Friday, May 26, 2006

Thoughts on Notes From the Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky says that to think to much is a disease. I’m a college educated person, trained in how to think. Thinking is like a science or an art to me. Yet, Dostoyevsky has a point. Thinking to much can lead one to not take action on those thoughts. To think to much is to commit yourself to a life in the reverse of the brainless zombie we see in horror movies. Yet despite this reversal, to think to much leads one to act just like those zombies, unable to do anything, wandering aimlessly, seeking only food (whether it be brains or food for thought).

In the activism I’m involved with, I see how thinking to much is a disease almost everyday. People talk about action way to much. There is an overabundance of theory and a serious lack of action. It’s gotten to the point where people call talking about their thoughts an action. If they shout their thoughts in public it’s called a protest.

Meanwhile, the machine acts. It ships arms in our backyards, and rains death upon those who oppose it. The machine has it’s thinkers, it’s Karl Roves, it’s Projects for New American Centuries, but the system also has it’s army of those who do it’s bidding. Mindless drones, pawns in chess who when they receive orders to do so, act without thinking about it.

What do to many people do about this? Instead of fighting the fascists, to many are content to rationalize them, debate them, ignore them or attempt to educate them. Meanwhile our teeth are being kicked in, our faces dragged through mud, and our voices ringing hollow on ears that refuse to listen.

To think to much is to sit on ones ass. It’s like playing video games. You think your playing football, but really your just sitting on your ass and fiddling your fingers. Instead of actually playing football, you are imagining that you are playing football.

Further when one plays video games, like when one thinks, they are limited by what has been created before them. One can not play the video game that has not been created, coded, tested, packaged, shipped and sold. With thinking, one can not imagine a new religion that has nothing to do with the old religion. Even if it’s the reverse, knowledge of that older religion influences the new faith, the new mythology. Many Christian holidays are celebrated the day that Roman holidays were on.

Dostoyevsky goes a step further though. He doesn’t just say that thinking to much is problematic, he actually says that stupidity is praise worthy because stupid people take action. In a sense he’s right, but the question he fails to address, is who’s action do they take. Is it really their own formulation or is it someone who is commanding them to take action? For example, a soldier in the army takes action, but it’s not always in their own interest, and as dissident soldiers, C.O.’s and others have shown, it is often not in their own will.

Dostoyevsky argues that often people enjoy doing that which is actively bad for them. He compares it to a toothache, and how people can derive pleasure from it. So perhaps some people don’t mind being pawns in chess. Perhaps some prefer 2 + 2 = 4, no mater how terrible that trail of death is for them.

What Dostoyevsky doesn’t discuss is how taking to much action can be problematic. To be continually moving, fighting, engaging, is to never reflect on what the effects of that action are or whats behind why you take that action. To not think about that, is to repeat the action. Repeat the action. Repeat the action, until the spark dies out. I feel it is best to create a praxis of theory and practice. Action and thought united in a cycle so that each feeds off the other, both practiced by the same person.

My biggest problem with Dostoyevsky, is that at a certain point, his irrationality becomes very rational. His comparison between “uncivilized” people and supposedly “civilized” warmongers makes perfect sense. That which society deems irrational, might only be different. The person ranting on the corner makes no sense until you hear them out. Listen to them explain their views and why they have them. Then it makes sense. The person who has been taught their whole lives that Christianity is a religion of life, will be flabergasted by the person who tells them that more people have died in Jesus’ name than any other. But if they stop and listen to the stories of inquisitions, wars, and crusades, they will get a different picture.

The other part of Dostoyevsky that becomes rational is the issue of mass acceptance. 2 + 2 = 4 because society declares it so. But if all of society declared that 2 + 2 = 5, wouldn’t the person who insisted that 2 + 2 = 4 seem irrational? In many ways we see this contradiction with the culture of individuality. Everyone wants to be an individual, to stand out, to be different. Yet, they all become the same in this process. What’s so different about being different when everyone is different?

I would say that the life I’ve lived is closer to 2+ 2 =5, in that it has been unorthodox, but I’m trying to create a world where 2 + 2 = 4 isn’t destructive, where the normal way of doing things isn't destructive. In many ways the world we live in today is closer to -2 – 2 = -4. As Dostoyevsky points out that many times people don’t desire what is in their best interests. They don’t want the positive, they want the negative. This is one of the greatest obstacles on the path towards a utopian society. So to take the world out of it’s negative ways, we need to break out of the mold. If the messed up world is -4, a person living a 2 + 2 = 4 life still leaves us in the neutral zone, whereas a person living a 2 + 2 = 5 life would actually give us a positive 1...... and the hope of a new world.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Intellectual Property and DePaul

The other day I was watching a movie at DePaul, about the death penalty. It was great, it raised a bunch of issues about why the Death Penalty should be abolished in the US, and was an educational tool. But some school administrators and the enforcement of a backwards-ass federal law, would make screenings like this one much more difficult at DePaul.

A new rule implemented this year was for the school and student groups to obtain licenses to show movies, licenses often costing $200 or more.

This didn’t sound right to me, so I went to speak with Tiffany Guzarde and Shannon Greybar Milliken in student life about the matter. They told me it was a federal law which they were upholding and that they weren’t necessarily happy enforcing it as it was creating a strain on the already limited Student Allocation Funding Board budget.

I explained to them that DePaul, as an educational institution, should be able to show movies under a fair use clause. I mean, most students groups aren’t screening “You Me and the Dupree”, or boot-leg copies of “Spider-man 3” while its still in theaters. They are showing documentaries, or even when it is fictional, it has an educational value.

But in the eyes of this law and the bureaucrats stuck enforcing it, this is likable to downloading movies online. They are terrified of being fined, but I asked them if DePaul had ever been fined, or threatened with being fined, and they replied, “no.”

This can be problematic in many ways. Many underground films don’t have licenses. For example a movie about the anti-World Bank/IMF protests in Prague called “Crowd Bites Wolf” has no license and no way of contacting the filmmakers to get a statement regarding it’s lake of a license.

This has to be put in the perspective of encroaching “intellectual property” laws against free speech. Consider the movie “Eyes on the Prize.” It’s considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time, documenting civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. One of my professors at DePaul showed it and it was not only educational, but inspirational. It showed how ordinary people were risen up because of their involvement in the struggle for civil rights.

Unfortunately copyright law has hindered “Eyes on the Prize” from being broadcast on TV or issued on DVD, or even shown in public settings like my classroom. Since the documentary used archive footage, it has to pay for the right to use such footage. Imagine having to pay every time you quoted a book in an essay you wrote for class. There was a fear that it might not even be able to be rebroadcast ever again. The filmmakers had to shell out thousands of dollars to obtain temporary rights to the archival footage so they could show the film on PBS recently, but having it issued on DVD might take longer and cost more.

Hip Hop music has been pushing boundaries by sampling recordings, and many great songs have run into restrictions because of that. Consider the absurdity that musician John Fogerty had to deal with. As a member of the band Creedence Clearwater Revival he wrote a song called. “Run Through the Jungle.” He would later leave the band, and start a solo career on another record label. He would be sued by the former record label because his song, “Old Man Down the Road” sounded to much like his song “Run through the Jungle.” In other words he was being sued for sounding to much like himself! Fogerty defeated this suit, but left unchecked, intellectual property rights advocates would leave us all in a situation like this.

Another way intellectual property laws are destroying our freedoms and rights can be seen in the emergence of GMO’s or Genetically Modified Organisms. Corporations like Monsanto are copyrighting and patenting the genetic codes of plants. When they sell these GMO seeds to farmers, they have all sorts of stipulations, to guarantee that farmers are not allowed to save seeds for the next year, and essentially remain in debt to the company. As consumers, we should be worried, because we aren’t allowed to even know what we are eating, as that is a trade secret.

In the digital world we see similar problems. The next step of the record companies and their iTunes buddies in stopping file sharing is to implement Digital Rights Management or DRM. DRM is essentially software that prevents you from making copies of the CD or MP3 you legally bought. So even if you buy a song from iTunes, and want to make a back up copy on your external hard drive, just in case your computer crashes, as they often do, DRM would prevent you.

In 2005, Sony sold millions of CD’s with DRM like software which would automatically installed itself, without alerting consumers, onto their PC. This was bad enough, but it turns out the software actually opened up security holes, making innocent fans of music, victims of computer viruses.

Whats next, every time you utter “lord of the rings” or “the” you get sued? I watched a video on called “Chad Vader- day manager.” It was a funny parody, but if these copyright laws were effected fully, it would stifle that kind of parody.

Luckily there are ways people are resisting. Many artists, writers and musicians are releasing their work on Creative Commons licenses which allow the author to profit while giving users the right to copy and use the work in other ways.

To oppose the proprietary Microsoft software many computer programmers have contributed to the GNU/Linux project. In a nut shell, the software is free, anyone can download it, look at the source code and contribute their own code to the programs.

Other activists are battling this through websites like which do a number of creative protests to defend file sharing.

I suggested to Tiffany and Shannon in DePaul student life that the school get involved in resisting these copyright laws. Lobby Congress to repeal these arcane laws which prohibit students from watching documentaries with their friends. DePaul could have a large influence on this issue, and by taking the lead on it, other school would join it.

They said DePaul was to busy lobbying on student loans and other issues. Student Loans are a decent thing to lobby about, reducing the amount of interest students have to pay back would be a positive thing and would allow more students to afford a college education.

But I proposed: why doesn’t DePaul lobby Congress on the war? All the money going to build bombs and privatize Iraq could be used to build schools, here in the US and in Iraq. All the money wasted on Blackwater mercenaries and Halliburton profits could go to documentary makers to allow them to pay for archival footage, or to students who want to pay for movie licenses. Shannon didn’t like that idea.

Honestly the best thing students can do is host screenings of banned movies. Start with “Eyes on the Prize.” Let’s get 500 people together to watch it for free, then have a discussion about it, write about it and bring up examples from it in our classes. If the school or movie lawyers come after us, we have our own lawyers through the electronic frontier foundation, national lawyer’s guild and others who would gladly take the case pro-bono.

Since I started writing this, the issue has become more pertinent. Many DePaul students including Janien Hammonds, daughter of Black Student Union founder James Hammonds, are being sued for downloading music. It's likely a court battle with ensue. Students should support the students in fighting against these corporations. These corporations make billions, and yet they want $2,000 from Hammonds, just for downloading a few songs. Stay tuned to for more on what you can do to defend creative freedom.

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