Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Book Review – 33 Revolutions Per Minute

January 11, 2013 By: Mel Category: Book

33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day by Dorian Lynskey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book is “A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day.” But it should really say that it is a history of (mostly) the U.S. and U.K. through protest songs. I don’t say that as a criticism. The book actually turned out to be more interesting than I thought it would be.

I have some gripes here and there, but overall Lynskey did an admirable job of smashing 100 years of history and hundreds (thousands?) of musicians into one book. Whatever details I wish he would have put in or taken out, his ability to weave a readable narrative from so much information makes up for any flaws.

I expected a lot of fascinating factoids and was not disappointed. You’ll read about how FDR raged when the Almanacs released Songs for John Doe. How Paul Robeson was confronted by a lynch mob when he showed up for an outdoor concert in Peekskill in 1949. How Johnny Cash pissed off Nixon by playing What is Truth instead of the requested Okie from Muskogee at a White House Concert. How FBI informants infiltrated black arts groups like the Watts Prophets. How Marvin Gaye fought to make political music and what the recording session for What’s Going On was like. (Hint: It involved lots of weed, booze, and masturbation.)

As interesting as the historical details are, what I love most about the book is how it delves into the tensions that artists confront. Is art self expression or should it have a purpose? How do you make music with a message that isn’t trite and preachy? What is your responsibility to your audience? What do you do when people misinterpret your work or co-opt it for things you never intended? How can a radical artist stay motivated to keep fighting when you lose more often than not? How do you stay focused in the face of repression or popularity?

In other words, the book deals with tensions that many of us face. It shows how fleeting those moments are when everything comes together. Sometimes people worked their asses off trying to make inspirational music or radical organizations and it fell flat. Sometimes a song written in twenty minutes would take off and start something huge. But even those twenty minute wonders had a million different happy accidents leading up to them.

A history through music turns out to be an ideal way to look at those tensions and to see how moments that seem to come out of nowhere never really do. History buffs and music nerds will like this book. But so, I think, will anyone who does art or activism.

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Tosh and the Problem with “Rape Culture”

July 16, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Stratification

Daniel ToshBy now you have no doubt heard that Daniel Tosh suggested it would be funny if a woman in his audience was gang raped and the internets are ablaze with talk of rape culture. I wasn’t planning on weighing in on this. Frankly, I just wasn’t that interested in the controversy. But since a friend of mine asked for my thoughts, here they are.

If Dave Chappelle can make slavery funny and Mel Brooks can make The Holocaust funny, then anything can be funny – even rape. In fact, since rape was a huge part of both, they kinda did. Comedians can be, not just the most incisive social critics, but true artists. An artist is someone who is able to turn something painful and ugly into something beautiful, thought provoking or challenging.

Tosh is no artist.

The problem isn’t so much the subject matter, but the fact that so much of our popular culture is designed for people who do not want to think and who have enough privilege not to have to. Sometimes it is asshats who entertain people by trying to be as offensive as possible. Sometimes it is What Not to Wear. We all need a little escapism, but that shouldn’t mean a constant stream of distractions to feed willful ignorance.

But to be honest, I am not much more impressed with the backlash against Tosh. Something always gnaws at me when I read articles about rape culture. It is that they so rarely make any connections between the rape of women by men and other forms of violence.

We live in a violent, authoritarian culture. The lower you are on the hierarchy, the more likely you are to experience violence. And if you want to gain status in our society, you do it by perpetrating violence. If you are a woman, black, brown, gay, trans, poor…abusing you is the means by which other people climb the ladder.

Every person who supports war, prisons, policing, and violent bonding rituals contributes to a culture of violence. Every person who admires someone because of their ability to perpetrate violence – whether it is a cop, a soldier, a street thug, or a movie hero – is contributing to the culture of violence that enforces our social hierarchies.

I am not saying that people should not talk about the specific ways that oppression manifests itself. It is a huge mistake to try to gloss over those differences in order to come together. When people say that we should just focus on how we are all oppressed as “the working class” or some other supposedly all-encompassing label, I always cringe a little. Efforts for unity without specificity always serve to do the opposite of what is intended. They erase people’s experiences and so end up dividing us more.

But neither can we speak about the specifics without making the connections. Rape won’t end if we speak about rape culture without connecting it to all the other manifestations of violence and subjugation. If we can learn to speak about how the systems affect us (making sure that the most targeted and erased people are front and center) and with an understanding of how things are connected, then we might start to get somewhere.

Targeted, Vilified, Ignored

December 22, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Politics, Stratification, Work

In a strip mall, right across the border from DC, there is a small event center called Plaza 23. People can rent the space for all sorts of things, from birthday parties to cabarets. Often, they have go-go shows.

Go-go is DC music. This is a city that can be incredibly segregated by both race and class. Go-go is the music of the working class and poor black people that are all too often targeted, vilified, or ignored. The people who listen to go-go are portrayed as violent and dangerous. So is the music they listen to and any place that plays it.

That isn’t to say that there have never been violent incidents at or near go-go shows. But any time there is violence nearby, it is all too easy for the “authorities” to swoop in and scapegoat the artists and venues based on already preconceived ideas about who listens to go-go.

Plaza 23 is located in PG County, Maryland. PG county had a spate of violence in January of 2011. Unfortunately for Plaza 23, and all the other music and dance venues in PG County, the sixteenth homicide of 2011 happened not far outside the Plaza after a TCB show.

In response, the PG county council passed an emergency bill regulating dance halls. Lowlights of the bill include:

  • A $1,000 nonrefundable license fee
  • A background check and denial of a license to anyone who has been “convicted of a felony, violating any Federal or State laws relating to offenses involving moral turpitude, or crimes involving financial misrepresentations”
  • A security plan, including installation of cameras inside and outside
  • Private security officers to patrol the perimeter
  • Suspension or revocation of the license at the whim of the “authorities”
  • No dancing between 2:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
  • A $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone who “is a licensee, and/or owns, leases, operates, is in charge of or in apparent charge of an adult dance hall or teen dance hall, or promotes a facility or event required to be licensed under this Division without first having obtained a public dance license”. Same penalties for violating any provision of the act.

The emergency bill sailed through the PG County council in July of 2011. Just before the bill was passed, the owner of the Plaza tried to get his license renewed, but the county was not renewing them. Applications in accordance with the new bill were not made available until October. In November, as the Plaza was trying to apply for their license, they were cited and closed down.

According to this Washington Times article from December 18th, “no new dance hall licenses have been granted and the county has ceased to renew old licenses…save for the two venues whose old dance hall permits are still valid, Prince George is a dry county in regard to dancing.”

Isn’t this the plot from Footloose?

Shutting down the Plaza because someone got shot outside is like saying we should shut down the Hilton across from my house. After all, Reagan got shot there. And those shady political types are always gathering there. It’s just too damn dangerous. And perhaps we ought to outlaw homes too. That is where the biggest chunk of violent crimes occur.

That part about hiring security for the outside of venues. They were already required to do that. Every event required inside security and the hiring of off duty cops for the outside. Except that the PD in PG county refused to show up for some shows. That saying about how we should respect cops because they run towards violence while we run away from it – turns out not so much.

What about felons not being allowed to own dance venues? DC has the highest rates of incarceration of any city in the United States, often on bullshit drug charges. Three out of four black men in DC will go to prison. Then they come out and nobody will hire them. On top of that, all kinds of licenses are denied to former felons. Now we can add owning a dance hall to that list. How is a person supposed to make a living?

Ironically, at the very same time this is happening, the DC council is holding press conferences on jobless ex-offenders.

“We need to look at helping ex-offenders get businesses and apply for contracts,” said Charles Thornton, director of the Office of Returning Citizen Affairs in the D.C. Mayor’s Office. “If you own a certified business, with more contracts, you can hire who you want.”

Charles, maybe you could go and have a chat just over the border? In fact, perhaps you could have a chat with a whole bunch of Maryland officials. While incarceration rates across the country are decreasing, Maryland has the dubious distinction of being one place where they are going up. Somehow I don’t think bills like this are going to help.

Plaza 23 is not giving up without a fight. They have hired an attorney. But they are fighting without being able to operate their business. And their funds are sure to dry up soon. They are asking people to spread the word and to sign this petition to let them operate while they contest this.

I said before that this is about a community that is routinely targeted, vilified, or ignored. Let’s not be the people that ignore them.

Watts Towers Closing Down

March 25, 2010 By: Mel Category: Art

I don’t usually post on Thursdays, but I just heard that they are closing the Watts Towers (and a bunch of other art centers in L.A.) and it really bums me out.

You’ve may have heard of the Watts riots or seen Menace to Society.  But even if you live in L.A., you probably haven’t actually been to Watts.  And that’s a damn shame.  It’s a shame because people should step outside of Hollywood.  And it’s a shame because the Watt’s Towers are an iconic and internationally known piece of art.

Some kooky Italian tile setter started building them with rebar and broken things (from coke bottles to chipped tiles).  He built the towers so securely (sans architect or engineer or building codes) that a crane was unable to take them down.

Here are some pics I took a few years ago.

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Yes, I realize that people are starving and that art is not always on the top of the agenda.  But this is L.A. we are talking about.  Every mofo in that city calls themselves an artist.  A real artist would appreciate something that was done just because they needed to create, not for any kind of money.

Who knows, maybe if people made enough of a stink, Los Angeles would start paying attention to the towers and (better yet) to Watts.

In Defense of Graffiti and Teen Angst

October 30, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Core, Stratification

This Week in Race published a post titled Does It Still “Take a Village?”: Multiple Perspectives on a Chicago Encounter.  In it, Stephen tells how he witnessed “three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint” in a Chicago subway.

Stephen decided to confront the boys and got an earful of cursing in return.  He was torn about what to do.  Should he have reported them to the authorities?  Should he have ignored them?  He didn’t want to be the great white savior, but he felt a responsibility to do something about the boys behavior.

Several people were asked to respond to Stephen’s dilemma, but amazingly nobody challenged the basic assumption Stephen was making.  All the responders seemed to agree that graffiti was degenerate behavior that needed to be corrected.  At best, the boys had “gone astray” and at worst they were “ignorant thugs.”

Is graffiti really a sign of thuggery?

Graffiti is beautiful.  (If you don’t believe me, check out some graffiti archeology.)  Graffiti is social commentary, self expression, public conversation, or grassroots support.  It’s free public art in opposition to a culture that commodifies everything.  For many artists, it is also part of an historic tradition.

Granted, Stephen said these kids were tagging and not painting works of art.  But art is in the eye of the beholder.  And if tagging isn’t art, what is it?  It is a way for kids to make a mark, to say “I’m here and I exist.”  Who among us didn’t do that growing up?  Even my friends who didn’t tag still wrote “Tammy is here” on bathroom walls, folders, sneakers, blue jeans…whatever was handy.

And who can blame kids for wanting to shout that they exist in a world that ignores them so completely – unless, of course, they violate some rule or social convention?   I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it is like to be a kid and have nobody listen to you.  The whole world wants to judge you, mold you, try to make you into whatever serves their interest.  If anybody needs a means of self expression it is a teenager.

True, I would not want someone tagging the outside of my house.  But who is more degenerate, the kid who tags or the society that constantly values property over people?  How many people are happy to spend money on police to keep graffiti off their walls but don’t want to spend a dime on education or other social programs to give those kids options?

Adults are often incensed that kids don’t respect authority like they used to.  But why should they respect authority, particularly when it doesn’t usually respect them? I’m 36 years old now and I can say with absolute certainty that, when I look back on my sixteen year old self, 90% of the adults I was supposed to listen to didn’t know shit.  And I was right not to pay a damn bit of attention to them.

Happily, many of the responders did point out that kids were unlikely to listen to any adult unless there was a previous relationship of trust.  Kids have plenty of people jumping in to tell them what they should do or not do.  What they don’t have is people who listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, those kids you want to save may see the world even more clearly than you do.

Obama, Bring Back the New Deal Arts Projects

January 14, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art, Politics, Seeking

Coit Tower Mural in San FranciscoArt isn’t usually the first thing on the agenda in a crisis. It isn’t fundamental to basic survival. But art is fundamental to addressing many of the issues that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.

In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration started several federal programs which provided funding for artists. On the most basic level, the programs put artists like Jacob Lawrence to work. It also promoted United States art and culture, chronicled life in different parts of the country, and sometimes sponsored projects which tackled difficult social issues.

Seventy years later, public buildings throughout the United States are covered with murals steeped in history. Archives are filled with photographs of American life taken by New Deal artists. Museums hold paintings reminding us of the struggles that took place in securing the basic safety net that we take for granted today.

Perhaps this legacy doesn’t seem important to you, but hasn’t one of the main themes of this election been breaking down the divides between red state and blue state? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between different groups in the United States? Haven’t we been talking about the lack of understanding between us and the rest of the world?

Art teaches us about other people by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Art appeals to the heart as well as the head and for that reason has the ability to transcend boundaries, to represent, to connect, and to mobilize. A Diego Rivera mural, a Bob Marley song, or an Almodovar movie help us to understand the worlds the artists are living in. They help us to create a dialogue. And in a world where so many problems require coordinated effort – poverty, environmental degradation, war – we need dialogue more than ever.

A new federal arts project would put American artists to work. It could document the road we have traveled to get here and the historic time we are in. Projects could show our common histories and values and help us visualize a new and better American identity for the future. It could help us share that vision with each other and with the rest of the world.