It is a cliché that artists are among the last-ditch truthtellers in a society. It is also true.
These days, for example, as corporate journalists become less willing and less able to contradict the ruling script of American life (e.g., there is no alternative to 21st-century monopoly capitalism as a way of running our country or organizing the world), it is increasingly the artists who help break the actual news about what is wrong and what change is possible.
Who is passionately exposing lies and delusions on the part of both the Obama corporatists and the dog-whistle right? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- comedians, for God's sake. Who wrote a famous open letter to Laura Bush declining her dinner invitation with the explanation that Ms. Bush had chosen to live in quiet harmony with a murderous and criminal regime? Internationally-celebrated poet Sharon Olds.
And who, now, is sending chills down corporate and consumer spines with his little one-man show about the people who actually make your iPhone? An overweight, nervy actor and monologist named Mike Daisey, whose theatrical monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," has brought audiences the story of Chinese workers leaping to their deaths from factory complex roofs to escape a wretched life in service to Apple. The New York Times and other corporate media have since picked up pieces of the story of how the electronics industry runs horrifically dangerous, hellishly abusive, city-sized factories. But it was a solo guy with a touring one-man show who told it.
It's one more reason why artists should have way more societal stature: they are among our default sources of truth when the official tellers choose to shut up.
Read on Daisey's blog how Apple is now acting very, very afraid of these revelations. And listen here to an edited live performance of Daisey's monologue aired on the radio show This American Life.
as a drummer in a hot trio at a tony club, the club owner got very drunk -- something I gather he often does.
In the middle of a set in which we three musicians played our asses off for a packed and appreciative house, the bar owner walked up to the stage and, while everyone watched in shock, he launched into a long, loud, drunken rant about how the band was playing way too loudly and it was screwing up his business and it was all my fault. Me. The drummer. He stood squarely in front of me and my drum set. He shouted in my face that all of the volume problems started with me, and his patrons upstairs needed to make conversation, and the band sounded like a train running through the building, and he was the boss and I had better do something about it.
In a room where the audience had been giddy with our performance, you could suddenly hear a pin drop.
The rest of the details don't matter. Suffice it to say that I was both cool and blindly furious, and the crowd sided with the band, and the drunken club owner ended up making a meaningless apology, and I'll be damned if I'll ever set foot in his cursed little club again.
This is part of the turf that a jazz musician walks: Having the most intense art form that America itself has ever produced relegated to gin mills where people yak and drink too much; having this country's most creative musical intellectuals (and I'm not talking about myself, but about jazz musicians at the very top of the art, who as a threat to white superiority still face a certain stubborn denial and disrespect of their role in the culture) treated as mere entertainers.
Sure, I, or we as a band, may have been playing too loudly for the conversational upstairs crowd who felt our playing through the floor. But what is John Coltrane's music -- we played the seminal "Giant Steps" that night -- doing in a bar where a sloppily wasted white tavern keeper feels entitled to publicly lecture hard-practiced black jazz musicians? Why was the club owner trying to humiliate me when he could easily have avoided the spectacle with a private conversation? And who the hell was he to even play cultural critic in the first place? What is such compositionally and improvisationally brilliant music doing in a speakeasy, anyway? What was I doing there?
That's the problem with being jazz musicians in the United States. We have our hands on something that the dominant culture feels it can't afford to fully recognize: black creativity that is part Beethoven and part shaman. Over the decades, we have cleanly played our hand with our former slavemasters, seen them and raised them, upped the cultural ante on what they feel is their very best, and their response at the table has been a sullen silence, eyes averted, with the occasional self-comforting and inherently racist outburst about our being too primal for their company.
Talk about dysfunction and ingratitude.
This is precisely why Europe and Japan -- having less of a vested interest than America in undervaluing the breakthrough Afri-Euro aesthetic of the Louis Armstrongs and Josephine Bakers and Aimé Cesaires -- remain magnets for black American artists who want to be seen for who we actually are and for what we actually do.
Meanwhile, here on the 2012 American plantation of cultural production, it's still too often pearls before swine. But there is also this: the mere fact that this awful nightclub story isn't my typical experience as a jazz musician, and that the crowd stood with we musicians against the drunken owner, and that jazz and its audiences manage to thrive from corner bars to Lincoln Center, says a lot about the loving indestructibility of music and of humanness in the face of even the most wickedly pervasive machinery.
[2/8/2012 12:30pm EST: I re-edited the final paragraph to better express all that I see and feel here.]
doesn't require a lot of commentary: an overweight, battle-outfitted cop following orders and flexing his flabby sense of power over a group of passively sitting demonstrators because somebody told him he should or could. The message is clear: The ruling class understands that OWS is ripping the scab off the suffering of the working and middle class and the poor, and the elites are afraid of the truthful and disciplined anger cultivated by the OWS movement, and they are determined to shut it down before it spreads into anything like a mass uprising against corporate monarchy. The bosses' chief weapon, to paraphrase the hysterical enforcer in the old Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch, is fear: fear that if you protest you will be injured, fear that your dissent will place you in personal physical danger, fear that gathering in public against a Wall Street dictatorship will put you more at risk than you can possibly afford. You can be angry, is the message, but you'd damn well better keep your anger at home and not make public trouble for us.
This may well be an explicitly coordinated strategy. We know, for instance, that the mayors of many cities with active OWS movements have shared ideas in large-scale conference calls about how to respond. We also know that law enforcement has both the national means and the motive to share recommended methodologies for cutting off OWS participants at the knees.
In any case, the plutocrats are scared, and police are being called upon to kick serious ass. This isn't at all new in poor communities of color, where illegal and humiliating public body searches and sodomy attacks and cold-blooded murders by police have been going on for decades as a tool of terror and control. But it is new for today's generation of college-aged and twenty-something mostly-white Wall Street occupiers and protesters, accustomed as they are to freedom from rampant police abuse. Further, this kind of explicitly political national movement of young people (of all colors) against capitalist injustice is something the United States has not seen for nearly a half-century. And so police at places like UC Davis, and Oakland, and Portland, are now being called upon to review the DEFCON pages of their manuals, to pull on their riot gear, and to report for Conan the Barbarian duty.
White kids being brutalized by swaggering over-armored cops doesn't play well on national television. The courage and discipline of a crowd of students who responded by peacefully forcing the storm troopers to retreat while they chanted "Shame on you!" and "You can go!" also makes a strong impression on national TV. Just as powerful (see video below) was the ruthlessly silent shaming of weak UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi by a sea of students who drowned Katehi in their deafening silence as she slunk though them to her car after unsuccessfully begging for their understanding after the pepper-spraying attack. The UC Davis faculty and many others have called for her resignation.
The War on Drugs provided a pretext for militarization of police in low-income communities of color. The culture of police thuggery, having been honed in places like the Bronx and South Central Los Angeles, is now being brought to bear against a potential national anti-corporate movement that taps into popular grievances. We'll see how this plays out. My bet is that OWS and the evolving ideas and actions it has set into motion will give the rich a run for their money.
In the past day alone, mass Occupy Wall Street actions, as chronicled here and here, give us a hint, just a hint, of what can happen when a too-mad-to-be-denied constituency hugely outnumbers the blue-clad and helmeted enforcers who are paid to subdue them.
The most eloquent statement I have yet heard from the decentralized OWS movement came from one of its New York City leaders, who said on the radio that OWS actions, spectacular and dramatic though they are, serve as but a vehicle for a kind of colossal public education on the way the American and global capitalist economy really works -- and on the massive power that can be unleashed when popular awareness merges with popular rage.
It is worth repeating again and again: although most Americans are not part of OWS, most do agree with its stated positions against income inequality and the rule of the rich. When was the last time you saw those explicit and widespread public grievances forced onto the front pages and the anchor desks of the corporate media?
In short, American banks are fiscally threatened by the possible collapse of one or more European Union economies -- just at the time that the U.S's political cover for bailing out banks is being eroded by the popular message of OWS, which is targeting some banks for boycotts and civil disobedience actions.
The short answer is that we don't know. The eviction could mean that occupiers will insistently return to Zuccotti with tents, and risk almost sure arrest to dramatize the repression of the occupation by the city and its monied sponsors (read: banks and others spooked by the newly unrestful peasantry). It could mean that the park will remain a site for (carefully police-controlled and -monitored) protest without further attempts at overnight stays. It could mean that former park occupiers will take residency in other public NYC spaces, or move cleverly and strategically from one site to another. It could mean that OWS in NYC will graduate to overtly political organizing that is not dependent on specific spaces. It could mean that the NYC occupation, already facing the question of what was to happen as winter descended, will be unintentionally strengthened and pushed to the next level of practical function by the city's forced eviction and the attention and outrage it has garnered. It could mean that OWS will accelerate toward a splintering into factions with differing agendas for what is wrong with American capitalism and what is to be done about it. Or it could mean any combination of these things, along with things not yet envisioned. OWS is a nationwide and international phenomenon, and the lessons of Oakland and Portland and many other cities, in addition to New York, are neither coalesced nor completed.
There is one clear thing, however, that the eviction does not mean. It does not mean the end of what OWS represents, which is a broad anger with the corruption and unfairness of the American (and global) economy and a fierce desire for remedies. That anger and hunger -- reflected not only in the shared actions and declarations of occupiers but in national opinion polls about taxes on millionaires and reining in the rule of the rich -- is still here because the conditions that create and sustain it are still here. So, like mercury in a maze, the anger will flow from one closed channel to the next open one. And the next. The richest of the rich, who like all ruling classes lack the ability to save themselves from themselves, will ensure through their reflexive greed and ironclad hubris that the anger and hunger of the rest of us is steadily nurtured via a regime of obscene unfairness and economic and ecological unsustainability.
The funny thing about repression and injustice is that its inability to stop itself also makes for unstoppable and ever-shifting resistance.
hours later told the city to allow protestors to return and camp out. As I write, a hearing is reportedly in progress regarding the court order.
You likely already know about all this. I learned of it at Agonist.org at 3:30 a.m. The violent eviction by police isn't a surprise. The court order, though, is a wild card. In any case, whether the encampment can legally resume or not, Mayor Bloomberg is fooling himself if he thinks this is going away.
in the wake of the horrible sexual abuse scandal there. The entire situation is tragic, but the board acted promptly and rightly in asserting its authority at a school where, as with many big-time football powers, the coach and the athletic program are virtual deities.
In the case of the legendary Paterno, he is as iconic a coach as there is, with more wins than any other major college football coach and a well-deserved reputation as a football titan. But, like many titans, it appears he overestimated himself. He apparently thought he could still dictate the terms of his future at Penn State -- even after having displayed 10 years of reprehensible cowardice regarding the now-public allegations that former Penn State defensive coach and Paterno friend Jerry Sandusky sexually abused at least 8 boys. Essentially, after being told in 2002 by an eyewitness about Sandusky's allegedly sexually molesting a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower, Paterno simply told his boss and then, when his superiors did nothing, kept his mouth shut for 10 years -- giving Sandusky a decade in which he allegedly continued to ruin more young lives through his access to young boys via a charity he runs for vulnerable youths. The university was sufficiently convinced of Sandusky's dangerousness to bar him from school locker room facilities -- but, for some odd reason, did not feel moved to protect potential victims outside of the university by going public with the embarrassing news about the allegations against one of their own.
Paterno's implicit message, as revealed in his own defense: Hey, I told my boss about this. I followed the rules. If they choose to hide the problem and not tell the police, why should I stick my neck out and bring down my football program by going to the police myself? Well, maybe now Joe realizes why he should have: because preventing 10 years of rapes of children is more important than protecting the brand name of Penn State football.
Paterno apparently thought he could outmaneuver the Board of Trustees by pre-emptively announcing yesterday that he would retire at the end of this season. But he badly underestimated them. The outraged board replied by swiftly and correctly handing Paterno his head, effective immediately, and by just as appropriately booting Penn State President Graham Spanier. Two of Paterno's bosses, Athletic Director Tim Curley and VP for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, have now been indicted for perjury and failing to report the incident to law enforcement. The grand jury says that Spanier also knew about the allegations against Sandusky and kept quiet, but at this point neither he nor Paterno have been indicted.
There are, of course, politics here. Paterno has been angering the board for years with his imperial behavior. His latest stunt, trying to escape the scandal via his sudden statement of retirement without consulting with the board, no doubt angered them more. And Paterno and President Spanier have reportedly tussled for power for years.
But the politics don't alter the facts. Paterno and Spanier are out on their ears because they failed the most basic test of responsibility for the welfare of young people and for the character of the university. And Curley and Schultz have been indicted because failing to be honest about an alleged sex crime on campus and to report it to authorities is, according to the Pennsylvania attorney general, illegal.
But what this is really about is that college football, at the big football schools, is a business. It pulls in big money from alumni benefactors. It generates media hype. It attracts students. It builds a college's brand. It is a collusion among frenetic high school and college coaches, see-no-evil college administrators, the NCAA, the NFL, and glory- and money-hungry athletes. It is an industry, and its ruthless needs trump quaint concerns like ethics, academics, respecting women, and safeguarding the interests of young people in general.
The most tragic thing about the Penn State debacle is that more young people were, according to the charges, set up to be sexually brutalized and traumatized in the ensuing years in part because a coach and several administrators were afraid to damage their venerated football program.
The second-most-tragic thing is that, in the midst of a Great Recession and the kinds of vast suffering and plutocratic brutality we've not seen since the 1930s, thousands of students at Penn State now feel moved to near-riots involving toppled lampposts and overturned cars not because American society is sinking toward peonage and fascism but because they are losing their football coach.
Penn State is perennially rated as one of the nation's top party schools by Princeton Review. It was ranked the #1 party school in 2009, when this episode of the popular radio program This American Life provided a glimpse into the circus-like aspects of student life there.
One can wonder, too, how administrators could have worked for 10 years to bury this awful Sandusky issue without word leaking out to anyone on the Board of Trustees. I mean, these are heavyweights we are talking about: the board's vice chairman, who made the announcement of Paterno's firing, is CEO of U.S. Steel, for God's sake.
Still, it's good to see that even as crowds rage on campus, the Penn State Board of Trustees appears to be awake, sober, and willing to act.