Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ACTA's Silver Lining

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is the latest attempt by the global alliance of rich countries to control what they consider to be their intellectual property. If passed, it will allow governments to more easily censor the internet, arrest and imprison people for theft on the internet (downloading songs, movies, etc.), and it will cause the price of various pharmaceutical drugs to skyrocket. If passed, it will allow the drug companies to make even more obscenely massive profits, and, in theory, it will allow the recording industry and Hollywood to return to the level of profitability they used to have, before the internet came along.

Luckily for us regular thieves, there are Important People opposing ACTA and other such treaties (and proposed US laws, such as the recently-defeated PIPA and SOPA efforts). Our strange bedfellows include the likes of corporate giants such as Google and Intel. Being from Intel's home state (by complete coincidence I'm sure) Senator Ron Wyden has lately developed the gumption to suggest that if the US is going to be a signatory to ACTA this should require Congressional approval. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, thinks this is not necessary.

I don't know whether ACTA will pass – it has a lot of multi-billion-dollar corporations on both sides of the equation, as well as a growing, global social movement in opposition to it. But what really galled me was getting my latest copy of International Musician, a soporific publication that is mailed to every dues-paying member of the American Federation of Musicians every month or so. On page 2 the president of the union was beseeching the members to support legislation protecting intellectual property – he didn't even mention a bill by name. Presumably we should support any such bill that comes along the pipeline. He wrote that we should support these bills because stealing IP on the internet "hurts working musicians," actors, and others involved with making movies and musical recordings.

The inconvenient truth is, this is a load of crap. There is a class system in place here among what the union president calls "working musicians," and for the overwhelming majority of us working musicians, the system doesn't work, never has, and isn't going to be improved by draconian measures to stifle the free nature of the internet or issue massive fines or arrest warrants for downloading or uploading music, films, etc. Of course, if you a) are starring in Hollywood blockbusters on a regular basis, b) are one of the lucky authors of one of the 300 songs that are constantly in rotation on most commercial radio stations all year long or c) were born sometime after 1980 and have never talked to any working musicians or actors about what life was like before then, you might drink the Kool-Aid.

But for those of us who have been independent working musicians since the internet became popular, as well as before anybody knew what an MP3 or a bit torrent was, we can tell you that before and after the internet, approximately 90% of CD sales were, and are, at shows. Why was and is this the case? Because we don't get commercial (or "public") airplay now and, in most cases, we never have. It is getting airplay that leads people to go buy your CD in a store. If you don't get airplay then people don't buy your CDs in stores. They buy them at shows because that's just about the only place they're likely to ever hear your music. If you're lucky enough to have fans coming to your shows who heard you somewhere else it's probably the internet that's responsible for them hearing of you in the first place, and without the internet they wouldn't be there buying your CD (or just coming to your show) in the first place.

Same with movies. I was having dinner with two filmmakers and two of their supporters – that is, two filmmakers and two people who are trying to figure out ways to raise the $100,000 or so that these filmmakers need in order to make their very worthwhile documentary. They all know that there is far less than a 1% chance that the final product will ever turn a profit, if it even gets made in the first place. This is the model most filmmakers around the world have been working with forever – it's not a recent, internet-driven phenomenon. The fact is, most working actors, working musicians and working filmmakers barely make a living, if they make one at all, and that's how it's been for decades before the internet. The fact is, it is the Cultural 1% (or really 0.1% or less) that stands, at least potentially, to benefit from these draconian laws the leaders of many rich countries are trying to pass on behalf of certain Fortune 500 companies.

So, the head of the American Federation of Musicians is either confused, or is a stooge for the Recording Industry Association of America and a handful of bought-off superstars. OK, no surprise there. But as I was reading the editorial in International Musician and hearing about the swelling grassroots movement opposing ACTA it got me thinking. That is, what would life be like if ACTA were ratified by all these different countries? More to the point, what if ACTA was successfully able to do what it's sponsors are hoping it will do? What if the internet were finally going to be scourged of "illegal," copyrighted material once and for all?

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced this could actually be the best thing ever to happen to independent musicians and other indy artists. Much the same way as wars are good for protest singers. Being a humanist first, it's not something I'd wish for – I don't want to see bombs killing families for ExxonMobil and I don't want to see anybody going to prison for listening to music. But if ACTA were to be effectively enforced, I think the result could be an international cultural renaissance like we've never seen before.

I'll explain. The assumption of the ACTA supporters is that if people couldn't "steal" movies and music, they'd pay for it instead. This is undoubtedly true for some people. But is it true for most people? I'm pretty sure there's no way to know until treaties like ACTA are passed and thoroughly enforced, but my educated guess is that most people (or at least a very significant minority) would simply abandon corporate culture almost entirely.

People "steal" music they've already heard on the radio or on TV, for the most part. The YouTube videos that have "gone viral" usually haven't, in any real sense – the millions of downloads for the few artists that get them are usually the direct result of massive amounts of corporate radio airplay or national and international TV exposure. Faced with the prospect of not having the option of taking the path of least resistance – that is, downloading the stuff that's already familiar to them, the way children usually want to only eat food they've eaten before -- people will be prompted to branch out. People will start looking around for free music on the web, and they will find it. They will find it because of independent artists like me and many others who have long ago abandoned any fantasies of commercial success as defined by Clear Channel or MTV. They'll find it because we'll be giving it away, as is our right as creators of content, as they say, and the internet will (hypothetically) no longer be cluttered with corporate pop music.

I believe the result of ACTA's effective enforcement would mean that people would be "forced" -- that is, nudged just enough – to branch out beyond their bland but familiar diet of well-produced but often otherwise vapid pop music and start earnestly looking for good music that's out there, that they don't have to pay for. The internet is, and could become far more under the right circumstances, the radio play the overwhelming majority of working musicians have never had. Even if cyberspace were no longer cluttered with corporate junk, it would still be cluttered by bad, independent music – that's the nature of the beast. But with less corporate clutter it would become that much easier for web surfers to find the gems amid the muck, and there are lots of them – far, far more than we'd ever even know about if it were up to ACTA's supporters, who are the corporate behemoths who have created the Orwellian media landscape we are currently living under.

Disavowing Disavowal: In Defense of Gilad Atzmon

I've been on a concert tour in Europe, so far mostly in Great Britain, for the past month or so. There's nothing like being on tour to connect on a personal, face-to-face level with society, or at least the little subsets of society who come to my shows. Being a songwriter who writes songs about the Palestinian struggle, among other subjects, many of my shows around the world are organized by Palestine solidarity activists of one kind or another. Before the tour began I was getting occasional emails from people asking me whether I wanted to add my name to a group denunciation of jazz musician, blogger and author Gilad Atzmon. Denounce him for what, I asked. For being an anti-Semite, they replied. I'd then ask them to send me what he wrote that they found offensive, which they would then do (sometimes accompanied by an introductory essay explaining the distinction between anti-Zionsim and anti-Semitism). I'd then read every word, and each time, I'd fail to find the anti-Semitic bit. Then, ten days into my tour, the US Palestinian Community Network published a "Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon." Several of the signatories include Palestinian intellectuals and activists I know and admire.

Before and especially after their denunciation of Atzmon was published, several of my gigs in England and Scotland have included people handing out printed copies of the disavowal and telling me and other people in no uncertain terms that Atzmon is an anti-Semite, may be a Mossad agent, and may be (or is, depending on who you ask) a holocaust denier. ("Which holocaust" is not an appropriate question, so don't even think about asking. Just the question alone is enough to get you accused of being a denier in some quarters.)

Well, all the attention Atzmon was getting prompted me to fork up $9.99 for my first electronic book (and I'm very thankful that something got me to read a book again, as somehow or other it's been ages). I'm not a scholar, but I am an avid student of history and politics, and I thought Atzmon's book, The Wandering Who?, was a very thought-provoking read. There weren't any particularly new ideas in it, but it was a very well-organized, well-articulated, contemporary and at times, humorous 200-page analysis of Jewish identity.

From the outset, Atzmon makes it clear that his criticism of various aspects of Jewish tribal identity(s) for the past couple millenia is not aimed at the many people who happen to be born Jewish, but to what he identifies as "third category" Jews – Jews who identify primarily as Jewish, first and foremost. Growing up in the New York area with my eyes open and being of Jewish lineage myself, it is not hard to see that this third category exists, and in abundance, so it's also not hard to see why it's such an interesting subject to write a book about.

A cursory glance at history tells me that narrow tribal identity politics usually suck. Whether it's people defining themselves in terms of their nation, their region, their ethnicity, their football team, their religion, if people have convinced themselves that they're better than you, watch out. What Atzmon is doing here is deconstructing (to use a word he probably doesn't like) Jewish identity politics, specifically. He is not analyzing or denouncing tribalism in general, I assume because you gotta stop somewhere, but maybe he has other reasons, like just wanting to stick to the point, or perhaps a little bit of self-preservation.

Why, then, is Atzmon's intellectual exercise here getting both the Anti-Defamation League and even various good activists so riled up? Well, for different reasons, depending on who's feeling riled. In the case of people involved with Palestine solidarity in one form or another, I'd say it is not Atzmon's non-existent hatred of Jews that is the problem here. It is the fact that, in his position as an accomplished jazz musician and writer, he keeps talking about his views and upsetting people who identify with other narratives of Jewish religion, history and identity than Atzmon's. Some of these people he's pissing off include Jews and others who are involved with the movement to boycott Israeli products, etc. Because he's pissing them off, it doesn't really matter whether he's right, he should just shut up and stop rocking the boat, because he's distracting people from the very worthy cause of Palestinian self-determination.

Now there's where I can sympathize with Atzmon's detractors. There is, I'm sure, great strategic value in as united a front as possible. I'm not an organizer – just a musical cheerleader – so I don't know much first-hand about building a solid movement and that sort of thing, and I'm sure it's extremely difficult. I'm also sure it's extremely necessary. But as someone who has been studying history and politics for many decades, I have to say that Atzmon is only saying the things that so many people already know, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise because shunning someone for stating the self-evident is more convenient for the movement in the short-term. If he is to be shunned for being unnecessarily divisive, or for having too dark a sense of humor, or for being overly confrontational or critical, fine, shun away. But if he is to be shunned because he is an anti-Semite, no, that's just nonsense.

I'm not going to lay out Atzmon's whole thing here. If you're curious, read the book – at least read the first two chapters before you decide to join in the shunning. But as a big fan of world history and the similarities and differences between the development of different societies over the millenia, as I was reading his book I kept thinking of other examples of tribal identity politics through the ages. One of the things I love about the US, despite a perennially despicable government committing one holocaust after another – the African holocaust, the Native American holocaust, the Korea holocaust, the Vietnam holocaust, not to mention the German and Japanese holocausts committed by the USAF – and despite all the efforts of racist pricks in power who do their best to maintain all sorts of divisions within American society – in the end, the US is full of hopelessly assimilated mutts like myself. It is, in fact, to no small extent, a melting pot, and although the bigotry that often is one of the factors that leads to assimilation must certainly be condemned, the fact that the country is full of people who, like me, can trace their ancestry to at least a dozen countries, tribes and historic religious affiliations, is a beautiful thing. It leaves many of us, especially those of us living comfortable lives, who are broadly accepted as part of a given society, perplexed by tribalism. For us assimilated types it doesn't come naturally, and if it is to exist it must be very purposefully ingrained. (Which is why the ADL hates Atzmon – he's interfering with the ingraining process with his book.)

I kept wondering, as I was reading Atzmon's book, what would reactions of the general public be like to a similarly critical deconstruction of Catholic religion and tribal identity? I suspect such a book would be taken very differently depending on the locale -- depending on whether you live in a place where Catholics are disproportionately living in poverty or faced with discrimination, or have been in such a position in living memory, such as Northern Ireland, as opposed to places like the US or the other 26 counties of Ireland. For example, I have never met anyone living in Belfast who would refer to themselves as a "recovering Catholic." Despite the efforts of the historically oppressed Catholic community in the northern six counties to distance themselves from the Catholic tribal identity and embrace a more inclusive, Republican identity (Protestants welcome!), the effect of centuries of anti-Catholic discrimination and oppression has left people with a much stronger attachment to their Catholic identity than most Catholics would tend to have in the Republic of Ireland or in the United States, where you will often meet people who, when asked if they grew up in a religious family or some other such question, will define themselves as a "recovering Catholic."

Most people immediately understand what is meant by "recovering Catholic." The emphasis may vary depending on the person and what their experiences were like, but most likely anyone "recovering" from being a Catholic is trying to recover from growing up in an atmosphere where they were led to believe that sex is bad, everyone else who doesn't believe the way we do is going to hell and should therefore be converted to my religion, abortion is a sin, homosexuality is a sin, etc. Yet if someone were to describe themselves as a "recovering Jew," in many cases the room would become uncomfortably quiet, I imagine, as people gradually walk away from the offending party, lest they be accused of anti-Semitism by standing too close. Except in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv, where being Jewish is quite normal and unexotic, and where most people would understand immediately (whether or not they like it) that this person is recovering from growing up in an environment where everyone who wasn't Jewish was a goy and was not to be trusted and was a closet anti-Semite, where you shouldn't marry a goy, where you're always either too Jewish or not Jewish enough, where you're a failure for not being a doctor or a lawyer, where you're part of a Chosen group of people and you're better than others, but don't say that in public or they'll say you poisoned the wells, etc.

Sticking with the Catholic example here, though, reading the "debate" (if you can call attack and counter-attack a debate) between Atzmon's detractors and supporters (some of whom appear to be lunatics), I was thinking about what a friend in West Belfast was telling me about some things that happened back in the day, during the Troubles. The IRA was, like so many movements, full of inevitable contradictions. So much of the Republican movement had a distinctly socialist orientation, and elements of the Republican movement were very critical of the Catholic church presently and historically, including even critical of the church's stance on abortion and many other still-sensitive issues among many people of Catholic origin there and around the world. But much of the IRA's funding came from Irish-American supporters in the US, who were often otherwise fairly conservative politically and socially as well. So the IRA's socialist message and anyone associated with the Republican movement who was speaking out in support of legalizing abortion was seen as an obstacle to the Republican movement, even if many people quietly agreed with the dissenters.

Many people have made relevant comparisons between the global movement in support of Palestinian self-determination and the global movement in support of Irish Republicanism. There are many more relevant comparisons to be made, and I'd venture to say that this is another of them. In both cases, with the various dissenters within the anti-Zionist movement and the Irish Republican movement, I really do sympathize with both the dissenters and the "united front." I understand that strategic unity is vital for any successful movement. But I also understand that honest debate, freedom of expression, and critical analysis of everything – very much including Jewish identity politics – is also vitally important. I hope that a unity of purpose can be maintained even with such substantive differences in our various understandings of reality and history. Moreover, I hope that Atzmon's honest efforts to disentangle the whole question of Jewishness will lead other people from other tribal backgrounds to do more of the same. And I hope that more people will read his book before they feel the need to call him an anti-Semite.