Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Will Israeli Apartheid Steal Stevie Wonder's Soul?

There are a few moments in Stevie Wonder’s career when droves of fans have thrown in the towel on him. To many it was “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (seriously, a lot of people hate that song). To those of us who are aware that Stevie used to actually represent something much bigger in music, it was his meeting with George W. Bush. Now that he’s playing a large concert in support of one of the world’s most vicious occupying armies, one wonders whether he has any soul left at all.

On Sunday, it was announced that Stevie will play the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) gala on 6 December in Los Angeles. This is one of the largest annual events connected to the Israeli military to be held in America, with over 1,000 supporters of the state of Israel in attendance, and normally raking in tens of millions of dollars to support the Israeli army.

Guests at previous galas around the country have included both high-ranking members of the Israeli military and government officials from Israel. The New York gala, held this past march, featured video addresses by army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. FIDF’s national director is none other than Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon, retired Brigadier General in the Israeli army and commander of the occupied West Bank division. It was Gershon and his subordinates who oversaw the leveling of entire neighborhoods during in Nablus during the second Intifada.

In other words, Stevie Wonder is performing for war criminals. He is also helping raise funds for the very forces whose job it is to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes, harass them at checkpoints, and indiscriminately kill them if necessary. Obviously, this performance carries an particular weightiness in the aftermath of “Operation Pillar of Cloud,” Israel’s eight-day long bombardment of Gaza that killed 170 Palestinians, including 34 children.

Just as obvious is the fact that Stevie is agreeing to this performance in blatant disregard for the call for the Palestinian call for the cultural boycott of Israel. This call covers not just performances in Israel “proper” but anything having anything to do with support for Israel’s apartheid regime and its occupation. Maybe it goes without saying, but fundraisers for the Israeli army probably fall under this rubric.

Making matters even worse is that Stevie is crossing not just one but two picket lines. This year’s Los Angeles FIDF gala is slated to take place at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. Hyatt, it just so happens, is also on the receiving end of a boycott call from the UNITE HERE union and LGBT rights groups for the hotel chain’s low wages, anti-labor practices and discrimination. You have to hand it to Stevie: he really knows how to pick his gigs!

A history of social conscience

There was a time when Stevie Wonder might not have been so willing to play for the warmongers of the Israeli state. True, Stevie has rightfully been thought of throughout his career as primarily a writer of love songs, but he also came out of a cultural moment in American history that was very much shaped by upheavals against racism and colonialism. It was the time of liberation movements in Vietnam, Angola, South Africa and the Black Panthers and urban rebellions at home. All around the globe, ordinary people seemed ready to buck off the twin bondages of racism and empire. All music was affected by this upheaval, but perhaps none more than soul.

Stevie’s “classic period,” roughly ranging from 1972 to ‘76, came right at the height of these struggles. Yes, there were his heartfelt tributes of love. Everyone knows “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “I Wish,” and his beautiful song to his newborn daughter “Isn’t She Lovely?” It’s easy to forget just how many of his best songs from this era also had a profoundly conscious, almost radical bent: “Village Ghetto Land,” “Big Brother,” “Living For the City,” and one of his absolute classics, “Higher Ground.”

As the ‘70s progressed and gave way to the ‘80s and these movements declined, so things got a bit tougher for any artist of conscience, but Stevie kept it going. He was a key public figure in the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday in the United States. His 1980 single “Happy Birthday” was dedicated to pushing the issue.

Even more often forgotten is the closing song off 1985’s In Square Circle: “It’s Wrong (Apartheid).” The title and the lyrics just about say it all:

"You know apartheid’s wrong, wrong
Like slavery was wrong, wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong
Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong"

Stevie also publicly turned down a lucrative offer to perform in apartheid South Africa during these years. In fact, in response to “It’s Wrong,” his music was banned by the South African government!

Now, this same artist is playing a benefit designed to raise millions of dollars for the military wing of an apartheid state. There’s plenty of room for speculation on how he went from A to B here, but none of the conclusions are particularly savory.

Israeli racism and fans’ resistance

If we were to give Stevie the benefit of the doubt, then we’d would have to guess he’s not completely aware of the rank colonial racism that lies at the core of the Israeli state. Is he aware of the long history of discrimination against Ethiopians and other African Jews? Has he heard of the recent mass deportations and relentless racist attacks on Sudanese and other African refugees and migrants? Or really, has he heard that the man in charge of social media for the Israeli army has recently been caught in blackface, calling it “Obama style”?

None of these should be excused on their own merits, but in recent years Israel’s repression of Palestinians both in the Occupied Territories and in the 1948 borders has been pretty difficult to ignore. And despite a concerted effort on the part of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to recruit among young people of color, a growing number of racial justice activists are vocally siding with the Palestinians. Many have also made solidarity trips to occupied Palestine.

Fortunately, there are those out there trying to remind Stevie that he still has it in him to show a bit of soul. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has released a petition (which every reader should sign) urging him to cancel the FIDF performance. The wording of the petition is smart in invoking the artist’s past commitment to opposing South African apartheid:

"Today, the Israeli army is enforcing a system that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has deemed even worse than Apartheid in South Africa. Fifteen years ago this week, Nelson Mandela said himself: 'we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians'…

Three years ago, you were designated a Messenger of Peace by the UN. November 29th, one week before your scheduled performance, is the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Please be that messenger of peace by refusing to entertain or fundraise for a military that continues to systematically oppress an entire population.

Please continue your legacy of speaking out for the oppressed. Please be a 'full-time lover' of justice by standing on the right side of history and canceling your performance for the Israeli army."

Well said indeed. Stevie Wonder performing for the IDF only allows the state of Israel and its supporters another chance to wrap themselves in the flag of justice and equality. In reality, the country’s legacy is in polar opposite to everything that’s given this brilliant artist’s work its meaning.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keep a Culture Alive

Co-authored with Brit Schulte

The world would surely be a much poorer place if not for the many songs, poems and paintings of struggle and solidarity that have been produced over the past hundreds of years. And there’s no real way to measure the inspiration they’ve delivered to ordinary people through the ages.

But how often do artists get the chance to act in solidarity in a way that can be measured? Measured in real material increments. Not very often. Which means that when those opportunities come along, it becomes the urgent duty of all artists of conscience to take up the cause.

That time to act and create is now, and a sense of urgency must be felt. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, initiated last week, dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense,” is only the latest in an endless procession of colonial crimes committed against the Palestinian people since before the apartheid state’s founding in 1948. Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth and subject to a six year blockade that won’t even let basic food or medicine in, is being devastated by the world’s fourth largest military, backed by the major western powers.

"The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages,” said Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai. “Only then will Israel be calm for forty years.” Gilad Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has called for the “flattening” of Gaza:

“We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima -- the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too... There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing... There is no middle path here -- either the Gazans and their infrastructure are made to pay the price, or we reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip.”

Rabid pro-war rallies have taken place in Tel Aviv that feature young people chanting “Kill all Arabs!” and “Your children will die too, you dogs!” This operation is not a war; it’s a genocidal massacre that exposes every shred of racism and brutality that lie at the heart of Israeli society.

When repressing and conquering an entire people, war must be declared on more than their bodies and homes; their culture, their arts; even their language must be persecuted. This is what the Israeli project looks like in Palestine. The destruction of such culturally important textile factories as those producing keffiyehs, being only one instance of a direct assault on cultural identity and life. This in part is what puts the onus on artists as global participants to stand up and say no, not in my name. Ironically, that rich legacy of creativity is best defended by not creating at all, or at least refusing to do so at Israel’s behest. 

In order to develop a comprehensive response, it’s necessary to investigate the rich traditions, and cultural contributions made by the Palestinian people and how that culture is now being aggressively suppressed, as well as instances of cultural aggression on the part of Israel, how that manifests itself and how those occurrences are struggled against. 

Roots and resistance 

One wouldn’t know it to take the mainstream western media at their word, but Palestine’s cultural roots go back thousands of years. History books don’t generally like talking about the centuries of influential poets, artists and architects from across the Arab world, much less the impact they had on the European Renaissance. Still, given the religious significance of historic Jerusalem to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, it can’t be of any surprise that the area produced and hosted some of the most magnificent early Abrahamic art and verse.

According to art historian Kamal Boullata, themes of national identity and place played a role in artistic expression since well before 1948 -- first in context of Ottoman imperial rule, then British. Still, most art tended to take on religious or non-controversial subject matter so as not to alienate conservative patronage.

After the Nakba of 1948, in which 700,000 Palestinians were brutally removed from their homes by armed Zionist militias (backed to the hilt by the British and, later, the United States), Palestinian art naturally took a course that was heavily political and nationalist. In the 1960s, with the formation of militant and often revolutionary resistance groups manifested in a great amount of symbolic “liberation art.”  Palestinian artist Samia Halaby describes this tendency:

"[S]ymbolists, using images of things known to popular Palestinian culture -- things that anyone experiencing Palestinian life could identify. The horse came to mean revolution. The flute came to mean the tune of the ongoing resistance. The wedding came to mean the entire Palestinian cause. The key came to mean the right of return. The sun came to mean freedom. The gun with a dove came to mean that peace would come after the struggle for liberation. Artists used the colors of the flag, patterns from embroidery, chains, etc. Village scenes, village dress, the prisoner, prison bars."

Music too took a notably radical turn, particularly among the growing diaspora of refugees. After the 1967 Six Day War, musicians such as al-Firqah al-Markaziyya and Abu 'Arab, both of whom had fled to Lebanon, penned songs utilizing traditional Palestinian instrumentation and improvisational poetry to convey themes of dispossession and grief at the razing of villages.

Palestine took a prominent place in resistance music throughout the Arab world. Sheikh Imam, an Egyptian folk-singer whose songs had landed him in jail under the presidencies of both Nasser and Sadat, wrote the song “Ya Falastiniyyeh" in that heady year of 1968. Within months it had become so popular that Yasser Arafat, on a visit to Cairo, requested a personal audience with Imam and a performance of the song.

After the Second Intifada in 1998, the world began to hear rumblings of Palestinian hip-hop. Documentaries like Jackie Salloum’s Slingshot Hip-Hop have done an excellent job in introducing western audiences to the likes of DAM, Sabreena da Witch, Palestinian Rapperz and other groups. Once again, it’s no surprise that all of these artists frequently return to themes of resistance, occupation, and Israel’s apartheid treatment of Arabs within the ‘48 borders.

All of this rich, diverse, uncompromising culture is, quite frankly, the kind of stuff that the state of Israel would rather forget about. It isn’t exactly shocking that in a country where 92 percent of all land is legally reserved for the ownership of Jews, where Arabs are often forced even to use entirely separate roads, Palestinian culture isn’t taught in most schools. 

Most art colleges in Israel admit a maximum of three Palestinian students a year. Generally, Palestinian culture and history is viewed (ironically) as foreign, and thus separate from westernized Israeli arts. That which can’t be overtly excluded is often reappropriated. The dabke, a dance form with roots not just in Palestine but Iraq, Syria and other Arab nations, is often referred to as “an Israeli folk dance.”

Today in Gaza, the few vestiges of cultural preservation are under constant threat of annihilation. One of the many structural casualties during Operation Cast Lead was the Gaza School of Music, whose center, along with the entirety of its instruments, were obliterated in the bombings. It was only in early 2012 that the school reopened. What’s more, the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the rather restrictive policies of the region’s Hamas leadership have left few other places for music and culture to flourish. 

Akram Hassan, a Gazan musician and performer, last year summed it up for the Electronic Intifada:

“Prior to the Israeli siege of Gaza four years ago, I managed to participate in a series of music festivals in the Arab world including in Morocco and Cairo. But since 2006 I have been stuck in Gaza due to the Israeli closure.”

Launching more than bombs

Cultural propaganda campaigns launched this year reflected the overt racism and drive toward further oppression that the state of Israel and its supporters seek. The advertisements ranged in their racist approach but the message was unequivocally vile in each case. The hateful anti-Muslim advertisements are, in majority, financed by the ultra-Islamophobic hyper-Zionist Pamela Geller and her organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative, although the organization Stand With Us has fronted costs toward similar anti-Palestinian projects as well. 

These bigoted banners can be found in transit facilities in Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and other metropolitan areas despite avid legal challenges that such ads constitute demeaning and hateful speech. In a post on Geller’s blog Atlas Shrugs (feel free to troll her site) she claimed the CTA only agreed to run the ads after her organization threatened legal action against the transit agency. 

One of the first designs to appear on the derriere of a public transit bus, featured a bold white font with the statement, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel -- Defeat Jihad.” There was also an additional version run, that featured the language, “Support the Copts” instead of “Support Israel,” although it isn’t abundantly clear what relation Geller’s group has to the situation in Egypt -- and why they’re bringing the Copts into this. 

In both instances there are no images, no clever visual devices. There’s a simple reason for this. These hyper-Zionist organizations can’t use visuals, they can’t depict the horrors of the situation. Because when illustrated, what is actually happening to the Palestinian people is beyond horrifying. If little girls, and young boys missing limbs were shown blown to pieces, and the architectural fallout after a bombardment was graphically designed, there is no “civilized man” to be found. So instead public transit passengers get big bold, (red) white (and blue) lettering bombarding them.

These ads are deliberately designed to create a narrative in which Israel is the lone outpost of culture and civilization among a sea of barbarism, deliberately ignoring the long and influential history laid out above. That’s also the basic line of argument emerging from the Israeli government when it comes to culture -- albeit frequently a lot less blunt.

Geller is cut from cruder cloth than most of Israel’s vast public relations campaigns. But while it should be stated clearly that there’s no official connection between Geller’s crew and the state of Israel, she is working within a context created by US empire’s steadfast support for Israel’s apartheid state.

Since the launch of the international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Israeli politicians have become both brazen and open in how all culture -- be it music, art, dance or anything else -- plays the role of “hasbara,” or propaganda, for the state. If ads like the AFDI’s are a blunt instrument, then the close relationship between the state and cultural institutions are a finely sharpened sword in the apartheid regime’s war for hearts and minds.

Since 2005, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has poured millions into cultural efforts to burnish the country’s image. Speaking candidly, officials have referred to Israel’s “public image problem” while in the next breath stumping for the Israeli Philharmonic’s performances abroad. Or they’ve made sure that European ballet tours have brought with them pamphlets promoting Israel as a tourist spot to festoon the lobbies.

One particularly notorious piece of evidence came in ‘05 from Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Nissim Ben-Sheetrit: "We are seeing culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture."

All of this can explain why so much ink has been spilled promoting concerts in Tel Aviv from Madonna to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Justin Bieber (when Bieber arrived in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly insisted on getting a photo op with the teen idol). It explains why Alice Walker was so vehemently denounced this past summer when she observed the cultural boycott by refusing to let The Color Purple be translated and published in Israel. 

What’s at stake for Israel that makes culture so important? In a word, legitimacy. The concerns of Israel’s public image go hand-in-hand with great fears of “delegitimizing.” Campaigns of an economic nature have had more of a material impact, but if the Israeli government views culture so crucially as an element of propaganda then it’s no wonder that they are so fearful of artists’ refusal to let their art be used in such a crass way.

Fighting racism and Zionism, culturally 

Artists and activists are getting creative and effective in their efforts to (in some cases) literally stamp out these messages of hate. Palestine solidarity, and anti-racist groups organized in areas where these ads were launched to counter these hate-filled efforts, and turned out in large numbers to plaster and lob corrections and condemnations at these walled propaganda pieces. 

In many cases large glittery pink stickers with one bold word, “Racist,” were lobbed onto posters in transit transfer hallways. In others, whole sentences were reworked to newly read, “In any war between the colonizer and the colonized, support the oppressed. Support the Palestinian right of return. Defeat Racism.” 

Some activists like Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American journalist, relied on simple spray paint and red duct tape with cut-outs resembling rubber stamps saying, “Hate Speech,” to improve the signs. Eltahawy was among those arrested for their acts of protest. Muslim community members, and cultural organizers also staged leaflettings, and petition drives on site, in front, of these racist advertisements. Community members like, Javerea Khan continuously passed out informational pamphlets in subway stations where these advertisements were hung. 

“Where is the protection of religion in America?” wondered Khan, 22, a Pakistani-born Muslim from the Bronx. “The word ‘savage’ really bothers the Muslim community. But it’s hard for me to look at this poster and take it seriously.” She has a point, it is a tired, centuries-used justification for extermination, one would think humanity would have gotten over using by now, however it must be taken seriously -- because Israel takes the extermination of Palestinians seriously. 

Activist networks should be commended on the phenomenal job of artistically answering an anti-racist call; coming together on short notice to stamp out bigoted hate speech. More actions like this will be unfortunately necessary as the Zionist groups seem to have no shortage of funding for these projects -- something that translates to Israel itself, receiving some eight million dollars a day from the U.S. 

The call for cultural boycott has gained much needed steam in recent years. Atrocities such as Israel’s deadly attack on the supply-laden flotilla bound for Gaza in May of 2010 convinced a bevy of musicians (the Klaxons, the Pixies, Gorillaz and others) to cancel their appearances at Israeli summer music festivals. Filmmakers like Ken Loach have become prominent spokespeople for the global BDS call, so too have art critics like John Berger. 

Campaigns urging artists to cancel appearances in Israel or at events connected with Zionist groups (such as the “Brand Israel” campaign) have become louder and more widespread since the flotilla attack. Often, bands or artists will find themselves confronted with the BDS message at other events in Europe or North America, completely catching them off-guard.

Of course, one of the most beloved arguments hurled at the call for cultural boycott has been that it shuts down dialogue, that campaigners are violating a right to free speech and flow of ideas. Supporters of BDS see it differently, and rightfully so. Given that Israel is already engaged in the systematic silencing of Palestinian voices, the denial of legitimacy for such practices can only enhance those same voices on the world’s stage.

Musician Dave Randall, who has played with notable acts and wrote the “Freedom for Palestine” single released last summer, confronts the “free speech” arguments thusly:

“[T]he fact of the matter is that gigs take place in a much bigger social and political context. For the vast majority of people, what playing a show in Israel signifies is business as usual -- that there’s nothing wrong or different in the way that this state operates, that it’s a liberal democracy that acts like any other. And of course, that’s not true; it isn’t a liberal democracy. In the case of Israel, I think it’s absolutely correct to take up the call from Palestinian civil society to boycott.”

In the words of Omar Barghouti, journalist and dance choreographer, “our South Africa moment has arrived.” It’s a telling description, pulling on the campaign against South African apartheid, when so many artists around the world refused to entertain that country’s regime. 

Open culture vs. the open-air prison

Much has been said, both in and outside of left movements, about the cruelty of the Holocaust -- capitalism’s greatest crime -- being twisted around to justify the dispossession of Palestine. While history will most certainly always acknowledge the world's Jewish population to be the greatest victim of Hitler’s atrocities, the final victims will be found in the West Bank and Gaza. The cynicism with which an entire people’s suffering was then bent into another round of naked imperial aggression is the kind of stuff that freezes hearts stock still.

As the world was still reeling from World War II in 1949, cultural critic Theodor Adorno spoke of the mass mechanized genocide carried out by the Nazis, and commented that the continued pace of bourgeois society was turning the world into a vast “open-air prison.” Though drawing direct parallels would be crude and do a disservice on both ends of history, it’s not infrequent to hear visitors refer, as Noam Chomsky put it, to Gaza as “the world’s largest open-air prison.” Quite often, history makes your arguments for you.

In the same passage, Adorno wrote that the prospect of poetry after Auschwitz seemed barbaric. It’s a quote often taken out of context. Adorno himself clarified it later, for one thing pointing out that the same cold-blooded, brutally numeric logic of capitalism -- the logic found in Auschwitz -- could also be found in the west’s actions in Indochina. What’s more, while reaffirming the right of humans to express their inner turmoil, insisted that the calculation of organized destruction and death made life’s beauty seem more foreign and removed than ever. 

It’s a hard sentiment to deny amidst the kind of unrelenting brutality being rained upon Gaza now. In some ways, though, the trajectory of art and culture over the past sixty years had also proven how resilient the oppressed human can be, and in turn how much more necessary the arts become. In few places is this more apparent or vibrant than in Palestine, and it makes the defense of such a culture absolutely essential. 

The incomparable Arundhati Roy, when talking of anti-imperialism, laid it out in an article at the height of the Iraq war. It was, in some ways, a declaration of total war on a system that has a penchant for declaring war. What artists have to bring in this declaration is, hopefully, obvious:

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”

After sixty years of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, of imposed silence and deaf ears from the world, the Palestinian people need more than ever a chance to have their stories amplified.

First published at Red Wedge magazine

Monday, November 5, 2012

What Artists Won't Get This Election

Written in collaboration with the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine.

It’s not often that people talk about artists as an “interest group.” The way that the very process of creation -- to say nothing of art itself -- is obscured and manipulated in our world makes it rather hard to figure out what artists’ interests actually are. Add to this the stifling narrowness of the American political system, whose very reason for existence is to convince people support policies that prolong their own suffering, and it’s really no wonder that the arts haven’t come up during the election cycle.

There have been elections in the past that have brought up the arts -- even then it’s normally in a negative way. One thinks of Reagan’s campaign trail attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts or Clinton going out of his way to blame Sistah Souljah and rap music for the LA riots when this comes to mind. This time around, barely a peep from Romney or Obama.

Be that as it is, it needs to be stated strongly: if our arts are to be as vibrant and urgent as most readers of Red Wedge likely want it to be, then absolutely no hope for them can be placed on these candidates. The same could likely be said for just about any number of issues relevant to most working-class voters.

Art as necessity

At first, it might seem that concerns for art and culture pale in comparison to society’s many other ailments. We’ve just witnessed a hurricane -- whose very existence can likely be chalked up to climate change -- devastate large portion of the Northeast, including one of the world’s largest cities. Despite all the arm-waving over “good job numbers,” unemployment remains high and decent jobs all-too-few. The percentage of Americans who hold racist ideas has actually gone up over the past four years. Empire has not only continued unopposed, but between kill-lists and drone strikes, one might argue it’s become even more powerful.

Far from being something separate, though, the arts are tied up quite intimately with all of these. It is difficult to point to the ways in which artists can express society’s deepest pains and anxieties without resorting to hyperbole, so perhaps it’s best to let the greats do it for us:

Frida Kahlo: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”

George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

And, possibly most relevant, Ernst Fischer: “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”

Backing up for a bit, it’s worth acknowledging that modern mainstream politics for the most part sees the arts as a luxury rather than a necessity. This isn’t because politicians are unaware of art’s incendiary, subversive potential, but rather because of it.

Of course, any attempt to keep art hermetically sealed from the rest of the world completely ignores the fact that humans have created art pretty much as long as they’ve had opposable thumbs and a frontal lobe. Given that humans are by their nature creative (the only species that can labor) it’s no wonder that archeologists keep finding cave paintings that go all the way back to the dawn of our species.

This silence also flies in the face of the basic truth that there isn’t a single person on this planet for whom art, music, literature and so on isn’t part of their lives. “Cultural policies” are rarely spoken about by any public official or in the nightly news, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Even something as mundane as renting a DVD is the result of a material and political basis that allows us to do so.

After all, someone had to make the movie, distribute it, manufacture the DVD, ship it to rental boxes all over the country. Not to mention that there had to be the possibility for the movie’s subject matter to be considered “acceptable” in one way or another. It will likely be no news to readers of Red Wedge that to us, arts and culture have the potential to be a lot more than merely something to be consumed in such a fashion as this.

What exactly does this have to do with elections, let alone Obama and Romney? Well, in a nutshell, every controversy having to do with the arts is related in one way or another to a certain section of people deeming certain kinds of art unacceptable. When that same section of people holds society’s purse-strings, then we’re in real trouble.

For much of the 20th century, this kind of monetary control of art, the subjection of art itself to the vicissitudes of the “free market,” was at least somewhat kept at bay. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal created special programs for painters, musicians and writers to find work. Artists that took advantage of these programs and made a name for themselves partially as a result of their existence included Ben Shahn, Pete Seeger’s father Charles, Alan Lomax, Jackson Pollock and many other cultural heavyweights.

Most of these programs were gutted during and after World War II, but were partially revived by the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1960s. And state to state, city to city, it used to be not such a hard task to find public arts and rec centers that would provide a space for young people to get the creative basics.

Even when it came to the private sector, there were certain restrictions on what record labels, film companies and radio stations could and could not do, reflecting at least a tacit acceptance that too much corporate control of the arts was a bad thing. The past thirty years have seen this consensus dashed away by shouts of “privatize, privatize, privatize.” Regulations on television and radio have been gutted, private companies control all but a tiny fraction of mainstream arts, and the policies of a Romney or Obama administration would do little to nothing to change this.

Big Bird on the bread line

The ways in which a Mitt Romney administration would be bad for the arts aren’t hard to find. Here is a man who goes out of his way to insist in the first presidential debate that he “likes Big Bird” and then went on to say he would cut all government funding for the Public Broadcasting Service. All funny memes aside (and there are some that have been downright hilarious), the notion of cutting funding for PBS is truly a horrifying one. Public television’s expressed intent is to bring culture to low income people who might otherwise not ever have the chance to experience it.

What’s more, as has been pointed out by many a commentator, funding for PBS makes up a whopping 0.012 percent of the federal budget, and would barely put a ding in the deficit. It’s also a tiny, almost miniscule fraction on what is spent on foreign wars and tax cuts for the rich.

Romney is obviously at home in a Republican Party completely and utterly obsessed with slashing anything that might have anything to do with the public sector. From Planned Parenthood government funding to deriding ObamaCare health as “socialist” to every single attempt at labeling public sector workers lazy and entitled, these people won’t be satisfied until everything under the sun is in private hands and placed at the service of profit above all else.

Mere months after the February, 2011 uprising in Wisconsin, Sarah Palin went out of her way to place public arts in particular in her own crosshairs:

“NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars -- those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids.”

Frivolous. That’s what the GOP’s most popular personalities think about access to culture. Around the same time that Palin was leading the charge, a majority of congressional Republicans favored eliminating these programs entirely.

During the course of his own campaign, and well before the Big Bird hubbub, Romney has shown himself willing to run with this same baton. Last year, at the height of the Republican primaries, he wrote an editorial for USA Today that laid out his plans for balancing the federal budget best summed up as “eliminate every government program that is not absolutely essential. There are many things government does that we may like but that we do not need.”

Elaborating later, Romney writes that he would “Enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”

As the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Boehm points out, this squares with Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, when he firmly opposed any state increase in cultural spending. Romney was frequently overridden by the legislature. Nonetheless, it’s not too far off to imagine a Romney presidency, especially aided by a Republican congress, following through on his promises to more or less gut what little public access to the arts there is left in this country.

Obama’s silence on culture

Barack Obama’s election as president was significant for many reasons. One of the reasons that still hasn’t gotten a lot of play is that Obama seemed to be the first president in a good long while who actually had a cultural policy of any note.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, the Obama camp released what they called the “Platform In Support of the Arts.” Looking at the bullet points, at least at first glance, it was difficult to say that any of them weren’t welcome: “Reinvest in Arts Education,” “Create an Artists Corps,” “Provide Health Care To Artists.”

The only problem? None of it has actually happened. At least not on any kind of significant level. True, Obama’s administration has injected a few more million dollars into the NEA, but it still remains one of the most underfunded government programs out there.

No Artists Corps has been created. Obama’s “Race to the Top” educational policy, which front-loads the privatization of public education and busting of teachers unions, leaves little room for reinvesting in arts education. Music, drama and arts continue to be the first departments eliminated when school systems tighten their belts.

As for health care for artists, they’re likely lumped in with the rest of working people in the US, who will be forced to buy substandard private insurance plans that barely cover the common cold.

Chalk it up to being among the many campaign promises that didn’t even see the light of day after Obama took office. Much like shutting down Guantanamo and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a robust cultural policy just seems to be one of those things that has conveniently disappeared.

There’s no doubt that millions of people who consider themselves progressive or even radical -- including many artists -- will be voting Obama on November 6th, seeing him as the lesser evil and a bulwark against Romney. These people are certainly worth sympathizing with. But will things actually get any better -- culturally or otherwise -- under a second Obama term?

One might actually say they’ve gotten worse. It’s easy to forget that it was Obama’s Justice Department that approved the merger between Ticketmaster and LiveNation, essentially allowing the two companies to constitute a monopoly in the mainstream live music market.

There’s a reason that Obama could allow all of this to go down like it has. At its core, the Democratic Party represents that same basic interests as the Republicans: that of the one percent. The only difference is in how those interests should be preserved. When the chips are down (or even when they’re relatively up), both parties are willing to close ranks.

Take, as an example, the Parentsl Music Resource Center (PMRC), whose campaigns against rock and rap in the 1980s, along with the congressional hearings the group helped foster, represented some of the worst attacks on popular culture since the McCarthy era. It would be easy to think that the PMRC was just some loony initiative coming from the right-wing. Loony it may have been, but its founders sat on both sides of the aisles: Tipper Gore, wife of a Democratic senator on one end, and Susan Baker, wife of Reagan’s Secretary of Treasury on the other.

As Todd Chretien argues: “Mitt Romney is disgusting. But Obama and the Democrats want us to play by the rules of the game determined by the intensity of the capitalist crisis: austerity, poverty, war, repression. Those are rules we have to break, and the sooner we start learning how, the better.”

Creating a fightback

There is, of course, an alternative to the two candidates whose aim it is to preside over more poverty, more war and racism (not to mention a moribund cultural policy). That alternative is probably easier to find than ever before. Occupy. The Chicago teachers strike. Solidarity with the Arab Spring and the struggle against austerity in Europe.

It’s certainly no coincidence that all of these struggles have brought with them a cultural face quite different from the stagnancy of the establishment. At its height, Occupy unleashed an outpouring of dynamic creativity -- from lively propaganda posters to writers and musicians looking to support in any way they can.

As has been chronicled here at Red Wedge, the Chicago Teachers Union put access to arts education at the front of their struggle against Rahm Emanuel. They’ll likely continue to do so in their fight against school closures. And the Arab Spring’s influence on music and arts across the Middle East and North Africa continue to be updated and documented.

Still more opportunities will exist to question our cultural norms as more and more struggles take hold. The fight by Wal-Mart workers for decent treatment that has recently sprung up might present one such opportunity. After all, the Walton family has funded many conservative cultural causes, and their massive store chain refuses to carry books, CDs or DVDs they find “objectionable,” while gladly schlepping the likes of Ann Coulter and Larry the Cable Guy. Not to mention guns. Lots and lots of guns.

There are sure to be more chances to ask what a really and truly engaged culture might look like. Hopefully there will also be chances in the near future to put a fundamentally different society on the table -- one where everyone from garbage collectors to painters have the space to thrive. They’ll only come when we take matters into our own hands.

Boots Riley of revolutionary hip-hop group the Coup probably summed it up the best in his recent piece on the elections:

“We need a radical militant mass labor movement that turns into a revolutionary movement that changes this whole system. And short of that, we need a radical militant mass labor movement just to get higher wages, free health care, free higher education, and to stop foreclosures and evictions. Or are you going to wait and wonder why the guy you voted for keeps not doing what he says he was going to do?”

First appeared at Red Wedge magazine