Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle

Commercial co-option aside, punk-rock ceased being relevant as a cultural and musical genre when contemporary bands became shills for the Democratic Party.
Long-running L.A. punk-rock band, Bad Religion, which plays Portland’s State Theater next weekend, represents, in many ways, everything that is wrong with “punk-rock” in the 21st century.

I actually really liked these guys back in high school. Like so many people my age, Bad Religion—along with other early 1990s “pop-punk” groups like Green Day, Blink-182, Rancid and The Offspring—served as my introduction to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Stooges, Black Flag, the Clash and other late ‘70s-early ‘80s punk progenitors.
While punk luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys established the genre’s uncompromising DIY (or “Do It Yourself”) sound and aesthetic as well as their savage anti-establishment lyrics, the so-called “pop-punk” bands that defined the ‘90s were polished and hook-laden, considerably less controversial and found a large degree of commercial success.

Indeed, for all of modern punk’s defiant, rebellious posturing, acts like Against Me!, No Age, Anti-Flag and Rise Against are about as musically subversive as Taylor Swift.

Beyond questions of punk-rock “authenticity,” the pop-punkers, in direct contrast to their musically diverse and experimental forebears, seemed all too happy to find a formulaic, power-chord-heavy punk-inspired sound (typically three chords, a catchy hook, and an anthemic, shout-along chorus) and rarely deviate from that song-writing blueprint. As a result, Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX and their peers continue to churn out a series of mostly indistinguishable albums, seemingly more intent on delivering fans the comfort food predictability they are used to than mining their music to its furthest artistic depths.

Consider, in contrast, how the Clash willingly risked alienating a large segment of their audience when they followed up 1978’s slick, Sandy Perlman-produced Give ‘em Enough Rope with the eclectic, genre-leaping double-album, London Calling—widely considered one of the greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time. Yet, Bad Religion’s newly released, True North sounds like it could just as easily be 2007’s New Maps of Hell, or 2001’s The Process of Belief, or 1994’s Stranger than Fiction.

But the biggest indication that punk had finally and irrefutably died came during the 2004 presidential election, when a slate of popular punk bands, in an effort to “rock the vote,” actively endorsed and campaigned for John Kerry.

Certainly, punk music has never been a stranger to politics, and rock musicians in general have been telling us how to vote for years. But it is one thing when Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and members of Pearl Jam urge fans to vote for the Establishment Democrat in the next presidential election. It is quite another when you have groups whose music is ostensibly rooted in anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and overall anti-establishmentarianism doing the same. Much as most of the nation (nay, the world) loathed George W. Bush, the fact is Kerry’s positions on foreign policy, civil liberties, the economy and social issues were virtually identical.

And yet, in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, NOFX’s Mike Burkett (better known to fans as, “Fat Mike”) started a MoveOn-esq liberal organizing group, made up of 30 or so of his fellow pop-punk bands, called PunkVoter. The goal of PunkVoter was basically to rally young, first-time voters for Kerry.
NOFX's Fat Mike (left) and fellow PunkVoter bands.

In their 2003 song “Franco-Un-American,” NOFX hammered home its no-voting-outside-the-box stance with the lyrics, “The president’s laughing ‘cause you voted for Nader.”

Bad Religion, likewise, jumped on the anti-Nader bandwagon. Bassist Jay Bentley, contributed an article to titled, “Looking Forward to 2004,” in which he, too, buys into the asinine argument that Ralph Nader’s 2000 candidacy “cost” Al Gore the election. In his Op-Ed—which is devoid of citations, references or links but contains a number of run-on sentences—Bentley calls voting Green an “uneducated” decision “based on popularity [and] advertising.” He even makes the spurious claim the Republicans offered to pay Nader’s 2004 campaign costs—an entirely bogus assertion.

“In my opinion, ‘Voting Green’ [sic] or for any third party in a presidential election, is not a solution or a statement against the current government,” he writes. “…The very idea of a ‘protest vote’ is without merit…”

Nowhere in his article does Bentley mention the fact that it was the Supreme Court that voted to halt the ballot recount which would have confirmed Gore’s win. For that matter, the words “Supreme Court” do not appear anywhere in the piece. In 2008, Bentley—I assume speaking for the entire band—came out for Obama.

All of this corporate shilling from a band that once wrote the lyrics, “We’re all being oppressed by the upper-middle class/The government you vote for is the one that you possess” (“Politics”). Unless, that is, you vote for a third-party. Then you are just throwing your vote away.

As if to prove their Democratic allegiance was not merely part of the “anybody-but-Bush” desperation of 2004, many of the same pop-punkers rallied around Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Against Me! frontman, Tom Gabel (now Laura Jane Grace) expressed his support for Obama in a 2008 interview. “I really think that him [Obama] being elected would be an overwhelmingly positive thing for the U.S. and the world in general,” Grace said.

The band’s “rock-the-vote” style music video for “Stop!” almost seemed like it needed a promotional campaign disclaimer (“This ad paid for by the Democratic Party,”) attached at the end.  This is a band, mind you, that prides itself on its “anarchist” credentials and lyrical themes. In fact, Grace frequently brags about the satisfaction she derives from smashing white-crosses on church lawns—the inspiration for the anti-Christian rant, “White Crosses.”

And, of course, Green Day, pop-punk’s reigning kings in terms of commercial success and critical praise, were vocal in their support for both Kerry and Obama. On the eve of the 2012 election, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife both Tweeted their support for Obama’s re-election.

Fast-forward to 2013, and no longer exists. Apparently Fat Mike’s passion for “educating and motivating” young voters lasted all of one election cycle.

The resignation the heretofore energized singer expresses in a story last fall in Huffington Post Canada (10/22/2012) suggests a lot about PunkVoter’s true ideological motivations. “I did my time of civil duty in an election that was very important, which we lost, and because of that the world is a worse place to live in,” Fat Mike said. “I’m not involved [in the 2012 election] in any way, except that I’m going to vote.”
Green Day with Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
In other words, if the goal is to oust a Big Bad Scary Republican from office, it is all-hands-on-deck, the fate of the world is at stake. The fact that Bush’s successor has continued (and in many instances, expanded) his most egregious policies seems to matter little to Mike and his bandmates. The truth is, the world is still a pretty lousy place to live in, largely due to Obama and the U.S. government’s imperialist, corporatist policies that favor the wealthy elite over the many. Yet liberal punk musicians—most of whom have become shills for the Democratic Party--either do not understand that, or simply do not care.

And, really, why should they? Most of these bands work for corporate record labels, play sold-out arena tours, and, despite all their claims to DIY “authenticity,” nonetheless live the luxurious rock n’ roll lifestyle.

Punk today is not rage against the machine. It is the machine.

I think The Clash put it best in “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”:

“The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They’ve got Burton suits—ha!
You think it’s funny
Turning rebellion into money.”



Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Press Corpse

News of Bob Woodward’s recent hissy-fit over what he perceived to be a “threat” from a White House official concerning a story he was writing, serves as a perfect microcosm of the anemic state of journalism today.

According to the esteemed Washington Post reporter, an Obama administration official contacted him about a story he was working on last month containing details about the back-room negotiations surrounding the so-called “sequestration” and warned him he may come to “regret” publishing it. The pompous Woodward immediately took to the cable news airwaves to decry the rampant “intimidation” of reporters which he contends has intensified under the Obama administration.
Turns out this intimidating White House insider was Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic advisor. And, based on the record of the seemingly innocuous email exchange, Sperling was not trying to “intimidate” Woodward so much as point out that some of the information in his story was, in fact, inaccurate.

Now, Woodward’s ego—not to mention his long history of shoddy reporting—has been well documented by even one of his own editors at the Washington Post.  Indeed, the more one reads about the man, the more tempting it is to chock up his Watergate success to a combination of his colleague Carl Bernstein and dumb luck.
But those are not my concerns here. What makes Woodward’s tantrum so illustrative is how it highlights the importance of a journalist’s connection to power. Woodward was not upset because Sperling’s “threat” made him believe he was about to disclose pertinent, highly sensitive “insider information.” He was upset because he feared, albeit briefly, that he would lose his privileged White House access.
This is the focus of modern day journalism: Access to power and authority is prized over critical reporting. The press, originally envisioned by the Founding Fathers as a crucial watchdog of government—a Fourth Estate as its referred to in textbooks—has today become little more than a conveyor belt for government lies, corporate spin and the status quo perpetuation of “conventional wisdom.”

While most citizens understand that the mainstream news media’s claims to “objective” reporting are misplaced at best, and laughably dishonest at worst, the longstanding belief that the media generally operate with a “liberal bias” is equally misleading. In fact, the myth of the liberal media has been thoroughly debunked by a range of studies, including insider testimony by President George W. Bush’s own press secretary.

Yet I would argue the terms “left” vs. “right” are not even properly adequate to describe the overarching ideological prism of the U.S. news media. Our media are best described as “corporate.”
Whether a particular outlet slants the news through the perspective of the Democratic Party (a la MSNBC) or the Republican Party (Fox News) hardly matters. The end result is still the same: Corporate-owned and controlled media that give primacy to elite, wealthy interests, big business concerns, imperialist saber-rattling and Washington Beltway “consensus.”
Likewise, consider the powerful role and influence advertising plays in both print and broadcast news media. When your entire business model depends on advertising from Ford or Coca-Cola, you are not going to be airing stories about Coke’s long history of vicious retaliation against labor activists. In order then to understand the essential function of the media, and why they remain so beholden to power on either side of the political aisle, it is necessary to move beyond such simplistic concepts of “conservative” vs. “liberal” media.

Such a system, needless to say, is antithetical to a free and independent press.

The job of a reporter is to speak truth to power, to act as an ever vigil watchdog of government and corporate interests, and, when necessary, disclose to the public lies and abuses of power by elected officials. Journalism is based on the premise that democracy cannot function when the public is ignorant of local, state, national and world events. Say what you will about the Founding Fathers, but credit them, at least, for realizing early on that an ignorant, uninformed citizenry would be the death of democracy.

Great American journalists like Edward R. Murrow, I.F. Stone, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair understood that their job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—to “agitate the air” as Murrow once put it. Reporters must, therefore, maintain a healthy, eternal skepticism of those in power.

According to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, in her 2009 essay compilation, Breaking the Sound Barrier, the job of a journalist is to “go where the silence is,” and cover the stories the corporate media routinely ignore. She writes:

What is typically presented as news analysis is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all.

Those that are invited to exclusive White House briefings or press conferences—celebrity reporters like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Bill O’ Reilly and Rachel Maddow—are tolerated because their reporting toes the establishment line. They are not considered a threat. And, when pseudo-reporting like 60 Minutes’ recent softball interview with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (01/27/2013) is the standard for “hard-hitting” news shows, why should they be?

(Sample questions from Steve Kroft’s interview: “This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing… Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?”; “How would you characterize your relationship right now?”; “What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?”)

Yet contrary to the claims of those on the right, such media cheerleading is not limited to Obama and Democrats. The corporate media were just as deferential to Bush—so much so they devoured his warmongering administration's bogus rationales for invading Iraq without so much as a peep of protest.
Coverage of Bush’s May 1, 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq was marked by pundits’ fawning, over-the-top praise for their exalted “Commander in Chief.” MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews (accompanied by conservative trash-talker, Ann Coulter of all people) gushed of Bush’s entrance onto a U.S. aircraft carrier, “[T]he president deserves everything he’s doing tonight in terms of leadership. He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that…”

Later that evening, Matthews continued his rambling, vacuous love-fest for the president on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He said:

We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton… They [the American people] want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple…

Indeed, the world according to Chris Matthews is very simple, apparently. I refer readers back to the previously cited quote by Goodman.

In sum, a press that refuses to take a critical, oppositional view to the president—any president—or other authority figures, cannot be trusted to deliver factual, non-White House sanctioned news and information. It cannot accurately address the needs of citizens, and fulfill its democratic obligation of government watchdog.

Much has been made, since the start of the 21st century, of the decline of the news industry—of newspapers, in particular. I do not believe it is much of a stretch to link the decline in newspaper readership with the loss of independent, un-embedded and uncompromising journalists. If the news industry—and, by extension, democracy itself—is to survive, it must cast aside the crusty, aging Bob Woodwards, and bring back the Ida Tarbells, Ed Murrows and I.F. Stones.  
Video of Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman being arrested while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention. When was the last time you saw Brian Williams arrested simply for doing his job?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

M.D. Harmon vs. "New Puritanism"

Re: M.D. Harmon, "New Puritans finding more ways to make others miserable," Portland Press Herald, 03/15/2013.

So, to recap: Big Government/Nanny State—bad. Government “meddling in people’s lives” cannot be tolerated. Thank you, M.D.! Get that damn government off our backs!

Unless of course we are talking about gay marriage. In that case, federal and/or state governments have every right (nay—an obligation) to affirm the “sacred institution” of marriage—“marriage” being explicitly restricted to “one man and one woman.” So, yeah…Big Government is OK there.

And then there is the matter of women with the audacity to make their own reproductive decisions. We simply can’t have that. Good thing many states have passed exceptionally restrictive abortion laws to clamp down on that sort of thing.

Oh, and there is also the matter of warrantless surveillance of law-abiding citizens. I almost forgot about that one. We need Big Government there too, so we can protect ourselves from terrorists.

Also, the Executive Branch needs the authority to assassinate—by drones, if need be—any individual, anywhere in the world, including American citizens, who might possibly be a terrorist, or even a terrorist sympathizer.

And, we can’t forget about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate subsides the federal government doles out to welfare queens—err—I mean “small businesses” like oil companies, Wall Street, G.E. and the like. Hmmm… Would that be an example of Big Government…? Nah, I guess those corporations need that money so they can continue creating jobs for the rest of us.
And let's not forget about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid doled out by that wretched Big Government. I mean, do Americans even like these programs? I doubt it!

I think you get my point.
The problem with the whole “Big Government” scare tactic is Harmon and his conservative cronies wholeheartedly support all of the above policies (of course, liberals support many of them, as well). Just like anti-abortion zealots’ “pro-life” position, conservatives’ “Big Government” rhetoric is another hypocritical, phantom threat designed to distract citizens from the real problems that plague society. If only Harmon was half as concerned about global warming--which, naturally, he does not think exists--as he is about cloth grocery bags.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Greens on TV: WGME 13 Covers Marijuana Legalization Initiative

WGME 13 - News - Local movement to get marijuana legalized in Portland

For those who have not heard by now, the Portland Green Independent Committee is launching a people's referendum to make marijuana legal in the city of Portland. Guerrilla Press will offer a full-length piece on this effort at a later date.

For now, here is where the referendum currently stands:

We have submitted the referendum language and the petitioners' committee signatures to City Hall. The City Clerk should issue our petitions soon so we can get started gathering signatures. So those asking, "Where can I sign up?" should have a chance to very soon.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Proof they really will give anyone an Op-Ed column

Re: "Lost in the Green Trees," Portland Daily Sun, 03/05/2013.

Normally a Green Party-bashing editorial like this one would prompt me to write a thorough, point-by-point rebuttal. But since these are the usual nonsensical ramblings of Portland Daily Sun columnist, Bob Higgins, I will keep my response brief.

I have no idea what the point of this editorial is supposed to be.

I mean I get that Higgins does not agree with our efforts to legalize marijuana in Portland. That much is clear. The rest, however, is just an aimless rant devoid of facts, references or any clearly articulated argument. It is not even clear Higgins really understands the intent of our referendum which his own paper reported on earlier this week. Even if he could not be bothered to contact the city clerk's office or one of the Portland Green Party members to get the facts straight, he could have at least read the article published by his colleagues in The Portland Daily Sun. This is journalism at its laziest.

But it gets worse. I do not get the impression Higgins even knows what the Green Party is. For instance, he writes:

"You [the Green Party] supported a guy for President [sic] that in his youth was part of a group of people who called themselves the 'Choom Gang,' some pretty heavy smokers. You got played, strung along by someone who kept promising to pay for all his 'fronts' until you were broke."

Ummm... No we didn't.

Most Greens I know supported either Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader in 2008, and Jill Stein in 2012. We did not vote for Barack Obama or any other member of his "Choom Gang." Higgins does not even understand the difference between Greens and Democrats. I also have no clue what he is referring to in the preceding paragraph, where Higgins claims Greens "squawked like a collection of wet cats," when "The Governor" (LePage...?) implemented the Affordable Care Act. (LePage had nothing to do with the drafting or implementation of the ACA.) Higgins seems to be attempting to accuse us of hypocrisy, but it is entirely unclear in regards to what.

Half the problem is Higgins is just a really lousy writer. I can only assume The Daily Sun hired him out of a sheer desperation to fill up blank space. Sometime last year he referred to George Orwell's Animal Farm as a "tome." Given that my copy of Animal Farm is under 100 pages, I am left to conclude Higgins either A) does not actually understand the meaning of the word "tome," or B) made reference to a book that he has, in fact, never read. Much as I dislike the overrated Bill Nemitz, at least the man knows how to write properly.

I will close with Higgins' own words:

"I'll never understand Bob Higgins. I have tried on multiple occasions, but there just seems to be a logical disconnect [with his writing] that I can't manage to hop over."

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Work of Art in the Age of Unfettered Capitalism

A portrait of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly, part of his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" series.
In a recent article by Thomas Hedges for, Maine-based painter and activist, Robert Shetterly (the artist behind the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series), criticizes modern art as empty, trivial and lacking substance (“Art Has Lost its Meaning,” 01/10/13). He claims modern art has been “tainted by unfettered capitalism, which values consumer interests over truth.”

“Art is one of the few places where critical voices can live…” Shetterly tells Hedges. “Art is one of the last places where people can have the freedom to live outside the system…instead of trying to be one with it, which robs you of your voice finally.”

Shetterly’s portraits of truth-telling American activists from Ralph Nader, to Cindy Sheehan, to Bradley Manning and Henry David Thoreau are a timely and refreshing antidote to the pretentious abstraction and “quirky” postmodernism that characterizes so much of contemporary art. I made a similar argument last year in this post, which I had hoped would spark some sort of discussion on the nature of art. As is clear from the Comments section, that discussion did not occur…

I figured it was time to revisit the topic of art. I am still not convinced Michael Shaughnessy’s tumbleweed, or this urinal by Marcel Duchamp (a.k.a. “Fountain”) can be considered “art.” I also do not accept the standard claim that art is merely “whatever one says it is.” By that general standard, one could call Fifty Shades of Grey “literature.” Indeed, I am puzzled why artists cling to this thoroughly demeaning definition of art, given what it seems to suggest about the talent, skill or artistic ability necessary to be an artist.

Great art, in my humble, non-expert opinion, should strive to connect viewers to some political, social or cultural concept, message or emotion. It should connect us to something greater than ourselves. “The job of the artist,” Arthur Miller wrote, “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

I decided to consult some local artists at the March 1, First Friday Art Walk to see how they define “art.”

My first stop was Space Gallery, which featured a number of exhibits. Carly Glovinski’s “X-Ray (SPACE)” was easily the most incoherent of the works—and, therefore, the most representative of so much modern art. One piece, appropriately bearing the title, “Untitled,” is a solitary dish towel hanging on a white wall. Another picture (also “Untitled”) depicts a bunch of generic “Thank You” plastic takeout bags cluttered on the floor. And a piece called “Dig/Site” features a bedroom completely covered with DuPont Tyvek Homewrap. I would be curious to know how much DuPont paid her for that nice bit of advertising.
Oh, good. I was looking for a bag. Seriously, is this art or litter?
File Glovinki’s work under the “Postmodern” category. It is quirky and original, no doubt. But is it art? The practice of passing off everyday household items as “art” may have been genuinely innovative at one point in time. But the novelty has long since worn out its welcome.

Next was a work by Jeffrey Kurosaki and Tara Pelletier titled, “Moon Moves (So Slowly).” This was another postmodernist “themed” exhibit of sculptures—the theme being an eclipse. One design features three detached fingers playing a piano. Another is a one-piece drum set. In the written summary the artists state the exhibit “invites the audience to experience these sculpture-landscapes as accumulative, comprised of catalytic moments that describe the ever-changing intersections and schisms between natural systems and human methodologies.”

Come again…?
This must be an example of what 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer calls “Art Speak”: Jargon-leaden, academic language that attempts to “explain” or “justify” the art’s existence through arcane theory and bloviated postmodernist musings. I have read this sentence four times now and I still do not know what the heck any of these sculptures have to do with an eclipse—or, more importantly, why I should care.  

Is it any wonder the art world has become associated with upper-class, “high-brow” sensibilities when artists use impenetrable language like this to describe their work? I have a master’s degree in Communication and I could not tell you what a “natural system” or “catalytic moment” is.

As Shetterly explains in the Truthdig interview, much of the art community’s collective disconnect from pressing social, political or environmental issues is due to its nearly exclusive focus on form, technique and visual aesthetics. This is a modern trend in higher education, particularly in the Humanities departments, wherein professors focus myopically on a book, film or painting’s form and constructive style—so-called “textual analysis”—while ignoring the work’s message, theme or purpose. Shetterly calls this academic approach to art “narcissistic.”

I am not suggesting a painting’s stylistic considerations are unimportant, mind you. But when the form becomes, not a means to an end, but the end itself, the art loses that human connection. Such a work becomes the equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino film, more concerned with cinematic structure, obscurantist homage, and post-structuralist “self-reflexivity” than with any meaningful characters, plot or purpose. (To be fair, I find Tarantino’s films hit-or-miss, with his earlier work surpassing his recent output, though I have not seen Django Unchained.)

Compared to classic, topical works like Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” or Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, Glovinki’s kitsch and “Moon Moves (So Slowly)” feel cold, overly cerebral and downright baffling.

Picasso's "Guernica" was painted in response to the Spanish Civil War.

The one gem I encountered at First Friday was Natasha Mayers’ series of “World Bankster” postcards. Indeed, hers was the only work with any tangible political theme. Mayers' postcards take national or historic settings (The Statue of Liberty, The White House, etc.) and insert a faceless, suited man. These people, Mayers explains, are the “banksters”—the “predators, profiteers, the moneymen, the global banking cartel.”

“These little paintings,” Mayer goes on in her exhibit profile, “are my comment on capitalism, post-colonialism, globalization, cultural appropriation, cultural authenticity and differences, sexism, etc.” Her work is devoid of art-school theory or obscure language. Just a sobering reflection of our nation as it exists today.

“When art ignores truth it mirrors a society that is unaware of its surroundings," Hedges writes. "Art as happiness is a defense mechanism. It reinforces our desire to live in a vacuum that is free of anguish and responsibility.”