Introducing Napalm Beach

This article was originally published for a website called Collapse Board in September 2013 under the title “Introducing the band that taught Seattle to rock.”

LETS GO SURFING ON THE LAKE OF FIRE

On July 11, 2013 my partner in music and life turned 60 years old. To celebrate, and to shift everyone’s focus, he set up a show at Portland, Oregon’s Star Theater, an old burlesque house transformed into a rock club. A local weekly called it “an exorcism masked as a celebration”. With this show he meant to bring closure to his old music projects, in particular, to his band, Napalm Beach. To prepare, he worked with 13 different musicians comprising five different bands from the past 33 years. In all these bands, Chris was the ringleader, songwriter, composer, arranger, vocalist, and lead guitarist. That’s just how it’s always been (at least until our band, Boo Frog, when he moved over, a little, for me).

With about 200 people in attendance, the club was full, but not overflowing. Two drum kits and all the players’ amps were set up ahead of time to expedite transitions. For the final number, ‘Why Do Parties Have To End?’ all band members from over the years came up and played guitars, basses, drums, keys, tambourine, all at once.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Flying Heart Records discreetly and without permission, set up a massive merchandise table from which they sold all manner of Napalm Beach and Snow Bud and the Flower People CDs, LPs, 45s, comic books, and T-shirts. Someone asked me, “Who’s that guy selling all the stuff?” I looked, I saw, and I left it alone. Because I didn’t want to harsh the buzz. Because all this is almost over. At the end of the night Flying Heart Records pocketed all the merch money, and disappeared into the shadows. For 26 years it’s been this way. Flying Heart Records manufactures and releases materials without notification or permission. Snow Bud and Napalm Beach never see an accounting, and they never see a dime.

That same day, three hours drive north, Sub Pop Records kicked off their Silver Jubilee by having their flagship band, Mudhoney, perform atop the Seattle Space Needle 500 feet above a crowd of 40,000. The event was covered by PBS, NBC, Billboard, and Rolling Stone.King 5 news noted that, “Sub Pop Records is credited with putting Seattle on the pop-music map with bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney. The record label continues to bring big money into Seattle to this day.”

(continues overleaf)

The Fallacy of Right vs. Left

I have existed on this earth for nearly half a century now, and for as long as I can remember, news reports, commentary, and political discussions have used the terms “right” and “left” as if they describe something real, recognizable, and tangible. Something that is so self-evident, their meaning doesn’t need to be explored, explained, or argued. I’ve always found this confusing.

I understand that these terms – left vs right – sometimes used as nouns, sometimes adjectives – are political. I’ve been vaguely aware that the “left” is associated with everything from the American Democratic party to Communism and that the “right” is associated with everything from the American Republican party to Fascism, but the idea that all of our political ideals can somehow fit onto a right-left slider has always been disturbing and at times abhorrent to me. When political candidates or their ideas don’t fit neatly into this left/right spectrum, they are either made invisible, or forced unrealistically or unholistically into the pre-cut pattern.

Sources say that the origin of the left/right terminology (in this sense) comes from seating arrangements in revolution-era (circa 1789) French parliament when supporters of the monarchy sat towards the right, and supporters of the revolution on the left.1 This was full six years after the end of the American Revolutionary War, and also after the U.S. Constitution had been hashed out. Why was the left/right terminology was then applied to political movements in the U.S. and around the world, and why it has persisted? My guess is that it is part of a longstanding habit of English and American fetishization of French thought and culture.

The Wikipedia entry on “left wing politics” as it stands today claims that “left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality” (this statement is supported by four references) while the entry on “right wing politics” claims that “Right-wing politics hold that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically defending this position on the basis of natural law, economics or tradition” (this statement is supported by nine references). In other words, the core difference between left and right wing is not so much linear (that was just how seating was arranged in 18th century French parliament) but geometric. The left believes in striving for social equality (more like a circle) while the right believes in maintaining a strict social hierarchy in which the masses are ruled by a select group of elites (more like a triangle).

The triangle system is closer to the old model of European monarchy and colonialism in which a small number of elite are both supported by, and rule over, those who labor. This tends to encourage exploitation or enslavement of humans, animals, and the environment. Capitalism also fits into the triangle model, and over the years the the distance between the top and bottom of the triangle has grown steeper as Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out in her “Democrats are capitalists” response to a young man’s question about how democrats should approach economic issues. The triangle may be a stable system, but without guaranteed income, universal health care, enforced diversity, and strong environmental protections, it only really only works for those at or near the top. They reap the most benefits while facing the least hardship. The steeper the difference between the elite and the masses, the more unstable the system becomes.

In contrast to the triangle, the circle would seem to be a movement in a newer, more egalitarian direction, at least for Europeans and hyphenated Europeans who colonized various continents around the globe. This explains the synonyms “progressive” referring to the circle (those who seek equality), and “conservative” referring to the triangle (the preservation of a traditional hierarchy). It’s not that conservatives want to conserve money or the environment – what they seek to “conserve” is an old hierarchical way of seeing the world, the way which is modeled on the (now virtually extinct) monarchies of Europe. Progressives, in contrast, wish to continue moving toward a more egalitarian society.

The “left/right” and “conservative/progressive” terminology falls apart when you decolonize. I’m no expert in any of this but I figure that “decolonizing” means, in part, to shed, as much as possible, preconceptions and prejudices based on European colonial thought patterns. Wikipedia has literally hundreds of articles on various schools of political thought, some of them very deeply researched, but virtually nothing at all on “decolonization” in the sense that I am using it here. There is a Wikipedia entry on “decolonization” but it is a much more literal version, in which colonial forces are forced to pull out of a nation entirely. Wikipedia is only as good as its editors, and most of its editors favor Eurocentric thought. In addition, Google’s etymology graph shows that use of the word “decolonization” was virtually non-existent before 2010.

Nonetheless, I have been trying to decolonize my thinking for about thirty years now – since well before “decolonizing” was a thing that people talked about. I became interested in decolonizing my thinking because after leaving high school and starting college, I began to see more and more problems with colonial attitudes in terms of spreading violence, creating oppressive and exploitive systems, harming the environment, and the obliterating of significant but disturbing events from official historical accounts. I also became troubled by the tremendous lack of representation by women and people of color in fields like politics and publishing. I began to see that indigenous cultures offered interesting and usually more inclusive alternatives to colonial thinking.

I know that as the descendant of settlers, I have to be mindful of what I say, and what I write, and how I present the things I learn. I have to be mindful that colonialism by its very nature, does not respect the notion of “consent,” especially when something is being taken by someone with greater might (in the form of weapons and machines) from someone without such power. To “settle” a nation is to take homes, land, resources, and ultimately, voices, away from one group of human beings and bestow them upon another.

I know that when I speak out, especially if I am trying to present an alternative point of view, I’m always walking that edge of talking about what I don’t fully understand, or taking what doesn’t belong to me. Different cultures have different ideas about appropriation and intellectual theft. I can sing a Beatles song in the privacy of my home, or to a friend, and no one is likely to be offended. This isn’t true of all songs. I know this. But I want to move toward decolonization because I think that colonization is an unsustainable model of living and that decolonization is essential to the long term survival of the human species. When you remove something, like a colonial mindset, it needs to be replaced with something else. Indigenous ways were sustainable for over 10,000 years on the North American continent; it would be crazy, even suicidal, not to consider knowledge with such a significant provenance, when it is offered, as it has been at places like the DAPL resistance camps in North Dakota.

I don’t know if anyone can say how many distinct groups existed in the Americas before colonization. Most “tribal” maps are inaccurate (not detailed enough). In northwest California alone, there was tremendous diversity of language and identity. Some groups were large, others small. Some Indigenous groups had established social hierarchies, others did not. However, there were, and are, a lot of similarities between American Indigenous groups as well. What tribe didn’t use abalone in regalia? What tribe didn’t tell coyote stories?

Western thought has a long history of seeing “man” and “nature” as being opposing forces, with the ultimate goal of Nature being conquered and/or harnessed into a state of production. In this worldview, women and non-whites are usually connected with the idea of “nature” and treated similarly – as entities to be conquered and/or harnessed for production. Indigenous thought tends toward the opposite: humans being part of nature, living in relation to each other, and to land, animals, plants, and spiritual beings. Similarly, it has often seemed to me that western scientists try to learn about things by poking, prodding, experimenting, and taking things apart, while Indigenous science focuses on observation, tradition, and a sense of relationship to everything on the planet. This is a generalization based on what I have observed.

The significance (and sacredness) of the circle seems close to a universal idea in indigenous worldview as anything. This comes from the relationship with nature. Most traditional Indigenous homes are circular, and ceremonies are usually performed in circles. Seasons come in cycles, and even time circles back, for example, during ceremony, when ancestors walk the earth again.

So when you decolonize your views, the “circle” as a social model is both conservative (traditional) and progressive (decolonized).

And the truth is, when you take your typical left wing and right wing thinking styles to their logical extremes: Stalinism, Leninism (on the so-called left) and Fascism (on the so-called right) you end up in the same place: totalitarian hell, and ultimately, destruction. Human beings, and human systems are part of nature, and nature is a circle. To deny that is to deny nature. The denial of nature is the denial of reality, the denial of self. This denial is a danger to all life on earth.

I suspect that the “right/left” metaphor is maintained, in part, to support the idea of political parties as opposing “teams” within a single system. The dialectic. The pendulum swings back and forth, gradually moving, but never threatening, the established system. The democrat and republican parties may adhere to this model, more or less, though over time the difference between one side and the other seems less clear, especially when both espouse “capitalism” as a foundational value. When you add other groups into the mix, things get murky. American Libertarians often take views associated with both the “radical” left (decriminalization of drugs) and the “radical” right (dissolution of government programs). Other issues of personal liberty which defy traditional left-right categorization include religious freedom issues, for example, religion and modesty expressed through dress and the use of head coverings, or religious traditions around hair length and style.

From my point of view, most people’s views and experiences don’t fit neatly into a left-right dichotomy. My father’s mother was a head nurse at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. She liked to drink cocktails and crack jokes. I don’t know what her political views were. My dad’s father was conservative, soft spoken, republican, smoked a pipe, loved football, loved reading about American history, and spent 40 years as counselor at one of Seattle’s most diverse high schools. They were Lutheran, but didn’t go to church. My other grandfather was born in Kansas, lived in Minnesota, had a high school education, worked his way from the mail room to become an executive-level accountant for Cargill, clipped coupons, was active in the Methodist church, and donated to charity. Capitalism was good to him. The republican party’s views were his views. He was a widower when he married my grandmother. She had been a Rosie Riveter and after being abandoned by her husband, a post-war single working mother, her family’s sole breadwinner, paid 1/3 the wage of her male counterparts. After marrying my grandfather in the 1960s, she became a housewife and toed the republican line, but forever spoke out for women’s rights in general, and the E.R.A. specifically. I do strongly suspect that my grandmother’s last presidential vote was cast for Obama, and when Fukushima happened I remember her saying solemnly (and accurately), “this could affect the whole world.”

My father in law was Yurok. He was born in a smokehouse deep in Indian country. At a young age he was literally kidnapped by the U.S. government and sent to “Indian Boarding School” where, he told me, “I was brainwashed.” In high school he became a top athlete. He was a welder in the Navy during the war. After the war, he became a lumberjack until nearly being killed by a falling redwood branch. Then his wife was killed, and he became a single father to their eight children. He read the newspaper every morning, was a devout evangelical Christian, and in later years, travelled around teaching the Yurok language. He was proud when his grandchildren succeeded academically, and in sports, yet he knew he had to be careful of the law, court, and school systems.

Both grandfathers and my father in law were World War II veterans. When I think back on all of them, maybe you could have called my white grandfathers’ ideology “right,” because they followed traditional conservative republican belief, but it might also have had something to do with them being white and male. I wouldn’t personally think of them that way, however. I thought of them as “conservative,” because they believed in traditional family values and were fiscally conscientious. But my grandmothers’ and my father-in-law’s worldviews don’t fit into the traditional left/right dichotomy in any way, shape, or form.

Maybe the left/right dichotomy mainly serves those who move government policy and big chunks of money. Or maybe “left vs right” is simply an illusion to keep us all eternally divided. Described as a circle versus a triangle, it becomes a question of how society should look: should liberty and equality be primary concerns, or should we try to maintain a traditional hierarchy with elites (who are usually wealthy white males) holding the reins (and purse strings). Or, should we be somehow trying to have both at once? Is it possible that once you start referring to political views as “left” or “right” – terms based in 18th century pre-revolutionary French parliament – you have in effect already chosen a position on the issue? And isn’t it interesting how those who’s views and experience don’t fit neatly into the dichotomy – usually non-white and/or non-male – are either forced to fit into it, or simply made invisible?

If invisibility is the price of not fitting into this model, what is the price of invisibility? What does it mean when the country, even the world, is being governed by elites who bear almost no resemblance to those they govern?

Maybe we should ask the 18th century French aristocracy.

At a time of increasing social and environmental crisis, the left/right metaphor seems limited to the point of being fallacious, fallacious to the point of being dangerous. To unhitch one’s mind of left/right dichotomy could allow us to see people as full human beings with complex views and experiences, and create space for creative solutions to modern problems including a more decolonized and, in my opinion, more natural and more sustainable, way of thinking.

  1. 1. Gauchet, Marcel. “Right and Left”. In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997

Our Three 13th Amendments

Slaves for Sale - Newspaper advertisementWith the (unfortunate) exception of prison labor, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude everywhere in the United States of America.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What many Americans don’t know is that this is actually our third 13th Amendment. The first 13th amendment, passed by Congress in 1810, revoked citizenship for any American accepting a foreign title of nobility. The second 13th amendment, passed by Congress in 1861, sought to protect the institution of slavery and make it permanent. The first and second 13th amendments’ ratification processes were disrupted by the War of 1812 and the Civil War, respectively.

The three 13th Amendments provide a lens through which one can view the philosophical evolution of the United States. They also remind us of how the chaos of a pattern of war has shaped that history.

The First 13th Amendment

The first 13th Amendment, also known as the “Titles of Nobility Amendment,” was approved by the 11th Congress in 1810 and may or may not have been ratified before the War of 1812. The Capitol was burnt in 1814 – including the White House and Library of Congress – and many documents were lost.

British Burn White House

British burn White House – 1814

The first 13th amendment seems to echo and reenforce (through threat of loss of citizenship) the titles of nobility clause which already exists in the text of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8):

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

The amendment itself reads:

If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain, any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.

Whether or not the amendment was ratified continues to be a matter of debate; many states published it in their constitutions up through the 1860s. Here is a version from the Constitution of Maine published in 1825:

original 13th amendment

The idea is that an American who accepts a title of nobility from a foreign nation is in danger of falling under foreign influence. There is perhaps also the thought that the verneer of nobility creates an “UnAmerican” sway. The United States is, and always has been, a republic, not a monarchy. The U.S. republic was created and fought for in direct response to what colonists viewed as intolerable abuses by a monarchy.

In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, founding father Thomas Paine wrote:

Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders. The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord, over-awe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor: Nay more, they are, as it were, bewitched to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

Assuming this 13th amendment was never fully ratified, is considered to be dormant, meaning that if need be, it could potentially be ratified at a later date. Theoretically, this may be true of the second 13th amendment as well.

The Second 13th Amendment

Supported by President Lincoln and passed by Congress, the Second 13th Amendment is also known as the “Corwin Amendment.” It was intended to placate southern states by making the institution of slavery permanent. It reads:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton

The fact that this “permanent slavery” amendment was supported by President Lincoln and won 2/3 support of the House and Senate ought to give one pause. Would would its ratification have meant for our country?

Could it ever be right – or Constitutional – to declare any Constitutional amendment unamendable?

torture mask for slaves

The Third 13th Amendment

Adapted at the end of our Civil War, the third and final 13th Amendment obviously didn’t create a fairy-tale “happily ever after” ending – the struggle for equal rights continues today – but it pointed us in the direction that I believe most of our original founding fathers and mothers intended, even if they couldn’t find that will within them to follow through in the contentious revolutionary era.

13th amendment
Deep down, the founding fathers had to know all along that the institution of slavery was not compatible their foundations of freedom, common sense, and opportunity. Nonetheless, slavery was written into our original Constitution, economy, and culture. It may have been seen as a “necessary evil.” Even George Mason, father of our Bill of Rights, kept slaves.

runaway-1050x692Slavery was phased out in the northern colonies over the first half of the 19th century, but remained deeply entrenched in the south. The horror of keeping humans in a state of permanent bondage was excused because slavery was seen as a critical component of the economy. (Whether slavery made economic sense in the long run continues to be an issue of debate.) In the end, slavery was only abolished after years of effort culminated in a fierce, bloody, painful war. Sadly, once the abolition of slavery was committed to the text of our founding document, not enough effort was put into post-war restoration efforts, causing existing inequalities to morph into the institutionalized segregation and system of disempowerment called Jim Crow.

Those who truly believe in equality for all have been forced to continue to fight against the long legacy of slavery, and the ways it tends to pop up again and again in the form of exploitive labor (including prison labor), denial of opportunity, denial of voting rights, and human trafficking. In a global economy, corporations and consumers must also take special care not to exploit slave labor abroad.

Prison slaves work on railroad

Civil rights activists continue efforts to seek those unalienable rights promised in our founding documents. if we could truly respect the constitutional and human rights of all, then perhaps our country could truly become the shining example of freedom and opportunity that we so often imagine ourselves to be.

The 13th Amendment signifies the existence of that possibility.