I saw her a bunch of other times, in those southern suburbs of London as well as in Wales, where she lived for a time.  From the many lovely remembrances of her that can be found on her Facebook account since she died, no one has mentioned how she died, though I believe she was having some kind of health issues, which may or may not have been related to her penchant for alcohol, another quality she shared with Mr. MacGowan.

If my recollection of the timing of things that happened so long ago are correct, it was a few months before I met Jo that I met Klee Benally.  He was speaking at a rally for Big Mountain in Flagstaff, Arizona, at a time when there were hundreds of people who had come from other parts of the world to stand with the people there, in their struggle against the total destruction of their land by a coal company, and their eviction from it.

I had come to Arizona at that time by way of Germany, traveling with a number of Germans who were organizing around solidarity with indigenous struggles in North America and elsewhere, and Germans who were specifically focused on what they call "the nuclear chain" -- starting with the uranium mines that then and now litter Navajo country.  The Germans and I, along with a particularly large contingent of activists from Minnesota, and others from France and lots of other places, spent time on the reservation, helping the folks known locally as "the grandmothers" make their stand, keep their land, and herd their sheep.

Within a few months of meeting Klee, I found myself on a tour of Europe, opening for his band, Blackfire, traveling with them and a small contingent of German anti-nuke activists who had organized the tour.  We were also traveling with the band's parents -- Klee, Jeneda, and Clayson were all siblings from Navajo country, raised by a Navajo man named Jones and a New Yorker named Berta, who had left New York long ago, but was still a quintessential New Yorker, talking as much as her husband didn't.

The siblings were all in their twenties then.  The concerts we were doing began with a hoop dance performance from Jones and his adult children, which always impressed the crowds, whether they had any idea they were going to be witnessing such a performance or not.  Whatever expectations audiences had from a band of siblings from Navajo country were generally shattered within seconds of Blackfire's shows, as soon as the screaming, distorted guitar kicked in and Klee's gravelly, shouty, death metally singing began. 

At the time, Klee was the one who was particularly immersed in the global justice movement of the day.  Like so many other people around the world that I knew then, he was involved with running an infoshop in Flagstaff, and involved with the Indymedia movement.  I saw Klee a couple times since that tour of Europe way back when.  Once playing at that infoshop a long time ago, and marveling at the backpacks they were producing to distribute to Indymedia activists in Indian country, which had solar panels on them, to try to contend with the chronic problem of the lack of electricity access on so many of the reservations, such as in the sprawling Navajo nation.

Another time was in San Francisco, where there was something happening in the federal court there, and dozens of folks came over from Big Mountain, along with their supporters.  This was also a long time ago.

When I first got an Instagram account, many years after all that, Klee was one of the first people I followed.  I don't remember if I was just looking for people I knew on the platform that I wanted to follow, or if he came up somehow, but I've been following him on the platform for a long time.  One of so many people I've known in life who I started following on Instagram, thinking regularly of getting in touch, dropping them a line more substantial than just "liking" a post, but never getting around to it.  And now it's too late, as with so many things.  Klee was 48.  I don't know the details about how he died either, but a friend from Arizona sent out an article from the Navajo Times.

Since I began writing this blog post yesterday, hundreds more women and children have been killed in Gaza, and 2.3 million people there are on the brink of famine, or already starving.

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