ONLY NOISE: The Art of Dissent

If you are paying attention to the political sector right now – and I’d be concerned yet impressed if you’ve managed to escape it – every day may feel like a battle. Those who have suffered depression will be uncomfortably familiar with this sentiment. The difference being: now we experience distress as a collective whole. Shared unrest can at least make us feel less solitary, but it comes with its own set of side effects. A sense of widespread and impending doom, for instance.

In times like these, it is easy to write off seemingly frivolous forms of catharsis. To put away pleasure and fortify yourself with facts instead. To bury the arts under a headstone reading: “Trivial.” I’ve certainly found it difficult to appreciate art at face value lately. How could I dare enjoy something pretty amidst the calculated intolerance being issued by our new government? Surely I’m not the only one who feels guilt and futility lest I’m actively educating myself on the matter or combatting it – on foot or on paper.

And then, as if she could feel our hearts breaking, our shame and impotence triumphing, a respected member of the New York music community wrote a post on Facebook urging artists and musicians:

“DO NOT BE AFRAID OR FEEL ASHAMED to spread your work, or promote your shows amongst this chaos! It is in no way selfish. The community you build with your work, and the shows you’re playing are helping people heal, and find togetherness, and give people a moment of goddamn peace. Do not let Drumph oppress your work. Artists, you are SO IMPORTANT especially in times like this. Use your magic.”

She was unassailably right, and I try to remember that statement every day. In a rare moment of optimism, my hope is to push her words further. To highlight that while dialectics and dissent and physical resistance are all of utmost importance right now, so too is the creation and support of art. To learn from previous art and make new work that addresses our current despair.

It is my personal belief that the best art is birthed from conflict, internal or otherwise, and not necessarily from a pure urge to depict beauty alone. This, incidentally, leads me to liking a lot of “unpleasant” music, literature, film, and visual art, as my friends and family could tell you. Otto Dix’s depictions of the First World War, Hemingway’s accounts of The Spanish Civil War, the IRA drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Thatcher/Reagan era punk music, and of course George Orwell’s 1984.

The latter two have a special relationship for me, and given 1984’s recent resurgence in popularity, I found it an apt tie-in to the importance of embracing the arts in trying times. This isn’t the first instance post-publishing that 1984 has been all over pop culture. Its sales spiked 5,771% after Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s phone tapping secrets to the world. 30 years prior, punk bands of the late ‘70s and ‘80s found its text all too applicable to Margaret Thatcher’s reign in Britain, especially groups like Subhumans, without whom I may have never read 1984.

Subhumans’ 1983 debut record The Day The Country Died is essentially a 1984 concept album, with dystopian themes throughout. Specifically, Orwell’s masterpiece is referenced in the opening track “All Gone Dead” (“So long to the world, that’s what they said, it’s 1984 and it’s all gone dead”) and “Big Brother,” which makes references to the novel’s voyeuristic telescreen spying on its citizens. In hindsight, the record and the novel reveal eerie premonitions: today, a majority of the United Kingdom is monitored by CCTV cameras (1 for every 32 people, as The Guardian reported in 2011).

Currently sales of 1984 are up 9,500%, the novel reaching the top of the Amazon best-seller list in the days after Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway stated that Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave “alternative facts” when discussing the number of those in attendance at President Trump’s inauguration. This paradox uttered by Conway immediately reminded thousands of Orwell’s terms “doublethink,” which refers to “reality control” and “newspeak” – the eradication of independent thought.

What I find most remarkable, is that in spite of this shitstorm we’re facing, people are actually trying to better themselves in every way possible; taking time out of their weekends to schlep to JFK and resist Trump’s immigration orders, creating and signing petitions, and even simply reading a piece of relevant literature – swapping out fantasy fiction for something radical, political, and “unpleasant.”

The fact that the arts are intersecting with politics at a volume that hasn’t occurred in decades, to me marks the end of cynicism in the creative world. When pop stars like Sia and Grimes donate tens of thousands of dollars to the ACLU and CAIR, when countless performers turn down a large paycheck for the sake of their political integrity (the star-studded scoff at the Inaugural Ball, I mean), when commercial singers like Janelle Monae and Alicia Keys and Madonna show up at the Women’s March on Washington – you know there is a paradigm shift at hand.

It is a sign that art can be radical. Music can be radical. I am not saying we should all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” I am saying we should hold our fists in the air and sing Pussy Riot, and keep making music that is topical, and angry, and full of conflict. We should read Orwell and Marcuse and Debord, but we should also write the next 1984, and the next Reason and Revolution, and the next The Society of the Spectacle.

It seems to me that if we could focus all of our efforts – especially artistic efforts – with a critical and productive lens, if we could make every atom of our reality about discussing and re-shaping what we can no longer accept, then we have a shot at real progress. There is a time for art that perceives itself (but isn’t actually) in a vacuum. There is a time for post-modern distraction, and the navel-gazing art of identity politics, and artistic fetishizing of antiquity. Now is not that time.

ONLY NOISE: The Day the Country Died

“Do not despair. You don’t have to leave. You don’t have to move to Canada. You may feel out of place in the United States today. You may feel like you’re surrounded by fundamentalist-church-going, gun-hugging, gay-bashing, anti-choice Bush voters. But you’re not.”

This was a portion of the cover Seattle’s culture rag The Stranger ran in November 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected. I remember it well. I remember it well, in part, because that cover page has been framed and hung on the wall of my sister’s house since. The remainder of the text encourages Seattleites by reminding them “Kerry got 61% of the urban vote…got 80% of the vote in Seattle,” essentially praising the power of the “urban archipelago,” which some might consider a flaccid pat on its own back. A warm glass of milk while the world burned.


I remember this well because leading up to that day I had followed my dad to every political event we could find. To a Howard Dean rally in the months before Kerry’s nomination, to speeches by Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, and the venerable Amy Goodman. I remember it well because it was the period of time I was more involved in and educated about politics than I have ever been. All hope was on Dennis Kucinich in our household, who seems now like an early, less successful incarnation of Bernie Sanders. I remember it well because in the years leading up to Bush’s reelection, politics had hit a lot closer to home.

We lived in a small town. My Dad owned a mercantile in an even smaller town – one of 97 people, to be exact. One of those people was Justin Hebert, an exuberant teenage boy with wheat colored hair and a wily smile. He used to sweep the floors of my dad’s shop as an after school gig, and I, from a young age, had a massive crush him. Justin, like so many kids in my hometown, came from meager economic resources and couldn’t dream of being able to afford college tuition, despite his enormous desire to attend university. So, he joined the army, which plied him with the lure of travel and $50,000 towards college upon discharge.

As his obituary reported in 2003, “his flight to basic training was the first time he was ever in an airplane.” Justin was 20. He was the 250th American to die in the Iraq War, and the 52nd to perish after Bush so hubristically declared the war was over in May of that year. You remember that “Mission Accomplished” banner, don’t you?

I do. Like it was yesterday. Because that was my induction into politics. That banner searing into my brain as I heard the news of Justin’s death. That was the turning point for me. I carried the newspaper clipping of Justin’s obituary in a little hardback book that listed the Amendments to school every day, and would use it as ammo when scolded for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. All I wanted to talk about was politics from then on, an unpopular pastime for a middle schooler. In eighth grade I wrote a paper (much to the pride of my father and chagrin of my teachers) entitled “The Day the Country Died” as a simultaneous nod to the Bush administration and a Subhumans record by the same name.

The paper is now lost, likely in a dusty box in my dad’s garage somewhere. It was written by a 13-year-old, and is probably not very good. But in the fallout of what has transpired with this week’s election – and I know that was a lengthy preamble – I am reminded of that seventh-grade sentiment. That burning, sickening and powerless feeling. This is perhaps the first time in my life I have felt history seemingly repeat itself…like I am slumped in a parallel universe across from my thirteen-year-old self, asking with a quivering voice how this could possibly happen again.

I am no political analyst. I am no sociologist. I am not even a political journalist. However, it would feel irresponsible and delusional to write about anything else today. So I will write about it, with as much knowledge, honor and honesty as I can offer.

In my years of being scorned for wanting to discuss politics, the past several months have brought me so much joy, because, for the first time in so long, people were willing to talk again. They wanted to shout, even. To see folks my age so thrilled to support the Bernie Sanders campaign moved me in a way I’d never felt before, and I will continue to revere that memory. But after Bernie lost the DNC nomination to Hillary Clinton, I saw a kind of regression within the allegedly “progressive” peers all around me.

I cannot tell you the number of people I met, who so arrogantly snorted that they weren’t voting at all. These were educated, middle class, privileged people, such as myself. One woman, whom I met at a bar in Brooklyn, haughtily blurted that her “morals were worth more than stooping to the farce this election has become.” This woman was an educator (guess what programs consistently get cut first by conservative administrations?). She then went on to describe the magical utopia that is Burning Man.

One thing I have consistently encountered lately is this misdirected idea of how things actually work. You can go to Burning Man all you want if you can afford it, but you still live here. In reality. In the U.S. of A. And as of this election, you now live under the Trump administration. And it’s important to say that, no matter how difficult it is to hear. Because burying our heads, drinking ourselves numb, doing molly, and thinking this is only going to be a four-year thing, is the last thing we want to do right now. We must remember that whatever force was summoned to try to stop Trump from winning this election, needs to be amplified exponentially to make sure it never happens again.

Of the 44 pre-Trump leaders this nation has elected, less than 12 have been one-term presidents. The model tells us that incumbents almost always win reelection. So I would like to encourage all of us, four years in advance, to remember that, and to never have the thought “there’s no way that could happen!” again. Because it can happen. It just did.

It is a harsh reality we face today, tomorrow, and beyond. But I will not leave you on this note. If you’ve been kind enough to read this far, you’re due a bit of optimism. Optimism is not the atheist’s game. Many of you may believe in God, in the afterlife, in reincarnation. I have never believed in reincarnation on a metaphysical level. But I do believe in reincarnation on a historical level. The movements left unfinished from one era recur in the future, hopefully, closer to achieving their original goal with each wave, each rebirth.

The Suffragettes (and I am HEAVILY paraphrasing) carved a path for feminists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so they did the same for the contemporary feminist movement, which, let us not forget, took part in getting the first near-win for a female presidential candidate ever. From the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights struggle, to the Black Lives Matter movement – it is a continuum that is unfortunate but necessary to keep improving the quality of human life in this country, especially when those in control consistently deny that there is a problem to begin with. So while I say that today is “The Day the Country Died,” please know I believe in its eventual rebirth.

In addition to all of the things I am not, I’m no historian. But if I had to propose a historical theory of progress, it would be this:

Progress seems to me like a hamster ball, moving along a horizontal axis. We humans are the hamster, the ball itself being micro-history: the events that occur within a generation’s lifetime. The horizontal axis being macro-history, meaning all the events that have ever happened and will happen in this big clusterfuck we call human history.

So. I envision that as the hamster fervently turns its ball, producing a dizzying amount of rotations, it cannot tell that it is simultaneously moving forward along the horizontal axis. It feels only the wild revolutions, the ups and downs, the unrelenting cycle of positive acceleration and negative regression in our shared history. But in fact, in tiny, infinitesimal increments, it moves forward along that horizontal line. It cannot go backward.

So please. Wither not. Do not let your education, your influence or your rights fall prey to your own cynicism.

Let’s push things forward.