Mark Ruffalo’s Statement on Reproductive Rights

The actor Mark Ruffalo wrote a powerful letter which was read at a rally in front of Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic. It brings to light the need for men, as well as women, to defend the right of women to choose what to do with their own bodies, and it also shines a light on the horrifying assault on women’s rights currently taking place in our society. Ask yourself, why is it necessary for famous actors to make such statements 40 years after Roe v. Wade? Under this system, even when laws are passed to protect the rights of oppressed minorities, those rights can be gradually eroded and undercut, and the fight must be waged continually, even after you’ve achieved “victory.”

Mark Ruffalo’s letter:

I am a man. I could say this has nothing to do with me. Except I have two daughters and I have a mother who was forced to illegally have an abortion in her state where abortion was illegal when she was a very young woman. It cost $600 cash. It was a traumatizing thing for her. It was shameful and sleazy and demeaning. When I heard the story I was aghast by the lowliness of a society that would make a woman do that. I could not understand its lack of humanity; today is no different.

What happened to my mother was a relic of an America that was not free nor equal nor very kind. My mother’s illegal abortion marked a time in America that we have worked long and hard to leave behind. It was a time when women were seen as second rate citizens who were not smart enough, nor responsible enough, nor capable enough to make decisions about their lives. It was a time that deserved to be left behind, and leave it behind we did, or so it seemed. We made abortion and a woman’s ability to be her own master a right. That right was codified into law. That law was the law of the land for decades.

My own mother fought to make herself more than a possession; she lived her life as a mother who chose when she would have children, and a wife who could earn a living if she so chose. I want my daughters to enjoy that same choice. I don’t want to turn back the hands of time to when women shuttled across state lines in the thick of night to resolve an unwanted pregnancy, in a cheap hotel room just south of the state line. Where a transaction of $600 cash becomes the worth of a young woman’s life.

So that is why I am lending my voice to you and your movement today. Because I actually trust the women I know. I trust them with their choices, I trust them with their bodies and I trust them with their children. I trust that they are decent enough and wise enough and worthy enough to carry the right of Abortion and not be forced to criminally exercise that Right at the risk of death or jail time.

There was no mistake in us making abortion legal and available on demand. That was what we call progress. Just like it was no mistake that we abolished institutional racism in this country around the same time. The easy thing to do is lay low, but then are we who we say we are? Do we actually stand for anything, if what we do stand for is under attack and we say nothing? There is nothing to be ashamed of here except to allow a radical and recessive group of people to bully and intimidate our mothers and sisters and daughters for exercising their right of choice. Or use terrorism and fanaticism to block their legal rights or take the lives of their caregivers. Or design legislation that would chip away at those rights disguised as reinforcing a woman’s health.

I invite you to find your voice and let it be known that you stand for abortion rights and the dignity of a woman to be the master of her own life and body. I invite you to search your soul and ask yourself if you actually stand for what you say you stand for. Thank you for being here today and thank you for standing up for the women in my life.

Sincerely and humbly,

Mark Ruffalo

Milton Friedman Baby! Empire State of Mind

Reprinted from CounterPunch
by ROBIN D.G. KELLEY | August 16, 2013 | CounterPunch

“half of y’all won’t make it”

–Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”

In the face of creeping disfranchisement, unbridled corporate power, growing poverty, an expanding police state, 2.3 million people in cages, vigilantes and cops taking our children’s lives, a presidential policy of assassination-by-drone, global environmental disaster, attacks on reproductive rights, a war on trade unions, a tidal wave of foreclosures, and entrenched racism camouflaged beneath a post-racial myth, why do we care if Harry Belafonte and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter have “beef”?  Do social movements need Mr. Carter’s money or power or influence?  Is justice a matter of charity or wealth?  So what if Carter believes—as he retorted in response to Belafonte’s skewering of navel-gazing black celebrities—“my presence is charity”?

Let me say at the outset that I am not interested in spats between celebrities or on expending precious energy on conflict-resolution for the Negro one-percent.   Anyone familiar with the dictionary definition of “charity” will find the statement ridiculous, just as anyone familiar with Jay-Z’s philanthropic work will wonder why he would say such a thing.  He has been a high-profile giver: he and his mother started the John Carter Foundation ten years ago to help fund college-bound at-risk youth; he tossed a million dollars into the Red Cross’s coffers after Hurricane Katrina; he is a partner in the Global Citizen Tickets Initiative—the brainchild of the Global Poverty Project meant to hip pop music fans to world poverty and compel them to act (via sharing on social media, writing elected officials, donating money) while dropping big bucks on concert tickets.  And there was “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” the 2006 MTV documentary that raised awareness of Africa’s water crisis.  Carter met with policy makers, advocates, and poor, water-starved families in Angola and South Africa, and committed to building 1,000 clean water pumps in Africa.  Two years later, the United Nations honored his work with a special humanitarian award.

Does this mean Belafonte was wrong?  Or Jay misspoke?  Or that we need to place ‘Hova’s’ philanthropy and activism on a ledger against Bruce Springsteen’s, the celebrity Belafonte deemed more socially responsible?  What does any of this do to advance a truly progressive agenda?

Focusing on the personal obscures what is really at stake: ideas, ideology, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of our critical faculties under the veil of corporate celebrity culture.  I use corporate here not as an epithet but as an expression of the structural dimensions of how celebrity is made and its ideological function.  Celebrities endorse products; like any commodity, they have become “brands.”  They may say and do very nice, uplifting, philanthropic things, but rarely do celebrities stand against the policies and ideas of neoliberalism and U. S. Empire.   More often than not, they embody the ideology of neoliberalism (valuing wealth, free markets, privatization over human needs) and Empire (U.S. military and economic dominance over the world).

Words and deeds of high-profile individuals do matter, but too often we pay attention to the wrong words and the wrong deeds.  Returning to Mr. Carter’s reply, it is what he says immediately after his charity line that should concern us.  Applying his claim—that greatness alone is in-and-of itself a magnanimous gift—to the President, he adds: “Whether [Obama] does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.  Just being who he is.  You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone.”

That Mr. Carter believes this is less important than the fact that his “brand” promotes it, and I’d venture to say that most African-Americans fundamentally accept its logic.  The mere fact that Obama is the first black president, so the argument goes, should grant him immunity from criticism.  The relentless attacks on Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and others for their relentless critique of the Obama administration conform to this logic.  Rather than address their specific criticisms on their own terms, detractors dismiss West and Smiley by repeating the well-worn claim that they are motivated by personal slights or potential monetary gain, blame an intransigent right-wing Congress for Obama’s worst policies (foreign and domestic), respond to criticisms with a laundry list of accomplishments, or simply assert that critics of the president are “haters,” race traitors, who fail to appreciate the historic significance of a black man in the White House.

The idea that the President transcends all worldly criticism corresponds with a different sort of “Empire State of Mind.”   Empires dating back to Egypt, Rome, Ancient China and Japan have depended on an “imperial cult,” the notion that an emperor is to be worshipped as a messiah or a demigod.  Even modern empires, like the U.S., often fall back on hero worship, adoration of strength and might over the rule of law and justice.  This is why cops and soldiers are “heroes” and dissenters and the civil disobedient are troublemakers or enemies of the state. The cult of Obama has the added dimension of being the tale of a singular black man overcoming historic obstacles, breaking the color line and achieving the highest office in the land.  Such representation masks the fact that it wasn’t his achievements but our achievements, our tireless mobilization on his behalf, the work of nameless millions who elected him to office to serve the people.  We have an obligation in a democracy to hold government accountable to the rule of law (that includes international law) and to protect the interests of the whole of the people.

And what about deeds?  I find it remarkable that Jay-Z’s four little words could set off global outrage, but revelations that Rocawear, the Hip Hop apparel company he co-founded with producer Damon Dash, employed sweatshop labor barely registered a blip in the black blogosphere.  Ten years ago, anti-sweatshop activists revealed that Rocawear, along with Sean Combs’s “Sean John” label, contracted with Southeast Textiles International S. A. (SETISA) in Choloma, Honduras, to manufacture their very expensive clothing lines.  SETISA sewers earned between 75 and 98 cents an hour, worked 11 to 12 hour shifts with no overtime, and had excessive production goals (T-shirt makers, for example, had to complete a little over 18 shirts per hour, and they could not leave until they met their quota).  Talking was prohibited.  Permission from a supervisor was required for bathroom breaks.  Drinking water (found to be contaminated with fecal matter) was rationed.  All employees were subjected to body searches, and female employees were required to take pregnancy tests.  Those who attempted to unionize were fired.   After refuting reports, Combs was ultimately pressured into making some improvements in factory conditions, but Carter had little to say and never issued a public apology.  In 2007, Carter sold the rights to Rocawear to Iconix Brand Group for the princely sum of $204 million, while retaining his stake in the company and overseeing marketing, licensing, and product development.

If we praise celebrities for wealth accumulation, then Rocawear is an unmitigated success.  Jay-Z has done what most successful entrepreneurs do in the age of neoliberalism—seized upon the massively oppressive labor conditions produced by free trade policies, the creation of U.S.-backed free trade zones, deregulation, and the weakening of international labor standards.

And why not?   Capitalists want to “live life colossal.”  Milton Friedman Baby!  Then again, who wants to tweet that their favorite celebrity made millions off of sweated labor, thereby perpetuating global poverty?   Knowing fans tend to look the other way; the vast majority of acolytes are kept blissfully ignorant by the corporate image machine.

Enter MTV and the release of “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” following on the heels of Rocawear’s sweatshop revelations.  I doubt it was a cynical ploy to defuse the controversy, mainly because for the Jay-Z consumer there was no controversy.  His brand escaped pretty much unscathed.  And yet, while Carter’s concern for the 1.2 billion people without access to clean water is genuine, the film’s explanation of the crisis is problematic.   “Water for Life” blames civil war and the disruptions of military violence, urbanization, and poverty, and suggests that philanthropy and visionary entrepreneurs can solve the problem by providing clean water pumps and digging wells.  How so many Africans became “poor” in the first place, the legacy of colonialism, not to mention water privatization, don’t really figure in the story.   When asked about privatization at a U.N. press conference upon the film’s release, Carter appeared oblivious: “that’s just bureaucracy, I don’t have any expertise in that.”  He didn’t know if water was being privatized, but he did notice that in the houses he visited, the families “paid fifty cents a bucket for [water].”  He then went on to praise his long-time sponsor Coca-Cola for providing money for play pumps in Southern Africa (small manual merry-go-rounds that pump water as children play).  At the time, Coke was targeted by protesters in India and Colombia for depleting scarce local water sources for its bottling plants, and releasing toxic waste water into the ground, damaging farm land and leaving residents with a variety of skin and stomach ailments.

To be clear, I am in no way criticizing Shawn Carter for lacking a sophisticated critique of the ravages of privatization.  To expect as much is unfair, unrealistic, and beside the point.  Most Americans share his view; neoliberal logic normalizing Empire and its exploitative practices is today’s common sense.  However, it is the use of his brand to sell this new common sense, to promote corporate interests and obscure the real sources of inequality, that matter.

Alicia Keys – Home Wrecker?

Ironically, it has been the Alicia Keys brand–the angelic half of the Empire State duo—that has shown a particularly egregious disregard for human rights.  On July 4th of this year, Keys performed in Tel Aviv, Israel, in spite of urgent pleas by Palestinian and Israeli activists, human rights advocates, and nearly 16,000 petitioners from around the world, to respect the global boycott of Israel for its illegal occupation of the West Bank and apartheid policies toward Palestinians.  Personal appeals from writer Alice Walker and Archbishop Desmond Tutu did nothing to dissuade Keys or her handlers from accepting the invitation.  In response, she issued the following statement: “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”

The statement is as ridiculous and ingenuous as “My presence is charity.”  How can music unify an audience when policies of occupation and apartheid exclude the vast majority of Palestinians?  What good are homilies about love and peace in a land where Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are prohibited from even entering Israel, contained by a massive concrete wall, economically starved, and living under military occupation?  Where thousands of Palestinians are locked away in Israeli prisons—including hundreds of minors convicted of throwing rocks at tanks and well-armed soldiers and settlers?  Where Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, displacing Palestinians, demolishing their homes, uprooting their olive trees—all in violation of international law.  Where, on more than one occasion, Palestinian mothers were forced to give birth on the side of the road or watch their severely ill children die in their arms for want of emergency care because they were held up at an Israeli checkpoint.  Where the apartheid wall has turned a fifteen-minute walk to school into a two-hour ordeal for thousands of young children.   For young Palestinians living in Israel who are not incarcerated, few could afford the $62.00 ticket to hear Keys.  Nearly half of all Palestinians in Israel live in poverty.  Most are legally excluded from residing in non-Arab communities based on their “social unsuitability,” attend severely underfunded schools, and are denied government employment.

The point of the non-violent global boycott, of course, is to apply economic pressure on Israel to change these policies: to end the occupation, dismantle the “apartheid” wall which violates international law; recognize the fundamental rights of all Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel and other non-Jews for full equality, and grant the right to return, as stipulated by United Nations resolution 194.  The boycott is an act of tough love to achieve justice through peaceful means.  Alicia Keys’ concert, on the other hand, served to legitimize and normalize Israeli policies of violence, occupation, incarceration, segregation, and settlement.  Keys and her handlers knew this, as they were inundated with materials from organizations supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS)–including the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Boycott from Within.  Activists hoped that Keys’ role as lead supporter of “Keep a Child Alive,” an NGO dedicated to helping HIV-infected children in Africa and India, would make her more sensitive to the lives of Palestinian children.  The organization’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Twyman, and co-founder Leigh Blake received pages upon pages of material documenting the daily abuses of children at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers.

Rifat Kassis of Defence for Children International Palestine, and Shatha Odeh of the Health Work Committees, submitted a powerful letter appealing to Keys to cancel, outlining in devastating detail how the occupation and Israeli policies have affected Palestinian children.   They reveal that since 2003, some 8,000 Palestinian children as young as 12 have been arrested, interrogated (often without access to parents and legal counsel), and detained by the Israeli army and prosecuted in military courts—some held in solitary confinement.  (With a 98% conviction rate, it is no surprise that confessions obtained by coercion are rarely thrown out by military judges.)  They discuss how military checkpoints and the apartheid wall have become barriers to basic and emergency medical care.  And they point out that the blockade of Gaza “is the single greatest contributor to the endemic and long-lasting poverty, deterioration of health care, infant mortality, disease, chronic malnutrition and preventable deaths of children.  Palestinian children in Gaza lack access to clean water, health care and are scarred by repeated Israeli military offensives and the constant fear of impending attacks.”

Keys’s decision to perform was made not out of ignorance or an abiding love for Israel or a personal mission to jump-start the peace process.  It was about getting paid.  The Alicia Keys brand stood to lose financially and likely feared retaliation from pro-Zionist forces. Indeed, her decision to violate the boycott earned her kudos from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies, who in turn placed a flurry of publicity pieces praising her “courage” in the face of BDS “bullies.”  But as with Shawn Carter, I don’t blame Keys personally, nor do I question her humanitarian commitments.  Alicia Keys is a corporate entity driven by profits and propelled by shareholders (backers and fans).  Just as Jay-Z lovers ignored Rocawear’s callous use of sweated labor, Keys’s followers have quietly supported her Israel foray.  The sad truth is that 16,000 signatures is nothing against the Keys-AIPAC alliance, and most Americans see Palestine through the official lens of the Israeli government and U.S. policy.

Had Keys paid a visit to Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot by an Israeli soldier in Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank just six weeks prior to her concert, perhaps she might have changed her mind.  She would have met a small, bright-eyed boy paralyzed from the waist down with holes in his liver, lungs, pancreas and spleen, and angry parents resigned to the reality that their son will never see justice.  He was shot while attempting to retrieve his school bag.  What if she had driven to Southern Israel to the Naqab desert and met a few of the 40,000 Bedouin whom the government plans to forcibly remove from their ancestral homeland to make way for Jewish settlements?  And what if she decided to spend a few days in the West Bank after her Tel Aviv performance, meeting and playing for kids in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, touring the refugee camps, listening to their stories?  She might have been passing through Hebron on July 9th, the day Israeli soldiers detained five-year-old Wadi’ Maswadeh for allegedly throwing a stone at a settler’s car.  When Wadi’s father, Karam, complained about the arrest and treatment of his son, he was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken, along with his terrified, crying son, to the Palestinian Authority police.  They were both eventually released.

Keys never met Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah or Wadi’ Maswadeh or any of the Palestinian children growing up in a world of refugee camps, home demolitions, settler and military violence, displacement, economic deprivation, and educational policies designed to literally deny their existence.  The Keys brand could ill afford to expose their star to such “negativity,” lest she walk away from the machine.   But here is the real tragedy: the Keys machine was never compelled to apologize or even mildly acknowledge that something is rotten in the state of Israel.

The sad truth is that Keys’s romantic involvement with producer Swizz Beatz, apparently while he was still married, was considered infinitely more scandalous than playing Tel Aviv.  Twitter and Facebook and gossip columns were abuzz with accusations that Alicia Keys is a home wrecker.  By contrast, neither her fan base nor the Alicia Keys “haters” had much to say about the wrecking of Palestinian homes. (This year alone, Israel announced plans to build another 2,000+ settlement houses in the West Bank.)  Equally disheartening is the Black Entertainment Television (BET) poll that 59% of its on-line readers support Keys’s decision to violate the boycott.  Of course, it is likely that AIPAC operatives posing as BET on-line readers skewed the results, but not by much.  Most African-Americans simply don’t know a lot about Palestine, and many devout Christians among us tend to buy the argument that defending the State of Israel is tantamount to defending the Holy Land.  Few vocal critics of New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, for example, know that the Israeli military version of  “stop and frisk” in the West Bank means entering Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, forcing families out of bed, photographing all the boys and young men and taking their information.  These routine acts are not part of ongoing investigations or require probable cause, but an official policy of surveillance and intimidation.   Such outrageous policies should have generated some 1.6 million signatures rather than 16,000.

Let me repeat: I am not arguing that Jay-Z or Alicia Keys or any corporate mega-star is personally responsible for the kind of political and ethical blinders endemic to what has become a national corporate consciousness, an Empire State of Mind.  Corporate celebrities, or rather their brands, are merely the messengers.  The responsibility for shedding those blinders and developing an informed, global, ethical critique of materialism, militarism, exploitation and dispossession, rests with us.  The absence of a broad-based, progressive black movement has not only opened the floodgates for the spread of neoliberalism as the new common sense, but it has severely hampered the ability of too many African Americans to think critically and globally about oppression and inequality—though, to be sure, this problem is not unique to the black community.  Our romance with corporate celebrity culture merely fuels a persistent belief that the black one percent are our natural allies, our role models, our hope for the future.  Many of us embrace black millionaires and billionaires—the P-Diddy’s, Russell Simmons’s, Jay-Z’s, and Oprah’s of the world—as embodiments of “our” wealth, without ever questioning the source of their wealth, the limits of philanthropy, or the persistence of poverty among the remaining 99%.

In the end, the difference between, say, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Alice Walker and the Jay-Zs and Alicia Keys of the world is not generational.  It is not a simple-minded division between Old School Civil Rights and the Hip Hop Generation.  Before Belafonte, Glover, and Walker became “celebrities,” they were activists first.  They joined social movements and risked their bodies and futures before they even had careers.  And in this respect, they have more in common with Hip Hop artists/activists such as Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Rebel Diaz, Chuck D, Rosa Clemente, Immortal Technique, Twice Thou, Lupe Fiasco, Keny Arkana, and others. Their movement work was never about achieving wealth or success, but a commitment to fighting for a world where power rests with the people, not an oligarchy; a world where oppression, exploitation, dispossession, and caging of all people—irrespective of color, gender, nationality, sexual identity—is a thing of the past; a world where such corporate-backed philanthropy is unnecessary, and one need not buy high-priced concert tickets to fight oppression.

Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of  Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).

We Are All Aboard the Pequod

:::see disclaimer below article:::

Reprinted from TruthDig

by Chris Hedges | July 7, 2013 | TruthDig

The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.

Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod, named after the Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their Native American allies. The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which, in a previous encounter, maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by biting off one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits, “I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess. We believe in the eternal wellspring of material progress. We are our own idols. Nothing will halt our voyage; it seems to us to have been decreed by natural law. “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” Ahab declares. We have surrendered our lives to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death. Microbes will inherit the earth.

In our decline, hatred becomes our primary lust, our highest form of patriotism and a form of eroticism. We are made supine by hatred and fear. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to Bradley Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. We are blind to the evil within us. Melville’s description of Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.

After the attacks of 9/11, Edward Said saw the parallel with “Moby Dick” and wrote in the London newspaper The Observer:

Osama bin Laden’s name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any history he and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination. Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funneled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict.

Ahab, as the historian Richard Slotkin points out in his book “Regeneration Through Violence,” is “the true American hero, worthy to be captain of a ship whose ‘wood could only be American.’ ” Melville offers us a vision, one that D.H. Lawrence later understood, of the inevitable fatality of white civilization brought about by our ceaseless lust for material progress, imperial expansion, white supremacy and exploitation of nature.

Melville, who had been a sailor on clipper ships and whalers, was keenly aware that the wealth of industrialized societies came from the exploited of the earth. “Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans,” Ishmael says of New England’s prosperity. “One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” All the authority figures on the ship are white men—Ahab, Starbuck, Flask and Stubb. The hard, dirty work, from harpooning to gutting the carcasses of the whales, is the task of the poor, mostly men of color.

Ahab, when he first appears on the quarterdeck after being in his cabin for the first few days of the voyage, holds up a doubloon, an extravagant gold coin, and promises it to the crew member who first spots the white whale. He knows that “the permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man … is sordidness.” And he plays to this sordidness. The whale becomes a commodity, a source of personal profit. A murderous greed, one that Starbuck denounces as “blasphemous,” grips the crew. Ahab’s obsession infects the ship.

“I see in him [Moby Dick] outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,” Ahab tells Starbuck. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Ahab conducts a dark Mass, a Eucharist of violence and blood, on the deck with the crew. He orders the men to circle around him. He makes them drink from a flagon that is passed from man to man, filled with draughts “hot as Satan’s hoof.” Ahab tells the harpooners to cross their lances before him. The captain grasps the harpoons and anoints the ships’ harpooners—Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo—his “three pagan kinsmen.” He orders them to detach the iron sections of their harpoons and fills the sockets “with the fiery waters from the pewter.” “Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” And with the crew bonded to him in his infernal quest he knows that Starbuck is helpless “amid the general hurricane.” “Starbuck now is mine,” Ahab says, “cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.” “The honest eye of Starbuck,” Melville writes, “fell downright.”

The ship, described by Melville as a hearse, was painted black. It was adorned with gruesome trophies of the hunt, festooned with the huge teeth and bones of sperm whales. It was, Melville writes, a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” The fires used to melt the whale blubber at night turned the Pequod into a “red hell.” Our own raging fires, leaping up from our oil refineries and the explosions of our ordinance across the Middle East, bespeak our Stygian heart. And in our mad pursuit we ignore the suffering of others, just as Ahab does when he refuses to help the captain of a passing ship who is frantically searching for his son who has fallen overboard.

Ahab is described by Melville’s biographer Andrew Delbanco as “a suicidal charismatic who denounced as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose—an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon.” Ahab has not only the heated rhetoric of persuasion; he is master of a terrifying internal security force on the ship, the five “dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” Ahab’s secret, private whale boat crew, which has a feral lust for blood, keeps the rest of the ship in abject submission. The art of propaganda and the use of brutal coercion, the mark of tyranny, define our lives just as they mark those on Melville’s ship. C.L.R. James, for this reason, describes “Moby Dick” as “the biography of the last days of Adolf Hitler.”

And yet Ahab is no simple tyrant. Melville toward the end of the novel gives us two glimpses into the internal battle between Ahab’s maniacal hubris and his humanity. Ahab, too, has a yearning for love. He harbors regrets over his deformed life. The black cabin boy Pip is the only crew member who evokes any tenderness in the captain. Ahab is aware of this tenderness. He fears its power. Pip functions as the Fool did in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Ahab warns Pip of Ahab. “Lad, lad,” says Ahab, “I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health. … If thou speakest thus to me much more, Ahab’s purpose keels up in him. I tell thee no; it cannot be.” A few pages later, “untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven. … From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” Starbuck approaches him. Ahab, for the only time in the book, is vulnerable. He speaks to Starbuck of his “forty years on the pitiless sea! … the desolation of solitude it has been. … Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?” He thinks of his young wife—“I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck”—and of his little boy: “About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”

Ahab’s thirst for dominance, vengeance and destruction, however, overpowers these faint regrets of lost love and thwarted compassion. Hatred wins. “What is it,” Ahab finally asks, “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time. …”

Melville knew that physical courage and moral courage are distinct. One can be brave on a whaling ship or a battlefield, yet a coward when called on to stand up to human evil. Starbuck elucidates this peculiar division. The first mate is tormented by his complicity in what he foresees as Ahab’s “impious end.” Starbuck, “while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.”

And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going lack the fortitude to rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.

Moby Dick rams and sinks the Pequod. The waves swallow up Ahab and all who followed him, except one. A vortex formed by the ship’s descent collapses, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

 

:::Disclaimer:::

FedRev: Chris Hedges is a fantastic writer and through his writings he often makes many great points that I agree with, like he does in the piece presented here. However, I can’t fully endorse his political worldview in its entirety or his sometimes excessive pessimism about the future of humanity. He also makes serious mistakes in judgement from time to time, some of which undermine his better points, as well as the social/political movements he claims to support.

For example, I complete disagree with his position on the Black Bloc tactic employed by some during Occupy Wall Street and other demonstrations. By taking the stance that he does he damages the resistance movement he claims to support.

In an even more high-profile example, his lawsuit against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), while an otherwise bold strike against the rising tide of authoritarian power in America, was undermined by his willingness to throw revolutionary organizations under the bus in order to advance his personal agenda and protect himself. In effect, Hedges’ lawsuit ultimately may have done more harm than good because of the way it allowed the Revolutionary Communist Party and its chairman Bob Avakian to be potentially painted as a terrorist group, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Hedges falsely claimed that the RCP advocates violence, and while by and large the lawsuit against the draconian NDAA was a good thing, by using this type of language to sabotage groups he doesn’t agree with, he essentially gave license to the government to classify groups that advocate radical change as terrorists.

As I said, Hedges often has many good things to say, and he remains an important progressive voice; however, there are times when he hypocritically allows his personal agenda to undermine the larger social and political movements he claims to support, and therefore it’s important to carefully analyse his work and not blindly accept it as gospel. 

SITE NOTES: “Other Voices” Category

FedRev is always looking for new, interesting ways to add a variety of content in order to bring you insight into culture through analysis of mass media entertainment. So, we’ve recently added the “Other Voices” category, under which articles from other authors and publications will be reprinted.

The first piece reprinted under this new category was analysis of Kanye West’s new song “New Slaves” by Carl Dix and Sunsara Taylor, and as more articles of significance come to the attention of FedRev in the future, they too will appear here.

Please note that the reprinting of someone else’s article doesn’t necessarily imply 100% endorsement of every word, or that FedRev necessarily supports the political worldview of the writer in its entirety. The objective here is to bring to light perspectives that provide valuable insight into entertainment culture even if there are some points of disagreement with the author, and when these points of disagreement are significant enough they will be appropriately noted.

Thank you, and please enjoy the “Other Voices” category going forward!

Kanye West Needs to Learn the Difference Between the Cry of Rebellion of the Slave (New or Old) and the Frustrated Rage of the Wannabe New Slave Master: OR WHY YOU CANNOT BREAK ALL THE CHAINS EXCEPT ONE

Reprinted from Revolution Newspaper

by Sunsara Taylor and Carl Dix | June 27, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us

In his new song, “New Slaves,” Kanye West evokes the seismic brutality and grinding oppression inflicted on Black people since they were first dragged to these shores in slave chains. He indicts the cradle-to-prison pipeline that steals the lives of Black youth and rails against the cold, hard reality that no matter what one accomplishes, if one is Black they will continue to face dehumanizing and even life-threatening racism. Through this song, he declares himself in open rebellion against a racist industry that seeks to neuter and profit off his artistic talents and a broader society which has, as an expression of this very racism, repeatedly written off or dismissed Kanye’s rants and anger as simply an outgrowth of “his oversized ego.”

But where does Kanye take this? Unfortunately, instead of the cry of rebellion of the slave (new or old) who wants to not only get out of this madness himself but fight for a world where no one is oppressed, exploited, and degraded in this way, Kanye rages at the ways this ongoing oppression keeps him from being able to fully integrate himself into, and assume his place at the top of, the modern-day slave system.

This is expressed not only in the way Kanye constantly boasts of obscene wealth and conspicuous consumption in a world where so many suffer so endlessly (including those whose modern-day slave labor has produced all that material wealth). Even more, this comes through in Kanye’s inability and/or unwillingness to envision a world that is not divided into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, those on top and those on bottom. Encased within these terms, Kanye ends up making a principle—even an anthem—of fighting to be on top. As he puts it crudely in the chorus of “New Slaves”: “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”

Think about what this chorus is saying. That essentially this world is made up of two kinds of people. On the top are the “dicks,” i.e., “real men” who get off on fucking over others. On the bottom are the “swallowers,” i.e., women, as well as men who are being cast as women (the biggest insult that can be hurled at men today), who are viewed as nothing more than receptacles for some “dick’s” semen. Kanye doesn’t object to this dehumanizing division. Instead, he openly brags about and claims his place in it as a “dick.”

And look at what actually goes on in this world where the half of humanity that is born female are treated as “swallowers.”

Look at the way that women and girls are bombarded from a very young age—including by songs like this one—with the notion that their highest purpose in life is to be of sexual service to men. Look at the way men—trained in this same outlook from a very young age—routinely beat, rape, pimp, purchase, and otherwise insult and demean women on the street, in the homes, in the schools, in their relationships, and at workplaces. Look at the way women, if they actually have sex or even if they are sexually abused or raped, are considered “sluts” or “hos” and treated like soiled and unworthy garbage. Look at the millions of women and young girls throughout the world who are preyed upon and pimped out, drugged and beaten into submission, and sold as mere bodies to be violated and demeaned on the street or through the Internet. Look at the whole Christian fascist movement in this country that has assassinated abortion doctors and passed outrageous restrictions, all out of their desire to reduce women back to breeders of children and possessions of men. Look in the shelters and on the streets where poor and especially Black women have been evicted from public housing by the thousands, along with their children. Look at the desperate women who make up the bulk of the modern-day slave system of sweatshop exploitation all around the world.

Calling women “swallowers” accepts this enslavement and oppression. Bragging about being a “dick” celebrates being a wannabe slave master. Not only is this utterly unacceptable for how it views women, this kind of approach ultimately leads Kanye away from consistently challenging even the horrendous oppression of Black people he legitimately and powerfully indicts.

We see this very sharply in the closing verse of Kanye’s song. Kanye rails against the way corporations have tried to control him and draws parallels to the private prison contractors making enormous profits off stealing the lives of Black youth. He calls out those who are sitting back in the Hamptons (one of the most elite and wealthy vacation spots) bragging about the wealth they made through this exploitation of Black people. But then, he rhymes, “Fuck you and your Hampton house, I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse, Came on her Hampton blouse, And in her Hampton mouth.” Here Kanye reduces his “rebellion” against the oppression and exploitation of Black people to a vision of revenge against this racist elite that has denied him full entry by defiling and degrading this elite’s property, which is all that women in this view are deemed to be.

It is simply a fact that there is no fundamental difference between this view of women and the brutality and degradation and terror, imprisonment, and foreclosed futures of those who are born Black or Latino or other oppressed nationalities in this country. Indeed, the roots of both these forms of oppression are woven deep into the structures and culture of this capitalist-imperialist system and the struggle to end both these, and all other, forms of oppression are also bound together in the struggle to make real revolution to get rid of this system. How this is so is something that people need to get deeply into and a good place to start are the special issues of Revolutionnewspaper which deal in great depth with “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of this System, and the Revolution We Need” and “A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity.”

Today’s modern-day slaves do NOT need the cry of revenge and degradation flowing from the frustrated aspirations of the new wannabe slave master. Humanity desperately and urgently needs the deepest cry and act of rebellion of the slaves who are determined to free not only themselves but all of humanity. This is the fight for real, all-the-way communist revolution as it has been re-envisioned by Bob Avakian (BA). And we need art and culture which celebrates this genuine rebellion and the strivings for really breaking free of all this enslavement, degradation, and self-degradation.

All this drives home the tremendous truth and significance of BAsics 3:22, a statement made by BA many years ago, which Kanye West, oppressed people everywhere, and all those who yearn to get free must learn from today:

“You cannot break all the chains, except one. You cannot say you want to be free of exploitation and oppression, except you want to keep the oppression of women by men. You can’t say you want to liberate humanity yet keep one half of the people enslaved to the other half. The oppression of women is completely bound up with the division of society into masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited, and the ending of all such conditions is impossible without the complete liberation of women. All this is why women have a tremendous role to play not only in making revolution but in making sure there is all-the-way revolution. The fury of women can and must be fully unleashed as a mighty force for proletarian revolution.”

Reprinted from Revolution Newspaper