On 4 April 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
Recently I’ve sort of realised that I’m tired of hearing what people in power think about the important issues of our age. Often these people are white men which makes me feel a little gender/race guilt but not too much because, you know, I’m not them: I’m me. Thank god. First, let me take issue with someone who isn’t a white man – Beyonce – to illustrate a point about the power of the system to co-opt resistance.
Like most people on planet Earth I think Beyonce is awesome. On the other hand there is occasional evidence that she is a vain, capitalist pig.
The other problem is the empowerment message. Who rules the world? GIRLS! Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be inspiring, motivating and aspirational, but when you’re having a bad day you feel like the call and response to the chorus should be “yeah, right” and not “hell yeah”. I suppose that haters are gunna hate but is it wrong to notice – you know, when you’ve repressed the powerful urge to dance your ass off – that Beyonce celebrates capitalism quite a lot, and marriage quite a lot, and a kind of macho heterosexuality quite a lot?
But if this was going to be a post about Beyonce it really would be missing the point. None of us wants to put away our Destiny’s Child and Beyonce music so let’s move on. To something like this:
Who rule the world?
It feels a lot like feminism has been side-tracked by capitalism into daycare. The modern woman can have it all if she makes a lot of sacrifices. Men, of course, just need to carry on working, and women – well we all know that they are the real parents – they can have careers too so long as they can juggle the career, the housework and the kid’s day care. And live with the guilt. Maybe it really is an equal parental situation and both parents split the jobs that need to be done. That’s great. The stress, and the guilt can be shared, but somehow it is never halved. Somehow staying at home is wrong or unaffordable if you want to give your kids everything you want to give them. Where is this going exactly? This prioritising of work over everything? Something about the fruits of victory being ashes in our mouth.
If you really want to feel down you could watch Capitalism: A Love Story, and then Five Broken Cameras, and then Invisible War. They’re all about exactly the same thing: how injustice is perpetrated and allowed to flourish under the hand of the state. How democracy appears to be a way of legitimizing violence against dissent when the norm is capitalism. Capitalism always capitalism even though it’s an anti-planetary, sexist and racist monster that co-opts what it cannot marginalise and destroy. It goes something like this our democratic process:
we the people have some unease about the idea of deep-sea drilling off our coast because (a) it is a process that may lead to spills and leaks and then our beautiful coasts and marine life will be killed, and (b) even if that doesn’t happen – and I admit it is a low risk – we really, really, really should be looking for alternatives to oil because 95% of the science tells us that we are overheating the planet and will eventually kill ourselves if we carry on burning up all this fossil fuel, and (c) I have kids.
You will be pleased to note that we have made it illegal to protest this kind of thing, futhermore we have removed public consultation on the process. In addition we are further commercialising the energy system in New Zealand so it can have more of a profit focus, and opening up new areas for fossil fuel exploration in and around New Zealand. Please be assured that a) we have a dinghy and some mops ready if there is a spill, b) 95% isn’t 100%, and c) if your kids become affluent enough they will be able to insulate themselves against most of the climate changes should they eventuate. Thank you for your letter but please note: protest and comment is not permitted. Be sure to vote next time.
Russell Brand said we shouldn’t vote and then the left crashed in and said “how irresponsible”. Well, in New Zealand I can vote for the Greens but if the Greens weren’t here I would have no one to vote for, and not voting – as a political act – would make perfect sense. The political system has mostly become about maintaining a system that seeks to divide, to create competition, to be economically efficient within a privatised media system that accepts and propagates this narrative.
Do we know that one of the best songs about all of this – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – was used in 1995 to sell Nike? Co-opt or marginalise and destroy. Or Jack Kerouac was used to sell Gap pants?
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life [in Gap pants], never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
On the Road
The nature of the system is to subsume and betray the better impulses in us. To take Jesus and turn him into Christmas when he was trying to tell us that we are all brothers and sisters and we should help the least of us. To take Francis of Assisi and turn him into a huge, rule-bound monastic order when he wanted us to see the beauty of creation that is all around and free ourselves from possessions. To take music and offer unpaid internships with Pepsi products and selfies, to take the sad, complicated lives of the junkie and the alcoholic and sell expensive, designer shoes and pants to the affluent.
TV is the propaganda machine of the commercial system. All those dramas/sit-coms/news shows about white affluent people flirting their way through life to the happy group hug pay off interspersed with opportunities to buy things or compete in competitions using product placement to get a book deal and a car while judges stuff their faces and tell us to support charities for the starving in Africa (or something like that). Sometimes they put mostly white politicians on TV to debate something between commercial breaks about the latest car, something like the Greens and Act debating climate change and we can hear the Act party telling us that doing something about climate change is an empty moral gesture, like the empty moral gestures of Kate Sheppard, or Martin Luther King, or Te Whiti, or Angela Davies.
In 1967 King made the empty moral gesture of coming out against the Vietnam War, and the American military-industrial-commercial complex. Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” and the Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Bishop Justin came to our school on Thursday for the Understanding Religion class. He took questions for half an hour so I asked him: “How do you know you’re right? If you campaign for prison reform and Judith Collins tells the nation you are the reason for problems with justice, then how do you know that you are right and she is wrong?” He said that it had been his life’s work to give voice to the voiceless or bring the marginalised to the centre. In this situation of Justin versus Judith he was speaking for the voiceless and she was speaking for power. He was speaking to the fact that our justice system and our society is racist if the population of our prisons is 50% Maori, and the outcomes of our justice system are misguided and evil if two-thirds of criminals re-offend within two years, and how the process of taking people who are often illiterate, suffer addiction, and have mental health issues and not treating any of those things is immoral. Sing it sister!
The “For Lease” signs are up on Lambton Quay, and people are sleeping in the parks, and begging on Riddiford Street next to the bus stops which have been commercialised to promote water in bottles and not taps, and adverts to promote not giving change to beggars.
But, if you like you don’t have to play the games they want you to play. You can give money to beggars. You can turn on your tap. You can turn off your TV and vote for people who support empty moral gestures. You can listen to the demagoguery of Martin Luther King, and read the Sermon on the Mount, and protest unjust laws, and tell the minister of Justice that she is unjust, and listen to Gil Scott-Heron who was not and will never be Nike, as Kerouac will never be Gap pants.
“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.”