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Operation Marriage: A Child’s View of DOMA, Family Diversity

by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Shaping Youth
June 29th, 2013

With the repeal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) sending whoops of joy among civil rights advocates throughout the nation and critics shouting about the upending of traditional values, it’s important to shine the spotlight with unity and clarity on how noisy, polarized media rhetoric impacts children, both in and out of the family diversity conversation.

As “All Children Matter” ( reports, roughly 2 million children are being raised by LGBT families, and it’s not just the legal and social inequities that can harm kids, the media mud-slinging and incivility among adults who disagree on this topic can sear into the soul like a branding iron.

A new children’s storybook Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee, published by our friends at Reach and Teach is a true tale told through the lens of a child, capturing the essence of how discrimination lands on kids with pain and confusion.  

The storyline? “Eight-year old Alex has a fight with her best friend, Zach, who says he can no longer be her friend. Why? Because “her parents (both women) aren’t married.”

You can see where this is going, complete with subtext and political Prop 8 lawn signs creating neighborhood tug-o-wars about banning gay marriage…It poignantly speaks to how children get caught up in the tornado spin of conflicting ideologies as innocent bystanders of sociopolitical jockeying.

Beautifully illustrated by Lea Lyon, characters Alex and Nicky urge their mothers to get married “while they can.” Operation Marriage received a Gold Medal in the annual Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, in the Spirit/Compassion category, for dedication to children’s books and literacy and for inspired writing, illustrating and publishing.

I enjoyed meeting the ‘real life’ characters at the Kepler’s book signing launch last year, and found the timeless over-arching theme of fairness and family diversity appeals to every age and stage, as the publisher aptly states:

“…Where there is love there is family; where there is family, there should be respect, dignity and support.”

So here’s my thinking as the DOMA deluge in media emerges this week and the Respect for Marriage Act is reintroduced to assure all married couples equal treatment for all federal programs and purposes:

Let’s raise a white flag in the name of all children, everywhere, to ask political pundits to surrender harsh verbiage and be “media mindful” of how epithets land on the youngest voices in our society.

These are children’s families being bumped and bruised in the political chess game.

Children have the least protection to process the negative spewage of venom and vile that’s become a talk show staple for profit and ratings.

Even if kids are not exposed directly to the baiting of media outrage, much like racism, any overheard adult fodder of intolerance, stereotypes and slams often gets parroted and perpetuated by peers.

So let’s ‘surrender to civility’ shall we? I see it as a first strike hit in the verbal arms race of media controversy…

Even if public opinion polls claim the freedom to marry is overwhelmingly positive by popular vote, there IS going to be a dust up…

Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are hitting the cover of The New Yorker which in itself is being dissected by critics in pro and con critical thinking of why it is and isn’t a good choice to represent the human rights victory…

…The ‘are they or aren’t they gay’ cartoon convo…

…A social media post detailing when the cover art originated, (hint: a year ago) and countless parents’ rights conversations about letting kids be kids without having to explain so much, so often, so early. (separate post forthcoming on the role of media in social norming)

Then there’s the news that hit TV show Modern Family is considering marriage for Mitch and Cam…

And the so-called Hollywood gay agenda conspiracy that has “come out” in the press, along with  Glaad’s detailed infographic “paving the way on the road to marriage equality”…You see my point, right?

This all foreshadows some serious outrage baiting media warfare which could put children smack dab in the blast zone as collateral damage…Maybe media producers will ‘behave’ with civil discourse instead of polarizing hateful slurs…but I’d brace for a backlash.

Whatever your personal convictions are, please fact check your tongue before engaging, put the kids first, and use positive media to instill your own family values of love and universal truths.

Full disclosure, it’s no secret I’m in the “straight against hate” contingent, supporting family diversity of every race, creed and color…

I’ve purposely used media like the Berenstain Bears books over the years to be a springboard for socio-emotional learning, from empathy to life lessons…So in addition to resource roundups like “Modern Children’s Books Help Families Explore Diversity” and specific titles gleaned from Publishers Weekly newly launched “Openly YA Tour” here are a few facts to frame the macro lens on gay marriage and parenting from a wellness and public health perspective:

The American Academy of Pediatrics four-year study Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents Are Gay or Lesbian affirms,

“…children have similar developmental and emotional needs and receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders. If a child has 2 living and capable parents who choose to create a permanent bond by way of civil marriage, it is in the best interests of their child(ren) that legal and social institutions allow and support them to do so, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

(Here’s the full AAP report from the committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, Mar 2013)

As I watch an entire tribe of suburban teens dress up in rainbow regalia for this weekend’s Pride Parade (some gay, some not, none caring about who is/isn’t, but all united in a ‘freedom to marry’ human rights belief system) it heartens me to realize that youth have the courage and convictions to carry forth a torch of love over hate for the next generation…

Let’s hope youth get equal if not more media time than the blowhards and hate bait…“Operation Marriage” will no doubt continue to be a battleground for quite some time…

Sample book reviews from experts via the Reach and site:

Children need a permanent and secure nurturing family to help them thrive. Decades of research have shown that children’s social, academic, and emotional development are similar whether they have two mothers or a mother and a father. Their parents’ marriage gives children the security and the legitimacy they need to dispel stereotypes and to thrive in school and society.” -Ellen C. Perrin, M.D., Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, Floating Hospital for Children, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA

Even 3rd-graders know that commitment ceremonies are not weddings and domestic partnerships are not marriage. Operation Marriage shows how important marriage is to children and that they understand that anything less, is less than equal.”– Dr. Davina Kotulski,  Psychologist, Motivational Life Coach, and Author of Why You Should Give A Damn About Gay Marriage (2004) and Love Warriors: The Rise of the Marriage Equality Movement and Why it Will Prevail (2010)

Operation Marriage is a well-constructed, age-appropriate story with an appealing cast of characters. Spunky Alex doesn’t let her best friend’s abandonment get her down; instead, she enlists her brother in a campaign that is filled with humor-blasting wedding music throughout the house, making a fake wedding program-things that will ring true to all children who’ve found creative ways to beg their parents to do something for them.  — Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia a 2010 ALA Best Book for young adults. Click here to read the full review.


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Left of the Dial on Psychobabble

June 26th, 2013

Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons compiles twenty-two interviews David Ensminger conducted for such landmark ’zines as Thirsty Ear, Maximumrocknroll, and yes, his own Left of the Dial. My interest in his book was sparked by the inclusion of a chat with The Damned’s Captain Sensible, so I was slightly disappointed when I saw how brief that conversation was and how many post-first wavers comprised Ensminger’s anthology. My disappointment melted when I realized how fine an interviewer our host is and how insightful and articulate his selection of punk icons is.

Left of the Dial offers a fascinating range of experiences from such subjects as The Dils’ Tony Kinman, a first waver who lays out a near academic history of Rock & Roll, and Minuteman Mike Watt, who offers a harrowing account of the illness that nearly killed him. The diversity is impressive too as we get perspectives beyond the white, hetero dudes who constitute the prevailing punk stereotype to dig the experiences of what it’s like to be Latino (El Vez of The Zeros), female (Kira Roessler of Black Flag), gay (Gary Floyd of The Dicks), or black (Freak Smith of Beefeater) in the scene. Ensminger is a good interviewer too, respectful of his subjects but not afraid to call out the somewhat prickly Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade about the apparent weakness of the 1992 comeback record Come Again or query Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records on her sometimes-criticized business practices. Best of all is a riveting mini-oral history of San Francisco’s Deaf Club, an actual gathering place for hearing-impaired patrons to feel the beat from such performers as X, The Dils, Dead Kennedys, and a performance artist who’d receive an enema on stage.

My only gripe is that Ensminger could have oriented the reader better by indicating exactly when his interviews took place. It was a little jarring to be reading along only to discover that 9/11 had just taken place or Bush had just invaded Iraq. But that’s a pretty minor quibble about a selection of interviews so readable that I guess they now qualify as timeless.

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Left of the Dial on The Arts Fuse

by Adam Ellsworth
The Arts Fuse
June 29th, 2013

In the introduction to Left of the Dial, David Ensminger writes that his “journalism-meets-folklore” writings on the now decades old phenomena known as punk rock are not attempts to “undo the myths” or “tear down the walls” that are associated with the genre.

Instead, it is his intention to “recreate punk on a human scale, person-to-person, and ask questions that flow like ticker tape in the back of my mind.”

With Left of the Dial, he has succeeded.

To be sure, the book is not an attempt to tell the complete, or even incomplete, history of punk. It is essentially a collection of interviews with a handful of punk rock’s leading figures.
Some of these interview subjects might be a little obscure, even to the more enlightened music fan, but that’s one of the book’s greatest strengths. After all, we already know what Johnny Rotten/John Lydon thinks about everything, right down to his preferred brand of butter, but how often do we get such revealing, informative interviews from Captain Sensible of the Damned or Tony Kinman of the Dils?

While the likes of Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), and Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) will already be familiar to anyone who’s read Our Band Could Be Your Life, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, or just about any other book on punk/alternative music history, Ensminger goes beyond questions of simple biography and discography to unveil some of these artists’ more unlikely influences and explore their philosophies on not just punk, but life.

In some instances, this strategy of eschewing backstory in favor of getting under the surface does slightly backfire, however. For example, I was particularly confused while reading the interview with Jack Grisham of TSOL, a band I simply don’t know that much about. Once I did a little research on the band’s history and its various iterations though, I found what Grisham had to say pretty interesting. I just had to work for it.

But a little extra work never hurt anybody, and for the truly committed music fan, an invitation to dig deeper is always welcome.

Ensminger himself is certainly qualified to go deep on his subject. Not only is he a fan and longtime drummer, he’s also a Humanities, Folklore, and English instructor at Lee College in Baytown, Texas. As such, he approaches punk with both his head and his heart, and he understands that punk is not just a style of music but, at its best, also a way of life.

Fred “Freak” Smith — illuminating on what was it was like to be a black punk musician.
The politics of punk get as much play in Left of the Dial as the music does. While there are certainly right-wing punk bands (not to mention white supremacist/neo-Nazi punk bands), they aren’t what Ensminger is interested in. To him, and to the musicians he interviews, punk is an inclusive, and basically left wing, community. And while the interviews in Left of the Dial were conducted over many years, and in some cases first appeared in other publications (including Ensminger’s own fanzine, also titled Left of the Dial), this ideology is a thread that runs through the book from beginning to end.

To his credit, that doesn’t mean Ensminger tries to paint a picture of punk rock as utopia. His interview with Fred “Freak” Smith, an African American guitarist who played with the DC band Beefeater, is particularly illuminating. “What was it like to be a black punk in DC?” Ensminger asks Smith during their Q&A. The guitarist responds,

Let us keep in mind that DC is what, 80 percent black, and this punk rock scene was fueled by angst-ridden white kids, a lot of whom I found out had fucking trust funds waiting for them when they became of legal adult age. Shit, I didn’t even know what a fucking trust fund was back then. It was very strange to be these “token negroes” playing in front of predominantly all-white audiences, but we did it. As Shawn Brown [singer of the DC hardcore band Dag Nasty] and myself will attest, there were fucking issues, man. A lot of fucking issues that we had to address when we did shows.

Interviewing Dave Dictor of MDC, Edminger asks, “Did you feel hardcore punk was less tolerant of gays?” to which Dictor responds,

It definitely wasn’t tolerant of gays on the whole. There were individual scenes that were more political and cooler; of course Austin, Texas, was probably as good and friendly of a scene and not as homophobic. We were very connected to the 1970s punk rock scene, which was more like a freak revolution than say, what started happening in the early 1980s, when a lot of younger kids got involved, like Minor Threat, SSD, and 7 Seconds. That was more like young guys in the crew that didn’t have a background in which they were into the Dead Boys or New York Dolls or into all that. That was one of the first divisions that we began to notice: people had different backgrounds. The original hardcore pioneers—Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds, most of those people per se—were not homophobic, but the fans they attracted [. . .] I would say were.

(In case you care about these things, it should be noted that Dave Dictor is not gay himself, but he has never hesitated to call people out for being homophobes.)

David Ensminger — he believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible.

Obviously, no scene or musical genre is perfect. What’s interesting to Ensminger though is that there are always new bands coming along who are willing to use punk rock not just as a way to express themselves musically, but to create a more just world. The book ends with an email exchange between Ensminger and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, a band that formed in the late 1990s. As is often the case with email interviews, Ensminger asks long, wordy questions, and Barnett provides even longer, wordier answers, but at the heart of their conversation is the fact that punk can be a force for social change and that newer bands are part of a tradition that goes back not just to Fugazi, or The Clash, but to the pre-rock days of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

“I remember reading an interview with Tad in Flipside in the early ‘90s,” Barnett writes to Ensminger, “where he said, ‘Punk rock is just urban folk music.’ I agree with that and raise him all of the subversive and independent arts, especially conscious underground hip-hop, garage bands, and dance punk hootenannies. Some of the hardcore electronic shit, too.”

These are of course Barnett’s words, but after reading Left of the Dial, I’m sure that Ensminger shares their sentiment. From the questions he asks to the musicians he chooses to interview, it’s clear that Ensminger believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible, and when it’s rallying for a good cause—even if that cause is just to be free from boring, corporate rock and roll.

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Left of the Dial on Pop Matters

by John L Murphy
Pop Matters
July 1st, 2013

Is Punk Rock Just Urban Folk Music? 'Left of the Dial'

Over 20 veterans of the punk scene, over three decades on, tell David Ensminger about their formative years and their chosen values. Fragmented identities, made up on the spot, might define their adolescent musicians for years and bands to come. Some wandered beyond what became the limits of punk and hardcore; others sustain punk’s eclectic, ornery energy. These accounts compile the intellectual and personal transformations attempted by punks from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, freed of the promotional message “via ratty fanzines” or the dutifully chronological approach of “box store biographies”. As the interviewer sums up his anthology: “These are the words of punk participants centered on the legacy of punk’s sometimes fuzzy political ideology, rupture of cultural norms, media ecology, networking and outreach aims, sexual identity and race relations, and musical nuances.”

Ensminger calls his contributors icons. None matched Joey Ramone’s or Johnny Rotten’s fame, but these clever, driven strategists detoured from the dreary dead end of a decade overwhelmed by Pink Floyd, Yes, and Led Zeppelin, when few up-and-coming bands played their own songs rather than covers by FM-radio monoliths who filled stadiums. Few indie bands, according to some interviewed, even existed (at least on the other side of the garage door); this may smack of hyperbole, but depending on the dismal conditions attested to by many here, it’s the impetus for this “secret history”.

Peter Case, with proto-punks the Nerves, vowed to break out: “We were going to do what the Beatles did, but our strip bar was across the street” in 1974 San Francisco. Ensminger’s focus often settles on California, but given the anglophile emphasis by Jon Savage in his influential account England’s Dreaming, first-person verification from the other side of the world proves necessary. As The Damned’s guitarist Captain Sensible favors, bursting out from the working classes, the band-driven impetus for musical and social change deserves a hearing lately dismissed by elitist trendsetters.

This tilt balances the supposition that American punk rock stayed suburban, middle-class, and white. Chip Kinman of the Dils and later Rank and File brought, as a young bassist, a Communist lyrical stance. He figured this would rouse Golden State audiences to confront their fears better than clichéd swastikas. Similar to Case, Kinman insists on a rootsier, vernacular, populist strain within punk that aligns it to folk, country, and blues music. He argues articulately for the first wave of American punk, arguably predating if not The Ramones than certainly Rotten, as already established by the mid-‘70s in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This oddball, offbeat phase, as L.A.‘s El Vez “the Mexican Elvis” or the denizens of San Francisco’s Deaf Club typify, comprises part one of Left of the Dial.

What soon replaced it in tract-home Orange County and the tonier beach cities of the South Bay, hardcore, sounds to Kinman like “machine bands” fixed on an unrelenting discipline and a forceful rigor, exemplified by Black Flag’s SST label in its Henry Rollins phase. As for punk, Kinman labels it the “last white popular music” as he laments its “overdocumented” archival status, and rock’s “self-referential” trap which stymies innovation. No wonder those from the early stages of punk remain true to punk’s unpredictable spirit—by refusing to mimic their own youthful musical molds or models.

Part two, and two-thirds of the book, shoves its way into a mosh pit of “sound and fury”. Mike Palm of O.C.‘s Agent Orange sprinkled surf instrumentals into punk anthems. Suburban surfers elbowed into hardcore’s mosh pits, to push aside the misfits they would have despised a few years earlier in the glitter-glam era when Hollywood and San Francisco punk staggered and flirted amidst gay bars, squatters, and the fringes of the art world such as the Deaf Club.

But subversive or gender-bending punk faded. A uniform of spiked hair, leather jackets, and big boots hobbled purported non-conformists. Representing the transition to the more violent, tribal hardcore O.C. mood of the early ‘80s, Palm praises Rodney Bingenheimer, the KROQ-FM Sunday night d.j. who championed the otherwise impossible to find import vinyl straight out of London, which preceded and then propelled the local L.A. punk scene. (This reviewer also attests to the kindness and generosity which “Rodney on the ROQ” unfailingly showed to his fans—at first very few of us in 1976. His show was our only local lifeline to fresh, startling sounds from abroad or from the late-‘70s underground, before the mass marketing of “alt-rock” by KROQ and imitators.)

The Minutemen’s stalwart bassist Mike Watt entertains with tales of how he and bandmate D. Boon traveled up from San Pedro, 45 minutes south, to Hollywood’s raucous concerts. With a shared love for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Oyster Cult, their terse punk-jazz-folk compressed the idealism of populist punk as it embraced the two teens. Watt affirms: “I’m trying to live up to the personal utopia I felt in my life where I could play anything I want and D. Boon could help me. We don’t have to live up to anything.” Distanced from punk’s bohemian ambiance, but lured in, Watt and Boon settled in to a place (on SST) where CCR and BOC covers coexist with a frenetic, experimental band admiring their peers such as Wire or Richard Hell.

This genial tolerance, as with the plaid shirt sported by Watt in homage to CCR’s John Fogerty, supports Case and Kinman’s confidence (reiterated in typically reliable fashion here by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records) that punk’s progressive ethos extends its instigators’  principled, D.I.Y. and anarchic aims. Participants agree that punk unity emerges from its diversity, its ambitions, and its open-mindedness. Watt sums it up: “Back in those days, if you considered yourself punk, you didn’t say ‘I’m punk.’ Now, people say, how are you punk rock? You look like my dad.”

Speaking of punk’s contrasts between participants and stereotypes, part of the fun of this presentation is playing its players off each other. Kinman reserves choice words for Jello Biafra; Biafra lashes out at his former bandmates in the Dead Kennedys. Ensminger holds Shawn Stern (Youth Brigade) to a couple of inconsistencies in his interview, while Kira Roessler (Black Flag) reminds readers of that band’s calculated non-conformity, reacting to the rigid expectations of its own hardcore audience.

Jack Grisham (TSOL) distinguishes the “attitude” of early punk vs. the “music” and the “look” of its later versions, which usually fail to innovate. Embodying the presence of such an innovator, Ensminger introduces Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Off) via his “extended monologues” during concerts, as “he struts the stage like a well-meaning counselor and history teacher.” As a Texas college instructor and cultural scholar himself (and PopMatters columnist), drummer-editor Ensminger suitably examines the impact of less-heralded figures who continue to strive for experimentation and agitation within the spirit if not always the template of punk.

Apropos, Morris speaks of his affection for his former roommate, the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce heaped doses of “aggro” to pepper the Americana musical stew with earthier spices. This pungent blend seeps into an lengthy conversation with Really Red’s U-Ron Bondage. Ensminger as a “digital archivist” may let this meticulous contribution go on much longer than his other entries, but the long career of activist U-Ron, from the mid-‘60s Texas acid-psychedelic era through the Reagan years into Clear Channel and Vans Shoes’ commodification of skate-punk, justifies its inclusion.

Political, sexual, and racial ramifications feature within later chapters. Beefeater’s Fred “Freak” Smith from the D.C. hardcore-funk scene and Article of Faith’s Vic Bondi challenge hardcore dogmatism. Straightedge and indulgent factions contend; Ensminger strives for fairness in hearing out the conflict, if leaning far to the left. He pushes a few interlocutors to clarify or defend their claims. He favors the upstarts (after all, this is published by the anarchist-friendly PM Press) to foment small-scale, non-corporate action to spark wider change. Dave Dictor (MDC) surveys the takeover of the alternative movement by the big labels, and he may champion Obama, but he also hopes that the Greens will—eventually after the Democrats fail—replace the powers that be.

Left of the Dial reminds readers that before Green Day or Rancid, we had Fugazi, MDC, and DOA. The difficulty with this small-scale rebellion endures: how to sustain an audience and make a living from marginal music and radical stances. Many burn out or give in. The little labels themselves encounter difficulties, competing against the majors. Lisa Fancher, founder of Frontier Records who signed many early Southern California bands mentioned here, argues for her side in this complicated situation. Ensminger then appends three “notable persons” to give their testimony. Managers, rights, and royalties, as with any popular music study, play their part in who endures and who succumbs.

There lurk a few slips in transcription (John “Vox” rather than Foxx from Ultravox; “Beechwood” rather than Beachwood for the Hollywood avenue; “Red Cross” or “Kross” for the band who had to respell as “Redd Kross”). Nearly all chapters were previously published; beyond their original readership in fanzines and on Ensminger’s eponymous LotD magazine, some entries needed editorial clarification of band members or fellow musicians casually mentioned only by first or last name by those interviewed.

Minor faults aside, this compendium provides a fitting tribute to punk’s intellectual and political energy, harnessed to a friendlier, if assaultive, approach that invites in all to play and listen. Better yet, it encourages audiences to become activists, to participate for principled change.

It boils down to protest. Thomas Barnett (Strike Anywhere) nods to the Wobblies and Leadbelly. He cites a Flipside fanzine interviewee himself, continuing the chain of credit lengthened in this collection of voices from those who those stand over but not apart from the crowd. “Punk rock is just urban folk music.”

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Left of the Dial in the Indypendent Reader

by Blake Underwood
Indypendent Reader
July 15th 2013

One of the many takeaways from David Ensminger’s newly published Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons is that subtleties matter. Even the book’s title seems to ask us to examine the distinction between an interview and a conversation, which the author makes clear over and over again. Rather than yet another compilation of call-and-response style interviews, where figures from punk’s history are asked to answer the same context-free questions about why yesterday is more important than today, Ensminger has been able to create real dialogues. The conversations draw out a diverse, narrative history of an all too often essentialized subculture. And while expected names like Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, and Keith Morris are present, the list of conversations also includes names that will be much less familiar to many readers, including an “Un-oral” history of San Francisco’s short lived, but historically important show space, The Deaf Club. Each conversation is exceptionally unique, often with a level of specificity that will have readers taking notes to do their own follow-up research, but always providing new insight into the people and topics at each story’s center.

Left of the Dial is broken into two parts. The first, much shorter section, entitled “Tales from the Zero Hour,” provides a rather diverse array of perspectives on the “birth” of punk from its Rock ‘n’ Roll and New Wave parents.Yet, rather than mining tired territory on the hows and whys of punk’s evolution, these accounts go quite far to describe the musical, cultural and, to a lesser degree, political landscapes that existed in the spaces that early punks carved out, often before they even called themselves punks. Featuring, amongst others, Peter Case of the Nerves, Captain Sensible (aka Raymond Burns) of the Damned, and Tony Kinman of the Dils, the conversations cover the influences on early punk music, the almost accidental development of DIY (do-it-yourself) touring, and the first attempts at mainstream cooptation of punk culture. Ensminger’s distinctly personal questions means that the conversations are allowed to meander, creating narratives that are fascinating, yet rather difficult to summarize -- such as when Captain Sensible answers a question about the difficulty of international touring in the late 1970s, with a caustic anecdote about Patti Smith and the atmosphere around the infamous CBGB, one of the earliest venues to feature punk bands in New York City. However, where this style would pose difficulty with more narrowly historical documentations, here it shines. From the start, Ensminger treats his readers like adults, either knowledgeable enough to contextualize each divergent thread of conversation, or smart enough to seek and find the materials to do so.

Though heavily focused on bands formed in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, the book’s second section, “Hardcore Sound and Fury,” attempts to follow punk’s lineage all the way through to the present. Opening with the likes of Mike Palm and Gregg Turner, of Agent Orange and the Angry Samoans respectively, Ensminger begins to unravel the development of hardcore punk, an amorphous term used to describe the more aurally aggressive and politically confrontational subgenre that came to dominate the scene, especially in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The conversations follow the same logic as those in the first section, allowing personal experiences and anecdotes to provide explicit references, but inexplicit answers to the broader, underlying questions that too often lose their power when answered with black and white clarity. A tactic that seems employed by the book as a whole.

For example, like many of its counterparts, Left of the Dial might be criticized for its limited inclusion of women, punks of color, and other marginalized groups whose influence in and on punk has been enormous. But Ensminger attempts to allow these narratives to shine through, while not necessarily highlighting them. To this end, the inclusion of Kira Roessler not only in the book’s contents, but also on its cover, stands out in bold relief. From 1983 to 1985, Roessler played bass in Black Flag, arguably one the most important bands in punk history.

Yet, many of the bands contemporary fans are likely unaware that the band ever featured a female member, much less one who played on the band’s last four LPs. But instead of the political pandering and essentialism that can too often be counted on in such a scenario, Ensminger’s conversation with Roessler is nuanced. Without blunt, tokenizing questions, she is able to speak to the sexism and prejudice that existed towards her while the band was on the road, while never seeming to summarize her role simply as “that girl who was in Black Flag.”

Similarly, Beefeater’s Fred “Freak” Smith briefly discusses his experience as a black punk in a DC scene dominated by white, middle-class men, with a type of candor that few interviewers allow for. And though Ensminger steers Smith in this direction, it is clearly with the intention of creating a round understanding of his subject’s experience, and not to simply check a proverbial box.  [Note: For those interested, Ensminger has done extensive documentary work on women and people of color in punk history. See links at the end of this review.]

The loose style of Ensminger’s conversations sometimes leaves the reader wanting to ask their own follow-up questions, perhaps about Tony Kinman’s seeming disdain for Jello Biafra, but one is rarely disappointed with the final product. Occasionally, an elaborated introduction seems called for, especially in the first section of the book where readers may need more background information to contextualize the personalities, but this is not a book aimed at the totally uninitiated. Those without a cursory knowledge of punk history will likely be lost, and those looking for a comprehensive historical document will be disappointed. Yet, the book closes with two interviews that really seem to convey punk’s broad, enduring influence.

Speaking with Dave Dictor of MDC and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, Ensminger creates a snapshot of punk’s power as a form musical, cultural, and political resistance to the status quo. Both long-time frontmen, Dictor and Barnett have used the stage, literal and figurative, to voice the constant critique that is at the heart of punk, even when that hearis itself the target of their critique.And we are able to find the foundations of these voices, unearthing the varied inspiration these men have found from such sources as Black Power politics, the hippie generation, anarchism, and their punk predecessors.

Because punk continues to maintain an ethic of self-reliance, while also understanding the need for evolution and even reinvention, Ensminger understands that these foundations and their narratives are invaluable. While even some of voices contained within will deny that punk continues to live and endure under new contexts and with new sounds, this book belies that notion. If today’s punks and their music looked and sounded the same as their predecessors, then the reactionary, antagonistic spirit of the culture would be all but lost. The fact that punk spaces continue to serve as sources of political and personal experimentation is a testament to the strength of those foundations.  The conversations in Left of the Dial speak to much more than the longevity of a particular sound or style, they speak to the very existence of a culture that has outlived those who declared it dead decades ago. Regardless of how long a record stays on your turntable, if it truly matters, its importance will outlive the ringing in your ears.


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The Human Front Reviewed in Locus

by Russell Letson
July 2013

Ken MacLeod’s Sidewise Award-winning novella The Human Front first appeared as a PS Publishing singleton in 2001, and now is the centerpiece of one of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series from PM Press. There’s a ‘‘Plus ...’’ on the cover and title page, indicating the inclusion of a pair of reflective essays by the author, an interview conducted by Bisson, and an extensive bibliography of MacLeod’s fiction and non-fiction. The elements of the package interact nicely.

The MacLeod I first encountered through the Fall Revolution novels was wild and woolly and quite emphatically Out There, all exotic tech and wide-open-galaxy settings and gnarly post-human action. And, to be sure, politics. Lots of politics. The Human Front comes from the end of that period, but has a rather different atmosphere, an almost claustrophobic variation on the UK of the post-WWII decade, with its class tensions and barriers, shabby-genteel-to-industrial-grimy economy, and straitened emotional horizons – except it’s set in the 1960s and after. But the politics are still right in the foreground. This is an alternate history in which the Cold War was short-circuited in the late 1940s and by 1963 Stalin has ended up as a guerrilla leader (a dead one, in the story’s first lines) in a grindingly permanent international conflict that pits the Allies, now the old imperialist order, against Communist revolutionaries all over the world. The frame of the story is a bildungsroman, the memoir of John Matheson, a middle-class doctor’s son and eventual Communist partisan fighter, who at an early age sees something strange at the crash-landing of an American bomber of the type that proved a military and geopolitical game-changer by dropping an A-bomb on Moscow in 1949. As exotic as the saucer-shaped aircraft is, it is nothing compared to the four-fingered, child- or midget-size pilot whose leg Dr. Matheson sets, and whose very existence, the ‘‘two men in black suits, who weren’t ministers’’ suggest very strongly to the doctor, is to remain a state secret if he knows what’s good for him and his family.

That puzzle remains hanging over the mantelpiece for a long time while young John’s political involvement in radical left causes takes him ever deeper into the asymmetrical war against the old order, culminating in an action that brings him into contact with another Allied saucer craft and its differently-but-equally unexpected pilot. Then things open out considerably, though not quite in the expansive, space-operatic manner of the Fall Revolution novels, or Learning the World, or Newton’s Wake. Instead, we get a tour through at least one more genre familiar enough that John writes that its ‘‘tedious details... need not be repeated here.’’ Then things open out yet again and we end up in somewhat more familiar MacLeodian territory.

It’s hard to comment on the novella without unleashing a spoiler of some kind, but since the story is more than a decade old, it’s worth the risk. The story’s resolution – and the solution to the problems addressed by all the various modern political-economic-technological complexes at work in this world and others – is provided not by John Matheson and his comrades, nor by any forces in his world, but by intervention from outside – in this case, by descendants of the few survivors of the old historical-evolutionary meatgrinder, operating across multiple universes of possibility. The deployment of alternative futures, not just here but across MacLeod’s fiction, is telling – it seems to me to be a severely constrained optimism-in-principle, with no guarantee of success in practice: not ‘‘we could try X’’ so much as ‘‘we could have tried X – but we didn’t and probably won’t.’’ On the other hand, maybe somebody, somewhere or somewhen, will, and here’s how it might play out in some luckier or smarter scheme of things. There is nothing inevitable about progress. In the interview, MacLeod says, ‘‘To this day, British SF writers see evolution as a vast pitiless process that will eventually doom humanity, and US SF writers tend to see it as a chirpy homily to self-reliance.’’ Most of the results of evolution’s experiments, after all, are dead ends. (Compare Greg Egan’s view of evolution in Teranesia.)

The two essays, ‘‘Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed’’ and ‘‘The Future Will Happen Here, Too’’, explore the genesis of the novella, the former outlining the geopolitical side (‘‘the world becomes Vietnam’’), and the latter the more personal. Perhaps perversely, it is the latter I find more compelling. Even before I read these pieces, I was struck by how strongly the geography, climate, culture, and politics of Scotland seem to have soaked into his fiction, and in ‘‘The Future’’ MacLeod acknowledges his uses of particular places, not just because he knows their textures well but because

Scotland’s streets and mountains, lochs and rain have shaped my own mind just as geological processes have carved the landscape itself. This place I live in is still the place I visit in dreams. I owe it that forming, that weathering, that uplift.

That lyrical note is as important to MacLeod’s voice as the speculative or dialectical or smart-assical, and it explains much of why I return to his work so enthusiastically.

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On the Ground Reviewed in Logos

by Abe Pack
July 2013

An excerpt from Review Essay: The Life and Times of the Underground Press

On The Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S.,[32] embraced the oral-history recollections of numerous participants. Editor Sean Stewart, a native Jamaican who’d curated a 2009 underground press exhibit in the San Francisco bookstore/gallery he then owned, produced what his publisher said was “neither meant to be an official nor comprehensive history.”[33] Stewart wanted to remain “faithful to the established historical narrative.” But, as he said, “my focus is strictly on the atmospherics—trying to get a handle on what things were like day-to-day in the underground press.”[34]

Stewart does succeed in re-animating the ethos of the underground press experience. A nice editing job distributed reminiscences by rough chronology and key topics: “participants or reporters,” design, distribution, sectarianism, repression, burnout and legacy. Interviewees accentuated the positive; few were disillusioned. There was nostalgia, and PG-13 eliding of coups and correctness—but also a sense of accomplishment and a continuing feistiness about having confronted war-makers and bigots. Here’s Thorne Dreyer of the Texas papers Rag and Space City—still an activist—summing up in Stewart’s “Legacy” section.

Everybody all felt like they were changing the world…There were phenomenal changes happening. We were also delusional in lots of ways. We saw revolution—a total revolution—and our goals were so large that anything that happened would have fallen short…
We created institutions that were reflective of what we believed…and the underground press was the most significant of those.[35]

On The Ground’s liveliness is reinforced by perhaps 100 covers, comix, illustrations and photos. As Jonah Raskin, a biographer of ‘60s Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, has noted, these illustrations could be at once dynamic, sexist and violent. But, Raskin added, Stewart’s array “comes closer than [McMillian’s and Wachsberger’s books] to the spirit of the in-your-face underground papers.”[36]

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Hoping for the Worst

by Samuel Grove
New Left Project
July 4th, 2013

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is a collection of essays published by PM Press that explores the politics of apocalyptic thinking across the political spectrum. In her essay, ‘Left Catastrophism’, Sasha Lilley focuses on the left’s peculiar attachment to disasters. Recently she spoke to Samuel Grove about why a politics of impending doom should be avoided.

What is left catastrophism?

Left catastrophism, which runs through much of the radical left, is an outlook rooted in political despair.  It takes two forms, although they can elide.  One is based on the notion that capitalism will mechanically abut internal or external limits—for example, owing to a "terminal" economic crisis or peak oil—and come crashing down without concerted struggle. The other is rooted in the idea that the worse things get, the better they will be for radical prospects. Hence, periods of economic crisis or state repression are welcomed for finally providing the conditions in which ordinary people will lose their illusions about the system and move leftward. Many on the left oscillate between these two versions of catastrophism. Both presume that out of the ashes a new world will be born—the world that we radicals have not been able to create by ourselves. While it often serves as unexamined conventional wisdom, a “common sense” of sorts, catastrophism is counterproductive for anticapitalists.

So there are two dimensions to left catastrophism. The first concerns the objective conditions for revolution, the second, the conditions for a revolutionary subjectivity. Let's begin with the first. You are not questioning that capitalism produces catastrophes are you? Rather, as you say, that these catastrophes are in themselves sufficient to break the system. What is a better way of interpreting the relationship of capitalism and catastrophe—particularly in the absence of concerted struggle?

A good place to start is by distinguishing between catastrophes and catastrophism. Capitalism, by its very nature, is catastrophic.  Yet while it is crisis-prone, it also needs crises.  That is, crises help the system renew itself.  Just look at how the capitalist class has used the current economic crisis to ratchet up productivity to achieve soaring profits, exploiting workers’ fears that they may lose their jobs. So to imagine that an economic crisis will, by itself, bring on the collapse of capitalism is misguided.  Similarly, the burning of accessible petroleum reserves—which is certainly catastrophic for humanity, fuelling global warming—does not create an insurmountable limit against which capitalism cannot survive, as some peak oilers suggest. Rather, the depletion of current reserves has driven the search for new sources of petroleum, opening up new avenues of accumulation and profitability. To the point that the United States is predicted to surpass Saudi Arabia in five to eight years as the world’s leading petroleum producer.  

The point about Marxist theory, and in particular Marx’s critique of liberal economics, was to show that what was assumed to obey determined natural law was really the result of human action? Nevertheless you take a lot of Marxist theory to task for succumbing to catastrophism.

That’s true. As ever, one needs to distinguish between Marx and many of his 20th century inheritors, who turned his arguments into mechanistic dogma. Various political tendencies under the Marxist banner held that iron laws of history would bring an end to capitalism, and that victory was preordained. Although Marx indulged in rhetorical flourishes himself, he was clear that human beings make history through struggle. Over time his views evolved about crises as a trigger for social upheaval. Marx and Engels greeted the 1857-58 economic crisis with the assumption that it would automatically set off a revolutionary wave. That didn’t happen and they subsequently abandoned such expectations. Furthermore, while Marx viewed crises as a central feature of capitalism, he did not equate crises with the system’s collapse.  

If Marx came to realize that capitalism would not collapse because of crises, many of his successors did not.  Hence, in the early 20th century, European radicals became embroiled in debates over the coming inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Collapse was constantly seen on the horizon, with deleterious political consequences: complacency on the one hand and adventurism on the other. An example of the latter was furnished by militants in Estonia, where an insurrection was launched without mass support because of the presumption that capitalism was in its death throes: “At 5.15am on December 1, 1924, two hundred and twenty seven Communists started a revolution,” wrote C.L.R. James, “and by 9 o’clock were completely defeated, doing untold harm…”

Is this still something that afflicts the left?

The idea that capitalism will collapse under its own weight has much less traction today, in our markedly anti-utopian times, but it does appear in various forms.  I’ve mentioned peak oil: the group Deep Green Resistance argue that come 2015 industrial capitalism will start to unravel as a result of diminished oil reserves and will be ripe for take down by a small group of committed militants. We also saw, at the start of the financial crisis, some glee on the radical left that capitalism was unravelling and that our time had finally come.  Clearly, that didn’t turn out so well and such euphoria has mainly receded. But it has a hold on the imagination of leftists of various stripes, from anarchist to Marxist, such as Immanuel Wallerstein who draws on the notion of Kondratiev waves to argue that capitalism has been stagnating since the early 1970s and in twenty to thirty years will no longer be with us, replaced by either something better or worse.

I should emphasize that I think it’s entirely reasonable for radicals to desire the end of capitalism. In historical terms, it is quite a new system and there is nothing eternal about it.  But I believe it is mistaken to imagine that this end will come mechanically, without widespread struggle.

The other form of catastrophism—the notion that increasing economic immiseration or state repression move people to the left—is more common amongst radicals today. In the last decade, insurrectionist ideas have become more popular, boosted in one form by the bestselling book The Coming Insurrection. Insurrectionism celebrates increased conflict and concomitant repression as providing a catalyst for revolt. A less exciting version of this notion has had widespread appeal on the left with the assumption that austerity would provoke renewed radical movements. It’s premised on a very simplistic idea of politicization—that people are deluded about the system they live under and need a shock in order to see things as they really are. But this notion, which is quite patronizing, misunderstands the complexities of what moves people to action. It’s ripe for vanguardism.

Historically, perhaps the most appalling example of the worse, the better can be found with the leaders of the German Communist Party in the 1930s who believed that if the Nazis came to power, they would pave the path to revolution.  The party informally adopted the slogan, “After Hitler—our turn”, and encouraged its members to vote for the Nazis in the Prussian state elections. It need hardly be said that it ended quite badly for them.

Nevertheless Marx held to the idea that there were certain contradictions in capitalism which are ultimately unsustainable.  For example the planet cannot support compound economic growth forever.

Indeed. Marx didn’t, of course, make that particular argument, but it’s a very legitimate one.  Yet if capitalism were to wholly destroy the basis for compound growth, one imagines that point is not imminent, as perilous as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, the destruction of the coral reefs, mass extinctions, and the poisoning of our bodies have become.  That’s because of the alarming yet remarkable ability of capitalism to leap over “natural limits” of various kinds.  Out of scarcity, capitalism frequently opens new avenues for profitability and accumulation, some material and others immaterial, and often by incorporating new fields of life into the commodity form—from the body to the ocean floor—by enclosing what had been outside of the market. And capitalism, premised as it is on creative destruction, often uses moments of devastation for the same purpose: just think of the trade in pollution credits, remediation of toxic spills, or even expanding healthcare costs for particulate-related heart and lung disease.  That this would be able to continue indefinitely is hard to imagine, but if capitalism were not able to expand at a 3% compound rate of growth, it’s not clear that it would simply collapse, rather than limping along in highly uneven ways for a time, with some regions contracting and others not. Either way, it’s a pretty bleak path for reaching a postcapitalist world.

If crises don’t always produce widespread struggle, is it fair to say that widespread struggle nonetheless requires some sort of precipitating crisis in order to get underway? For instance the most progressive period in US labour history was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Clearly social unrest doesn’t appear out of thin air.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that social struggles can’t emerge during times of economic crisis—they obviously can.  But often such crises only appear to be the catalyst for struggles.  There are many crises, economic or political, that could, and perhaps should, ignite upheaval and do not—countless police murders that don't start riots, austerity programs that don't trigger uprisings, and so on—which are then forgotten.

Pinpointing the ingredients that spark protest is always tricky since so many factors tend to be at work. Contrary to received wisdom on the left, however, many struggles come not out of worsening economic conditions, but rather periods of expansion. The Great Depression, as you mentioned, is often held up as the prime example of an economic crisis providing fertile ground for radical social movements.  But it should be noted, even there, that perhaps the most militant episodes in that struggle—the iconic factory occupations and sit down strikes of 1936-37—took place not during a worsening economic crisis, but a recovery, when the employment rate had increased by thirty percent from the depths of the depression.  And that’s telling: often social movements get the most traction when people’s expectations rise and they have a sense of their own collective power, not weakness.  The movements of the Sixties in the US, similarly, arose from a time of economic expansion and relatively high wages. It was the backdrop for tremendous rank and file militancy, which fell off after the severe economic crisis of the early 1970s.

One of the few welcoming consequences of the 2008 economic crisis was the dent it inflicted on notions of capitalist invincibility. For instance Naomi Klein suggested that the Wall St. Crisis was for 'neoliberalism' what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for 'communism'. If nothing else then crises can serve to put discussion of revolution and postcapitalist arrangements back on the table. In light of this is catastrophism necessarily a bad thing?

The crisis did shake, at least early on, the idea that capitalism was invulnerable.  But as you intimate, this was even more so for neoliberalism (which has often become a synonym for capitalism amongst some leftists, but clearly is just one form). A number of prominent figures on the left proclaimed, if not the downfall of the capitalist system, at least the death of so-called free market capitalism. But that proved overly optimistic—it was nothing like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neoliberalism may have been discredited in some quarters, but it remains the order of the day in the Global North.

Any renewed discussions of revolutionary change and life beyond capitalism would be all to the good, although I’m not sure the degree to which that has happened in any extensive way during the current crisis. As I’ve been emphasizing, there is nothing automatic about the relationship between crises, politicization, and radical action. During crises people may move to the left or to the right, or stay where they are, trying to get by individually. Fear—and this is a point made by James Davis in Catastrophism—tends to tilt right, not left.  When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

As Eddie Yuen argues, we need to remember that, living in crisis-wracked times, many people suffer from catastrophe fatigue.  Another jolt is not going to make them decide that revolution is the answer.  They don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them. They simply have no faith that anything can be done to change it.  And a catastrophist outlook does nothing to address that basic problem. In fact, it hinders coming to grips with it.  It attempts to bypass the often difficult job of reaching out to others who don’t agree with you and helping them to organize themselves.

Is war any different to other forms of crisis—either for its revolutionary or counterrevolutionary effects?

Yes, war could be seen as an exception.  Historically, wars have seemed to beget revolutions.  The great revolutionary waves of the 20th century followed World Wars One and Two, as did the disintegration of the colonial empires. Those who had been asked to sacrifice, or to kill and risk being killed, are much less likely to want to return to the old order.

But wars also give the state even more coercive power in the name of national security, as we know.  They’re marked by great repression and jingoism, when radicals frequently are unable to make themselves heard above the xenophobic or nationalist din, and wars often unleash the forces of the far right.  And the lessons of the 20th century, from World War One to the Vietnam War, have not been lost on the ruling classes. They realize that conscripts, even from imperialist countries, can be radicalized. Hence they now tend to rely on proxy forces and drones, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

One sometimes hears that revolutions are a thing of the past because war has changed.  But it’s worth noting that the most significant revolutionary situation to occur in Europe in recent memory—the events of May 1968 in France—was not fuelled by war, but took place in a reasonably prosperous society at a time of peace, if we can call it that.

If there is nothing particularly new about 'catastrophism' what are the particular contemporary circumstances which make this idea attractive? If as you say 'catastrophism' is offered as a substitute for the hard work of organisation and struggle, to what extent is 'catastrophism' a symptom of the difficulty of engaging in struggle?

That’s a key question. Catastrophism appears to be most prevalent during periods of political defeat for the radical left. To borrow E.P. Thompson’s phrase, it’s the chiliasm of despair, if we define despair in political, rather than psychological, terms.  Hence the old chestnut about it being easier to image the end of the world than the end of capitalism—something that has marked the last forty years, with the defeat of the radical left and the emergence of neoliberalism with its mantra of being the only possible way.

During this period social movements have been, by and large, in disarray, while the working class has been incorporated into neoliberal capitalism through the nexus of finance.  In the United States, there have been moments of great mobilization in recent years—the massive antiwar demonstrations of 2003, the immigrant workers strike of 2006 (numerically the largest general strike in US history)—but creating sustained, ongoing movements has been more difficult.  Even Occupy flared up spectacularly and then waned.  The old ways of organizing—especially the vanguard party model—have been discredited, but the purportedly horizontal forms of recent years have also been beset with problems.  Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others.  Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable. Catastrophism will not go away simply by pointing to its negative effects. Nevertheless, as radicals attempt to renew a widespread anticapitalist project, ideas matter. As tempting as catastrophism is, it’s an outlook that should be rejected.

As you say though, if ‘catastrophism’ is no solution to hopelessness and compromise on the left, then simply abandoning ‘catastrophism’ isn’t a solution either. It strikes me from what you are saying that just as ideas matter—so does history. There is something quite ahistorical about catastrophism, not just in the sense that it pays no attention to overcome crises, but also in proposing a radical break from all that has gone on before, catastrophism has a kind of wilful blindness to previous struggles on the left; struggles that have brought with them real victories.

It’s generally true that catastrophists undervalue past battles, although not always.  There are some, especially of the determinist variety, who would situate themselves at the pinnacle of prior historical struggles. But for the most part, previous struggles—and what made some successful and others not—are less than relevant. Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing some times and winning others can be shunted to the side.

You seem to be pointing to an idea that has appealed to sectors of the left over time, of broad social transformation or revolution as a great cleansing, a moment where we start the calendar anew.  In terms of radical breaks with the past, I’m sympathetic to the impulse. But there is no such thing as building from scratch, of creating a new society that’s not made out of some of the elements of the old.  In earlier debates one side has argued that revolutionary change is not about annihilating the past—a negative sense of revolution—but instead building on the positive elements of the world that exist already in the struggles that we are waging. The other, negative, sense of social change is not confined to catastrophism, but one can see it in the catastrophist notion of a cleansing rupture. Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist

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S. Brian Willson's Latest Guantanamo Fast Solidarity Statement - June 4th, 2013

Check out the Interview with S. Brian Willson on Cable TV from Portland, Oregon, about His Hunger Strike to Close Guantanamo (47 Minutes) - June 2nd, 2013


S. Brian Willson's Latest Guantanamo Fast Solidarity Statement - June 4th, 2013

My Personal Fast

I have been on a 300-calorie-a-day indefinite hunger strike since Sunday evening, May 12. As of today, having completed 23 days of fasting, I have lost nearly 21 pounds. My participation in this strike was prompted by the decision of 130-140 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (where 166 total prisoners have been held, without charge or chance for trial, for as long as 10+ years) to embark on a hunger strike to protest their continued long captivity and tortured treatment. Since their fasting commenced, many have been force-fed with tubes rammed into their noses and down into their stomachs, causing bleeding and vomiting, while chained from head to foot in a chair. These men have not seen their families since being brutally snatched from their home communities beginning in 2001 upon directives from the U.S. government and its secret operatives, who are known to have freely handed out lucrative bounties to those who would finger someone, anyone. The continuing captivity and maltreatment of these prisoners is medieval, barbaric, sadistic, and grotesquely illegal according to both U.S. and international law. It dehumanizes all of us.

The Most Salient Question
For me, the salient question is: What is the proportionate response when one knows his or her government has waged, for twelve years, and continues, a Global War OF Terror, committing on an ongoing basis the supreme international crime of aggression (Nuremberg) against a multitude of countries around the world, while participating in the associated war crimes
and crimes against humanity, murdering as many as two million innocent human beings, maiming and displacing millions of others, while torturing thousands, destabilizing regions for years, even decades to come? Meanwhile, domestic repression tightens the noose on any effective dissent. The 2001 Patriot Act eliminated Habeas Corpus for foreigners, as the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) eliminated it for U.S. citizens deemed by
the President as "terrorists." Please tell me: What is the proportionate response to all this diabolical criminality and barbarity?

Though there may not be a simple answer, this is a most important question. I viscerally feel the pain of the Guantanamo prisoners. Each of these individual's odyssey began with being kidnapped, hooded, and continually shackled while being transported from one torture prison to another, until finally flown (hooded and shackled) to the U.S. gulag known as Guantanamo.

The U.S. has acknowledged at least 100 of the prisoners were murdered during the torture process, before arriving at Guantanamo, ruling the deaths as homicides. The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo is located within a 45-square-mile parcel of land forcefully taken from the Cuban people in the 1898 (illegal) Spanish-American War.

Preserving my humanity requires me to do something, as I strive to express unmistakable solidarity with the pain and suffering of the prisoners who remain at Guantanamo. As Socialist Eugene Debs declared, "While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

U.S. Pattern of Imperialism is Entrenched

Since my birth on July 4, 1941, my country has overtly, militarily invaded dozens of countries at least 390 times, covertly interfering in other countries' sovereignty thousands of times, while bombing 28 of them. I personally witnessed grotesque atrocities against the Vietnamese people, and subsequently witnessed illegal and barbaric U.S. policies at work in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Colombia, among others. Drones, our newest killing invention, have added another inherently destructive technology to the global murder arsenal, enabling the President to decide anyone labeled "terrorist" can be murdered with premeditation, any place, any time, such decisions being made at his whim, in secrecy, with no accountability. The U.S. is now a totalitarian state that has eliminated basic principles established some 800 years ago with the Magna Carta. Smart bombs and smart missiles are in fact really dumb because they directly create more enraged enemies, endangering the U.S. American people. In my eyes, the U.S. President is a totalitarian monster no less than the worst monarchs and dictators in world history.

The Gated Society: The U.S. love affair with incarceration, solitary confinement and torture
I live in a country that imprisons more than 2.5 million of its citizens on an average day in more than 9,000 jails and prisons, boasting the highest per capita detention rate in the world by far - 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people

[Local jails: 745,000; state and federal adult prisons: 1,600,000; juvenile facilities: 141,000; and immigrant detention: 34,000 =Grand Total: 2,520,000 U.S. prisoners].
Rwanda has the second highest detention rate at 595; Russia comes in third at 568. The world's average per capita detention rate is 146.

More than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are from racial and ethnic minority groups yet they comprise only 36 percent of the general population. The U.S., with 4.6 percent of the world's population, holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners. At least 80,000 of these, and as many 110,000, are locked up in solitary confinement in facilities for years such as continues at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, among dozens of locations. Being held in solitary for more than 15 days was determined in 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur to begin devastating, often irreversible physical and mental ill effects, and is therefore considered torture. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes in the U.S. is also
not unusual, itself another form of torture in violation of international law. Solitary confinement inevitably contributes to increased risks of prison suicides, of which hundreds are reported every year. Nine Guantanamo prisoners are reported to have died, and at least six of these deaths were suicides.

I studied the regular use of torture in Massachusetts prisons in 1981, where force feeding of striking prisoners was common; as was the withholding of rights and privileges such as necessary medicine, mail, or winter clothing during cold weather; the imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, igniting clothes and bedding, providing too little or too much heat, and spraying mace and tear gas; inflicting physical beatings of prisoners filing prison complaints or litigation, of those protesting conditions using hunger strikes; and various forms of intentional psychological abuse such as arbitrary shakedown of cells and brutal rectal searches, ordering prisoners to lie face down on cold floors or the outside ground before receiving food, and empty announcements of visitors or family only later to say it was a joke.

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, President Teddy Roosevelt proudly defended water boarding torture as part of the arsenal of techniques to achieve "the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism" of the Filipinos, or "googoos". The U.S. Marines used one of the first instances of air power and widespread torture to overcome a Haitian revolt of "savage monkeys" against the continuing U.S. presence there in 1920." The word googoo morphed into "gook" as the derogatory term used by U.S. soldiers against the Vietnamese.

In 1931 President Hoover's Wickersham Report (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) concluded that the use of torture (intentional infliction of various methods of pain and suffering) was "widespread" throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system. The U.S. school of the Americas has been teaching torture ("interrogation") to Latin American military personnel since 1946.

Torture Is U.S. Policy.

Guantanamo continues a long U.S. tradition and pattern of domestic cruelty to its own prisoners, as it represents the continuation of the supreme international crimes launched by the U.S. beginning in 2001. This hunger strike intends to address this chronic pattern by affirming my mantra, "We are not worth more; they are not worth less".

S. Brian Willson

The Following Has Been Added by Frank Dorrel.

Feel free to send Brian an email in support of his fast at: . His website is:

Please watch the 9-Minute Trailer for: "PAYING THE PRICE FOR PEACE: The
Story of S. Brian Willson & The Peace Movement" - Directed by Bo Boudart -
Associate Producer Frank Dorrel -

If you feel inspired to help get this important film finished, please send a
donation to:

Beau Monde Image Foundation
PO Box 7395, Menlo Park, CA 94026
(This is a 501 C-3 organization. So it is Tax Deductable)

Bo has already interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, Father Roy Bourgeois, Medea Benjamin, Col. Ann Wright, Martin Sheen, Alice Walker, Phil Donahue, Blase Bonpane, Ron Kovic, Ray McGovern, Charlie Clements, Camila Mejia (Iraq War Veteran), Bruce Gagnon, Charlie Liteky, Duncan Murphy, Leah Bolger (past president of Veterans For Peace), Elliot Adams (past president of VFP), Mike Prysner (Iraq War Veteran), David Swanson, Jeff Paterson (Courage to Resist), Ed Ellis (VFP-LA) & others. He still plans to interview Amy Goodman, Kris Kristofferson, Ed Asner, Kathy Kelly & Cindy Sheehan.

Bo Boudart is a producer of wildlife, ecology, cultural, human rights, cultural, educational and science programs. He has initiated productions in Asia, Indonesia and Philippine Island Archipelagos, South America, Africa, Australia, the Arctic, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States. Boudart has produced documentaries, animations, educational, marketing and
informational programs for distribution in all formats. Many of his programs have aired on the Discovery Channel, Public Television, Canadian Broadcasting, NHK Japan, French TV, and the Middle East.

Bo Boudart Director of: "Paying The Price For Peace"

Other Important Links for S. Brian Willson

Here is Brian's Interview on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman on October 28th,

You can watch Brian's 8-minute segment from my film: "What I've Learned
About US Foreign Policy" at:

All of Brian's essays on his website are well worth reading:

Short Autobiography of S. Brian Willson:

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS: The Life & Times of S. Brian Willson:

In Peace,
Frank Dorrel
Associate Producer of: "Paying The Price For Peace"
Publisher of: ADDICTED To WAR

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An Anarchist Noel Coward? The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

By Raymond Deane
The Irish Left Review
March 29th, 2013

Music Review: The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

"And then the ‘political songwriter’ label can mislead into the belief that I’m writing songs in order to change the world… I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started, although I don’t blame myself entirely for that." - Leon Rosselson

Why is the English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, now almost eighty years old, not a “household name”?

In the entertaining, informative and argumentative liner notes accompanying this 2011 set of four CDs he repeatedly muses on how, in his own words, he “failed to become rich and famous”. Concerning the celebrated title song, World Turned Upside Down, he writes: “Some people think it’s a folk song. Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.”

Success, he tells us, “should have happened in the 1960s… There was the folk boom, the singer-songwriter boom.” At the same time, however, “my songwriting style didn’t fit comfortably into the folk bag. Or any other bag, if it comes to that.” And anyway, “the alternative culture was big business, the musicians were bought into superstardom by lucrative record contracts, …the message ‘liberate your minds’ turned out to be both politically safe and eminently saleable… The guerrillas had simply, without their even realising it, been incorporated into the regular army of the enemy.” His songs The Ugly Ones (“the fetishizing of the beautiful people”) and Flower Power = Bread (from the fateful year 1968) savaged ‘60s values, thus ensuring that Rosselson would not be thus incorporated but also, perhaps, that stardom on 1960s terms would elude him.

Another factor that may have militated against Rosselson’s popular success is the self-confessed absence of love-songs from his output (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”). Instead, he has specialised in what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…”, here represented by Do You Remember?, Invisible Married Breakfast Blues (inspired by Brel and Prévert), Let Your Hair Hang Down, and the wonderful Not Quite, But Nearly. Jacques Brel’s example taught Rosselson that “[y]ou could write songs by pretending to be someone else, by adopting a persona.” Here the feminist principle that “the personal is political, the political personal” provided the rationale, but perhaps in an age when “letting it all hang out” was the order of the day this approach was too oblique.

Nonetheless, in at least one vital way the 1960s marked Rosselson indelibly. The 1967 Six-Day War completed the Jewish singer’s alienation from Zionism and the state of Israel: “After that, it became increasingly clear that the trajectory Israel was taking… was not an aberration from Zionism: it was Zionism…” In the 1995 Song of Martin Fontasch (based on an anecdote from Primo Levi) he “continues the argument between the Jewish values I identify with and Israel’s values as a colonising state”, concluding that “Though they [Zionist Israelis] are Jews, they do not live within my heart.” Seven years later, in My Father’s Jewish World, we hear that “[Israel] brings shame by torturing and killing in our name” (Rosselson’s parents were refugees from Czarist Russia, his father a lifelong communist).

Rosselson is not merely concerned with the contradiction between Zionism and “Jewish values”, but courageously takes an uncompromising stance on behalf of Palestinian rights. The 2005 Song of the Olive Tree, perhaps his most beautiful composition, celebrates the abiding symbol of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) while lamenting the fact that “[h]undreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted [by Israel] since the beginning of the second intifada”.

On the double CD Celebrating Subversion by the recently formed collective of singers and songwriters The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, of which Rosselson is a guiding light, the Song of the Olive Tree is magnificently sung by the English-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. On The World Upside Down it is entrusted to the Scottish folk singer Janet Russell, also a member of the Roadshow. Another of Rosselson’s most famous and controversial songs, Stand up for Judas, is sung here by Roy Bailey and is best known in a version by Dick Gaughan. The song World Turned Upside Down itself, Rosselson’s homage to the 17th century Digger pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley is (as we have seen) indelibly associated with Billy Bragg.

The version of the latter by Rosselson himself (backed by his daughter Ruth) in this collection suggests another reason why he has “failed to become rich and famous”: the lack of range and variety in his singing voice. With its vaguely Monty Pythonish quality (Eric Idle comes to mind!) it’s an instrument particularly suited to those “topical/satirical” songs most typical of his early material, but also to polemical rants like his slashing attack on Tony Blair, Talking Democracy Blues (with its wicked paraphrase of Auden: “Blair’s an amiable guy/Look, he wouldn’t harm a fly/But when he smiles children die…”).

When passion or emotional intensity are required, as in the powerful The Wall That Stands Between (about “the shameful campaign against asylum seekers waged by the gutter press” and “the inhuman policies enacted by the New Labour government”), the result can sound understated. Rosselson objects to an early reviewer’s description of him as “an anarchist Noel Coward”, but Coward was similarly deficient in vocal charisma. Coward nonetheless consolidated his reputation by piggy-backing on the atmosphere of patriotism (bordering on jingoism) understandably prevalent during World War II, an option entirely alien to Rosselson whose aim “to depict a society based on an ideology of control, order, obedience, repression, domination of nature, deterrence, leading ultimately to the death of the planet” is hardly calculated to entice the average radio DJ.

It might seem that over four CDs and 72 songs (about a quarter of Rosselson’s total output), most of them sung by Rosselson himself, such a deficiency might prove fatal. Strangely enough, however, for me at any rate the effect is the opposite. One becomes used to the voice and knows what to expect and not to expect from it. When Roy Bailey or Liz Mansfield or Dick Gaughan sings a Rosselson song, the result can be a show-stopper. When Rosselson sings, the vocal idiosyncrasies are inseparable from his intractable and endearing integrity.

This, of course, is premised on the assumption that one is well-disposed towards Rosselson’s radical perspectives. Here is a comment from a You Tube viewer who clearly is not:

‘However I later met and talked with Leon Rosselson himself, and it was kind of dismaying. He came across as a parody: a naive, stereotypical, unreconstructed socialist who understood nothing about economics, and truly believed that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a workable system of government.’

Undoubtedly there are many who would consider this a recommendation. Not alone has Leon Rosselson been writing and singing for more than half a century, but he has remained faithful to a certain concept of political, social and economic justice. For those who share that faith, he will always be a household name.

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