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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


March 31, 2003


I have been spending a lot of time protesting the war. Nearly every day in the past week I participated in some sort of action.

But life also goes on. I try to maintain some of my daily routine, to write, to cook, to clean, and to participate in the cultural life of San Francisco. And I look at the events I've attended and think about where the intersections are between the peace movement and artistic activity.

A week ago last Sunday at Hubbub, the monthly open mike I run, a couple of readers read pieces that referenced our current political situation. Saint, a reader whom I had not heard before, read in the open mike portion of the show a piece titled "Preemptive Bowling" that took in Columbine and the senseless deaths of the war. I was impressed, as was the audience apparently as well. Taking the stage to introduce the next reader, I thanked him and said that “that's the magic of the open mike" -- you never know what's going to come up. It's like going to a potluck and being surprised by a gourmet delicacy in a casserole dish.

One phenomenon I've noticed at performances is the recycling of writing and songs from the first Gulf War a decade ago. The resonances are undeniable -- the names of the presidents, the name of the adversary, the stated and veiled reasons for the fight. But besides that war, there are comparisons to be made with other wars and other peace movements.

For example, on Tuesday I went to a reading for his book Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, who was a member of the Weather Underground around 1970. Quite a lot of his talk related that time to the present, leavened by the experience of the intervening years. I think his work as a college professor has helped keep him engaged in the present, rather than just being someone who reminisces about the past. He described dialogs that he'd had in the Bay Area on his visit here, including discussions with high school students arranged by his brother, a teacher. He suggested trying every day to speak to someone who doesn't agree with you. Too often we preach to fellow choristers. Afterwards Ayers signed my copy of his book, sketching a self-portrait of himself, explaining that it was a picture of him as he is now, hair receding, a peace sign on one hand, and "something illegal" in the other.

Last Saturday I went down the twisty backroads to Bolinas, that coastal Marin village. The destination was the Earth People Comedy Club, a variety show organized by Mur, who has also been doing shows in San Francisco, Berkeley, and at Harbin Hot Springs (a place where a performer presumably doesn't have to imagine the audience is naked). Mur opened the night with an amazing story of hitchhiking to Baghdad sans visas in the early ’70s. Many of the performers were Bolinas residents. A performer offered a spoken word piece where the parts seemed almost to fit with current events, but afterwards he confirmed the suspected: this was one of those pieces written a dozen years ago during the war of the current president's father. One man offered his guitar tunes, of which two of the songs regarded peace -- for instance, one with animals calling for "all species for peace." I felt comforted by entering into this community space, relaxing my urban sense of irony, an escape that was nonetheless conscious of world events.

Monday night's gay comedy show (an event I co-produce) included a certain amount of comic riffing on the war, hits on the president of the U.S., and comments on the protesters who've been in the streets of San Francisco and the police force with which they've been engaging. One comedian talked negatively about the protesters. But I had been a protestor, so I felt I was by extension the butt of this joke. Another comedian engaged the audience in more of a dialog about the protests, and that made it clear that there were others in the group who identified with the demonstrators. In comedy the main test is whether something is funny, but the variable of audience viewpoint means that not all humor is universal.

These events highlight the importance of local, live performance. These occasions have an immediacy and spontaneity impossible with film, especially Hollywood blockbusters, and give more of a sense of engagement than hearing celebrity musicians mouth platitudes from arena stages or the passivity of television viewing.

And the protests themselves have not been devoid of artistic content. I saw people facepainted gray like corpses, lying on the ground holding dolls likewise made up to look dead. I saw people carrying a coffin with a gauzed-wrapped form inside. I heard that on the other side of a street full of police motorcycles Keith Hennesey was participating in some sort of performance, but I could not see past the assembled wall of blue officers. And there is the simple creativity of the slogans on people's signs and the more inventive chants that move beyond the 2-4-6-8 clichés.

On the other hand, I have been to a certain number of events at which the war was barely a footnote. In some cases the omission may be a conscious decision to allow a respite for people who are spending other time on the peace movement, or it may be an oversight which reveals a general lack of engagement with the political sphere. Hey, I like sourdough bread and cruelty-free circuses as much as the next guy, but putting some political points into the clown act might actually improve the entertainment value. And I guess my even writing this column is a statement that art and activism should be intertwined.