Friday, April 04, 2008

Culture and Life on the Left

I've been meaning to link to this article for a week or more, but haven't quite managed to make the time until now. It is called "An Open Letter to the US Left on the Relevance of Culture" and is by musician David Rovics. I know only a few of his songs, but I like those I know and I should probably know a lot more.

I want to draw this to people's attention for a few reasons. The first is the article itself. It may be addressed to the US left, but it is pretty relevant here as well.

He begins with a small but telling anecdote: On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, he was playing at an event that involved a rally and a march. Before those, there was a festival, with a stage and lots of musicians and so on, organized largely by different people than those who organized the rally and march.

The musical program, scheduled to happen from 10 am to 6 pm, was being billed as the World War None Festival. The term "festival" was contentious, however, and Pdx Peace, the local peace coalition responsible for the rally, couldn't come to consensus on using the term "festival." In their publicity they referred to the festival as an "action camp." The vast majority of people have no idea what an "action camp" is, including me, and I've been actively involved in the progressive movement for my entire adult life. The local media, of course, also had no idea what an "action camp" was, and any publicity that could have been hoped for from them did not happen. Word did not spread about the event to any significant degree, at least in part because people didn't know what they were supposed to be spreading the word about. Everybody from all political, social, class and ethnic backgrounds knows what a festival is, but certain elements within Pdx Peace didn't want to use the term to describe what was quite obviously meant to be a festival (as well as a rally and march). Anybody above the age of three can tell you that when you have live music on a stage outdoors all day, that's called a festival. But not Pdx Peace.

Some people within the peace coalition were of the opinion that the war in Iraq was too serious a matter to have a festival connected to it. Because, I imagine, of some combination of factors including the nature of consensus decision-making, sectarianism on the part of a few, and muddled thinking on the part of some others, those who thought that a festival should happen -- and should be called a festival -- were overruled. My hat goes off to the World War None Festival organizers (a largely separate entity from Pdx Peace), and to those within Pdx Peace who tried and failed to call the festival what it was, and to organize a well-attended event.

As to those who succeeded in sabotaging the event, I ask, why is so much of the left in the US so attached to being so dreadfully boring? Why do so many people on the left apparently have no appreciation for the power and importance of culture? And when organizers, progressive media and others on the left do acknowledge culture, why is it usually kept on the sidelines? What are we trying to accomplish here?

Rovics goes on to talk about previous incarnations of the left in the US that had much greater understanding of the importance of culture, with brief mentions of other parts of the world. He talks about a few different ways he has seen culture shut out by various faces of today's left in the US, with attention given to outfits dominated by sectarianism like ANSWER, the more open and democratic elements in the anti-war movement, and the major independent and alternative media.

He concludes:

Radical culture needs to be fostered and promoted, front and center, not sidelined as people are gathering, or when the radio stations are doing station ID's. Because if the point is to inspire people to action, a song is worth a hundred speeches. If the point is to educate people, a three-minute ballad is easily equal to any book. (They'll read the book after they hear the song, not the other way around.)

It is often said that we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of this country. It is us versus CNN, NPR, Bush, Clinton, etc. In this battle, style matters, not just content. In this battle, it is absolutely imperative that we remember that it is not only the minds we need to win, but the hearts. At least in terms of the various forms of human communication, there is nothing on Earth more effective in winning hearts than music and art. We ignore or sideline music and art at our peril. It's time to listen to the music.

I think his message is important in its own right, and I would recommend reading the whole thing.

However, I would argue that the examples he cites connect with two other interrelated but distinct features of how most of the left understands political work, not just in relation to culture but in relation to life as a whole.

The first is the way that dominant (and decidedly unliberatory) ways of doing masculinity from the broader culture insinuate themselves into many activist spaces, at least sometimes and in some ways, often poorly hidden behind a thin left-inflected veneer. It is this approach to masculinity that colonizes our understanding of words like "serious" (as it applies to political work) and "anger" (as it applies to one of the emotions we should feel as we contemplate what goes on in the world). There is a certain valorization of grimness; an expectation of life lived with a distorted singular focus much like a CEO or high status professional rather than rich complicated balance; an unconscious mimicry of the kind of inhuman indomitability expected of the heroes of action movies; posturing and put-downs; and an instinctive construction of hierarchy based on one's willingness and ability to enact this kind of masculinity. This is part of the devaluing of culture in some left spaces, though sometimes culture is admissable if it is sufficiently grim and singular and careful not to appear too frivolous.

The other thing that Rovics' rant brought to mind -- it is related to what he says about culture and to what I just said about a certain kind of masculinity -- is the way in which we (meaning especially activists with relative privilege) so commonly see resistance as a discrete part of our lives and a separate sphere of human activity instead of a commitment that is present in all that we do. It is seen as something that gets diluted if we allow it to be contaminated with giggling, with changing diapers, with joy or sorrow or anything but flat singlemindedness. Activists who typify the approach listed in the previous paragraph aren't all against chilling out and having fun, they just want to make sure it is carefully sequestered from political spaces. One consequence of seeing political work as somehow separate is that we think we must choose between commitment and a rich and varied life, instead of seeing the challenge as integrating resistance into that richness, variety, and contradictory copmlexity.

I admit, in the interests of brevity I have kind of caricatured that which I am arguing against, and I don't like to do that. But I think that in reading what I've written, people will still see some resonance with their experience in spaces shaped by the left in both the US and Canada. And I should add that I am not claiming to be immune to these things. I don't think I'm really given to some of the more obvious sorts of masculinist posturing described above (though I know I've had my moments), but I still constantly wrestle with how to understand politics in my life and how to understand my life politically. After all, how many posts with a cultural focus have found their way on to this blog? Some, but not a lot.

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