By Clinton Fernandes
In Songs From The Front Porch, Michael Franti's recent album, there is this sigh of despair:
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 tries "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 December 4, 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 two fold. 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 1956-72 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 utilisation 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 interpersonal 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 Stay Human, 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 hi-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 cost s 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 Has Anybody Seen My Mind?
3. James Norman, "Dissent To Disco: A Singer's Journey", The Age, May 3, 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, May 3, 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, July 13, 2001.15. His greatest album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, was both heeded and enjoyed.