A Brief History of Activism That Has Made a Big Difference in Society

ACTIVISM
History is shaped through all kinds of activism.

Photo Credit: Eric Crama / Shutterstock

When we reflect on the activists who changed the course of history, we often think of those who showed up and made their presence known: the Civil Rights activists who took to the streets, despite the very real threat of police brutality; the protesters amassing by the hundreds of thousands, signs in hand, like those who participated in the recent Women’s March; the canvassers tirelessly knocking on doors, getting out the vote to shape the future of American politics.

But history has not always been made by those who are so visible.

Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial — but many are unaware that these most famous lines were reportedly inspired by Baptist minister Prathia Hall, who used the phrase in a public prayer honoring those lost in the Mount Olive Baptist Church arson.

Similarly, “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson, who performed the last musical act before King’s iconic speech, used her public platform from behind the podium to interrupt King partway through his oration and advise him to “tell them about the dream,” a phrase she had heard him use in previous speeches. At her request, he instantly improvised the next section, which began:

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Mahalia Jackson (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These kinds of behind-the-scenes actions are often overlooked in favor of more visible activism. But it’s both inaccurate and problematic to dismiss this brand of social justice advocacy—in part because for many, highly visible activism simply isn’t possible.

In January, my Instagram feed was filled with images of friends, family, and acquaintances participating in the Women’s March all over the country, with the highest turnout in my current city of Los Angeles. I got out of bed hopeful that we can make a difference — but I say “we” even though I slept through this monumental event. That’s because I have dealt with many health conditions, including sleep apnea, which can cause severe exhaustion.

Those with visible disabilities often need to work against obstacles and have crucial needs that are frequently overlooked. At the same time, we must also acknowledge those with invisible illnesses — like anxiety, a sleep disorder, or depression — that may hinder their ability to be present for marches, protests, canvassing, and other in-person engagements.

For inspiration and wisdom, we can glean much from examining the history of social change, which has long been shaped in part by those behind the scenes.

The Power of the Pen

As is true today, writers, editors, publishers, and everyday folk were instrumental in the success of the pre-Revolutionary War and Civil Rights Movement, even when they weren’t on the front lines of protest.

Leading up to the American Revolution, the British Stamp Act required “government-issued stamps be placed on all legal documents and newspapers, as well as playing cards and dice,” according to historian Carol Berkin in Revolutionary Mothers. In protest, a group of women in New York City made a public announcement in the newspaper, refusing to marry their fiancés if they applied for a stamped marriage license. This act of opposition was a bold feat at a time when women were discouraged from participating in print dialogue.

In another prime example, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that abolished anti-miscegenation laws. Mildred and Richard Loving, black and white respectively, were not allowed to return home to their state of Virginia after marrying against Virginia law. Mildred, though highly unassuming, wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking for assistance, which she then received from the ACLU. This simple letter ignited change that has altered marriage laws country-wide and was the inspiration for same-sex marriage equality in the 21st century.

Mildred Loving’s letter launched one of the most important Supreme Court cases in history. (Credit: flickr/Freedom to Marry)

In a different historic Supreme Court case, Daisy Bates, co-publisher of the black newspaper the State Presschronicled the fight for school integration following Brown v. Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to using her pen to document civil rights issues, Bates acted behind the scenes to protect and support the first nine black students integrating Little Rock Central High School — a group commonly referred to as the “Little Rock Nine.” Bates even penned a letter to President Eisenhower, asking for reinforcements to combat the violence she and other activists experienced as a result of upholding the new legislation. She ingeniously placed “spies” on campus to report both positive and negative truths about what happened inside the school, in order to combat misinformation from both sides.

Bates has inspired me in my own efforts to contribute in part by writing words — words about Gabrielle Gorman and Jesse Williams, about black NASA trailblazers, and about the biased American captivity narrative. This, too, matters.

Boycotting Goods

The Montgomery bus boycotts and the Boston Tea Party are of course the most widely recognized boycotting efforts in the U.S. But other boycotts past and present have played significant roles in the country’s progression.

After the dissolution of the Stamp Act, the colonies began boycotting other British imports, especially luxury items. Sugar, mirrors, silk, lace, and even pickles were renounced in 1769 by the Virginia House of Burgess. It took several years for the boycotts to gain momentum, but we know how the story ends: America was able to release itself from British rule following the Revolution. This type of activism was performed by everyday men and women, all of whom relied on goods and services for their daily needs. While the boycotts themselves became a public force, individuals were able to contribute in small ways with a big impact.

Today, boycotts against companies that financially back Trump and his family have also proven effective. Lyft downloads surpassed Uber for the first time after a recent boycott, resulting in Uber pledging a $3 million defense fund to help drivers with immigration issues. Additionally, following a recent boycott of Nordstrom, the clothing company decided to no longer carry Ivanka Trump’s brand, citing a significant drop in sales due to the boycott as its motivation. Other retailers, such as Neiman Marcus, T.J. Maxx, and Burlington, have followed suit.

Taking Care of Loved Ones

We each have different roles in the current fight for the preservation of our country. While my aunt and uncle (a Democratic county representative and legislative district chair, respectively) participated in the Seattle airport protests against the immigration ban, my cousin, who participated in the Women’s March with my aunt, contributed to the cause that night by watching over our ailing grandmother. My sister, who was well into her third trimester and recently had her baby, sat out the march but contributed to the ACLU.

While we must all push ourselves to do more during this horrific presidency, we should also take advantage of enacting change within our individual spheres of influence and power. Though I cannot participate in everything, I have been able to not only use my writing to speak power to truth, but also to sign petitions and send emails (though still not as much as I should).

Those with invisible illnesses, or who otherwise can’t engage in in-person actions, may fear they can’t do their part. But as essayist Michel de Montaigne so wisely put, “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.”

ALTERNET 

Get Out: The horror of racism, and racialist politics

By Hiram Lee
28 March 2017

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

The horror film Get Out has been popular with both audiences and critics. It is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known for his work as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. With Get Out, Peele has said he wanted to make a film to “combat the lie that America had become post-racial.” The monster at the heart of this horror film is racism itself.

Get Out

Get Out tells the story of African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The couple is planning to visit Rose’s parents for the first time. But when Chris discovers Rose hasn’t told her parents that he is black, he worries the visit won’t go well. Rose reassures him that her parents are anything but racist, and the trip goes ahead as planned.

Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) turns out to be a wealthy surgeon. Her mother (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis therapy. They go out of their way to make Chris feel at home. Rose’s father makes awkward gestures to Chris, at one point telling him that he would have voted for Obama a third time given the chance. What seem at first like well meaning but misguided attempts to relate to Chris and put him at ease soon turn into something else. There is something even darker than such “micro aggressions” lurking beneath this white liberal family.

Most troubling to Chris are the African-American servants the family employs. They appear brainwashed, too satisfied with the family and their duties. They don’t behave as real people would. When the family later throws a party and the white guests appear to be sizing him up for something, it puts him further on edge.

Despite all the warning signs, Chris hesitates, hoping for the best until it is almost too late. The family intends to capture him and force him into a kind of servitude, though not quite the kind he was expecting. His failure to act sooner nearly gets him killed. This complacency in the face of racism is one of the main themes of the film.

Get Out accepts a number of conventions about race relations and begins from there. Racism, for Peele, simply exists—in the same way that evil does, or original sin. Everyone is infected by it. Its historical origins and the social forces which nourish and promote it are beside the point. Accepting this, the film is left to offer pseudo-psychological explanations for the beliefs and activities of its antagonists. This leads it into rather disturbing territory. At one point the film seems to suggest that the white family terrorizing Chris is jealous of the genetically endowed superior physical abilities of its African-American victims. Given Rose’s involvement in the conspiracy, one could even be forgiven for interpreting the film as a warning against interracial relationships. Like all such works based on racialist conceptions, one doesn’t have to follow the logic very far before one arrives at positions virtually identical to those of the extreme right.

Get Out

Since its release, Peele’s film has generated a great deal of media attention, including its share of hype and controversy. In recent weeks, Peele has been celebrated in the media as the first African-American writer-director to have earned more than $100 million with his debut film. He has cracked a key financial threshold and his success as an artist is thus confirmed for certain layers. There is a lot of talk about what it means for black filmmakers in Hollywood. Opportunity is on the horizon.

But does Get Out tell the truth about the world? Several interviews make clear Peele’s own outlook.

In an interview with the New York Times, Peele affirmed his intention to target the “liberal elite” with the film. “The liberal elite,” said Peele, “who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgement that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”

In another interview with GQ magazine, Peele seeks to explain why there haven’t been more horror films dealing with race:

“Black creators have not been given a platform, and the African-American experience can only be dealt with by an African-American. That might be problematic to say. And now that I think about it, [The Stepford Wives author] Ira Levin is a man, and he and Roman Polanski wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Let’s say it would be scary for a white writer and director to do something that includes the victimization of black people in this way. Of course, we have this trope where the black guy is the first to die in every horror movie—that’s a way for [white filmmakers] to have their cake and eat it, too.”

The division of the world along such racial lines has the most reactionary implications. Indeed, we saw only last week how “scary” it could be when a white artist, Dana Schutz, dared to depict the victimization of a black person, Emmett Till, in her work.

Interestingly, the reactionary notion that only an African-American can deal with the so-called “African-American experience” (a racialist term that throws class and history out the window) has also been used to attack Peele’s film. In a recent radio interview, actor Samuel L. Jackson complained that the film’s star, Daniel Kaluuya, was British, saying that an African American actor would have been better suited to the role. He went on to lament the prevalence of black British actors currently employed in Hollywood. “They’re cheaper than us,” he said. In these bitter, career-motivated comments, Jackson united racialism with its perfect complement, nationalism.

WSWS

 

 

The bad art of the non sequitur: Gibberish is the White House’s new normal

We’re expected to live in a universe which is not only post-truth but altogether post-language and post-meaning

The bad art of the non sequitur: Gibberish is the White House's new normal
(Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

Once upon a time, there were presidents for whom English seemed their native language. Barack Obama most recently. He deliberated. At a press conference or in an interview — just about whenever he wasn’t speaking from a text — his pauses were as common as other people’s “uh’s.” He was not pausing because his vocabulary was impoverished. He was pausing to put words into sequence. He was putting phrases together with care, word by word, trying out words before uttering them, checking to feel out what they would sound like once uttered. It was important to him because he did not want to be misunderstood. President Obama valued precision, in no small part because he knew he lived in a world where every last presidential word was a speech act, a declaration with consequence, so that the very statement that the sky was blue, say, would be scoured for evidence that the president was declaring a policy on the nature of nature.

That was then. Now we have a president who, when he speaks, spatters the air with unfinished chunks, many of which do not qualify as sentences, and which do not follow from previous chunks. He does not release words into a stream of consciousness but into a heap. He heaps words on top of words, to overwhelm meaning with vague gestures. He does not think, he lurches.

Here are some examples from TIME’s transcript of their cover story made out of their phone interview with the president of the United States. I have italicized the non sequiturs, incomplete propositions, indefinite pronouns and other obscurities that amount to verbal mud.

Scherer: So you don’t feel like Comey’s testimony in any way takes away from the credibility of the tweets you put out, even with the quotes?

Trump: No, I have, look. I have articles saying it happened. But you have to take a look at what they, they just went out at a news conference.

Scherer: Mitch McConnell has said he’d rather you stop tweeting, that he sees it as a distraction.

Trump: Mitch will speak for himself. Mitch is a wonderful man. Mitch should speak for himself.

Trump: Now the problem, the thing is, I’m not sure they are watching anything other than that, let’s see members of Donald Trump transition team, possibly, oh this just came out.

Trump: I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that UK will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.

Trump: And then TIME magazine, which treats me horribly, but obviously I sell, I assume this is going to be a cover too, have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers, nobody’s had more covers.

Trump: But the real story here is, who released Gen. Flynn’s name? Who released, who released my conversations with Australia, and who released my conversation with Mexico? To me, Michael, that’s the story, these leakers, they are disgusting. These are horrible people.

Scherer: And apparently there is an investigation into that as well.

Trump: Well should be, because that’s where the whole, who would think that you are speaking to the head of Mexico, the head of Australia, or Gen. Flynn, who was, they are not supposed to release that. That is the most confidential stuff. Classified. That’s classified. You go to prison when you release stuff like that. And who would release that? The real story is, they have to work, intelligence has to work on finding out who are the leakers. Because you know what? When things get involved with North Korea and all the problems we have there, in the Middle East, I mean, that information cannot be leaked out, and it will be by this, this same, and these people were here in the Obama years, because he had plenty of leakers also.

Trump: I inherited a mess in the Middle East, and a mess with North Korea, I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can’t get a job, OK. And I inherited a mess on trade. I mean we have many, you can go up and down the ladder. But that’s the story. Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not. You know. Say hello to everybody, OK?

So it goes.

Now, TIME’s cover headline for this mishmash is pointed as well as clever: “Is Truth Dead?” — clever, at any rate, in the eyes of readers old enough to remember the 1966 prototype: “Is God Dead?” A still more pointed treatment is that of Ellie Shechet at Jezebel — a redaction, or what be called reporting by subtraction. In the words of headline, “We Redacted Everything That’s Not a Verifiably True Statement From Trump’s Time Interview About Truth.” Unsurprisingly, Jezebel ended up having to edit the transcript so that the passages blacked out were lengthier than the words left in.

But the problem is not just that Trump lies, or that he lies about having lied. The problem is not just that he distracts — for example, changing the subject from his entanglements with Russians to the leakers who leak stories about his entanglements with Russians. The problem is that he insinuates more than he argues. He disdains not only evidence but logic. He asserts by indirection. This is bubble-think. It makes a sort of sense only if you’re trapped in the bubble with him.

What explains this? Is Donald Trump the heir of generations of avant-garde poetry?

Probably not. What’s more likely is that he is deranged. It is a peculiar sort of derangement. It is the derangement of a man who is used to getting what he wants, and arranging his mental universe so as to convince himself that what he has gotten is what he wanted. His operating theory is that he makes things so because he is powerful. His power is such that he is not subject to laws of ordinary grammar.

These bursts of speech are like the announcements that shriek “TRUMP” from the walls of many of his hotels. They do not signify ownership. They signify…something. Whatever. They add up to a haze of indefinite implication. They constitute, in our contemporary discourse, a brand. They signify that Trump has something to do with this building. Something. If you’re privy to the code, you know that there’s a licensing arrangement. Trump has been paid to grant the use of his name. If you think it’s a good thing to be associated with his name, then he has some water, some steaks, some vodka — even a “university” — to offer you.

Trump has moved the sign system of modern capitalism toward a whole new capitalist art form — the free-floating name that describes nothing. Trump has peeled language away from meaning.

He has brought to fruition the title of the 1984 Talking Heads album: “Stop Making Sense.” His regime is a nonstop exercise of “Let’s Pretend.”

His con game requires the bending of millions of knees. Americans are invited to willingly suspend disbelief, play dumb and collude in his cynicism. We agree not to notice the nonstop gibberish that spreads from the Oval Office outward. We agree to brag about our democracy when the president of the United States is responsible neither to logic, nor to evidence, nor to the American people, nor to the English language. We are expected to live in an alternative universe which is not only post-truth but altogether post-language and post-meaning. Any journalist, any talking head, any pundit, any commentator, any politician who pretends that Donald Trump makes sense has volunteered to go to work in the tailor shop where his invisible clothes are weaved.

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for BillMoyers.com and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

America’s Health Illiteracy: How Easy It Is to Buy into Health Myths

PERSONAL HEALTH
Survey shows some of the medical facts that are far from true.

Photo Credit: Spot Us / Flickr

Ask any American for some medical advice and you’re sure to get an earful. Everybody, it seems, has a surefire cure for the common cold, hangover or sore throat. But how much can you trust that advice? Maybe not so much. In a world where, according to one survey by the Pew Health Group, almost half of the respondents thought antibiotics were effective against the common cold or flu (the answer to that is a big fat no, in case you were wondering), one should be exceedingly careful about the source of one’s medical information.

The truth is that Americans are not so smart about medicine, which makes us exceedingly vulnerable to hucksters peddling remedies. We don’t know much about heart disease despite the fact that it kills 1 out of 4 of us. We don’t even know the appropriate place to go for medical help. Only 18% of Americans are proficient in health literacy. An equal number of us have below basic health literacy and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Women fare a bit better than men, with 22% being proficient, while youth aged 18 to 24 fare the worst, with a third of them below basic health literacy.

Not every medical belief amounts to a life-or-death scenario (although our ignorance does add to the nation’s rising medical costs), but it is interesting to take a snapshot of some medical myths and dissect them to see who believes them, and why. That is exactly what the online insurance quote company, Insurancequotes.com, did, surveying over 2,000 people to see where they stand on a few widespread medical myths.

Below are seven of the most commonly believed medical myths.

1. Probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

In the survey, heading the list, over 83% of respondents thought that probiotics improve digestion for everyone who takes them.

While probiotics can help alleviate certain conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, childhood diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, most healthy people won’t experience any digestive benefits from consuming them.

People of all ethnicities buy into the probiotic hype. In the survey, Caucasians and Asian Americans tied at 84%, and African Americans and Hispanics tied at 80%.

2. Creativity is controlled on the right half of the brain, logic on the left.

Almost 68% of respondents bought into this myth, but it isn’t true. It originated in the 1960s, when epileptic patients had surgical procedures on their brains that effectively walled off one side of the brain from the other. Researchers then found which sides of the brain were involved with language, math, drawing, and other functions. Pop gurus extrapolated from this information that one side of the brain was creative and one logical.

Studies since then debunk that notion. In fact, one recent study from the University of Utah of over 1,000 brains found no evidence that people are left-brained or right-brained.

3. Carrots give you better eyesight.

Nope, although over 68% believe otherwise.

Unless you have a severe shortage of vitamin A, eating a lot of carrots might turn you a bit orange (maybe our president likes carrots), but it won’t do anything for your eyesight.

4. When women live together, their periods become synchronized.

The myth that women in close proximity to one another for long periods of time begin experiencing their periods at the same time had its origin in an early 1970s study. Although subsequent studies seemed to bear this out, more recent studies say it is not true.

Still, more than 62% buy into the myth. Here’s a surprise: more men (44.6%) than women (29.8%) knew this myth was false.

5. Sitting close to the television set will cause poor eyesight.

Almost 61% of the respondents believed this to be true, but it is not. Although it could cause eyestrain, sitting close to the TV won’t cause any permanent damage to your eyes.

6. Myth: Women who are menstruating can’t get pregnant.

Women knew this one was false by a large margin, 72.7% to 57.6% for wishful thinking men.

Interestingly, Asian Americans believed this myth more than any other racial group, at 38%, followed closely by African Americans at 36% and Caucasians at 35%. Hispanics aren’t buying it, though, with only 30% believing this.

7. Myth: Vaccines are not effective at helping the body ward off disease.

Belief in the efficacy of vaccines (they are overwhelmingly safe and effective) has taken a hit in the past few years thanks to the misguided anti-vaxxer movement, which claims vaccines can cause autism (they don’t).

A sizable chunk of people (though, thankfully, still a minority) believe that vaccines are not effective, with 33% of African Americans believing this dangerous myth, followed by 22% of Hispanics, 20% of Asian Americans, and 13% of Caucasians.

Sources of health information

Based on the survey, it is clear where medical information is coming from. By far, the source of health information (or misinformation) is the internet. Seventy-one percent of Asian Americans report they get their health information online, followed by 59% for Caucasians, and 58% for both African Americans and Hispanics.

Given the fact that almost anyone can create a “health” website, including those with a business or political agenda, this may be a cause for concern.

Other health info sources include family and friends, and doctors. Asian Americans are least likely to get their information from a physician (18%), while Hispanics are most likely (35%). African Americans are most likely to follow the medical advice of family or friends (14%), while Hispanics are least likely (7%).

Health knowledge by profession and education level

Some professions, it would seem, are more easily taken in by myths than others. People in the marketing and advertising industry are the least likely to correctly identify medical myths, with only 52% accurately calling them out. They were tied with broadcasting and journalism, which should give us pause (FAKE NEWS!).

The military professions were most able to identify myths, at 62%. Somewhat shockingly, they beat out the scientific professions, who came in at 59%, barely ahead of homemakers at 58%, who disconcertingly in turn beat out the medical profession at 57% (apparently working in the field does not assure protection from incorrect medical information).

People with professional degrees led the pack in being able to accurately identify medical myths, at 61%. Overall, college degrees beat out those with only a high school degree or GED equivalent (who came in at 54%). The surprise here was that PhDs just barely beat out the high school crowd at 55%.

See the entire survey results.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 

Depeche Mode’s “Spirit” is a reminder of how political the band can be

“Grabbing hands, grab all they can”:

The group’s latest studio LP is a byproduct of and commentary on today’s global political upheaval

"Grabbing hands, grab all they can": Depeche Mode's "Spirit" is a reminder of how political the band can be
Depeche Mode (Credit: Sony Music)

The members of Depeche Mode spent the weeks leading up to the release of their 14th studio album, “Spirit,” fending off an association with the far-right movement. In late February, white nationalist Richard Spencer — a self-avowed “life-long Depeche Mode fan” — facetiously called the influential synthpop group the “official band of the Alt-Right.” The act swiftly issued a crisp statement through a rep: “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the Alt-Right and does not support the Alt-Right movement.”

The exchange was a reminder that Depeche Mode was actually tangling with politics more than it had in recent years. The Martin Gore-penned “Where’s the Revolution,” the first single from “Spirit,” encourages people to engage in mutiny against oppression. Although not explicitly liberal, a sampling of chorus lyrics (“They manipulate and threaten/ With terror as a weapon,” “Who’s making your decisions?/ You or your religion/ Your government, your countries/ You patriotic junkies”) points to a left-leaning perspective.

As many reviews have noted, the rest of “Spirit” also has an overt political bent. However, it’s more precise to say that the album features commentary on (and is a reaction to) the societal and cultural elements that led to 2017’s global political upheaval.

“Going Backwards” juxtaposes technological progress with decaying morals and devolution to “a caveman mentality,” while “Worst Crime” calls for people to own up to corrupt behavior: “We are all charged with treason/ There is no one left to hiss.” The electro-dirge “Poorman” is specific about its stance: “Corporations get the breaks/ Keeping almost everything they make/ Tell us just how long it’s going to take/ For it to trickle down.” And “Scum” pulls no punches in how it portrays a faceless person presumably abusing their position: “Hey scum, hey scum/ What are you going to do when karma comes?”

Speaking to Rolling Stone about the album, Gahan didn’t necessarily reveal inspiration specifics. “We called the album ‘Spirit,’ because it’s like, ‘Where’s the spirit gone?’ or ‘Where’s the spirit in humanity?’” he said. Earlier in the article, he admitted he “wouldn’t call this a political album, because I don’t listen to music in a political way. But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”

One could argue that the latter idea — someone deeply considering where they fit in the world among their fellow citizens — is inherently political. However, Gahan has a good reason for demurring on specifics. In a recent Billboard interview, he discussed not just the Spencer incident, but also how his band’s music has been misunderstood. “I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted — either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.

“If anything, there’s a way more sort of socialist — working class, if you like — industrial-sounding aesthetic to what we do,” Gahan continues. “That’s where we come from. We come from the council estates of Essex, which is a really s—-y place, just 30 minutes east of London, where they stuck everybody when London was getting too overpopulated in the late ’60s.”

From a sonic perspective, Depeche Mode’s early music captures the cloistered existence Gahan describes. The fogged-up-window synths of 1981’s debut, “Speak and Spell,” give way to sharply modern keyboards on 1982’s “A Broken Frame.” That record’s programming conjures textures that are simultaneously drab and chirpy: dripping faucets, a dull church service or a melodramatic sitcom theme.

On subsequent records, Depeche Mode employs clanking production and scraping sound effects, as well as midnight-hued keyboards and generous slathers of reverb, to convey increasingly hollowed-out angst. The sounds of industry remain an aesthetic influence on a song such as “Black Celebration,” which resembles a bustling, belching factory, and on the “electronic metal” the band embraced as the ’80s progressed. But although modern technology and different production techniques changed the band’s sound — giving it a sleeker, dystopian and minimalist vibe — Depeche Mode has never lost its utilitarian, greyscale synthpop essence.

What’s more intriguing is how the thematic bent of “Spirit” revisits and amplifies aspects of the band’s past. Notable parallels can be made to 1983’s “Construction Time Again,” the record containing the greed-demonizing “Everything Counts.” That LP’s cover image features a chiseled, real-life ex-Royal Marine hoisting a sledgehammer. From an iconography perspective, it was a striking statement — even if its intent had many layers.

In a documentary about the record, Martyn Atkins, a longtime Depeche Mode-associated designer who worked on “Construction Time Again,” said “The kind of political look of the things was more fashion than a specific statement. If you look back, you’ll see a lot of those kind of elements creeping in, of both fascist and communistic kind of iconography. It was exciting looking stuff. And I think that nobody had really plundered it to market an everyday product like a record.”

Yet in an interview with NME journalist X. Moore, the members of Depeche Mode were firm about their political awakening and how the concept of “The Worker” dominated the record.

“The general tendency of the album is very socialized and The Worker sums it up — it’s the obvious image to get across socialism,” said keyboardist Alan Wilder. “It’s like, the first thing you think seeing the cover is that the hammer is smashing down the mountain, but not to destroy. Because he’s a worker, it’s to rebuild it, it’s positive. That was the overall idea of the album, to be positive — that’s why it’s construction time, not destruction time.”

Later in the article, Gore was more explicit about the ways his lyrics dealt with greed and money, and the disproportionate way wealth is distributed. “The thing is, the people in power don’t care about someone with a low wage, they only care about their own power. But I think people should care about other people, y’know, ’cause from the moment we’re born we’re put into competition with everybody else.”

Going forward, that kind of direct commentary emanated from Depeche Mode’s catalog only occasionally, although these moments resonated. “People Are People” somewhat clumsily (but sincerely) addresses bigotry: “It’s obvious you hate me, though I’ve done nothing wrong/ I’ve never even met you, so what could I have done?” The murky “New Dress” criticizes tabloid frippery (“Princess Di is wearing a new dress”) that is focused on to the detriment of more important matters: “If you change points of view/ You may change a vote/ And when you change a vote/ You may change the world.” And uproar over the sexual overtones of “Master and Servant” obscured the song’s coded societal commentary: “Domination’s the name of the game/ In bed or in life/ They’re both just the same/ Except in one you’re fulfilled.”

Still, it’s not like the group was an apolitical entity the rest of the time. Mat Smith’s excellent essay about the band’s political nature points out how ’80s Depeche Mode reverberated “in places like East Germany or Russia that were divided and separate from the West by ideology. Depeche Mode’s music spoke to a generation of young people that felt betrayed by Communism, capturing the hearts and minds of a youth who heard something in this music that we’ll probably never fully appreciate unless we were living through it with them.” And Gore’s lyrics very much politicize personal matters: His vignettes about spiritual struggles, romantic turmoil and internal battles with the self are charged with divisive emotions.

Depeche Mode might have been seen as comparatively lighter, because ’80s synthpop tended to deal with surprisingly weighty issues. Industry’s “State of the Nation” condemns needless (and deadly) wars, as does Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes.” The Human League’s monstrous “Dare” LP features “Seconds,” a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of the shooter. Bronski Beat’s sociopolitical statement “Smalltown Boy” is about someone leaving home after being bullied about his sexuality. And nuclear war or nuclear apocalypse were popular thematic jumping-off points; Ultravox’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” OMD’s “Enola Gay” and even Modern English’s “I Melt With You” all fit into this category.

These topics might seem quaint or retrograde now, but as Depeche Mode cautions on “Spirit,” political backsliding is lurking around every corner. Speaking about new song “The Worst Crime” to NPR, Gahan says “The way we divide each other — you know, racial divides. [It’s] kind of calling out to really question that, to kind of check yourself — me included, everyone else included.

“Like, where do you really stand, what are the choices you’re really making? Do you really love thy neighbor, and are you willing to accept the differences? We just seem to be slipping backwards.”

 

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I didn’t expect the books I taught for 30 years to define how I coped

Dying, with a lifetime of literature 
(Credit: Shutterstock/Penguin/Salon)

When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I was determined to not let the disease define me. With the exception of one fundraiser, I declined offers to give talks, blog, or even write a narrative essay about my struggles with the debilitating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS). While I held to my promise, I hadn’t expected that the classic literature I’d been teaching for 30 years would define how I coped with my illness.

I was diagnosed with ALS in August 2015 — on the Friday before school was to resume. I slipped into my classroom that weekend and filled a box with mementos, leaving behind my personal copies of literary masterpieces and cabinets filled with curricula — at least I thought I was abandoning a lifetime of literature.

At first, my only thoughts of school were met with relief. Relief that I had left my job before greeting 150-plus new students, taking them on a journey of uncertainty and loss; at 17, they had plenty else to worry about.

As the months passed, however, my physical strength waned, and unlike the industrious doer I’d been my whole life, I became dependent upon others. After losing the use of my hands, it became difficult to find meaningful ways to spend my time. I despaired having no control over my life. I strove to focus on the moments of the day when I was warmed by a kind word or an image of natural beauty. When I did pause to appreciate these instances, I’d hear the words “This one is warmed . . .”

At first I was at a loss for the source of the line. I was certain it was from a Toni Morrison novel, but when I consulted Google, I was reminded that the phrase harkened from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Near the conclusion of her lecture, she tells a brief story about a wagon filled with slaves journeying to a plantation where their lives will end. The driver stops at an inn for a meal, leaving the slaves shivering in the back of the wagon. Two children tend to the slaves, giving them food and sips of warm cider. Morrison sums up this respite from pain and impending hopelessness: “The next stop would be their last, but this one was warmed.” I too was nearly at my last stop — death — but pausing to appreciate the moments that were warmed by small gestures and glimpses of natural beauty dulled the pangs of despair, and I had Morrison to thank for expressing the ineffable emotions that I may have missed had it not been for her words echoing in my mind.

With my mobility limited and my voice diminished, I would often lie in bed and find myself bothered by ridiculous things: a shriveled leaf on a house plant or a crooked lampshade. When someone entered the room to visit, I would seek a way to ask them to correct the irritant. But if they plucked the wrong leaf or didn’t understand me at all, I would usually realize the foolishness of wasting energy on getting my way and somewhere from the recesses of my memory be reminded, “Do not seek to be master of all . . . ”

At first I assumed those words harkened from the New Testament or possibly the humanist Shakespeare, but when Google insisted that Sophocles quilled those lines, I found myself sharing the tragic stage with Oedipus as his brother-in-law Creon admonishes him for failing to learn that fate cannot be circumvented. Oedipus and I both had to learn acceptance. Although acceptance sounds like a passive stance, it would become the hardest work of my life.

Acquiescing to my fate and allowing others to do what they deemed best for my unfamiliar and uncooperative body took patience. But when my confinement to a wheelchair required dismantling my office into a bedroom, replacing my desk with a ramp and my bookcase with a portable commode, I balked. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who awakened to find himself a giant cockroach, I felt alien in appearance and among unfamiliar surroundings. In an attempt to make me more comfortable, my family, like Gregor’s, had replaced my furniture — my identity — with utility. I slept in a motorized bed with bars and awoke alone, with a green button to summon my husband to untangle my limp legs from the blankets. Despite the love and care I was receiving, nothing except the occasional dream let me pretend that I was myself.

Eventually all my inner turmoil will have to give way to complete surrender. I’m not quite there yet. But I do hear one of Hamlet’s less-famous lines spoken after most of the chaos in the play subsidies: “Let be.” Resonating in those two words is Hamlet’s acceptance: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I pray that I may soon die accepting this lesson that’s taken a lifetime to learn.

Lynette Williamson taught high school English and coached debate for 30 years in Sonoma County, California, where she and her husband Don raised two children who had better keep their promise to their mother and produce grandchildren one day. 

Rising death rate for middle-aged US workers driven by “deaths of despair”

By Niles Niemuth
24 March 2017

The latest research on rising mortality rates by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, presented this week at the Brookings Institution, shines new light on the depth of the social crisis which has devastated the American working class since the year 2000.

Building off their initial 2015 study which documented a sharp rise in the mortality rate for white, middle-aged working-class Americans, Case and Deaton conclude that the rising death rate is being driven by what they define as “deaths of despair,” those due to drug overdoses, complications from alcohol and suicide. The mortality rate for these causes grew by half a percent annually between 1999 and 2013.

During the course of the 20th century, the annual mortality rate for all middle-aged whites fell from 1,400 per 100,000 to 400 per 100,000. The US experienced a 100-year period of almost uninterrupted improvements in death rates and life expectancy. In this context Case and Deaton identify the recent rise in middle-aged mortality as “extraordinary and unanticipated.”

Midlife deaths of despair across countries

The epidemic of deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide was initially seen in the American Southwest in the year 2000 but soon spread to the Appalachian region and Florida and is now nationwide, affecting rural and urban areas alike.

While every region of the US has seen an increase in the rate of “deaths of despair” among middle-aged whites over the last 15 years, the hardest-hit states are in the South (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi). Large urban and suburban areas have been the least affected, rural areas the most.

The mortality rate for working-class whites was also pushed up by a slowing and then stagnation of the decline in deaths from heart disease for white Americans between 2009 and 2015. On top of this the decline in mortality from lung cancer, caused by smoking and occupational hazards, slowed for white men 45-54 between 2000 and 2014, while mortality actually increased for white women 45-49 between 2000 and 2010.

Case and Deaton found that midlife mortality for middle-aged, working-class, white Americans surpassed the midlife mortality for all African Americans for the first time in 2008, and by 2015 mortality for working-class whites was 30 percent higher than for blacks. More significantly, their data shows that the gap in mortality between whites and blacks in the working class has all but disappeared. This is the outcome of a general decline in mortality for blacks and a rapid increase for whites over the last decade-and-a-half, though in recent years the mortality rate for working-class blacks has begun rising along with that of whites.

Case and Deaton’s report is supported by the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data concerning suicides and overdoses.

The CDC found that after declining between 1986 and 1999 the US suicide rate rose gradually between 2000 and 2015, with the rate growing most rapidly in smaller cities and rural areas after the 2007-2008 economic collapse. Whites and Native Americans had the highest suicide rates, with both groups seeing noticeable increases. All told there were 600,000 suicides in the US between 1999 and 2015—the equivalent of the loss of a major city, more than the total estimated deaths in the Syrian civil war.

Another recent CDC report found that overdoses from all drugs has more than doubled since 1999, with middle-aged Americans having the highest rate of overdoses. The overdose rate for whites has more than tripled since 1999 and is now more than double the rate for blacks and Hispanics combined. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses alone in 2015, more than four times the number of deaths recorded in 2010.

Midlife mortality by all causes in the US

The data collected and analyzed by Case and Deaton reflects a deeply sick society, the outcome of a social counterrevolution which has accelerated since the 2008 crash.

Their research makes clear that the American working class, regardless of race, is being made to pay the price for the failure of capitalism, exposing the lie repeated by pseudo-left groups and the practitioners of identity politics about the “privileged white working class.”

In the period reviewed by Case and Deaton, the Democratic Party completed its repudiation of a political program which in any way addressed the needs or interests of the working class, in favor of middle-class identity politics. This found its culmination in the election of Barack Obama, the first black president, who funneled trillions of dollars into Wall Street and expanded the wars in the Middle East. In the last year of his presidency, which had seen such catastrophes as the lead poisoning of Flint and the BP oil spill, and seven years of wage stagnation, Obama asserted that things were “pretty darn great” in America.

The immiseration of the American working class has also been made possible by betrayals of the trade unions which over the last four decades have collaborated with and integrated themselves ever more closely with the corporations in order to shutter factories, eliminate jobs and enforce wage and benefit cuts.

The period in which the American working class has been subjected to unrelenting attacks has seen the growth of historically unprecedented levels of social inequality. The resources of society and the wealth created by the working class have been plundered and funneled into the hands of an ever wealthier financial aristocracy. This process will only accelerate under Trump.

While it is claimed there is “no money” to pay for decent wages or social services in the US, the country claims eight of the world’s 10 wealthiest billionaires and spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military. The health care overhaul and budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration are guaranteed to accelerate the social counterrevolution.

In this regard it is striking to note the overlap between the areas of the country particularly devastated by “deaths of despair” in the period examined by Case and Deaton and those with a large vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The anti-working class policies pursued in the Obama years paved the way for Trump.

The residents of these areas, either rural or devastated by years of factory closures, voted for Trump not out of racial animus—an assertion often made by the mainstream media and pseudo-left—but as a cry of desperation, incipient anger and complete disgust with the political establishment.

These people have been at the frontlines of the onslaught against the working class, facilitated by Democrats and Republicans alike. As far as Trump identified himself as an outsider, opposed to the political establishment which facilitated the plunder of the working class, he drew significant support. These same working people are quickly being disabused of any illusions they may have held in the billionaire businessman.

The fundamental question raised by Case and Deaton’s research is the struggle of the working class against the capitalist system and for socialism. Social inequality has never been higher and the rich have never been richer. The working class is the only force which can reverse this counterrevolution. Workers must turn to socialism and fight to build a mass independent movement which will fight for political power and take control of the wealth plundered from them, putting it to use for the common good.

 

WSWS