Pete Seeger

Sometime in the late ’50s Pete Seeger appeared at Kaufman Union at the University of Minnesota, raising money for his defense against HCUA. I suppose someone could find the exact date, but I think I must have been four or five. It was packed–sardine room only.  The organizers hadn’t expected that sort of turnout. Between sets, a few of  us kids were brought up to sit on the grand piano off to the side near the “stage” to create a little breathing room. Seeger came out for his second set; I remember he had his banjo, which pleased me, because I always liked that better than when he played his 12-string.  As he opened his mouth, I yelled out, “Hiya, Pete!” because it was so good to see an old friend–at least, I thought of him as an old friend because I’d been listening to his music all of my short life.  Didn’t that make us friends?  The whole room cracked up, and he turned and looked at me and grinned.  I truly believe that was the origin of the joy I get in performing, in being the center of attention, in making a room laugh.

He was a Stalinist, and it showed more and more as time went on.  You could see it in the way he did songs that carefully explained everything and drew their morals out plain as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to understand; you could see it in the way that, especially after his involvement with the Civil Rights movement, he would gladly hop onto any cause the pseudo-left embraced, the more middle-class the better.  It is sadly appropriate that the two of his obituaries I’ve read so far entirely omit the word “union,” even though union songs (The Almanac Singers, also featuring Woody) were really what launched him, and were a huge part of his body of  work.

I kind of don’t care about any of that. It wasn’t until I started playing banjo myself that I realized what an artist he was with the instrument.  Like another of my formative musicians, Merle Travis, the instrumental work was always understated; it was support for the song. He wanted you to enjoy the song, not think about how great a musician he was.  This is an approach to art that has become vital to me.  And while we’re speaking of underestimating, don’t forget the Weavers.  For many, they were the introduction to folk music.  Then, over time, you’d discover other “authentic” folk artists and start kind of mentally poo-pooing the Weavers with terms like, “Folk Pasteurizers.”  And then, one day, years and years later, you’d happen to pick up an old Weavers album, put it on, and go, “Holy fuck! I had no idea how good these guys were!”

He was 94 years old.  In his 94 years, he made many people happy. I was one of them.

Bye, Pete.

But Who is Supposed to Pay for it?

One hears this a lot: Universal health care:  “But who is supposed to pay for it, and why should other people have to blah blah blah.”  Welfare.  Unemployment insurance.  Public education.  “But who is supposed to pay for it, and why should other people have to blah blah blah.”

Okay, I need to get the snide answer out of the way first:  Anyone who asks that question is probably someone who should be paying for it.

There.  I feel better.  Now, let’s get serious.

The inspiration for this post was when Cory Doctorow tweeted a link to this.  Please take a moment to look it over.

My problem, as always, isn’t with the original post–such filth is part of our lives and will be as long as private property defines human relationships.  No, my problem is with the replies.  One thing that is common to them all is an attitude that goes like, “I can justify having this nice thing, even though I’m on welfare, because of…”  And, yeah, all of the justifications are perfectly reasonable, and some of them are tremendously moving.

But why the fuck does it need justifying?   To justify having something nice, decent, useful, means you’ve accepted the fundamental argument:  It is perfectly okay for some people to be rich while others are poor, and the rich must have somehow earned it, and the poor somehow deserve it, and that’s just how the world is.  To accept that argument is to accept the morality handed to us by those who keep their privileged position by exploiting the rest of us.  It makes exactly as much sense as the slave-holder explaining to the slave how wrong violence is.

Let us be clear: Wealth means an accumulation of commodities (generally in the form of money).  Commodities are produced socially.  No individual–particularly the speculating banker, but even the semi-mythical Man-With-A-Vision-Whose-Hard-Work-Turned-His-Vision-Into-A-Fortune-500-Company–ever created wealth.  Wealth is a social phenomenon, and the creation of wealth happens by people working together.  And this, by the way, ignores the whole question of infrastructure:  Your “personal genius” is able to make money because his employees are able to get to work on roads built at public expense, and use basic skills learned at schools run at public expense, and avoid cholera because of water kept pure at public expense, &c &c &c.  Skip all that.  It isn’t the point.

The point is, we, human beings, society, got together and made everything.  Those with vision enough to see how things can be better are important and deserve praise, because they make vital contributions to making things better.  This does not mean they deserve the lion’s share of the wealth created by the rest of us.

One result of an economic system based on private property is that the system will take some number of individuals it can’t use and discard them.  These people do not need to justify having nice things–we need to demand of those who have appropriated our wealth how they justify denying things to these people.  The poor did not create the system that discarded them.

And, for fuck’s sake, when the Working Class gathers its strength and fights for and wins things like social security, unemployment insurance, better public education, public cultural institutions like libraries and museums, and, yes, welfare, do not try to act as if these are gifts of a magnanimous government that is too generous.  The Working Class fought for those things, and paid in blood.

So, reactionaries like the OP above can take their “But Who is Supposed to Pay for it” morality and shove it up their individual asses.  We have earned it all.  We deserve it all.  And someday–I believe sooner rather than later–we will have it all.

Thirty Years of This Shit

About thirty years ago, my first book, Jar-head, came out.  This is a good time to take a look back.  It would be an excellent time to reflect on the changes in the publishing industry if, in fact, I had ever paid attention to the publishing industry.

It is a privilege.  I have held, since 1986 when I quit my day job, that writing well enough to publish is a matter of hard work and dedication, and making a living at it is a matter of dumb luck.  I had a lot of dumb luck.

I’ve gotten lucky in my covers (I mean, holy shit have I gotten lucky in my covers).  Early on, a lucky break (that I still don’t entirely understand) gave me what is called a “lead spot” sooner than skill or sales ought to have provided it.  I’ve had amazing editors, who know what I’m trying to do, and want me to do it better, and know how to help.  I’ve had an absolutely amazing critique group that did the same.  Above all, I’ve gotten lucky that, when I tell the next story I wish someone else had told, it turns out that enough other people like it to keep a roof over my head, food in my mouth, and the lights on.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the best.  I’ve had the opportunity to teach (which, as anyone who has ever taught can tell you, is one of the best ways to learn).  And learning is a joy.  I’ve been a process geek for almost the whole thirty years; I’ve developed a fascination for what makes a story work, what makes it fail to work, and where there are boundaries that can be pushed.   Of all the emotional changes writing has put me through, “bored” has never been one, and I think that is in part because I happened (there’s the luck again) to have a deep fascination for process that constantly plays into my love of story.  Sometimes I think of a cool story idea and I go, “I must tell that.”  Sometimes I think of a cool way to tell a story and I go, “I must try that.”  Sometimes I think of a really cool line: “I must write that.”  Sometimes I think of a fascinating thematic question: “I must explore that.” Sometimes I think of a fascinating person: “I must follow him around.” All of these things bounce off each other, and keep me interested, and indeed, delighted.

Yes, writing has been good to me.  Professionally, ten years ago I promoted myself to senior writer, and five years ago I gave myself a corner office, so it’s all good.  Maybe in ten years I’ll give myself a gold watch.  Writing makes me proud and keeps me humble.  It makes me crazy and keeps me sane.   I make a living doing something I love.  It sometimes infuriates me that so few people have that opportunity.   I hope and believe that someday that will change.  In the meantime, for as long as I’m able, I’ll keep writing the next sentence.



All Right, Yeah, I’m a Conservative

I really am.  Those who know me well already know that, but for the rest of you, let me explain.

There is what one believes, and then there are one’s natural inclinations.  And all of my inclinations are suspicious of change. Not against change; suspicious of it.  I scowl when new words are coined, and demand that they justify themselves.  In music, I grimace and tap my foot impatiently at drum machines and atonality.

In Texas Hold ’em, I still call the fourth community card “fourth street” and the fifth one “fifth street” instead of “the turn” and the “the river” respectively. Why? Because I do, that’s why.

In politics, yeah, I’m a Red, but I’m an old-school Red: an orthodox Trotskyist, a traditional Marxist. I believe that the proletariat is the revolutionary class, that the falling rate of profit causes market crashes, that history is best understood as the struggle to wrest human wants from nature, that the materialist dialectic is the best general explanation we have for matter in motion, and that explanations for social phenomena that don’t start with the class struggle are liable to be vacuous. I disliked the New Left when it was New; and I still dislike it now that it’s no longer Left.  Post-modernism and identity politics I find easy to hate, because both my inclination and my reasoned beliefs line up (as opposed to language and music, where, really, I wish I were more comfortable with change).

And in fiction, I am quite fine with both reading and telling stories. I feel like all fiction ought be stories. I do not believe that; I believe that there is room  for all sorts of experimenting and wild, weird stuff. But what I want are stories. I want to write them and then see them published in books.  You know, the kind people hold, and turn the pages, and read? And I want them sold in book stores where people browse; and I want them in libraries where people can pull them off the shelves and consider checking them out; and I want them in used book stores where people who can’t afford new books can try new authors without going broke.

I approve of the new stuff, of e-books, of certain alternate publishing strategies. I think, long-term, they will probably have a positive effect on the quality of stories; but I’m not comfortable with them.

Because, at heart, however much I wish I weren’t, I’m a conservative.