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Laughing Matters: US Government v. Voices Of Conscience

By Subhankar Banerjee

19 June, 2013

“Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.” Arthur Miller

Almost exactly two and a half millennia ago, the young Buddha had posed a rather enigmatic question: “How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease, and death?” This question inspired scholar Lee Siegel to write a remarkable book, Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India (University of Chicago Press, 1987). This voluminous 516–page book is funny and fabulously written. It includes many stories of royal tricksters, including Gopal Bhar—the 18th century social activist jester. Gopal knew how to speak truth to power—with humor. I grew up with Gopal Bhar’s stories, but those won’t translate well across time and cultures, so forgive me for not saying more about him here.

I’d pose a similar question: How can we talk about humor, when all of us are being tracked by the Big Brother? It is precisely a time like this however, when the world around us seems overwhelming and incomprehensible—that we turn to—humor. I won’t talk about the kind—spewed by evening television however, but the ones—that speak truth to power. Last year I had written, “Sustained shaming of cruel acts committed or about to be committed by corporations and governments is necessary if we are to hope for a healthy society.” Humor is a good tool for shaming. Now is a good timing because the US government is spying—on all of us.

Last week journalist Dahr Jamail told me, “Bush terrorized the word—Freedom, while Obama, the word—Hope.” Both words are now rapidly tumbling down on history’s slippery slope. It isn’t news, but it encouraged me to think: When you have no Freedom and no Hope, what are you left with? It is—humor. Humor has been around since time immemorial, and it’ll be around till the last human walks this human–ravaged Earth.

I used to be a serious person and did serious things—science. Once, I even gave an interview, “Once a physicist,” to the venerable Institute of Physics in London. But for the past thirteen years, I’ve been thinking about humanities and humor—that might help us create—a better future—for human and nonhuman life. It might be an illusion, but before I talk about humor, here are a few words to ponder, some of which come from a bold newspaper—The Guardian.

Climate–Surveillance Paradox

I tried my best to be a pain–in–the–rear–end—for Obama and Shell’s—plan to drill in the Arctic Ocean. I edited an anthology, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point that was published last year. After the book came out, I gave an interview to Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!, and then few days later, I wrote on TomDispatch, “Instead of harshly criticizing Obama’s offshore drilling policy, green groups have generally appealed to his good environmental sense and instincts—a strategy that has not worked.” About three weeks later, Obama gave Shell the approval to drill in the Arctic Ocean. “We always knew that the [Big Green] groups … took donations from, and formed corporate partnerships with, the big emitters,” Naomi Klein wrote earlier this year. While the Big Green CEO’s safely watch from the sidelines, dedicated local environmental activists continue their passionate work on the contested battlefields.

For sometime now, we’ve known that the governments of the global North and the global South are increasingly branding climate and environmental justice activists as—“domestic extremists” or “terrorists.” Nafeez Ahmed recently asked in The Guardian, “[W]hy have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations?”. He gave a plausible answer and cited several examples that he dug from various reports. These governments are “increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis—or all three,” Ahmed wrote. Therein lies the greatest paradox of our time that I’ll call—Climate–Surveillance Paradox. Instead of leading the world away from fossil fuels to avert climate disruptions, affluent governments are instead spying on climate justice activists and their actions. In case of the US, as if the government is telling the corporations: Go ahead, keep making huge profits from drilling, fracking and mining; the Empire will keep running; while species after species will keep falling—into the abyss of extinction.

As I write this: rain and floods are ravaging across the northern states in India, with the death toll rising, while the most destructive fire in Colorado is still burning. Devastating floods in the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have left “over 50 people dead and hundreds stranded, while several parts in Haryana were flooded after water level of Yamuna rose alarmingly,” The Times of India reported on Monday. A Colorado sheriff described the damage caused by the Black Forest fire with these words: “As if a nuclear bomb had gone off in that area.” Intense floods and fires are manifestations of—climate change disaster.

The talk of the town is: public money is being spent on private contractors to provide national security. Truth is, the roles have actually reversed. Increasingly, it is the government that has become a public contractor—for private corporations—to provide security, with public money—by tracking environmental activists. “Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests,” Ahmed wrote (I underlined for emphasis). It isn’t news to many of us, but it sure sends a chilling message: peaceful activism that disrupts business–as–usual will not be tolerated—to the young climate justice activists (some of whom are willing to give up their careers to fight for a healthier planet). Ahmed observed that “as business as usual creates instability at home and abroad, and as disillusionment with the status quo escalates, Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state.” Who all are engaged in challenging this fascism?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species brings attention to the declining population of nonhuman biotic communities. The list includes: Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, and Least Concern. If we were to do a similar population status for various human communities across the US, it would look like: right–wing hawks is Least Concern, left–wing pundits a.k.a Obama apologists is Least Concern, voices of conscience—courageous activists (such as Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Tim DeChristopher and Sandra Steingraber) is Vulnerable, voices of conscience—courageous journalists (such as Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges) is Endangered, voices of conscience—courageous truth–tellers (such as Edward Snowden and Bradly Manning) is Critically Endangered; and voices of conscience—courageous Comedian Laureates (such as Gopal Bhar) is Extinct. Do you know of any—village, town, city, state or the Beltway—that has an appointed Comedian Laureate (such as a Poet Laureate)?

Telling truth with humor

In March, I was a panelist at the “Eco–Aesthetics: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology” conference at the University College London. While in the city, I visited the Tate Modern and saw, for the first time a selection of remarkable anti–fascist anti–Nazi photomontages of John Heartfield. He was a political satirist. The Hurray, the Butter is All Gone!, was published on the cover of the Arbeiter–Illustrierte–Zeitung or AIZ (The Workers Pictorial Newspaper) magazine in 1935. In the picture we see a family at a dinner table eating a bicycle, a toddler eating an axe, a dog eating a metal nut, a portrait of Hitler hangs on the back wall, and the wallpaper is emblazoned with swastikas. Below the image is a quote by Hermann Göring that reads (translated): “As Göring said in his Hamburg address: ‘Iron ore has made the Rich strong. Butter and dripping have at most made the people fat.’” In the famous, The Meaning of the Hitler Salute (1932), we see an enormous industrialist on the left handing money from behind to the upraised right arm of the diminutive Hitler. The size imbalance between the two men alludes to the fact that the real power in Germany was with the corporate thugs. When the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, Heartfield left for Prague, and in 1938 fled to London. After the war he returned to East Germany, but was treated with suspicion by the Stasi. After Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym called for public recognition of his work, he was elected to full membership of the German Academy of the Arts.

Is it possible to imagine that someday Edward Snowden will be returning to the US and Bradley Manning will be free from the prison—and both receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom? That day, the words—Freedom and Hope—would reclaim their meaning in the US.

Not all of Heartfield’s photomontages are humorous though. The Hand Has Five Fingers has a caption that reads: “A hand has five fingers, with these five you can shake the enemy.” It reminded me of—“Five Eyes” by governments for spying, and “Five Fingers” clenched into a fist by Tim DeChristopher to inspire Peaceful Uprising. We learned from Nafeez Ahmed’s article that the “data harvested by the NSA's Prism system has been fed into the Five Eyes intelligence alliance whose members also include the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” For disrupting an illegal fast–track Bush–era oil lease sale in December 2008, climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison. He was released on April 22, 2013. On March 3, 2011, after he was convicted, Tim addressed his friends and supporters who had gathered outside the Salt Lake City courthouse with a raised hand and clenched fist with these words as can be seen in a most fabulous award–winning documentary Bidder 70: “That fist is not a symbol of violence. That fist is a symbol that we will not be misled into thinking that we are alone. … We will not be divided and we will not back down. That fist is a symbol that we are connected … All those authorities in there [the courthouse] wanted me to think like a finger but children are calling to us to think like a fist.”

When I saw Heartfield’s work on the hallowed halls of the Tate Modern, I realized, as it should be, the photomontages have lost their ability to offend, which they did when these were first seen on the covers of AIZ. A young cartoonist is continuing the great tradition of humorous art as a political weapon to challenge power. In 2011, India Against Corruption, a mass people’s movement had gathered tremendous momentum under the leadership of veteran Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. Young political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi supported it with his Cartoons Against Corruption. His cartoons are intended to offend and raise awareness about the widespread corruption among India’s political elites. I’ve little doubt that Trivedi knows about and is inspired by the work of John Heartfield. And like the elder artist before him, Trivedi is a voice of conscience, and is a dedicated anti–corruption activist. Last year, he also co–founded Save Your Voice, a movement against Internet censorship in India. In one of his cartoons, Sewage System in India, he depicted the Indian parliament as a toilet buzzing with flies. In National Emblem, he replaced the three lions in the famous Ashoka symbol with three wolves and added a skull in the middle of the text at the bottom, “Satyamebo Joyote” (Truth will prevail). His use of wolf as evil—shows his ignorance about the magnificent species that unfortunately is often demonized across cultures. His messing with “Satyamebo Joyote” however, I found more persuasive. Last year he was arrested with sedition charges against him for a series of anti–corruption cartoons, including the ones I just mentioned. National heroes, including Mahatma Gandhi and contemporary physician–humanist Binayak Sen—were charged with sedition—a draconian British–era colonial law. “[I]t is ludicrous that cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was taken into custody … for drawing what everyone is thinking,” Kavita Rao opined in The Guardian. And India Against Corruption stated in a press release: “There have been many instances of harassment of cartoonists and other artists. The appropriateness of the cartoons should be judged by the public, and not by the police.” His arrest had sparked widespread protests. Trivedi was released from the Arthur Road prison in Mumbai after four days in police custody.

Lee Siegel argued in Laughing Matters that the difference between satire and humor is akin to the distinction between laughing at others and laughing at oneself as can be found in the ancient comic tradition in India. Gopal Bhar’s rhetorical performances were—laughing at oneself. In my last piece I discussed Satyajit Ray’s remarkable film Hirok Rajar Deshe—a children’s musical comedy that is a biting critique of inverted totalitarianism. In it Ray had used primarily—laughing at oneself. While the work of John Heartfield and Aseem Trivedi would be laughing at others, the famous performance, Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away by the Russian punk–rock band Pussy Riot would be laughing at oneself.

As part of a protest movement against Putin’s re–election, on February 21, 2012, five women from the band Pussy Riot in Russia staged a punk–rock performance wearing their signature colorful balaclavas inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They were escorted out. Later they staged and filmed a similar performance at another church and titled the video clip, Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away. While The Sound of Music in Pussy Riot’s music might not be very musical for many, their unique performance embodied a type of feminism that proved to be a threat to the Russian state’s authoritarianism and the church’s patriarchy. It also critiqued the connection between the two. The Pussy Riot considered the church to be a “weapon in a dirty election campaign,” as the Kirill had supported Putin’s re–election bid, calling him a “miracle from God.” The title of their band, the title of the video, colorful balaclavas, and the Russian Orthodox Church as the performance venue—together transform an otherwise noisy punk–rock into a persuasive—laughing at oneself—to challenge power. They were arrested as expected. Their saga can be seen in a documentary to be released next month. “By the end, they are speaking with enormous precision and passion, and intellectual rigour miles superior to the work that landed them in trouble in the first place. Being on the receiving end of Putin's wrath turns out to be something of a public–speaking boot camp,” The Guardian reported in a first look review of the film. As I was wrapping up this piece, I was reading the Guardian Live Q&A with Edward Snowden. Snowden wrote with “enormous precision and passion, and intellectual rigour miles superior to” the intellect of the hacks in America who would prefer to think of him as nothing more than a “high school dropout.”

One attribute that unites John Heartfield, Aseem Trivedi and Pussy Riot is—their willingness and ability—to offend. By using varieties of humor they challenged their nation’s abusive power. I gave only three examples here. I surmise you know many others. With courage, integrity and articulation Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have exposed the enormous apparatus of fascism in the US government. The US spying threatens our civil liberties. More importantly though, by suppressing climate change and other environmental activism—for the benefit of corporations—it threatens the survival of—future generations of human and nonhuman biotic communities. The US government and voices of conscience are now engaged in a war—not a Laughing Matter. We can only hope—to make sense of this ongoing war—there will be humor.

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade he has worked tirelessly for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He founded ClimateStoryTellers.org, and is editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He recently received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation.

Copyright 2013 Subhankar Banerjee






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