Trump’s workers’ party debunked: “What’s Left?” January 2021

It pisses me off.

In 2015 Breitbart ran a story by Lisa De Pasquale entitled “Political Punks” that détourned the famous 1976 Ramones record cover by superimposing the heads of rightwingers Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes over the four original band members.

Blasphemy!

Joining in on the “conservatism is the new punk rock” tip, Nick Gillespie praised and requoted De Pesquale’s original sentiment in “Let Us Now Praise Political Punks!” (Reason) that:

[P]op culture is inherently anarchic, fun, and beyond the control of P.C. masters of the left and the right: ‘There is a group of conservatives and libertarians – I call them political punks – who actually have cultural credibility. They appreciate mainstream culture for the power of the parable in furthering a message of liberty. They also understand that unlike the perpetually outraged on both sides, Americans don’t view everything through politics. They are anti-authoritarian. They are punk. They go against the liberal culture scene and the conservative political scene. These punks are our best hope for engaging new audiences on the importance of liberty.’

Bullshit!

One of these days I’ll definitively put to rest the myth underlying this quote that the youth rebellions of the 1960s lost politically but won culturally. In other words, that the 60s lost the war but won the peace. That misdirection, as well as the notion that conservatism is the new punk rock, are like proclaiming the Hitlerjugend a rebellious youth movement while denouncing the Swingjugend as establishment fascists.

The tendency for Republicans, conservatives and rightwing libertarians to claim they’re one thing when they’re the opposite is nothing new. F.H. Buckley wrote in The Republican Workers Party in 2018 that Trump’s GOP is the future of American politics—socially conservative, multi-ethnic, working-class based, economically middle-of-the-road, eschewing laissez-faire for America First protectionism. Buckley’s polemic was anticipated by Graham’s “A Trumpist Workers’ Party Manifesto” (The Atlantic) and Calmes’s “They Want Trump to Make the G.O.P. A Workers’ Party” (NYT) that emphasized the same points, dismissing Matt Taibbi’s liberal panic in his Rolling Stone article “A Republican Workers’ Party?”

“Basically, large numbers of working-class voters, particularly white working-class voters, long ago abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the Republicans,” according to Taibbi. “The new Republicans would no longer be the party of ‘business and the privileged,’ but the protector of a disenfranchised working class.” He places the blame for this on the magical thinking of Reagan’s sleight-of-hand “trickle-down economics,” Clinton’s free-trade agreements, and the combined Republican/Democratic evisceration of the American middle class in the name of globalization. “Like Marxism, globalization is a borderless utopian religion. Its adherents almost by definition have to reject advocacy for the citizens of one country over another. Just as ‘Socialism in One Country’ was an anathema to classic Marxists, ‘prosperity in one country’ is an anathema to globalists, no matter what their politicians might say during election seasons.”

Polls and statistics don’t bear out the new GOP workers’ party theory. Republican support for free trade has actually increased. And while Republicans are not fans of immigration, they haven’t gone nativist either. Biden won by appealing to the middle and to independent voters. The middle-class and the suburbs, by and large, abandoned Trump this time around. Economically successful localities were not impressed by Trump’s protectionist measures, nor for that matter were localities struggling economically which suffered from Trump’s trade wars, and all these districts were ultimately dominated by Biden. Even simple demographic shifts have been trending Democratic over Republican across the country.

In 2016, Brownstein (The Atlantic) declared that “the billionaire developer is building a blue-collar foundation,” while Zitner and Chinni (WSJ) wondered about “Trump’s success in attracting white, working-class voters” for his general election strategy and Flegenheimer and Barbaro (NYT) proclaimed that Trump’s victory was “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.” But Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu (WaPo) disputed this through polling analysis: “Trump supporters were mostly affluent Republicans. […] [O]nly a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.”

According to Jonah Goldberg: “Trump received 12 percent of the black vote, 32 percent of the Latino vote and 34 percent of the Asian American vote. In 2004, George W. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote and 44 percent of both the Latino and Asian American votes. An increase of 1 percent among black voters and a double-digit decrease among Latino and Asian voters isn’t exactly a seismic event.  [I]t’s worth noting that the average showing among union households […] for GOP presidential candidates since 2000 is about 41 percent. Trump got 40 percent in 2020, down 7 points from 2016.”

The Trump GOP workers’ party is a myth. But so is the idea that the Democratic party represents the American working class. The conversion of the Democrats from a white supremacist party of unreconstructed southerners to a national party favoring big government, civil rights and a loose coalition of single-interest groups under Franklin Delano Roosevelt is too detailed a subject for this column. Suffice it to say that the Democratic party continues to house Yellow Dog Democrats alongside social liberals and progressives in an uneasy corporatist alliance. Even at the height of FDR’s New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson Great Society, its welfare state Keynesianism was a pale reflection of European social democratic workers’ parties with their programs of political democracy, mixed economies, state intervention and moderate nationalization.

But the decline of Marxism and the general, worldwide shift toward populism and the right means that current social democracy would be happy to settle for welfare state Keynesianism. These political changes notwithstanding, the project to build a genuine labor party in the American context is fraught from the start. That’s because there are basic differences between European parliamentary democracy and American two-party democracy. America’s 50%+1 winner-take-all electoral system virtually ensures that only two political parties dominate the political process by favoring the middle-of-the-road, thus marginalizing all other electoral contenders. Third parties like the Green Party or Libertarian Party exist, but they have little to no chance of influencing politics let alone gaining power. In turn, Europe’s parliamentary representation of minority parties has everything to do with proportional voting and recognition. And while rule by broad coalitions, left or right, tends to recreate a kind of two-party system within European democracies, there remain extant minority parties in Western parliaments—everything from monarchist and fascist to communist and green, even pagan and anarchist—with electoral options for political power.

This electoral analysis, in emphasizing American capitalist democracy’s default toward the political middle, reinforces why the theory of a Trump GOP workers’ party is crap. Is there potential for creating a viable American labor party or, barring that, transforming the Democratic party into one despite these electoral realities? Certainly everyone from Michael Moore to Gloria LaRiva spout nonstop inanities of doing just that when they’re not arguing endlessly with each other over the details. But exactly what type of workers’ party is desired?

First, start with the “hotly debated” difference drawn by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America between democratic socialism and social democracy. To me, it’s a difference without a distinction, but the notion of taking over the Democratic party and moving it to the Left is tempting for many social liberals and progressives within the party. So is the idea of  a democratically organized, electorally based, independent workers’ party. Then there’s the Leninist vanguard party in the name of the working class, whether electorally oriented or classically revolutionary. My tradition of left communism has its own version of the workers’ party, an interventionist party as “hard as steel, clear as glass.” Finally, there are recurring calls on the Left for a “party of a new type,” labor or otherwise.

Rather than discuss these various labor party options and their potential under the dubious rubric of the “new socialist movement,” I’d like to emphasize the need for extra-electoral alternatives. Not actually as oppositional or replacement strategies to any workers’ party, but as a parallel course of action. Even as an anarchist, I never endorsed the knee-jerk reaction that “if voting could change things, it would be illegal.” I’ve always voted, but I don’t otherwise participate in electoral politics. I prefer supporting and participating in social movements—first and foremost organized labor and wildcat workers movements—to any socialist labor party in achieving socialism. The great historical social revolutions were never lead by a single workers’ party but rather were mass uprisings of numerous social movements alongside contending political parties. That’s the only real basis for a true socialism from below.

SOURCES:
(listed by date)
“The Democratic Party: How Did It Get Here?” by Ted Van Dyk (The Atlantic, 12-4-2013)
“Political Punks” by Lisa De Pasquale (Breitbart, 2/9/2015)
“Let Us Now Praise Political Punks!” by Nick Gillespie (Reason, 2/10/2015)
“The Billionaire Candidate and His Blue-Collar Following” by Ronald Brownstein and National Journal (The Atlantic, 9-11-2015)
“Rust Belt Could Be Donald Trump’s Best Route to White House” by Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni (The Wall Street Journal, 3-6-2016)
“A Trumpist Workers’ Party Manifesto” by David Graham (The Atlantic, 5-26-2016)
“They Want Trump to Make the G.O.P. A Workers’ Party” by Jackie Calmes (New York Times, 8-5-2016)
“A Republican Workers’ Party?” by Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone, 8-6-2016)
“Donald Trump Is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment” by Matt Flegenheimer and Michael Barbaro (New York Times, 11-9-2016)
“It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class” by Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu (The Washington Post, 6-5-2017)
The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed by. F.H. Buckley (2018)
“The Republican Workers Party” by The New York Sun (11-6-2020)
“Is ‘Trumpism without Trump’ the GOP’s Future?” by Scott Lincicome (The Dispatch, 11-17-2020)
“Why Trumpism Is Unlikely to Endure” by Jonah Goldberg (The Dispatch, 12-10-2020)


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Dead rockers: “What’s Left?” September 2014, MRR #376

Why couldn’t it be Barry Manilow?

Detention, “Dead Rock n Rollers”

Punk’s not dead, but the Ramones are.

“Too soon?” Gilbert Gottfried might ask.

All four of the original, founding members of the Ramones are dead. Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Ross Hyman, 1951-2001) died at 49. Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Glenn Colvin, 1951-2002) died at 50. Johnny Ramone (John William Cummings, 1948-2004) died at 55. And Tommy Ramone (Thomas Erdelyi, 1949-2014) died at 65.

Quite an actuarial problem, especially for calculating the lifespan of rock’n’rollers prone to living fast and dying young. According to statistics published by The Guardian (“How rock stardom can take years off your life,” James Randerson, 9-3-07) “of the 100 performers in the sample who died early, the average age was 42 for North American stars and just 35 for those in Europe.” A more comprehensive followup study conducted by researchers at the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Open) on 12-19-12 concluded that rock stars have “a nearly one in ten chance of dying prematurely.” The study was neatly summarized by Billy Jam as follows: The study, which looked at the lives of approx 1500 UK and European, and US music stars between the years of 1956 and 2006 in pop and rock music, determined that 9.2% (137 artists) of them died prematurely. Furthermore the study determined that solo artists, compared with members of bands, had a twice as high chance of dying prematurely. The study also found that the average age for American artists to die prematurely was 45 while it was six years younger for the average British and European artist. Which means that the Ramones, all four original members, actually lived well past their prime. By these standards Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy were old farts when they kicked.

There are a slew of second string Ramones out there. Marky Ramone (Marc Steven Bell) is still alive at 58 years old, as are minor members C.J. Ramone (Christopher Joseph Ward, 48), Richie Ramone (Richard Reinhardt, 58), and Elvis Ramone (Clement Bozewski, 58). This skews even further the dead rock’n’roller actuarial tables. Then, consider the statistical impact of the so-called “fifth Ramone.” Arturo Vega (1947-2013), the artist and designer who created the Ramones logo and is often called the “fifth Ramone,” is promising because he’s dead, but not so auspicious because he was 65 when he died. Other candidates for “fifth Ramone” include the group’s longtime producer Ed Stasium, and the band’s tour manager Monte A. Melnick, both still very much alive. The Ramones may have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they win no awards for living the rock’n’roll lifestyle into an early grave.

Christ, I’m still within the Ramone’s mortality age range. I would have been two or three years behind them in school. The first Ramones album I owned was “Rocket to Russia.” The first Ramones show I attended was at San Diego State University in 1979 or 1980. I don’t exactly remember the year, let alone the exact date, as I was drinking quite heavily. I was completely into punk, more so American than English. Sure, English punk was bigger, anti-establishment and more class conscious. The American scene was smaller, anti-social, and less political. Whereas in England, punk was more melodic and dare I say tradition based, American punk was more entertaining and experimental. Hardcore and skate punk emerged from the American scene, whereas reggae and oi! influenced English punk. The Ramones were quintessential American punk.

No doubt about it, the Ramones and the punk they helped inspire were central to my life after 1977. When I was vacationing in New York City during the late 1980s, I was walking with friends, talking about how The City was ground zero (no pun intended) for celebrity watching. At that instant, Joey Ramone walked past us into the seedy, hipster infested St. Mark’s Hotel and I was open-mouthed and overawed. Me, the rabid ultraleft “destroy what destroys you” “Lefty” Hooligan, was suitably star struck. Ah hell, I’ll admit it. I’m sad that the Ramones are all dead and that there’s no chance for any kind of reunion tour. I’m angry that punk rock ain’t what it used to be and that this magazine can barely survive. I’m annoyed to be reminded of my mortality and of the impermanence of everything I enjoy.

R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy. R.I.P. The Ramones.

Anarchist purges anarchist, no news at 11: “What’s Left?” August 2014, MRR #375

It’s an infamous MRR cover. Number 130, March 1994. Tim Yo designed it, although I don’t remember who put it together. A slew of Marvel Comic style action figure characters surround the headline “Superheroes of the Underground??” A bald buff super skinhead labeled Hawdkaw Man, further marked with A.F. for Agnostic Front, growls: “I stomp da pussies wit an attitude as big as my 20 eyelet Docs!!” Str8 Edge Man, a caped Superman clone with Shelter on his chest, proclaims: “I convert the hostile flocks with a 1-2 punch of Religion & Republicanism!” Pop Man, aka Green Day, reveals: “I lull my opponents into complacency with dippy love songs!” And the snark continues with snide remarks from Metal Man (The Melvins), Emo Man (Still Life), Vegan Man (Profane Existence), Grunge Man (Nirvana), and Arty Farty Man (sporting an Alternative Tentacles logo).

Tim put this cover together for the issue in which he announced MRR’s Great Purge, in which Tim proclaimed that nothing but the most primitive, the most basic, the most raw rock and roll would be deemed punk. That’s how punk rock began in the mid-to-late 70s; two or at most three chords, distorted and undifferentiated, loud and fast. Ignoring the debate over whether punk first began in the UK or USA, and disregarding whether it was the Ramones or the Sex Pistols that started punk, punk did not remain primal or simple or crude for long. Musicians brought their histories and influences to the music, the music cross-pollinated and hybridized with other music, and both the music and the musicians got more sophisticated with time. By 1993, punk was a welter of styles, categories and scenes. And by the end of 1993, Tim had decided to purge punk rock down to its roots and to restrict the magazine he ran, MRR, to this limited musical content.

I’ve described when Tim Yo announced the firing of Jeff Bale at a year end General Meeting in December of 1993. I’ve called that the Great Purge when, in fact, the most contentious agenda item at that meeting for most of the shitworkers present was Tim’s decision to severely curtail the kind of music MRR considered reviewable as punk. And Tim’s Great Purge was indeed two-fold—firing Jeff Bale and purging punk music. Tim was by no means a raving Maoist when he ran MRR, but he’d had his political upbringing in the New Communist Movement of the 1970s. I remember Tim discussing afterwards his strategy going into the December 1993 meeting, and I’ll liberally paraphrase it from a previous column: “I combined an attack on the right with an attack on the left. I cut down the stuff we would review as punk, knowing that Jeff would be one hundred percent behind my decision. At the same meeting I took out Jeff. I played the right and the left against each other, just like Stalin did.”

That Tim Yo might have been involved with the RCP at one time, or admired Stalin, or even sometimes ran MRR as Mao might are such a small part of what the man was or what he did. But it does help me to segue into my broader subject. While it is hard to apologize for Tim’s overtly authoritarian tendencies, it isn’t hard to admire his appreciation for punk rock’s musical purity. The urge to purify, the impetus to purge an individual, organization, art form, culture, politics, or society of incorrectness, error, impurity, deviance, corruption, decadence, or evil; that’s what I’m talking about here. For a recent and particularly insidious example of this, lets turn to anarchist politics in the San Francisco Bay Area and the efforts of identity anarchists to purge post-left anarchists.

I have little sympathy for either of the two tendencies acting out this sordid drama. Post-left anarchism categorically rejects the Left, from the social democracy and Marxism-Leninism of the Old Left to the Maoism and Third Worldism of the New Communist Movement that devolved from the New Left, as well as any anarchism that is in the least bit influenced by the Left. This is not merely a refusal of the Left’s ideological content, but of its organizational forms as well, from meetings run by Robert’s Rules of Order to various kinds of party-building. But nothing unites post-left anarchism beyond this negation, leaving a disparate gaggle of personalities in Hakim Bey (ontological anarchy/TAZ), Bob Black (abolition of work), John Zerzan (primitivism), Wolfi Landstreicher (Stirnerite egoism), et al, to frivolously romp through post-left anarchism’s vacuous playground. In contrast, identity anarchism is all about a positive if problematic relationship with the Left, from its ideological borrowings from Marxism-Leninism (imperialism, colonialism, etc.) to its lineage on the Left (via the quasi-Maoist Black Panther Party). The lame debates within the heavily Maoist New Communist Movement regarding the staid National Question contributed to the formulation of a “white skin privilege” theory (by way of Sojourner Truth/Noel Ignatiev) which, when suitably tweaked by proponents of “male privilege,” conjugated a critique of patriarchal white supremacy fully embraced by identity anarchism. Thus, identity anarchism’s embrace of Panther anarchism (of Alston, Ervin, Balagoon, Barrow, Jackson, N’Zinga, White, Sostre, following the BPP’s demise) seems almost an afterthought, offering no serious counterweight to the Marxism, Leninism, Maoism and Third Worldism it enthusiastically embraces.

I will use post-left anarchism and identity anarchism in the remainder of this column as convenient shorthand for generic categories, which means I will also overly simplify who belongs to what camp.

Post-left anarchism has a decent presence in the East Bay through Anarchy, a Journal of Desire Armed, the annual BASTARD conference, and the Anarchist Study Group. The Study Group has been meeting weekly at the Long Haul in Berkeley for over a decade. It is structured through reading and discussing agreed-upon texts, publicly advertises locally and online, and is open to anyone to attend. At the beginning of 2013, the Study Group embarked on several months of investigation into Maoism, focusing on the New Communist Movement, reading primary documents related to the RCP, MIM, the BPP, STORM, and a plethora of alphabet soup Maoist organizations. Needless to say, these post-left anarchists were highly critical of the NCM and Maoism. Aragorn! went so far as to publish a lengthy criticism on his self-titled blog based on their studies in mid-March.

A group of identity anarchists “intervened” during a regular Tuesday night Long Haul Anarchist Study Group meeting sometime after that blog post. Hannibal Shakur, an activist in Occupy Oakland’s Decolonization tendency who is fighting vandalism charges after participation in the Trayvon Martin riots, was prominent in the newly organized Qilombo Social Center in Oakland. He and his crew attended the Study Group meeting, it seems not merely to dispute their post-left anarchist critique of Maoism, the NCM and the BPP, but also to challenge their right to pursue such independent study at all. The identity anarchists harassed and harangued the post-left anarchists, and in the heat of the argument between the two sides, post-left anarchist Lawrence Jarach made a categorical statement so typical of orthodox anarchism. To paraphrase, Jarach contended that: “All churches must be burned to the ground.” An identity anarchist demanded: “But what about the black churches?” To which Jarach responded: “The black churches must be burned … all churches must be burned.” The disagreements only got nastier from there, with open acrimony escalating into implied threat.

At some point, passionate ideological disagreement turned into calculated sectarian purge. The annual San Francisco Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair set up operations at the Crucible in Oakland on May 22, 2014. The one-day bookfair gathered a multitude of anarchist tendencies, among them the AJODA/CAL Press vendor table and the Qilombo Center table. An “attack initiated by three people (and about ten supporters) from Qilombo began around 3:40pm when I was cornered near the restroom,” reported Lawrence Jarach, “and continued after I walked back to the CAL Press/Anarchy magazine vendor table, ending at around 4 when we decided to leave.” AJODA has since issued an Open Letter to Bay Area Anarchists protesting the Qilombo assault as well as the general anarchist apathy toward this successful purge. Those associated with the attack on Jarach in turn have communicated the following: “Qilombo was not involved in the altercation you mention that took place at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, and the space has no comment on the matter. Lawrence Jarach came by the Qilombo table and antagonized a few of our volunteers, so those volunteers took it upon themselves as autonomous individuals to call him out for something that occurred at an another venue, at another point in time, and requested that he leave the bookfair. If you would like more details, you will need to reach out to the actual parties involved.”

Tim Yo would have called this final evasion candy-assed.

Last column, I mentioned the feminist “intervention” at the May 9-11, 2014 Portland, Oregon Law & Disorder Conference and the increasingly acrimonious debate between Kristian Williams and the organizers of the event Patriarchy and the Movement, over the tactics of individuals and groups professing identity politics within larger leftist political circles. That the victims of patriarchal sexism and violence and their defenders are so outspoken in speech and print about the need to purge the perpetrators from The Movement only underscores the clarity of their actions. I suspect that, amongst themselves, Shakur and his identity anarchist/Qilombo brigade have summarily convicted Jarach of racism, exercising his white skin privilege, and supporting white supremacy in insisting purely on principle that all churches need to be burned down, even the black ones. Yet they won’t publicly cop to running him out of the anarchist bookfair for such reasons. That they haven’t openly taken responsibility for their thuggish behavior to, in effect, purge Jarach and AJODA from the Movement is low, even for Maoism masquerading as anarchism.

These concerted efforts to purge people from The Movement based on their ideology, or their behavior, are the self-righteous acts of those who would be judge, jury, and executioner. When Tim Yo made his futile attempt in MRR to purge punk rock back to its basics, the results were predictable. The magazines Punk Planet, Heart attaCk and Shredding Paper started publishing circa 1994 to challenge MRR’s definition of punk and hegemony over the scene, followed shortly thereafter by Hit List. However, I doubt that Qilombo’s attempt to purge Lawrence Jarach and fellow AJODA members will have similarly salutary effects.

Wasted Youth: “What’s Left?” June 2012, MRR #349

I recently saw “The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Movies by the Dardenne brothers are art house faves and raves but, in my opinion, they are also slow and a tad boring. The story is about an 11 year old boy whose mother has deserted the family, and whose father has recently abandoned him. The kid, named Cyril, is eventually fostered by a kind-hearted woman who is a hairdresser in the projects-like apartment complex where Cyril and the father used to live. But the kid gets in with a bad crowd, an older criminal kid who puts him up to the robbery of a local newsstand owner. Cyril knocks out both the owner and his son in the process of the robbery.

Now, here’s the interesting part of the story. Cyril eventually gets caught, and taken before what I presume to be a Belgian judge. There, he agrees to apologize to the newsstand owner whom he robbed and hit, and with his foster parent, the hairdresser, to pay restitution to the man.

It’s an amazing, enlightening, little scene, which I presume is fairly accurate. In the United States, its likely the kid would be tried as an adult, sentenced as an adult, and sent to adult prison where he would be turned into a hardened criminal and become a repeat offender for the rest of his life. I hardly exaggerate. The American criminal justice system is that punitive, and that primitive. And before someone takes me to task for unduly elevating those bleeding-heart liberal-socialist Europeans for coddling their juvenile criminals-in-the-making, consider that the Belgians have been around for a few thousand years. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that they’ve learned a thing or two about criminals and criminal justice, and that rehabilitation and restitution might just be a better way to go in many cases, particularly with kids?

I was 16 in 1968, arguably just past the crest of the hippie countercultural wave, when I got turned on to Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. And I was 26 in 1978, the initial swell of punk rock, when I was blown away by the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia. Two rebellious youth movements, so it seems only natural to me that kids are always at odds with adult society. As Marlon Brando’s character in the film The Wild One says in response to the question what he’s rebelling against: “What do you got?” That’s a far cry from seeing young people as potentially, or rather, inherently criminal though. But somewhere along the line, society started assuming the worst about kids.

I grew up in California, before the Proposition 13 axe fell, when high schools had plenty of money for education. I took art and music classes, and when I couldn’t stomach regular gym, I took archery and bowling. There were shop classes, and drivers’ education classes. Yes, I was on a college prep track, and took academic electives by the score. But I also took creative writing, and worked on the high school literary magazine. There were no overt gangs and guns at my high school, and no guards or police either. It was the 60s, so we were rebelling against dress codes and speech codes. We fought for and won the right to have an open campus at lunch, when we could leave the school and eat at neighboring businesses. We also published and distributed an underground newspaper, and protested against the Vietnam war by wearing black Moratorium armbands, both free speech issues.

Nowadays, high schools resemble prisons in lockdown, with guards patrolling the halls, and police on call to arrest students for the slightest infraction. Gangs and guns are rampant, and to enforce discipline, more and more schools are adopting dress codes and school uniforms. Hate speech is strictly prohibited, as is other suspect behavior, though this doesn’t seem to protect the weaker or gay kids from being bullied. School budgets have been cut so drastically that parents, even teachers, have to contribute money in order to give their children a halfway decent education. And still our schools are failing. And still our schools are flunking or abandoning kids left and right. And still our schools are better at teaching children crime then academics.

Now, of course, I acknowledge that the times have changed. Whereas someone might have brought a pistol to school in my day, today its likely to be a bomb or an AK47. Whereas parents and school administrators worried that kids were puffing marijuana in the bathrooms in the 60s, today its much more serious drugs, beginning with methamphetamine, and continuing down a long list of designer pharmaceuticals, not to mention the drugs the kids manage to steal from their parents medicine cabinets. Whereas sex education was a great controversy and sneaking a Playboy into a school locker was the height of scandal when I went to high school, now everything is hypersexualized, with teen sexting/cybering commonplace. Yes, indeed, times have changed, but it doesn’t help much to blame complacent teachers with seniority, or education unions. Take a close look at the record of charter schools, supposedly the grand alternative to public schools, where unions are banned and teachers are hired and fired at will. Charter schools, on average, do no better than the public education system in graduating kids from high school, let alone preparing them for college, or the real world.

In my opinion, the biggest change since my own high school days is that young people now are treated as if they are overt threats. The criminal justice system, in routinely trying, convicting and jailing juveniles as adults, is only the most blatant example of this. Consider the amount of tracking and spyware parents install on their kids computers, if they can manage to outwit their tech-savvy children. Consider the regular monitoring of kids’ cellphones and facebook pages, not just by parents, but by school administrators, employers, and police. Consider that parents are even surgically implanting RFID chips into their toddlers, not merely to prevent kidnapping, but to keep tabs on their kids at all times. My generation rebelled against the stultifying monotony and corporate conformity of the Eisenhower 50s. Is it any wonder that Columbine has become the symbol for our age?

Enough of this rant.

There’s no way to go back to some golden age, whether it’s the 1990s, the 1960s, or the 1930s. Instead, I’d like to move forward, with a criminal justice system that practices rehabilitation and restitution, rather than retribution and punishment, at least for kids. For all the blather about violent crime being down in this country, the United States has just 5% of the world’s population, yet it has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. That’s because of all the people we throw in jail for drug possession, small-scale theft, and petty crime. America’s prison population is disproportionately black and brown as well, amounting to the criminalization of youth by race, with black youth suffering the most.

No doubt, the outcry will be that do-gooder liberal criminal justice reform was tried in the 60s and failed, or that juvenile delinquents will learn how to play the system and, literally, get away with murder. The so-called 60s reforms were actually a confluence of several factors. The “liberal” community relations and community policing programs that came out of the 1950/60s civil rights movements and violent urban unrest are still with us today, whereas “liberal” flexible sentencing practices and criminal rights campaigns have been thoroughly routed by determinate sentencing statutes and victims rights advocacy. However, the idea that kids should be absolved of personal responsibility for their crimes because they are psychologically disturbed and society is to blame is a hoary old chestnut. If you doubt this, check out the lyrics to the classic West Side Story song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” copyright 1956.

What has never, ever gained traction is that restitution, and in particular, rehabilitation should replace retribution and punishment with respect to dealing with young people. When the simple human desire for vengeance is set aside, a number of reasons for not taking criminal justice in a rehabilitative direction are typically given; the lack of scientific research into the efficacy of rehabilitation programs, the inability to parse out individual criminal motivation in relation to such programs, and the complexity and expense of rehabilitation as a strategy. It doesn’t seem appropriate for the United States to follow the lead of other countries with many decades of experience in criminal justice reform. Instead, what is considered appropriate is for this country to expend exorbitant amounts of funding to build prisons and militarize police forces in order to squander astronomically more money to keep nearly 4% of the American population under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, prison).

What a waste, not of dollars, but of lives. Young lives.

When the mode of the music changes: “What’s Left?” August 2011, MRR #339

I learned about the death of Gil Scott-Heron the same day I went to a sold-out Tony Bennett concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. After listening to Tony do standards like “Smile,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” I listened to Gil doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” thanks to YouTube. Whereas Tony was a spry, animated, and healthy 84, Gil died at 62 gaunt, HIV positive, and fighting a long crack cocaine addiction. I admire the former as a unique interpreter of the great American songbook, but I revere the latter as a revolutionary black poet, a powerful voice of the ‘60s, and a seminal influence on modern rap and hip hop.

In the HBO TV drama Treme, the character Delmond Lambreaux, a New Orleans modern jazz musician transplanted to New York, listens to traditional New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton to be exact, on vinyl in his apartment with his girlfriend, Jill. When Jill complains that the music sounds so old-fashioned, Delmond protests that classical music can be over 300 years old and still considered relevant, yet jazz that’s barely 40 years old is dismissed as out of date. The character is clearly frustrated as to why it’s not possible to appreciate both styles of jazz on their own merits.

I’m not trying to judge what type of music is going to stand the test of time. Nor am I arguing that musical genius requires immense suffering and a short lifespan, or even any particular originality. What I am saying is that music which is meaningful in any way must move us, must in some way inspire us, must raise the hair on the back of our necks. The music of the above mentioned performers did just that for me. So did my exposure to the Ramone’s first album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Stiff Little Finger’s Inflammable Material, and the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bullocks. Classical music (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovitch), bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Coltraine), acid rock (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service), and country (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) also do it for me. In fact, there are only a few categories of music (soft rock, smooth jazz, disco) that I can’t really listen to.

Plato contended, in book four of the Republic, that: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake” (as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg). Certainly, music has been used historically, by religion and politics, to strip people of their individuality, create ecstatic experiences, and help to forge powerful social movements. And folks in the ‘60s viewed rock music as a revolutionary weapon. My point is much more mundane. Music should feed our souls, uplift us, make us whole. It shouldn’t be used to divide, to make us feel superior to others. I don’t give a shit if you have the same taste in music that I do. Just enjoy yourself, for fuck’s sake.

Street fighting spirit: “What’s Left?” April 2011, MRR #335

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
No

Written about British Pakistani New Leftie Tariq Ali, this tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones ditty remains a rousing anthem to a familiar type of political testosterone. I remember that, during the 1970 Isla Vista riots, a local record store hoisted massive speakers onto their roof and blasted “Street Fighting Man” full blast as students battled police in the winding streets of that soporific beach town. Covered by folks as diverse as Rod Stewart and the Ramones, the version done by Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine embodies the bombast, if not the fury, intended by the Stones.

An acquaintance once commented that politics is a young man’s game. From the Paris riots of 1968, which inspired my initial interest in politics, to the current Cairo riots, young people dominated the streets. And by young people, I mean young men. For while the 60s saw a considerable uptick of female participation in what, at the time, we all considered to be revolutionary activity, the campus occupations and street fighting were still a man’s world. Similarly, reports from Tahrir Square at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak uprising described a surprising sexual equality in the numbers participating in the occupation. But when Mubarak’s supporters, with the help of the secret police, assaulted the protesters with horses and camels, and then laid siege to the square with rocks, molotovs and guns, the complexion of the protest quickly changed to mostly male. Excuse me, but since I don’t give a flying fuck about what’s politically correct, I’m not beyond crediting biology for differences in strength, and testosterone for increased levels of aggression to account for the dominance of young men in street politics.

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Street politics is the crucial referent here. To be young, able to hurl abuse and more at the cops, then to outmaneuver and outrun their fat, riot-gear-encumbered asses; that’s what’s thrilling about being a street fighting man. It’s what, approaching 60, with bad feet and a bum knee, I can appreciate only vicariously, or as ever-receding personal memories. I mean, it’s not like I can’t participate in politics per se. Much like war, in which old men make the decisions while young men do the fighting and dying, politics entails the young in the streets and the old in the smoke-filled back rooms. But politics without the streets—the politics of meetings, deal making and compromise—was always an absolute bore to my way of thinking. So, that leaves me on the sidelines, taking in the only politics that truly matter—street politics—as a spectator sport.

Whether as a spectator or as a participant, being a partisan of those who take to the streets to fight the powers that be can produce a skewed view of things. Siding with rioters against the police is like being a Mets or a Red Sox fan in that you’re bound to be on the losing side most of the time. For every Cairo, there are ten thousand Tehrans. Yet such persistent defeat never seems to dampen an irrational optimism among sympathizers whenever and wherever rioting breaks out. I’m in a radical reading group whose ultra left members invariably go into paroxysms of adulation every time a bunch of students go on a rampage, break windows, block traffic, burn dumpsters, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This exercise in youthful excess, in turn, has been elevated to the absurd heights of a revolutionary strategy by the current crop of insurrectionary anarchists and left communists. Oddly however, Glenn Beck seems to be the only one serious about a specter of permanent insurrection, seeing in Egypt the hand of the Invisible Committee and “the beginning of ‘the coming insurrection.’”

Such surprisingly naïve enthusiasm, and sadly infantile rebellion, is far better than the opportunistic instrumentalism of much of the Leninist Left. When not considered cannon fodder for the party and the revolution, street politics are judged progressive so long as they strike a blow against US hegemony, and insurgents, whatever their political persuasion, are defined either as “objectively anti-imperialist” or in terms of “the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.” Thus, Leninists of various stripes defended the Islamic students who took American embassy personnel hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 as radical, even as those students pledged their undying loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite revolution.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Leave it to Leninism to squeeze all the juice, all the insurrectionary spirit, out of street politics. If the Left were honest, they would take Bakunin’s infamous remark that “the destructive urge is a creative urge” and admit that the destructive urge is sufficient unto itself. There is something absolutely elemental about the whirlwind of destruction unleashed by taking to the streets, and taking them away from the powers that be, even momentarily. We’re not talking about simple hormones here, but about something deeper, Freudian, archetypal; something that transcends human biology to reach what is essential to life. The desire to reduce illusions to ashes, power to shambles, civilization to smoking ruin must be seen in the light of the sheer aesthetic joy in the conflagration itself. It is the stuff of the demiurge, which in Christian mythology goes by the names Satan and Lucifer. Or, as it goes in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds,” which Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased upon witnessing humanity’s detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’ve communed with this deity of destruction perhaps a dozen times in my life thanks to my involvement in radical street politics. An intoxicating experience each time. Which is why this armchair stuff is such a drag.

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