Paying rent in The Tower of Song; or: art and responsibility in the new age of fascism

I have the near simultaneity of Donald Trump’s election and Leonard Cohen’s death to thank for connecting some of the dots in the basic black and white drawing of a brain that passes for my actual brain.

Look: I don’t even really know who I’m talking to here. Hello, are you there, Internet? It’s me, Mathias. Normally this space is reserved for me telling the plural you—yous guys; vosotros—about what I’m up to with the band. Hey, it’s a new video, hey, it’s a tour, hey, it’s a t-shirt. But today I need to write something different down, and I need it to not just be for me, because it isn’t, really. It’s also for yous guys.

Because we are all part of this, whether we like it or not (and I do not, emphatically). Leonard Cohen had the good sense and great timing he always displayed to leave this plane of existence just as the ultimate symbol of the coming Dark Age was elected to what is still the most powerful public office on the planet. But as much as Donald Trump is a walking disease of a human being, he is really just an unusually gross symptom of something deeper and more disgusting and harder to get rid of. There will (hopefully) be another American election in four years, but the pus he represents is oozing everywhere, and the infection is hard to cure.

And, like gonorrhea, this infection does not respect borders or walls or the Internet or the law.

To all the people out there who are bravely and hopefully thinking and posting and writing about how maybe it won’t be so bad after all, and give him a chance, and maybe democracy and nice things et cetera: your optimism is so wonderful and sweet!

But you are wrong. Trump is only the latest and most grotesque part of a worldwide and well-documented turn towards fascism and hatred. Perhaps it is the last gasp of assorted old empires, but that gasp will swallow us if we let it.

Brexit, Trump, refugees, Syria, religious fundamentalism, Gamergate, the rise of the so-called ‘alt right,’ transphobia, environmental apocalypse, a new/old Europe of borders and reactionary nationalism… it’s all a little much at the same time, a little much to dismiss as a phase, something people will get over. On all continents, in every country, there is the same festering infection. What are we going to do about it?

I don’t know about you, but I am going to get to work.

Leonard Cohen wrote this, halfway through ‘Anthem’:

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Leonard Cohen was many things, as people are noting eloquently throughout the glowing ones and zeroes of our collective thoughtscape. But in addition to being a great poet, a gentle soul, and my favourite songwriter of all time, Leonard Cohen was not afraid to take things seriously. And we need to take things very seriously right now.

No matter who we are, where we live, or what we do, taking things seriously means that we need to be honest with ourselves and our loved ones about the vileness happening in the world—we need find a way to talk to our kids about hatred, even if it’s not as fun or as easy as talking to them about The Wiggles—and we must never let hopeful optimism be a shield against reality.

Because there is no longer any possibility of doubt that we are sliding toward another of these vicious, repetitive cycles of hate and destruction that we human beings seem to be prone to. Most likely, as usual, it can all probably be traced back to a fundamental refusal of a tiny number of the world’s most rich and powerful people to give even one of their tiny shits about anyone else. Since this tiny number of people has such disproportionate power, they also have a tremendous influence on the messages that get out there to the rest of us. As Leonard Cohen sang nearly three decades ago in ‘Democracy,’ you can say that I’ve grown bitter, but of this you may be sure: the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor. The more we hide behind ignorance, consumption, and distraction, the more we surrender our freedom of thought and our agency and our power.

To those of us who spend a great deal of time making things for other people to hear, taste, touch, read, and look at, I’d like to suggest that maybe we have an extra responsibility. Maybe it’s time to stop focusing quite so much on ourselves and our work and our supposed ‘careers’ and start trying harder to make art that can—in whatever small way—rattle the chains, shake the walls, and make the racists and bigots and homophobes and the endlessly rich inescapably afraid and aware of our anger and our refusal and our immortality. Leonard Cohen put it this way, beautifully:

I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk, but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet.

I’m as guilty as anyone: I’m often more concerned about whether or not I’m going to sell enough records to pay for the records I keep making than whether the records I’m making really mean or say anything worth saying. Art is hard and confusing.

But you know what isn’t hard or confusing? Fascism. That’s a big part of its horrible charm.

The only thing less hard and less confusing than fascism is the absolute necessity to fight it.

So for me, at least, this week has been tragic, but also a wake-up slap to the brain. What can I possibly do, the singer and songwriter for a dramatically unsuccessful and admittedly commercially non-viable Canadian folk band with a terrible name?

I can do any fucking thing I want. And so can you.

And most of all, even though we know that the dice are loaded, we must—as Leonard always did—roll them with our fingers crossed. We will win.







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