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The Sound of Silence: Build a Soapbox and Cry Out!

Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days
And cry over what is happening….
I say to myself: “Go on, cry. What’s the sense
Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out!
See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!”
We will have to call especially loud to reach
Our angels, who are hard of hearing: they are hiding
In the jugs of silence filled during our wars.

— Robert Bly, CALL AND ANSWER

There is a lot of noise out there, in bars and coffee shops, on the airwaves and across the Net, but so much of it falls into the broad category of sound and fury signifying nothing. This week, for instance the mainstream media is taking a break from the Russian conspiracy distraction and is all abuzz about the “revelations” in the “tell all” book about the Trump administration that was rushed to early publication. But anyone with eyes already knew the emperor was naked, as he’s been waving his bigger button in our faces for over a year now.  Meanwhile The Washington Post, yes, the same paper as in Spielberg’s latest cinematic irrelevance, publishes a lengthy column by a reporter who after reading the entire extensive Woody Allen archive at Princeton offers readers the startling news that Allen is obsessed with teenage girls. Not the Pentagon Papers by a long shot. The sound of silence.

The silence I speak of, the absence of real conversation on anything of actual importance, is exemplified in the amiable chatter I overhear whenever small groups of my liberal-minded friends gather, bright, well-educated, economically comfortable folks who, for the most part, were Bernie or Hillary supporters in the last election. Their loud, laughter-filled exchanges, aside from occasional references to Trump’s latest outrages, dwell almost entirely on the latest films they have seen or want to see, the restaurants they have recently sampled and on their newest gadgets and apps. All very harmless really, but that’s the point: what right have we to be so harmless in a world where so many are being so grievously harmed?

Another example of the silence of which I speak is the noisy local monthly magazine, Mohawk Valley Living, which has gained wide distribution in our region and seems to be winning the war for advertising revenue over a couple of other free monthlies that have emerged in this era of self-publishing made possible by computer technology. Like the liberal conversations at pubs and cafes MVL’s content is lively, charming and thoroughly harmless with feature columns on local music, local galleries, local farms, local flora and fauna, local restaurants and a never-ending series of long bland journal entries about a now aged local hippie couple and their back-to-the-land, off-the-grid adventures since the 70’s. The vapid “silence” of it all is a product of two factors. First, the fact that the magazine’s content, the articles, are swallowed up, overwhelmed by the hundreds of garish, poorly laid out advertisements that surround them, dominating each issue. It would be difficult to take anything very seriously in this colorfully, chaotic context. Second, to play it safe, the editors see to it that nothing serious, nothing vaguely political or controversial is ever said.

Local agriculture, for instance, is presented as merely a charming, healthy alternative to supermarket food without reference to the corporate GMO, Roundup-drenched, monoculture factory farming that is toxifying the planet, driving climate change, killing off insect pollinators, causing an epidemic of chronic illnesses and threatening all life on earth. Likewise, the engaging articles by a talented local naturalist are pretty much devoid of any mention that our local forests are being decimated by insects and diseases brought on by climate change or that the insect population collapse at the bottom of the food chain is already moving up that chain. This is all a far cry from Thoreau, whose naturalist writing was never divorced from cultural critique. I am a great proponent of everything local, but local to me, means indigenous resistance to global-corporate domination.

The obvious defense of  the decision by MVL’s publishers to remain steadfastly apolitical is that they are being pragmatic, that is making a sound (neoliberal) business decision to not ruffle any potential advertiser’s feathers. As a business owner, I have watched local businesses since 9/11 slide into pragmatic neutrality, into silence. After 9/11 the décor in a very popular and long established local Lebanese restaurant was suddenly peppered with stars and stripes everywhere.  Many non-Arab businesses followed suit. Behind that patriotism of the moment there was always an element of are you for-or-against-us fear in this response that has steadily deepened in the intervening years as the country has become increasingly polarized to the point where it is now exceedingly rare for any business to betray any political affiliation or a position on any controversial issue.

There is certainly some economic self-interested wisdom in this stance;  I am certain that my letters to the editor in the local paper, anti-fracking signs on the bulletin board and Autonomedia anarchist calendar on the wall of our Cafe have cost us business. But what do we become when as adults we refuse to speak what we believe, refuse to stand for anything, and meekly accept our depoliticalization? How can we with a straight face and a clear conscience call ourselves citizens? Are we content with being reduced to consumers? (To me, the ultimate c-word insult.)

The reality that we have been reduced to mere consumers is clear in the dramatic shift we have seen in the “liberal” mainstream media in this century. A decade or so ago when Albany’s NPR station, WAMC, which prides itself on its political savvy, added a Utica area affiliate and I began occasionally tuning in (and for a short time contributing), they still carried a handful of more edgy, politically-engaged programs like David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio, which featured otherwise media marginalized guests like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said and Tariq Ali.  Now, like NPR itself and The New York Times, WAMC has become predominately lifestyle oriented with long talk-show segments on medical issues, gardening, bird-watching, pet-care, gourmet locally-sourced food  and craft beer making. No one enjoys a good bourbon-barrel aged stout with a grass-fed local burger more than I, but I don’t have to turn the consumption into a fetish, the source of meaning in my life, or yet another riveting diversion from the on-going catastrophe in which we find ourselves embedded. In short, I find this all strange shit upon which to dwell while we, among our other travesties, are bombing a half-dozen countries in undeclared illegal wars, carrying out illegal drone assassinations and running clandestine special forces operations in some 75 or so countries.

Beyond lifestyle the mainstream media (and liberals in their conversations) seem to love to dwell on the salacious, providing all the slimy details of how yet another powerful male slob groped or waved his member at some vulnerable woman. Hence, the selection of the Me-Too-Movement women as the Time Person of the Year. (Did they give any consideration to Colin Kapernik and the NFL players who knelt for the national anthem in protest of police violence against black men?)  I don’t want to minimize the importance of protecting the truly vulnerable from sexual exploitation, but can we have some perspective? Having someone masturbate in front of you is not quite as traumatic as being shot dead by a rogue cop for being the wrong color in the wrong place (your car, your home). The casting couch as a career impediment is not quite as difficult to overcome as having a felony record (many of which, I know from personal experience, are undeserved and unjust). The abuses of our legal system against the poor and racial minorities are arguably more severe than the abuse of women in Hollywood or at the restaurant or office. Couldn’t we at least talk about both? Couldn’t we look at both as products of the capitalist system in its late, neoliberal phase? Oh, I forgot, we’re not supposed to talk about capitalism no matter how great the gap grows between the haves and have-nots.

Recently, at one of our weekly Sunday evening family dinners our conversation turned to the Me-Too Movement. I discovered that our daughter and daughter-in-law were both excited about and quite convinced that this bringing to light of the extent of workplace abuse and harassment was going to at last change the culture, bringing about a new era of workplace equality. I suggested that nothing so deeply entrenched was going to be altered by the glare of the media spotlight or by legislation.   Not wanting to stomp patriarchally on their enthusiasm, I thought of, but did not mention,  the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, the passing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts and other legislation and to the election of  Barack Obama – laws, events and attention that had not succeeded in altering our racist, white-supremacist culture.  That this is so seems to be proven in the rise of Trump and the white-supremacist alt-right, the continued mass incarceration of African-Americans, their continued disenfranchisement (which, more than any Russian interference, likely won Trump the election) and the de facto license to kill blacks now granted to our police.

I would suggest that a good rule of thumb is that if a story is featured regularly on the front page of the Times or the Post on Morning Edition or All Things Considered that it is something our corporate masters are quite comfortable with our talking about (as long as we don’t think too deeply into it). When the front page lead is on Oprah delivering a stirring Me-Too manifesto at the Golden Globe awards, I hear silence descending. I am not suggesting that there is some Wall Street censorship committee secretly sequestered somewhere that tells the MSM what to cover and what not to mention, but rather that the people who rise to positions of authority in the media (just as in politics) already know the accepted parameters of discourse or they would not have gotten to where they are. When Chris Hedges spoke against the Iraq war, he knew that he was putting his  Times’ job on the line.  What I find astounding is that my liberal friends still believe that people like Paul Krugman, Ari Shapiro and Rachel Maddow are powerful voices on the left.

Finding a soap box from which to lift your voice and cry out over what is happening is difficult these days. One of our local big-box-store strip malls that surround rust-belt Utica is appropriately named Consumer Square. It is certainly not a citizen’s public square where one is allowed to speak out on the issues of the day or to pass out fliers or to set up a table to disseminate information. The public squares in our urban-renewal decimated downtown district are pretty much deserted, and the only attention one would draw, crying out there, would be from the cops. Our local “newspaper,” once a strong Democratic  voice when that party at least stood with the unions and working people, has been reduced to another tell-both-sides-of-the-story and lifestyle-oriented rag. In this their centennial-anniversary year, they have devoted a complete page every day to reprinting a front page from the past. The front pages from  the first half of the last century had more text than the entire daily paper now contains. Letters to the editor are now restricted to a maximum of 200 words, a constraint that makes the development of nuanced ideas impossible and limits discourse to a fuck-them-hooray-for-our-side approach. It is no coincidence that we have a president who hasn’t the attention span to read a one-page brief and whose favorite form of written communication is the tweet. The sound of silence.

Websites, like CounterPunch, provide online soapboxes from which to cry out, and those of us who have found them need to answer their call and to share them with others. A major organizational challenge for real resistance at this moment is to provide platforms for crying out in small cities and towns like Utica, the development of local soap-box culture. The Sanctuary for Independent Media in nearby Troy, New York provides a wonderful model of how this can be accomplished. My wife and I, backed by an energetic group of volunteers, are trying to do something similar here in Utica with our small not-for-profit art center and public forum, The Other Side and its micro-publishing wing Black Rabbit Press. Crying out and waiting for voices to answer requires persistence in one’s folly. Ten years in we are beginning to see some significant growth in the number of people who want to join in the process of call and answer, to emerge from the jugs of silence. Cry out; it’s more fun than being citizens and adults than being consumers and victims.

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