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Paul Robeson’s songs and deeds light the way for the fight against Trump;  #BecomeUngovernable

24 Feb

The great American radical showed how ordinary people mattered more than stars – a lesson today’s celebrities could do with learning.

These are strange times for popular music and politics. On the one hand, the opposition to Donald Trump now extends so deeply into the entertainment industry that the president struggled to find any real talent willing to play his inauguration.

On the other hand, it’s by no means clear what difference most anti-Trump interventions by musicians actually make. After all, during the election, the galaxy of A-listers backing Hillary Clinton spectacularly failed to generate either turnout or votes, with some pundits even suggesting the campaign’s reliance on celebrity power legitimised Trump’s claim to fighting “liberal elites”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of music and the uses of fame over the last few years, as I’ve worked on my book No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson.

The son of an escaped slave, Paul Robeson graduated Phi Beta Kappa on a scholarship from Rutgers before studying law at Columbia university. He was arguably the greatest footballer of his generation (some say of all time); he played basketball professionally and was seriously tipped as a heavyweight contender to fight Jack Dempsey. He was handsome and impossibly charismatic, spellbinding, prize-winning orator, who could sing in over 20 languages, including Russian, Chinese, Yiddish and a number of African tongues.

Robeson launched his vocal career in the mid-1920s with reinterpretations of spirituals, the “sorrow songs” of the American plantations. The spirituals expressed the misery of slavery through biblical themes but their innate ambiguity also allowed Robeson to voice the preoccupations of the Harlem Renaissance.

For instance, Go Down, Moses celebrated the release of the Israelites from bondage. But when Robeson sang “let my people go”, his audience understood the challenge to all present-day pharaohs.

Likewise, the exquisite Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child emerged out of the familial separations of slavery. Robeson’s rendition, however, also spoke to the experience of the Great Migration, the process in which African Americans left their homes to flee north for jobs and an escape from racist violence.

 

 

In 1930, Robeson played Othello in London. At that time, the part was always given to a white actor in dark makeup on the more-or-less explicit basis that a black man could not convey the deep humanity of Elizabethan tragedy.

Robeson’s critical and popular triumph not only reshaped Shakespearean theatre, it also struck a blow against the assumptions underpinning Jim Crow America.

You can hear Robeson explaining and performing the final monologue from Othello in this concert recording:

Though Robeson became a huge Hollywood star (in films such as Show Boat, Sanders of the River, The Proud Valley and so on), he consistently struggled to find parts worthy of his talents.

As a musician, he enjoyed more freedom. Critics urged him to embrace a traditional operatic or classical repertoire, but his deepening political commitments led him to identify as a folk singer, assiduously learning languages to perform the songs of different cultures in their original form.

“The artist must take sides,” he announced. “He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

That declaration was made in the context of the Spanish civil war, a conflict that Robeson, like many others, recognised as the last opportunity to prevent the advance of fascism. He travelled to the Spanish front line in support of the International Brigades, a multiracial, anti-fascist army based on volunteers drawn from almost every country in the world.

In besieged Madrid, the desperate Republicans quite literally deployed Robeson’s music as a weapon, rigging up loudspeakers so that his bass baritone carried to the fascist trenches.

But it was probably in America in the 1940s that Robeson used his celebrity most effectively, in a prolonged campaign against segregation that predated the more famous boycotts of the civil rights era.

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For instance, in a concert in Kansas City, Robeson stopped singing when he realised that, contrary to what he’d been promised, his audience was divided along racial lines. When the booking agent apologized, the victory spurred a broader campaign against discrimination in the state. As the historian Gerald Horne says, “Robeson was a kind of Pied Piper of anti-Jim Crow, journeying from city to city inspiring fellow crusaders.”

In the 1930s, Robeson had visited Moscow and the apparent absence of anti-black feeling amazed him. For the rest of his life, he remained an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet dictatorship, backing the regime even as news of Stalinist atrocities spread.

Not surprisingly, during the cold war, red baiters in the US increasingly targeted him.

By 1952, Robeson had become, in Pete Seeger’s words, “the most blacklisted performer in America”. The FBI intimidated promoters to deny him venues while radio stations refused to play his records, which were no longer available in the shops. He couldn’t sing at a commercial hall, no producer would put him on stage, and his movie career had long since come to an end. Worse still, the state department denied him a passport, trapping him inside the US.

The destruction of Robeson’s reputation dates from that period, a time when attending a Robeson concert became a suspicious act and sporting records were surreptitiously revised to disguise his past achievements.

Many other figures smeared during McCarthyism – Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, WEB Du Bois, etc – have been subsequently rehabilitated. Robeson’s ongoing obscurity stems from his obstinate refusal to recant or back down.

“I am a radical,” he insisted, “and I am going to stay one until my people get free to walk the Earth.”

Called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, he was asked why, given his beliefs, he remained in the United States.

“Because my father was a slave,” he replied. “And my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear”’

When he won his passport back in 1958, he embarked on a worldwide tour. You can glimpse something of Robeson’s effectiveness as a political singer in the film that survives from his visit to Australia.

 

 

Famously, Robeson gave the first ever recital at the Sydney Opera House – a concert delivered to the trade unionists constructing the building.

In that performance, Robeson sang Ol’ Man River, his best-known track.

The song – from the musical Show Boat – was composed with Robeson in mind by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, as a conscious imitation of the spirituals. Robeson initially thought the role of Joe in Show Boat to be demeaning – before changing his mind and then utterly dominating both the stage show and the subsequent movie.

In their original form, the lyrics spoke of phlegmatic African American resignation to misery and oppression.

Ah gits weary

An’ sick of tryin’

Ah’m tired of livin’

An’ skeered of dyin’,

But ol’ man river,

He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.

In Sydney, Robeson sang instead:

But I keeps laffin’

Instead of cryin’

I must keep fightin’

Until I’m dyin’

When he mouthed the word “laffin’’’, his lip curled in scorn; at “fightin’”, he punched his fist in the air, making clear to the listening unionists that he had in mind their shared enemies: the employers and politicians for whom an uneducated labourer in Sydney was no better than a black man in Tennessee.

The song now suggested that what was inescapable was not resignation but human dignity – the desire for freedom that persisted, and would prevail, like the mighty river itself.

In 1960, construction workers were not respectable. Concert halls did not cater to labourers, whom few considered deserving of fine music or sophisticated entertainments.

So, with the gesture at Bennelong Point, by transforming – if only for a lunch hour – their worksite into the musical venue it would eventually become, Robeson made a statement characteristic of his life and career.

You aren’t, he said to them, simply tools for others; you’re not beasts, suitable only for hoisting and carrying, even if that’s the role you’ve been allotted. You’re entitled to culture, to music and art and all of life’s good things – and one day you shall have them.

According to some accounts, by the end of the performance, men in the crowd were silently weeping.

What made Robeson’s interventions so powerful?

First, and most obviously, he was an extraordinarily gifted artist, over and above his politics. When the critic Peter Deier described Robeson as “the most talented person of the 20th century”, he wasn’t exaggerating.

Second, though Robeson had no compunction about using his fame, he was committed to a politics of social change from below. He didn’t simply urge his fans to donate to a charity or check their personal privilege. On the contrary, he assured them that they themselves had power – and they should use it.

Thus, in 1938, he explained to a journalist how ordinary people mattered more than stars:

During one of my films I was struck by this very forcibly. There was everybody on the set, lights burning, director waiting, head of the company had just come on to the set with some big financial backer to see how things were going – and what happened? Everything stopped. Why? Because the electricians had decided it was time to go and eat, they just put out the lights and went and ate. That’s my moral to your readers.

Third, Robeson persistently sought to connect disparate issues and link varied oppressions, in a manner that’s rare today.

For instance, his film The Proud Valley is based on a comparison that Robeson often made between Welsh mining towns and African American communities.

Likewise, on his Sydney trip, he insisted on meeting with Indigenous activists – and then, in his public appearances (such as in the clip below), raised Australia’s brutal history in the context of the anti-colonial struggles taking place everywhere at that time.

 

 

 

 

Fourth, when Robeson urged his audience to become active, he could often direct them to groups and campaigns through which that activism might be made meaningful. The Opera House concert, for instance, was arranged by trade unionists – and, as a result, Robeson’s performance gave a direct spur to workplace organisation.

That’s an obvious difference between Robeson’s era and the context in which artists are speaking out against Trump in 2017.

In the United States, as in Australia, the trade unions and the radical movements to which Robeson oriented during the latter half of his career have either declined or disappeared, leaving something of an organisational void for grassroots activism.

Under those circumstances, it’s easy for musicians and other celebrities to see themselves as the sole agents for change – and then engage in the sort of self-congratulatory posturing that helps Trump more than it hurts him.

At the same time, significant campaigns do exist, and they’ve been given new impetus by Trump’s victory. The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, was both reflected in, and reinforced by, hip-hop music in particular – and it’s not surprising that rappers have so far produced some of the best musical responses to the Trump presidency.

As many people have noted, in 2017, we’re entering uncharted political waters. But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw on the resources of the past. As the cultural resistance grows, it’s worth looking back on the giant legacy of Paul Robeson. No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson by Jeff Sparrow is published in Australia by Scribe

Source: Paul Robeson’s songs and deeds light the way for the fight against Trump | Jeff Sparrow | Music | The Guardian

 

 

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Trump and the Flawed Nature of US Democracy: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

6 Jan

 

Truthout sparks action by revealing systemic injustice and providing a platform for transformative ideas through investigative reporting and analysis.

Trump’s presidential victory exposed to the whole world the flawed nature of the US model of democracy. Beginning January 20, both the country and the world will have to face a political leader with copious conflicts of interest who considers his unpredictable and destructive style to be a leadership asset. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky sheds light on the type of democratic model the US has designed and elaborates on the political import of Trump’s victory for the two major parties, as this new political era begins.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, I want to start by asking you to reflect on the following: Trump won the presidential election even though he lost the popular vote. In this context, if “one person, one vote” is a fundamental principle behind every legitimate model of democracy, what type of democracy prevails in the US, and what will it take to undo the anachronism of the Electoral College?

 

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Source: Truthout | Fearless, Independent News and Opinion

 

Noam Chomsky: The Electoral College was originally supposed to be a deliberative body drawn from educated and privileged elites. It would not necessarily respond to public opinion, which was not highly regarded by the founders, to put it mildly. “The mass of people … seldom judge or determine right,” as Alexander Hamilton put it during the framing of the Constitution, expressing a common elite view. Furthermore, the infamous 3/5th clause ensured the slave states an extra boost, a very significant issue considering their prominent role in the political and economic institutions. As the party system took shape in the 19th century, the Electoral College became a mirror of the state votes, which can give a result quite different from the popular vote because of the first-past-the-post rule — as it did once again in this election. Eliminating the Electoral College would be a good idea, but it’s virtually impossible as the political system is now constituted. It is only one of many factors that contribute to the regressive character of the [US] political system, which, as Seth Ackerman observes in an interesting article in Jacobin magazine, would not pass muster by European standards.

Ackerman focuses on one severe flaw in the US system: the dominance of organizations that are not genuine political parties with public participation but rather elite-run candidate-selection institutions often described, not unrealistically, as the two factions of the single business party that dominates the political system. They have protected themselves from competition by many devices that bar genuine political parties that grow out of free association of participants, as would be the case in a properly functioning democracy. Beyond that there is the overwhelming role of concentrated private and corporate wealth, not just in the presidential campaigns, as has been well documented, particularly by Thomas Ferguson, but also in Congress.

A recent study by Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen on “How Money Drives US Congressional Elections,” reveals a remarkably close correlation between campaign expenditures and electoral outcomes in Congress over decades. And extensive work in academic political science — particularly by Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page and Larry Bartlett — reveals that most of the population is effectively unrepresented, in that their attitudes and opinions have little or no effect on decisions of the people they vote for, which are pretty much determined by the very top of the income-wealth scale. In the light of such factors as these, the defects of the Electoral College, while real, are of lesser significance.

 

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To what extent is this presidential election a defining moment for Republicans and Democrats alike?

For the eight years of the Obama presidency, the Republican organization has hardly qualified as a political party. A more accurate description was given by the respected political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: the party became an “insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Its guiding principle was: Whatever Obama tries to do, we have to block it, but without providing some sensible alternative. The goal was to make the country ungovernable, so that the insurgency could take power. Its infantile antics on the Affordable Care Act are a good illustration: endless votes to repeal it in favor of — nothing. Meanwhile the party has become split between the wealthy and privileged “establishment,” devoted to the interests of their class, and the popular base that was mobilized when the establishment commitments to wealth and privilege became so extreme that it would be impossible to garner votes by presenting them accurately. It was therefore necessary to mobilize sectors that had always existed, but not as an organized political force: a strange amalgam of Christian evangelicals — a huge sector of the American population — nativists, white supremacists, white working and lower middle class victims of the neoliberal policies of the past generation, and others who are fearful and angry, cast aside in the neoliberal economy while they perceive their traditional culture as being under attack. In past primaries, the candidates who rose from the base — Bachmann, Cain, Santorum and the rest — were so extreme that they were anathema to the establishment, who were able to use their ample resources to rid themselves of the plague and choose their favored candidate. The difference in 2016 is that they were unable to do it.

Now the Republican Party faces the task of formulating policies other than “No.” It must find a way to craft policies that will somehow pacify or marginalize the popular base while serving the real constituency of the establishment. It is from this sector that Trump is picking his close associates and cabinet members: not exactly coal miners, iron and steel workers, small business owners, or representatives of the concerns and demands of much of his voting base.

Democrats have to face the fact that for 40 years they have pretty much abandoned whatever commitment they had to working people. It’s quite shocking that Democrats have drifted so far from their modern New Deal origins that some workers are now voting for their class enemy, not for the party of FDR. A return to some form of social democracy should not be impossible, as indicated by the remarkable success of the Sanders campaign, which departed radically from the norm of elections effectively bought by wealth and corporate power. It is important to bear in mind that his “political revolution,” while quite appropriate for the times, would not have much surprised Dwight Eisenhower, another indication of the shift to the right during the neoliberal years.

 

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If the Democratic Party is going to be a constructive force, it will have to develop and commit itself credibly to programs that address the valid concerns of the kind of people who voted for Obama, attracted by his message of “hope and change,” and when disillusioned by the disappearance of hope and the lack of change switched to the con man who declared that he will bring back what they have lost. It will be necessary to face honestly the malaise of much of the country, including people like those in the Louisiana Bayou whom Arlie Hochschild studied with such sensitivity and insight, and surely including the former working class constituency of the Democrats. The malaise is revealed in many ways, not least by the astonishing fact that mortality has increased in the country, something unknown in modern industrial democracies apart from catastrophic events. That’s particularly true among middle-aged whites, mainly traceable to what are sometimes called “diseases of despair” (opioids, alcohol, suicide, etc.). A statistical analysis reported by the Economist found that these health metrics correlate with a remarkable 43 percent of the Republican Party’s gains over the Democrats in the 2016 election, and remain significant and predictive even when controlling for race, education, age, gender, income, marital status, immigration and employment. These are all signs of severe collapse of much of the society, particularly in rural and working class areas. Furthermore, such initiatives have to be undertaken alongside of firm dedication to the rights and needs of those sectors of the population that have historically been denied rights and repressed, often in harsh and brutal ways.

No small task, but not beyond reach, if not by the Democrats, then by some political party replacing them, drawing from popular movements — and through the constant activism of these movements, quite apart from electoral politics.

Much of the rest of the world — with the notable exception of some of Europe’s extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant political leaders — also seems to be rather anxious about Trump’s aims and intents. Isn’t that so?

Trump’s victory was met in Europe with shock and disbelief. The general reaction was captured quite accurately, for instance, on the front cover of Der Spiegel [a major German weekly]. It depicted a caricature of Trump presented as a meteor hurtling toward Earth, mouth open, ready to swallow it up. And the lead headline read “Das Ende Der Welt!” (“The End of the World”). And in small letters below, “as we have known it.” To be sure, there might be some truth to that concern, even if not exactly in the manner in which the artist and the authors who echoed that conception had in mind.

 

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Don’t Mourn – Organize ….Vote In The Streets! The rigged 2 party system holds no future for the 99% a political revolution does.

 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.

The System is Rigged. Solution? Blow up the System!

17 May

 

It is rigged by Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Ag, the military-industrial complex, etc, which own most everyone who runs for president in the two major parties.

To guarantee that only acceptable, bought-and-paid-for candidates survive the primary process, the political party operatives throw up huge roadblocks, ones which require astronomical amounts of money to surmount, assuring that only candidates who have establishment money at their disposal are able to proceed toward the nomination.

Additional safety checks are superdelegates, made of up elected officials, lobbyists, and establishment political hacks, plotting a primary schedule that works to run up victories by well known candidates versus unknown ones, setting convention rules that almost guarantee insurgent candidates can neither win a nomination or control the party platform

The result is that the ultimate winner is always someone they have a hook in.

Their worst nightmares are Trump and Sanders, as they have hooks in neither.

Normally, the electorate cannot be won over by a gadfly leftist or a populist demagogue. This year, however, the electorate is very pissed off, affording traction where such was a political unlikelihood,

A socialist insurgent is close to toppling Hillary and a populist demagogue defeated all the establishment candidates on the Republican side.

The establishment is now in full panic mode, and throwing the kitchen sink at Trump, while praying Sanders stops attacking Hillary.

Charles Koch endorsed Hillary over Trump, signaling the establishment to start circling the wagons around her.

Nearly every candidate who has sucked at the teat of Wall Street is now being yanked into the denunciation of Trump, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Wall Street is collecting its favors.

Yes the system is rigged. And the only way to unrig it is to blow it up, which simply means defeating the system’s candidate.

We must defeat Hillary Clinton.

 

Source: The System is Rigged. Solution? Blow up the System!

 

 

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The “System” holds no future for the 99% a Political Revolution does – Progressive News, Books & Blogs – fah451bks.wordpress.com

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