Friday, 20 November 2015

Terrorism follows a scary logic. The system's logic is scarier.

Not long after moving to London, I went to the tube station one night to take the train to my boyfriend's place, only to find out it had been closed due to a "bomb alert".  I got the bus and met him anyway, telling him the story of why I was so late with wide open, country-girl eyes. 

"Oh no," my boyfriend said and clapped his hands to his face, parodying the look on my face.  "Not a bomb threat... we're all gonna dieee!"

As he fell about laughing I asked him, earnestly, why he thought that was so funny.

"They have bomb threats every week," he said, composing himself. "Nothing ever happens.  Besides, there's nothing they can actually do to stop some nutter getting on the train with a bomb."   

"But doesn't that terrify you?" I asked.

He shrugged and said, "If I thought I could stop it, it would.  But since I can't, I just focus on things I can change and hope for the best."  Then he said the words I've heard dozens of Londoners say, ever since that night: "You can cross the street and get hit by a drunk driver, or be sitting in your front room when a gas leak blows you to bits.  So why worry about it happening all the time?  You'll just go mad if you try to avoid all the things in life that could kill you."

It made a rational kind of sense, one that I couldn't argue with.  There was no solution to the threat of a bombing, even though the panic alarm of fear ringing in my head made me want to race around trying to find one.  That's the same alarm that people are hearing now, I think, as they meekly accept bans on protests, air strikes on Syria, and other despotic pronouncements coming out of France, and Europe following the Paris terror attacks last Friday. 

A couple of years later, I was still in London, and a customer in my pub told me that his boyfriend had been blinded in the nail-bombing attack on a gay bar in Soho.  Another friend of his was walking with a crutch after losing his leg in the same attack.  And a few years after that, I got up late for work one day, only to discover that the train I was meant to board for work had been blown up by a group of radical, Islamic Englishmen with bombs in their backpacks. 

By then, I had realized that what that first boyfriend had told me was true.  No amount of planning in the world can prevent such an attack - that is why terrorism endures.  Because it's a very successful strategy for scaring the hell out of people living in massive, faceless systems.  It's impossible to effectively protect everyone in such a dense urban sprawl, when a network of disguised madmen are running around it, armed and dangerous.  But you know what?  It always is dangerous in this system.  Cyclists get knocked off their bikes and children get run over, every single day.  You could say that the problem is the mass system, in itself.  Terrorism plays on our worst fears about what can happen when someone throws a spanner in the works, but then again, so do escalator fires, train crashes and mall roof collapses. 

No amount of crackdowns can ever give those people their lives and limbs back.  Just like no amount of armed police can ever give that nail-bomb victim back his eyes.  That doesn't mean people can't feel angry and sad about their fate.  People should want to stop everyone else from suffering in the same way... it's natural... but the only effective prevention seems to lie in behaving more like people, not less.  Spending more time in the streets, relating to each other, learning what makes a person tick; what makes them good or bad. 

It's probably easy to target a faceless mass of seemingly detached people who don't react to anything around them - who are paralyzed by fear.  They seem less than human... like furniture.  Or like pawns in a game.  That makes it easy for terrorists - who, despite what some believe, are almost universally damaged & pathological - to sink deeper into their delusions.  And it makes it harder for those people who are just a bit messed up to reach out and ask for help.

Reaching out to refugees and ghetto-ized minorities, treating them as people, rather than avoiding their area of town and blanking them just because we can - because the faceless system lets us - that's the best way to create a gang of terrorists.  A gang of any kind.  Letting the people around you fester all but guarantees that they will eventually turn bad.  

But being attuned to the moods of people around you (even if - OMG - they're strangers) grants you anther form of defense, as well: you can spot it when something's off.   Basically, the best defense against being treated like a faceless pawn is to stop acting like one.  That goes for the government, as well as everybody else.

I'm not saying this in order to blame the people that were killed in Paris, or London, or any of the hundreds of places where mass murders have taken place.  They were just bearing the brunt of a larger social phenomenon for which no one person can be blamed.  But when I read about fucking Hollande banning protests and public gatherings, it's like watching someone take a firehose full of  gasoline and spraying it over a small blaze that's started in a field of dry tinder.   Sure!  Let's make everybody stand back with their hands in their pockets, eying each other suspiciously... or better yet, refusing to look at one another at all!  Make it impossible for them to reconnect and express what they're feeling, to share and learn from the experience!  Make it illegal for them to even speak!  That'll solve the fucking problem.

I'm not really sure what a conventional terrorist looks like, but I suspect that standing very still, looking very blank, paranoid, detached, and trying to avoid suspicion, all feature highly on their list of traits.  Expecting the general population to do the same thing is basically creating the perfect environment for terrorists to blend into. 

It's also creating a perfect atmosphere for future terrorists to flourish in; think of all those little kids who'll grow up surrounded by that atmosphere of fear and mistrust, where the only way to express anything is by whipping out a gun in a public place, and firing till you get taken down in a blaze of 'glory'.

Sounds like some of the worst parts of the Middle East if you ask me. But since many of those 'worst' parts used to be progressive before the Americans came along and started paying off puppet governments to steal oil, I'll reserve judgement on them.  

I had family in New York City during 9/11 and my train line was bombed during 7/7 so trust me, I understand that peace, love and happiness are reactions that can be temporarily suspended, when you and your loved ones are caught in the line of fire. But if one looks across the world today, one invariably sees a pattern whereby, nations that are well-off and have a high level of personal freedom (and therefore of happiness) have far fewer terrorist attacks than those that are fraught with despotism, fear, betrayal and mindless conformity. 

That doesn't mean that they have no terrorists attacks; as I said at the beginning of this piece, random acts of faceless violence are a consequence of being part of a faceless system.  The system is to blame for that, itself, for making it easy (or even desirable) to achieve such gruesome 'fame'. 

Yet the connection between freedom of expression, freedom of movement and relative safety is in evidence all across the planet.  How else can you explain the fact that random attacks increased in the the UK in the wake of the Paris bombings, except by the fact that the UK has been living in a state of self-imposed house arrest ever since 7/7?  (Seriously: Paris is hundreds of miles from England.  Get a fucking grip, people). 

Yet the reaction being embraced by France's leader is the stereotypical reaction of all systems, to every threat: it's demanding that people simply be less.  Less radical, less outspoken, less free and emotional; less human.  He wants the people to stand around like statues while the armed guys in helmets take the stage.  That makes a great visual statement about the kind of people that make up French society, doesn't it?  Apparently, they fall into two categories: pawns, or Rambo-wannabes. And guess which ones the terrorists will wanna take out?

Another thing that's worth bearing in mind is that Paris' terror alert level was already quite high, due to the Charlie Hebdo attack.... and it didn't help them at all.  When it comes to terrorism, the old adage seems to be true that 'Prevention is better than a cure'.  But the kind of prevention obviously matters.  What Paris society - any society really - should be aiming for is, indeed, a kind of return to the way it was before there were any terror attacks.  But that can't be achieved by mere amnesia.  It's achieved through rebuilding of trust, interaction.  Learning.   

But being in public - being part of humanity - also means never being sure what other people are thinking, or about to do.  The closest that humans can get to achieving any kind of certainty about that, is by learning more about each other, not less.   No one can ever be 100% sure that the person standing next to them isn't crazy.  Or whether he happens to have a bomb, a gun or a bottle to vent his (or her) crazies with.  It's scary to think about it, but the urge to shut out all such threats is as futile and unhelpful as an obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer who checks if her oven is switched off 100 times a day.  That's what happens when the rational part of the brain - which is only one half of the brain, and utterly useless on its own - fails to accept the input of the other side.  The other side, the 'irrational' side, is what keeps the balance.  It is the part that talks to strangers, has 'gut' feelings, acts on impulse.  It's the side whose existence is generally denied by the system, at every level.

Until now, in Europe, that second side of the brain has been speaking loud and clear.  There's been a massive outcry against the TTIP that could very well derail the international trade pact.   There's been a huge amount of support for refugees who are pouring in from wars, being fought with weapons that were made right here in the West.  There's another climate summit coming up on November 30th (in Paris, nonetheless).  Even though the system's 'logic' keeps on trying to derail discussions of the environment and human rights in order to focus on wealth, instead, the gut instinct of the people is to refuse it.  To have their say, as well.      

Distaste for the system's 'logic' and the carnage that it causes has been reaching a fever pitch, again - just as it has done at least a dozen times in my lifetime.  Actually, the last time it reached a fever pitch was a decade ago, this year.  

On a single week in the summer of 2005, London was flooded with people pouring into the Live 8 festival, which was linked with the Make Poverty History-Drop the Debt campaign.  Make Poverty History demanded an end to the IMF policy of enslaving developping nations with high interest-rate lending (think Greece, but farther away). 

The same weekend, half a million people gathered in Edinburgh for the main protest by Make Poverty History, which was poised to address delegates attending the G8 summit in Gleneagles.  The years before (2003-2004) had also seen a massive UK campaign called Stop the War, in which more than a million people marched in the streets of London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq.  In summer of 2005, mass resistance to the 'logic' of the system seemed about to force a drastic change.... 

...and then just a week later, following a spectacular and tragic terror attack where three trains and a London bus were blown up, change finally came.  The politicians who had been talking about human rights and the environment switched abruptly to talking about 'national security' and terror threats, instead.  

The debt wasn't dropped, but the radical agenda was.  And just two days after the attack in Paris last week, the G20 delegates in Antalya were talking about using it as an excuse to crack down on refugees coming to Europe.  Is history going to repeat itself?

That depends.

Are you going to let it?

(p.s. don't even get me started about  9/11 and the anti-WTO protests!)

Friday, 25 September 2015


There was a family of magpies bouncing around in the tree outside of my window last week, shaking its feather boa branches, bustling with leaves.  They squawked and squeaked and pecked playfully at each other. 

Oradually, one started to make a gentle drilling noise, which slowly changed into something more like trilling.  A few seconds later, I hear an answering trill from the car park behind the tree.  A mobile phone ring was answering the magpie call.  No: it was the other way around.  The magpie was mimicking the phone ring just for a lark (no pun intended).  That ancient bird habit of echoing and relaying sounds, transmitters and receivers, sending out a signal to see if one comes back.  One sentience broadcasting to the other. 

I heard the human in the car park answer his phone.  He didn't return the magpie's call though, abandoning another ancient tradition of our own.  Like all our new technology the phone fulfills ever more basic functions in ever greater diversity of ways, sends ever more than it receives.

Later on, I had to take a train and started to read a magazine I'd found from 1999.  Back then it seemed that people broadcast signals both ways: to each other, to everything, using their evolving technology to make sense of patterns of information. A din of news was coming from everyplace at once, a rainbow of views approaching universality.  Today there's the same din but the underlying views is singular and resolute: saying the same thing in a million different ways: 'Welcome to the dog-eat-dog world.'

Everyone on the train was staring downward, as one, at small rectangular cases in their hands.  Shoulders hunched, looking cowed.  The possibility of seeing patterns was gone; only one pattern can fit in there at a time.  All other patterns had to be fit into its lines.

Smart phones are a visualization, concretization of dogma, of the dog-eat-dog mindset itself.  The reason why we're screwed, hidden in plain sight under a shifting screen.  They tune out all messages except the one in isolation: a single, byte sized, narrow perspective of 'I'.  'My' view.  It's only functional in the absence of all others, just like the device.  Only valid for as long as it can shut out the din.

However imminent the crisis our eyes remain down turned, searching for a way to tackle it in isolation.   Muttering vacantly that, ‘There's a button for this, I know there is, but when I press it nothing happens.  Why??  (Maybe the IPhone 6 will have a fix)'.  As if this tool can somehow be reprogrammed to do what we haven't learned to, haven't had time to, rendering ourselves obsolete just to prove it works.  Waiting for the final update that'll justify the beta-test.  It's just life, after all.    

Meanwhile, nature sends messages on a frequency we're not receiving.  Even when the magpies call us, we're unable to echo their concern.  Maybe we're too fixated by the shiny objects in our hands.

That would be ironic.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Underground for!

"London's not the center of techno anymore. It's definitely in Berlin!"

...said my friend, Mel.  This was not your usual hyperbole coming from a tourism board PR rep whose never been clubbing in his or her life. This was coming from a 20-year veteran of London's deepest, darkest underground parties and a kickass artist, to boot.  She was shouting the words in my ear in the warehouse techno room at Sisyphos, in Rummelsburg.

Back when I first moved to Berlin, the clubs here were kinda boring but those days are hard to remember now. You would never have found proper banging techno or house playing in places like Sisyphos.  It was all slow, drugged-out and commercial; the sound of someone limply writhing in Ketamine and glitter (not as cool as it sounds). There weren't any techno openairs like those that Sounds For Berlin, Reclaim the Gorli and so on have been doing.  The temple of bass called Gretchen did not exist and Stattbad hadn't yet started up its Boiler Room sessions.  Even the F*ck Parade used to have half a dozen boring floats.   The shunkel music sound was as inescapable and annoying as that loud ringing noise it left in your ears the next day.

But that's all changed.  These past few years have been like that boiling-frog analogy, in reverse. Berlin has gradually crept toward a richer convergence of its various dance music styles, but it's done so in such tiny increments that we didn't even realize it was happening.  It was only when I brought my friend Sisyphos that I suddenly felt the heat.  Finally, Berlin is living up to its hype: this scene is in a full-on boil.   Not just in Sisyphos, either.  But it's a good example of a club that has come into its own, blending the surreal elements of Renate with the atmospheric warehouse techno of Berghain and the house music intensity of Wall of Sound into some sort of perfect Berlin all-in-one experience. They even have a massage parlour and a sweet shop.   And a lake.  (The chickens aren't there anymore, though, unfortunately).

It wasn't hard to see why my mate was blown away.

I was relieved that it's not just me who thinks things are improving, here.  Most Berlin promoters used to seem like were only interested in finding a misguided shortcut to glamour and fame.  Now, they're doing parties for a purpose, as a concept, as a protest.  They're doing them to change things now, and more importantly, for a good time.  And they seem less inclined to use the industry's coke-covered credit line to judge how good the night is, instead going by mood on the dancefloor.

My friend and I went outside and stood under the lampshade trees by the lake and she said, "Yeah, I reckon this is what would happen if one of the squat parties in London kept on going on for years. Why don't they do something like this in London, in fact?'

The answer is always the same: the authorities don't let it. At the slightest sign that some group is putting down roots, the government goes into overdrive trying to uproot them, or (if they go legal) forcing a profiteering mindset on them.  It bogs their ideals down with licensing fees and absurd health and safety regulations.  This way, it constantly seals up those untapped veins of creativity in red tape, so only the most obsessive bean-counters can succeed at a game that was created by and for an autonomous and anarchistic elements of society.

"They always have to kill the golden goose, don't they?" Mel lamented.

"Yep, that's England for you."  Insist on the impossible. Slash and burn all your potential for an immediate return on your investment.  Expect more potential to simply arise from the ashes, fully-grown, somewhere down the road without any investment or support. Write off as worthless anything that takes time.  Kill off as a pest anything that is slowly growing toward a more promising future.  You have to wonder how these people raise kids.  You have to wonder how they even raise gardens.  (Or are those all covered in concrete, in anticipation of becoming a fourth runway for Heathrow...?)

How does Berlin avoid this same fate?  In part, it's the history - no one knows what to do with a vast, underpopulated city, so people here get a lot of slack from the officials.  But mostly, it's because the government here concedes the German people's right to direct their own cultural evolution, vis-a-vis the Eingetragener Verein (or e.V. for short).  Germany's  Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or civil code enshrines the right for its people to create community-interest groups which bring people together in some way.  Any way at all that you can imagine.  If more than seven people with a shared set of ideals and goals get together, they can legally run almost any kind of venue as a non-profit organization - along with all the attendant tax deductions and exemptions that that entails.  Just as long as it brings people together and profit isn't its primary aim.  That's why it's rare to find anything grassroots going on in this city without that mysterious suffix e.V. at the end of its name.  (Schokoladen, Megaspree, RAW Tempel, Supamolly... even Holzmarkt and Kater Blau have an e.V. underlying their existence).  The majority of Berlin's 'squatty' venues rely upon their e.V. status to survive without too much interference from the officials. 

Virtually all of the smaller venues and organizations that fight for Berlin's right (including the right to party) are categorized as e.V....  and one day, any one of them could rise up to be the next counter-cultural complex.   Someone in government seems to know that there are limits to what bureaucracy and capitalism can achieve on their own. And a large segment of Berlin's population is constantly reminding them of that fact!

Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People.

"Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People" by Herakut.

In Berlin, the art scene's fate always hangs in the balance.  Since the fall of the Wall, artistic outcasts have come here seeking a cheap place to work and live while they find their feet; yet the scene still retains a precarious feeling to this day.  The best art here is to be found on the streets, exposed to the elements, having been left out in the cold by the conventional art gallery scene.  Yet the precarious balance that enables a DIY scene to flourish here is bound to change. 

Berlin is a prime destination on the bargain flight trail for now, and so its art scene is booming... for now.  But that boom obviously can't last forever.  The  forces that attract the world to Berlin - cheap oil, low wages, and the low prices they create - are unsustainable.  But so is the alternative: turning Berlin into a relentlessly gentrified enclave for the world's wealthy, where the prices are too high for artists and other people on low incomes to survive.  The city needs a new model if it's going to hang onto what it has here, and with so many creative minds present, there is a brief window of opportunity for the art scene to help create that.  Is the scene making the most of it?  Or is it merely standing on the sidelines, painting pretty pictures to distract itself from the harsh realities that it faces?

Works by artists like Blu and Roa (above right) seem to reflect the uneasy balance that exists in cities like Berlin.  Each artist employs stark imagery to expose the cruelty and absurdity underlying the Western economic machine.  They seem to speak from inside and outside of the system simultaneously... like a cog that's suddenly become self-aware.

Vermibus (right) has taken that self-awareness a step further by actively sabotaging the messages sent by the advertising industry.  He specifically targets beauty ads, sabotaging models who've been airbrushed to the point of artifice. You've probably seen his work and wondered if it was just another cynical ad campaign (or if those mushrooms were finally working).  It's not (but they might be).

Another Berlin-based artist who speaks to that tendency to treat people as soulless commodities is Berlin-based Hito Steyerl.  In her video, "How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational" she makes a funny yet scarily-apt statement about the sense of invisibility underlying urban life.  ("Be a woman over 50" she suggests in her video, as a way of achieving invisibility).  

Many of Berlin's artists use art as a way of having a say in a social discourse that would otherwise limit their options to various forms of consumption.  Their choice 'speak' in a different way leaves them out in the cold; in Berlin, many are surviving by the skin of their teeth, getting by on a mixture of self-employment contracts, Minijobs and the dole.  This puts them at the mercy of city's employers, investors and bureaucrats.  The only power that they really have is people power, and the power of expression, yet many seem content to merely sit back and wait for a patron to come along and offer them a chance to be heard and seen in a commercial gallery patronized by the elite.  At events like the upcoming Berlin Art Week, "Attracting investment is one of [the] key aims" as if money is the only possible solution for an artist's woes. But maybe what they really need is for the system to 'spare them some social change', instead. 

As Noam Chomsky says in Manufacturing Consent, "A decent society should maximize the possibilities for the fundamental human characteristic [of creativity] to be realized."  We seem to be headed for a mostly-automated future, in which the majority jobs will necessarily be in creative and theoretical fields.  There simply won't be much in the way of work that is productive, in the industrial sense of the word.  Isn't it better to find a way to sustain people in those fields now, instead of crushing them in poverty to preserve an outdated paradigm for another day?

Berlin seems to offer a preview of how that future could look: superficially it functions, despite having a small productive sectors.  It's intellectually rich, despite being physically poor.  It is saturated with artists and idealists: street artists, installation artists, tattoo artists, interior designers and video artists.  Many of the students here are studying in theoretical fields, and research and development is one of the city's key sectors.  Together, these groups have renovated the city, rebuilding it from the ashes to fit the mould of their progressive imaginations.  But that vision has yet to trickle up.

Over the past few years, Berlin's visionary residents have led popular movements against development projects (Mediaspree, Tempelhof) that would have fenced off vast areas of public land for the use of private investors.  They have also agitated against rising rents and forced a rent cap to be put in place.  The locals tend to vote the same way that they think too: the universal basic income, sustainable development, equality and privacy rights have all been championed by two of Berlin's most influential left-wing parties: the Greens (who are dominant in Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg) and the Pirate Party (which took 8.9% of the vote in Berlin, compared to 1.4% nationally).

'Drone Shadow' by James Bridle at 'Fire & Forget', KW Gallery
Meanwhile, the Senate that actually runs this gaff seems stuck in a 1980s  Thatcherian mode: it takes a repressive stance on refugees, is engaging in its own miniature version of the War on Drugs, and has been so thoroughly bankrupted by official corruption that it licks the boots of every investor who comes to town, however contemptuous their vision for the city is (e.g. luxury condos in the former Death Strip).  The Senate may be good with investors because it guarantees them obscene profits, but those same profits ensure that the cash always disappears before it trickles down to ordinary residents, denying them the means to take charge of the city. 

But what if, instead of waiting for one of those investment windfalls to bypass the Senate and land in their studios, Berlin's art scene got together and tried to solve their collective problem through action?  One group of people who have done this in Berlin is Mein Grundeinkommen.  In addition to petitioning for the implementation of a universal basic income in Germany, Mein Grundeinkommen has crowd-funded the money to give one person a basic income for a year in order to show what life could be like, if the government spread its profits around more evenly. 
Center For Political Beauty's Wall-Sabotage Diagram

Of course, the creative reality that Chomsky speaks of is out of reach for millions of other well-educated people in countries that have been torn apart by petty rivalries.  Many of the refugees arriving in this city have been displaced from good jobs and homes by an over-zealous, Western arms trade that promotes war by making lethal weapons easily accessible.  That arms trade was the subject of a recent exhibition at KW Gallery, called 'Fire and Forget'.  It was named after the newer brand of war technologies that allow the user to kill without witnessing the deaths of the people he is lashing out at.

What future can the refugees/victims of these technologies hope for when they have no home base to go back to, much less ply their trades from?  Artsy Berlin dissidents at the Center for Political Beauty regularly stage actions aimed at answering that question.  Their stunts have included tearing down sections of the European anti-immigration barrier and exhuming bodies of drowned refugees for re-burial in Berlin, during meticulously staged (one could almost say "curated") actions that are engineered for maximum shock impact.  Is it life imitating art or the other way around?  They don't want you to know - just to act.  More info about the group can be found on the group's website. 
Center for Political Beauty' attempts to auction off Chancellor Merkel

In times like these, can any artist really afford to view reality with a sidelong glance, when they could be facing it head-on? It seems that merely hinting at the existence of larger pressures and struggles is no longer enough.  Instead of staging another tasteful exhibition, maybe it's time that Berlin's arts community stages an assault on the outdated system that keeps them begging for change... be it financial, political, or social.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Protest is a process, not a product

Last spring, I had a dream that there was a new craze sweeping Berlin: people would dress up like trees and stand in a field near the Bundestag every month, holding a vigil for all the natural spaces being destroyed by mankind.  I went down to check it out so I could write about it for this blog (yes: even in my dreams, I write a blog). And of course I wanted to take part... but not the same way that everyone else was doing.

Everybody at the vigil was dressed as evergreen trees. To save time, a lot of them had cut down actual pine trees to wear.  I thought that was a bit wasteful... but then I saw the sincere looks on their faces and thought, “Well, at least they’re using the trees to say something that they care about… that’s more than you can say for a lot of the waste that people create.” 
I held back my criticism, tried to appreciate the fact that they were spreading a message that I believed in, and watched from the sidelines.   

A few weeks ago, this dream popped into my mind again as I was stepping around another  massive pile of discarded Christmas trees in Berlin.  An entire forest of baby evergreens seems to get cut down each year to supply the people in my kiez with the right mood for their holy nights.  But this year there seem to be so many more.  People were casting away symbols of eternity to make space for their manmade presents.  How paradoxical is that?  It almost seemed like a symbolic sacrifice of the idea of permanence and regeneration - a bizarre leap of faith into a mechanized, manmade future.

My annoyance about the annual tree cull primed me to go to the ‘Wir Haben Es Satt’ demo a few days later, a protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) and for sustainable agricultural practices in Germany.  The pine trees had been cleared from most of the kerbs by then, but at the demo, I saw people dressed up like trees standing outside the Bundestag, wearing branches and leaves, just like they had been in my dream.  The difference was that the branches they were wearing looked like they’d fallen off a tree during a recent windstorm.  The people wearing them didn’t seem the type to go and wantonly hack down pine forests, either, so the similarity to my dream ended there… so I thought.

My friends and I delved into the crowd of people wearing fun-fur onesies, rabbit suits, bee costumes, beekeeping suits - there were even a few caricatured farmers with big straw hats.  It was a bit like being at a Fasching party, except with lots of angry signs about battery farming and dystopian Monsanto products penned in red, slashing ink.  Drums were playing here and there, smoke was rising from the beekeepers’ metal censers, pink and green, mass-produced banners fluttered along with a few handmade ones.  Bright, industrial swathes of fabric in manmade colours flapped at us from every angle.  The message of the event had been painted in synthetic hues, mocking the plastic appeal of a TV advertisement.  Either that, or they were mimicking it, in hope of having a similar, mass-market appeal. 

With so many prefab options at the demo, all we had to do was look around, ask ourselves, ‘agree or disagree?’  and if we agreed, we could just grab a banner or a pin and become another carrier for the message.  For the cause - the brand - ‘Stop the TTIP’.  I was tempted...

... but then I pictured the people wearing those outfits going home, hanging up their rabbit suits, laughing about them.  Putting their banners out on the balcony and not talking about Monsanto or TTIP again until the next protest came around. But maybe that's the point.  After all, dressing up as a furry animal isn’t about representing what you really are, is it?  it’s about putting a playful façade between you and the world, feigning naive simplicity.  Maybe the point of these outfits is to try and impart some of that simplicity into the environmentalist message, making a daunting prospect seem accessible. 

In the commercial world, animal costumes are used to draw shoppers into computer stores and car dealerships but never into grocery stores or bars... maybe that's the same reason why they're used to draw people to demonstrations about the environment. 

Plus, it is easier to jump in to a demonstration when there are ready-made banners and placards waiting there, ready-made, in the hands of your furry environmental mascot. But buying into one protest on the basis of a costume or a banner does not rope you into continuing with it. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes.  With activism, that commitment comes from seeing the issue as part of an ongoing theme in your life.  It's got to be personal.
Successful movements are able to engage with people on an every day level, to make them return for every action.  That may be why the three-ring circus known as the International Socialists (or whatever they’re called now) has thousands of dedicated members.  They have an answer for everything... literally.  If you belch in the middle of one of their meetings, they can provide you with a Socialist Perspective as to why you did it. 

Getting back to the TTIP demo in Berlin, though: my friends and I really should have come there more prepared.  We should have come with our own props... or dressed up... or organized a little direct action to do while we were there... but a few of us had hangovers (well, all of us did).  Which may be why I started trying to find some way of blaming the demo for our lack of enthusiasm. ;-)

It was hard to fault the organization of the protest though.  They did an amazing job of bringing a huge number of people together.   Nothing was done wrong, compared to any of the other mass demos I've been to.  But, like almost all of the mass protests that I've been to, I felt like I had to be prepared to give any input.  It couldn't be a spontaneous thing.  If I was just jumping on board at the last minute, my options were limited to something prefab - a banner, a chant - all arranged by the organizers.  This format can certainly attract a certain type of protester - the consumerist type, or those in NGOs - but it leaves out the passers-by who may expect more out of their activism than a souvenir or a photo op.   Creating a free space for people to express their personal reaction to the issues at hand would probably give them a stronger impression to take away, anyway... a sense of input, which is what protest is all about. That's just an observation from someone who has been to dozens of similar one-off events.  A friendly suggestion for next time, if any of those organizers happen to read this.

A phrase from 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman came to mind: "The medium excludes the content."  And I thought about how a new medium of protest was needed to take activism to the level where it changed people's lives, and not just the way they looked, or the headlines, for a few hours...

 Monsanto is a tad more evil than this installation suggests
Dazzled by bright colours, smoke from beekeepers’ torches and drumming, we walked and walked.  People were staring up ahead, not left or right or behind. Where were we going?  I asked. My friends shrugged.  But being coaxed along like this, it gave the impression of some sort of a big finale up ahead.  No one was stopping and, the few times we tried to, we were nudged along by the slow-motion tide of people.  Toward the end we were herded past a ‘slow food’ stall.  Then we looked around and realized that we had been siphoned in an open space in front of a stage.  This was the critical role we’d been given: playing the part of an audience.

On the other side of the stage, a tide of people was now moving out, over the footbridge towards the Hauptbahnhof.  To join them and go home seemed like a cop-out after all this build-up so we stuck it out there, in the cold.  Just stopping for the sake of stopping, the same way that we had been moving for the sake of moving during
the rest of the demo.  Where else to go until someone listens, but around and around in circles?

No choppers were wheeling overhead but a sense of having our movements coordinated from above was strong.  Being channeled through a pre-arranged pattern laid out on the ground.  The pattern of the city; the pattern of a route; the pattern of activism that is inactive in its execution; all we need to do is turn up and fill in blanks designated to us, a paint-by-numbers march.  All that we can do is turn up and fill in the blanks, if that's how it's designed. 

It’s not as if social change is a point that we can reach by walking towards it, anyway. Even if we ran, it would still elude us.  In a time of constant, robotic movement toward ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘progress’ it seems the most powerful thing anyone could do would be to stand still, rethink everything from scratch instead of flowing along the same old lines. Stop confusing motion with production and size with progress.  Those lines once led outward, but now they have joined up and  lead back in on themselves, an endless loop that gets a little more ground down with each cycle around the planet, searching for another source of untapped potential. But the last, real untapped source of potential exists in our minds.  And, as long as we keep moving forward without stopping, finding bigger and bigger outlines to fill with more and more identical, oversimplified goals, then we’ll never figure out how to exploit the power of the individual.

In the end, I couldn’t silence the inner voice that kept insisting that this protest had left the flawed behaviours that got us here, untouched. 
Like in that dream that I had, about activists cutting down trees in order to save nature - it was just harnessing the wrong impulse for the right purpose. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Misandry: It's a Big Deal. Not.

Spot the victim: almost all of the above images are from mundane, every day ads on magazines, billboards and news sites.  Some are indistinguishable from images of true violence against women (bottom, center).  Ads like this tap into the misogynist's fantasy life and whether we share that fantasy or not, we have to admit it's riddled with violence and hate... which means that society is, too
I've been reading about the recent Gamergate debate(s) on Twitter - which I've still not got my head around, and am unlikely to, now that the number of tweet accusations flying around has reached critical mass.  But one thing that stuck with me after reading a few threads was the shocking blitheness with which guys on these threads bandy the word 'misandry' about.  They seem to have decided that the word 'misandrist' can be used to refer to any woman who says or thinks negative things about men. 

Is being negative about sexist men such an innately wrong behaviour that is somehow amounts to a real, actual prejudice, though?  And are men such super special beings that they never make mistakes or bad judgements that need to be criticised?  I don't think so. Any man who would suggest such a thing probably needs to get over himself.

When feminists criticise a man's behaviour as sexist, it's like when a colleague says to him at work , 'Just because you're good at your job doesn't mean that you can ask me to make coffee for you.'  The man in question may be doing well in every other respect, but if his behaviour is unconsciously and unfairly burdening another person, then that other person is entitled to criticise. This also applies to misogynist women, by the way.

But even if there are women out there who are just saying unfair, nasty things about men for the hell of it, I don't see how that is in any way as bad as beating up on men; yelling at them in the streets because they're not paying enough attention to us; rubbing up against them on crowded trains; raping them; tailgating them because we assume that their entire gender doesn't know how to drive; paying them too little or no money for their work; trafficking them; renting or buying them like commodities; refusing to treat their illnesses because it's 'all in their head'; and otherwise preventing their ability to live full, equal and safe lives, using the power that an unfair system has granted us over them. 

Let's face it: misandry simply lacks the same opportunities to manifest that misogyny has manufactured for itself, over the last dozen or so centuries.  If misandry exists on a large scale, then it mostly exists in the heads of females who hate men.  Misogyny, on the other hand, exists right out in the open where everyone can see it, where its random targets cannot avoid it, and where bystanders are desensitised by their exposure to it.  It even exists in the system.  That's why women cannot expect protection from misogyny, ironically enough... it's too ubiquitous. 

The restrictions misogyny places on us changes from country to country but they're ever-present, the deadening weight of prejudice embodied in flesh, steel and stone.  Sometimes, it just seems safer just to stay home, quit our jobs and squish ourselves into whatever tiny role the misogynists condone for us.  Indeed, it takes a force of will not to do that, even nowadays.  Any man who'd equate such immediate, physical oppression with the effect of some poorly-chosen words, is only showing how out-of-touch with women's reality he really is.  He would do better to stop and think about what the reality behind a woman's words is actually like to live in, before flinging the word 'misandry' out there as a defense against his wounded pride.  Misogyny is not just another virtual debate in which words are the only component; plenty of actions are involved in it too.  But maybe this point is lost on people who spend more time online than they do in the real world.

If feminists don't want to fight for the man who feels he isn't getting all the respect he deserves from every woman on the planet, it's just because they're already embattled on that front and many others.  They might feel that man's pain, sure, but their own pain is a bigger threat to their immediate existence.  All feminists, and the vast majority of women, do know how it feels to be shamed and snubbed and condescended to... but they also know how it feels to be threatened, groped, injured, shouted down and ridiculed by men who have too much power over their lives. 

So if you think that you're a good guy who doesn't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as all the other sexist guys out there, then that's great.  But it doesn't mean that you have the right to ask feminists to make sure your feelings aren't getting hurt. We have our own work to do too, you know.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A cause with 100,00 faces

With the Flood Wall Street protests filling the news and Twitter feeds today it seems like a timely moment to reflect on climate movements through time.  Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp and Occupy were the three big ones that happened in my lifetime.  I suspect that these urban invasions of green-painted, animistic protestors dancing to drums all owe their existence to London's Stop the City protests (1980s) and before that, the Reclaiming movement (1970s) and possibly even the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

All were omnibus movements that brought together countless small, grassroots groups and individual activists from the countryside and suburbs, and took to the big city streets to confront the real sources of pollution and corruption head-on, in its faceless inner-city fortresses. 

In the extract below, you can read what the scene was like at one such demonstration in London in June 1999.  Called J18 it was part of an international day of action aimed at ending environmental, financial and social breakdown, similar to the international day of protest last Sunday that aimed to send a message to the UN Climate Conference happening in New York City today.

But first, here are some great images taken from famous pavement-stomping marches around the world... 
Climate Camp staged a never-ending sit-in in.  London 2009

Reclaim the Streets 1995: demonstrators bought this car & trashed it

Idle No More (above/below) marched on Canadian capitals in 2013

Solstice demonstration by Reclaiming movement in San Francisco

Seattle's N30 protest against the WTO in 1999

Stop the City in London 1983.

Occupy protestor in NYC in 2011