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The Future of Dissent

Thoughts on Obama, Ben Sollee and redefining dissent

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Since Nov. 4 I’ve been lost.

This isn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting exaltation, relief, pride.

All I’ve felt is confused.

I’ve run since adolescence on the fossil fuel of blind contempt for the powers that be. 
I’m talking about “The Man.”

For the first time in my lifetime (and with the tragic and somewhat apocryphal exception of John F. Kennedy, my father’s) the chief executive of “The Man” is my man, our man — da man.

Rebellion against authority and the status quo has been the governing paradigm of young creative Americans for at least the past 50 years.

Barack Obama not only brought us into the fold; he built a majority constituency on our backs.

Will the rise of Obama mean the death of dissent?

I’ve been casting about in the darkness, looking for a vessel, a vehicle, a unifying metaphor — the machinery with which to drive forward in this baffling, uplifting moment. One recent night, sitting cross-legged on the floor of Tacoma’s Helm Gallery, I found it.

It was beautiful and innocent, but strong. It was hopeful and kind and determined. It was the music of a bespectacled white boy from Kentucky, played on — of all things — a cello.

The era of lobbing stones is over. The gates have swung open, or been smashed down. Punk anarchy seems a flea-market relic. WTO? Slacker abstention? If we are to survive, we dissidents must adapt. 

Cellist, singer and songwriter Ben Sollee can help us learn how.

He looks like the kid you used to cheat off of in Civics. He is well-spoken, humble and quick with a smile. He has a strong social conscience and faith in people, and he is doing his part for positive change.

Traditional forms of dissent: activism, defiance, withdrawal.

The new dissent: participation.

Mildred: What are you rebelling against, Johnny?

Johnny: First of all, this isn’t about me. And second, I wish you wouldn’t use the word “against.” I think a better question is, “For what shall we rebel?”

The music of Sollee can hardly be called insurgent, but neither can the new insurgency as personified by Obama — not in any traditional sense. It isn’t angry or vengeful or militant. It’s as much 1 Corinthians 13 as 1 Samuel 17. But it’s not nonviolent resistance either; it’s more self-possessed and shrewd. Here, David builds a tent over Goliath and invites all of Israel to the party.  

Hey, David, need a band?

Sollee’s songs draw from the deepest American roots, but grow high, high above ground. Buried in them are the haunting tenors of the haunted South — field hollers, hog calls, revival sermons, black spirituals, and the spare recordings of John Lomax and Moe Asch. But joining these voices — sometimes arguing, sometimes affirming, sometimes eclipsing — are younger, brighter, sharper ones: ours.

Consider Sollee’s adaptation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” from his 2008 release, Learning to Bend, in which he upholds Cooke’s gothic foreboding and hope and adds to it his own mix of postmodern disquiet and Bush-era dismay. Cooke’s I was born by the river in a little tent / Oh and just like the river I’ve been running since becomes It’s dark in the city / I’ve lost my pride. The song is a conversation between very different men with very different problems, but with shared concerns, desires and dreams. It is precisely the conversation Obama has brought to the fore of American life.

At one point during the show, Sollee left his chair and sat with his cello on the edge of the tiny plywood stage. Later, between encores, he entered the crowd and sat on the floor himself, knees drawn to his chest, looking at the empty chair.

The proscenium, in this era, has all but disappeared. (Think of the text messages signed: Barack.) The stage has become a curiosity. The hour calls for exchange.

Sollee’s songs, often overtly topical, are not airing of grievances so much as invitations to talk. He wants to talk about us, not them. How can we understand one another better? Where can we improve?

I get a little scared when I’m drivin’ through the ghetto
There’s a part of me that wants to hide, a part of me that wants to move in Cuz even though I grew up in the suburbs
I didn’t really grow until I learned how so many others lived

He could preach diversity, but he doesn’t. He carefully and honestly examines the issue instead, the road cleared before him by Obama and his speech in Philadelphia in March. Neither guilt nor innocence is assumed on any side, only a commitment to understanding and a belief in the common good.

And the good, we’re reminded, is only getting better:

And on the horizon I see windmills sproutin’ up in rows / There’s young folks farmin’ and a few that are gonna vote.

The gay rights marches in November felt different somehow as if the objective had moved from breaking down walls to defending the perimeter, arms locked together around it.

“There’s something happening here,” as Buffalo Springfield once sang. But it’s not “battle lines being drawn.” It’s circles and arrows, Xs and Os.

Sollee gets it right, and I wish I could too.

You see, all of this solidarity kind of gets me down.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on the train, but I watched the Rev. Wright jump off and, god, he looked ecstatic!

I miss NWA. I miss the Minutemen. I miss the wild comeuppance of hardcore, the slouching disdain of grunge, even the thoughtless corruption of glam.

I miss us vs. them.

This isn’t “Fuck tha Police.”

This isn’t “Shit From an Old Notebook.”

This isn’t even “Smokin in the Boys Room.”

This most certainly isn’t “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “Masters of War.”

This is more like “We Are the World.”

The backdrop for Sollee’s show at the Helm was a barn hanging made by an artist friend that would later be sold for charity.

How nice.

I’m on board, just hanging on the back.

“There’s room for everyone” says Sollee. “Don’t be shy.”

Am I wrong to miss anger?

I’m standing in my kitchen listening to the Sex Pistols’ Holidays in the Sun, about the Berlin Wall, at full volume through shittty speakers, drinking a beer, when my kids run in and want to dance. I’ve never been so hopeful about our future.

People like Sollee will be this country’s salvation.

And people like me will still be pissed.

Other voices

>>> FOR UPS FRESHMAN CAROLINE HENRY, a member of Tacoma Students for a Democratic Society and B-Glad, an LGBT group, Barack Obama’s election doesn’t represent a reduction in threat so much as a change of opponent.

“I’m still part of the ‘us’ team; it’s just the ‘them’ that has changed. Now that we have the Bush situation calming down, my rebellion has shifted focus to ‘McWorld,’ as Benjamin Barber dubbed it (The Atlantic, March, 1992). Whereas past dissent was a rebellion against government, I believe the future of rebellion will be against modern media’s control over ... everyone!” Henry says.

>>> THE REBEL, an anti-authoritarian newsletter produced in Tacoma, has no masthead. Its contributors reject hierarchies of all kinds and to impose one on themselves would be, well, anti-anti-authoritarian. Their position on Obama is their position on everything: At the root of all injustice is power, no matter who holds it at the moment.
“Obama is not going to end war,” according to The Rebel. “He will not end I.C.E (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids. The only change is a change of face. A new boss. Sadly, though expectedly, the same as the old.”

>>> TACOMA EMCEE CAN-U was made nervous by America’s willingness to blindly follow its leaders in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and, though he finds hope in the new regime, is wary of committing the same error with Obama. His view of hip-hop as a voice of dissent remains undiminished as does his understanding of dissent as a duty.

“Obama won, but he didn’t win by a huge margin in the popular vote,” says Can-U. “Half of this country is still clueless and racist. Politicians are still bought off and will continue to be by big corporations, and even the staunchest Obama supporter has to wonder if the bailout bill is having the effect it was intended for. There is still plenty to be mad about. I look to the future with hope, but I’m still not satisfied.”

>>> “SHIT MAN, IT’S JUST ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, SAYS SAM OLSEN, when asked how punk, which exploded under Reagan and had an easy target in W., might respond to the less blatantly lame Obama. (An un-punk question if ever there was one.) If he’s worried about the health of the scene, the ex-Freakouts guitarist and founder of Trash Town Empire, a record label and fanzine, doesn’t show it.

“Punk rock has been dead since it was born. That’s the whole appeal! Being a so-called ‘punk rocker’ ain’t about rebelling against anything; it’s about hanging out with a bunch of weirdos like yourself and trying to create something out of that. Everyone on the outside is the enemy.”

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