E-MAIL US    


T H E  P R O G R E S S I V E  R E V I E W  


Music and action

Sam Smith



What does punk have to do with this weekend's protests? Among other things, this weekend's protests - like those in Seattle and the ones that followed - began in part in the garages and basements of America.

Once again music ran ahead of politics - just as it did when Billie Holiday sang 'Strange Fruit' nearly two decades before the civil rights movement. Just as it did when we gathered at the Mount Auburn 47 Club to hear a young singer named Joan Baez well before something called the Sixties. Just as we listened to Thelonius and Miles when there were hardly any verbal protests at all.

In 1993, in a protest against censorship. Rage Against the Machine stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note. In 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.

Rage Against the Machine sold more than seven million records before much of the rest of the country even got around to one little protest against the machine.

As a musician with more than 40 years of gigs behind me I know that among the many services of music is to say things we can't find the words for - perhaps not yet or perhaps ever. As a writer with over 40 years of gigs behind me I am still often humbled by what a better job music sometimes does of it.

I was a part of something they called the beat generation. Many of you are part of a beat, busted, bullied, and bamboozled generation.

With the sole important exception of black Americans in the post-reconstruction era, no other generation has been so deprived of its constitutional rights and civil liberties. No other generation of young males has been sent to prison in such numbers for such minor offenses. And few generations of the young have been so consistently treated as a social problem rather than as a cause of joy and hope. And again - except for blacks in the post-reconstruction era - no other generation has been so deliberately cheated of so much.

If you think I exaggerate, consider these figures from the Department of Labor, figures you won't see on the evening news, or read in the Washington Post. The earnings of everyone under 25 - black, white, latino, male and female - have actually declined over the past twenty years, about 5% for the most part. But get this: the earnings of black and white males under 25 are down 17 to 21%. A typical white male is earning $97 less a week in real dollars than 20 years ago.

And if you think I exaggerate consider some of the losses of freedom that have occurred since many of you were born and well before September 11:

Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs.

The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs.

The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations.

Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens.

Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance.

Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property.

Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws.

Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities.

Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds.

Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing.

Increased mandatory use of IDs

Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy

Greatly increased government access to personal financial records

Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks

The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world

Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession

Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace

Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order.

Widespread youth curfews.

Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies.

Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics)

to justify police searches

Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers.

Random searches of school lockers.

Random searches of cars in school parking lots.

Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use

Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces.

Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team.

Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure.

And, finally, persons 18 to 21 are routinely denied their constitutional rights by being banned from buying alcohol. As late as 1975, virtually every state had a drinking age of 18; now none does.

But then we all have moved in many ways into a post-constitutional era. We all live in a culture that offers us not liberty but demands subservience, that does not foster the pursuit of happiness but rather relentlessly pursues citizens seeking only a decent job and a little happiness.

Remember this weekend the words of another musician - Woody Guthrie - who sang that this land is your land and this land is my land. Don't let a bunch of cynical, corrupt and cruel bullies do any more damage to it than they already have.

Getting a life in a locked-down land
Sam Smith




Why Bother, in a wonderfully engaging and erudite manner, addresses the great question confronting democracy, community and justice -- and that is civic motivation. Prepare to be motivated. Sam Smith is an antidote to mindless speed reading. He makes you pause between paragraphs in order to mull over the captivating morsels he is placing in your imagination. - RALPH NADER

Sam Smith puts it to us straight in these essays about finding meaning and hope - JAY WALJASPER, UTNE READER

Sam's book is a balm of solace and a kick in the pants - GARY RUSKIN, COMMERCIAL ALERT

An American original. . . He's got a big old cussed independent streak that keeps you guessing and hence keeps you reading. .. .Some of the things I love about this book: . . . .The plain-spoken way it puts forward even pretty difficult thoughts.. . .Above all, its useful intelligence. - CRISPIN SARTWELL

The alienated young, the over-worked 30-something, the free-thinking 40 year-old, the downsized 55-year-old worker, the senior who society has put out to pasture are all part of an America that finds itself a fugitive from the law of averages -- the tens of millions who don't fit the media-driven stereotype of a booming, contented country. Living in a culture that has reduced their role to that of compliance and consumption, these Americans increasingly react with anger, anxiety or apathy.

In this highly readable short book, journalist and social critic Sam Smith takes on this crisis not as a political issue but as a personal one: how does the individual survive in such a place? Drawing from a wealth of sources and experience ranging from philosophy and anthropology to the Internet and rock zines, from Kierkegaard and Camus to Humphrey Bogart and Rage Against the Machine, Smith confronts directly despair and survival, approaches to personal rebellion, speaking truth to power, suicide and false faith, the loss of democracy, and what to do when nobody cares whether you do it or not.

This is no glib self-help book, but rather a brutally honest exploration by someone who, as an alternative journalist for more than three decades, has repeatedly been out of step with his time and culture. Yet beneath the direct, honest language is a love letter to the individual, freedom, and life itself.

Smith writes: "Hectored, treated, advised, instructed, and compelled at every turn, history's subjects may falter, lose heart, courage, or sense of direction. The larger society is then quick to blame, to translate survival systems of the weak into pathologies, and to indict as neurotic clear recognition of the human condition. The safest defense against this is apathy, ignorance, or surrender. Adopt any of these strategies -- don't care, don't know or don't do -- and you will, in all likelihood, be considered normal. The only problem is that you will miss out on much of your life."

Smith describes an alternative based on the existentialist "hat trick" of integrity, passion and rebellion. Describing despair as "the suicide of imagination," he writes, "the task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list." Despite more than three decades of challenging wrongs, bearing bad news, and bucking the system, Smith retains a spirit and humor that attracts an audience across political lines to enjoy and be challenged by his work