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Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Tide is Turning: America sings from the big RED heart

Sunday, January 18, 2009, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, under the umbrella of a concert event called “We are One”, the gorgeous moments were plentiful. There was Bono singing tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., reiterating that the dream is “not just an American dream, but an African dream, a European dream, an Israeli dream, and…[long pause before he hollered it into an isolated American consciousness]: “a Palestinian dream…” There was Bruce Springsteen and a gospel choir performing “The Rising”, a song whose challenge and hope we failed in 2002, but redeemed six years later. There was Stevie Wonder in his opulent Obama jacket, playing “Higher Ground” to a country that finally decided to take it.
But the best moment was a veritable coup. I imagine its masterminds are still laughing joyously at having pulled it off. Richard Nixon’s grave has been desecrated. Ronald Reagan’s library probably collapsed on itself. The voices of millions upon millions of murdered, imprisoned, disenfranchised and disheartened leftists of the twentieth century were finally allowed to join in the chorus of a song at an American inauguration.
Why? Because the concert closed with communist folk singer Pete Seeger standing next to his heir, Bruce Springsteen, singing Woody Guthrie’s communist hymn, “This Land is Your Land.” To be sure, the popularity of the song was always a coup—little grade school kids all across America singing a communist song during the Reagan years has to be one of the more amusing and bemusing instances of our long and storied tradition of incompetent lyric reading. But in America’s defense, we were never taught to sing the whole song. Conveniently excised were the parts that impugned private property, the church, and our callous practice of writing-off the homeless and poor as having poor ‘work ethic’.
But those verses were not only included Sunday night, they were spoken by Pete Seeger, clearly and loudly and insistently, before each line was sung, so that we could not possibly indulge in our habit—developed during decades of opiate-lyric abuse—of closing our eyes and simply swaying to a familiar melody:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Take note, Metallica—those words aren’t anybody’s intellectual ‘property’. They are our intellectual inheritance and our intellectual hope. The tide is turning. When we let go of the old allegiances and welcome whatever seems the most democratic, the tide is turning. In the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1990, Roger Waters and friends sang his “The Tide is Turning” in honor of the fall of a communist regime and the hope of democracy. Sunday the tide was turning away from a horrifically capitalist regime towards a hope of democracy, this time inscribed by the greatest communist song ever written.

Perhaps the remnants of Bush’s police state are intact enough to track people like me who blog words like ‘communist’ and ‘Hugo Chavez’, who want to legalize drugs and prostitution, who don’t think Antonio Negri is a terrorist. Even so, nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land was made for you and me, not for anything so crass as a ‘nation’, a ‘people’, an ‘audience’ or a ‘demographic.’

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Meditation on My Pet Rats

I like having pets, especially rats, because they don't speak. No, this is not another facet of american anti-intellectualism, championing the simple and dumb. Rather, it's an exercise for me--and for them--in attempting to understand those who can't speak. Because that, in the end, is the duty of the activist. The feminist reclaiming the voices of the women silenced by patriarchal literary practices. The gay man listening for the love song of the queer with no microphone, or no record company that will consent to record such love. Pramoedya Ananta Toer compiling at the end of his memoir a list of all the men who died in his prison camp, with details such as their religion, number of children, source of death.
My two rats, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gianluigi Buffon, suddenly found themselves, last week, in a cage devoid of two other members of their family. They could not ask me any questions, as to why I took Marx and Engels out of the cage, like so many times before, but this time did not return them. They are smart animals and they register the loss. They have changed: Buffon is more loving now; Zambrotta seems more skittish. But I can only guess as to what they think and feel. And to do so I watch them, intently. More intently than we watch or listen to those whose capacity and right to speech we and they take for granted.
And so in my studies I turn to the socialists in Chile, the United States, Italy, Indonesia, and watch, listen closely to the parts of history that did not allow them to speak. That in fact imprisoned, killed, or otherwise silenced them. I look for signs and clues as to how the speechless processed the twentieth century.
At the very least, I will give them what every pet owner's manual insists upon: attention. Even if it is, for now, uncomprehending attention.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Defense of Greatness, Against Psychology

What do Michael Jackson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moulin Rouge, and George Lucas have in common? None is allowed by contemporary tastes to be great. I could write a hundred blogs on the destructiveness of our craven tendency towards the psychologistic reduction of human beings, bearing in mind that it is not so much psychology but its practitioners that are so stagnant. Today I want to talk about two all-too-common words of judgment vis-à-vis great authors, thinkers, singers and great beings in general: motives and needs. In an essay on confessions within autobiographies, Stephen Spender argues that we are uncomfortable with too much information in autobiography, because we are afraid of the inherent danger of the inner life of human beings. “The antidote was once the Church. Today it is the vast machinery of psychological analysis and explanation.” Right on, Spender. Except that he himself attempts to locate an antidote to the greatness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, earlier in the essay, by writing off Rousseau’s courageous honesty and inclusiveness in the Confessions as a confessional need to absolve oneself with the public.
And there’s the rub. We don’t trust ingenuous. We don’t trust sincerity. We certainly don’t trust great motives. In fact, the very use of the word ‘motive’ belies our need to find reasons other than the one proffered by the author. In many cases, this is a good idea. But I am dismayed by the current need to write off anyone and everyone who announces their high ideals as having ‘ulterior motives’. It used to be we dealt with our inferior ambition, will and commitment in various healthy ways (heroic striving to be like them) and unhealthy ways (self-loathing, apathy, class consciousness). Currently, a ridiculously unhealthy way reigns: impugning the motives of anyone who seems ‘suspiciously’ pure-hearted.
And so the reaction of my classmates to Rousseau, who announces on the first page of his Confessions: “I have never put down as true what I knew to be false…”, and resolves to present a true, unflinching portrait of one man—himself. My classmates scoff: no way he’s telling the truth. Spender the lit critic scoffs as well: “There could be no better example of this secret motive of the human heart than the opening pages of Rousseau’s Confessions.” Really? I could think of 1,000 better examples. Does anyone want to take pause and wonder if maybe Rousseau has a true socio-political agenda here? Maybe he believes absolute honesty will further the human understanding. After all, this is a man who wrote one tome about revolutionizing the education of children and another about revolutionizing the state. I remember when my ex-wife resolved to say it out loud whenever her experience of date rape popped into her mind, as a form of political resistance against the marginalization of the body and its violations into the pure realm of ‘subject matter’ or ‘lessons’ or ‘principles’ instead of real facts and real stories about real people. About a lot of people. About the woman you work with. And yet there in the work place, and many other places, she was accused of ‘trying to get attention’ (the most banal of our current crop of knee-jerk, passive-aggressive, psychologistic faux-analyses), or vanity. The same thing happened to my current wife when talking about her high school bulimia. And myself when talking about my prison time. In fact, anywhere I go, anywhere I read or watch, those who tell the truth are subjected to this facile impugning of motives. I call Rousseau’s decision to write about his sexual fetish for punishment and his kleptomania, especially coming from a respected political philosopher, courageous and revolutionary. Honesty itself is revolutionary.
Let’s look at a contemporary example: Michael Jackson, whom even respectable media outlets
feel justified in referring to as ‘Jacko’ in the midst of so-called serious reporting. Michael Jackson gave absurd amounts of money to charity, spent absurd amounts of time trying to stop the suffering of children, and wrote absurdly sincere songs about such suffering. We all felt guilty that we were writing or listening to “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me” or another song about ‘me’ or ‘you’. So, as Bono said in dedicating U2’s “Bad” to Michael Jackson, he was pronounced guilty by all the moment he was accused. Only an artist as sincere as Michael Jackson could inspire such hatred for having a llama and a monkey among his friends, let alone being accused of pedophilia by gold-digging, guilty parents. Captain Eo was ostensibly scorned because it was cheesy to fight evil by dancing with animals in a flashy suit. I say it was scorned because the implication of dancing one’s way to justice reminded people of their own distance from the life-affirming joy that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, in Multitude, calls essential to revolutionary change.
Then there’s Baz Luhrman, whose style could be described as the antidote to cynicism. This was barely tolerated in Moulin Rouge, mostly buoyed by its appeal to the musical-loving demographic, but it ultimately sunk his recent Australia. What was wrong with Australia? No irony, no cynicism, nothing but big ideals, big heroics, big love, aligned against big business. As with Michael Jackson, once a work of art disallows us the ironic detachment of a nihilistic actor eating a hamburger in a Carls Jr. commercial (“Don’t talk to me, I’m eating”), we are left with its naked and bare commitment to its own principles. Often this means its politics. Michael Jackson has politics. Rousseau has politics. Luhrman has politics. The American tendency to artificially separate the public from the private leads some to decry overtly ‘political’ art. In fact, I was taught in Creative Writing classes that only bad art is written with a cause in mind. I side more with Indonesia’s greatest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: “The literature that ‘rejects’ politics, that professes to be wholly apolitical, is obviously produced by those writers who have found a comfortable niche in the halls of power.” Toer’s take is an apposite response to recent reviews of Soderbergh’s Che, which accuse him of an overt political (Marxist) stance. All art has a political stance. When it doesn’t look like it does, that means it’s affirming the status quo (see Forrest Gump, the most reactionary film of the 1990s).
The ‘ulterior motives’ are anywhere and everywhere. A football player celebrating creatively after a score is judged needy of attention. As is U2’s frontman Bono, who appears everywhere in print and other media talking about Africa. The Wachowski brothers must have made their stunning, avant-garde, Marxist film Speed Racer flashy and bright in order to pull in money from the growing video-game crowd. As I finish this essay, in fact, the 12th episode of George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars begins with an epigraph: "Fail with honor rather than succeed by fraud." I love a television episode that begins with a moral principle, unironically. And then proceeds to illustrate it, unironically. George Lucas really pisses off critics and fans unnerved by the political groundedness and “self-seriousness” (their word for ‘serious’, since they can’t separate anything from the self) of his prequel trilogy. Lucas angers them more than most because they don’t get to use their typical strategy of attack: accusations of ‘selling out’ to the producers and studios and audience. Because Lucas owns everything (owing originally to an extraordinary and visionary act of faith and initial disregard for wealth), he gets to make whatever fits his peculiar vision, pushing him close to the Nietzschean artist, who disdains to make “one single compromise.” The venomous, bizarrely herdlike hatred, for example, of one his minor characters, Jar Jar Binks, didn’t stop Lucas in this episode from using Binks as unironic hero who subverts the hipness of the Jedi while not only maintaining their ideals, but one-upping them. Despite his clumsiness, he quite graciously works within the multitude of the planet, and all its creatures and rhythms, communicating with the kind of beasts the hipper heroes usually fight. It’s an extraordinary ‘fuck you’ to Star Wars fans to make no less than two episodes both centering upon and glorifying a loathed character, and I read the ‘fuck you’ as follows: Star Wars is not a logo for your identity flag. It’s a mythos and an ethos, and both mythical meaning-making and ethical action run right over, swallowing whole, cool and uncool.

- Spender, Stephen, “Confessions and Autobiography”, in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney, Princeton, 1980
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Confessions, pg. 1, trans. J. M. Cohen, 1953
- Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, ‘The Role and Attitude of Intellectuals in the Third World’, trans. Harry Aveling, in Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun, Yayasan Kabar Seberang, 1995

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.