The Art of War

A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. A drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen killed 17 people, mostly civilians, medical and security sources said, adding grist to mounting criticism of the US drone war. AFP PHOTO/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

As historian Nick Turse exhaustively details in his 2008 book, The Complex, the warfare state insidiously invades our everyday lives. From the products we purchase to the entertainment we consume, war is ever-present.

War is the antithesis of freedom. It is the widespread negation of individual liberty. War is sustained by our tax dollars just as thieves prosper from plunder. It distorts markets, destroys property, and gives sanction to mass murder.

Taxpayers are forced to fund the war machine, making each of us culpable for the US Empire’s lethal expeditions abroad. Think of it as organized crime. When you help finance a hit, you’re complicit.

The pervasiveness of war cannot help but alter society, so dissent manifests itself in the hallmarks of culture – including art.

The Politics of Art

In early December 2016, singer-songwriter ANOHNI debuted a powerful music video and released a statement for her song Obama from her album HOPELESSNESS, imploring the outgoing US president to release whistleblower Chelsea Manning. To the eternal shame of Americans, Manning continues to be held in federal custody for heroically liberating government documents and revealing unpleasant truths about US foreign policy.

From ANOHNI’s statement:

“Condemned under Obama’s administration to 35 years for blowing the whistle on US war crimes, America’s number one political prisoner is a transgendered former soldier who sits in solitary confinement after leaking video footage of US drone execution of a Reuters journalist…

If you leave Chelsea Manning in prison for whistle blowing, you send the final message to our nation that the Obama administration brutally punished moral courage in these unforgiving United States…”

ANOHNI is a trans woman, like Manning, yet her activism overlaps with Manning’s plight primarily because she is driven to confront taxpayers’ – including her own – uncomfortable complicity in funding and perpetuating vicious US foreign policy.

ANOHNI’s self-described Trojan Horse approach to activism enables her to interject a radical political perspective over pulsating beats, sweeping synths, and cheerful electronic pop music grooves. She explained her motivation and tactics in an interview with Vice in 2015:

“As a taxpayer I’ve subsidized war efforts and drone bomb campaigns and it disgusts me. Also, there’s this kind of myth that, this point has been widely accepted, that we can’t really write pop music that has intense political content, the heyday of that is long gone. So I thought, oh what a fun challenge—and why not do it to dance music? Why not do it exactly as you said, make it uplifting, and embed it into something really pop and just to see how far we can take it.”

The album opens with the haunting Drone Bomb Me, which is written from the point of view of an Afghan woman; she conflates drone strikes with an all-consuming desire to be loved, and the warmth of a Hellfire missile with the touch of an abusive spouse.

“Let me be the first / I’m not so innocent. Let me be the one / The one that you choose from above. After all, I’m partly to blame. So drone bomb me.”

In Crisis, she acknowledges complicity in horrific acts funded by US taxpayers, like drone strikes and torture at Guantanamo Bay, crooning:

“Daughter / If I filled up your mass graves / And attacked your countries / Under false premise / I’m sorry.”

But ANOHNI’s critique also departs from the US Empire abroad and returns to the domestic police state.

On tracks such as Watch Me, she condemns mass surveillance with sardonic wit:

“I know you love me, ‘Cause you’re always watching me.”

She excoriates state-sponsored murder, with a facetious tone directed at the prison system and the death penalty, on the track Execution:

“Execution. It’s an American dream. Have no mercy on me / Please don’t have mercy. Don’t let them prove I was wrong / When we know so bad what’s right. Don’t let them dig up my grave / Sometimes a feeling is reason enough.”

2017 is upon us, and the US Empire is in an odd transitional stage, but as ANOHNI told the New York Times in Spring 2016, “An artist that’s fiddle-faddling in opaque, gossamer gestures — I mean it’s fine to do that, totally fine, but there’s no time left. We don’t have the luxury of time any more.”

The Art of Politics

The sense of urgency found in ANOHNI’s music follows a timeless tradition of political expression that is not limited to a single artistic medium or perspective for those wishing to disseminate their convictions.

Benjamin Franklin’s famous 1754 political cartoon, Join, or Die, is one of the earliest and most effective examples of American political art. It was used to organize colonial opposition to the French and Native Americans during the Seven Years’ War and was later adapted in 1765 to unify colonists against the British in the lead up to the American Revolution (and eventual constitutional counter-revolution).

James Montgomery Flagg’s 1916 lithograph, What are YOU doing for preparedness?, originated as propaganda for President Woodrow Wilson’s entry of US forces into World War I. Decades later, it was adapted once more by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to galvanize Americans’ support for World War II.

Wilson shamefully aired D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the racist and highly controversial 1915 silent revisionist Civil War film, as the first motion picture shown in the White House. The film is credited as one of the inspirations for the establishment that same year of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Film was also put to horrific use less than two decades later when German director Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Her techniques and revolutionary approach to filmmaking, if not the disturbing content she captured in her infamous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will,  are still praised today. Interestingly, when commissioned by the government to make his own series of World War II propaganda films, Why We Fight, Frank Capra first screened the Riefenstahl film, which had been seized by US Customs. Capra saw firsthand the power of this new medium for communication, entertainment, and propaganda, perhaps picking up techniques himself in the process.

More recently, artists such as Banksy have used stencils, graffiti, and guerrilla tactics to stir dissent against the government’s wars. Meanwhile, others, like Shepard Fairey, spun his Andre the Giant Obey fame into stardom, followed by his famous HOPE poster that propagandized on behalf of then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the presidency.

Political music isn’t a new breakthrough either. For instance, musicians like Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Black Sabbath, the Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Pig Destroyer, Kill the Client, Architect, Ed Gein, and Millions of Dead Cops represent a range of genres of music with political messaging; including folk, classic rock, metal, grindcore, and hardcore punk.

Regardless of personal musical taste, many of us listened up when Porter Robinson gained notoriety in 2011 with his dubstep track The State, which used samples of Jeff Riggenbach reading Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty.

United Nations, a band within the dissonant punk subgenre called powerviolence, challenged both copyright law and the authority of the actual United Nations – and won. The album art for The Next Four Years was even created with cease and desist letters from the UN. Their subversive lyrics and mockery of institutions are reflected in singer Geoff Rickly comments to Alternative Press about the status of dissent in 2013:

“I don’t feel like many bands take chances anymore. There’s a lot of talk about being punk and revolutionary and this and that, but it’s also awfully safe — punk seems awfully safe to me now, so I like the idea of doing something that’s actually dangerous.”

ANOHNI’s tunes are certainly more mainstream than much of the music I mentioned above and enjoy, yet her work is surreptitiously radical, unapologetically individualistic, and catchy. She has found great success while espousing anti-imperialist views over a soundtrack more suitable for a raucous dancehall than a stuffy lecture hall or punk mosh pit.

The War of Art

It would be wise to learn from this model of activism and consider more engagement with others from outside of the libertarian movement, on their own terms, through popular culture and art; beyond what’s familiar and within our comfort zones.

“Rage is a really fun place to dance from—expressions of anger sublimated into something beautiful are invigorating, especially if you feel like you’re telling the truth. It’s a great way to get energy and catch the momentum of a movement,” ANOHNI told Pitchfork in April 2016.

Without knowing it, she echoed the sentiments of another heroic woman within our lineage.

If you’re told that it does not “behoove an agitator to dance,” remember the response from Emma Goldman:

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

Turn the beat of the war drums into beats on the dancefloor.

Art is a weapon forged in war, and in 2017, we should arm ourselves on behalf of peace and liberty.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan