An Open Letter to the US Left on the Relevance of Culture
Being an activist is a hard, relatively thankless, generally unpaid job. There are some really wonderful people who are going to be offended by this essay, and I apologize in advance if you’re one of them, but what I say here had to be said. We’re all hopefully trying to make the world a better place, and sometimes that means having open disagreements. I welcome any and all feedback, public or private, and of course feel free to post and distribute this essay wherever you see fit.
Last weekend I sang at an antiwar protest in downtown Portland, Oregon, on the fifth anniversary of the ongoing slaughter in Iraq. In both its good and bad aspects, the event downtown was not unusual. Hard-working, unpaid activists from various organizations and networks put in long hours organizing, doing publicity, and sitting through lots of contentious meetings in the weeks and months leading up to the event. On the day of the event, different groups set up tents to network with the public and talk about matters of life and death. There was a stage with talented musicians of various musical genres performing throughout the day, and a rally with speakers in the afternoon, followed by a march. Attendance was pathetically low. In large part I’m sure this was due to the general sense of discouragement most people in the US seem to feel about our ability to effect change under the Bush regime. It was raining especially hard by west coast standards, and that also didn’t help.
The crowd grew to it’s peak size during the rally and march, but was almost nonexistent before the 2 pm rally. There was only a trickle of people visiting the various tents prior to the rally, and the musicians on the stage were playing to a largely nonexistent audience. The musical program, scheduled to happen from 10 am to 6 pm, was being billed as the World War None Festival. The term “festival” was contentious, however, and Pdx Peace, the local peace coalition responsible for the rally, couldn’t come to consensus on using the term “festival.” In their publicity they referred to the festival as an “action camp.” The vast majority of people have no idea what an “action camp” is, including me, and I’ve been actively involved in the progressive movement for my entire adult life. The local media, of course, also had no idea what an “action camp” was, and any publicity that could have been hoped for from them did not happen. Word did not spread about the event to any significant degree, at least in part because people didn’t know what they were supposed to be spreading the word about. Everybody from all political, social, class and ethnic backgrounds knows what a festival is, but certain elements within Pdx Peace didn’t want to use the term to describe what was quite obviously meant to be a festival (as well as a rally and march). Anybody above the age of three can tell you that when you have live music on a stage outdoors all day, that’s called a festival. But not Pdx Peace.
Why? I wasn’t at the meetings -- thankfully, I’m just a professional performer, not an organizer of anything other than my own concert tours, so I only know second-hand about what was said. There’s no need to name the names of individuals or the smaller groups involved with the coalition in this case -- the patterns are so common and so well-established that the names just don’t matter. Some people within the peace coalition were of the opinion that the war in Iraq was too serious a matter to have a festival connected to it. Because, I imagine, of some combination of factors including the nature of consensus decision-making, sectarianism on the part of a few, and muddled thinking on the part of some others, those who thought that a festival should happen -- and should be called a festival -- were overruled. My hat goes off to the World War None Festival organizers (a largely separate entity from Pdx Peace), and to those within Pdx Peace who tried and failed to call the festival what it was, and to organize a well-attended event.
As to those who succeeded in sabotaging the event, I ask, why is so much of the left in the US so attached to being so dreadfully boring? Why do so many people on the left apparently have no appreciation for the power and importance of culture? And when organizers, progressive media and others on the left do acknowledge culture, why is it usually kept on the sidelines? What are we trying to accomplish here?
It wasn’t always this way. Going back a hundred years, before we had a significant middle class in this country, before we had a Social Security system, Worker’s Compensation, Medicare, or anything approximating the actual (not just on paper) right to free speech, when most of the working class majority in this country were living in utter destitution and generally working (when they could find work) in extremely dangerous conditions for extremely long hours, often in jobs that required them to be itinerant, required them to forego the pleasure of having families that they might have a chance to see now and then, out of these conditions the Industrial Workers of the World was born.
The IWW at that time was a huge, militant union that could bring industrial production in the US to a halt, and on various regional levels, quite regularly did. It was a multi-ethnic union led by women and men of a wide variety of backgrounds, from all over the world. It’s most well-known member to this day was a singer-songwriter named Joe Hill, and he was only one of many of the musician-organizers that constituted both the leadership and membership of the IWW. While starving, striking, or being attacked by police on the streets of Seattle, Boston and everywhere in between, the IWW sang. Their publications were filled with poems, lyrics and cartoons. Everybody knew the songs and sung them daily. Some of the songs were instructive, meant to educate workers in effective organizing techniques. Others were battle cries of resistance, and still others celebrated victories or lamented defeats. Their cause was nothing short of the physical survival and spiritual dignity of the working class. They put their bodies on the line and were often killed and maimed for it, but they transformed this society profoundly, and they sang the whole way through. Was their cause serious? As serious as serious can get. And to this day, multitudes around the world remember the songs of Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, and T-Bone Slim, long after their speeches and pamphlets have been forgotten. Like many other singer-songwriters throughout the history of the class war, Joe Hill was executed by a firing squad in 1916. Why? Exactly because he was so serious -- a serious threat to the robber barons who ruled this country.
A very different, much more rigidly ideological organization that rose to prominence during the declining years of the IWW was the Communist Party. This is an organization whose early years are within the living memory of close friends of mine, such as my dear friend Bob Steck, who died last year at the age of 95, and spent most of his life fighting for humanity. I spent hundreds of hours over the course of many years interrogating Bob about his life and times (at least ten hours of which are recorded for posterity on cassettes somewhere). The Communist Party was very different from the IWW in many ways, but in it’s heyday it was also a huge, grassroots movement, whose leadership and membership took many cards from the IWW’s deck, including their emphasis on the vital importance of culture.
When Bob talked about the CP’s orientation with regards to organizing the revolution in the USA, he said there were three primary components: the unions, the streets, and the theater. Fighting for the welfare of the working class by organizing for the eight-hour day and decent wages (largely through the communist-led Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO), organizing the starving millions in the streets into the unions of the unemployed, and -- just as importantly -- fighting for the hearts and minds of the people through music, theater, and art. Among the musical vanguard of the communist movement of the 1930’s were people who are still household names today for millions of people in the US and around the world -- Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, to name a few. Traveling theater companies brought the work of Clifford Odetts and Bertoldt Brecht to the people, educating and inspiring militant action throughout the US. I remember Bob describing the audience reaction to one of the early performances of Waiting for Lefty in New York City, the gasps of excitement and possibility in the packed theater when the actors on stage shouted those last lines of the play -- “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Ten curtain calls later, everyone in the theater was ready to take to the streets, and did.
Bob and his comrades organized and sang in New York, just as they sang going into battle in Spain in the first fight against fascism, the one in which the US was on the side of the fascists. Nothing unusual about that -- soldiers on every side in every war sing as they go into battle, whether the cause is just or unjust. They and their leadership, whether fascist or democrat, socialist or anarchist, know that the songs are just as powerful as the guns (regardless of what Tom Lehrer said). You can’t fire if you’re running away, and if you want to stand and fight you have to sing. Talk to anybody involved with the Civil Rights movement and they’ll tell you, if we weren’t singing, we surely would have lost heart and ran in the face of those hate-filled, racist police and their dogs, guns, and water cannon. Talk to anyone who lived through the 60’s -- who remembers any but the most eloquent of the speeches by the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Mario Savio? But millions remember the songs. Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Brown, Aretha Franklin were the soundtrack to the struggle. Open any magazine or newspaper in this country to this day and you will find somewhere in the pages an unaccredited reference to a line in a Bob Dylan song. (Try it, it’s fun.)
Around the world it’s the same. Dedicated leftists may sit through the speeches of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, but transcendent poetry of Pablo Neruda and the enchanting melodies of Silvio Rodriguez cross all political and class lines. You will have to try hard to find a Spanish-speaking person anywhere in the Americas who does not love the work of that Cuban communist, Silvio. You'll have to search hard to find a Latino who does not have a warm place in their heart for that murdered Chilean singer-songwriter, Victor Jara.
Talk to any Arab of any background, no matter how despondent they may be about the state of the Arab world, try to find one whose eyes do not light up when you merely mention the names Mahmoud Darwish, Marcel Khalife, Feyrouz, Um Khultum. Try to find anyone in Ireland but the most die-hard Loyalist who doesn’t tear up when listening to the music of Christy Moore, whatever they think of the IRA. And ask progressives on the streets of the US today how they came to hold their political views that led them to take the actions they are now taking, and as often as not you will hear answers like, “I discovered punk rock, the Clash changed my life,” or “I went to a concert of Public Enemy, and that was it.”
Music -- and art, poetry, theater -- is powerful (if it’s good). The powers that be know this well. Joe Hill and Victor Jara are only a small fraction of the musicians killed by the ruling classes for doing what they do. By the same token, those who run this country (and so many other countries) know the power of music and art to serve their purposes -- virtually every product on the shelf in every store in the US has a jingle to go along with it, and often brilliant artistic imagery to go along with the jingle, shouting at us from every billboard and TV commercial. (The ranks of Madison Avenue are filled with brilliant minds who would rather be doing something more fulfilling with their creative energy.)
Enter 2008. Knowing the essential power of music, the very industry that sells us music mass-produced in Nashville and LA has done their best to kill music. For decades, the few multi-billion-dollar corporations that control the music business and the commercial airwaves have done their best to teach us all that music is something to have in the background to comfort you as you try to get through another mind-numbing day of meaningless labor in some office building or department store. It’s something to help you seduce someone perhaps, or to help you get over a breakup. It is not something to inspire thought, action, or feelings of compassion for humanity (other than for your girlfriend or boyfriend).
There are always exceptions to prove the rule, but by and large, the writers and performers in Nashville and LA know what they’re being paid to do, and what they’re being paid not to do -- if it ever occurred to them to do anything else in the first place. But even more potently, all those millions of musicians aspiring to become stars, or at least to make a living at their craft, know either consciously or implicitly that any hope of success rides on imitating the garbage that comes out of these music factories. Of course, there are the many others who write and sing songs (and create art, plays, screenplays, etc.) out of a need to express themselves or even out of a desire to make a difference in the world, but they are systematically kept off of the airwaves, out of the record deals, relegated largely to the internet, very lucky if they might manage to make a living at their craft. Fundamentally, though, they are made to feel marginal, and are looked at by much of society as marginal, novelties, exotic. Although they are actually the mainstream of the (non-classical) musical tradition in the US and around the world, although the kind of music they create has been and is still loved by billions around the world for centuries, in the current climate, especially in present-day US society, they are a marginal few.
And no matter how enlightened we would like to think we are, the progressive movement is part of this society, for good and for ill. Most of us have swallowed this shallow understanding of what music is. The evidence is overwhelming. There are, of course, exceptions. Folks like the organizers of the annual protests outside the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia -- School of the Americas Watch -- are well aware of the potency of culture, and use music and art to great effect, inspiring and educating tens of thousands of participants every November.
On the other end of the spectrum are the ideologically-driven people who have turned hatred of culture into a sort of art. I have to smile when I think of the small minority of Islamist wackos who tried to storm the stage at one rally I sang at in DC in 2002, shouting, “No music! No music!” Security for the stage was being provided by the Nation of Islam, who faced off with this group of Islamists, who ultimately decided that throwing down with the Jewels of Islam behind the stage that day wasn’t in their best interests, apparently.
But much more prevalent, and therefore much scarier, are groups like the ANSWER “Coalition.” (I put “coalition” in quotes because I have yet to meet a member of a group that theoretically makes up the “coalition” that has had any say in what goes on at their rallies, although the leadership of ANSWER is of course happy to receive the bus-loads of people that their “coalition” members bring to their rallies, which seems to be the only thing that makes ANSWER a “coalition.”) ANSWER, last I heard, is run by the ultra-left sectarian group known as the Worker’s World Party, which I strongly suspect is working for the FBI. (Although as Ward Churchill says, you don’t need to be a cop to do a cop’s job.)
Millions of people in the US who regularly go to antiwar protests are unaware of who is organizing them. They just want to go to an antiwar protest. ANSWER has become almost synonymous with “antiwar protest,” to the extent that many people on the periphery of the left (such as most people who go to their protests) refer to antiwar protests as “ANSWER protests,” as in “I went to an ANSWER protest,” whether or not the protest was actually organized by ANSWER. (Just as many people say “I was listening to NPR” when they were actually listening to a community radio station that has nothing to do with NPR, broadcasting programs such as Democracy Now!, which the vast majority of NPR stations still will not touch with a ten foot pole.)
I always find it unnerving and intriguing that ANSWER protests always seem to be mentioned on NPR and broadcast on CSPAN, whereas rallies organized by the bigger and actual coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), almost never manage to make it onto CSPAN or get covered by the corporate media. ANSWER always seems to get the permits, whereas UFPJ seems to be systematically denied them. Anyway, I digress (a little). I tend to avoid anything having to do with ANSWER or the little-known, shadowy Worker’s World Party, but a few years ago I was driving across Tennessee listening to CSPAN on my satellite radio, and they broadcast the full four hours of an ANSWER protest in DC. I sat through it because I wanted to hear it from beginning to end, for research purposes, and Tennessee is a long state to drive through from west to east, had to do something during that drive. There was one song in the four-hour rally. Although I’ve been an active member of the left for twenty years, I recognized almost none of the names of the people who spoke at the rally. Every speech was full of boring, tired rhetoric, as if they were out of a screenplay written by a rightwing screenwriter who was trying to make a mockery out of leftwing political rallies. Judging from the names of the organizations involved, very few of which I recognized either, they were mostly tiny little Worker’s World Party front groups. And since the Worker’s World Party apparently doesn’t have any musicians in their pocket, there was no music to speak of. (Or, quite probably I suspect, they don't want music at their rallies because they don't want their rallies to be interesting.)
ANSWER is an extreme example, but a big one that most progressives are unfortunately familiar with, whether they know who ANSWER (or Worker’s World) is or not. Inevitably, most people leave ANSWER protests feeling vaguely used and demoralized -- aside from those who manage to stay far enough away from the towers of speakers so they can avoid hearing all the mindless rhetoric pouring out of them. Contrast the mood with the protests at the gates of Fort Benning, where most people leave feeling hopeful and inspired.
I know I have no more hope of influencing the leadership of Worker’s World with this essay than I have of influencing the behavior of the New York City police department with it. But neither of these organizations are my target audience. Those who I hope to reach are those who are genuinely trying to create rallies and other events in the hopes of influencing and inspiring public opinion, in the hopes of inspiring people to action, in the hopes of winning allies among the apolitical or even among conservatives. The people I hope to reach are those who have been unwittingly influenced by the corporate music industry’s implicit definition of what music and culture is and is not.
And, here we go, I would count among this group most of the hard-working, loving and compassionate people who are organizing rallies, who are organizing actions, who are organizing unions, and who are creating progressive media on the radio, on community television and on the internet in the US today.
I’d like to pause for a moment to make a disclosure. I am a professional politically-oriented musician, what the corporate media (and many progressives) would call a “protest singer,” though I reject the term. I’m not sure what, if anything, I have to gain personally by publishing these thoughts, but I think it behooves me to point out that I am one of the lucky ones who has performed at rallies and in progressive and mainstream media for hundreds of thousands of people on a fairly regular basis throughout the world, and I would like to hope that my words here will not be understood as Rovics whining that he’s not famous enough. I speak here for culture generally, not for myself as an individual singer-songwriter.
My desire is to reach groups like Pdx Peace and their sister organizations throughout the country. These are genuinely democratic groups, real coalitions made up of real people, not sectarian, unaccountable groups like ANSWER. These are groups, in short, made up of my friends and comrades, but these are groups also made up of people who grew up in this society and therefore generally have a lot to learn about the power of culture to educate and inspire people. It is not good enough to have music on the stage as people are gathering to rally and as they are leaving to march. It’s not good enough to have a song or two sandwiched in between another half hour of speeches -- no matter how many organizations want to have speakers representing them on stage, or whatever other very legitimate excuses organizers have for making their events, once again, long and boring (even if they’re not as long or as boring as an ANSWER rally). It is not good enough for wonderful, influential radio/TV shows like Democracy Now! to have snippets of songs in between their interviews, when only two or three of those interviews each year are related to culture. It is a sorry state of affairs that NPR news shows do a better job of covering pop culture than Pacifica shows do in terms of covering leftwing culture.
The vast majority of the contemporary, very talented, dedicated musicians represented by, say, the "links" page on www.davidrovics.com, have rarely or never been invited to sing at a local or national protest rally (even if some few of us have, many times). The vast majority of progressive conferences do not even include a concert, or if they do, it's background music during dinner on Saturday night. I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard Democracy Now! or Free Speech Radio News mention that a great leftwing artist is doing a tour of the US. The number of fantastic musicians out there who have even been played during the station breaks on Democracy Now! is a tiny fraction of those that are out there -- of the dozens of musicians featured on my "links" page for example, only a small handful have even been played once. It is shameful that it's easier to get a national, mainstream radio show in the UK or Canada to plug a tour of such a musician than it is to get any national Pacifica program to do this.
Radical culture needs to be fostered and promoted, front and center, not sidelined as people are gathering, or when the radio stations are doing station ID's. Because if the point is to inspire people to action, a song is worth a hundred speeches. If the point is to educate people, a three-minute ballad is easily equal to any book. (They'll read the book after they hear the song, not the other way around.)
It is often said that we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of this country. It is us versus CNN, NPR, Bush, Clinton, etc. In this battle, style matters, not just content. In this battle, it is absolutely imperative that we remember that it is not only the minds we need to win, but the hearts. At least in terms of the various forms of human communication, there is nothing on Earth more effective in winning hearts than music and art. We ignore or sideline music and art at our peril. It's time to listen to the music.