Lessons on Political Culture and Consciousness From Struggles of the Global South

“It took me a period of two and a half years to understand a ‘we’ and ‘us,’” says T.J. Ngongoma, recounting how he joined Abahlali baseMjondolo, or “Residents of the Shacks,” a South African grassroots movement. In March 2015, Ngongoma spoke with students in Grahamstown, South Africa, many of whom participated in what became a mass revolt of university students later that year. He spoke about sustaining a “political-social movement”: the importance of democratic practices, time and patience, learning, and collectivism. The two and a half years it took Ngongoma to understand “we” and “us” reveal something important about the movement: they had created a rich political culture different from their surrounding society. The culture of Abahlali is a radical collectivism organized and mobilized in resistance to the dehumanization and exclusion of the urban poor. Membership in the movement and participation in the culture demanded learning.

With the election of a reactionary government in the United States—which joins a burgeoning array of right wing governments and movements—collectively producing a political culture of resistance is urgent. The urgency is greater as the vigor of American political discussion and involvement of the past six months abates, and the investigation of Trump-Russia connections has made observers of many aspiring participants. In this project of politics, culture, and resistance, Americans can learn important lessons from South Africans and other people in those parts of the “Global South” where genuine mass movements have been built and sustained. Through struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism, which encompass ongoing struggles against racism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, local and transnational capitalism, and (neo)liberalism, mass movements have produced knowledge and cultures of resistance. This is true of Abahlali baseMjondolo, of movements elsewhere in Africa, and in places like Brazil, Bolivia, and Haiti.

For the Guinean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, culture was political. Speaking at Syracuse University in 1970, Cabral said, “at every moment of the life of a society (open or closed), culture is the result, with  more or less awakened consciousness, of economic and political activities, with more or less dynamic expression of the type of relations prevailing in that society.” In the United States, liberalism has long been the hegemonic organizer of relations, political and economic activities, and culture. We do not mean so-called “bleeding heart” liberalism as seen on Fox News, but the liberalism shared by the eighteenth-century philosopher and slave-trader, John Locke, and contemporary élite proponents of free trade: liberalism as the guiding principles of capital accumulation through colonialism and imperialism, linked inexorably to racism, class war, and the institutionalization of politics; liberalism as an excluding rather than emancipating project.

Kenyan activist and intellectual, Firoze Manji, considers culture via Amilcar Cabral: “Culture is not a mere artefact or expression of aesthetics, custom or tradition. It is a means by which people assert their opposition to domination, a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history. In a word, culture is one of the fundamental tools of the struggle for emancipation.” This understanding of culture and what it means in practice is crucial in the United States, today. Importantly for the American context, Manji argues how neoliberalism “exacerbated the depoliticization of culture” through middle class individualism and “attempts to break up the collective – especially organized forms such as trade unions, farmers’ organization and youth movements.” Repoliticizing collective culture as “a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history” must be central to the new resistance.

We will spend some time comparing the United States and South Africa. While the daily lives of many people in both countries are affected by or mediated through racism, exploitative wealth inequality, gender inequality and violence, and an increasingly repressive state, the political cultures are markedly different. In South Africa there is a dynamic political culture with, in recent years, well-organized forms of resistance in shack settlements, on the mines, on university campuses, and in parliament. In the United States—even though the liberal arousal effected by the Trump election signals potential—the political culture has been listless for decades. This does not deny the existing movements in the United States that have and do organize around real politics. We must be critical, however, of the attitude towards politics taken by the average American liberal, who often shies from the word “politics” because it indicates something “divisive.” There is also no intention here of representing South Africa as a “better” society; its problems are deep and manifest for a majority of South Africans in harsh daily struggles. What differs in South African political culture is the centrality of dissent and resistance, and the idea that resistance has potential to be transformative. Following this, the actual practices of resistance are important. For many South Africans, the practice of resistance has different meanings than it does for most Americans. Working through these two concepts—the transformative power and the practice of resistance—will be important to cultivating a political culture in the United States from which opportunities and knowledge for resisting reactionary power can emerge.

There are practical reasons for South African dynamism and American lassitude. Historical, political, and economic factors mean that material realities of life for a majority of South Africans, compared with a minority of Americans, are genuinely precarious. This does not mean that all Americans are comfortable—our society marginalizes through race, class, gender, religion, and more—nor that all South Africans live in distress, nor that a person cannot simultaneously inhabit discomfort and comfort. No person is wholly determined by her or his situation. However, many South Africans confront and share with their neighbors daily experiences of harsh marginalization that cannot be ignored. This collective experience contributes to collective action.

 

In We Make Our Own History (2014), Laurence Cox and Alf Nilsen explain, “Social movements…grow out of people’s experience of a concrete lifeworld that is somehow problematic relative to their needs and capacities, and from their attempts to combine, organise and mobilise in order to do something about this” (72). In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, frames it as a struggle against dehumanization: “sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so” (44).  However, politics does not result from lived circumstances alone, nor are these sufficient to sustain a political culture. Rather, organizing and mobilizing from a set of experiences—participation in “the struggle”—make politics and political culture possible.

It is important not to overemphasize material circumstance as a foundation for political culture; it is, rather, a motivating factor in the thought and action that can foster a political culture. Ngongoma articulates how political participation involves a learning process. This is as true for South Africans living in a shack settlement as it is for middle class Americans, but the maintenance of a political culture like Abahlali baseMjondolo’s facilitates that learning, provides examples of success and failure, instills the motivation to participate, and introduces and fosters a critique of society, its structures, and its institutions. Ngongoma’s two and a half years were not wasted time; immersion in the culture of Abahlali baseMjondolo allowed him to comprehend and to practice radical collectivism in a humanizing political project that affects daily lives. The nationwide revolt of South African university students in 2015 that won a zero percent increase in tuition fees for 2016 could not have happened without the knowledge that mass mobilization can be transformative and the examples of historical and present mobilizations. The comfort of students when discussing such concepts as disruption and socialism was not only a result of academic study, but of political consciousness located in a broader political culture, and this comfort made mass mobilization more possible and effective. Jonis Ghedi Alasow, one of the students active in university struggle and discussion in 2015, contrasts the liberal appeal to “the right way of doing things,” which presupposes the “wish to integrate those on the peripheries into the centre,” and the politics of a “movement…wish[ing] to eradicate the very categories of ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’,” which, therefore, cannot adopt “the liberal ‘methodology’ of participation in oppressive structures.” This comparison, and the complementary assertion that a movement is “not interested in the ‘right’ way of doing things,” depends on a collective awareness and then the collective rethinking of “rightness” and “doing.” Significantly, rethinking occurs both in the moment (of a movement), but also over the course of several moments (of movement), through which an accessible political culture is produced.

Many South African lives have been directly shaped by the transformative power of mass mobilization, which was crucial to defeating apartheid (white supremacist minority rule). Many people participated in or remember the powerful labor movement and the popular United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s. The UDF did not survive the transition to democracy, and the trade unionism of that era was largely captured by capital and the state. However, the legacies of these movements persist in part because they contributed to the defeat of apartheid and because some of their cadres are still—for good and for ill—part of the political life of South Africa. A current revival of trade union dissent, especially among mining and industrial workers discontent with the neoliberal direction taken by the African National Congress (ANC) government since 1994, can tap into a culture that was dormant but not destroyed during the last two decades.

In the United States, mass mobilizations that yielded significant results are twenty years further removed, they changed the daily experiences of far fewer Americans, and they were not consolidated in the state as happened in South Africa. Many South Africans feel betrayed by the ANC, but this sense of betrayal is possible because of the widely held understanding that hundreds of thousands of South Africans struggled for liberation and yet live lives marked by oppression. The ANC government represents only one strand of the efforts of South Africans—nationalism—and it is no longer a revolutionary organization, but it emerged from the struggle, nonetheless. Though it is a contested narrative, mass struggle is the South African national narrative.

On the other hand, Presidents Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, and even Obama do not represent even an ambiguous extension, let alone a betrayal, of the will of the people as it was expressed in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They represent counter consolidations of capital and violence in their reactionary and liberal forms. Furthermore, the American narrative does not revere mass mobilization. In South Africa, even though many in power propagate a “sanitized” version of the anti-apartheid struggle, this suppressive narrative does not enjoy the same hegemony that it does in the United States. For example, the “general strike” of enslaved Africans in the American South that won both their freedom and the Civil War (see Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America) remains a counter-narrative rather than the national narrative. The Civil Rights movement may have brought the backward South into the liberal twentieth century, but its radical directions have been suppressed. For its part, organized labor is conceived of today in institutional terms rather than mass popular terms, the latter often associated with anti-democratic forces. Significant mobilizations like Occupy Wall Street, the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock have made relatively little impression on the political life of most American liberals. This is partially because protest (politics in the street) is not political in the worldview of liberalism, which confines politics to rooms with carefully limited access—the “right way of doing things.” In that view, major political events like Ferguson are uncivilized reactions to politics, not political actions in their own right.

As with lived experience, we should not think that a vibrant political culture is impossible in the United States because we are disconnected from our history of mass mobilization. We must actively contribute to expanding the audience for radical knowledge, which will prepare the ground for the production of a political culture of resistance. The significance and relevance of our American histories of mass mobilization cannot be overstated. We have to assert the relevance, efficacy, and progressive potential of radicalism and mass mobilization, while not ignoring the pitfalls which can lead popular power itself to become reactionary. This requires expanding the concept of “political” in two ways: 1) beyond the sphere of the formalized political power of institutions, governments, and elections to include the neighborhood meeting, the union hall, the protest, etc.; and 2) beyond the conception of politics as moralistic.

In Bolivia, a political culture of resistance is mediated through indigenous culture (see Aguilar, Rhythms of the Pachakuti). In 2000, mass mobilization drawing on the culture and social formations of the Aymara people prevented the privatization of water in the city of Cochabamba. Direct political action between January and April of that year—blocking and, at times, literally filling the streets—forced the government to make concessions to the people rather than to transnational corporations. It was not institutional power but cultural power that enabled the organization, coordination, and mobilization of many thousands of Bolivians in a political struggle. Significantly, Aymara culture includes a concept of necessary disruption of the norm, pachakuti, which rationalized mass resistance. Despite filling the streets, Bolivia’s “Water War” has more in common with Standing Rock than the Women’s March on Washington. The Water War mobilizations drew on existing cultural knowledge and organizational forms to empower direct action (in ways that would be affirming to Cabral). Some complain that the Women’s March lacked direction, but more limiting was its lack of shared experiences and knowledge that could rationalize a political objective. Liberal political culture, unlike Aymara culture, does not empower the collective or encourage disruption. As with lived experience and history of collective action, lacking indigenous knowledge does not make a political culture of resistance unattainable. We just have to produce it.

In his talk with students, Ngongoma spoke about politics explicitly. “Because whatever crime that is committed on us is politically motivated,” he said, “so it is necessary for us to respond in responses that are politically motivated.”

In contrast, American liberalism grounds itself in morality rather than in politics. “Racism is wrong,” is a moral pronouncement, not a political position, and not an anti-racist position. Yet the American liberal will interject “racism is wrong” and then wonder why society is still racist, or, worse, will assume racism has been defeated. In essence, this encapsulates the liberal co-optation of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the crushing of Black Power, and the myth of a post-racial America. In his book-length essay on racism, Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “The Jews have one friend…the democrat. But he [sic] is a feeble protector. No doubt he proclaims that all men have equal rights…but his own declarations show the weakness of his position” (55). The “democrat,” Sartre argues, presses a policy of assimilation that suppresses the Jewishness of the Jew. “The anti-Semite reproaches the Jew with being Jewish; the democrat reproaches him with willfully considering himself a Jew” (58, emphasis original)—Sartre’s democrat maintains that “All Lives Matter.”

A liberal can accept that “Black Lives Matter,” but as a moral injunction against bad individuals and actions, while still generalizing her or his experience of the police (as mostly domesticated) and so elide the experiences of the Black people whose Lives Matter. A moral position that black lives matter is not fully a political position. The majority of American liberals benefit from the compounded and ongoing exploitations and exclusions of four centuries, which is not overcome by morality. Freire writes, ‘Discovering [oneself] to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing [this] guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture” (49).

Actual solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is different. Real political commitments cut through the current debate about “ally-ship,” because, we see, politically motivated crimes demand politically motivated responses. Solidarity and comradeship differ from friendship, which does not require shared political commitments. Learning and practicing the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement does not leave room for false solidarity. The Black Lives Matter movement has developed a critique and a platform that give definition to the statement, relieve it of moralism, and imbue it with a radical political project. In this way, “Black Lives Matter” is rooted in history, in the present, and in future; it is not timeless, but situated; and it finds its form in collective action. In the same way, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock are political. Their protest is historical, present, and is aimed towards a future society that will be produced through collective action.

Understanding this conception of politics is crucial to the cultivation of a political culture. The process of working out a critique, a conception of society as it should be, and the methods through which these will be expressed and practiced is the core of politics.

Agreement and disagreement are both key. Ngongoma explained the daily practices of Abahlali baseMjondolo: “There is no certain individuals who sit and think for the people. We learn as we go in our daily struggles, together. And that helps us to sustain the movement, the togetherness of the people, with different ideas, who agree to disagree up until they agree on one point to take it forward.”

In other words, we must be political together before we are political in the streets. The energetic rush to local organizations that many Americans have made in response to the current reactionary government is often not political. Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union should not be scorned, but they are not a route to political change, nor can the donation itself be called a political act. To the tune, “I need somewhere to plug in,” and the refrain, “Call your Senator,” the political potential of Americans is spent on individualized actions that often depoliticize important issues rather than politicize them, that legitimize rather than criticize existing structures and individuals. Anti-Trumpism replaces deeper critique. Organization and mobilization take on meanings of volume and ease—often through the efforts of very few people, rather than largescale involvement—and reinforce for new participants the idea that activism entails mechanical piece-work or simply “showing up.”

These do not instill a sense of collective “ownership” (to use Ngongoma’s word), which emerges through thoughtful debate and hard work. To put this commitment to collectivism in practical terms, it is the rule in Abahlali baseMjdondolo that “there shouldn’t be a policy drafted by an individual that has to be tabled, because immediately if an individual has to draft a policy for a meeting, that meeting belongs to that individual, and all other people in that meeting are going to be passive onlookers.” Social media organizing may make it possible to almost spontaneously convene protests, but it is seriously limited in terms of the discussion, debate, and learning that a political culture requires.

Culture, as we have seen, quickens consciousness. Dr. Aubrey Mokoape, a founding member of the Black Consciousness movement in the late 1960s, also spoke to students in Grahamstown, two years ago. He explained how he and his comrades sought “to conscientize people in whatever environment they were in,” how they created Black Consciousness organizations in churches and in high schools, and how “this whole effort culminated in…the biggest movement of Black people that [South Africa] had seen up until then.” When through collective thought, debate, work, and action people have defined their collective ownership of the critiques, practices, and objectives of their politics, then it becomes easy to communicate these to others. Dr. Mokoape cautions that conscientization is not conversion; it is “not usurping the people’s struggles, not imposing ourselves on the people’s struggles, not attempting to lead the people in their struggles, but empowering them to understand their own struggles, and to be able to connect the dots between one struggle and another struggle.”

We must connect the dots: learn from past and present struggles, engage with their critiques of our problematic society, understand what contributed to their successes and failures, and take seriously their practices. However, this “discovery” of people’s ability to influence history “cannot be purely intellectual,” writes Freire, “but must involve action.” At the same time, it cannot “be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection.” In this praxis, this process of critical learning and action—what Freire calls conscientização—we in the Global North can encounter important teachers in the Global South. We can also access the power of our own radical histories and the example of present day movements in the United States.

Conscientização, for the majority of Americans, requires acknowledging our own and our country’s complicity in the exploitation of people in America and abroad. This cannot end at “checking privilege;” politics is possible only if consciousness spurs us towards collective engagement, rather than excuses or silences us. We must also expand our understanding of politics beyond liberal moralism and institutions to include practices like the lengthy, carefully deliberative democratic meetings of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the road blockades of Bolivia’s Water War. Then we must learn to connect the politics of the meeting and the politics of the protest, to articulate the political relationship between our practices, our critiques, and our objectives. In this way, Standing Rock becomes comprehensible. Political culture, like language, enables communication that is, as Cabral observes, a condition for broad-based, unifying, and successful struggle.

We cannot produce a political culture while activism is marketed as two scripted minutes on the phone. Everywhere we find the will to resist, we must develop projects for collectively forming political consciousness linked with radical action—“learning as we go, together”—and cultivate the political culture from which resistance can flourish. We must make of ourselves not individual “activists” but, to use the appropriate word, “comrades.” In short, we must actively work to change our culture—that consequence of “every moment of the life of a society.”

China’s Labor Upsurge

In presidential debate one with Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump ripped into China for abusing the US, more than President Obama ever bashed that nation. For the real story that leaves misleading political rhetoric behind, read how and why migrant workers fight employer abuse in China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance (Haymarket Books, May 2016).

The tales in this book fill a gap in labor reporting for the world’s most populous nation. To this end, China on Strike builds on The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness (Pluto Press, 2015).

The book under review is a collective effort of volunteer translators (English to Chinese, and Chinese to English) and others in many nations, who produced this English-language collection of workers’ oral histories, write editors Zhongjin Li and Eli Friedman. Having spent 13 years co-producing an all-volunteer progressive paper, Sacramento’s Because People Matter, I give a nod to the mighty efforts to bring such a remarkable book to readers.

Talking about labor cooperation is one thing. Achieving it is quite another.

In China on Strike, we read of the risks and rewards for young people, some of China’s 270 million migrant workers (the US labor force has 160 million people), who stand up with co-workers for justice at workplaces since 1990. To call the rise of labor resistance in China explosive is not an overstatement, as we discover as workers share their employment experiences.

At private firms in China’s coastal Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta, workers struggle against lockouts and factory closings, wage-cuts and in the third and final part of the book, strikes for higher pay. Editor Hao Ren introduces each of the 10 accounts.

The wage-cut section is by far the longest, with 10 workers sharing their labor history as participants and strike initiators. In one narrative, bosses pressure workers to return to the shop floor; management seek strike leaders to neuter.

Ren is no armchair academic. She writes from her experience on the shop floor, with authenticity and sincerity, on the power relations that shape the for-profit system of production in coastal China.

To step back for a moment, the capital-labor conflict in China has unfolded in the historic shift from communism to capitalism. As the Chinese economy has grown to be the engine of global capitalism, millions of people have moved from the countryside to the cities.

In turn, this growth has expanded the labor actions of workers at the point of production, Ren writes. Their accounts of poor food, and poorly cooled and heated workplaces makes clear how and why such labor uprisings occur in Chia.

In one case, low-quality canteen food triggers a roadblock and strike, planned in secret. Workers won improvements at their factory.

These proletarian tales of harsh working and living conditions reminded me of what the working class faced during the dawn of industrial capitalism. History does not repeat itself, though sometimes it may rhyme, according to Mark Twain.

The case studies of worker self-directed organizing and mobilizing in China on Strike deserve wide attention.

To support more publishing of Chinese workers’ histories, email ghqting@gmail.com.

China’s Labor Upsurge

In presidential debate one with Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump ripped into China for abusing the US, more than President Obama ever bashed that nation. For the real story that leaves misleading political rhetoric behind, read how and why migrant workers fight employer abuse in China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance (Haymarket Books, May 2016).

The tales in this book fill a gap in labor reporting for the world’s most populous nation. To this end, China on Strike builds on The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness (Pluto Press, 2015).

The book under review is a collective effort of volunteer translators (English to Chinese, and Chinese to English) and others in many nations, who produced this English-language collection of workers’ oral histories, write editors Zhongjin Li and Eli Friedman. Having spent 13 years co-producing an all-volunteer progressive paper, Sacramento’s Because People Matter, I give a nod to the mighty efforts to bring such a remarkable book to readers.

Talking about labor cooperation is one thing. Achieving it is quite another.

In China on Strike, we read of the risks and rewards for young people, some of China’s 270 million migrant workers (the US labor force has 160 million people), who stand up with co-workers for justice at workplaces since 1990. To call the rise of labor resistance in China explosive is not an overstatement, as we discover as workers share their employment experiences.

At private firms in China’s coastal Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta, workers struggle against lockouts and factory closings, wage-cuts and in the third and final part of the book, strikes for higher pay. Editor Hao Ren introduces each of the 10 accounts.

The wage-cut section is by far the longest, with 10 workers sharing their labor history as participants and strike initiators. In one narrative, bosses pressure workers to return to the shop floor; management seek strike leaders to neuter.

Ren is no armchair academic. She writes from her experience on the shop floor, with authenticity and sincerity, on the power relations that shape the for-profit system of production in coastal China.

To step back for a moment, the capital-labor conflict in China has unfolded in the historic shift from communism to capitalism. As the Chinese economy has grown to be the engine of global capitalism, millions of people have moved from the countryside to the cities.

In turn, this growth has expanded the labor actions of workers at the point of production, Ren writes. Their accounts of poor food, and poorly cooled and heated workplaces makes clear how and why such labor uprisings occur in Chia.

In one case, low-quality canteen food triggers a roadblock and strike, planned in secret. Workers won improvements at their factory.

These proletarian tales of harsh working and living conditions reminded me of what the working class faced during the dawn of industrial capitalism. History does not repeat itself, though sometimes it may rhyme, according to Mark Twain.

The case studies of worker self-directed organizing and mobilizing in China on Strike deserve wide attention.

To support more publishing of Chinese workers’ histories, email ghqting@gmail.com.

Strip and Flip: Democracy in a Cage

The wound burst open in November. History, suddenly, could no longer be avoided. Reality could no longer be avoided. American democracy is flawed, polluted, gamed by the oligarchs. It always has been.

But not until the election process whelped Donald Trump did it become so unbearably obvious.

Welcome to The Strip and Flip Disaster of America’s Stolen Elections, by Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, which was released last year and has been newly updated. What I find invaluable about the book is that, while it meticulously pries open the current election process with all its warts and flaws — the voter suppression games those in power continue to play, the unverifiability of electronic voting machines — it also delves deep into this country’s history and illuminates the present-day relevance of the worst of it: the history we haven’t yet faced.

Whatever else delivered Trump to our doorstep, the most undeniable element in his “victory” was the Electoral College. It’s hardly adequate to call this institution obsolete; its existence is the manifestation of racist hell.

“. . . to protect their interests in a nation where they were being rapidly outnumbered, Southerners got an Electoral College that included a ‘3/5ths clause,’” Fitrakis and Wasserman write. “Slaves (who could not vote themselves) were counted for 3/5ths of a vote for president and in establishing congressional districts.”

This is American history stripped naked, its basic lie revealed. Slavery wasn’t simply a regrettable sideshow. Repression and dehumanization — the creation of an “other” — smolder at the nation’s core. Because of slavery and institutionalized racism, impoverished white people could still feel good about themselves — and there would be no mixed-race uprisings against the status quo, which is still the case.

In other words, democracy is only acceptable if it can be controlled by those already in power, and the essence of this control is to ensure that the conditions benefiting the powerful are not seriously threatened. This condition has not gone away. American democracy remains in a cage, which means “we the people” — and our will to create a better world — also remain in a cage.

Fitrakis and Wasserman devote a considerable portion of their book to the phenomenon of slavery, which in colonial North America was “peculiar’ in its cruelty.

“Essentially a ‘bribe’ to the whites,” the authors write, “American chattel slavery cast blacks into an abyss of subhuman barbarity. Legally, they (and their children) became mere objects, subhuman slaves for life. White ‘owners’ could sell, torture, rape and murder their black ‘property’ with no legal penalties.”

The slave codes remained unchanged when the colony transitioned to nationhood, but there was one addition. A slave was considered, for election purposes, to be three-fifths of an actual human being. This didn’t mean slaves could cast three-fifths of a vote, simply that their owners, and all the free (white) residents of the state in which they resided, acquired additional political power because of their presence. This power was manifested in the Electoral College, in which slave states had disproportional representation because of the three-fifths clause.

“Thus,” Fitrakis and Wasserman point out, “all presidents from Washington to Lincoln either owned slaves or their vice presidents did. With additional representation, the South dominated the House of Representatives.”

The Civil War eliminated slavery, as the textbooks tell us, but it didn’t eliminate the dark forces that created it. Indeed, the authors call slavery only the first of five “Jim Crows” that have manifested in this country to suppress African-Americans, maintain racial discord, prevent unity among the economically exploited classes, hobble democracy and protect the military-corporate status quo.

Jim Crow No. 2 was the century of institutional racism and segregation that claimed ownership of America after the Electoral College awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, in repayment for which he dismantled Reconstruction and ended all legal protection of freed former slaves. Racism continued to rule — and most African-Americans still couldn’t vote. Democracy remained as tightly caged as ever.

When the civil rights movement dismantled the Jim Crow legal system in the ’60s, the status quo regrouped and created a police state. They called it the War on Drugs. Fitrakis and Wasserman call it the third Jim Crow, which began taking shape in the Nixon years. No one described it better than John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor, did in a 1994 quote to writer Dan Baum, which was finally published in Harper’s Magazine 22 years later:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The fourth Jim Crow the authors cite are the electoral interventions of the American empire — from vote manipulation to CIA-engineered coups in countries around the globe — to protect “national interests.” Together, these four manifestations of the worst of who we are, the last two of which are still alive and kicking, create a credible context for Jim Crow No. 5, which is a potpourri of tactics to suppress and strangle the minority vote (too few machines in certain voting districts, strict ID laws, bogus elimination of names from voter rolls and much more) combined with the use of easily hackable electronic voting machines and the abandonment of verifiable paper ballots.

To this I would add mainstream media contempt for anyone who questions the election results sanctified on Election Night by TV anchorpersons, no matter that they differ significantly from exit poll results. I would also add the extraordinary superficiality of presidential elections: the systematic jettisoning of populist candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, from contention, and the avoidance of real issues (e.g., the military budget) in the debate, creating a huge public-interest void in the process.

But all of these extraordinary efforts to keep democracy caged make me believe that the country — and the world — are on the brink of profound change. Most of us want a world free of poverty and war and would vote for its creation if we could.

Fitrakis and Wasserman make the following recommendations: “We need to win universal automatic voter registration; transparent voter rolls; a four-day national holiday for voting; ample locations for all citizens to conveniently cast ballots; universal hand-counted paper ballots; automatic recounts free to all candidates; abolition of the Electoral College; an end to gerrymandering; a ban on corporate money in our campaigns.”

This is how it starts. Let democracy out of its cage.

Keysmash

On May 30th, dictionary.com’s word of the day was keysmash, defined as “a random string of letters and symbols typed out on a keyboard or touchscreen, used to signal intense emotion in written communication.”

^%G&%@#D#^=FU*(&^*#@*

This entire piece could be nothing but keysmashes.

Politics is big, ugly business.

In Montana, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for a House seat, assaulted Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs, grabbing him by the neck, throwing him to the ground, pummeling him, and breaking his glasses. When I read about the incident, I knew the outcome. Knew this viciousness, standardized by Donald Trump at rallies, anywhere he’s defied or challenged, would secure victory for Gianforte.

)(&%^&&FU(*&^%$)#$*><{*

Jacobs had asked a question about the Republican health-care plan. For this, he was clobbered.

It’s not just the Wild West; it’s the Wild North, South, and East. From the mountains to the prairies to the rising sea levels poisoned by chemicals, mean is meaner—hostility laced with methamphetamines.

Of course, Trump loved the aggression. After the election, he gave a shout-out from Sicily, “Great win in Montana.”

Voters oozed admiration for Gianforte. Diane Willard blamed Jacobs. Bruce McGee said Gianforte had “his undying support” and suggested that “the scandal might even have an upside. It certainly propelled him into the national spotlight.”

#$%^&*(DE*^%*FU)*&)&^%=X<>*

In Texas, Republican Matt Rinaldi lost his shit when he saw demonstrators at the Capitol protesting Texas SB4, the state’s new anti-sanctuary law. Democratic Reps. Ramon Romero Jr. and Cesar Blanco were discussing the demonstration when they were interrupted by Rinaldi who called the protesters a disgrace and then said, “Fuck them, I called ICE.” As they argued on the House floor, Rinaldi threatened to put a bullet in Representative Poncho Nevárez’s head.

Most likely, Rinaldi now has an adoring fan club and a life-long career in politics. Jeez, he sounds like U.S. presidential material.

$#@%^N+F-=9*%^FU/<*&^=#$%*

In Georgia, the race pits Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Ossoff. A calculated brawl could be a path to triumphant glory. Behavior that appeals to the basest of instincts will be rewarded. Civility is boring and oh, so yesterday.

(&^%$#%&FU(&^%_+)*&^%*

I received an email that I sped through and then deleted. Something about the South Carolina rivalry, where right-wing Ralph Norman is running against Archie Parnell. Another opportunity for landing a blow, a black eye, drawing blood. I remember the words head-to-head. The gist: send money. More money is needed to prevent the ascendancy of the Republican. So………. prevent it—the sure and fast way: with a rough and tumble. All Parnell has to do to break a leg is to break a leg. Norman’s.

Body slams, head smashes, and while an opponent is down, he/she receives one hell of a kick to the keister. Keister smash.

There’s something terribly wrong, something vile, something rotten. The personification of nauseating odor. A culture steeping in violence.

@%$#&^*(*&M+=*FU%*&()=<>X%$*

Keysmash

On May 30th, dictionary.com’s word of the day was keysmash, defined as “a random string of letters and symbols typed out on a keyboard or touchscreen, used to signal intense emotion in written communication.”

^%G&%@#D#^=FU*(&^*#@*

This entire piece could be nothing but keysmashes.

Politics is big, ugly business.

In Montana, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for a House seat, assaulted Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs, grabbing him by the neck, throwing him to the ground, pummeling him, and breaking his glasses. When I read about the incident, I knew the outcome. Knew this viciousness, standardized by Donald Trump at rallies, anywhere he’s defied or challenged, would secure victory for Gianforte.

)(&%^&&FU(*&^%$)#$*><{*

Jacobs had asked a question about the Republican health-care plan. For this, he was clobbered.

It’s not just the Wild West; it’s the Wild North, South, and East. From the mountains to the prairies to the rising sea levels poisoned by chemicals, mean is meaner—hostility laced with methamphetamines.

Of course, Trump loved the aggression. After the election, he gave a shout-out from Sicily, “Great win in Montana.”

Voters oozed admiration for Gianforte. Diane Willard blamed Jacobs. Bruce McGee said Gianforte had “his undying support” and suggested that “the scandal might even have an upside. It certainly propelled him into the national spotlight.”

#$%^&*(DE*^%*FU)*&)&^%=X<>*

In Texas, Republican Matt Rinaldi lost his shit when he saw demonstrators at the Capitol protesting Texas SB4, the state’s new anti-sanctuary law. Democratic Reps. Ramon Romero Jr. and Cesar Blanco were discussing the demonstration when they were interrupted by Rinaldi who called the protesters a disgrace and then said, “Fuck them, I called ICE.” As they argued on the House floor, Rinaldi threatened to put a bullet in Representative Poncho Nevárez’s head.

Most likely, Rinaldi now has an adoring fan club and a life-long career in politics. Jeez, he sounds like U.S. presidential material.

$#@%^N+F-=9*%^FU/<*&^=#$%*

In Georgia, the race pits Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Ossoff. A calculated brawl could be a path to triumphant glory. Behavior that appeals to the basest of instincts will be rewarded. Civility is boring and oh, so yesterday.

(&^%$#%&FU(&^%_+)*&^%*

I received an email that I sped through and then deleted. Something about the South Carolina rivalry, where right-wing Ralph Norman is running against Archie Parnell. Another opportunity for landing a blow, a black eye, drawing blood. I remember the words head-to-head. The gist: send money. More money is needed to prevent the ascendancy of the Republican. So………. prevent it—the sure and fast way: with a rough and tumble. All Parnell has to do to break a leg is to break a leg. Norman’s.

Body slams, head smashes, and while an opponent is down, he/she receives one hell of a kick to the keister. Keister smash.

There’s something terribly wrong, something vile, something rotten. The personification of nauseating odor. A culture steeping in violence.

@%$#&^*(*&M+=*FU%*&()=<>X%$*

Exploiting Rwanda

Rwanda’s tragedy has been exploited for many purposes. Add slandering a pro-Palestinian activist to the list.

Since I wrote this article about the Jewish Defense League last month Toronto’s Alex Hundert has repeatedly labeled me anti-Semitic. The self-declared “anti-fascist” tweeted at Pacific Free Press, Rabble, the NDP and others to “cut ties” with me.

In response to this article the former Upper Canada College student harangued at least one prominent woman for posting it on her Facebook page. Hundert told her — wait for it — I’m anti-Semitic. Lacking in evidence or maybe sensing diminishing returns with that smear he added that I’m a Rwandan genocide denier.

If he means a researcher and writer on foreign affairs who always questions official government narratives/propaganda then I guess a “no contest” plea would be appropriate. The common portrayal of the Rwandan Genocide in Canada omits important context and is factually incorrect in substantial ways. It is also logically hollow, only believable because of widespread racism and anti-Africanism. (According to the most outlandish aspect of the official story, Hutu extremists murdered the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and much of the Hutu-led Rwandan military command, which brought the Hutu to their weakest point in three decades, and then decided to begin a long planned systematic extermination of Tutsi.)

Do I believe hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsi were slaughtered in mid-1994? Yes, definitely.

Was there a long planned high-level effort to wipe out all Tutsi? Probably not.

Were tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Hutu also slaughtered in mid-1994? It’s likely.

Was Paul Kagame, the person widely hailed for ending the killing, instead the individual most responsible for the mass slaughter? Probably, since his forces invaded Rwanda from Uganda, engaged in a great deal of killing and blew up the presidential plane that unleashed the genocidal violence.

It’s telling Hundert would seek to smear me as a Rwanda genocide denier, rather than criticize my other controversial views such as that the private automobile should be eliminated, or that former Prime Minister Lester Pearson was a war criminal or that Canadian peacekeeping is often a form of imperialism. Maybe it’s because the label “genocide denier” hints at some type of hatred rather than a political disagreement. Or maybe Hundert hopes to associate me with Nazi Holocaust denial, which we’ll see more about below.

Fundamentally Hundert chose the issue because most Canadians know little about Rwanda and, to the extent they know anything about the country, they’ve heard an extremely one-sided media account of the complex tragedy that engulfed Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s. News consumers are generally familiar with a Rwanda fairy tale focused on a white Canadian saviour. According to serial Kagame-Rwanda propaganda spreader Gerald Caplan, “the personal relationship so many Canadians feel with Rwanda can be explained in two words: Roméo Dallaire.” In a forthcoming book about left Canadian foreign policy I detail how, in their haste to laud a Canadian military “hero”, progressives have echoed a highly simplistic version of Rwanda’s tragedy, which has legitimated Africa’s most blood-stained dictator, Paul Kagame.

Beyond aligning with liberal Canadian foreign policy mythology, Hundert is tapping into the US Empire’s narrative. Washington and London’s support for the Uganda backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), as well as Kagame’s more than two-decade long rule in Kigali, explains the dominance of the Rwandan Genocide story. According to Edward Herman and David Peterson in Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Year Later, “[US and British] support, combined with the public’s and the media’s distance from and unfamiliarity with central African affairs, made the construction and dissemination of false propaganda on Rwanda very easy.”

After the Cold War, Washington viewed Kagame’s RPF as an imperial proxy force in a French-dominated region. A trio of authors explain in The Congo: Plunder and Resistance: “The plan expressed clearly by the White House at the time was to use the Rwandan army as an instrument of American interests. One American analyst explained how Rwanda could be as important to the USA in Africa as Israel has been in the Middle East.” Over the past two decades Kagame has repeatedly invaded the Congo, which has as much as $24 trillion in mineral riches.

Alongside his role as a US client, Kagame has drawn close to Israel. Trained at the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Kagame visited Israel for the first time in 1996 and Africa’s most bloodstained dictator has been back repeatedly. In March Kagame was the only international head of state and first-ever African leader to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference. On May 21 Kagame received the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Prize for Outstanding Friendship with the Jewish People at a New York event with Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and Alan Dershowitz. In 2013 the “butcher of Africa’s Great Lakes” shared a New York stage with staunch Zionists Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

“He is the only living man to stop a genocide,” said Boteach to the Jewish Forward in 2014. “You need to look at the criticism on Rwanda through the same lens you look at criticism against Israel.” (After National Security Adviser Susan Rice criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for speaking to Congress about the Iran nuclear agreement without President Obama’s approval, Boteach placed an ad in the New York Times which read “Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide … both the Jewish people’s and Rwanda’s”.)

Pro-Israel Jewish groups have bequeathed Kagame the genocide moniker. Author of Rwanda and the New Scramble for Africa: From Tragedy to Useful Imperial Fiction, Robin Philpot explains that long-time director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Efraim Zuro, and former US Holocaust Memorial Museum project director, Michael Berenbaum, were invited to a conference in Kigali a year after the mass slaughter in Rwanda. Philpot notes, “Efraim Zuro then became an advisor to the Rwandan government in its hunt for génocidaires, and from then on Zionists throughout the world were willing to share the use of the term ‘genocide’ with Rwandan Tutsis. Israel has very jealously guarded the use of that term; they have, for example, never agreed to share it with Armenians, largely because of Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey.”

But, those who draw an analogy between the 6 million killed in the Shoah and the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda are partaking in something akin to Nazi Holocaust denial (or extreme minimization). European Jews were targeted because of their religion/ethnicity, the violence was state organized and it mostly flowed from an ideology promoted from above.

The context in Rwanda was different. Speaking the same language, sharing the same culture and practising the same religion, the Tutsi/Hutu divide is historically a caste-type distinction the Belgians racialized. “Prior to colonization,” explains Ann Garrison, “the Tutsi were a cattle owning, feudal ruling class, the Hutu a subservient peasant class. Belgian colonists reified this divide by issuing ID cards that labeled Rwandans and Burundians as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa [1% of the population].”

The genocidal killings were not a long planned attempt to exterminate all Tutsi, which even the victors’ justice dispensed by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) effectively concluded. Instead, it was the outgrowth of a serious breakdown in social order that saw hundreds of thousands slaughtered by relatively disorganized local commands fearful of a foreign invasion that eventually conquered Rwanda and drove a quarter of the population out of the country. Probably an equal — and possibly a greater — number of Hutu were killed.

Jews didn’t end up in power in European countries after World War II, nor did the Herero in Namibia, Armenians in Turkey, indigenous people in North America, Maya in Guatemala, etc. Rwanda is a peculiar case where the minority — 10% of population — targeted for extermination ended up ruling after the bulk of the violence subsided.

Of course, Hundert doesn’t care about what happened in Rwanda. He’s labeling me a genocide denier because I’ve challenged Canada’s contribution to Palestinian dispossession. Hundert seems particularly bothered by my linking pro-Israel Jewish organizations to fascistic, anti-Muslim groups, which pits his “anti-fascism” against his liberal-Zionism.

The Rwandan tragedy is often invoked in Canada for ulterior purposes. The Romeo Dallaire fairy tale is part of developing a “do-gooder” foreign policy mythology designed to lull Canadians into backing interventionist policies. More generally, a highly simplistic account of the Rwanda Genocide has repeatedly been invoked to justify liberal imperialism, particularly the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Maybe I should be honoured that Rwanda is now cited as a reason to suppress my writing.

The Lessons of Sgt. Pepper’s 50 Years Later: Stop Fighting One Another and Focus on the Real Enemy

“Count me out if it’s for violence. Don’t expect me at barricades unless it is with flowers…. What’s the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, it’s no good shooting people.”

—John Lennon

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

America is still wrestling with many of the same problems today—endless wars, civil unrest, campus riots, racial tensions, police brutality, divisive politics, overreaching government agencies and threats to freedom—that it struggled with 50 years ago when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The hippies of the Sixties Generation who embraced flower power, opposed war and didn’t “trust anyone over 30” are now senior citizens who voted for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both warmongers with greater loyalties to Wall Street than “we the people.”

The Baby Boomers—“the generation that battled over Vietnam and civil rights, that gave us the modern self-help movement and Woodstock”—have become today’s Establishment. As Bruce Cannon Gibney writes for the Boston Globe, “Let us dispense with ideas that aging flower children have substantial claims on goodness, as boomers liberal and conservative alike engaged in warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, gratuitous assaults on the dignity of minorities, mass disenfranchisement, the erection of a vast and useless penal state, and policies of cavalier disregard.”

And the rebellious music and anti-war message of Sixties musicians, movements and symbols have since been co-opted by corporations that have come to realize that “there was lots and lots of money to be made.” As historian Bertram Gross explains, “The counterculture became absorbed into the Establishment, functioning more and more as an arm of business operations in entertainment, clothing, foods, and foreign cars, while the New Left and the many organizations of white and black revolution collapsed into sawdust.”

In retrospect, as Rolling Stone conceded, perhaps the Sixties Generation and “1960s rock didn’t save the world—maybe didn’t even change the world enough,” but it was still a transformative time for those coming of age and trying to find their place in the world, and the Beatles played a large part in shaping that conversation.

No album was more influential than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Indeed, when Rolling Stone announced its top 500 pop music albums of all time several years ago, perched at the top of the heap was Sgt. Pepper.

Unleashed on the world on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s, as Rolling Stone heralded, “is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, sanguinity, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”

More than mere music, however, Sgt. Pepper’s “formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967’s Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe.”

The events leading up to 1967 laid the groundwork for a social revolution powered by young people. With the young ripe for rebellion, drugs invading the country and altering people’s consciousness, and the drums of war providing a constant backbeat, it was only a matter of time before flower power and peace became the mantra of the Sixties’ generation.

In turn, the playfulness of those years led to the hippie movement and, ultimately, to an abdication of adulthood. There was a sense that there was no need to grow up anymore. But, as author Mary Gordon notes, “the flower child’s sense of wellbeing gradually disintegrated as Vietnam became more central to consciousness.”

University students and academics began believing that the Vietnam War was a direct result of the greed and lies of old men in suits and uniforms. The government—the “Establishment” that John Lennon would later refer to as “the monster”—had withheld the real story in order to do its dirty work. “I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends,” Lennon recognized.

All of these cultural streams converged in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was hailed as a major cultural event upon its release, simultaneously mirroring the angst of its age while offering a solution to the social and political upheavals of the day. The solution offered by the Beatles was a return to spirituality and love for our fellow human beings.

Sgt. Pepper’s was a declaration of change, both culturally and personally for a generation coming of age and for the Beatles, in particular, who had become weary of the endless mayhem of concerts and Beatlemania.

“We were fed up with being Beatles,” Paul McCartney would later say. “We were not boys, we were men… artists rather than performers.”

Retreating into Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin (often referred to as the fifth Beatle for his collaborative efforts “figuring out how to turn John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s wilder ideas into records”), the Beatles focused their efforts on creating a concept album that would showcase their artistry and vision, while serving as a substitute for touring—a way to embark on a virtual tour with the album as the medium.

Seven hundred recording hours later, Sgt. Pepper’s was born in all its psychedelic glory, the Beatles’ most audacious and inspired leap into the avant-garde: their self-presentation as fictional characters.

Sgt. Pepper transformed rock music from a musical diversion into an art form—one that remains revered to this day. Although the album begins as a light farce, it moves to a sobering awakening. At heart, Sgt. Pepper was a spiritual experience for an increasingly materialistic world.

George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” the centerpiece of the album, is a warning not to get lost in materialism or we will lose our souls:

We were talking
About the love we all could share
When we find it
To try our best to hold it there
With our love, with our love
We could save the world
If they only knew.

We were talking
About the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see
Are you one of them.

The album’s final song, John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” points to the horrors of existence if humanity does not abstain from its destructive tendencies.

In fact, “A Day in the Life” sets the other songs on the album and the Beatles’ career in perspective. A collection of vignettes that are somewhat tragic, the song is punctuated with the phrase “I’d love to turn you on”—either a reference to drugs or the need to tune in to the Beatles’ message. No doubt drugs were an intended reference in “A Day in the Life.” As author Mark Hertsgaard writes, “Indeed John and at least one other Beatle were tripping—or flying, as John put it—during the photo session for the Sgt. Pepper album cover.”

The Beatles underscored the verses of that final song with a dark, tumultuous orchestra crescendo. McCartney had wanted to include an instrumental passage with the avant-garde feel of musician John Cage and others, a spiraling ascent of sound, beginning with all instruments, each climbing to the highest in their own time. Lennon wanted the song to end with “a sound like the end of the world.” Thus, the Beatles simultaneously struck an E-major chord on three grand pianos, drawing out the sound as long as possible with electronic enhancement. The effect of the crashing E-major chord, followed by some 53 seconds of gradually dwindling reverberation, brings to mind nothing so much as the eerily spreading hush of the mushroom cloud-visions of nuclear holocaust.

The cover art for Sgt. Pepper, now one of the best-known works of pop art, was as mind-blowing as the album’s contents. Created by Peter Blake, the album cover represented the first fusion of pop art and pop music. Distorting the line between fantasy and reality, Blake placed the Beatles, who were dressed in Victorian band uniforms, among notable historical figures and artists past and present—some of whom were handpicked by the Beatles—including George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Mae West and Bob Dylan.

In this way, art romanticizes celebrity. The cover, an homage to the Beatles’ late live stage career, with the figures arranged in a funereal pose as if attending a graveside memorial, was also a harbinger of the earthshaking changes to come for the Beatles and the world at large.

“It was the soundtrack to summer, and winter for that matter,” notes author Barry Miles. “You could not get away from it.”

Indeed, young and old alike approached Sgt. Pepper with a religious awe. The LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, after listening to the album, reputedly said in a mystical voice, “My work is finished. Now, it’s out.” Leary actually believed he could hear the voice of God in the music of the Beatles.

David Crosby of the popular rock band the Byrds brought a tape of the Sgt. Pepper album to the band’s hotel room and “played it all night in the lobby with a hundred young fans listening quietly on the stairs, as if rapt by a spiritual experience.”

Paul Kantner of the acid rock band Jefferson Airplane said, “Something enveloped the whole world at that time and it just exploded into a renaissance.” And as musicologist Tim Riley observed: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

The Summer of Love followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s release. Optimism filled the air, the almost tangible hope that peace would eventually prevail and the destructiveness of humanity would end. Armed with “flower power,” young people took to the streets and demonstrated en masse against the Vietnam War.

By 1968, however, the radiance of that golden age had already started to fade. Student rebels around the world adopted more militant tactics. Flower power was replaced by raised fists. Cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were brutally assassinated. The Beatles too were disbanding. They were not gods, after all, and the love that once united them grew cold.

By the end of 1968, it was clear that the Beatles were not going to save the world.

Yet the music of the Beatles remains with us as a poignant reminder that we all have a part to play in bringing about a world dedicated to peace and love. And the greater lesson of their music—that evil does not have to triumph and that good can prevail if only we can step beyond our self-interest—is one that we each must learn in our own time and in our own way.

First, as John Lennon cautioned, we have to stop playing the government’s games.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, all of the many complaints we have about government today—surveillance, militarism, corruption, harassment, SWAT team raids, political persecution, spying, overcriminalization, etc.—were present in Lennon’s day and formed the basis of his call for social justice, peace and a populist revolution.

The answer to oppression, injustice and tyranny is the same today as it was 50 years ago: if you want freedom, you have to begin by freeing your mind. That will mean rejecting violence, politics and anything that divides.

“You gotta remember, establishment, it’s just a name for evil. The monster doesn’t care whether it kills all the students or whether there’s a revolution. It’s not thinking logically, it’s out of control,” warned John Lennon. “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

Or in the more lyrical words of George Harrison:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come
When you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.

 

The Lessons of Sgt. Pepper’s 50 Years Later: Stop Fighting One Another and Focus on the Real Enemy

“Count me out if it’s for violence. Don’t expect me at barricades unless it is with flowers…. What’s the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, it’s no good shooting people.”

—John Lennon

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

America is still wrestling with many of the same problems today—endless wars, civil unrest, campus riots, racial tensions, police brutality, divisive politics, overreaching government agencies and threats to freedom—that it struggled with 50 years ago when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The hippies of the Sixties Generation who embraced flower power, opposed war and didn’t “trust anyone over 30” are now senior citizens who voted for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both warmongers with greater loyalties to Wall Street than “we the people.”

The Baby Boomers—“the generation that battled over Vietnam and civil rights, that gave us the modern self-help movement and Woodstock”—have become today’s Establishment. As Bruce Cannon Gibney writes for the Boston Globe, “Let us dispense with ideas that aging flower children have substantial claims on goodness, as boomers liberal and conservative alike engaged in warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, gratuitous assaults on the dignity of minorities, mass disenfranchisement, the erection of a vast and useless penal state, and policies of cavalier disregard.”

And the rebellious music and anti-war message of Sixties musicians, movements and symbols have since been co-opted by corporations that have come to realize that “there was lots and lots of money to be made.” As historian Bertram Gross explains, “The counterculture became absorbed into the Establishment, functioning more and more as an arm of business operations in entertainment, clothing, foods, and foreign cars, while the New Left and the many organizations of white and black revolution collapsed into sawdust.”

In retrospect, as Rolling Stone conceded, perhaps the Sixties Generation and “1960s rock didn’t save the world—maybe didn’t even change the world enough,” but it was still a transformative time for those coming of age and trying to find their place in the world, and the Beatles played a large part in shaping that conversation.

No album was more influential than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Indeed, when Rolling Stone announced its top 500 pop music albums of all time several years ago, perched at the top of the heap was Sgt. Pepper.

Unleashed on the world on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s, as Rolling Stone heralded, “is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, sanguinity, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”

More than mere music, however, Sgt. Pepper’s “formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967’s Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe.”

The events leading up to 1967 laid the groundwork for a social revolution powered by young people. With the young ripe for rebellion, drugs invading the country and altering people’s consciousness, and the drums of war providing a constant backbeat, it was only a matter of time before flower power and peace became the mantra of the Sixties’ generation.

In turn, the playfulness of those years led to the hippie movement and, ultimately, to an abdication of adulthood. There was a sense that there was no need to grow up anymore. But, as author Mary Gordon notes, “the flower child’s sense of wellbeing gradually disintegrated as Vietnam became more central to consciousness.”

University students and academics began believing that the Vietnam War was a direct result of the greed and lies of old men in suits and uniforms. The government—the “Establishment” that John Lennon would later refer to as “the monster”—had withheld the real story in order to do its dirty work. “I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends,” Lennon recognized.

All of these cultural streams converged in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was hailed as a major cultural event upon its release, simultaneously mirroring the angst of its age while offering a solution to the social and political upheavals of the day. The solution offered by the Beatles was a return to spirituality and love for our fellow human beings.

Sgt. Pepper’s was a declaration of change, both culturally and personally for a generation coming of age and for the Beatles, in particular, who had become weary of the endless mayhem of concerts and Beatlemania.

“We were fed up with being Beatles,” Paul McCartney would later say. “We were not boys, we were men… artists rather than performers.”

Retreating into Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin (often referred to as the fifth Beatle for his collaborative efforts “figuring out how to turn John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s wilder ideas into records”), the Beatles focused their efforts on creating a concept album that would showcase their artistry and vision, while serving as a substitute for touring—a way to embark on a virtual tour with the album as the medium.

Seven hundred recording hours later, Sgt. Pepper’s was born in all its psychedelic glory, the Beatles’ most audacious and inspired leap into the avant-garde: their self-presentation as fictional characters.

Sgt. Pepper transformed rock music from a musical diversion into an art form—one that remains revered to this day. Although the album begins as a light farce, it moves to a sobering awakening. At heart, Sgt. Pepper was a spiritual experience for an increasingly materialistic world.

George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” the centerpiece of the album, is a warning not to get lost in materialism or we will lose our souls:

We were talking
About the love we all could share
When we find it
To try our best to hold it there
With our love, with our love
We could save the world
If they only knew.

We were talking
About the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see
Are you one of them.

The album’s final song, John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” points to the horrors of existence if humanity does not abstain from its destructive tendencies.

In fact, “A Day in the Life” sets the other songs on the album and the Beatles’ career in perspective. A collection of vignettes that are somewhat tragic, the song is punctuated with the phrase “I’d love to turn you on”—either a reference to drugs or the need to tune in to the Beatles’ message. No doubt drugs were an intended reference in “A Day in the Life.” As author Mark Hertsgaard writes, “Indeed John and at least one other Beatle were tripping—or flying, as John put it—during the photo session for the Sgt. Pepper album cover.”

The Beatles underscored the verses of that final song with a dark, tumultuous orchestra crescendo. McCartney had wanted to include an instrumental passage with the avant-garde feel of musician John Cage and others, a spiraling ascent of sound, beginning with all instruments, each climbing to the highest in their own time. Lennon wanted the song to end with “a sound like the end of the world.” Thus, the Beatles simultaneously struck an E-major chord on three grand pianos, drawing out the sound as long as possible with electronic enhancement. The effect of the crashing E-major chord, followed by some 53 seconds of gradually dwindling reverberation, brings to mind nothing so much as the eerily spreading hush of the mushroom cloud-visions of nuclear holocaust.

The cover art for Sgt. Pepper, now one of the best-known works of pop art, was as mind-blowing as the album’s contents. Created by Peter Blake, the album cover represented the first fusion of pop art and pop music. Distorting the line between fantasy and reality, Blake placed the Beatles, who were dressed in Victorian band uniforms, among notable historical figures and artists past and present—some of whom were handpicked by the Beatles—including George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Mae West and Bob Dylan.

In this way, art romanticizes celebrity. The cover, an homage to the Beatles’ late live stage career, with the figures arranged in a funereal pose as if attending a graveside memorial, was also a harbinger of the earthshaking changes to come for the Beatles and the world at large.

“It was the soundtrack to summer, and winter for that matter,” notes author Barry Miles. “You could not get away from it.”

Indeed, young and old alike approached Sgt. Pepper with a religious awe. The LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, after listening to the album, reputedly said in a mystical voice, “My work is finished. Now, it’s out.” Leary actually believed he could hear the voice of God in the music of the Beatles.

David Crosby of the popular rock band the Byrds brought a tape of the Sgt. Pepper album to the band’s hotel room and “played it all night in the lobby with a hundred young fans listening quietly on the stairs, as if rapt by a spiritual experience.”

Paul Kantner of the acid rock band Jefferson Airplane said, “Something enveloped the whole world at that time and it just exploded into a renaissance.” And as musicologist Tim Riley observed: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

The Summer of Love followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s release. Optimism filled the air, the almost tangible hope that peace would eventually prevail and the destructiveness of humanity would end. Armed with “flower power,” young people took to the streets and demonstrated en masse against the Vietnam War.

By 1968, however, the radiance of that golden age had already started to fade. Student rebels around the world adopted more militant tactics. Flower power was replaced by raised fists. Cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were brutally assassinated. The Beatles too were disbanding. They were not gods, after all, and the love that once united them grew cold.

By the end of 1968, it was clear that the Beatles were not going to save the world.

Yet the music of the Beatles remains with us as a poignant reminder that we all have a part to play in bringing about a world dedicated to peace and love. And the greater lesson of their music—that evil does not have to triumph and that good can prevail if only we can step beyond our self-interest—is one that we each must learn in our own time and in our own way.

First, as John Lennon cautioned, we have to stop playing the government’s games.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, all of the many complaints we have about government today—surveillance, militarism, corruption, harassment, SWAT team raids, political persecution, spying, overcriminalization, etc.—were present in Lennon’s day and formed the basis of his call for social justice, peace and a populist revolution.

The answer to oppression, injustice and tyranny is the same today as it was 50 years ago: if you want freedom, you have to begin by freeing your mind. That will mean rejecting violence, politics and anything that divides.

“You gotta remember, establishment, it’s just a name for evil. The monster doesn’t care whether it kills all the students or whether there’s a revolution. It’s not thinking logically, it’s out of control,” warned John Lennon. “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

Or in the more lyrical words of George Harrison:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come
When you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.

 

Voiceless Victims in Trump’s America

As usual, the fake news people are trying to make a big deal out of the fact that it took Donald J. Trump more than 48 hours to respond to the killing of two men on a Portland commuter train, and the serious injury of a third, by a United States citizen. The killings took place after two teenage girls, one of them wearing an hijab, were verbally attacked by the United States citizen.  Three bystanders came to the defense of the girls and the United States citizen killed two of them and grievously wounded the third.

At the time of the incident, DJT had just returned from a triumphant trip abroad, his first as president, and he was, of course, focused on the success of that trip and other things that had happened in his absence.  Between the time of the murder on May 26 and Memorial Day on May 29, DJT sent out more than a dozen tweets praising himself for the self-perceived success of his foreign travels, praising the newly elected member of Congress who successfully body slammed a reporter to the floor to teach the reporter not to ask questions, and tweetily slamming the media for publishing reports critical of DJT.

But that in itself is not why DJT did not comment on actions of the United States citizen.  He failed to comment because there are, on average, 23 gun homicides a day in the United States, most of them by United States citizens, and any number of non-gun murders.   If DJT tweeted about every murder that takes place in the United States on a daily basis, he would have little time to tweet about anything else.

Nonetheless, “Fake news” sites such as the New York Times commented that DJT seemed not to have noticed the events that took place in Portland. A former prominent newscaster, Dan Rather, went so far as to send a letter to DJT, drawing DJT’s attention to what had happened in Portland.  He concluded his letter saying, “Two Americans have died leaving family and friends behind. . . . I hope you can find it worthy of your time to take notice.”  DJT did so the following day in a sympathy tweet.

The reason DJT did not respond without prompting is that the murderer was a United States citizen.  Had the murderer been an immigrant, DJT’s response would have been quite different. As he said in an interview on Fox news some weeks ago:

“We’ve gotten tremendous criminals out of this country.  I’m talking about illegal immigrants that were here that caused tremendous crime. That have murdered people, raped people – horrible things have happened. They’re getting the hell out or they’re going to prison.”

And DJT has done more than just complain about those “tremendous criminals” who are immigrants.  He has demonstrated his concern about crimes committed by immigrant criminals by creating a new office in the Department of Homeland Security that will help only those who are the victims of crimes committed by immigrants.

The new office is called “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement” or “Voice” for short.  It gives voice to victims of crimes if they are lucky enough to have become victims because of the actions of immigrants.  It does not help victims who achieved their status through the actions of United States citizens, such as the ones in Portland.

The website for Voice says its mission is to “support victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens, through access to information and resources.”  Describing voice, John F. Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, said:

“All crime is terrible, but these victims are unique-and too often ignored.  These are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place because the people who victimized them oftentimes should not have been in the country in the first place.”

Voice will be staffed by 27 specialists in victim assistance and 21 community relations officers who “will assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.”  The office will provide a hot line for victims to call to get information about the status of their criminal’s case and the criminal’s progress through the immigration system.

It would not be surprising to learn that readers who know of the existence of Voice will secretly entertain the hope that, if they are the victims of a criminal act, it will not be committed by a United States citizen, but by a removable criminal alien because of the benefits available through Voice.  They should realize that it is unlikely that their hopes will be realized.  Notwithstanding DJT’s comments to Fox news, immigrants are, in fact, less likely to engage in criminal conduct than United States citizens.  Among men between 18 and 49, immigrants were only one-half to one-fifth as likely to find themselves incarcerated as native born Americans.  Immigrants make up 7% of the population in the United States, but only 5% of prison population.

That is not meant to suggest that Voice is useless.  Its creation enables DJT to believe he is doing something worthwhile.  Would that he were.