Stealing Back the Air

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1210, August 17, 2003, posted at

"The whole idea is to crush any kind of dissent. Something is happening now that is very dark and very sinister in this country, and for us to not admit it is happening is, in some ways, for us to be blind."

Danny Glover, May 21, 2003

It began shortly after September 11, 2001 when TV comic Bill Maher made the observation that the actions of the hijackers took nerve, while dropping bombs on people from thousands of feet up--as the U.S. military does--is "cowardly." This remark was uttered on Politically Incorrect , Maher's nightly network show (later cancelled), and the next day Bush's PR flack, Ari Fleischer, told the country to "watch what you say."

A nationwide battle for hearts and minds was underway. Within days, Bush would further clarify the terms with his fanatical declaration to the U.S. populace and to the world: "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists." Who could forget that night? Televisions blaring Bush's speech in every restaurant and bar, an atmosphere so coercive one could imagine that a trip to the bathroom during the broadcast might be noted as an act of disloyalty by who-knew-who at the next table.

In the weeks and months following, the stakes rose as each punitive new post-9/11 measure came crashing down, wave upon wave: the invasion of Afghanistan, the round-ups of immigrants, the passage of the Patriot-blueprint-for-a-police-state-Act by a virtually unanimous Congress, followed by another invasion of a starved-out sovereign country after months of U.S. lies and maneuvering...

Many folks were looking around last summer...would this terrible monster be allowed to grow unimpeded? On October 6, 2002, a river of people poured into New York City's Central Park. Actor Susan Sarandon spoke to the protesters: "I have been feeling so isolated, so lonely, so convinced by the mainstream media that I'm out of my mind to be worried about this path that we are taking towards this war. Do we the people really want to be a new Rome that imposes its rule by the use of overwhelming force whenever its interests are threatened?"

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. Finally, a mass gathering to oppose the war in Iraq. And finally some voices of conscience who could be heard over the noxious din of the evening newscast -- this time saying eloquently you cannot do this in our name. The 25,000 people in the park were also joined by Martin Sheen, Gabriel Byrne, Suheir Hammad, Saul Williams, Tim Robbins, David Byrne, André Gregory, Oscar Brown Jr.--all artists who felt compelled to speak out publicly against the war.

By 5 that afternoon, standing on the lawn of the East Meadow, you felt part of something new and potentially powerful. A resistance movement had been born. An uncommon outpouring from artists in every medium would indelibly mark and enrich this movement. Even as the government arrogantly pushed ahead with their invasion plans, the Rolling Stone reported on half a dozen nationally known musicians who shifted recording schedules to produce special songs in protest; dozens more antiwar tracks turned up on the internet.

In February, after receiving an invitation to a White House poetry symposium, poet Sam Hamill solicited antiwar poems from friends to send to Laura Bush. He received over 12,000 poems, "the largest group of poets ever to speak in a single voice in all of recorded history." Fearing this poetic expression of resistance, Laura Bush cancelled the White House reading, but countless readings followed, including one at Lincoln Center that brought together poet laureates, slam champions and hip hop stars. In March, a movement of theater artists (THAW) held a "day against the war" involving over 130 New York City theaters. Visual artists organized "Drawn-Ins" and "Erase-Ins" at the Metropolitan Museum to shine a light on the destruction of the antiquities of Iraq, a 12,000-year-old civilization that had survived conquests by Emperor Heraclius and Genghis Khan, but not General Tommy Franks.

The Academy Awards--where expression of political resistance in past years has been frowned on by Oscar authorities--became a platform for a number of film artists who wore peace buttons and spoke against the war. The highlight--a brave statement by award-winning documentarian Michael Moore, who denounced Bush and the war before an international TV audience of 1 billion.

Artists helped create a climate in which challenging government edicts could be done in public. Concert tours, poetry readings, and art exhibitions took on antiwar themes; new plays were created and old ones refitted. As early as May 2002, musicians from the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! put together an antiwar concert at L.A.'s Hollywood Palace, ArtSpeaks Against the War: Not in Our Name . (A film of the evening premiered in July 2003.) And on a single day last March, theater artists organized 600 readings of the ancient Greek antiwar play, Lysistrata , producing new translations of the work and inspiring collaborations among hundreds of actors, directors and producers across the U.S. and the world.

Artists were among the first to say out-loud and in unison, "We will not give up our right to question. We will not hand over our consciences in return for a hollow promise of safety. We say NOT IN OUR NAME."

One of the most powerful expressions of dissent, the Not in Our Name Statement of Conscience,* began to break the ice in the spring of 2002. It was signed by artists, public intellectuals and activists, a group which The Guardian (UK) described as the "widest ranging group of opponents of government policy since September 11." The statement helped puncture the myth of consensus early on by presenting a comprehensive indictment of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies of war abroad and repression at home. It would eventually be signed by world-renowned artists like Tony Kushner, Mos Def, Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Altman, Richard Serra, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Eve Ensler and many others.

The Statement of Conscience became part of and influenced a movement that went way beyond the U.S. borders. In May 2003, the Lusaka Post (Zambia) published an editorial entitled "Don't Hate Americans" informing their readers: "despite the enormous influence of the media war, there was a growing anti-war [movement] that began to manifest itself from the moment of the announcement and preparation of the genocide against the people of Iraq, and has a worthy antecedent in the "Not in Our Name" declaration signed by thousands of the most distinguished artists and intellectuals of the United States, reflecting the rebelliousness, lucidity and spirit of justice."

As its departure point, the Statement of Conscience took responsibility for the injustices our own government is perpetrating. Several months later, as the invasion of Iraq loomed, other protest statements appeared, signed by artists. Among these was the "Win Without War" statement--which opposed the war on Iraq, but accepted U.S. and UN objectives in disarming Saddam Hussein, and, to my mind, left people unprepared to deal with the lies of the U.S. government and the unjust nature of the war. Some artists signed both statements and healthy debate ensued, which continues to this day. (See RW No. 1182 "Now More Than Ever: Not In Our Name," posted at

*Since September 2002 when it was published in the New York Times , the statement has attracted over 65,000 signers. Through their efforts and contributions, it has appeared in over 70 publications, including most major U.S. newspapers and many small-town papers. It has been translated into over a dozen languages and published in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It is the one statement of the past year that continues to speak to the times and is still being published (this fall it will appear in the Houston Chronicle ).

The artists who opposed this war were legion, and there was nothing remotely equivalent on the other side. Think back -- who can name more than three popular artists in any field who stumped for the Bush crusade? Bruce Willis, James Woods, Toby Keith and a few other country acts, and, and....

It has to be a source of embarrassment, not to mention profound concern, to the current kings of the world that they were unable to beg, bribe, or coerce more than a few of the country's dramatists, musicians, actors, filmmakers and poets to cheerlead for their unjust invasion.

What this phenomenon indicates about how deep and broad the river of discontent runs in this country is important to recognize. And it has created some truly surreal episodes.

Take the Dixie Chicks. In the run-up to the war, their lead singer Natalie Maines made a casual remark on-stage in the UK that she was ashamed to be from the same state as George Bush. Overnight, the biggest-selling female group in America was hit with the combined weight of a national hard-right spin machine and the entertainment industry monopoly, Clear Channel, which controls over 1200 radio stations and numerous concert venues.

A highly orchestrated campaign erupted, including boycotts, bannings and CD-crushings by rednecks-on-tractors ensued. Apparently, a group with an audience that reached this deeply into the mainstream would not be permitted to veer even slightly from the go-America script. "Dixie- chicked" became a verb.

The Dixie Chicks are not radicals. Although their tunes include some songs with real kick-- "Good-bye Earl" comes to mind, an upbeat tune about the dismemberment of a wife-beater by his wife's girlfriends--they have also enthusiastically sung the "Star Spangled Banner" at the Rose Bowl. But by March 2003, the acts of this government had become so extreme that Natalie Maines and millions like her felt morally compelled to draw a line between themselves and George Bush. Were we living in a country where the head of state could not even be questioned? Do so at your peril, was the message from the shameless Diane Sawyer, who interviewed the band for ABC TV in the middle of the fracas.

During what amounted to an hour-long public prosecution, Sawyer, using her best girl-talk manner, chastised Natalie for betraying the troops, her career, her band mates, and her fans. And, as if to demonstrate that when "persuasion" and demoralizing do not do the trick, open terror is an option (this was wartime after all), at every station break ABC replayed a radio recording of a wacko caller threatening to strap Natalie to a missile and send her to Baghdad.

But the Dixie Chicks--even amidst their repeated vows of patriotism and support for the troops-- never gave up their right to question the government. And Sawyer could not get Natalie to beg for "forgiveness"--allegedly demanded by their fans. Maines commented afterwards: "People think this'll scare us and shut us up and it's gonna do the opposite. They just served themselves a huge headache." Indeed, the band immediately took off on a highly successful tour. "The incident" became a defiant centerpiece of the concerts, with their song "Truth No. 2" accompanied by footage of protest marches for civil rights and abortion rights followed by burnings of books and Dixie Chick CDs. "You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth," sang Natalie Maines to a cheering Madison Square Garden crowd.

Dixie Chick CD sales soon rebounded -- which indicated that even among lovers of country pop, even in post-9/11 America, many people prefer spunky integrity over my-country-right-or wrong groveling.

The powers overreached that time, but the warning remained in effect: criticize the government, the president, the program, and even the most popular artist could be threatened, ridiculed, even accused of "aiding the enemy," no minor matter in these days of Ashcroftian madness.

Public threats against outspoken artists ("traitors lists" abounded on the internet) were just the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes pressure to shut the hell up. Madonna (who in the late '80s braved the Christian Fascists' attack on her iconoclastic "Like a Prayer") decided to pull her video of "American Life," which presented the U.S. war machine as a lights-flashing obscenity, presided over by a smirking W who lights his cigar with a tossed hand grenade. Describing the kind of heat that came down even before the video was released, she said in an interview on VH1: "...You know it's ironic we're fighting for democracy in Iraq because we ultimately aren't celebrating democracy here. Because anybody who has anything to say against the war or against the president or whatever--is punished..."

* * *

As it became clear that the artists would not shut up and that people were listening, the system's pundits tried to run out the line that artists have no "right" to speak to the public on political matters. Janeane Garafolo is an actor and comedian who bravely entered the talk-show war-zones in the run-up to the invasion; she reports back: "They love to pretend that if you are in entertainment, that's what defines you and you can't possibly have any knowledge of what's going on in the news. So you have grown adult anchors and media people who are literally acting like 12- year-olds, saying, `You shut up. You don't know anything.' Literally treating you with the contempt of a schoolyard bully."

These red-meat DJs were actually offering a demonstration of the kind of the know-nothing arrogant citizenry well-suited for the new-style American Empire of 2003--and their broadcasts provide training sessions for those troops. (It's revealing that when the war wound down, these shows refused to bring the dissenting artists back unless they would come on-air to "apologize." None did as far as I know.)

But it's worth taking a deeper look at this question. What right do artists have to speak on politics? And why is it important for the masses of people to support them when they are attacked?

A starting point, as Danny Glover has put it: "We artists are first of all citizens of the world." Poet Saul Williams observed last fall: "What I'm fighting for doesn't seem to be the same thing that the regime that's in power seems to be fighting for. That needs to be said. And if other people feel the same way they need to say it, otherwise no one is going to know it."

It's a part of who these artists are that they care about these issues and know something about the world. And while the main contribution of artists is through their art, when artists use their "public voice" to oppose injustice it helps create space for the resistance of the masses.

Conscious and courageous artists like Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover have long been counted on to speak out. But this past winter something else happened. Unexpected voices joined in: Sheryl Crow on "Good Morning America" wearing a T-shirt declaring, "This is not my war, Mr. Bush;" Dustin Hoffman at a Berlin film festival saying, "I believe this war is about what most wars are about--hegemony, money, power and oil"; George Clooney telling Charlie Rose that "the government is running exactly like The Sopranos ." Sean Penn actually went Iraq to investigate and bear witness to what the U.S. government was perpetrating, and his actions helped give backbone to others in Hollywood to voice out.

One factor shaping the outrage against the war was the fact that many of these prominent artists felt totally betrayed by the Democratic Party. The stark post-9/11 reality was that virtually the entire ruling class joined as one behind the Bush resolutions on Iraq. (As the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, Richard Gephardt, said of the Republicans, "There has been no daylight between us in this war on terrorism.")

This feeling of betrayal was aggravated by the severe shutdown of discourse in the media (described by Sean Penn as: "an environment largely exemplified by mistrust, dishonesty and censorship"). The U.S. airwaves, always the house organ for the powerful, had become an even stranger and more terrible place after 9/11.

At a certain point, for many artists with celebrity and conscience, going out in public and not commenting on the impending invasion became a statement to the world. And this was especially acute since everyone knew these artists were some of the only dissenting voices permitted on the national airwaves. So, many artists took a chance, and took responsibility for speaking out.

There is a lot to chew on here. To me, the near-unanimity among the ruling class in welcoming this ugly steamroller of war and repression is further evidence for why we have to get rid of this empire and all the misery it brings down. But one does not have to be a student of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to see that an atmosphere of resistance and mass non-compliance with this draconian new order is urgently needed.

In this regard, the craven elected officials stand in screaming contrast to the artists and other public figures who risked professional ostracism, public rebuke, and even repression so that a voice of conscience could find expression in this land. This was perfectly plain to millions when it was happening last winter.

Now, as the 2004 electoral machine aims to rivet people's attention to the backsides of another set of "lesser evils" and deceptions, it is crucial to get clear on what it takes to change the world.

In the year 2003, people in the U.S. joined the people of the world in mounting the largest protest against an impending war ever seen in the history of the planet, and eventually forced this government to go into Iraq thug-naked, scorned by billions, and lacking even the UN figleaf or cooperation of their usual allies. This was a real accomplishment--a movement that seemed unthinkable in the days after September 11--and the artists played an important part in stealing back the air. We got a glimpse of how it feels when millions of people can't live in the old way and take responsibility for changing the world. Just a few short months ago we were changing the conversation, taking our own measures, singing our own song, and doing it in concert with the people of the world. And, as the special issue of the RW "Bad Moon Rising" brought home (see, it is urgent that this resistance find new expression and breathe life into a profound culture of resistance to the killing program emanating from the halls of power.

I will not dance to your war drum....

I will not dance to your drummed up war....

I will craft my own drum.

Gather my beloved near

and our chanting will be dancing.

Our humming will be drumming.

I will not be played.

I will not lend my name

nor my rhythm to your beat.

I will dance and resist

and dance and persist and dance.

This heartbeat is louder than death.

Your war drum ain't louder than this breath.

Suheir Hammad

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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