Monday, 14 November 2016

Racism and Electronics

Like many, I suspect I have sat out the last week in disbelief. I am not American and so, unlike those who are, I will not be directly affected by the recent election. However, it is true to say that its effects ripple around the world. This is literally true on a subject like climate change, a thing Trump and many of his closest allies have disavowed as a scam or made up. My Twitter feed since last Tuesday night has resembled some fictional dystopia. I read that people generally follow those who mirror their own views, the so-called echo chamber, and so people who more or less represent views I would go along with have related with varying degrees of explanatory power and personal involvement just what the American electoral choice means for them. And then there is the nexus of media interests and journalists reporting to their taste. The New York Daily News's Shaun King has been detailing racist incident after racist incident since last Wednesday AM, a sickening and terrifying list of bigotry, hatred and stupidity. I'm sure many would tell me this is their reality, one that as a white European I'm privileged to be able to avoid. They are right, of course, but its no more my fault I was born white than someone else's that they were born something else. But it may be my responsibility to see past my whiteness. If I can.

This whole area of race and nationality annoys, confuses and frustrates me. There are obviously people prepared to use it their advantage, people who see in skin tones or in passports differences, fundamental, unbridgeable differences. I don't see that and I certainly don't WANT to see that. But this is where it gets confusing because there are certainly people of many nationalities, races or creeds who DO want to view themselves as different or set apart based on these things and these are not just malignant, racist people. So it becomes hard to think clearly about such issues and not step on someone else's toes. I'm quite aware that by even writing about this particular hot potato of a subject I may be inadvertently offending someone. And offending anyone is not my aim here. If anything this blog is being written just to address my own person frustrations about and problems with the subject. This is a personal blog not an authoritative article.

As it became clear that racists had captured the White House, something brought home even more now since Trump appointed Steve Bannon of Breitbart infamy as his senior counselor and policy advisor, I wondered what I could do to signal, in my own puny way, some measure of dissent. I am not a political animal. I am not even a social animal. I live my life withdrawn from society. Occasionally, however, I look out of the window from behind my curtains (which are always closed) and am assaulted by the things that for many others are normal, everyday events. Seeing all the hatred, unfairness and egotism of society often makes me feel ill. I have felt ill this past few days too. Its one reason I've deliberately withdrawn from it. Maybe you want to blame me for that. Its true that I can imagine many who are politically engaged who might want to. For such people its a person's duty to fight injustice. And yet, as I see it, so many people's lives are torn up and thrown away as they are totally consumed by politics. I'm aware that if everyone just shut themselves away then opposing forces would win without so much as a fight and that certainly is a concern. But is the alternative that every person opposed must lay down their life on the altar of political differences? That sounds like a recipe for constant conflict and war.

I was about to write that clearly no one wants that but that wouldn't be true, would it? Some do want war. Some do want conflict. Some do want to provoke trouble. The world is full of such damaged humans. And these damaged people damage even more, a repeating tragedy. But must I spend my life fighting them? I ask this question of myself openly like I hope others do too. But I don't think I can tell others what they should do or how they should react. Some people do think they can do that. In my mind this all seems very reminiscent of how it must have felt to be a German in the 1930s. Although Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, his NSDAP party never won an outright majority at an election. The best they got was 43.91% of the vote in the March 1933 election during which their thugs had engaged in much voter intimidation. But even with this intimidation they'd failed to achieve a majority. Hitler had to manipulate the German head of state and outlaw other parties after this win to finally achieve an effective one party state so he could push through laws which made him Germany's dictator. I've been reading about this in the last few days, spurred on to do it having once lived in Germany for a number of years and looking for parallels to other things. I've also always wondered how Nazism could ever have happened. I ask myself what an "ordinary German" must have been thinking. I ask myself what an "ordinary German" was to do about it. I ask that because I've been fortunate to know many good "ordinary Germans".

These aren't simple questions to ask because we know that even at this early stage of the official Nazi regime the first concentration camps were being built and people, especially the communists Hitler despised along with other political opponents, were being disappeared, some never to be seen again. If you were just an ordinary citizen could you afford to show dissent? Would you be prepared to potentially end your life for a point of view? Now for all the modern parallels we may see or want to make (Steve Bannon seems very much like Trump's Goebbels to me) we have to acknowledge that the USA is not (yet) Nazi Germany. But we also need to be aware that there is a very specific racial history to the country we now call America. And this is not just about slavery or black and white as the the recent Dakota Pipeline protests show us. Although no American white racist is apparently aware of this fact, America was not originally white. If this land ever was or is a "white land" then it is only because it was forcibly stolen from indigenous peoples, peoples that were neither black nor white. In many ways these are the forgotten people of what is now known as America. And these people are not "Native Americans" either for they are pre-Americans! America is, as I have heard some of them say, nothing to do with them. America is what came and destroyed and stole where they once lived.

I already feel like I'm getting into deep waters and it would be easy to drown myself in them. Racial difference and racial divides run deep and their currents can easily drag us under. And its not just about the Nazis or American history either. My own country of the UK has experienced racial problems too and racial incidents rose after the Brexit vote much as they have seemingly done in the USA in the last few days. This was inevitable as political victories embolden those who formerly judged the public mood as intolerant of their antediluvian views. But in other countries, too, race and nationality divide. The whole of Europe has been rocked in the last 18 months as Arab and African refugees struggle across a body of water in ramshackle boats or across land from one country to another seeking better conditions to live their lives. Thousands die in the attempt and many make it only to find that the press and media of the countries they land in are hostile to the foreigner or outsider, whipping up resentment and hatred quite openly. Politically, many European countries have parties dedicated to a politics of race. One need only think of Marine Le Pen's Front Nationale in France, Geert Wilders' PVV in the Netherlands or Frauke Petry and the AfD in Germany. And that is before we get to Trump's best British friend, the utterly opportunistic Nigel Farage, a man who once said in public that he would not like Romanians living next door to him.

Its all a terrible, life-affecting mess and I appreciate only too well that many people's lives are materially affected by this reality in a way that mine is not. I wrestle with my conscience over this daily because I cannot help but care about it. I fundamentally do not see differences between people based on nationality or even race (albeit that I leave people to define for themselves who or what they are) and despair that others do. It bothers me that a person's status in this world is based on a passport, something that was really only invented in the recent past anyway. I have spoken before in these blogs about some of my intellectual influences and one of them was the great pragmatist, liberal philosopher, Richard Rorty. Rorty saw justice, racial as well as any other kind, as a matter of an ever increasing "larger loyalty". He saw the task of the human being as to increase the number of people to whom it felt allegiance so that, ultimately, you would feel the same loyalty to one person as you would to any other. You can see that this is a program that is the opposite of difference and division based on something like race or nationality. Such differences, so Rorty thought, had to be negotiated away so that, eventually, the words foreigner or stranger would completely lose their meaning and emotional force. Now clearly this is a white, liberal, American philosophy professor's way of expressing these ideals but such was the way they came to me. I heartily agree with this idea.

And so it was in this spirit that, as I was looking back over my podcast series, The Electronic Oddities Podcast, it struck me that the people in it were almost totally white. I have often tried to focus on "pure electronics" within the series and maybe that just is a white domain. I even wrote an article about this for this blog and, in the writing of it, managed not to notice that the famous electronic musician, Richard Devine, is apparently of Asian origin even though he was born in the USA. I had always considered him to be white and it never occurred to me to think anything else. I was embarrassed to have this pointed out to me in various Facebook comments where I had posted the article. However, rather fewer (one, in fact) pointed out that the female synthesist, Bana Haffar, wasn't white either. It may be that she is not as well known, of course, but I admit I had mis-identified her knowingly to see if anyone picked up on it. As I say, just one pointed out to me she is of Lebanese heritage. However, as I now look back on my podcast series it does look like a catalog of white guys in the main and, yes, this does bother me. In the article I had previously written I had asked for examples of non-white synthesists and whilst I got some names back it wasn't lots and lots. So it must either be that they don't exist or, more likely, that the white clubs that are the electronic music discussion groups online are all white people talking about other white people.

This bothers me because in the abstract electronic music I have come to favour I do not see difference and division. I see in the swirling, noisy movements of an oscillator a lack of definition, a refusal to be anything other than a continual becoming. I see the politics of difference and division as, once again, human hubris, a knowing too much which is, in reality, the mere assertion of ignorance. My vision of electronic music, a music of electronics, does not square with a racist worldview but with Rorty's "larger loyalty" instead. And so I do not want to present a podcast which is a "white man's music". It should not matter who did it, where they are from or what gender they are. Whilst recognizing that people do come from differing cultures and inform their identities by such things, in some sense I think electronic music should be colour blind. I look back on my own music history and how I came to be aware of music itself and it is often dominated by black musicians. My mother played The Supremes when I was a child on an old radiogram. I lived next door to a Jamaican family growing up and they played reggae and ska music. The latter was the first kind of music I took as "my own" when I started to like music for myself. In my teenage years, as I discovered the synthesizer which was played by white men, I simultaneously learnt about black disco, soul and funk and this has always been a musical grounding for my appreciation of sound. I would be missing a huge musical education without it.

I have yet to find huge hidden reserves of non-white electronic music for my podcast. (Of a "pure electronics" kind, at least. If we open out the definition then "electronic music of colour" is everywhere.) I have begun to search. I am intrigued to find if there are some hidden forms somewhere that can broaden and enrich the music that I have heard so far. And this is what it would be: an enrichment. I know, for example, that there is a large, and to me largely unknown, Japanese electronic culture. I think it needs to be remembered that there is no loss involved in finding something different. It only adds more variety to the whole. This week's podcast will be music entirely from non-Caucasian artists and, yes, this is a deliberate choice. I've been listening to the music chosen for it as I wrote this blog and it is a beautiful edition full of diverse styles and moods. Apart from the few known artists I've included, the music itself, which is largely instrumental, gives no clues as to its origin and that is how it should be. It is just music made by humans that anyone should be able to enjoy. I unashamedly say, as I've said before in these blogs, that I strive not to see artificial differences but just people of one race, the human race. To some that will make me a "globalist", something in opposition to their narrow nationalism. They are right because it is. No nation is going to survive that sees itself in isolation from the rest of the planet it is but a tiny part of. All of humanity's problems will be solved together. OR NOT AT ALL. It is my tiny and probably unnoticed gesture to try and curate a podcast series that includes electronic music made by all kinds of people as an expression of this. To be honest, it troubles me how white so much of a more electronic kind of music seems to be. One thing I can do is give a little light to that which isn't.

The Electronic Oddities Podcast is at

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