Monday, September 11, 2017

Anatomy of A Protest

The Media's Movement

My daughter and I attended a rally and march against a small far right group in downtown Portland yesterday.  Here and around the US, the frequent protests against the right have gotten massive amounts of media coverage.  I'm generally all for protests getting media coverage, but the extent of the coverage is so disproportionate compared to the way the media usually covers leftwing protesters and social movements, one might develop the impression that there is some kind of massive movement against the right and the people in the White House who represent the right.

There is no such social movement occurring in the United States today.  In order to think there is such a movement happening, you would need to be staying home from the actual protests, and just watching them on TV and on your social media feeds.  If you're a leftwinger from the US and you do Instagram and most of your friends are politically somewhere in your camp, you probably saw lots of pictures of protests yesterday.  If you were listening to NPR or watching MSNBC, you heard and saw scenes from various protests both yesterday and today (they're still talking about yesterday's protests on the news today).

If you have been participating in these protests, you would only think you're participating in a mass movement if, as they say in the entertainment business, you believe your own bio.  That is, if you believe what they say on the news.  Or if you've never been part of a social movement before, and haven't read much about past or contemporary social movements in the world.

I do not mean to be critical of anyone who is organizing against this horrible administration or the administration's rightwing supporters.  But as someone who is here on the ground in one of the main cities that gets national media coverage on a regular basis for being a center of this stuff, I feel like it's worth jotting down some notes, while it's all fresh in my brain -- if only for those hypothetical future historians who may be trying to make sense of what was going on here in the year 2017.  (Plus I'll be speaking to a class at a university in a few days and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on the subject.)

Backing up slightly to set the stage here, I attended two similar protest rallies in the past couple months in Portland.  At one of the rallies the sound equipment they had was so inadequate that only a few dozen people standing right around the speaker could hear anything.  The other few hundred people there were just quietly standing around, trying not to make any noise, so they might hear the occasional word being said from the speakers.

At the next rally, I brought my battery-powered amp and stand and such, thinking I'd offer to provide sound for the rally.  I saw they had a much better sound system all set up, so I didn't offer mine.  They had inexplicably set up their sound system in an area that was like ten feet down some stairs from where most of the rally participants would be standing, and on top of that, no one seemed to know how to turn up the volume, and once again, what was said from the speakers was inaudible to most of the several hundred participants.

I have learned that unless I know rally organizers and/or the people with the sound gear personally, it's usually wise not to offer to help, lest I be seen as an unwanted intruder.  Certainly offering to sing in such a situation can be seen as an unwanted intrusion, since decisions about who's going to speak or sing and for how long are generally made by committee in advance at such protests -- and this practice has merits, as well.

Several weeks in advance of yesterday's rally I got in touch with the organizers and offered to bring my amp, and I offered to bring my guitar if they wanted me to sing (separate offers, if perhaps related ones).  I also explained that my amp was not ideal for a crowd of several hundred, but that it was better than what they had used at these other two rallies.  I got word a few days in advance of the rally that they wanted me to bring my amp but that they weren't sure if they wanted me to sing.

In terms of whether or not they wanted me to sing, the question was whether to have me open the rally with a couple songs when it was officially scheduled to start at 12:30 pm, whether I should sing a few songs before the official start time as the crowd was gathering, or whether I shouldn't sing at all.  The day before the rally, I got messages from two different organizers, one saying I should sing as the crowd is gathering, the other saying I should sing at 12:30 to kick off the rally.

I figured if there was some question about whether people wanted me sing as part of the official rally program or not, maybe it would be more diplomatic for me to sing before it officially started, so that's what I did.  I started playing around noon, when there were several dozen people sitting or standing around, waiting for the rally to start, largely in silence, some talking quietly, a couple of groups of people with certain roles (security, medics) having meetings.

Although people could hear me fine, and I was singing songs related to the protest they were attending, there was a strangely morose atmosphere in the park.  At first the only tepid applause came from the couple of people there I personally knew.  After a couple songs, tepid applause came from a few more people.  Around 12:15, a couple hundred students marched to the park.  I think they were coming from Portland State University nearby.  Many of them were marching behind banners for a variety of small socialist political parties, mostly campus-based, parties that have little or no presence in the city outside of the college campuses.

They came in chanting a variation of one of the chants that has been interminably popular since the Sixties.  Sort of the left equivalent of a nursery rhyme, or "Happy Birthday" or something equally cloying.  For some reason, as they walked in they didn't want to fill up the park, but mostly wanted to stand behind their banners in the area where the speaker was set up, facing the few people who were already in the park.  There wasn't room for all of them there, so, since I was in front of the mic, I encouraged them to keep coming in.  I think my advice was contrary to their plan, and so they naturally ignored it, so it took quite a while for everybody to manage to find a space in the spacious park for these strange logistical reasons.

I don't know if they had been planning on keeping up with their chants until the rally began, but I think I messed their plan up, with my pre-rally entertainment going on.  I figured they'd have time for more chanting later, so I kept singing into the mic.  The crowd was of course now much larger, and applause after songs was thus a little louder, but still basically polite applause rather than anything enthusiastic.  I think I was as perplexed by the looks on the faces of people there, especially the students, as they were by me.  They looked like they were thinking, "who is this guy?  What is he doing?  Why is he doing it?"  I felt like I was visiting from another planet and singing in an alien language, even though I was doing songs about recent events with which everyone would have been familiar, such as the recent murder-by-car of a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There seemed to be some confusion about who the MC was supposed to be, and how the chants went that the MC was supposed to lead.  One of the MC's, a Lakota veteran of the struggle at Standing Rock, repeatedly referred to the KKK as the KK.  There was no one trying to keep speakers to the time limits they had previously agreed upon as far as I could tell, and the speakers went on longer than planned.  Halfway through the rally, someone else showed up from a labor contingent with a sound system was that better than the one I brought, and there was a haphazard transfer between my system and his that included someone not related to either sound system helpfully putting the microphone in front of the speaker and causing painful feedback.  (I tried not to sound condescending when I quickly explained during the transition that putting a mic in front of a speaker causes feedback when everything is turned on.)

Aside from me opening the rally with music, which I believe only happened in the first place because I was offering the use of my amp, the only music was a lovely a cappella song the Lakota woman sang in Lakota.  The speakers were all pretty good, talking about struggles that people are facing now with the repeal of DACA, racist attacks, ever more restrictive policies against taking refugees, and other things.  Most of the speakers were young, and all but one of them were people of color.  The one white person who spoke was a rabbi named Deborah, I believe.  Having attended many rallies where most of the speakers were white men, this was a welcome change.

The woman who introduced the rally to begin with said right off the bat that the process of organizing the rally had been challenging.  I had heard that from other people involved, as well.  I think there were something like 72 organizations involved with getting several hundred people in the streets.  I don't know what the difficulties were in the organizing process.  (I'm not an organizer of such events and I have no intention of becoming one.  I have other priorities that make better use of my skills in the service of the people.)  Considering that about 90% of the crowd was white, perhaps choosing to have all but one of the speakers be people of color was contentious, I don't know.  I wonder if the fact that there was no music, poetry or other such forms of expression in the program was part of the contention.

For all the arguing about the program that evidently went on, apparently very little attention was paid to the logistical aspect of anybody being able to hear the program, given that they were using me to do sound and I had already explained that what I had wasn't ideal for the situation, and the guy with the sound gear that was good for the circumstances showed up well after the rally had started.

So basically, it was a rally very typical of the sort of rally students in Portland have been organizing periodically since I moved here ten years ago, and very typical of the sorts of rallies students and the usual suspects in the progressive community (or the left, or the activists, or whatever you want to call that small sector of the population that reliably shows up to these sorts of things) have been organizing in cities across the US for a very long time.

That is, this is what a rally looks like in the absence of any kind of social movement backdrop.  In the context of a vibrant mass movement, you would see many different contingents of people organizing many different sorts of things, including music, food, art, and civil disobedience.  Lots of people would be spreading the word about lots of upcoming events, and there would be areas of town where everybody knows they can go to physically be with and work with other participants in the movement.  And, with far less media coverage, if any, there would have been far more people present at such a rally and march -- if there were a social movement happening now in the US that's worthy of the term, as the term is understood by participants in such movements historically.

What's a bit different now as opposed to a few years ago is the Black Bloc is now more widely known as Antifa (yes, of course Antifa has existed for a long time, but it didn't become such a well-known word until very recently).  And Antifa had their own rally, separate from the one the 72 organizations organized.  Antifa's rally was I think somewhat smaller than the one I was at.  I couldn't tell, because once the marching started, the two rallies merged into one march, more or less.

Being with my 11-year-old daughter, I strategically stayed away from the center of the action once the march was going, but from what I learned from friends a couple hours later was at least one of the seven people arrested was arrested for throwing a bottle of water at a riot cop.  The number of riot cops was probably in the low hundreds -- after fighting between rightwingers and Antifa at a recent protest where the police were largely absent, yesterday the police were doing their more traditional thing of keeping the groups apart with their bodies as well as barricades and police vehicles.

When the Antifa crowd can't reliably get more than a few dozen people to come to one of their own protests, they usually just join other protests where their "diversity of tactics" is unwanted ("diversity of tactics" being Antifa's antipathy to agreeing on tactics with everybody else and their desire to do their own thing anyway).  Since Trump, Antifa is able to get crowds in the low hundreds in certain cities at least now and then, so they've been calling their own protests against the right.  The right, in this case, being represented by not more than ten people waving flags by the waterfront behind a wall of riot cops.

At various points throughout the downtown area you could see and hear young people dressed head to toe in black, faces covered, yelling at cops and yelling at random Portlanders who happened to be downtown at the time and had the temerity to ask them why they were wearing masks.  Whether the other six people arrested had thrown stuff at the cops or were just acting aggressive or not doing anything at all, I don't know.  Those who were arrested were, according to people I talked to, violently thrown to the ground by the police.  In other words, the police were provoked, and they responded with excessive force, as usual.

At the end of the march, at least half of the people who originally came to the Terry Schrunk Plaza, where it began, reconvened there for yet more speeches.  This time it was more of an open mic.  This time I wasn't in the background quietly advising each speaker to speak directly into the mic, so some of the speakers were much more audible than others, and most seemed to be representatives of student socialist groups, reading speeches from their phones that sounded like they could have been written by Karl Marx himself.

If the patriotic dude in the pickup truck across the river in Vancouver had successfully driven his pickup into the crowd of marchers as he apparently wanted to, instead of getting arrested by the Vancouver police before he had the chance, and if a hurricane weren't currently destroying parts of Florida and if fires weren't still engulfing much of the forestland of the west at the moment, then we'd be seeing Charlottesville-level coverage of these events.  As it is, media coverage has been impressive, but not quite that massive.

I remember one time there were tens of thousands of people committing civil disobedience, shutting down a major city in the US during a time when there was something approaching a mass movement in this country, around the turn of this century.  It was barely covered in the news at all.  At the time, it was widely understood on the left that if the protest had had any chance of getting media coverage in the first place, this chance was blown by the fact that Michael Jackson had gotten nasal surgery that day.  It ain't like that now -- you can have the biggest Atlantic storm in recorded history and the biggest forest fires in recorded history happening in different parts of this country at the same time, and a few hundred people protesting in Portland will still make national news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I'll be very excited if a mass movement does develop in the US, but evidently, as much as it may try, the media can't create one by itself, and a few socialist groups from the university still can't create a social movement by themselves either, no matter how much they wish their rhetoric could match the reality.

I don't want to beat up on anyone who is trying to do useful things, and I applaud everyone's efforts, regardless of how effective they may be.  I applaud people for trying.  That's what I do with my music -- I tell stories of people and movements who have tried to make a difference (including those that have made a difference, not just tried to).  I think it's important to play that role -- the role of cheerleader.  This is what I'm trying to do by singing and providing sound for protests, no matter whether they're well-organized ones or not.  I'm just trying to do my part, and other people are, too.  And I don't know what series of things need to happen to make a real social movement get off the ground -- if I did, or if anyone did, such a movement would be happening now, and a long time ago.

What I can say for sure, though, is that social movements don't look like this, and I think it's important for people to understand that, in the hopes that they don't get too discouraged by what they're seeing -- in case they think this is what a social movement looks like and they feel discouraged and dejected and just want to go hang themselves instead.

No, this isn't a social movement, but it might be a building block for one -- maybe.  Though I suspect if we're going to have any hope of building a real movement, we need to hold frequent public events that look more like movement events would look -- forward-looking events, talking about the world we want to create, not just the one we want to tear down, and events that communicate these messages through music, art, food, community, laughter, love for humanity, and taking over physical spaces -- buildings, city parks, forests -- and holding onto them through various legal and illegal means.  This is what democracy looks like -- not a small gathering of mostly student socialist groups joined by angry teenagers with masks on throwing water bottles.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Whose Privilege...?

Some Thoughts on Effective Communication

OK, I've been mulling this subject over for a long time without blogging about it, but here goes.  I think terms like "white privilege" and "male privilege" are, at best, useless, and at worst, counterproductive.  The main reason I say that is because I'm pretty sure most people don't understand what the terms are supposed to mean -- and the people using the terms usually just keep the confusion going.

I rarely use words like "anarchist" or "socialist" by themselves because there are too many different ideas people have in their heads about what those words mean.  A two-word description of one's politics can be slightly better.  Like if people think "Stalin" when they hear the word "socialist," if you add "democratic" to "socialist" then people probably don't think "Stalin" anymore.  But adding "white" or "male" to the word "privilege" still leaves lots of people in the dark.

I think words like "racism" or "sexism" are helpful because they clearly are referring to discrimination against people based on their race or sex.  I think most people understand these concepts.  They'll disagree on the particulars -- how extensive these problems are, how to solve them, etc., but the basic concept is clear in the words themselves.

As far as I can tell, in the terms "white privilege" and "male privilege" and other words that people put before "privilege," we are meant to understand that we are talking about comparative privilege.  That is, the privileged group or person in question is privileged in comparison with those who are discriminated against.

But we live in a society (in the US, anyway) where there is a vast confusion over the very concept of class, so calling people "privileged" (whether we're talking about comparative privilege or not) just adds to the confusion.  I mean, the average white American living in a trailer who has at least seven remaining teeth will almost always refer to themselves as "middle class" or "lower middle class."  If they're middle class, then how do we describe someone with an office job who can afford to see a dentist now and then, and can buy a house with a basement and plumbing in it?  Rich?

So the term "middle class" is also meaningless, since it has way too many definitions.  What tends to really add to the confusion is that so many of the college students, professors and NPR hosts who constantly throw around these terms involving the word "privilege" actually did grow up really privileged, by any standard.  I know what this privilege looks like -- I grew up in a town where the vast majority of the population lived in big houses, drove new cars, took ski vacations with the whole family every winter, bought a car for their kids when they turned 16 and then paid to send them to private colleges, from which the kids graduated and then went on to business or medical school like their parents.  But that's not how most people grow up -- of whatever color or gender.  Most people in the US aren't privileged like that.

Does racism and sexism exist?  Are they massive problems in our society?  Hell, yes.  So then let's take on the perspectives, behaviors and institutions that perpetuate racism and sexism in a way that communicates what we're actually trying to talk about.  But if you throw around the word "privilege" without defining it every time, you're just making confused people more confused.  If someone living in a trailer thinks they're middle class, how are they going to react to being told they're also privileged?  (I mean, other than by voting for Trump?)

As someone who spends half the year traveling for a living, I've gotten out of my bubble a bit.  I still hang out in fancy suburbs for a few days in a given year, but mostly not.  And I spend a lot of time outside of the US.  Sometimes it can be helpful to think about a situation as it is somewhere else -- just try to imagine.  For example, it's pretty widely known that people of color face serious discrimination if they live in Siberia.  But is anybody in their right minds going to go around saying that the white Siberians are privileged in any sense of the word?  No, it would be patently ridiculous.

But for a lot of people going to private liberal arts colleges or hosting NPR shows, the Siberians might be about as distant a concept as the West Virginians or Nebraskans.  Plain and simple, most people in this country are suffering in very obvious ways -- primarily because we live in a corrupt country run by kloptocrats who spend half of our taxes on wars, and paying off debt they ran up spending money on wars in prior decades.  We have virtually no welfare state, millions living on the streets or in tents or shelters, etc.  The corporate/liberal media generally prefers to ignore these basic structural problems, and focuses instead on the minor differences between the two ruling kleptocratic parties, particularly when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation.

Historically, the reason they focus on these issues is not because they're real and need to be addressed (which of course they do), but because they're convenient ways to divide and conquer the population.  That is, as long as you can get people pointing fingers at each other for not fully understanding the extent of our relative states of privilege -- as long as that gets to be the parameters of the debate for a lot of people and media institutions -- then we're a lot less likely to point our fingers at those with the kind of privilege that doesn't need to have words like "comparative," "white" or "male" stuck in front of it in order to make any sense.

To be crystal clear (I hope), in preparation for the possible deluge of criticism I'm going to receive sometime after I click the "Publish" button up there:  I am by no means saying here that class is more important than race or gender.  In the US, class and race are inseparably intertwined, and this is by design, since around the time the English colonists first arrived several hundred years ago.  What I am saying is that in the process of tackling these endemic problems in our society, we need to communicate effectively and use terms that help us to understand the structural nature of the problem, rather than obfuscating it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Blame, Shame and Responsibility During the Apocalypse

The world outside my window looks, smells and sounds apocalyptic.  The sound is primarily the sound of silence, since few people want to walk or ride a bike when the air is so thick with haze from out-of-control forest fires burning up and down the western half of the continent.  There are few clouds in the sky, but the sky looks a lot like the eclipse did a couple weeks ago, when it was at about 50%.  We're in the midst of another almost-unprecedented heat wave due to climate change, but the haze keeps the temperature a bit lower, makes everything look orange and dusky.  As the newsreaders are fond of repeating, the air quality is worse than it is in Beijing.

And of course that's just outside my window.  In other parts of the US, hundreds of thousands of homes and vehicles have been destroyed by flooding, flooding which has also unleashed massive amounts of toxic waste from superfund sites and petrochemical refineries all over the region -- as also happened on the Gulf coast in similarly massive environmental catastrophes in 2005 and 2010.  Another huge storm is currently bearing down on Puerto Rico and Florida.  And what's happening now on the Gulf coast pales in scale compared to the flooding going on right now in parts of South Asia and Africa.

What strikes me as I navigate my social circles online and in my physical neighborhood in Portland, Oregon is the degree to which shame appears to be so much more pervasive than outrage.  I can't quantify this and I haven't taken any polls, but the distinct feeling I get from a lot of people out there is they feel responsible for the situation we find ourselves in.  There is also a widespread awareness of the shortcomings of our political leadership in dealing with the apocalypse effectively.  But many people seem more ready to blame themselves for driving a car, owning a smartphone and using electricity than they are prepared to blame the oil and coal industries for their role in this.

But more insidious than this widespread shame in terms of how we got to where we are now is what I hear around me in terms of how we need to deal with the situation.  I hear people talking about individual lifestyle changes they need to make -- ride the bike more, use mass transit more often, stop driving a car, use less electricity, become a vegan, don't have kids, etc.

I imagine some readers asking at this point, but who cares about whether people feel guilty or not?  The point is we need to do something about all this.  Which of course we do.  But in order to understand where we need to go, we need to understand where we're at and how we got here.

Obviously, any society is made up of individuals.  But only in some philosopher's fantasies does there exist a society that is actually made up of equals, who participate equally in making the decisions that shape a society.  Only in some people's heads does there exist a society where individuals can create their own realities, independent of the societies in which they live.

So, while it is true that individual settlers carried out genocidal policies against Native Americans, it was also true that they were paid very well for every Native scalp that they brought in to the colonial authorities.  While it is true that individual farmers in places like Oklahoma planted cotton on their arid farmland in the early twentieth century, it is also true that the only way they could get credit to borrow money to plant crops was if they agreed to plant cotton.  While it is true that millions of individuals in the US bought cars when cars started to become more affordable ninety years ago, it is also true that the country's infrastructure was being consciously designed by those in power to be a car-dependent one, with a rail system that became ever more anemic with each passing decade.

Individuals have choices, of course.  Some people have many more choices than others -- especially if you have lots of money, citizenship in the right country, an engineering degree, or other such advantages.  But for most people now and throughout modern history, in practical terms these choices have been far more limited.  For the much-vaunted "pioneers" that they talk about incessantly in the elementary schools of Oregon, their choices were to live and die as tenant farmers, breaking their backs and dying young somewhere out east, or to take the land the government was offering them for free out west.  For those Oklahoma farmers I mentioned that were participating in the process that resulted in the Great Dust Storm of that period, their choices were to plant cotton and starve later, or don't plant cotton and starve now.  Or go to the west coast and be a farmworker (which is generally an even worse fate than being a tenant farmer).

And for all the people living in the suburbs and driving into the urban centers to work in cities across the US with traffic-clogged highways every day of the year, they are doing what people have been doing in the US since long before the invention of the suburb or the invention of the automobile:  they are buying, building or renting a house or an apartment somewhere that they can afford to live, and they are finding work somewhere where they can find work.  By design and/or as a result of market economics, these places are usually not anywhere close to each other.

I'm pretty sure that what I've just laid out in the past few paragraphs isn't news to many of the same people who feel this intense sense of guilt for what is now happening around us.  This contradiction between what we know and what we feel should not be surprising.  As the father of a sixth-grader I am keenly aware of the messaging that pervades both public and private schools here in Oregon and elsewhere in the country.  It's drilled into the heads of the children in so many ways on a daily basis -- we humans are responsible for the situation we're in, as a species, and we must be more vigilant about recycling, not idling your car engine when you can help it, not wasting paper, not buying too many things made of plastic.

Just as pervasive as these messages of individual responsibility being daily drummed into the heads of children and adults alike is the message that we live in a democracy and we can change the situation we're in by mobilizing around a political party, by voting for different candidates.  While I'd welcome a situation where Bernie Sanders' wing of the Democratic Party became politically dominant, we're not anywhere close to being there in reality.  Both parties are solidly in the hands of the corporate elite, in ways that are easily measurable in terms of who funds the campaigns of those in office and the bills they propose, the bills they don't propose, and how they vote on the bills that do get proposed.

And as a student of history I can say definitively that this has always been true in the United States.  We have always had a two-party duopoly.  The two parties have, throughout much more than 95% of the nation's history, ruled essentially as one.  That is, the policies that have defined our country and gotten us to the point we're at today -- things like genocide, slavery, imperial wars, conquest and annexation of neighboring states, feudal land ownership policies, the abolition of rent control, the building of the interstate highway system, the destruction of the railroad network, zoning laws to encourage suburban sprawl, the wholesale clearcutting of the forests of the west and southeast, to name just a few policies -- these policies all enjoyed massive bipartisan support among the leaders and so-called elected representatives of both major parties.

We don't live in a real democracy.  If we did, we would have had choices when it came to all of these policies.  And let's be clear about the historical record in terms of these policies that enjoyed such massive bipartisan support:  they were extremely controversial at the time.  It's just that those in opposition to these policies were not the ones making the decisions, and they had no parties or candidates to represent their views -- not ones with any chance of getting far within the confines of a completely rigged political system.

There is no such thing as "taking America back" or "restoring American democracy" or any of that nonsense.  We've never had democracy (at least not since the conquest and annexation of the Iroquois Confederacy).  And although individuals carried out all of these policies, their implementation had nothing to do with individual choice, and everything to do with the obscenely dominant position of the rich and their corporate Political Action Committees (which existed in one form or another long before we had the term "PAC," and long before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision).

As long as the powers-that-be can convince us -- in direct and indirect ways -- that we are individually to blame for the situation and individually responsible for changing it, then we are a defeated and useless population, just the way those in power want us to be.  But your enemy is not yourself or your neighbor or your desire to feed yourself and your family or your desire to live somewhere with hot running water, electricity and a TV.

As a songwriter, I always say that the most powerful way to make a point is to tell a story that illustrates your point, and let the listeners then draw their own conclusions from that story, without summing it up for them.  Well, this essay isn't one of those songs.

Point blank, the problem is not your lifestyle.  The problem is monopoly capitalism, and the fact that we do not have any semblance of democratic control over anything of importance, when it comes to the survival of our species.  Because the apocalypse is happening by bipartisan consensus -- and reversing course, to the extent that that's even possible at this late stage, will require nothing short of the overthrow of monopoly capitalism and the institution of real democratic control over the things that matter.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nazis, IS, Antifa, the YPG, Democratic Landlords, the Spanish Civil War and Fake News

There's been a lot happening this month.  I don't have any great plans of action as to the way forward, but I have some knowledge of the background, in terms of how we got here, that seem worth sharing.  Basically I just need to process, and thought I'd do that out loud.  So here are a few reflections on the events of August, 2017, that may be intimately related to one another.

Note:  any links that appear below will take you to songs on the subject, mostly written in the past few weeks...

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The Spanish Civil War has been discussed in the media more in the past few weeks than I can remember in my lifetime.  The media has said more nice things about anarchists in the past few weeks than ever in my lifetime as well, and I'm pretty sure they have covered protests more lately than at any time since 1970 or so.

At the beginning of the month I wrote a song, "Rojava," after getting encrypted messages from the front lines of the war against Islamic State in Syria, sent by an anarchist from the US who is there fighting with the YPG.  Which is the male version of the YPJ, which together makes up the biggest chunk of the military wing of the struggle for the freedom of the people of the region known as Rojava.

Most of the people around there are Kurdish, as are most of the fighters, but there are many others involved, including dozens of anarchists from the US.  One of them, Rob Grodt, died last month.  Rob was the fourth anarchist from the US to die fighting in the ranks of the YPG.  He and the friend of his who contacted me had sung a song of mine together at a gathering of YPG fighters and officers just before Rob was killed.  His friend thought I should write a song, and I agreed I should.

The YPG/YPJ are fighting a war against oblivion.  I probably avoided trying to wrap my head around this movement, because in some ways it's very complicated.  For example, the armed struggle there has received support from both the US and Russia -- and that's only the tip of the iceberg.  But Rob's friend summed it up so well, in one of his text messages.  To paraphrase, the Yazidis were being slaughtered, and the people that came to their aid were the PKK, with air support provided by the US.  When there's a slaughter going on and someone steps in to stop it, you don't argue about politics -- you help stop the slaughter.  At least, if you're as dedicated to humanity as these folks are -- or, in Rob's case, were.

Robert Grodt's memorial is in New York City on September 4th.

*     *     *

Another fighter for social justice, Heather Heyer, died this month in Charlottesville, when a white supremacist plowed his car into some of the folks who were marching against them (I wrote a song -- "Today in Charlottesville").  Like Rob, Heather had been involved with the social movements of her day for justice and equality, which is what she was doing when she was killed, and others were maimed for life.

In the course of the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville around the controversy over the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, Antifa has been mentioned in the news more than ever.  Generally in glowing terms, in stark contrast to the way Antifa and similar groupings of people were discussed in the media just prior to Charlottesville, when they would more commonly be referred to as thugs -- or "anarchists," which used to mean the same thing to the corporate media (and will again soon enough, I promise).

Listening to Amy Goodman interview someone on the subject of Antifa recently, it occurred to me that maybe most other people in the US know as little about this group as Amy seemed to know.  No one in the media seemed to have anything to say in response to Trump's "on many sides" response to Heather Heyer's untimely death, other than to condemn his statement as both insensitive and wrong.

Antifa is more a philosophical approach to the world than any kind of organized group.  Local chapters can have meetings and agree to sets of principles and rules of conduct, goals, etc., but there are many differences between groups within nations and between nations.  For example, in both Germany and France, people who identify as Antifa regularly disrupt events involving speakers or performers who they decide are anti-Semitic, including yours truly, on many occasions.  In doing so they regularly employ violence, threats of violence, property destruction, and threats of property destruction.

But mostly Antifa is known in Europe for fighting Nazis and their ilk.  This often means defending refugees from being attacked by Nazis who are laying siege to their apartment blocks while the police stand by in places like Rostock, Germany.  But as many Antifa in many different European cities have told me proudly, when they see someone on the street who they know is a Nazi, they beat them up.  Being a Nazi is considered to be sufficient provocation -- the Nazi doesn't have to be attacking refugees to be a fair target.

Whether or not you agree with beating up Nazis whenever and wherever you see one, that's what many people who identify as Antifa do with their time -- along with drinking a lot of beer, wearing black clothing, and listening to punk rock.  Many of my favorite people in the world are Antifa fighters from across Europe and the US (active duty or retired) -- but when Trump says violence was committed by both sides, he is stating a simple fact.  He is also a racist, etc, but he is stating a fact when he says that, and any media that pretends this isn't the case should look at how they were reporting on Antifa and similar groups for the century or so preceding Trump's election.

I remember on NPR after 9/11 a commentator said, "last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization, and this week they're bombing the World Trade Center."  That pretty much sums up how they used to report on us.

*     *     *

The media is participating in a United Front against Trump, Bannon and white supremacists.  Black Lives Matter and Antifa are no longer highway-blocking hooligans, they're resistance fighters.  The Democrats are no longer your landlords (even though they are), they're the #Resistance against those other landlords.  The Democratic landlords of the #Resistance and the white supremacist landlords are all raising the rents, gentrifying the cities, and driving out people of color, artists and other marginal people, but they're otherwise very different.

While the principle involved with forming a United Front is fairly obvious -- that the more people who are united against a common enemy, the more likely the enemy can be defeated -- it's also fraught with problems.  That is, reality doesn't necessarily work that way.

Democrats (and Republicans) starting imperial wars, spending half of our tax money on the military, imprisoning millions, and consistently failing to provide for much of the population in the US is how we got to where we are today -- a terribly divided country, whose people (of all genders and colors) are largely illiterate and impoverished (some more than others).  And while the media is blanket-covering every gathering of a small handful of white supremacists and every anti-Trump protest involving more than six people (as well as those that are bigger), the gentrification and impoverishment of the country that the Clintons and the Bushes and the Obamas presided over continues apace.

On September 10th there's a "free speech rally" being held by the far right here where I live in Portland, Oregon.  If these people can manage to get a few hundred people to come to their rally, they'll be doing very well.  By European standards it's really a pathetic little far right movement.  When Europeans ask me why there doesn't appear to be a relatively large, organized far right movement in the US the way there is in many European countries, I always say that if someone really wants to harass and torture and kill people of color and other undesirable elements on a daily basis, all they have to do is join their local police force.  I'd still say the same thing in August, 2017.

Anyway, the "free speech" rally will be opposed by a much bigger crowd of counter-protesters.  If the local, national and international media gives blanket coverage to the counter-protests like they just did in Boston last week, maybe we'll have tens of thousands coming to the counter-protest here, too.  If the organizers are as confused as the folks who organized the last two protests I attended in downtown Portland since events in Charlottesville, there will be no audible sound system for the rally.

In short, the protests recently looked just like other protests in recent years in the US -- small and quiet.  And that was the case even though they were announced in advance on the radio, which almost never used to happen.  If you recall, it used to be the case that if you wanted to publicize a protest, you could always count on the corporate and "public" media doing nothing to help.  And usually, if they weren't actively ignoring you, they would run fear-mongering pieces encouraging everybody to stay away from the protests so they wouldn't get hurt by crazed anarchists.

Why so small and quiet?  Because, as far as I can tell, the #Resistance is more a creation of Facebook and the corporate media than real life.  Why is that?  Because most people can smell the fish.  They know that their landlord is a Democrat, and that if Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer are claiming to be part of a #Resistance, then that must mean they're not in it.

That's how the United Front can backfire, in my view, and already has.  If the #Resistance is ever to find its feet, it will do so after it manages to differentiate itself from the Democratic landlords.

*     *     *

In Spain there was a United Front against Fascism.  Well, sort of.  It was mostly a not-very-united front between anarchists, communists and others who would typically be identified as somewhere on the Left.  The enemy was a big chunk of the Spanish military, which had launched a coup against the democratically-elected socialist government at the time, in 1936.  These forces, led by General Franco, were supported by the fascist governments in power at the time in Germany and Italy.  The UK, France, the US and other "western" powers were officially neutral, but in reality were providing aid to the fascists both by selling them much-needed oil, and by preventing Soviet tanks from arriving in Spain, in the name of neutrality, while German and Italian troops and tanks poured in.

Although there were many foreign soldiers involved with the fight in Spain, including many Germans, Italians and people from (Spanish-occupied) Morocco on the fascist side, there were also many volunteers fighting on the side of the Spanish Republic, including similar numbers of communists and others from across Europe, North America and elsewhere -- particularly German and Italian communists.  But mostly the war was fought by people from Spain.  (Which is a short-hand term for saying people from what we know of as Spain, who might or might not themselves identify as "Spanish" as opposed to Catalonian, Basque, etc.)

My friend Bob Steck was one of the folks from the US who joined the fight in Spain.  After 16 months on the front lines and 16 months in a concentration camp, he was one of the half or so of the volunteers from the US who came home alive.  He spent the rest of his life involved with the same sorts of social justice struggles that brought him to Spain in the first place.  He also touched many lives in the course of a long career of teaching high school history in New York.

I had many conversations with Bob on many different subjects over many years, but one that stands out for me in recent months in the course of all the discussions about united fronts is something Bob said one day about the united front in Spain.

Bob was a life-long, self-described communist (though he quit the Communist Party for political reasons in the 1950's -- not because of the Red Scare).  He said, though, that the anarchists in Spain had the right approach, and that if the rest of the Republican movement in Spain had adopted the anarchist approach, maybe they would have won.

His explanation for this argument went like this:  most of the anarchists were from the cities, and most of Franco's support came from the countryside.  Then as now, one of the biggest contradictions within Spanish society (like US society then and today) had to do with the question of land -- who owns it, who rents it, who has lots of it, who has none.  When the anarchists liberated a town, they immediately distributed the land so that those who had lots of it suddenly had a lot less, and those who had none suddenly had some.  (They also often burned down the local church, among other memorable activities.)  These land distribution policies made the anarchists very popular wherever they went, Bob said -- and dried up Franco's base of support in towns where the land had been distributed.

The communists in Spain, and the socialists elected to power there, had a "after the revolution" policy of land distribution.  That is, they'd settle the land question after they won the fight against fascism.  This did not make them popular in the countryside, and allowed Franco to have a steady supply of troops.

*     *     *

Last week began with a white supremacist plowing into a crowd in Charlottesville and ended with an IS cell doing the same thing in Catalonia, with deadlier results.  Islamic State -- in Iraq, Syria, and Europe -- is a direct outgrowth of US imperialism.  The organization wouldn't exist without the US invasion of Iraq, just as Al-Qaeda wouldn't exist without the US funding the resistance to the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980's.

White supremacy and white supremacists, along with xenophobia and other things, are an intimate part of US history, from way before the founding of the country, right up to the present.  We can beat up all the Nazis we want to and we can get run over by them, too, but they won't go away until certain white people stop feeling disenfranchised.  And when the landlords are both Democrats and Republicans, then a united front against Nazis that includes Democrat landlords is doomed to failure, since it consists of the same forces that created the need for it.

Of course, the same principles apply to IS and Al-Qaeda -- fighting them will not defeat them.  Ending imperialism (draining the swamp, so to speak) will.  But if Yazidis are being massacred, someone (thankfully) is going to try to stop it from continuing.  Just as some people will try to stop Nazis from marching through your local university with torches, chanting racist and anti-Semitic taunts.

If I'm not ending this rant with a tying together of the various strands, it's because I believe the situation is too complicated for such an ending.  But I hope these reflections might give you just a tiny bit more substance with which you might draw your own conclusions.

Monday, August 14, 2017

If You Post a Protest

Feedback from a Sound Guy on being inaudible...

Yesterday I attended a protest in solidarity with Charlottesville at Portland City Hall.  It was well-attended given the short notice, but it otherwise had at least one very common and sad shortcoming -- there were people speaking and singing through some kind of amplification device, but they were both inaudible and invisible from where I stood, about fifty feet away.

If you leave the house, you usually put clothes on first.  If you throw a birthday party for your child, you usually make or buy a cake in advance of the kids coming over.  If you're going to meet someone to play tennis, you bring a racket.

By the same token, if you post an Event on Facebook and you say you're holding a protest that will involve people giving speeches and singing songs and such, you should bring some kind of a sound system, or make arrangements for someone else to do that.  Otherwise, why would you make a public announcement that you're holding a protest?

That's a rhetorical question, I'm not going to try to answer it.  What I can say is that if you want to mobilize people, to build a movement of any kind, or even just to be taken seriously, you need to know how to project the human voice so that a few hundred people can hear it clearly.

This is not rocket science, but it is more complicated than turning on a bullhorn.  Rather than going into detail about what's involved with this on a technical level, I'll just cut to the chase:  in every major city in the country there are many thousands of musicians who are sympathetic to the cause (whichever cause) and who are acutely aware of how to operate a small sound system.  Musicians who habitually play in bars often own sound systems themselves, and they can also be rented cheaply from music stores.

You don't need to know about sound systems.  But you do need to know someone who does, and if you're the host of an event, you need to coordinate that -- just as you need to line up the cake for the birthday party if you're going to throw one.

And lastly, a shameless plug:  one of the musicians in Portland, Oregon that you can ask about providing sound for free or cheap for your next protest at City Hall is me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Do Not Kill Your Landlord WORLD TOUR

Whether you're the organizer of a gig or not, you're always more than welcome to print out a tour poster, fill in gig details from the details provided below in the blank space on the bottom of the poster, and share them widely!  (And here are several other tour posters you can choose from...)  And of course if you can share this post with folks who might want to come to a show somewhere, that would be fantastic.

People can also keep abreast of my touring activities by signing on to my email list at and by following me on Songkick, Bandsintown, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and elsewhere.

I'll do my best to bring enough t-shirts this time, but if you want to make sure I have your size, the best thing is to get your Do Not Kill Your Landlord t-shirt through the post by ordering one online.


Tuesday, July 18th, 7:30 pm
Community Church of Boston
565 Boylston, 2nd floor
Boston, Massachusetts

Saturday, July 29th, 8 pm
University Christian Church
4731 15th Avenue NE
Seattle, Washington

Saturday, September 16th, noon
rue de la Station 35
4800 Verviers

Saturday, September 16th, 8 pm
Centre de Jeunes "Les Récollets" 
Enclos des Récollets, 100 
4800 Verviers 

Thursday, September 21st, 7:30 pm
Zinnschmelze -- Facebook Event page
Maurienstr. 19
22305 Hamburg

Saturday, September 23rd, 4:30 pm
Huset -- workshop and concert
Absalonsgade 26
5000 Odense C

Wednesday, September 27th, 8 pm
Floating City -- Facebook Event page
Vasbygade 20
Copenhagen 2450

Thursday, September 28th
House concert

Friday, September 29th, 6 pm
Sidesporet -- Facebook Event page
Skovgårdsgade 1a
8000 Aarhus C

Saturday, September 30th, 6:30 pm
Sommervej 5

Saturday, September 30th, 10 pm
Bar de Ville
Gravene 14 D

Sunday, October 1st
Gothenberg -- Facebook Event page

Monday, October 2nd, 8 pm
Makvärket -- Facebook Event page
Teglværksvej 30
4420 Regstrup

Tuesday, October 3rd, 7 pm -- Facebook Event page
Nya Tröls Bar & Restaurang -- with Kristian Svensson!
Karlskronaplan 1
214 36 Malmö

Wednesday, October 4th, 8 pm
Cafe Hellebaek -- Facebook Event page
Nordre Strandvej 95

Thursday, October 5th, 7 pm
Oktober Books -- Facebook Event page
Vesterfælledvej 1B, st., th.

Friday, October 6th, 9 pm
SF Ungdom conference
Hoje-Taastrup Gymnasium
Frøgård Alle 2
2630 Taastrup

Saturday, October 7th
Café Zähringer
Zähringerplatz 11

Sunday, October 8th
Rossli Bar
Neubrückstr. 8

Monday, October 9th, 8 pm
Basler Straße 103

Wednesday, October 11th, 8 pm
Esperanza -- Facebook Event page
Benzholzstraße 8
Schwäbisch Gmünd

Friday, October 13th
Media Innovation Studio
Uclan Media Factory
Kirkham St
Preston, Lancashire PR1 2XY

Saturday, October 14th
Bolton Socialist Club
16 Wood St
Bolton  BL1 1DY

Sunday, October 15th
House concert -- email Patricia for more info if you'd like to attend

Tuesday, October 17th
The institute of Excellence -- with Fellow Travelers opening
Pipley Barn
Brockham End
Bath BA19BZ

Wednesday, October 18th
Two Guys from Brussels -- Facebook Event page
307-309 High Street
Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 1UL

Thursday, October 19th
Y Cwps (The Coopers Arms) -- Facebook Event page
Northgate St
Aberystwyth SY23 2JT

Friday, October 20th -- Facebook Event page
The Maze -- with Calum Baird opening
257 Mansfield Road
Nottingham, NG13FT

Saturday, October 21st
Cellar Bar
The Braes
14-18 Perth Road
Dundee DD2 4LN

Sunday, October 22nd
MacSorley's Music Bar -- Facebook Event page
42 Jamaica St

Monday, October 23rd
Leith Depot -- Facebook Event page
140 Leith Walk

Thursday, October 26th
The Grove
South Kirkby
Pontefract WF9 3QF
West Yorkshire

Friday, October 27th -- Facebook Event page
Royal Sovereign -- with the Commie Faggots!
64 Northwold Rd

Saturday, October 28th, 10 am to 7 pm
London Anarchist Book Fair -- and then there's the After Party
Park View School
West Green Road
London  N15 3QR

Sunday, October 29th
The Anchor Hotel with Mike Reinstein opening -- Facebook Event page
3 Market Square
Horsham  RH12 1EU

Tuesday, October 31st
Rostrevor Inn
33-35 Bridge Street
Rostrevor, Co. Down

Wednesday, November 1st
The Sunflower
65 Union Street

Thursday, November 2nd
Water Street

Friday, November 3rd
Hanlon's Bar
Hanlon's Corner
189 N Circular Rd
Cabra East
Dublin D07 KW3P

Saturday, November 4th, 6 pm
Russian Revolution Commemoration
Nordic Black Theatre & Cafeteatret
Hollendergata 8

Sunday, November 5th, 6 pm
MIR -- memorial concert for Hub
Toftes gate 69

Wednesday, November 8th, 8 pm -- Facebook Event page
House concert -- ring Christoph Allemand
Jülicher Str. 114a
52070 Aachen

Saturday, November 18th, 4:15 pm
World Peace Forum Teach-In -- Facebook Event page
SFU Harbour Centre
515 W Hastings
Vancouver, BC

Sunday, November 19th, 8 pm
Spartacus Books
3378 Findlay St
Vancouver, BC

Wednesday, November 22, 8 pm
Victoria Event Centre -- Facebook Event page
1415 Broad Street
Victoria, BC

Friday, December 8th, 7 pm
Redstone Labor Temple
2940 16th Street
San Francisco, California

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Global Consequences of Inequality -- from Portland to London to Mosul

"...He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game"

Bob Dylan
"The tactical, or if you will, 'technical,' task was quite simple -- grab every fascist or every isolated group of fascists by their collars, acquaint them with the pavement a few times..."
Leon Trotsky
"The pundits on the TV will talk of integration
Most of them agree there's too much immigration
They'll talk of social policies, things they should've done before
Whatever you say, don't mention the war --
If you bomb somebody, they might just bomb you back"

David Rovics
I'm sitting at a cafe in the north of England.  I landed at the Manchester airport the night after the suicide bombing there.  The normally bustling airport was almost completely empty -- life is anything but normal here.  Soon after that event, I got the news about the multiple stabbings by a white supremacist on a train in my home town of Portland, Oregon.  Then last night as I was going to bed in a hotel room in Leeds, I turned on BBC only to hear the breaking news about the van-and-knife attacks that were ongoing at the time.  (Actually they were over by then, with the three attackers killed by police, but nobody knew yet when I tuned in whether or not there were more of them.)

These events represent only a tiny fraction of the death that has been meted out by suicide bombings, aerial bombings, stabbings, and gunfire by state and non-state actors in many other countries over the same week, with scores killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Mexico and elsewhere.  This, of course, is to say nothing of the many more who have died in the past week due to malnutrition and car accidents.

With the fast-moving nature of this multitude of violent events, it's easy to get lost in the details, and overlook the blaringly obvious fact that all of these things are very intimately related, and all of this ongoing violence is ultimately -- and often directly -- a consequence of endemic and growing inequality, both within and between societies.

Today in Portland there is a white supremacist rally that is scheduled to happen downtown, and an anti-fascist rally will confront it, with lots of riot cops in between the two groups, presumably.  Masked, primarily white youth will destroy property, get beaten and arrested by cops, and this will dominate the news cycle.

I sat down to write this now because all day I've been thinking about the stabbings in Portland and the attacks in London, and all the similarities between these two events.  The fact that they both involved knives and happened within a week or so of each other helped to make the connections for me, but there are many other, far less superficial connections that need to be made.

And then I was thinking about the planned antifa protest in Portland today, and whether I would go to it if I were there.  While I have no moral problem with following Trotsky's advice on what to do with fascists, he was, as he would have been the first to explain, talking about appropriate tactics at a certain place and time -- and if you read the rest of the essay that the oft-quoted bit above is derived from, he makes that context abundantly clear.

But whether or not Trotsky would agree or disagree with Jesse Jackson on whether or not antifa should protest the "alt right" in Portland today, and what kinds of tactics they should attempt to employ if they did, the thought of attending that rally also got me thinking about whether I would go to a rally in London or Manchester against Islamic State, if anyone were to organize one.

I wouldn't.  But why?  Isn't Islamic State a horrible bunch of genocidal killers?  Well, yes.  But the young Englishman who blew himself up at the Manchester Arena last month was, just like the extremely troubled racist on the train in Portland, a pawn.  People like them are the predictable result of divided, unequal societies with hysterical, racist pundits and politicians -- politicians who have a longstanding tendency to "solve" many of their problems through militaristic violence.

Obviously, anyone in any society, confronted by a knife-wielding attacker of any color, creed, religion, etc., should ideally defend themselves and others against such people.  It is entirely right to praise any such efforts as heroic, and entirely right to mourn and remember the dead.  But this doesn't mean falling victim to the divide-and-conquer tactics of the ruling class.

Most politicians are not the bumbling idiots they appear to be.  (Whether Trump might be an exception to this rule is not the point.)  Insurgent campaigns within some political parties notwithstanding, for most of US history and most of modern British history as well, the powers-that-be have consisted of two main political parties, both of which have ruled in the interest of capital and empire.  In both countries (and many, many others) these ruling classes have systematically, cynically created and exacerbated divisions in society in order to maintain those divisions, so that people will fight over crumbs, rather than going for the whole loaf.

These neocolonial powers have also systematically used these divide-and-conquer tactics to create and/or exacerbate conflicts within different groups in societies they control (or seek to control), such as the Sunni/Shia divide in many predominantly Muslim countries.

At the same time, the wars and the very real refugee crises in the Middle East and the so-called refugee crises in Europe and the United States -- all largely manufactured by US foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America over the past century or so -- are also used to foment racism and division in western societies as well.

My understanding of history and my experience traveling extensively in 25 or so countries leads me to the conclusion that, at least among the more prosperous nations in the world, there is no country more successfully divided and conquered than the United States.

While there are many other countries ruled by two main political parties that have few significant differences between them, both parties and their policies are much further to the militaristic right in the US than anywhere in Europe.  The way this plays out in terms of people's lives is we have a shorter lifespan, a vastly more huge problem with poverty, homelessness, property speculation, housing costs, police brutality and endemic violence of all kinds -- the biggest prison population in the world, and so many other problems that were created by bipartisan consensus.

It seems clear to me that the main way the US ruling class has been so much more successful than its European counterparts at screwing its own population, as a rule, has been the rulers' ability to take advantage of the racism that they systematically created over the course of the past centuries.  For a long time this division was a largely black-white one in most of the country.  As the whites-only immigration policies have very slowly given way to allowing immigration from places other than Europe, the dynamic of racism in the US has evolved to include other marginalized groups.

If I or any other self-styled anarchist intellectual could tell you how to get from point A to B, I would.  I don't know, and nobody else seems to know, either, otherwise maybe we'd be making some progress here, rather than just watching an ever-increasing series of imperial wars and terrorist attacks combined with austerity budgets, even more privatization, "free trade" bills, bank bailouts, rapidly increasing stratification of wealth, mushrooming homelessness, etc.

But where point B is located is abundantly clear.  And knowing where we need to get to is extremely important, for this is a very large part of the equation in terms of who controls the narrative.

We need to remember that the "alt right" is our main problem just as much as Al-Qaeda or Islamic State is.  These movements are real, they're terrible, and terribly violent, but they are just symptoms of a much, much bigger set of problems.  Those problems -- the problems that have given rise to these movements -- are the same problems.  And if I were to try to boil down all of those problems to one word, it would be this:  inequality.  And how inequality can be exploited by ruling classes, racists, and terrorists alike.

This state of ever-increasing inequality in the US, the UK and much of the rest of the world has inevitable consequences.  The vast majority of people in most societies won't take the bait, but a significant number will.  And this number will grow, unless we can manage to change the course of the future in this particular respect.  If we can do that, then the consequences of inequality will begin to dissipate until they become insignificant.  If we fail, we'll have lots more weeks like this last one, and much, much worse.

Once the political "choices" in places like France and the US are between a capitalist and a fascist, supporting the capitalist against the fascist will only delay the inevitable.  I am not here taking a cut-and-dried position on whether or not one should bother supporting the capitalist vs the fascist, whether or not one should go protest the "alt right" when it manages to gather more than a couple dozen testosterone-poisoned young men in one place, etc.  These kinds of tactical choices can vary depending on the situation, and I don't know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that the problems, divisions, violence, etc. will grow as long as inequality and poverty continues to grow.

And I also know that the solution is equality.  Neither May or Macron's Clintonian capitalism nor Trump's neofascist politics of deception will bring us forward -- on the contrary, these sorts of rulers will only guarantee everything gets much worse, very quickly.  And if we busy ourselves primarily with arguing with the pawns of the game, it seems clear to me that we'll achieve less than nothing.

Now more than ever, we need to remain focused on the goal, rather than on the consequences of not achieving that goal.  I don't pretend to know how we get there, as I've said -- but I'm sure there are many different ways that societies can move in that direction, through large, militant, visionary and well-organized social movements, whether those movements are regional, national or global.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

DIY Tour Promotion -- How You Can Help

I've got a big tour coming up, and poking around on my website I realize I'm missing a quick run-down of what regular folks in different towns can do if they have a little bit of time to put into helping to promote the tour, or a particular show in their local area.

Almost every show I do involves at least one main person who has kindly agreed to be the main organizer of that show.  This involves finding a venue, nailing down a date with me, and being the main person who gets the word out about the show, and maybe helps coordinate the efforts of other people willing to do that.  But there is never any need to ask for permission to help publicize one of my shows, if it's a public event listed on my website, as almost all my shows are.  Any efforts you can make will undoubtedly be appreciated by me, the gig organizer, and perhaps even other folks as well.

The best publicity is always word-of-mouth, one-on-one, direct, personal communication.  This has probably always been true, but it's probably never been more true than now, in age of Too Much Information.  So here are some very useful things that you can do to allow people like me to this sort of thing for a living.  It's oriented specifically towards promoting my stuff, but change a few words and it's applicable to any indie performer, traveling speaker, etc.

  • Especially in the couple weeks leading up to a show in your town (or in a town where I'm playing where you know somebody) tell them why you think they'd like the show, and share the details with them in a personal email, phone call, over dinner somewhere, etc.  Details about the tour and each gig on the tour are on this Punk Baroque World Tour blog post, among other places.
  • Whether or not the main organizer of the show gets around to printing out flyers, you are very welcome to do so!  You can just print out this tour flyer/poster, fill in the local gig details, make some copies, and put them up in locations where the sorts of people who might like to come to one of my shows might tend to frequent.
  • You can carry around those flyers so that when you have occasion to mention the gig to someone in the physical world, you can hand them one.  If you're going to a protest, a meeting, a concert or some other event where there might be folks who might want to go to my show, you can bring flyers and hand them out to folks.
  • In the age of TMI people might not see most of your tweets or Facebook posts, but if you share a different song each day with your friends and followers accompanied by a message about the upcoming show, that might generate a bit of attention.  You can find almost any of my songs by searching online for my name plus the song title plus either Soundcloud or Bandcamp.  Also in alphabetical order at
  • Usually there will be a Facebook Event page for most of my shows.  Facebook makes it difficult to promote a lot of things without paying for the promotion, but if you live in an area where a show is happening, they still make it really easy for you to invite all the folks who live in that area.  From the event page you just click "share," then "invite friends," then on the left side of the window that comes up, click where it says the name of your city.  Then you'll see all those folks listed, at which point you "invite all" and finish.
  • Encourage other folks in town to invite their friends on the Facebook Event page, too.
  • If you or anyone you know is involved with community or activist groups oriented around issues that I've written a song about, share a specific song with them, and ask them if they wouldn't mind announcing to their local email list that I'll be doing a show and singing about the struggle their involved with.  With most of my shows, folks are very welcome to make short announcements about upcoming local events -- cross-pollination is good for everybody.
  • If there's a community radio program, whether it's a music program or a news/information show, call in and encourage them to mention that I'm doing a show in town coming up, give them the relevant information, and request that they play a song of mine.  You could even suggest a specific song that's related to the subject of the show they're doing that day.  Tell them that whether or not they have my CDs in their library, they can find most of my songs for free download on Soundcloud and elsewhere.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Proposal: "A Penny A Play" Campaign

I was looking around on the internet today, and maybe I'm almost fifty years old and I still can't effectively use a search engine, but as far as I can tell there is no campaign happening anywhere in the US right now to drastically increase internet royalties for musicians.  But it seems to me that the future of independent musicians (and perhaps the music industry in general, not that I give a shit) may very well depend on such a law being passed.

A law, you say?  Yeah.  The good kind -- one that a mass movement forces to get passed.  It'd be very unlikely to happen otherwise, unless we had, like, a democracy or something.  A law that says all online streaming services that are making money from advertising or subscriptions must pay at least one cent per song streamed, which would go to the artist or whoever holds the rights to the song.

OK, backing up slightly, it is laws that determine how much law-abiding streaming services such as Spotify or Google Play must pay artists for the use of their music.  According to a recent article in Fortune magazine I just read, they basically have to pay the artist a little more than one-tenth of a cent per song streamed.  And according to an article I read elsewhere, Spotify pays about what they legally must, and no more.  Other services, like Google Play, pay much better -- seven-tenths of a cent per song streamed.

The problem is, it's still shit.  In many other countries it's better, I think.  (Does anybody know the specifics on that?)

Why a penny?  It's a good, round number, for one thing.  It serves, I think, to highlight just how little musicians make from their music, when people discover that we're paid much less than a penny by streaming services today.  My hope would be that it could become a meme as much as an organizing campaign, that works its way into everyday consciousness, like the $15 minimum wage campaign, or the successful farmworker campaign a while back to make companies like Campbell's Soup pay one penny per pound more for tomatoes in order to allow the farmworkers that harvest them to make a living wage.

But also, it would make a huge practical difference in the lives of countless musicians in the world.  I don't know how typical I am as an independent musician, but I can certainly say for me that it would make the difference between streaming royalties being financially significant for me and my family, as opposed to more something of a joke.  Approximately the difference between $120 as it is now, and something closer to $800 if Spotify and the rest paid a penny per play.  (And I'm not saying that $120 as a number is a joke, but compared to the $1,000+ per month in CD sales that streaming services have now replaced, it is.)

Why not just get more famous and solve your problem that way?  In another article I read today, a mathematician calculated that in order for an artist to make the minimum wage solely through Spotify royalties, that artist would need to get 1.5 million plays per month.  There are only so many  people out there, even in the English-speaking world.  The $120 or so I get each month from the streaming services represents tens of thousands of plays each month, if I'm doing the math right.  That seems like a significant number to me.

The pie is only so big.  Only so many people are going to become pop stars, or become YouTube sensations with some outrageously viral video.  In our celebrity-obsessed culture we can all feel terribly inadequate for not having millions of views on YouTube.  And perhaps the "penny a play" formula should be adjusted for those who get more than a million plays per month, if that makes the math work a lot better in one way or another.  My concern are all of us who get a lot less than a million plays a month -- the 99% (or probably much more than that) of working musicians.

Technology is changing fast -- whole professions become obsolete overnight, or suddenly the bottom drops out of one.  Like CD sales being replaced by streaming internet services.  Of course, in between there was the "anything goes" period of sharing music, or stealing music, or both, or neither, depending on how you look at it.  I gave away all my music, and why not?  I never got on the radio to speak of, and here was a new way to get my music out there in a big way -- and perhaps undermine the broken music industry at the same time.

But now people mostly are getting their music from streaming services.  I don't know how they'd have to adjust their business model if they were required to pay a penny a play to artists, but I'm pretty sure the consequences for the music consumers out there would ultimately be fairly minimal.  (Especially if those who get more than a million plays a month continue to get much less than a penny per play.)

What saddens me is that there does not appear to be a campaign like this already in existence.  Am I just a dreamer who needs to come back to his senses?  Is what I'm proposing so impractical?  If not, then why isn't such a campaign already happening, led by, say, the national branch of the American Federation of Musicians?

Maybe folks running the union just haven't thought of such a campaign yet, but it seems to me the explanation might be the same kind of reason why what's left of the labor movement has been so slow to embrace service workers and the $15 an hour campaign.  When I get the monthly AFM magazine, I get the impression that the musicians that matter to AFM are the ones that draw a steady paycheck -- symphony musicians working for film studios and whatnot.

And to be clear, I have no ill will towards either pop stars or symphony musicians.  Some of my best friends and favorite cousins are symphony musicians.  But any self-respecting union of musicians needs to represent the vast majority of working musicians, who would be affected by royalties paid by Spotify far more than they are affected by the local symphony's union contract.

As with the $15 campaign, a campaign like this wouldn't be the sort of thing where the union would get more dues-paying members out of it, necessarily.  But it would be huge for the actual musicians out there.

Whether such a campaign happens or not, and whoever leads it, it won't be me.  But here's to the concept, anyway.  Feedback, particularly from other working musicians, most welcome.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Trump Protest Playlist

I wrote recently about how to have a good rally (hopefully as a small component of a broader movement that includes lots of other tactics).  I emphasized the importance of music and culture in any successful social movement.  

Now I'll get more specific, and share with you my own songs that are especially relevant to the current situation.  Lots of other people have written relevant songs as well, and you'll find some of them on my Song News Network feed.

Here's my Trump Protest Playlist on Soundcloud, all in one place.  Below, links to individual songs, and an explanation for why they're in the playlist.

When Trump was campaigning for the presidency and he first talked about banning Muslims from entering the US, Islamic State started using him in their propaganda videos, as anyone could have predicted.  I wrote "God's Gift to the Caliphate" at that time, in late 2015.

It was only a couple weeks after that speech that Muslim passengers on a bus on the Kenya-Somalia border prevented Al Shabab from massacring Christian passengers (which they had done almost exactly a year earlier).  I wrote "One Day in Kenya" as a tribute to the courage of these Muslim bus passengers who risked their own lives to save others (and as a sneaky way to criticize the xenophobes like Trump).

More recently, riffing off of Trump's main campaign slogan, I wrote a critical but hopeful appraisal of my homeland -- "America Has Never Been So Great" (but it could be).

Continuing on that theme, here's "Make the Planet Earth Great Again."

When Trump banned Syrian refugees from coming to the US, regardless of where they might have been at in the long, arduous process of applying for asylum in the United States, it reminded many people of other times the US had banned groups or nationalities from entering the country, such as in the years prior to 1944, when European Jews were an unwanted element, and the St Louis was turned away.  "Send Them Back" is about that episode in 1939.

Another time that people in the US were collectively punished for their national origins was when FDR signed the decree that all people in the continental US of Japanese descent should be imprisoned in camps.  Trump has expressed his deep approval of this sort of thing.  Here's "Liberty and Justice For All."

As the presidential decrees continue to be announced, people across the US are pouring into the streets and airports in solidarity with their fellow human beings who are being targeted.  Back in the 1840's, when the US targeting of Mexicans involved making war on the country and annexing most of it, there were many US soldiers who deserted from the ranks of the military, rather than fighting, once they saw that they were participating in a nakedly imperial, unprovoked attack on a neighboring country.  Some of them expressed their solidarity by joining the Mexican Army.  They were called the San Patricios -- "The St Patrick Battalion."

Trump is far from the first US president to target Mexicans and others from Latin America for abuse, expulsion, etc.  Around 2000 I wrote "No One Is Illegal" about this longstanding discrimination against so many people in the US on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origin, etc.

Mexicans being institutionally second-class citizens in the US is a longstanding bedrock principle of the US economy.  Lots of would-be migrants die trying to cross the border every year.  "Guanajuato" is about one of them.

During the George W Bush administration, many people were asking the same questions that are being asked on a widespread basis today.  Namely, is it possible to stand by in the face of such horrors?  In Bush's case, those horrors involved witch hunts in the US against many Muslims -- which continued under the Obama administration, incidentally -- and daily massacres committed against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military and military contractors.  In 2003 I asked, did you "Strike A Blow Against the Empire."

Along those lines, many people were asking whether there was grounds to impeach Bush for his war crimes, or for him to be arrested by some international court perhaps.  I asked a question then that many people were asking then, and now -- "How Far Is It From Here to Nuremberg?"

I predicted Trump's victory and I was not surprised when he got elected.  The Democratic Party had long ago abandoned the working class (aside from Sanders and a few others), and many people voted from Trump who used to vote for Democrats, in the assumption that they might defend their interests more than the (other) party of big business, the Republicans.  I wondered how they would be feeling once they realized that they voted for their class enemy, in reality, and I wrote "The Biggest Landlord."

Just before Trump took office there was huge speculation in the media and society at large about what he would actually do -- how would his tweets be turned into policy?  I wrote "What's Gonna Happen."

Many people in the US and abroad identify with the idea of the US as a haven for refugees, as represented eloquently on the Statue of Liberty.  I grew up thinking like that, too.  As the Obama administration was deporting huge numbers of Honduran and Guatemalan refugees during the wave of emigration that followed the US-sponsored military coup in Honduras in 2009, I wrote "Statue In the Harbor."

Trump's whole narrative around Muslims involves Muslims being barbaric terrorists with a general tendency towards backwardness of all kinds.  The historical reality is very far from this narrative.  No situation more eloquently presents this dichotomy than the events of 1492, when the Ottoman Empire sent its navy across the Mediterranean to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews -- "1492."

Trump rails about terrorism, without acknowledging the basic, obvious fact that if you bomb somebody, they might just bomb you back -- "If You Bomb Somebody."

Under George W Bush, the US opened up lots of unofficial "black sites" where the CIA tortured people.  Bush officially said torture was wrong, but that was just the official line -- the reality was completely different.  Trump openly supports torture.  When the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press I wrote "After We Torture Our Prisoners."

Trump thinks patriotism is very important.  He's even decreed that there should be a day where we show how patriotic we are -- in addition to July 4th and Flag Day and Presidents Day and all these other ones.  Here's "God Bless the USA."

I wrote "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" a long time ago, but with an actual billionaire in the White House it seems even more appropriate than usual.

It's long been a desperate situation vis-a-vis the environment and climate change, and that's probably never been more true than today, both because we have never made the reforms to our society and energy grid that should have been made a long time ago, and because we now have an actual climate change denier in office -- "Here at the End of the World."

The Obama administration did too little, too late to help the folks at Standing Rock.  Trump owns stock in the company that's building the pipeline, and is determined to see it built.  Here's "Standing Rock."

Fracking has been banned in some parts of the US, because it's a terribly destructive practice that destroys the earth, air and especially the water.  Trump is hoping to reverse these bans and impose the corporate will on the people.  To which we say "No Fracking Way."

With deregulation and the promotion of ever more extraction of oil, gas, coal, etc., we will have lots more accidents such as the one that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec -- "Oil Train."

As soon as Trump took office, Israel announced a massive program of settlement expansion.  This is apparently not a coincidence.  When the Israelis were building what is widely known as their Apartheid Wall in the occupied West Bank, I wrote "They're Building A Wall."

Some say Trump's election is evidence of severe divisions within the US ruling class caused by the desperation of their situation since the 2008 financial crisis, climate change, and other things.  If that's true, then we need to kick capitalism while it's down -- "Kick It While It's Down."

Trump wants to deregulate everything even more than Reagan, Clinton and Bush did already.  Which is really saying something, since those administrations collectively destroyed much of the regulatory infrastructure that this country used to have.  Deregulation of industry will directly lead to people dying in larger numbers in industrial accidents such as this one in Hamlet, North Carolina that I wrote about in "Sometimes I Walk the Aisles."

There has been extreme violence meted out before and during the Obama years, directed at people of color, certain ones in particular.  While Obama talked about bringing the country together and mitigating the racial divide and relationship between "law enforcement" and the general population, Trump wants none of that subtle stuff, and just proudly proclaims himself to be the "Law and Order" president.  Under Trump, we can expect many more police killings such as that of Eric Garner -- "I Can't Breathe."

With the unleashing of the "Alt Right" and other white supremacists these days, combined with Trump's desire to weaken gun laws even more, we can expect many more massacres of all sorts.  Such as the one in Charleston, South Carolina which I wrote about in "The State House Lawn."

Trump is emboldening the anti-abortion movement with his vice presidential pick especially.  Elements of the anti-abortion movement are very violent.  They kill doctors and nurses and bomb health clinics "In The Name of God."

Traditionally, when you're being oppressed by rich people trying to get even richer, you have to rebel to get anything changed around here.  That's what the tenant farmers of upstate New York did in the 1840's, against massive property owners like Trump and his daddy.  Except the Drumpf family was still in Germany in the 1840's, during the Rent Strike Wars.  Here's "Landlord."

If Wall Street ever needed to be Occupied, it's now, with more billionaires in the cabinet than ever before.  Many of them former Goldman Sachs officials.  Here's "Occupy Wall Street."

Years before the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, the people of Iceland rebelled against the deregulation and corruption that had resulted in the Global Financial Crisis that Trump and his policies personify -- "Iceland, 2008."

Since Forecloser-In-Chief Mnuchin is part of the cabinet, we can forget about any People's Bailout.  Here's "A Dream Foreclosed."

I don't know where Trump's intense hostility towards China is going to end us up, but I know what happened during the first trade war against China led by the UK, the US, France, Russia and others back in the 1830's -- lots and lots of Chinese people died, in order to force the Chinese government to allow the UK to export their deadly opium.  Here's "Trade War."

In the darkest times it's crucial to remember that well-organized, big, militant social movements can change everything, anytime, anywhere -- "Everything Can Change."

One of the popular sayings during the anticapitalist movement that I was involved with at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency was "We Are Everywhere."  An important thing to remember, when it can seem not to be the case.

Trump's cabinet picks make it very clear who he thinks the world belongs to -- other billionaires.  Lots of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties seem to agree on this principle.  Many of us protesting Trump don't.  We think the world is a commons, that should be shared.  It's "The Commons."

Trump is the quintessential bully.  Here's "Bullies."

Love -- combined with an inclusive, militant, massive mass movement -- can conquer all.  Here's "Behind the Barricades."