Stormy Seas on the Citizen Ship

by RON JACOBS

I just finished reading two recently published books that deal with the deteriorating state of democracy in the United States. One is written by radical journalist David Lindorff and the other is a composition by rock musician/free speech advocate Krist Novoselic (of Nirvana). Neither makes for uplifting reading, although Novoselic ends his work with some hopeful suggestions for reform. Lindorff, however, holds little hope for reform, while hitting hard on not only the repercussions of our faltering republic but also on the reasons for its failures.

His book is a collection of essays and investigative pieces written for Counterpunch and Salon. The essays reveal a government driven by greed and bloodlust, while the investigative pieces reveal the extent (enhanced by idiocy and incompetence) of the attack on the civil and human rights of many US residents. Lindorff’s democracy is the ideal democracy that we used to hear about in civics class-where the Bill of Rights matters and the elected ones actually represent the people who voted for them, not the capitalists who paid for their election. This United States is the one we read about all too often: Depleted Uranium weapons strewn about the countries our military attacks, even though the manufacturers of these weapons know they are killing US soldiers along with countless numbers of civilians who happen to live downwind of the radioactive dust these bombs produce; lying politicians who, when caught in their lies, just make up another one which the media immediately spreads with the same lack of skepticism with which they spread the first one, and so on.

Lindorff titles his book, This Can’t Be Happening! The title represents the disbelief he believes the people of the United States should be experiencing as they watch their country plummet to depths of corruption and greed never before seen. Unfortunately for the nation and its residents, however, that sense of disbelief doesn’t seem to exist on a great enough scale to make a difference. As for those of us who do share his sense of incredulity, there just aren’t enough of us doing anything about it to matter. Indeed, most of us are sitting in our cars and homes with our jaws scraping the floor-because we can’t believe this is happening and, worse, we don’t know what we can do about it (or if what we do will matter).

Yet, all hope should not be lost. Lindorff has provided us with important information and given it to us in an exciting, insightful and readable manner. Now it’s time to turn that information into actions that might render not only the deeds of the men and women he indicts to the dustbin of history, but send those men and women to that receptacle as well. It’s not enough to know what is wrong; one must also share one’s knowledge in the hopes that that knowledge will spur change. Change that not only would benefit humankind, but might very well save it.

Krist Novoselic’s book, Of Grunge and Government, is brief and insistent, kind of like a track from a Nirvana CD. Always the most politically involved of the three men in that group, Novoselic has become something of an advocate for free speech and civic involvement in his home state of Washington. This book exhibits a refreshing candor not found too often in books dealing with political issues. Underlying the entire text is his openness regarding his lack of political experience and his belief in the ideals of democracy and human rights. Like Lindorrf, he knows there is something fundamentally wrong with the United States that he lives in. If I were being cynical, I would say that the candor here borders on naiveté. However, that is ultimately unfair and contradictory to Novoselic’s main point: politics should not be left to professionals, that’s what screws it up.

He correctly sees US politics as being a business and uses his experiences with Nirvana as an effective metaphor as to how a seemingly fringe movement can tap into sentiments popular among the grassroots and move into the mainstream. After all, that is exactly what happened with Nirvana. A small punk outfit from the small city of Olympia, Washington vocalized the ennui and anger of a generation of young people and turned the monolithic and moribund world of corporate rock on its head. Novoselic rightly prescribes a similar scenario for the world of US politics.

Like Lindorff, he takes a look at the world we now live in and shares his opinion of the post-911 world. It’s not pretty and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. Yet, he believes there is hope, even inside the system. Challenging the cynicism he finds all too often among his cronies in the music and punk worlds, he relates his experiences fighting the music censorship laws that the right-wing Christian forces tried to legislate into being in Washington state. Despite the more-experienced forces he and his organization were up against, they stuck to their guns and defeated the measure, which would have made it almost impossible for Washington’s teenagers to buy much of the music they like because its content was deemed obscene.

Much of this book details the mechanics of the US electoral system and how one operates within that system. There are calls for reforms that would make it easier for third parties to succeed and calls to his readers to give the system a try. Although my experience holds less hope for systemic reform than Novoselic does, one has to acknowledge that perhaps that hope is what the system requires if it is going to save itself. I have heard similar sentiments and plans from Nader supporters, as well. Maybe they’re on to something.

There’s a song by Patti Smith called "Citizen Ship." Both of these men’s books reminded me of a part of that song’s lyric:

On the citizen ship we got mem’ries
Citizen ship, we got pain.
Lose your grip on the citizen ship,
you’re cast, you’re cast away.

This is what is being wrested from us-memories of our citizenship and what that means. It’s not so much that we are jumping ship as it is that we are being forced overboard or into the brig. Lose our grip on that citizenship and there’s nothing left but pain. Lindorrf tells us who is casting us away; Novoselic tells us his ideas on how to get back on board and retake command.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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