Forwarded from Clinton Fernandes (Michael Franti)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 31 08:42:35 MDT 2003


The broccoli is off the menu

Clinton Fernandes

In Songs From The Front Porch, Michael Franti’s recent album, there is 
this sigh of despair:

I try hard to fake it but I can't do it all the time
I try hard to break it but it was just a waste of my time
When I turn on the TV it seems they’re winning all the time
So I pray to God to please show me a sign
Has anybody seen my mind?[1]

After years of activism, Franti is experiencing battle fatigue.  He 
sings, “I just want a peaceful little bit of family, playin’ sweet, 
sweet music with some friends of mine”[2].  He has spoken about his 
attempts to “quiet the judgmental voices in [his] mind”[3].  He claims 
he no longer wishes to be “the angry young man on stage”[4].  Nowadays, 
he “tr[ies] to make music that is fun for people.  Some of my newest 
songs are straight-up disco-trash... I want my music to be the 
soundtrack to those things in life that we all hate doing but can't 
avoid. I try to make music that helps people to get up in the morning 
and clean their toilet"[5].  As part of his personal, spiritual journey, 
he practices yoga every day.  He sings approvingly about the Dalai Lama.

What do we make of this inward turn by such a politically-conscious 
musician?  It’s worth pointing out that I have been an admirer of 
Michael Franti’s song-writing skills for some years now.  Over the years 
I’ve bought a few dozen copies of Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury and 
Stay Human, and given them away to friends and acquaintances, in order 
to introduce them to Franti’s rare gifts.  What follows is written by an 
admirer, not by an opponent.

Uncritical adulation can exert a corrosive effect on a musician’s 
artistic integrity. And there was plenty of uncritical adulation at the 
Prince of Wales Hotel, St Kilda (Melbourne, Australia) on 4 December 
2002.  Halfway through the show, in which the Dalai Lama came in for 
high praise, Franti told a joke involving a plumber, who he said could 
be recognised by “strong wrists and jeans worn low so you could see his 
butt crack”.  There were squeals of laughter from the adoring 
congregation, few of whom would know much about life as a plumber or, 
more generally, as a tradesman.  My initial reactions were twofold. 
One, the Michael Franti of old wouldn’t have laughed at the dress sense 
of blue-collar workers.  Two, I was reminded of what John Gardner once 
said, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble 
activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted 
activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy.  Neither 
its pipes nor its theories will hold water”.

In any case, it’s probably fair to say that most people in the audience 
knew very little about Tenzin Gyatso, aka the Dalai Lama, beyond a vague 
idea that he is some kind of Tibetan Buddhist religious leader.  Indeed, 
Gyatso is seen by many in the West as a great moral guide.  It’s worth 
pointing out some of the relevant facts about him[6].

Gyatso is part of Tibet’s priestly caste, which controlled all the land 
in the name of the gods.  Indeed, Gyatso’s claim to leadership of Tibet 
rests on the assertion that the gods say he ought to be the ruler. 
Tibet’s priestly caste, like any other feudal rulers, maintained their 
dominance by subjugating Tibet’s peasants.  In 1950, Gyatso and the rest 
of the priestly caste relinquished Tibet’s de facto independence in 
return for assurances from the Chinese authorities that their privileged 
status would be maintained.  It was only in 1959, when their special 
privileges were endangered, that they began to talk about “democracy” – 
something they had resisted while they were in power.

In addition, Gyatso used to be an agent of US foreign policy.  From 
1956-1972 the US armed and trained Tibetan fighters in guerilla warfare 
against China.  Of course, Gyatso was very young at the time.  His views 
have developed significantly since the feudal era.  New Age trendies 
might be surprised to learn that Gyatso has in recent years spoken 
approvingly of Marxism:

“Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is 
founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with 
gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of 
wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of 
production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working 
classes-that is the majority -- as well as with the fate of those who 
are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of 
minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to 
me, and it seems fair. . . . The failure of the regime in the Soviet 
Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of 
totalitarianism”[7].

Michael Franti’s embrace of the Dalai Lama (“we need to heed the words 
of Dalai Lama[8]”) is accompanied by bizarre talk of reincarnation 
(“Don’t fear your family because you chose them a long time before your 
birth”[9]) and advocacy of yoga.  It should be noted that while yoga has 
many beneficial properties, it is no accident that it arose in India, 
where the caste system and associated forms of social inequality were 
strengthened and perpetuated by the focus on self-improvement, 
meditation and the like.  To have peace of mind, in this case, is to 
accept one’s oppression and thereby cope better with the harshness of 
the world.

The greatest moral judge of our time, Noam Chomsky, who was listed as an 
“Inspirator and Conspirator” on the Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury 
album, points out that “immersion in the ‘deeply personal’ is not 
counter to capitalist oppression; rather, it is a central component of 
it.  Huge capitalist PR efforts are precisely designed to immerse people 
in the deeply personal, removing them from the arena of decision-making 
in the social, economic and political spheres”[10].

Michael Franti’s immersion in the deeply personal is hardly the stuff of 
progressive politics, no matter how often he talks up his activist past 
with the regularly-repeated anecdote about not doing a song with Will 
Smith.  The simple fact is that if you withdraw from economic, political 
and social struggles, you cede the vital ground to the real thugs, who 
are delighted with your plans to focus on prayer, dieting, kitsch Third 
World fashion, and so on.

Another worrying aspect of Franti’s more recent work is his constant 
support for legalising marijuana.  There is no question that the 
so-called War on Drugs in the US is inexcusable, but progressives should 
always point out that the use of drugs is counter-productive. As Chomsky 
puts it, their effect is “almost completely negative, simply removing 
people from meaningful struggle and engagement”[11].  The apathy in 
frequent users is all too evident.

However, there is much of value in the Stay Human album, in which 
Franti’s superb song-writing skills are on display.  His take on love 
(“But it ain’t about WHO you love, See it’s all about DO ya love”) is 
spot on.  This is one of the best lines on an outstanding album.  The 
observation – it’s not Who you love but Do you love – brings to mind 
Erich Fromm’s discussion of love in his classic text “The Art of Loving”:

“Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, 
rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love.  Hence the 
problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable... A second 
premise is the assumption that the problem of love is the problem of an 
object, not the problem of a faculty.  People think that to love is 
simple, but that to find the right object to love – or to be loved by – 
is difficult... The third error lies in the confusion between the mutual 
experience of falling in love and the permanent state of being in love – 
an internal transformation, in other words.”

  Trust Franti to put it so much more succinctly.  Indeed, he had been 
toying with these ideas years ago:

      “We can imagine a perfect society but can’t maintain a decent 
relationship”[12].

If Franti is trying to work out how inter-personal love goes hand in 
hand with political action, he need look no further than Bertrand 
Russell’s insights on the subject:

Those whose lives are fruitful to themselves, to their friends, or to 
the world are inspired by hope and sustained by joy...  In their private 
relations they are not pre-occupied with anxiety lest they should lose 
such affection and respect as they receive: they are engaged in giving 
affection and respect freely, and the reward comes of itself without 
their seeking. In their work they are not haunted by jealousy of 
competitors, but concerned with the actual matter that has to be done. 
In politics, they do not spend time and passion defending unjust 
privileges of their class or nation, but they aim at making the world as 
a whole happier, less cruel, less full of conflict between rival greeds, 
and more full of human beings whose growth has not been dwarfed and 
stunted by oppression[13].

There is no doubt that Franti’s extraordinary song-writing skills could 
be applied profitably here.

At his concerts, Franti often says that “all bombing is terrorism”. 
This may be fine on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, but one can’t help 
wondering what his position is on the question of violence as a tactic. 
  Is he in fact making a blanket condemnation of all violence as 
unacceptable?  Surely violence is justifiable if the consequences are 
that a greater evil will be prevented as a result.  The question cannot 
be answered in the abstract; one has to examine the context and the 
specific circumstances in which the question arises.

Franti has spoken of how, while making the Stay Human album, he noticed 
that the equipment in his San Francisco recording studio was made by a 
company that was also a weapons manufacturer.  The news surprised and 
depressed him:

“And so I went through the whole anti-globalist thing," he recounts with 
the sigh of the weary campaigner. "You think, 'Maybe I should take this 
piece of s--- and smash it to pieces'. But I can't live like that. This 
is machinery in my studio for making music. I can't check for logos all 
day. I do what I can.[14]”.

  In any case, the “broccoli” is off the menu.  “Broccoli” is how Franti 
refers to politically charged music that is heeded rather than enjoyed[15].

There is no need for surprise, however.  In the US economy, the 
high-tech civilian sector depends crucially on the defence sector.  The 
internet, computers, telecommunications, space technology, satellites, 
lasers, aircraft, automated manufacturing, and so on were all created by 
decades of public subsidy.  After the risks and costs were borne for 
decades by the public, the technology was simply handed over to a few 
thousand super-rich families (sometimes called "the market" or "the 
private sector"). This system of socialism for the rich is central to 
the performance of the US economy.  The system depends crucially on 
public non-interference.  The Michael Franti who co-wrote Hypocrisy is 
the Greatest Luxury would have known all this.

In Bomb The World, Franti sings, “We can bomb the world to pieces but we 
can’t bomb it into peace”.  He is implying, of course, that militarism 
makes no sense because there are better ways of resolving conflicts. 
However, from the perspective of the state-corporate leadership, 
militarism makes perfect sense, because the people formulating policy 
are not the ones bearing the costs of that policy.  The costs are borne 
by society as a whole, even as the benefits are enjoyed by a select few. 
  No amount of appeals to the rationality or morality of the 
policymakers can change policy.  Those who exercise power already know 
what they are doing.  Progressive policies are not conferred on the 
people by the goodness of their governments; they are imposed on 
governments by an active, energised population.  And there’s the rub – 
yoga and prayers and other kinds of “immersion in the deeply personal” 
are useless when it comes to political action.

Michael Franti’s retreat into his inner self deprives us of a 
marvellously articulate voice.  Let’s hope he re-emerges for the 
struggle – and soon.

[1] The song is called Has Anybody Seen My Mind?

[2] From the song Has Anybody Seen My Mind?

[3] James Norman, “Dissent To Disco: A Singer's Journey”, The Age, 3 May 
2003, p 3.

[4] James Norman, “Dissent To Disco: A Singer's Journey”, The Age, 3 May 
2003, p 3.

[5] James Norman, “Dissent To Disco: A Singer's Journey”, The Age, 3 May 
2003, p 3.

[6] Support for the Tibetans’ right to self-determination is not the 
same thing as supporting the divinely-based claims of the Dalai Lama.

[7] Marianne Dresser (ed.), Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, 
Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, 1996.

[8] From the album Stay Human.

[9] From the song Never Too Late.

[10] Noam Chomsky, Letter to Doug Lain, Diet Soap magazine, Issue 5, 
June 1994.

[11] Noam Chomsky, Letter to Doug Lain, Diet Soap magazine, Issue 5, 
June 1994

[12] Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, from the album of the same name.

[13] Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads To Freedom, Cornwall Press, New 
York, 1918.

[14] Michael Odell, “Velvet Revolution”, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jul 01.

[15] His greatest album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, was both 
heeded and enjoyed.
-- 

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