Who writes the history in a postmodern world?

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As the American press attempts to deal with its devastating loss of authority in the 2016 presidential election process, it might be useful to review one of its most important, albeit self-assigned roles: creating the “first rough draft of history.” The job of writing history in an era where there is no governing narrative is going to be very tricky, as this election has proven. There is no single explanation of what happened, for each “side” has its own narrative. This is going to increasingly be the case, because postmodernism rejects grand or meta narratives as self-serving and biased in favor of, usually, the ruling class.

“The rich man writes the book of laws the poor man must defend.” Ricky Skaggs

Let’s review: We entered the postmodern era as the internet came into being. Thus, the mantra of Western Civilization is shifting from purely “I think and reason, therefore I understand” to more of a “I participate, therefore I understand” theme. Power is shifting from top-down to horizontal, and this will continue for many hundreds of years. Its end will likely not be dystopian, unless the priesthoods losing their power and control get really ugly. Then, who knows? Meanwhile, and especially for a man of my age, the conflict can be pretty entertaining. Civilization can seem quite unpleasant, uncivilized, and chaotic to those stuck on the modernist bus, where order and equilibrium provide the juice for the drive train.

One of modernism’s beacons of glory is Colonialism, humankind’s grand venture into conquest – often in the name of God – to acquire land and its resources in order to increase the wealth of the conquerers. Colonialism, it turns out, is a special kind of enslavement, for colonies are forced to submit to those who hold the power, and a big part of that power is information – the grand narrative that justifies and maintains the conquest. In order to be in charge in a top-down government, whether democratic or totalitarian, the top must control that narrative. If you’re sensitive to it, you can actually witness such attempts as they happen, and these are even more evident as modernism slowly slips away.

My favorite conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr., once said, “History is the polemics of the victors.” which was his version of the old axiom, “In war, the winner gets to write the history.” This served well in the top-down era from which we’re exiting, but it won’t suffice at all in the future. That’s because history – true history – is an ongoing, ever evolving and complex narrative, one that is highly suited to a connected universe. In the deadline-driven era, it was necessary for the press to provide a finished product for consumption, even if it was just a “first rough draft.” Thanks to hyperlinks and connectivity, however, we’ve no need to summarize and package anymore, for life presents itself as an on-going and chaotic mystery, even though it’s subject to the laws of seasons. Nothing “natural” exists in draft form, finished or otherwise; it is merely one, long, ever-evolving, chaotic mess, while we work our butts off trying to put everything into digestible forms of order.

The history book – with its beginning, middle, and end – will be replaced by search and living links, for the stories that comprise human existence never really conclude; they simply branch off and evolve. Our access to that never ending story won’t require packaging, for the story will supplant the package on the value chain of knowledge.

Essential to order is the myth of objective or absolute truth, the idea that foundational elements of life are set and therefore cannot change, an idea that includes grand narratives, often in the form of religious tenets and beliefs. These, however, fall apart upon honest deconstruction, for somebody always gains while others lose. Therefore, grand narratives are always a zero sum game. The total is the sum of everything. Postmodernism challenges the authority of this by deconstructing narratives to a point of conflict, and this will form a new understanding of history in the centuries ahead.

The best illustration of this today is an examination of the hot button word “terrorist” and how it is used for propaganda purposes. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and we cannot resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction as long as both sides are a part of an ongoing narrative, the moving target that I’m calling postmodern history. The ruling authority would have to dismantle our ability to connect – and with it, our organized public disagreement – in order to stake its claim of terrorist or freedom fighter. Hyperlinks provide access to multiple points of view, and that cannot be tolerated by those in charge (the top), for we might then agree with the opposite of what the ruling authority is asserting. The postmodern world is immune from this, and one day in the distant future, we will be our ruling authority. The mischief potential of top-down authority is simply too great to be forever sustained by those requiring a special wool to pull over eyes educated to see.

Oh there are plenty of people trying today to interfere with this natural flow of civilization by demanding control. The best example is the Zionist government of Israel, a country where control of the narrative is essential to maintaining the status quo. Despite being only one side of a multi-dimensional and multi-directional overarching Middle Eastern reality, the Israelis are especially good at controlling the world’s view of their geopolitical nightmare. The greatest evidence of this is the way the government is approaching social media by defining disagreeing posts as “incitement” against them and demanding private businesses such as YouTube and Facebook remove those posts. This is trying to control the narrative in the first degree, but it’s merely a form of global censorship. It cannot be sustained, for the forces against it cannot be controlled in our increasingly postmodern world, and it would be much healthier, if we all agreed on what’s taking place in the Holy Land in such a way that the narrative was more inclusive.

I realize many will view my statements as vast oversimplifications, but the vision presented here is available to anyone who’s paying attention at the macro level.

We can either participate in the evolution/revolution or sit back powerless as others do it for us.

The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.

The coming war on (social media) incitement

facebook-thumbs-downThis is a warning for this generation and the one to come: There is no more dangerous claim we face as a free people today than the hierarchical, authoritarian charge of incitement. This is such an important understanding to have as the postmodern era moves along, for those who sit in atop modernist pedestals do not want the status removed from their quo. And that’s putting it mildly.

The glorious freedom of the network is that the bottom of culture (you and me) can speak with each other, even “broadcast” to each other, absent the filters of modernity, which includes anybody “in charge.” Armed with this freedom, we are disrupting the old institutions, which have evolved from public service to service of the self. We all know it, but we live with it, because that’s the way it’s always been. But no more. Not only are we mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore, but we can actually do something about it. This freedom, however, is dependent on us agreeing that we cannot permit censors of what information or knowledge flows along this “bottom,” and that’s why the word “incitement” is so dangerous.

I’m hearing and seeing this concept so often today – and especially during this summer of discontent – that it bears study and our consideration before we find ourselves censored and our freedoms diminished accordingly. To incite is to “encourage or stir up (violent or unlawful behavior).” Note the violent or unlawful aspect of the word, so the matter often is determined by whoever makes the laws that decide what constitutes unlawful behavior. Another definition is to “urge or persuade (someone) to act in a violent or unlawful way.” Again, the issue is the determination of the conduct’s lawfulness.

So incitement is the noun and means “the action of provoking unlawful behavior or urging someone to behave unlawfully.”

You’ve heard this word in the context of our politics this summer, the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders of police officers, terrorism, and I suppose soon, Pokemon Go. It flows nicely from the idea that everything is causal in our culture and usually the work of an organized group, someone or many someones we can attack. It’s a part of that wonderful American habit of blame, for after all, if we can find the blame, we can eliminate the threat, or so the thinking goes. It’s the underlying layer for much of our left-brain, beancounter-led, lawyer-sustained culture, and it’s going to be used as a way to silence people who disagree. That’s my promise. Sooner or later, you will see this come about.

But if you want a little insight to what lies ahead, you need to go inside my favorite source of human conflict in all the world, the Middle East and especially the fascinating study of human nature known as Zionism. The stage for this is the nation of Israel, and most readers know my biases here. I have Palestinian family in Amman Jordan, so my window on this world is different than most. Many of my friends think I’ve gone off the deep end, but I’ve merely done the study that’s available to anyone, so I clearly see things that others don’t.

So let’s look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government and its use of the word “incitement” to get a glimpse of what’s possibly ahead for all of us.

Incitement isn’t just a word in Israel; it’s a core fundamental of hasbara, the propaganda language that Israel uses in speaking to the west. Since ours is the pocketbook that supports Israel, you’ll notice that Netanyahu creates English language videos for distribution here that always continue the basic narrative of Zionism: that the people of the world have an unnatural hatred of all Jews, that Israel was formed as a response to the Holocaust with its 6-million tortured and murdered Jews, that Israel must be supported because we can’t allow this to happen again, and that the need is great, because Israel’s neighbors are among the biggest hate groups in the world.

To this end, an important part of hasbara is the crackdown against those who “incite” violent acts against the Jews of Israel, and this means (mostly) the Palestinians. In December of last year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry created a ten-person bureau to monitor YouTube for videos that might incite actions against Israelis. Here’s how it was described in the Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva:

The bureau will concentrate on three main issues: The first is finding videos containing inflammatory content and subsequently filing an official request to have the social media sites take down these clips.

The second measure will be the development of an application which will identify keywords such as “knife” and “Jews” in Arabic or other languages, enabling the ministry to track the creators and poster of inciting content.

The third, and perhaps most important, is the actual intervention of staffers in discussions on social networks, where they will be tasked with distributing hasbara materials from the Foreign Ministry.

I haven’t heard if any of this censorship has actually happened, and I imagine it will be a closely-guarded “confidential” business arrangement. Now, the target is Facebook. After unsuccessfully pleading a case that Israel should be granted personhood within Facebook (because Facebook’s rules would then make statements against Israel a violation of its terms), last week, Israel went to court against Facebook. Facebook is its big target, because a great many Arab families use Facebook to connect with each other, and that means the dissemination of the Palestinian narrative, which Israel cannot allow to be too widespread.

This censorship action is different than what it’s doing with YouTube, but the target is the same: so-called “incitement.” Here are key graphs from a Mondoweiss article: Israelis take on Facebook ‘monster’ with claims it knowingly incites Palestinian attacks

…the dispute has gotten ugly. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called Facebook a “monster” last week for not increasing its censorship. Now this disagreement between Israel and Facebook is headed to the courts.

Relatives of four Israeli-Americans and one American tourists killed in Israel and the occupied West Bank between 2014 and June 2016 are suing Facebook for $1 billion in damages, claiming the social media site promotes “terrorism” and “knowingly and intentionally assisted” in their deaths.

The suit was filed in New York federal court. The issue got more interesting this week as Facebook began hiring 13 people to staff its Tel Aviv office, including Jordana Cutler, currently Chief of Staff at the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, and a longtime adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu. She will be head of policy and communications at the new Facebook office. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is headed.

Netanyahu himself uses the incitement word every chance he gets when producing hasbara videos in the wake of news events that fit the message. The truth about Zionism’s ugly behavior in the name of what seems to be a righteous cause will one day become mainstream, although it’s hard to envision just how that will happen in the face of all these attempts to censor the bottom of culture from talking about it. At least half of the Facebook posts by my own family members are about the Palestinian conflict, so what’s to stop Facebook from censoring them? Nothing.

The results of this won’t be limited just to the Middle East, and that’s the real danger here, for once the snake’s head is inside the hole, the rest of it will follow. With violence in the streets of America today, efforts to clamp down on troublemakers are likely to include social media, and this is likely imminent.

A whole lot’s a stake here, friends. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want to do something to guard against the censoring of the Internet, support Free Press. I do.

1968 just called, wants its mood back

Puppet masters are at work online

Puppet masters are at work online

As Donald Trump continues his effort to seize the law and order position in the wake of continuing violence on America’s streets (“Make America Safe Again”), the whole mood of the country is reminding me more and more of 1968. Prophecies of anarchy were the news back then, as the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King triggered violence in the streets. But the riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere were just a part of the overall scenario, which included Vietnam – with its Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre and campus protests. The sitting president, LBJ, decided not to run. Chicago police overreacted to demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Internationally, there was “Bloody Monday” in Paris, demonstrators were slaughtered in Mexico City, and the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

The end result was the election of Richard Nixon who ran on the position of ending the chaos by restoring law and order. Of course, he then went on to resign his presidency for maintaining a slush fund through which he financed illegal operations against his political enemies. So much for law and order.

Today feels very familiar to me and apparently others who lived through 1968. It’s an election year, and the news is filled with nastiness with each candidate proclaiming the other to be crooked or moronic. Violence in the streets has everybody panicked. Police are killing blacks. Police are being killed. Muslims are under attack. Terror is winning the war for the minds of free people, and mostly, there’s a sense that a rigged political and financial system is public enemy number one. “What’s the use?” is the overarching dark cloud that governs the hearts of Americans today.

The American dream, it turns out, is not wealth, but the appearance of wealth that can be obtained through debt. Television shows us that possessions equal happiness and that we can have them before we pay for them. Hard work and dedication means allegiance to the rigged system, for “the rich man writes the book of laws that the poor man must defend.”

But 2016 isn’t 1968, and while the similarities may be striking, there’s something at work today that wasn’t even imaginable back then. I’m talking about The Great Horizontal and the disruption of culture by the advent of the digital network. Culture’s bottom – you and me – are connected and can communicate without going through one of the information filters of top-to-bottom communications. This makes the situation in real life both worse and better, but regardless, it’s here to stay. Of course, the day could come when “the authorities” decide it’s just too dangerous for them, and they’ll move to disconnect us in the name of our own safety. They will somehow shift the blame to “incitement,” which is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite weapon against those who would dare to lift a finger against his expansionist efforts. If it can happen there, it can happen here.

You see, people have always known the system was rigged, but postmodernism and its practices allows people now to better understand the hows of the rigged system, and they’re angry over it. We’re all angry about it – some of it is pretty absurd – and we’re demanding change. Most importantly, we have the power today to do something about it long after the noise of 2016 is over. When I wrote “The Evolving User Paradigm,” I was looking through this lens. The network will never stand still and not just because technology keeps evolving. We’re evolving with it, as more and more people learn how to use it.

Freud’s theories, which ultimately led to the manipulation of the people through the industries of public relations and professional journalism, are at the bottom of much of our angst, and this can only be overcome through knowledge. The problem is that those who benefit from this knowledge are the last people to ever teach us, which is why fact-checking is such an important industry for tomorrow. I used to ask why Snopes became the authority on this until I began to realize that media companies want nothing to do with the business of separating fact from fiction. Driven by the human need to climb the cultural ladder, journalists today rub elbows with those they cover and, whether consciously or not, participate with those who have much to lose by disturbing the status quo. This is why I continue to proclaim that straightening the crooked path is the duty of everyone who participates in bottom to bottom communications.

Instead, we’re using the bottom to bottom path to pass along the rantings of those who still exploit the emotions of everyday people to meet their special interests. The production of outrageous Facebook and Twitter memes that are purely propaganda are a throwback to the methods of Edward Bernays and those who learned from him how to manage public opinion with whatever tool they could find. We’re taking messages from the top and passing them along the bottom, so nothing has really changed just yet, although the evolving user paradigm suggests hope for the future. Only the people can stop this, but it’s going to take the knowledge of being duped by special interests, including religion, which is a very, very big task.

To my friends who regularly place outrageous, false, and nasty memes in front of me, regardless of political position, please think about what you’re doing. You are being used, no matter how strongly you feel, for it is those feelings that are being tapped to manipulate you and everyone in your path. You’re angry, and we all get that, but you are also very much a part of a very old problem.

BONUS LINK: Tom Brokaw’s 1968 (YouTube)

Art is for everybody

ala-artsIn the beginning there was music and dancing and theater and painting, and there were listeners and watchers. Those who performed for the king were compensated by the king in forms of currency varied in both treasure and usefulness. Food, clothing, shelter, fame and recognition, and most importantly, projects to accomplish were given to artists in addition to the occasional coin. In such a way, the arts were both reviled and revered, because the king’s wishes became theirs. In the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, artists in the catacombs of Rome noted this in one scene that included this marvelous quote: “We’re artists! We’ll always be slaves to another man’s nickel.”

Patronage for the arts is still practiced today, although little of it goes to the artists themselves. Mostly, the arts have been taken over by corporations whose interests rarely match those of their “employed” artists, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of music. Music today has betrayed itself by chasing wealth as its sole reward, and this is not only tragic but sad.

And we just assume that this is the way it’s supposed to be.

The Shirky Principle – that institutions will always try to maintain the problem for which they are the solution – when applied to the music industry is what led to its disruption by the digital age. Scarcity is the problem, and when consumers got tired of paying $20 or more for a CD with one hit, technology did something about it. Enter our dear friends at the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) who went to extreme lengths to halt the will of the people 15 years ago by actually suing its customers. This foolishness led to change, but the desire to protect “the industry” hasn’t given up. There’s still way too much money at stake, and music, unfortunately, is the ultimate loser.

Like the rest of the corporate owned and managed arts, profit is the bottom line in music, not expression of the arts. Originality is sacrificed in the name of repetition, copying, and the production of a sure thing. After all, the shareholders demand manageable growth, so their servants have no choice but to give it to them. Is this the meaning of the arts? I don’t think so. With the arts, as in life itself, one cannot serve two masters.

At the other end of the spectrum is YouTube. I won’t argue that YouTube isn’t part of an enormous corporation, but that’s not the point. I want to talk for a bit about what YouTube has done for the art of music, not the industry. The RIAA, after all, is now threatening lawsuits against YouTube in yet another grasping at straws in the name getting compensation for artists. Bullshit. The RIAA is many things, but it is NOT an advocate for artists, except where in so doing lines the pockets of its masters.

Meanwhile, there’s an awakening among artists everywhere that the web can be exploited to provide a distribution vehicle that can be used to create ancillary revenue streams. As I’ve written previously, YouTubeRed is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s YouTube’s way of creating a micropayment system for those artists whose music is actually played, whether sponsored by corporations or otherwise. This is a certain harbinger for the healthy future of all of the arts, because the output of artists cannot be treated like manufactured products anymore. The arts belong to everybody, and if we enjoy them, it’s our responsibility to pay for them in one way or another.

We’re at the dawn of a great awakening of right brain output, and this pleases me. Industrial age mass marketing was not kind to those wishing to distribute their creative wares, and we’re experiencing the fruit of that today.

The squeeze by consumers has uncovered certain ugly realities:

  • Wall art is mass produced, because it’s cheaper than originals (and no mall carries original work anyway).
  • Music is entirely hit-based and celebrity-based.
  • Repetition is the lifeblood of arts-related industries but the destroyer of the arts themselves.
  • Hollywood only repeats successful formulas.
  • Publishers will only publish that which they know will sell.
  • All of the arts are based on the bottom line, because the arts are “owned” and operated by corporations.
  • As a result, the commercial expectations of artists are entirely wealth-based and unrealistic.

The web, however, has disrupted everything by making everybody’s art available to anybody. Remember, the network views middlemen as a mistake and routes around them. Therefore, you cannot superimpose laws created for the one-to-many world of mass media over the infrastructure of the network. It simply doesn’t work, because scarcity doesn’t (can’t) scale when everybody’s connected. It certainly carries a different value than it does in a disconnected marketplace, and all industries will be forced to deal with this at some point in the not-too-distant future. I understand the desperate nature of disrupted industries, but that does not justify throwing existing laws at the problem, and this includes copyright. We’re going to need visionaries in both the public and private sectors that don’t have institutional corporations in mind as benefactors, but instead, the artists themselves.

The arts are for everyone. As James Allen wrote in his wonderful little book As A Man Thinketh, “The dreamers are the saviors of the world,” and I take this seriously. The prophets of old were among the most sensitive of all humans, for their connection to the world beyond was far outside the norm. So, too, the artists of today prophesy with their work, and we need to pay attention. The problem is that prophecy doesn’t necessarily sell, and that’s our horrific loss. Bob Dylan is a rare example of both, but even at the height of his popularity, his music was an acquired taste. Of course, this was when the message of much of the music world was more important than a song’s ability to recruit wallets. Again, our culture has suffered, because we cannot hear today’s silenced messengers.

Of course, change always takes time, especially with lawyers reproducing like rabbits and for whom “the law” is natural essence of their sustenance. I’m also one of the old guys, so I probably won’t see it in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, let me encourage anyone who works for or benefits from the arts to set your minds on change and help move the rock collectively forward. Not only is it in your best interests, but it’s best for all of our progeny.