News and Features
Outraged at lenders who prey on the poor, activists are striking back.
The $4.4 million damages award in June against FBI agents and Oakland
police for violating the constitutional rights of environmental
activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, wrongly accused of terrorism in
1990, represents more than the culmination of a twelve-year struggle for
vindication. The case also highlights the risks of today's antiterrorism
measures and offers lessons both daunting and encouraging about the
In May 1990, an explosion tore through the car carrying Earth First!
organizers Bari and Cherney. Bari suffered a fractured pelvis; Cherney,
less serious injuries. They assumed the bombing was the work of
antienvironmentalists, meant to disrupt planning for the Redwood Summer
of civil disobedience against the logging of old-growth forest.
The FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force jumped to quite a different
conclusion. As soon as Bari and Cherney were identified, the FBI
informed the local police and leaked to the press that the pair were
terrorists. The authorities claimed that Bari must have made the bomb
herself and that it had accidentally exploded while the two were
carrying it to an unknown target. Bari was placed under arrest in her
hospital bed. Police and FBI agents searched houses in Oakland where
Bari and Cherney had stayed and questioned their fellow activists. Over
the next two months, until the government announced it would not charge
the two environmentalists, the local police and the FBI continued to
call them terrorists.
Only after years of litigation did the truth emerge: The FBI, before the
bombing, had been investigating Bari and Cherney because of their
political activism. When the bomb went off, the FBI shaded the facts to
fit an ideological presumption of guilt. It was also revealed that the
FBI, even after Bari and Cherney had been cleared, collected data
nationwide on hundreds of individuals and groups merely on the basis of
their association with the two Earth First! activists.
The case demonstrates how the truth will come out when the judiciary
fulfills its constitutional role. With patience, skill and funding,
committed activists and lawyers can bring accountability to the FBI.
Just as Bari and Cherney won, just as the secret evidence cases brought
after the 1996 antiterrorism law melted in the face of judicial
challenges, so the material witness detentions and other rights
violations of today will ultimately be held unconstitutional. But the
FBI and the Justice Department will resist oversight and use secrecy and
delaying tactics to evade accountability, prolonging personal and
political damage. Justice was too late for Judi Bari. She died of cancer
The most sobering lesson of the Bari-Cherney case may be this: The FBI's
focus on politics over hard evidence meant that the real bomber was
never captured. In the same way, the Attorney General's recent
announcement that the FBI can monitor meetings and groups with no prior
suspicion of criminal conduct is likely to take the FBI down the path of
investigations based on politics, ethnicity or religion, while real
terrorists escape detection.
They're here...they're queer...they're conservative!
Labor-backed politicians are being asked to return the favor in union fights.
A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an
audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed
what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of
an earth-shaking movement.
He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous
analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin
Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the
students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students
and their bewildered elders.
(Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)
John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell
a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment
indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student
leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers
who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its
celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students
agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said,
but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The
anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)
When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a
student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist
claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the
"delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when
demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of
1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the
dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring,
but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory
calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and
Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a
presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a
song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that
one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949
protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen
protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for
his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he
and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited
I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of
"Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li
Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these
and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for
corrupt, autocratic officials.
A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the
streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major
reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was
moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to
the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared
completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about
protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that
there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some
protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era
(1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist
Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the
revolution that had brought them to power.
In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western
languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen
generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that
inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two
just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen
books--including the two under review--have singled out for special
attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed.
These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by
Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently
sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late
May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to
leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took
them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing
fields by the People's Liberation Army.
Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long
line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most
revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist
Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is
"rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949
party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song
figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent
with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao
stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the
preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach,
which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes
sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the
("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.
The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many
other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the
punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most
attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a
Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a
biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in
Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be
appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin)
by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the
Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a
song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging
leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He
stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw
himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to
perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals
in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that
allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990
the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts
it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan
defector to be returned to sender."
Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is
China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a
generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw
themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from
misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into
a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his
song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up
1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949
struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to
such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).
These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First,
China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple
"democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of
that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of
us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie"
about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify
"counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general
point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never
This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big
questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of
detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true
whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether
the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a
cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or
an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful
and sometimes self-indulgent
journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the
movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters
can create big gaps in overall perspective.
Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major
differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of
the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions:
When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists
and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical
philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much
weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to
actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central
or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman
gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote.
The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert
Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for
such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins
(irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).
Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers
given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot
about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis,"
can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain
mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or
the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do
we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual
choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for
what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I
mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals
into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of
It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is
unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's
protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the
civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then
Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived
and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in
dramatically different directions.
This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen
never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different
authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called
Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are
peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One
author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other
on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols,
but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each
focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just
one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in
Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.
Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain
most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian)
who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the
struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what
Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns
of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989
is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's
The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take
sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods
Nor Emperors. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly,
sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to
pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other
hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading
Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on
Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb
Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams,
were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of
their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that
none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This
wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him
among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese
culture and politics.
Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For
example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young
African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese
students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such
admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer
lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by
the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese
women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative
of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for
strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise
veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her
heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for
their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on
occasion even toward Westerners).
Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among
the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and
Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986
event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic.
He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against
the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the
stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to
"democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of
campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there
were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local
elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz
around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students
complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates
like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of
China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during
the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.
In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do
with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how
critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one
(Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and
welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying
more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn
amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a
sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing
equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies
heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies
and rational calculations of risk.
In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the
book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it
refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the
mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with
whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the
novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform
himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often
associated with spells of enchantment.
When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the
"magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she
emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments
that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In
addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar,
seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was
convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before
the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on
what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he
felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he
knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students
extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did
this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover,
Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as
magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.
Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from
Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will
come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think
Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I
agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example).
But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with
Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously
not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and
Calls for an end to nuclear weapons are growing--including in
Let's say I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and I get a job in an understaffed
emergency room where, following the dictates of my conscience, I refuse
to assist with blood transfusions and try my best to persuade my fellow
workers to do the same. How long do you think I'd last on the job? And
after my inevitable firing, how seriously do you think a jury would take
my claim that my rights had been violated? Five minutes and not very,
right? A similar fate would surely await the surgeon who converts to
Christian Science and decides to pray over his patients instead of
operating on them, the Muslim loan officer who refuses to charge
interest, the Southern Baptist psychotherapist who tells his Jewish
patients they're bound for hell. The law rightly requires employers to
respect employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, but not if those
beliefs really do prevent an employee from performing the job for which
she's been hired.
Change the subject to reproductive rights, though, and the picture gets
decidedly strange. In 1999 Michelle Diaz, a born-again Christian nurse
who had recently been hired by the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center,
a public clinic in Southern California, decided that emergency
contraception, the so-called morning after pill that acts to prevent
pregnancy if taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse,
was actually a method of abortion. She refused to dispense it or give
referrals to other providers; the clinic offered her a position that did
not involve reproductive healthcare, but when she told temporary nurses
at the clinic that they too would be performing abortions by dispensing
EC, Diaz, who was still on probation as a new hire, lost her job. She
sued with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ),
the religious-right law firm headed by Jay Sekulow. At the end of May a
jury agreed that her rights had been violated and awarded her $47,000.
Excuse me? A nurse at a public health clinic has the right to refuse to
provide patients with legally mandated services, give out misleading
health information in order to proselytize her co-workers to refuse as
well, and keep her job? The low-income women who come to Riverside
desperately in need of EC and abortion referrals are flat out of luck if
they happen to turn up when the anti-choicers are on shift? Riverside is
the largest public health clinic in the county, serving 150-200 patients
a day, but it operates with a staff of four nurses--should those four
people decide what services the clinic can offer? What about the
patient's right to receive standard medical care? Or the clinic's
responsibility to deliver the services for which they receive government
Some states, California among them, have "conscience laws," permitting
anti-choice healthworkers to refuse to be involved in abortions. EC,
however, is just a high dose of regular birth control pills that
prevents ovulation and implantation. It is not abortion, because until a
fertilized egg implants in the womb, the woman is not pregnant. A long
list of medical authorities--the American Medical Association, the
American Medical Women's Association, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Harvard Medical School--agree that
EC is not an abortifacient, and a 1989 California court decision itself
distinguishes abortion from EC. There are lots of mysteries about the
Diaz case, ranging from why Diaz took a job she knew involved practices
she found immoral in the first place, to how the jury could possibly
have come up with a decision so contrary to law and public policy. Did
Diaz take the job with the express intention of disrupting services? Was
the jury anti-choice? Interestingly, the jury pool was partly drawn from
San Bernardino County, which last year unsuccessfully tried to bar its
public health clinics from dispensing EC.
Whatever the jury's thinking, the Diaz case represents the latest of
numerous attempts by the anti-choice movement to equate EC with abortion
and move it out of normal medical practice. Pharmacists for Life
International, a worldwide organization that claims to have some 1,500
members, calls it "chemical abortion" and urges pharmacists to refuse to
dispense it. The ACLJ is currently litigating on behalf of one who did.
Wal-Mart refuses to stock it at all. Anti-choicers in Britain made an
unsuccessful attempt to prevent EC from being dispensed over the counter
by placing it under an archaic law that prohibits "procuring a
miscarriage." Some anti-choicers have long argued that not just EC but
conventional birth-control methods--the pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and
the IUD--are "abortifacients": In northern Kentucky anti-choice
extremists are campaigning to force one local health board to reject
Title X family-planning funds; according to the Lexington
Herald-Leader, the board's vote, scheduled for June 19, is too
close to call.
Although secular employers are expected to make reasonable
accommodations to religious employees--or even, if the Diaz verdict is
upheld, unreasonable ones--religious employers are not required to
return the favor. On the contrary, the Supreme Court, in The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos, permits them to use
religious tests to hire and fire personnel as far from the sacred
mission as janitorial workers; if a Methodist church wants to refuse to
hire a Muslim security guard, it has the blessing of the Constitution to
do so. As often noted in this column, religious organizations can and do
fire employees who violate religious precepts on and even off the job. A
pro-choice nurse could not get a job at a Catholic hospital and declare
that her conscience required her to go against policy and hand out EC to
rape victims, or even tell them where to obtain it--even though medical
ethics oblige those who refuse to provide standard services for moral
reasons to give referrals, and even though Catholic hospitals typically
get about half of their revenue from the government.
According to the ACLJ, however, secular institutions should be sitting
ducks for any fanatic who can get hired even provisionally. The
Riverside clinic has asked the judge to set aside the Diaz verdict. If
that bid is unsuccessful, it will appeal. I'll let you know what
One of the biggest problems Palestine's supporters face is
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
Twenty-seven years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first comprehensive gay civil rights bill in the history of the Congress.
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