All posts by David Rovics

The Winnipeg General Strike

In these troubled times, around the world people seem to be asking each other, how do we fight back against this madness?  In May, 1919 in Winnipeg, the working class answered this question by shutting down the city and running it themselves.

I was born in 1967, and for many people my age, who turned 13 in 1980 or so, I felt like I was growing up in the shadow of a massive, exciting, really earth-changing social movement that I had missed out on — what we have come to refer to as “the Sixties” in shorthand.  But as I grew up and became more and more interested in history, I increasingly came to realize that the most significant period of earth-shattering social movement activity around the world that I missed, at least as far as the twentieth century goes, took place a half century before I was born, one hundred years ago, with this month, the month of May, of 1919, being an especially iconic moment of the period.

In many circles, particularly among labor history buffs, one-word place names are all that are needed to evoke historical battles in the ongoing, thousands-year-long struggle on planet Earth between the haves and the have-nots, also known as the class war or the class struggle.  Refer to cities like San Francisco or Seattle and people think of many things, but in certain circles, say the name of these cities and “General Strike” will be the first thought that comes to mind, the moment in the history of these cities when the class struggle was on, and most clearly defined, and the workers were, briefly, in complete control.  By the same token, in the annals of the global class struggle in the industrial era, if anyone outside of Canada knows anything about Canadian history it can be summed up in a word and a number:  Winnipeg, 1919.

Being born and raised in the US, there is an ingrained tendency to assume that the US and Canada, both being former British colonies in North America with a whole lot else in common, that history and the development of the societies in the two countries happened along similar lines.  This assumption is sometimes not at all accurate, but when it comes to the first two decades of the twentieth century there was a lot of parallel stuff going on.

Westward expansion in both countries with the building of the railroads had seen the rapid development of cities and towns throughout the west of North America.  As usual, it was often those who had the least to lose who were the most itinerant, so a huge number of the people moving out west were immigrants and refugees from across Europe.

With widespread poverty, brutal exploitation of workers, massive unemployment as well as a huge influx of immigrants, conditions were extreme in so many ways, across both the US and Canada.  Extreme conditions tend to invite more robust responses, and this was very evident at the time, in the form, on the one hand, of a visionary, hugely popular, radical labor movement, and on the other, a very violent, often obviously corrupt, openly racist, actively xenophobic, and “pro-business” police state.

This was the sociopolitical context in both the US and Canada for World War 1.  Afraid of the potential consequences, there was much disagreement within the ranks of the militant labor movement of the day over whether to openly oppose this war that would pit the working classes of Canada, the US, Britain, France, Russia and so many other countries against the working class youth of Germany, Austria-Hungary and elsewhere.  Ultimately, both the Industrial Workers of the World in the US and the organization’s Canadian rendition, the One Big Union, denounced the war as a bosses’ war.  They said “a bayonet was a weapon with a working man at either end.”

One half of Canadian draft-age men got medical exemptions to avoid military service.  In many cases this was evidence of the unhealthy state of the Canadian working class of the day, so many of whom were suffering from black-lung or had other chronic health problems related to working in dangerous mines, factories, logging camps, lumber mills, and so on.  But it’s more likely that this statistic was also evidence of the widespread opposition to the war.

In the months after the imperial bloodbath in Europe ended, the class war in Canada came to a head in Winnipeg.  Both national and local authorities were actively promoting nationalism and xenophobia in their dual effort to garner support for Canada’s participation in the war and defeat the organizing efforts of the One Big Union.  Their claims that the union was led entirely by immigrants and that the veterans of the war opposed the union were bald lies, which were countered by huge rallies of immigrants together with Canadian-born Canadians, including large numbers of returning veterans.

When the ruling class in both Canada and the US decided it was time to initiate their deadly, nationally-coordinated efforts to defeat radical unionism and divide the working class along immigrant and non-immigrant lines and to whip up anti-union, nationalist hysteria in the wake of the terrible sacrifices made by so many hapless members of the Canadian working class during the so-called Great War, in the midst of unrelenting, ongoing repression and a continent-wide backdrop of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, backed into a corner, with the only real alternative being to roll over and play dead, the working class, led by the One Big Union, responded.

In Winnipeg, this response meant unionized and non-unionized workers walking off their jobs throughout the city, and staying off their jobs for over five weeks.  By the end, they had no food.  The labor movement of the day was very militant and well-organized, but terribly under-resourced and constantly under siege.  There was nothing close to the kind of strike fund that would have been needed, but the strike happened anyway, because there was no real alternative.  In the end, the forces of capitalism and repression won, killing strikers, starving them out, and forcing them back to work — if they were lucky enough to get their jobs back.

Many of the basic demands of the working class in Winnipeg in 1919 were later won by future labor struggles, and by political reformers elected to parliament from the ranks of strike leaders in the years after the Winnipeg General Strike.  But far more than those substantial victories that came later, it is the total solidarity of basically the entire working class of the city of Winnipeg in the very physical form of the shutdown and takeover of the entire city by the workers, that will long be remembered as the moment when the working class truly stood up.

Taking On Spotify: Why We Need A Global Campaign



How should independent musicians survive in the streaming age? There seems to be mostly a lot of hopelessness, along with a few dead-end ideas. I have another idea: demand streaming justice. Fight back against the vulture capitalists of Stockholm. How did we get to this point? Here are my two cents.

Extinction Rebellion is challenging the workings of modern capitalism and the ecocidal society it has tortured into existence. They say we must find a different way to live before our species — and so many others — is extinct. Meanwhile, this same system of unregulated global capitalist insanity has, in the name of modernity, technology, freedom and smart phones, duped so many of us into believing that there is something positive and futuristic about viciously predatory, completely destructive vulture corporations such as Uber and Spotify. Just as cab drivers around the world are organizing on behalf of what’s left of their profession, and Uber and Lyft drivers are also organizing, waking up to the realization that they are a super-exploited work force who are increasingly unable to make a living, since they were never an important part of the business model in the first place, me and my fellow musicians need to organize for streaming justice.

Spotify has behaved in exactly the same ways as Uber on the global corporate and political stage, pouring unbelievable amounts of money into a platform in order to make it totally dominant, at which point they go in for the kill. It is a debt-based form of vulture capitalism that is leaving the entire indy music industry in a shambles, benefiting only a handful of pop stars, so-called legacy acts, or their record labels, and viral sensations, while everybody else moves into their cars and signs up for Food Stamps.

The final straw that led to my realization that the only way forward is a global campaign targeting Spotify and other streaming corporations until they transparently meet our demands for a minimum rate per stream, was learning from veteran music journalist Anil Prasad that the payout rate per stream from Spotify was actually decreasing, rather than increasing. More evidence that Spotify is committed to the same predatory business model as that practiced by Uber.

With the extreme speed at which everything constantly changes these days, it’s impossible to keep up, and there’s a huge lag time between when everything breaks and when most people realize it broke. To use some good old Marxist analysis of the trends, different situations involve different sets of contradictions, and depending on what those contradictions are, different sorts of tactics are called for. The tactic that is called for now, most especially, is not forming alternate platforms, or embracing a life of poverty. What is called for now is direct confrontation — independent artists organizing for our class interests, against the interests of our class enemies, represented in their most devastating form (for us) by Spotify and other “budget” streaming platforms.

I’ll explain my thoughts. I think the best way to go about that is first to back up and take a little look at where my fellow musicians have been in, say, my lifetime. Being a musician, especially an independent one, has never been an easy profession, regardless of the mythology and the small handful of superstars. But certainly in my lifetime there has never been a more difficult time to be a singer/songwriter than now — despite what you will hear all over the corporate press about how things are starting to look up for musicians. This statement is only true if you think, or want us to think, that the interests of the Big Three record labels have anything to do with the interests of the vast majority of working musicians in the world alive today. But they don’t.

Once upon a time, the interests of musicians, record labels and music-lovers were a bit more aligned. Few people in society or in the music business in the US were fully cognizant back then that if the music business ever had a golden age, it was largely due to government regulation. For most of the radio age there were laws in the US that severely limited how many radio stations a person or corporation could own, and what they could do with them. This allowed for a local music scene to exist in every region of the country. Similar laws in other countries fostered local music, and at the same time helped prevent local radio in, say, Canada, from being dominated by artists from the much bigger US music scene.

In the US, the Reagan administration changed all that as soon as it came to power in 1981. What changed for independent artists? Well, before 1981, life wasn’t fair and neither was the music industry, but there were local music scenes, there was relative musical diversity between them, different genres and different local styles within those genres. The genres were too strictly defined by the corporate industry, artists were always being put into boxes they didn’t want to be in, pushed to create art they didn’t want to create and not make the art they wanted to make. Things were very imperfect. But despite that, there were legitimate avenues for independent artists to sign deals with independent record labels, get local radio play, tour, and have a career of some kind, maybe even a really good one. Lots of great artists fell through the cracks, but enough didn’t that for most musicians wanting to pursue a career as touring performers, the path of least resistance was to line up some kind of record deal.

Enter the 1980’s. Independent commercial radio and, with it, independent record labels, began their rapid decline. With these avenues now cut off, more and more artists gave up on the idea of finding a record deal, gave up on the dream of being “discovered,” and started doing it themselves. There was a flourishing of a new DIY culture, with new tape-pressing outlets opening up all over the place, with artists forming lots of one-person record labels, releasing their own recordings, spreading the word about gigs, tours, and recordings through word of mouth, zines, underground press, community radio, mixed tapes, and by other means.

The flourishing of DIY culture in the 1980’s has often been explained by technology — specifically the popularity of the cassette tape and the photocopying machine, which made self-recording and self-publishing especially accessible. I think this aspect has been wildly exaggerated, however, and the main reason for the growth of DIY culture in the 80’s was a consequence of the closing-off of all other reasonable avenues. DIY became the path of least resistance because it was basically the only path available. If we weren’t using cassette tapes, it would have been something else.

Soon it was — it was CDs. Enter the 90’s. Now we’re talking about my own lived experience, because that’s when I started making a living as a singer/songwriter and touring all over the US, Europe and elsewhere. It was a lot like the 80’s, but far more so in many ways. The corporate record industry overall was more insular, elitist and bland than ever in the history of the music business. But the independent music scene thriving on self-made and self-distributed recordings was doing even better than it had been a decade earlier, with the advent of the internet, email lists, bulletin boards and other forms of online publicity. The idea of seeking a major label record contract was as distant an idea as it could possibly have been for me, but it also didn’t interest me at all, knowing that no major record label would ever want to sign someone like me in the first place. But it was also a distant idea because I was doing just fine, selling several thousand of my self-produced CDs on tour every year, making tens of thousands of dollars on CD sales alone — after the expenses involved with recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, etc., were covered.

This was the period when the corporate music industry was at its most monopolistic peak. It has since been in a state of free-fall, up until the past couple years. And what has happened to independent artists during this period of industrial collapse?

Let’s examine this carefully — which is hard to do, because statistics are often unavailable or misleading, often intentionally. Universally, record industry executives will lament the Naughties, the period during which they were basically suffering colony collapse, lost at sea, with the future completely uncertain. The reason? Well, their whole business model had fallen apart.

Namely, you spend lots of money to sign an artist, spend lots to record them, spend far more to promote them, and then once you’ve spent all this money and done all this work so that everybody has now heard of this pop star you’re pushing, you then reap your rewards in the form of millions of CD sales. But by now we had MP3’s. So what most people were now doing, come the early 2000’s, was hearing from the TV or radio about this band’s new album, but then instead of going to buy it at Wal-Mart, they were downloading it for free on Napster or somewhere else on the internet.

This is the phenomenon that caused the corporate music industry to collapse, and this is why they are so happy about streaming platforms that pay them something — billions, in fact — unlike the illegal ones of the Naughties. Their executives will talk about the Naughties as the Dark Ages of their industry, and they almost always make the unspoken assumption that this was also true for independent musicians.

That assumption, however, is wrong, from my own copious experience of making a good living touring all over the world throughout the Naughties, selling thousands of CDs every year as I had in the Nineties, but also developing a new and bigger following globally as a direct result of the increasing popularity of the internet and the free MP3. I gave away all my music online in MP3 form throughout the Naughties, yet I sold as many CDs as ever.

Why did I and many other people voluntarily give away all our music during this period? There are many different reasons for doing this, and they differ depending on who you ask. For me, it was about many things — getting the music out there to the widest possible potential audience, discovering new places to tour as a result, and other practical considerations, but most especially, giving away your music was now a new way to challenge the hegemonic dominance of the Big Three record labels and other hegemonic corporate entities such as the evil Clearchannel. We could do an end run. For us, the act of giving away the music was the promotion. For them, they already spent millions promoting the album, which is why people heard about it, so then they got it for free, rendering all that promotion useless.

For us, people were hearing our music who never would have heard it otherwise. For them, everyone knew their music through “conventional” means. For us, giving away our music was generally something we did ourselves, by uploading tracks to platforms that we had control over. By the early Naughties people had downloaded more than a million of my songs, just on one now-extinct platform alone. If I came out with a new CD that I didn’t upload myself to the internet, however, generally no one else would bother ripping it and uploading it themselves. People did this with pop stars on a daily basis, but with artists like me they didn’t bother — it was just a little bit too much trouble to go doing something that took some time, and that most fans of my music wouldn’t want to do in the first place. Paths of least resistance, once again.

Enter the 2010’s. This is the decade when everything changed for me and other independent artists in the most profoundly negative way. This is also the decade when things started looking up for the very shrunken but still surviving corporate music industry. What changed? In a nutshell, the record companies, at about one fifth the size they had been in the Nineties, made peace with streaming. Now it’s not just the indy artists, but the big record labels that are giving everything away. Well, not giving it away, but selling it for a fraction of a cent per song streamed. Which, of course, only works on a practical basis if you are getting hundreds of thousands or millions of streams per month on the full-spectrum dominant platform of Spotify — not tens of thousands or fewer, like me and the vast majority of working singer/songwriters on the planet. And with the new deals the industry is making with Spotify, the percentages for indy artists are set to get worse, as the percentages for the big record companies get better — as those with the most influence make the best deals with their new, vulture capitalist puppet-masters from Stockholm.

Now the central contradictions have changed, and we must change with them. Now, the path of least resistance for people — by far — is to listen to free music on their phones. Spotify Premium comes bundled with many cell phone accounts. People are led to believe they are helping artists by listening to their music on the platform, and helping us even more by getting a Premium account. It is actually much easier to find an album on Spotify than it is to stick a CD in a CD player which you no longer own. No need to look around on the Dark Web for bittorrents that may be infected with malware. And we cannot possibly compete with free.

This is exactly why crowdfunding took off in the 2010’s, and not in the Naughties. The concept has existed for a very long time, and has been successfully implemented by NPR and Pacifica Radio for many decades, along with the Girl Scouts and loads of other organizations. It’s not new, and although the technology of the internet is very helpful in setting up a crowdfunding operation, it’s far from necessary. Crowdfunding became popular in the 2010’s for the simple reason that independent musicians could not afford to record albums or otherwise survive by any other means, unless they quit doing music or got a second, or a third, job.

Most crowdfunding campaigns fail, however, and so many others never happen because musicians don’t feel comfortable with the idea. They never used to have to beg. Most of them have never even been buskers. Suddenly it seems to have become the only way to survive for so many of us in the so-called gig economy. I’m sure that in the very near future, Uber drivers will be doing crowdfunders to buy their next car, since their wages as drivers won’t possibly allow them to save up for one — just as our income from streaming doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of making the next album, unless you’re making it with your cell phone. And forget about paying the rent.

And just as the idea of forming an alternative company to compete with Uber’s race to the bottom is a dead-end idea, just as the idea of forming an alternate social media platform to the completely dominant Facebook hasn’t worked, the idea of forming a different platform to compete with Spotify’s race to the bottom is a pointless undertaking. Spotify is the infrastructure for streaming. Me, you, no one has the means to create a new one. We can keep crowdfunding, sure. We can roll over and play dead, or look for other ways to get by.

Or we can fight. We can organize, and we can win. History shows that memes can spread and have a huge impact, when they are spread in the form of art, music and lots of civil disobedience. The contradictions have changed. This is not the time for entrepreneurial innovations. This is not the time for more venture capital. This is not the time for making peace with a new form of serfdom. The new system, the infrastructure for music distribution on the planet, is now here. It is streaming, it is “free,” and it is led by the vulture capitalists of Spotify, devouring the corpse of an industry they have destroyed — but in such a hip and fashionable way, with an aperitif in between courses.

Fighting back against Spotify means demanding streaming justice. My suggestion is that our initial demand from these corporate vermin be that there be a minimum payout per song streamed of one US cent, without exceptions. A simple demand. Consistency, predictability, something we can understand, not a mysterious algorithm with a payout that radically changes month to month, despite our listenership increasing. If a streaming platform’s business model does not start with paying artists at least a penny per song streamed, then screw their business model and their business. They can go out of business, and return the internet to the pirates, if a tiny fraction of a cent is what they think is acceptable.

A relatively small number of very committed people can, history indicates, change everything. Fellow artists and those who care about the survival of artists, and by extension other people victimized by the same sort of predatory practices of corporations like Uber and Spotify, and anyone else with a conscience, I ask you: who will join me in a campaign of music, art, and civil disobedience against Spotify? The beta version of the Penny Campaign is up at davidrovics.com/penny. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Musicians of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains. I’ll meet you in Stockholm.

Somewhere On Spotify: My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2

Spotify is not single-handedly responsible for my relatively impoverished financial state as a working musician.  But it is certainly one of the most prominent reasons for it.

Somewhere on Spotify:  My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2.  I could agree with myself on the heading for this one, but I’m having trouble with the subheading.  This is the kind of thing writers, and editors, agonize over for some reason.  Nobody else probably cares or notices, or at least that’s what they think.  There are so many things like that.  But I digress.  The subheading to follow up Somewhere On Spotify:  How To Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater was one idea.  How To Become A Dinosaur was another.  But then this is basically a followup to missive #27 from a few months ago, My Own Industrial Collapse, so, My Own Industrial Collapse, Part 2 made sense.

Listeners of my podcast will be aware that I always end it with an original song relevant to the subject at hand, sometimes one I just wrote.  Often it’s a song related to recent events somewhere in the world — Gaza, London, California, or wherever else.  This week I’ll stay closer to home — my own, specifically.  And by extension, millions of other people in the world who used to make a living traveling, playing music, and selling their recordings at their shows and through the mail.

The song I wrote that predicated this missive was not inspired by international, national or even local news.  Maybe local, but really, really local.  The news of my windowsill, in front of which sits a laptop on a desk, through which I have access to so much of the world’s knowledge, art and music, basically for the cost of the Xfinity corporation’s usurious monthly broadband fee.  I got one of those emails from CDBaby that I get every three months, telling me I can use their platform to upload a new album to all the various music streaming services — use this code to get their fee waived, because I use them for web hosting, and that’s part of the deal.  Then that email reminded me that I intended around now to make my most recent album, Historic Times, available on Spotify.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put an album up on Spotify.  The last one was Ballad of a Wobbly, in 2017.  With that recording and several others before it — Punk Baroque, Live in Rostrevor — over ten thousand dollars altogether went into making the recordings I made between 2016 and 2017, and I never had any intent of making that money back, or turning a profit on it, or releasing the recordings in physical form.  For two of the aforementioned recordings, I crowdfunded the recording costs, as I have done on many other occasions, with varying degrees of success.

The album I’m about to put up on Spotify, however, is a bit different.  It was, it is, a vinyl record — my first and last.  I’m guessing I will have boxes full of vinyl records sitting on top of my closet, along with the boxes of CDs under my daughter’s bed, for years to come.  The broad lack of interest in vinyl appears to me to be just as total as the lack of interest in CDs or any other kind of merch I might try to sell at shows or on my website.

Which makes perfect sense from a consumer viewpoint, and, of course, we all do it every time we search on the internet — find free information, news, music, art, movies, podcasts, whatever else.  But from the vantage point of those of us who are what they call “content creators” it’s an unmitigated disaster at this point.

Those of us born yesterday might take heart at recent Spotify-related news.  Spotify has invested half a billion dollars into becoming a major podcasting platform.  I don’t know if this is related, but my listenership on Spotify has recently doubled — up from 2,700 monthly listeners to over 5,000, each of whom are streaming about an album’s worth of music about once a month.  My monthly revenue from Spotify has risen from a three-digit number beginning with a “1” to a three-digit number beginning with a “2.”

In the business cycle of a touring musician there are times when you’re making money and times when you’re spending it.  Well, you’re always spending it, but there are times when you’re also making it, and other times when you’re just spending.  Like when you buy lots of plane tickets for tours coming up that you haven’t done yet, so you haven’t actually made any money yet, you’ve just put a whole bunch of plane tickets on your credit card.  The hope, and sometimes the reality, is that at the end of the tour, you’ve paid off your credit card and you’ve even got some money in the bank.

So as I was contemplating uploading my latest album to Spotify, I actually found myself looking at my $9,000 in credit card debt after all those plane tickets and everything else, contrasting it with the $2,000 currently in my bank account after having just paid rent for the month of May, and thinking, if I upload this album now, maybe by next month there’ll be an extra $50 coming from Spotify.

That’s when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the kind of emotion that leads a songwriter to write a song, let’s just say.  Sometimes it seems too dangerous just to let yourself feel what you’re feeling, and to acknowledge it to yourself.  You can always put a positive spin on most things, if they’re not totally dire — I’m putting my album up on Spotify, cool, now I’ll make an extra dollar a day for a little while, in ten years or so I will have paid for the cost of the recording, and hey, all those people out there who are too lazy or otherwise will never bother downloading the album for free on my website can now get it the way they prefer to consume all of their music, on Spotify, without leaving that particular Swedish corporation’s now-ubiquitous platform.  I might get dozens of new fans around the world because of this album being on Spotify.  Maybe some of them will even come to my shows, on the unlikely occasion that I happen to be playing wherever on the planet they happen to live.

Sometimes my internal voice of motherly optimism just gets squelched by the reality of my collapsing industry.  The act of putting this album on Spotify, which I invested so much time and money and effort into, this album that represents everything that went into four different recording projects, including a days-long session to record new songs specifically for this album — it hit me that the feeling was almost exactly like how I felt as a kid on behalf of my friend whose parents forced him to “give away” his dog to someone who lived on a farm in the countryside, because the dog would be happier there.  In retrospect, they probably made up the bit about the farm in the countryside.  But, assuming, as we did, that it was true the dog was going to live out the rest of its days on a nice farm somewhere, romping around in the fields, our overwhelming sense as children was one of loss.  We wanted to keep the dog, even though we only lived in the suburbs, not the countryside, where dogs apparently belonged, according to my friend’s parents.

This record isn’t alive, but I raised it.  I wrote all those songs.  Each one represents a day or several days or sometimes weeks of spending much of my time reading, writing and playing to get the song right.  Most of the money for making most of the recordings was crowdfunded, it’s true, but the idea of being compensated in some real way for my time and effort in this whole process, the idea that there’s any direct relationship between making these recordings and paying my rent, is at this point a cruel joke.  If the money for the recordings weren’t crowdfunded, where would it possibly come from?  There are no sales.

Putting the album up on Spotify feels like nothing more or less than an admission of this fact.

I had a wonderful concert at a labor history conference last weekend in Portland.  These are my people — I recognized a lot of the faces in the room, labor organizers and leftwing academics from all over western Canada and the US.  There were 130 people at the show, I believe.  An enthusiastic and appreciative crowd in the triple digits.  A decade ago at a show like that I would have easily sold enough CDs to pay that month’s rent.  As it is, I was happy that I sold a handful of recordings.  Let’s see, I still have the cash right here, let me count it — $110.

I know that depending on what you do for a living, whether you’re paid by the hour or on a salary — or not at all — it’s hard to get your head around the workings of someone else’s profession, and the expenses and costs involved with it.  But you probably get the basic idea.  I made a lot more money at gigs when I was in my thirties than I do now, in my fifties.  I didn’t crowdfund for making expensive recordings because I didn’t need to.  Now it would be impossible any other way.

But wait, people say, when I whine about the state of the profession I’m in.  There’s home recording — you can get a nice microphone and set up a studio in your nonexistent extra room in your overpriced apartment or perhaps somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers.

Which brings me to the bits about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and being a dinosaur.  I am, I now realize, a dinosaur, and I presumably will be for the rest of my life.  Because I remember what it was like to make a living as a touring musician, largely from income derived from selling your physical recordings to people who liked your music so much they wanted to listen to it at home, which more or less required that they buy physical albums.  I remember those days, and I always will, and so will everyone else who had that experience, which now seems like a fantasy.  Hard to believe that there was once a time where it made sense to spend thousands of dollars of your own hard-earned money on making another recording every year, because if you made it, you’d sell more during that year of touring than you would otherwise, such that it would easily make up for the expenditure involved, and then some.

I’ll be the dinosaur who remembers the days before we embraced USB mics and technological optimism at the expense of recording studios with engineers and producers in them.  My well-meaning fans, friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter give me advice — cut costs, record at home.  Some of them are even musicians, most of whom are too young or outside of the realm of more professional music circles to have ever worked with a professional engineer and producer in a real studio.  If even musicians don’t know the difference, why would anyone possibly expect music consumers to know how much of a difference such professionals can make?  One of the fantasies currently being promoted by the pop music industry is about this one young woman who supposedly makes her recordings in her brother’s bedroom.  Maybe they live in a mansion somewhere in Beverly Hills and her brother is a producer.

You’ve probably heard about George Martin, the producer who was behind many of the Beatles’ albums.  He’s one of those producers that people have heard about.  One of those producers where people might have some idea that his contributions to the music of the Beatles were as incalculable in their impact as the contributions of any of the actual members of the band.  They call him “the fifth Beatle” because he was.  Now multiply George Martin by thousands and thousands.  Behind most great albums is a great producer.  That is certainly true of anything I’ve ever recorded with other musicians.

I was recently stranded at the Los Angeles airport overnight by a late flight and a tight connection.  Exhausted, I booked a nearby hotel room, though it was outrageously expensive on my budget, rather than spend the night as a zombie wandering the airport until my new flight left at 6 the next morning.  I wanted to get to the hotel, and I didn’t see any taxis anywhere.  I asked someone who worked at the airport where the taxis were to be found.  He looked at me, confused.  “Oh, you mean like Uber?”

I lived with two cab drivers in San Francisco for years, and I have never yet paid to ride in an Uber.  But I discovered that near where the Ubers were, there was still a taxi stand.  It had three taxis in line — a far cry from the dozens that would have been in the line there years ago.  I know that those taxi drivers have all been told by their friends, why don’t you just drive for Uber?  It’s something about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on those medallions that are now worthless, that keeps them from driving for Uber.  Others give up on cab-driving, sabotaged and betrayed by capitalism, technology and government corruption, and drive for Uber, as the debt they incurred from the medallions that they never finished paying for now mounts, since they don’t make enough on Uber to keep making those payments.  In the space of eight months, six such cab drivers in New York City killed themselves last year.

Unlike with the medallion system, with all its flaws, recording studios with engineers and producers didn’t exist just as some kind of control on the industry.  It’s not like, get rid of medallions and you have freedom — get rid of medallions and you have total unregulated capitalist insanity in the form of the terribly exploitative Uber corporation.  By the same token, it’s not like you get rid of recording studios and then you get lots of great home recording.  You get rid of recording studios and people will still write songs and make recordings.  However, they certainly won’t be nearly as great as they could be.  But there will be fewer and fewer people alive who know that to be true as the years go by, and people like me will seem more and more dino.

And, of course, although the great producers we are losing may never be replaced, the skills of the engineers in the real studios are gradually being replaced by technology.  As the software improves, it can increasingly compensate for everything — background noise, bad microphone technique, bad microphone placement.  We have more and more control with software over making adjustments to pitch and rhythm and so much else.  I’m sure that someday soon the idea that anyone used to go through the trouble of soundproofing rooms for recording purposes will become as obscure as the notion that cars once had drivers, or that there were once people who made a living by recording albums and selling them at their concerts.

I’m one of the lucky dinosaurs.  One of the ones who was lucky enough to record a dozen albums back in the days when they paid for themselves, who developed a following around the world because of those albums and the fact that they paid for themselves, and who can now beg my relatively numerous fans for support in the form of the Patreon-style program I run from my website — I call it my CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Art.  To really make the whole thing work without needing to crowdfund for recordings and such, I would need four times as many CSA members than are signed up at present or at any given time.  But the support I do get has allowed me to at least stay in the running as someone making some kind of a living from making music.

But before I put the next album up for adoption, out to pasture on the Spotify ranch, I will memorialize it first, too, and all the time and effort I put into creating the next album that I will give away — whether or not it involved a producer, an engineer, an assistant engineer, seasoned studio musicians, soundproofed isolation booths with really thick windows, or if the next album is made somewhere in between the cribs and the diapers, while carefully avoiding the days when the guys with the leaf-blowers are outside my window.

Pete Seeger Was A Movement Musician


If Pete Seeger were still with us, how would he be celebrating his 100th birthday?  Probably by chopping wood.

On May 3rd, 1919, Pete Seeger was born. Many people in the more musical regions of my social circles are currently celebrating his life, for the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday, had he lived past the age of 94. Among people I know, so much has already been said about Pete, that I’m hesitant to say any more. But on fairly obsessive reflection around the subject of Pete Seeger myself in recent days, I realize I do have thoughts that might be worth sharing, despite the quantity of verbiage already cluttering the web.

So much has been said and written about him over the course of the past 83 years or so, it’s very easy to blend fact with fiction. This is perhaps especially true for people who knew him, but only a little. Does reading a book and having a short conversation with the author give you much more insight into the subject of the book than you would have had without that conversation? Probably not. But it’s been six years since Pete died, and I’m six years older. And I’ll just say up front here that it’s not my deeply intimate familiarity with Pete that makes me feel like I have something to say here — I barely knew the guy. But we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, and most importantly, we shared the same profession — I am, and he was, a musician, among other things, but specifically a musician with deep social movement roots. He was a fish swimming in a sea of social movements throughout his life, and he navigated the waters as best he could, to be a helpful, musical part of those movements.

Anyone who visited him at his home mentions the wood-splitting right away. I never visited him at home or split wood with him, though I did sweep a floor with him once. I know how the wood-splitting thing can be, though, having grown up not far away from Beacon, New York, myself, in a wood-heated home in Connecticut, very close to another river that had, like the Hudson, long ago also been poisoned by industry — the Housatonic. You split a lot of wood to keep a wood stove hot through a northeastern winter. Or up in the hills, through the spring and fall, as well. Pete was reputed to live a very simple life, to the extent that he could manage it, as a relatively famous, at times chart-topping musician.

As far as I know, he never resented the fact that he did well enough as a musician to tour the world and feed his family. But Pete talked on so many occasions in so many ways about how profoundly uncomfortable he was with all the attention. When I was younger I assumed this was just him being humble — that secretly, he really enjoyed the fame and wealth. But later, on reflection, it’s very clear to me that he meant what he said — and pretty much everything he did in his life as a musician and organizer reinforced his words.

Pete certainly believed in the power of music, and surely wished music, including his music, would be used in many different circumstances — for the love of music, and for movement-building and community-building of all kinds. But throughout his life, though the spotlight repeatedly kept turning to him, among others, he was working for the movement.

By no means am I suggesting that Pete was anything less than a great musician, musical interpreter, and songwriter — he was all three. But his desire to just be an effective, musical part of a social movement, and not to be a shining star floating somewhere above the movement, was real.

When Pete Seeger was conceived, millions of people were slaughtering each other in Europe in the First World War. When Pete was a baby, the radical labor movement in the form of the IWW was being brutally destroyed in a concerted national campaign of arson, lynchings, arrests and deportations of union activists, carried out by the federal government. By the time Pete was a preteen, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the heir to the IWW, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was organizing the working class, this time with much greater success than the IWW had had, partially because the federal authorities under FDR were sympathetic to unions. The CIO was led in no small part by Communist Party members. At that time, when people talked about the labor movement, the term was as inclusive as the term “the movement” later became in the Sixties. It was certainly meant to include the farmers and the unemployed, and many others.

By the time he was 17, with the Great Depression still raging, Pete was playing his banjo for the movement, back in the Thirties. Pete and I had a mutual friend named Bob Steck. Bob used to tell me about the movement in the 1930’s that he was an active part of, being a few years older than Pete (and also long dead). The Communist Party of the day focused a lot of energy on culture, what Bob called “the culture department.” He talked about how while organizing workers into unions was a major emphasis for Party organizers and sympathizers, of similar emphasis was the importance of communication — and using music and theater and other forms of culture to do that.

The CIO and the Communist Party were building on ideas and tactics that were well-worn, used with fairly spectacular success by the IWW, with its most well-known cultural import from Sweden, Joe Hill. When Pete Seeger was taking the subway around New York City singing for multiple labor and Communist Party events per day back when he was a teenager, Joe Hill had only been executed a little more than twenty years earlier. A typical day in the city Pete lived in at that time involved hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, protesting against capitalism, often being savagely beaten by police. When Pete was a teenager, many of his friends — including the aforementioned Bob Steck — went off to Spain, volunteering to fight alongside the anarchists there against fascism. Many of Pete’s friends never returned home. Many more would die in the far bigger, global war that occupied much of Pete’s twenties.

In the sea that Pete swam in, he was already feeling very lucky to be alive by the time he was a young adult. A child of privilege, but not living in what you might call a privileged time or a privileged position in it, partially by choice, but in any case, long before many other people would be thinking of mortality, Pete’s friends were dying, fighting for a cause they, and he, passionately believed in. Call it what you will, Pete disliked labels for his politics as much as he disliked labels for his music. But something involving egalitarianism, liberty, dignity, where everybody has a place to live, enough food, health care, clean water, etc. — that sort of thing.

He would see the lives of many of his friends and colleagues ruined by McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, but Pete was, it seems to me, emotionally well-disposed to weather that storm, since he hadn’t been looking for the stardom he had just then been experiencing with his first big hits in the early 1950’s. He was blacklisted from TV and from lots of other venues, but he could still get gigs on the college campuses. Back during the blacklist, my mom was a student at Oberlin College, which is where she first heard a Pete Seeger concert.

As the Civil Rights movement got off the ground, Pete was there, naturally, going where the movement was. Same for the movement against the war in Vietnam, the movement against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the environmental movement more broadly, the movement against intervention in Latin America, against invading Iraq, and, not long before he died, even Occupy Wall Street.

But it was natural for Pete to do these things, not because he was such a special guy with a heart of gold or whatever else — though he surely was — but because that’s what you do when you’re in the movement and you’re a musician. Pete was just a person. He was born into one of the greatest periods of social upheaval in the history of civilization — the 1930’s in New York City. He stood on the shoulders of the IWW, along with everyone else in the movement at the time, and he swam in the waters of the CPUSA, the CIO, and the social movement more broadly that these organizations were also just part of. Pete learned during that incredibly exciting, incredibly deadly period of history what the struggle was all about, what it meant to be a movement musician, and the role that music played in building and maintaining social movements.

What Pete learned from people like Bob back in the 1930’s was wisdom from a social movement that he spent the rest of his life sharing in so many ways. So did millions of other people who had the great privilege, or the curse, to be young American communists in New York City during the Great Depression and the world-historic social movement that it helped to bring into existence. Millions of lives were profoundly impacted by that thriving social movement, about which so much has been said, about which so much more needs to be said.

Bob Steck got home from Spain, after serving 16 months in one of Franco’s concentration camps. He became Director of Activities for Camp Unity, where he spent a lot of time hanging out with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Clifford Odets, Paul Robeson and other musicians and playwrights, who spent summers there along with lots of leftwing families from the New York region, performing, doing workshops, writing songs, skits and plays. In addition to his work at Camp Unity, Bob taught history in the New York public schools for thirty years.

I mention Bob only because I think that people like him, who were the people on the streets of New York who were largely responsible for imbuing Pete with his awareness of the world and his place in it, were serving the movement with the same sort of humble spirit that Pete gave to the movement. For Bob this meant running a summer camp and teaching history to poor kids in New York for most of his working life. For Pete it meant making a lot of music and doing a lot of organizing over the course of his life — which only coincidentally put him in the spotlight a hell of a lot more than any high school history teacher is ever likely to be in.

Both Bob and Pete were raised by progressives, so they likely would have been progressive anyway, had history unfolded differently than it did. But they were fundamentally shaped by the 1930’s and the social movements of the period. If you knew many other leftwingers from Pete’s generation, the signs of a movement organizer are obvious.

What I think confuses people to some extent is that, for one thing, we live in a society where the cult of the individual is a dominant force. But also, the movements and organizations that existed when he was young have changed over time, and in most cases don’t exist anymore. The character of movements change, too, in different times and places — there are a lot of notable differences between, say, the labor movement of the 1930’s and the environmental movement of the 1970’s, as well as a lot of similarities that could be easily overlooked.

Some movement organizers in the 1930’s were on the payroll of organizations that later ceased to exist, or from which they were purged, or from which they developed political differences. For some, that’s when the organizing ended. But for many others, their movement orientation wasn’t tied up with the Communist Party, the IWW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other organization, celebrity or political figure. They were movement organizers, movement musicians, and if the movement didn’t find them, they kept doing their thing as best they could until the next wave came along, trying in various ways to poke the water and make it happen. That was Pete’s orientation, quite clearly.

Most of what I’ve written so far are conclusions I could have reached from reading Pete’s Wikipedia entry. But my own personal experiences bear out these sorts of impressions very clearly, of Pete as popular educator, organizer and promoter of things bigger than himself. The best way I can think of to summarize my personal experience of Pete Seeger, which also confirms all of my suspicions about the man, is that I essentially met him for the first time on at least three different occasions. Each time we met, it had been long enough since the last time that he clearly wasn’t making the association, or had forgotten about the last time. Each time was an entirely different context, and each time his response was consistent — to use his knowledge and position to promote the movement, to promote good communication, and to promote other artists.

Pete was only in his seventies when we first met. He looked old — white people who spend a lot of time outdoors are especially prone to wrinkling — but he was still very energetic. I sent the lyrics to a song I had just written, back in 1995, about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. His response was to call me at my mother’s house and invite me to perform at the Clearwater Festival. Years later I sent him another lyric, and his response was to send me back sheet music for it which he had just written, for me to use if I wanted to. But then, during the course of what many of us were calling the Global Justice movement, when I was getting a lot of interesting gigs in the late Nineties, I had a show with Pete Seeger at the Grassroots Radio Conference. When we met again there in Jefferson, New York, it was evident that Pete had heard of me before, but didn’t realize we had already met several times. (Not that I asked, but it was clear that he thought we were meeting for the first time.) Once again, years later, a check arrived in the mail for $100 and a note indicating he had just discovered my music, and requesting that I send him all the CDs I had ever recorded.

Without, I hope, appearing to brag, the point is that Pete had his finger on the pulse of social movement activity. The reason why we saw each other and had other forms of contact on so many occasions in the late Nineties and early Naughties was specifically because those were the years when I was very much plugged in to two different overlapping social movements active around that time, which we could roughly characterize as the Global Justice movement and the Antiwar movement. He was hearing about me because he was plugged into those movements, too, just as he had been with previous movements. There are many other artists who can share similar stories about Pete.

I believe the last time I saw him in person was on February 15th, 2003. I guess he would have been 83. He was with his wife, Toshi, who I had briefly met before at the Beacon Sloop Club and maybe elsewhere. We were behind the stage at the antiwar rally which the antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, had organized. We were waiting to do our bits, each of us were to do one song. It was way, way below freezing, with a harsh wind whipping between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. My friend Brad Simpson was rushing around — he was one of the organizers, at the time working for the War Resistors League. His former employer, Amy Goodman, was there, along with former South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid organizer Desmond Tutu and a bunch of other folks, including my singing partner at the time, Allie Rosenblatt.

Loads of mainstream media were there, too, but without exception, they were all glued to every word and every facial movement of Danny Glover, who was there, too, looking magnificent and impervious to the cold, unlike the rest of us shivering mortals. (In retrospect, those camera lights may have been very warm, and he may not be superhuman after all, but who knows.) Pete and Toshi were sensibly dressed in warm winter jackets, but I was concerned about the very red bits of exposed skin on his face, as he sat on an uncomfortable little chair in this very cold, dimly-lit tent.

I don’t remember what we talked about. I’m sure I was trying to be cool, and not slobber. I was just glad that Pete wasn’t currently in the limelight enough to warrant the cameras of the TV stations when Danny Glover was standing five feet away, and we could just chill, if you will, and be anonymous together. Bruce Springsteen’s album, the Seeger Sessions, would come out three years later. Pete was reportedly annoyed by Mr Springsteen’s choice for the title.

For All the Bicycles in Denmark


Of ghost bikes and bike lanes.

I grew up on a bicycle. At least once I learned to ride. Somehow or other I didn’t manage to do that until the age of ten. But starting then, the bicycle became the ticket to freedom and independence, as well as another way to appreciate the natural world and get a lot of exercise.

For many people who grew up in suburbs similar to the one I grew up in, what I’m describing will be familiar. Looking at it from this distant vantage point, and back at the time, the reason is and was obvious. It was all about infrastructure. Walking from my suburban home to the town center took an hour or more. I only did that when there was too much snow on the roads for anything with wheels to function. Biking it took a fraction of that time. The nearest video arcade was several miles beyond the town center. Walking there and back would have been a day-long event, but by bike it was just a good little workout.

All of this will be familiar to many. And then what happened next will be, too. At the age of sixteen I got a driver’s license and inherited an ancient Volvo from my parents, which they were passing on to me both out of love and kindness but also because the car was deemed to be no longer reliable enough to use for their interminably long commute from Connecticut to Long Island, which they both had to do multiple times a week. From the time I got that driver’s license and car, I rarely rode a bike.

There are so many forces in the society I grew up in, suburban America, that pushed me and most other teenagers and adults in that direction. With a car it becomes easier to go still further than you could easily do with a bike, and so you do, for lots of very good reasons having to do with important things like getting an education and making money. And there’s the question of your dating prospects and all those other social pressures.

But fundamentally, it comes down to infrastructure. Young teenagers in the suburbs of America often become serious bicycling enthusiasts because the distances they’d need to go by walking are impossible, there’s no mass transit to speak of, and nobody wants to ask their parents for rides all the time if they can help it, for a whole variety of different reasons. Once they’re driving cars, however, the whole equation changes. Now they can really participate in the society, as it has been designed to function — by car.

And it’s not just the distances people often need to go that is the main problem here with infrastructure. It’s not just “how it is” in a sparsely-populated place like so much of the US is. The spreading out of the population, in the way it spread out, were choices made by people and urban planners, governments and corporations.

Still we are fed on a steady diet of the mantra that we are personally responsible for the climate crisis and we have to do things like eat less meat and ride bicycles more. We are told this in so many ways, from early childhood. But despite all the propaganda, in the most bicycling cities in the US, the percentage of people commuting to work by bike on a regular basis is in the low single digits. Contrast that with cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where it’s the majority who is getting around by bicycle or mass transit.

Is it something peculiar to the Danish or Dutch psyche that makes their entire societies as bicycle-obsessed as your average suburban American teenager? Or is there something else at work here? Obviously, it’s once again about infrastructure, laws, what’s easy, what’s possible. Denmark and the Netherlands being flat countries of course is hugely influential in this, let’s not minimize that. But there are many other flat parts of the world that do not have a dominant bicycle culture going on, such as most of the American midwest. In Denmark, on the other hand, it’s prohibitively expensive to own a car or fill its tank with gas, while bike lanes are everywhere, and they’re all full of people of all ages riding in them.

You’re also not risking your life by taking a bike ride. Here in Portland I see new ghost bikes cropping up everywhere — white-painted bicycles that friends of those killed while riding a bicycle often put up in their memory, and to serve as a statement. The statement can be many things to many people — it can focus on the individual responsibility of the drivers not to text and drive, not to drink and drive, etc., and/or it can put the spotlight on the need for better, safer infrastructure, like real bike lanes, tunnels, and bridges.

Meanwhile there are cities in Scandinavia that have achieved zero annual traffic fatalities of any kind. They have done this not by relying on humans not to make human errors, but by creating infrastructure that makes a fatal accident very difficult to have. In Copenhagen, for a driver to hit a bicyclist, they generally first have to drive through a line of parked cars that separate the car lane from the bicycle lane. It is not a matter of crossing an imaginary line represented by some faded paint job they’re calling a bike lane, such as at least 99% of the so-called bike lanes in the United States, in my conservative estimate.

The UK, incidentally, is just as bad for bicycling as the US, with no real attention having been paid to this form of transit in the development of the infrastructure of the country. So the idea of Extinction Rebellion activists being slandered by the mayor of London and most of the British media for tying up not only car traffic but mass transit as well, on the basis that if they really cared about the environment they wouldn’t cause problems for commuters on the Underground, is a lot like someone saying because 2+2=4 and using the Underground saves petrol, using the Underground is the solution to the climate crisis. It’s very elementary school logic that falls apart immediately upon inspection, but it is totally mainstream logic, from Saddiq Khan to the BBC, and it is pernicious.

London and other British cities are ecological disasters with industrial-era infrastructure that is crying out for radical transformation of the sort that only massive government re-prioritization of values and massive infrastructure investments can hope to deal with — as is very much the case in the cities of the US and many other countries. Only after spending so much time in Denmark did I come to realize to what a tremendous extent it is all about infrastructure, and the priorities of a democratically-run society. Danish democracy has been controlled by active bicycle-riders for a long time, with bicycle infrastructure spending being a significant part of the national budget every year since around the time I was born, and what has been achieved is obvious.

Telling people to ride their bikes more often in places like London, Glasgow, New York City or Chicago is like inviting people to die early deaths from either getting hit by a car or breathing the air made so foul by the dominance of the private car for the functioning of these societies as they are. Telling people to ride their bikes more often in Denmark, well, it’s not necessary. It would seem like a very strange thing to do. How else are you going to get around?

To the stooges of the real estate speculators pretending to be viable political leaders who like to preach about mass transit and social inclusion while they reign over societies where rampant speculation on the real estate market means people are forced to live in further and further suburbs with less and less infrastructure and more and more dependency on the private automobile for their increasingly difficult prospects for survival, we must say no, this stops now, the solution is not your band-aids – it is a total transformation of the physical infrastructure of the society, and serious, effective government regulation of the housing market.

With all respect to those many good friends of mine who are actively striving to make Denmark an even better, more ecological and more inclusive society, it is already an entirely different reality from what we know in places like the UK or the US — including in the supposedly progressive hot spots like Brighton or Seattle or wherever. In fundamental ways, it bears no resemblance.

In Denmark, the question is almost never “shall we ride or drive?” It’s almost always the former. Yes, there are fewer bus routes than there used to be, and this is not the right direction to be going in, but the point is, it’s still nothing like anywhere you’ve probably been, unless you’ve spent time in the Netherlands. These are the societies you get when you create the infrastructure for it. If you don’t create that infrastructure, you don’t get that society. We can do it, too — but first we have to stop deluding ourselves that the way forward involves anything other than society-wide collective action, of the sort that brought Denmark its bike lanes.

If I Had a Hacker

After Julian Assange’s arrest and the resulting explosion of the internet last weekend, I attempt to pick up some of the pieces.

This past week has been one of those weeks when the internet seemed to explode, as it does every so often. Analyzing the patterns in which the rubble hit the ground after the blast, there is an overwhelming sense of mass confusion. Questions and condemnations are everywhere. Who does he really work for? What are his real interests? Who wants to extradite him, and why?

In one moldy crevice of the internet we have people convinced that he couldn’t possibly be a rapist, he was set up, the women are crisis actors. In another fetid corner are those loudly proclaiming that because he may be guilty of these accusations, who cares if he’s extradited to the US for entirely other reasons?

And then, in still another myopic little hole, the loyal Democrats, convinced that anyone who calls out Hillary Clinton as an imperialist stooge of Goldman Sachs must therefore be working for both Putin and Trump. And, therefore, so what if Julian Assange is thrown to the wolves in Alexandria, Virginia, along with Chelsea Manning?

I get the powerful sense that people don’t know what to believe. When faced with a situation where there are many different interests involved, putting forward different perspectives for their own particular reasons, there is a tendency for people to retreat into irrational little corners and shout obscenities at anyone who tries to talk to them.

It is, however, through the opposite of this kind of retreat and shout mentality where we can begin to understand the world around us. It’s imperative that you first turn off your TV. With talk radio or talk TV like Fox or MSNBC, all you get is repetition of positions, rather than analysis of real information. But repetitive propaganda of a liberal, conservative, fascist, socialist, or other nature is not what we need. To understand the world, you need more information, not less — a broader array of angles from which to view the same situation, not more ways to beat a dead horse.

Cutting to the chase, Julian Assange is wanted by the forces of empire in Washington, DC, both Democratic and Republican, because he helped expose US war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is no longer a suspicion, but we can now say since his arrest in London it is a fact. Whatever he thinks of the relative pros and cons of the two ruling parties in the US, however he has treated people on an interpersonal basis, whether or not his organization has accepted donations from the right or wrong people now or historically — while all of these questions are certainly relevant broadly, they are not relevant to the basic reason why the US has been trying to resuscitate the moribund Espionage Act of 1920 to go after whistle-blowers and journalists — or, in the case of Julian Assange, whistle-blower/journalists.

Chelsea Manning got 35 years. Her future at this point is very uncertain. There is no reason to suspect that the Justice Department will be seeking any less of a punishment in their case against Assange, which is being pursued for the exact same so-called crimes — the crime of exposing war crimes. This is why Julian Assange should be defended.

How Do You Strangle a Corporation?

In this week’s missive we explore the question: how do you strangle a corporation, when it doesn’t have a neck?

Some of my more regular listeners may be tired of hearing about the fact that the rent on my apartment in Portland, Oregon has more than doubled since I moved to the city twelve years ago. But as President Trump fires half his staff because they’re basically not fascist enough, I must return to the doubling of my rent, because it is the living room elephant. One pollster I heard yammering on the radio one day said that the single factor that most effectively represented in a nutshell Trump’s base of support were people whose standards of living had decreased over the previous ten years. One of the main reasons for the marked decrease in quality of life for so many people in the US and many other countries, especially since around the turn of the millennia, has been the skyrocketing cost of housing.

How easy is it to say “we’re full” and then blame the most recent refugees and immigrants on the lack of affordable housing? Is it any surprise that this would happen? Did the wrecking ball deregulators of the housing market intentionally encourage a rightward, xenophobic shift in politics in order to distract attention from their ever more cannabalistic tendencies, as increasingly the billionaires and hedge fund managers don’t invest in the volatile stock market, but in the housing market. That is, they invest in the human need to keep a roof over our heads. They bank on the notion that as long as most people somehow manage to be resourceful enough to keep paying the ever increasing rents, they can keep on getting a return on their investment, until — until when? When every year the rents rise several times as much as wages, when is the breaking point?

For many years now I have been wondering, trying to answer the perennial question, how do you strangle a corporation? Unable to answer the question myself, I took to asking audiences at my concerts. I think it was in Olympia that someone answered, “one at a time.” It’s not good enough, though. And all the songs I wrote about strangling my landlord helped my mental state temporarily, but as the rent continued to increase, these moments of creative catharsis became ever more fleeting. What we need are solutions — both songs and arson may have their place, but then so do band-aids.

Meanwhile, the solutions exist, and they’re easy — they just require that the state not be controlled by real estate developers. Because when people other than real estate developers or other money-grubbing pond scum are in power, then there’s the prospect of actual democracy taking place. This can potentially involve legislatures imposing things like rent control. In the US, this is entirely within the purview of state legislatures to do — but the vast majority of them have instead banned the practice over the past several decades, making sure that municipalities cannot pass their own local rent control ordinances.

In the US, the movement against gentrification is frankly pathetic. Nowhere are there ever sustained or large protests, housing occupations, or rent strikes. All of these things have happened in the past in the US, but that was a long time ago. I am a proud member of a tenants union in Portland, but it is an anemic organization, bereft of popular participation, funds, or most anything else aside from a handful of dedicated, enthusiastic, and often stressed out organizers. I’d suggest that the reason for the fact that when we have protests in Portland or Salem we’re lucky if attendance is in the triple digits is twofold — it doesn’t help at all that most of the media is about a hundred times more interested in covering Trump and anti-Trump than in covering basically anything else. Especially if it’s an issue like housing, which directly affects the billionaires and investors who own most of the media. Much safer to cover Trump and anti-Trump, along with supplementary team sporting events, always skimming the surface of any exploration of the actual policies lying beneath the rants. Whether the refugee children are put in cages or not does not affect the bottom line of the real estate developers, speculators and investors that quietly dominate so many of our lives.

The other main reason for our sad little protests is we profoundly lack optimism in the possibility that we might actually reverse course, rather than just slow down the inevitable.

Buried in the headlines, very intentionally, I’m sure, among many other intentionally buried or otherwise horrifically mis-reported stories, is the growing movement against the trend of ever-increasing rents and ever-increasing corporate profits in Berlin. In Berlin, protests against gentrification such as the one last weekend involve tens of thousands of people in the street. This would be a decent crowd for a national or even international protest there, but this is mainly just Berliners.

Like Portland, Berlin was recently a city full of artists and cafes and vibrant communities of all sorts, where rent was cheap and life was full of possibility. That all changed in Portland, and it’s been changing in Berlin, too. But unlike in Portland, where rent used to be cheap because the economy wasn’t good enough to support many people who could afford to pay high rents, the city of Berlin — both east and west — remained affordable for so long because the lion’s share of the housing was public — owned by the government.

Hundreds of thousands of units were sold to private corporations in recent decades in Berlin, and the result has been gentrification and rapidly rising rents, largely imposed by corporate conglomerates that have absolutely no interest in sustainable community or human rights, but only in the bottom line for their wealthy investors from places like New York, London and Oslo.

This is exactly what’s been happening in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. But unlike our straggly group, often outnumbered by the politicians within the building we’re protesting outside of, to say nothing of their staff, Berlin is rising up.

There are many explanations for this difference, but chief among them is the fact that Berlin has a recent history of great, widespread, and inexpensive public housing. People in Berlin, and more broadly in Germany as well as in many other countries, generally grew up with the notion that the government — again, both in the east and in the west — has a responsibility to adequately house the citizens of the country. It has long been understood there to be part of the social contract — why we have a government.

Someday, maybe we’ll re-learn this lesson in the United States. In the meantime, may the people of Berlin please show the world how to properly strangle a landlord when the landlord is a faceless corporation — socialize their property for the common good.

Before the Flood



I am, it might reasonably be said, a climate refugee – though a very comfortable one. Escaping the forest fires to run a little cafe in Denmark is hardly a sacrifice. But if the cafe might be a good retirement plan for me, it won’t be for my children – far too soon, the whole country in which Cafe Hellebaek is located will likely be underwater.

There is something so powerful about gazing into the distance over a large body of water.  Especially when you know that water is connected to all the other water in the world’s oceans.  It’s a most thought-provoking experience.

This little village on Oresund, the inlet separating Denmark from Sweden, is a place I keep coming back to.  The reason is because my friends here, people I’ve now known for many years, live here, in a bit of an unconventional situation.  Where they live, and where I stay most of the time when I’m in Denmark, used to be a castle.  The castle burned down and was replaced by a police training academy.  When that later closed, it was purchased by my friends, who ran a school there for many years.  Now there’s no more school, and the buildings are used for many other purposes, mostly involving the act of caring for others in one form or another — whether it’s looking after troubled youth, leasing space for the local municipality to house refugees, or training volunteers to do development work in Angola and other countries around the world.

One of the aspects of touring in places where I don’t live, but visit often, is I see reality in snapshot form.  I meet the baby who is a toddler only a couple visits later.  I see a woman who used to come to my gigs anytime I’d play in Copenhagen when she was a teenager.  Now she’s in her thirties and is a member of the Danish parliament.  A lot happens in between visits.

One thing that happens is the middle-aged people get old, and the old people die.  It’s very systematic, I’ve noticed over the years, and there are no exceptions to this rule.  The middle-aged people who stay healthy often become very active old people, as active as ever, until they’re not, anymore, and they slow down, and eventually die.  Such was the case with my friend Lars-Peter.  I met Lars-Peter and Mette when they came to a concert I was part of, a tribute to Pete Seeger in Copenhagen.  Lars-Peter was a founding member of the particular strain of the folk school movement that became known as Tvind in the 1960’s.  Mette came in later, as a teenage windmill-builder in the 1970’s.

I’ve mentioned the story of the windmill in a previous weekly missive, as well as in a song I wrote about it.  It’s an incredible story.  When Mette was a teenager and Lars-Peter was a young man, they and hundreds of others, with the support in one form or another of thousands more, built the biggest windmill that had ever been built, and then proceeded to give away the patents for it so others could do the same.  It’s a story not only of scientific breakthroughs and engineering brilliance, but of collective action of the most profound and impactful sort.  The windmill they built, Tvindkraft, is still running and providing electricity in the town of Ulfborg, in western Denmark.  Far more significantly, though, this windmill became the model for industrial-scale windmills, and essentially gave birth to one of the biggest industries in Denmark — windmill-building.

Lars-Peter was one of the best storytellers I ever met.  I wish I had recorded any of his stories.  He died of leukemia, and in his last couple years had very little energy.  But when he could get out of bed, he could still be in great storytelling form until close to the end.  In his role as headmaster of a school that educated kids by taking them in buses from Denmark to India and back on a regular basis, Lars-Peter saw the world in ways that very, very few people get to do.  And when he did most of his traveling, it was in countries that were experiencing massive popular movements and, in several cases, revolutions.  Pick a country in Africa or the Middle East, Lars-Peter had lived there and seen or participated in world-historic events in it.  (It’s me saying this, not him — he was far too humble a person to make such claims himself.)

Of course there are others of Lars-Peter’s generation still going strong, but the writing is on the wall.  As I sit here in this little cafe beside the water that I’ll be helping to run this weekend and for most of this summer, which is part of the property the old school is on, I often think of Lars-Peter’s stories of the 1960’s around the world, and also of Mette’s wonderful tales of her experiences a bit later in the evolution of the Tvind folk school movement, when in the 1970’s she and others decided to build the windmill that changed the world.  (There’s a crash course in mechanical engineering, if ever there was one.)

And then, unavoidably, my thoughts drift back to the present — and to the future.   A couple Fridays ago I was hearing a news story about Greta Thunberg, about how she and other students have been skipping school every Friday to protest against their government and other governments failing to address the climate crisis with the level of commitment that would be required to actually really do something about it.

I texted my 13-year-old daughter, Leila, asking her what she was up to.  I don’t normally text Leila on a Friday morning, since she usually has her phone off while she’s in school, but I had a hunch.  What are you up to, I asked.  She wrote me back right away with a picture of herself and some of her friends as they were marching across the Burnside Bridge, walking the two miles or so from their middle school to the other side of the river, downtown, where City Hall is located.

Hundreds of kids skipped school that day in Portland, and in many countries in Europe the numbers were much higher.  On this visit to Denmark — my first since last autumn — I have discovered that the Extinction Rebellion meme has taken root among many young people here.  I gave a couple young folks a ride from Odense to Copenhagen recently.  One of them has spent a lot of time in the struggle against the giant coal mine devouring the Hambach Forest in Germany.  The other one was often making statements along the lines of, it seems so hard to feel engaged with this topic — whatever the topic may be, as long as it doesn’t relate to the climate crisis — when in our lifetimes this whole country will be underwater.

Every time he said something like that it was obvious he really meant it — this was not an intellectual exercise for him at all.  I tend to get really animated whenever I’m talking about anything that I’m remotely interested in, whether it’s related to war and peace, rent control, worker’s cooperatives, collective action, music, food, sex or whatever.  But in the face of the coming flood, it’s easy to see how such passion about things other than the climate crisis can seem a bit misplaced.  It can seem, even, like a form of denial.

I dropped my riders off in Copenhagen, where I was meeting up with a couple of friends — Elona, who was moving from one apartment to another, and Ask, who was helping her move, along with me and my unexpectedly gigantic rental car.  Ask builds boats of the most wild description, the kinds of structures that you’ve never seen before and will always remember, if you see one in the water.  He’s an expert welder and designer, but what motivates him the most is the desire to do something about the climate crisis, using his boat projects as educational tools in various ways.

He was telling  me about his latest efforts, and I was telling him about my plans to run this cafe.  You’re a climate refugee, he informed me.  I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before.  I pay rent in an apartment in Portland, Oregon, I support my family, I have work, no one is threatening my life as far as I know, the city I live in has a low crime rate, and Trump has not yet started rounding up the Left and sending us to camps.  But, as I told Ask, one of the reasons I’m so keen to run this cafe is not only because I love Denmark, which I do, but because in recent years Portland has been home to the world’s worst air, on some days beating Beijing and New Delhi in that grim competition.  The main cause is the forest fires, which are getting bigger every summer, occasionally destroying whole cities, burning hotter than ever, with faster winds than ever — all climate crisis stuff, though there are many other factors involved.

I mentioned Ask’s climate refugee comment to my friend, Kamala.  I’m not sure the term refugee is appropriate, I said.  Temporarily displaced person, perhaps? she suggested.  Thinking more about it I realized the term “climate refugee” is perfectly appropriate.  As anyone knows who has followed the refugee crises in the Middle East or Latin America today, the first people to get out of a bad situation are those with the most ability to do so — the ones with friends and relatives in other countries, who are usually also the ones with good jobs, dual citizenship, and very useful things like that.  We don’t think of these people as refugees as readily as we think of those who had no options but to board leaky boats in the Mediterranean or walk across the Sonoran Desert.  But they’re all refugees, regardless of whether they were able to escape by means of a commercial flight, a valid passport, and a nice apartment in Denmark, or by raft or on foot, with only the shirts on their backs.

Either way, being a climate refugee in Denmark is profoundly ironic.  Why?  Because according to more and more widely accepted projections of what is likely to happen over the course of the next several decades, after all of the ice melts, there will be no more Denmark.  The entire country will be submerged, along with the Netherlands, northern Germany, most of the eastern seaboard of the US, and so many other parts of the world.  If I do end up moving with my family to Denmark to escape the world’s most toxic air, we can be fairly certain that we will become refugees again, running next time not from fire, but from flood.

Welcome to Cafe Hellebaek.  Come let me make you a drink, before the flood that will likely destroy it sooner or later.  The generation that built the world’s biggest windmill might not be around to see the country sink, but Ask’s generation likely will.  My hope is that those who will be living through this century’s impending global cataclysms might have some brilliant new ideas for how we might navigate the waters that are rising around us, after the windmill-builders are all gone.

My hope is that people like Ask, my children and others likely to still be around at the other end of this century will still be able to sit in a cafe, sipping a hot drink and looking out at the water — wherever that cafe or that water may be, however much the flood line rises.

To Brexit or Not to Brexit?



The main problem with the question of Leave or Remain is that it’s not the question most people in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland are really interested in.  It’s just a very fraught proxy for the real question.

Every week as I engage in the by-now comfortably familiar process of following global news developments, thinking about what I want to address in this week’s missive, recording the podcast version of it, etc., it is a new weekly opportunity when I must once again observe that the world appears to be going to hell just as fast this week as it was last week. Catastrophic flooding on several continents at the same time, with an unknown and possibly vast death toll in Africa, where it appears entire cities may have drowned. Israeli missiles are once again raining down on the besieged outdoor prison known as Gaza. Christchurch is burying its dead. Trump has located the Golan Heights on a map. His Attorney General says he’s not working for Putin. And many other developments.

Prominent among them, of course, is the increasingly chaotic state of the farcically-named country known as the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Soon perhaps to be known as the United Kingdom of England and Wales. The political class in the country is in the midst of a real meltdown, and life is uncertain for many millions of people within and outside of the UK right now.

The question of how people and politicians should react to this volatile situation is certainly an important one, and I personally don’t pretend to have any useful advice for anyone. For whatever little it may be worth, whether I’m stating the obvious or not, what I do have to offer is this: the main reason the whole question of Brexit is so incredibly fraught is that the question of whether or not to leave the European Union isn’t really the question most people were seeking to answer. I’m quite convinced from spending a whole lot of my life playing music with and for the English working class in places like Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham or Leicester that the struggling English working class that is mainly responsible for the success of the Leave campaign is not actually interested in whether they’re governed from London or from Brussels.

Most of the people voting for Brexit probably knew that this wasn’t the choice they wanted to be voting on. They would much have preferred a vote between socialism and neoliberalism — in which case socialism would have won. They want a return to pre-Thatcher Britain, when most of the people governing the country at least believed in everyone in the country having the ability to live a dignified life with decent housing, education and health care. Their impression that the lobbyists in Brussels don’t have their best interests in mind is correct. They also know most of the politicians in London don’t have their best interests in mind either. Which is why the choice is so fraught — it’s the wrong choice.

Many of my left-wing friends in all corners of the United Kingdom voted both for and against Brexit. The campaign to Leave the EU may have been largely led by an assortment of nationalists and xenophobes, but those who voted to Leave are far from a homogeneous group. The notion that more local control might have more potential to lead to more local democracy is a sensible one. Having alliances and agreements with other nations makes sense for any country for so many reasons, but the question always is, what kinds of agreements, and for whose benefit?

Opposition to power shifting from national governments to Brussels has been widespread in many corners of European society, since the beginning of the EU, though listening to just about any of the English-language media these days you would be forgiven for thinking that the idea of local democracy is a racist conspiracy of the far right, funded by the Kremlin.

The first time I traveled around Europe as an adult was in 1995. I spent most of that trip in Ireland, England and Denmark. The trip began in Copenhagen. I knew I wanted to visit England and Ireland, but the fact that the trip included Denmark was an accident of Air Hitch. You could choose five different major European cities where you might end up, and you were only guaranteed that you’d end up in one of them within five days of your desired date of arrival. Copenhagen was where I ended up.

It was the spring of 1995, but it was literally only a matter of hours before I met people who were telling me about what had happened there on the streets of the city almost exactly two years earlier.

In 1993 a bare majority of Danish voters approved the Maastricht Treaty, which gave greater powers within the European Union to Brussels. It had to be passed by all the EU member states at the time, and the year before, Denmark had been the hold-out, rejecting the treaty in a vote in 1992. With barely any changes made, it was again brought to a popular vote the following year.

When it passed the second time, this was mainly because of voters from outside the only major city, Copenhagen. Most people in Copenhagen voted against it. In the diverse, largely left-wing neighborhood of Norrebro, protests turned to riots, with such intensity and mass participation that the vastly outnumbered riot police deployed for the occasion fired live ammunition at the people for the first time since the end of the Second World War, injuring eleven. None of those shot were members of the Right.

Why Did This Just Happen Again?

Another heavily-armed, sociopath fascist has carried out a carefully-planned, extremely cold-blooded, videotaped massacre. In terms of the particular form of mass murder that involves targeting people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other such commonly-held characteristic, by far the most large-scale forms of ethnic cleansing have been carried out by governments. Examples include institutionalized forms of genocide such as the European Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazi gas chambers, the Japanese Empire’s Rape of Nanking, the smoke-filled caves of Turkey during the First World War, the total devastation wrought from the skies down on entire civilian populations in places like Iraq, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and Japan by the US Air Force, the price put on each Indian scalp in colonial New England, the many, many massacres of whole villages that took place during the theft of indigenous land or under the banner of “war” throughout the Americas, in Australia and so many other places with similar histories. The names of towns and cities often become representative of the ethnic cleansers of the day, and depending on the time and place, everyone knows what you mean when you use the shorthand of place names such as Alhambra, Guernica, Dachau, Wounded Knee, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai, Srebrenica, Falluja, Deir Yassin, Sabra, Shatila.

In times and places when such slaughter isn’t a daily occurrence, it’s more shocking. Particularly when the slaughter is carried out not on orders of a commanding officer in an occupied war zone somewhere far away, but by a freelance sociopath from a generally peaceful country who obviously wants so much to kill for his beliefs that he’s willing to die in order to do so. Then we add place names that have become chilling reminders of this special variety of incomprehensible horror, at least for those who remember — Hebron, Oak Creek, Orlando, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Utoya, Christchurch — to name only a few, that adhere strictly to the concept of freelance fascist terror directed at a particular group for the crime of existing. (Which is not to minimize other forms of terror. I’ll get to some of them later.)

Many commentators have aptly pointed out that at a time when the leader of the free world is openly racist (along with the leaders of an increasing array of other major countries), this encourages racist hate crimes, which is evidently and not surprisingly true. I would venture to add a couple things to this discussion, not that I make any pretenses to be the first to do so. For one thing, this legacy of genocide, racial and ethnic division didn’t start with Trump, or even with Hitler — it goes back a lot further than that, and this is crucial to understand for making any sense of the world around us. The other thing I’d add is I don’t feel at all confident that the leaders of most countries in the western world actually want these massacres to stop, and I say this just from my own personal experiences, which I think are worth sharing in some detail.

There have been competing narratives going on throughout the history of Europe and the European-descended settler-colonial/refugee diaspora that has come to dominate so much of the world in recent centuries. Very broadly, you could say that on the one hand there is the divide and rule narrative of the rich and powerful, and on the other, the narrative of solidarity, uniting all the people against their common enemy, the ruling elite. Depending on the time and place, the adherents of one or the other of these narratives have been in the ascendancy, but for most of the history of Europe and its colonies, the elite has maintained their grip on power through the systematic and often very deadly sowing of divisions within the ranks of the people.

Ethnic cleansing has been a major feature since the beginnings of European Christendom. It would be a terrible mistake, however, to assume that what was happening in Europe was happening everywhere else — it wasn’t. During the many centuries that were characterized in much of Europe by the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims from places like Spain, Portugal (with smaller mass expulsions from England and other countries), in the Ottoman Empire Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in peace and prosperity, with the sultan taking an active role in promoting coexistence of different religions, languages and traditions within the sprawling, extraordinarily diverse Ottoman lands. In one of the most massive and least well-known events during the long period in Europe often referred to as the Dark Ages, when all the Jews of Spain were given three months to leave the newly Catholic country or be killed, most of them were rescued in a gigantic naval operation by the Ottoman fleet. At the time, any Ottoman, Chinese or Andean city was far more prosperous and high-tech than the most advanced parts of Europe. In fact, the term “Europe” wasn’t used to describe the land mass it is currently understood to be referring to, so even writing a history of Europe is a fraught concept to begin with for any historian going back further than the modern period.

Jews, Muslims, and the wrong kinds of Christians were systematically and regularly targeted by crusaders and inquisitors, and then in North America by Puritans, who hanged Indians along with Catholics and Quakers, and burned them alive in large numbers in Connecticut. Among those who came to North America and Australia from England, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, most were refugees of one form or another, and when they got to wherever they were going — often in chains — they generally lived short and brutal lives. If they were lucky, after a couple generations of assimilation their lot might improve. Not so much for the Africans brought over in chains that were maintained in place by institutionalized racism no matter how many generations later, or for the Indians whose land was taken, with whole populations and cultures reduced to suggestions of what once had been.

Throughout all of this there was profound resistance — resistance which has defined reality for those of us alive today to a huge extent, though perhaps not as huge an extent as the oppressive institutions, systems and ways of thinking we’ve been up against over these centuries of the global struggle between the haves and have-nots. There were Indian nations pitted against each other and others who managed to unite against a common foe. There were race riots and pogroms but there were also slave rebellions, farmer rebellions, and eventually, after many decades of trying and failing, inter-racial unions. The Europe-wide uprisings of 1848, the concurrent Rent Strike movement in the US, and the miner rebellion in Australia soon afterwards all had profound impacts in terms of Europe and these European settler states becoming more democratic and more prosperous.

In the more modern period, divide and rule tactics have been used by most western countries to pit nations against each other in wars over colonial control of other parts of the world, using the working class of one country to slaughter that of another. But at least as significant as those wars between countries has been the systematic use of divide and rule tactics to keep populations under control within a given country. In Europe, the divide between different forms of Christianity and the existence of Jews, Muslims, and later of the supposed threat posed by the Soviet Union and still later once again by the existence of Muslims and specifically Muslim refugees have been some of the main pillars of divide and rule. In the US we’ve had all of that, plus an extra helping of racial division to add a seemingly infinite degree of complexity to the already great challenges inherent in the class struggle anywhere — and that is very much true in Australia as well, which for a very long time had a whites-only immigration policy, as did the US and New Zealand.

So why this history refresher? Because, as far as I can tell, nothing much has changed. For all the talk about cracking down on far right terrorism or white nationalism or whatever they’re using as the modern term for the inquisitors, crusaders, ethnic cleansers, fascists, genocidal colonizers, Puritans, slave-traders, imperialists, CIA coup-plotters or torturers, the crackdown will never be very thorough, because any thorough crackdown would mean a fairly complete transformation of society. It would mean, in short, socialism. In order to overcome these divisions, which were all intentionally created, we have to intentionally put an end to them. This means, to coin a phrase, the workers of the world uniting. And what then of corporate profits?

Well, that, it seems to me, is the problem. I’m now over half a century old, and I’ve been involved with what they call activism since I was twelve or so. From my experience, the powers-that-be in these European and European-colonized countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand don’t seem to be very concerned with the repeating patterns of far right violence. Regardless of the facts, regardless of the news or of what they say they’re going to do, what they seem to do in actuality most of the time is crack down on the left some more. That is, they crack down on the very advocates for the concepts of unity and solidarity that they say they also stand for. It seems to me you can’t have it both ways.

And as they are opposing progressive thought and action in most every form at most every turn (until that which is violently opposed is ultimately embraced as self-evident), they are also constantly supporting and embracing and propagating a false narrative of history that suits their ends, and ultimately ends up supporting white nationalism. Either intentionally or because they don’t know any better, throughout institutions of society in places like the US, Australia and New Zealand, people are being lied to as they’re growing up and throughout their adulthoods, with so many different forms of mythology about the superiority of European civilization. And when the contrast between the wealth in so many of the whiter countries and the poverty of so many of the darker nations is not explained or put into the context of colonialism and imperialism, as it generally isn’t, it might make sense to assume there is something to this white nationalism after all. The way Venezuela is currently being covered in the western media and by western politicians is a case in point. No real historical context is given for why Venezuela was so poor to begin with, how Chavez changed that for so many people, or why the people talking about all of the different ways the US and other forces are acting to destroy the country are clearly the ones with the strength of history on their side.

Media coverage and portrayal by politicians of the global justice movement in the late 1990’s in which I was an active participant is another case in point, and is the first personal example I’ll begin with. You would be forgiven for thinking that intensified and militarized border security and the militarization of police forces in the US was a post-9/11 phenomenon in response to terrorism. For those who were around and involved with the movement, we know differently. The security state flew into high gear in response to the WTO protests near the end of 1999. This is when the total vilification of our movement in the media began.

They consistently painted us as “anti-globalization,” a term we never used. The impression they gave was that we were against trade of any kind. They dismissed us as ignorant people who didn’t appreciate the greatness of capitalism, and all the good the US, the UK, France, etc. has done in the world by promoting free trade and democracy. Many of them probably believe the lies they spout. Why wouldn’t they? They grew up in this mind control experiment called the western world, too, believing all this rubbish. They painted us as universally engaged in violence and property destruction, just the same way they talk about the Yellow Vest movement in France today, although with our movement, as with that one, the rock-throwers were a small minority. Most of the movement was all about nonviolent civil disobedience, which is how many different global trade meetings were disrupted.

And that’s what really upset them — this egalitarian social movement. That’s what they couldn’t stand. And when we, this global movement, began to influence the mainstream understanding of and conversation around so-called development programs and blood-sucking institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, when people broadly began to question whether free trade was good for the average person, while at the same time the billionaires were unable to hold a public meeting and have it go off smoothly unless they held it in a dictatorship, the global elite in the great democracies of the west were facing something of a legitimacy crisis.

For the ruling elite in the US especially, 9/11 was their opportunity to seize the moral higher ground in the face of the argument around stratification of wealth, free trade, and exploitation of workers, the environment, and the Global South — an argument they often appeared to be losing. Now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they finally had found a worthwhile enemy to distract everyone with — and they finally found a worthwhile enemy to compare us with, as well. I remember the voice of the NPR anchor so well in the days following the attacks on New York, when he said something like, “last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization. Now they’re bombing the World Trade Center.”

And it is true that the last time I recalled being at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan prior to 9/11 was on May 1st, 2000, when thousands of riot police had been deployed all over the city to make sure we didn’t shut down Wall Street or break windows at Starbucks, McDonald’s or at the Twin Towers. Turns out they had more to worry about than window-breaking teenagers, but you wouldn’t know they were worried about anything other than the left, when you look at the police budgets in different cities, and how they mushroomed not in preparation for potential terrorist attacks, but to prevent us from messing up their meetings.

Sometime around September 13th, 2001 I was driving with a friend past New York City’s smoldering ruins, along i-95 in Connecticut, the stretch of highway that consistently gets the distinction of being voted the ugliest in the United States by the truckers association. No one ever hitch-hikes on i-95, but that day there was a hitch-hiker, and he was Israeli. That was weird. We gave him a ride to New Haven. He said he had been there for a long time. No one would pick him up. He figured it was because he looked Arab.

I don’t know who that guy was, but years later I heard from a friend who had been off the radar for a long time. He wasn’t a close friend, so it wasn’t so strange not to hear from him for a while, but when he resurfaced it turned out that he had been off the radar because he was basically in hiding, afraid he might die at any moment. After not dying for so many years, he ventured to anonymously tell me his story, which he said I could publish on my blog (which I did). To sum up the salient points, my friend knew Mohammed Atta, smoked cigarettes with him at the smoking area outside of a mysterious building in Hollywood, Florida where Atta worked. The building contained companies that had names that seemed to indicate they were moving companies, but they had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment, and most of their employees were Israelis, at least one of whom clearly didn’t get the cue that he was working for a moving company. The janitor went to the wrong floor and died there. All the businesses in the building suddenly closed on September 12th, 2001. I still want to know what the hell that was all about.

I first learned I was on a watch list in 2002, but I had begun having huge problems crossing the Canadian border before then. I was prevented from entering Canada for the G8 protests in 2002 and told I’d be detained if I tried to enter anywhere else in the country. When would I be released? When the protests were over, I was told. Why would I be held in the first place? The document just said to turn me away, but that they should give me a false reason for having done so. (The border agent wasn’t supposed to show his orders to me, but he was too freaked out by them not to. Other people have similar stories, including Laura Poitras.)

I mention the watch list because under treaty, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand share all of that kind of information, since 1948. I learned that in 2013, when I was denied entry to New Zealand.

I had been to Aotearoa — what the European settlers named New Zealand — on several occasions before then, playing gigs and getting to know people and places on those lush, green, beautiful islands. I had met people on watch lists, and people who were on trial on charges that involved the word “terrorism” being thrown around frequently. They were all either Maori or non-Maori supporters of Maori sovereignty.

But then to be denied entry in 2013, to find out that government agents from those islands are reading my blog, and telling me about it in detail as they explain that pot-smoking musicians like me are not welcome in their country, was a surprise to me and to the veteran immigration lawyer in Christchurch who tried and failed to help get this decision overturned.

Only weeks later in Australia I got some strange news through the bizarre circumstance of knowing a government worker in Canberra. Down the hall from where she worked, through the open door of the War Crimes Department one of her coworkers clearly heard people inside that department discussing me. Her coworker didn’t hover near the door to try to get more information, but he excitedly reported this bit of gossip to my friend, which was as unreal to him as it was to her and to me.

However else you want to decipher this set of facts and the facts that have come to light since the massacre in Christchurch, I was on watch lists in both New Zealand and Australia, and this Australian fascist with a long and active record of hate speech on the internet was able to get a license to own an arsenal of machine guns, and he was not on a watch list in either the country of his birth, Australia, or the country he had moved to, where he bought his guns and killed all those people. Lest anyone be left with the impression that I’m talking about my history with being on multiple international watch lists in order to prove how cool I am, that is not the point. The point is that the authorities are wasting their time and effort on people like me, and however many thousands or millions of other people like me, and they are missing the people they should be watching. (Not that this is a problem that can be solved by better policing in the first place.)

I was in Scotland for the 2005 G8 summit and protests there, which involved lots of nonviolent civil disobedience, delayed meetings, and other festivities. It also involved thousands and thousands of riot cops to make sure the summit would be able to go on. They felt they needed such a large police presence that there weren’t enough cops in Scotland for the job, so they imported loads of cops from other places. None of this is unusual, by the way. Many of the cops they imported for the protests were from London. Turns out that in July, 2005 the London cops had other things they might have been looking into aside from nonviolent protesters in Scotland. What they know of in England as 7/7, the terror attacks on the London Underground, occurred at the tail end of the G8 meetings in Scotland, while the London cops were away policing us.

I was in Oslo only a couple weeks after the bombing there and the massacre in Utoya that followed in 2011. The mounds of flowers at the Oslo Cathedral were still fresh. It was the same cathedral where a few years earlier I stood with Afghan refugees who had been on hunger strike for weeks, trying to draw attention to the fact that Norway intended to send them back to a war zone to die. I watched the police destroy their tents one night, and I watched the Red Cross put up new tents the following morning, in a direct challenge to the police.

Like other people following the news in July, 2011, I was hearing stories about the slow police response to the massacre that had been unfolding on the island. One of the things that kept getting mentioned was that the city of Oslo had just one police helicopter.

Only then in the wake of by far the worst massacre in post-World War 2 Scandinavian history did I learn the significance of the experience I had had not long before that time, when Barack Obama was in town to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The tabloid press and the Norwegian authorities were apparently so concerned about Islamists attacking the Nobel proceedings with rocket launchers that they had arrested Norway’s one known Islamist before Obama’s arrival as a precaution.

On the day when Obama was getting his prize and some few anarchists were protesting in the rain, including a number of my Scandinavian friends, I wasn’t feeling well. I was trying to take a nap around midday, when a helicopter showed up directly above me. I was on a bed on the fifth floor of a five-story building, and the helicopter above me was deafeningly loud. It hovered there for around two hours, preventing me from napping.

Being an activist and getting harassed by helicopters is, believe it not, not an unfamiliar experience for me and for many other people who I could introduce you to. But knowing that the helicopter harassing me in this particular case was probably Oslo’s one police helicopter, at a time when they were supposedly worried about Islamist violence, less than two years before the country would be devastated by a horrific act of rightwing violence, it felt very much like yet another example of a grievous misallocation of police resources, at the very least.

I could share so many more examples, but my abundant experience indicates that whether we’re talking about a more nakedly capitalist country like the US under the leadership of an open bigot or under the leadership of a suave gentleman of color; whether we’re talking about Thatcher’s England or the pacific social democracies of Scandinavia led by people who apparently really do think free health care and government housing are good things; the mainstream media and the mainstream political leadership of all of these countries are much more concerned with the possibility that progressive movements will upset their status quo than they are concerned with mass murderers.

Given that the historical evidence indicates that the cure for fascist movements is successfully-implemented socialism that allows everyone to live dignified lives with universal housing, health care, education, etc., the tendency of all of these neoliberal European, North American and South Pacific nations to suppress progressive movements wherever they crop up in their own countries or elsewhere in the world, to almost always side with corporate interests against the interests of their own people or other people, will continue to be one of the major factors providing a great breeding ground for the ethnic cleansers in our midst following in the paths of a thousand years of rule by the descendants of the Crusaders.

You want to de-radicalize the fascists among us, hand-wringing western democratic leaders of the world? You can start by taking your corporate boots off of the necks of the progressive social movements that have been trying to oppose these people while you’ve been pretending you don’t have a history as an explicitly racist state with a whites-only immigration policy.