US AND THEM
Before the trade embargo was lifted, a US government agency tried to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in an effort to stir political unrest. They met with the politically vocal group Los Aldeanos, promoting them with their own TV channel and distributing their music on the black market to avoid government censorship. Los Aldeanos later went on stage at an independent music festival in Cuba and launched a tirade against Raul Castro’s government.
The plan backfired. The US plot was uncovered and the Castro responded by taking over the festival. Los Aldeanos were forced to move to Florida saying they could no longer work in Cuba because of government pressure.
If Western governments are using music festivals to try and shape the political discussion abroad you can be damn sure that they are monitoring them closely at home. Most people will say it’s just about catching drug dealers, but this story should illustrate that it’s partly about keeping tabs on political dissent. At Glastonbury 2015 I stood at the back of the spoken word tent with eyes on stalks as a stand-up comedian unearthed three undercover policemen in the audience in the middle of his set:
“We know they’re undercover because we offered them a drink and a spliff earlier and they turned them all down.” The four heavy set men in bucket hats laughed uneasily around their cabaret table. “Yes they’ve been trained to laugh along,” the comedian’s eyes blazed from the stage, “but we know they’re really undercover.”
The tension in the air was extraordinary. No-one knew quite what was going on.
I went up to the men after the gig to investigate. “Are you really undercover policemen?” I asked harmlessly. “Yes” one of them replied. Then they laughed it off, “no we’re undercover villains” said another. Unconvinced I walked away. The men kept up the joviality and even got on stage to take pictures with the comedian, smiles a mile wide all round.
I can’t explain the vibe emanating from these four men. Perhaps they were just nervous. But the real moment of truth came a few minutes later. I was taking a piss in a nearby urinal when the four men came in together. “Oh look it’s the undercover policemen” I said cheerfully. Away from the crowd there were no laughs or smiles. An uncomfortable silence set in and we all stared straight ahead as our urine drummed deafeningly into the plastic.
I’ll never really know if they were undercover or not. Maybe they just had small penises. Reliable sources in the festival industry assure me that undercover police are indeed sent to festivals with the express aim of monitoring political dissent. At Eden, a festival of 8,000, there were 14 undercover policeman this year. Isn’t that a bit paranoid?
Actually I think the tactics are spot on. If the revolution comes at all it will probably come from music festivals. Music festivals give you a glimpse of a different way of life, love and ego liberation. And some people are so touched by this glimpse that they take it back with them into their lives forever. A world populated by such people would be bad news for capitalism: it’s a fact of life that the spiritually contented just don’t tend to shop as much. If I was exceedingly rich and powerful and keen to remain so, music festivals are exactly the sort of thing I’d be worrying about.
If the Cuban Hip-Hop Crisis tells us anything it’s that the political establishment are well aware of all this. It’s not simply that they find music festivals a bit smelly; they consider the whole ethos that goes with them an ideological threat.
As indeed they are. Where festivals are not expressly political they are implicitly so. You can always find revolutionary rhetoric at The LEFTFIELD stage at Glastonbury, but art can be a much more powerful way of getting your message across. Glastonbury 2015 fell just after the general election, and Shangri-La, which always has a thought provoking artistic theme, was a massive political slap in the face.
Humour is a wonderful valve for frustration but some of the artwork in Shangri-La that year towed the line between creative expression and destructive hatred. I wonder how far this sort of thing goes to solving the problems the artists are so angry about.
I tried to articulate this to Akala when he spoke at Shambala festival, also in 2015. Intelligent, passionate and eloquent, this is a man with a powerful ability to sway minds, and yet midway through an electrifying spoken word performance, he used these abilities to incite hatred against all posh people. He admitted as much to me in person after the gig. I tried to tell him that I agreed with the problems of the world as he saw them, but that spewing vitriol against the upper classes, or any group of people, is not the way to solve them.
Now clearly I’m on shaky ground here. As he pointed out, police have never shot at anyone in my family. And he’s right, I don’t know what it’s like to have the hurt of history hanging over me. But the effect it was having on our conversation was clear to see; to him I was just another enemy.
This is the problem with the whole “us and them” mindset: when forced to define who “they” are, we pigeonhole individuals into groups and factions and hold them responsible for collective failures, and in doing so we end up making enemies of whole swathes of people who, if we looked a little closer, might be our allies.
Doing away with “us and them” is easier said than done (even in this article I couldn’t avoid pointing the finger at the “political establishment”). There’s no doubt it’s much easier to build a movement when there’s a common enemy. But what happens when the enemy is done away with? Hatred can give a revolution momentum but that same hatred will end up hollowing it out.
This is why conspiracy theories are such a dangerous game to play. It’s not that I throw them all out, it’s just that they force me to imagine some kind of evil boardroom of men wheedling their hands over the puppet strings. Perhaps such men exist, but if they do then they feed on our hatred and they bring us down with them if we make the mistake of doing so.
I would offer that the explanation is far more elusive than the evil puppet master scenario. We’ve been brought up on stories of good and evil, light and dark, heroes and villains. There are all these terrible problems with the world, someone must be responsible, right? Our narratives expect, and our egos demand an external enemy to pin our collective failures upon.
Identifying the problem as “out there” is the easy route. It diverts our attention away from the painful process of honest self-examination. It takes the burden of responsibility away from us. And the angrier we get the less energy we have to expend on effective action.
The people who really piss us off tend to be people with the same character failings as us. Thus a stubborn person tends to find stubborn people incredibly irritating, extroverts find other extroverts to be show offs, and selfish people think everyone else is being selfish.
My point is that perhaps the enemy we rage against is within us at least as much as it is “out there”. We all have light and dark within us. Sort out your own back yard first before waging war against nefarious conspiratorial rings like the Illuminati or the Bilderberg Group or whomever else you think is responsible. In a nutshell: let he who is without sin cast the first stone.