From Philosophy to Art, 10 Essential Books on Protest
What Billie Holiday has to do with Burma, growing your own marijuana, and the American Revolution.
By Maria Popova
2011 has been the year of protest. From the Arab Spring to the London Riots to the global Occupy Wall Street movement, civic unrest and sociopolitical dissent have reached a tipping point of formidable scale. This omnibus of ten nonfiction books that illuminate protest through the customary Brain Pickings lens of cross-disciplinary curiosity, spanning everything from psychology and philosophy to politics and government to art and music, extends an invitation to better understand the art, science, and psychology of protest, both in our present reality and in the broader context of our civilization.
33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE (2011)
Since the dawn of modern history, song and poetry have been tightly woven into movements of social change. In some cases, singers have been censored, arrested, beaten, or even killed for their vocal bravery. (Just recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie.) In others, they have unscrupulously exploited the protest ethos to garner publicity for mediocre pop songs. In 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day, British rock critic Dorian Lynskey digs deep into the underbelly of 20th-century protest songs to explore why the best of them give you chills and goosebumps, even decades later.
The best protest songs are not dead artifacts, pinned to a particular place and time, but living conundrums. The essential, inevitable difficulty of contorting a serious message to meet the demands of entertainment is the grit that makes the pearl.”
And, lest we forget, music is particularly engrained in America’s present political reality. When Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States, he stood up in front of one hundred thousand supporters and channeled the exhilaration of his inauguration by paraphrasing the lyrics of soul singer Sam Cooke’s iconic anthem. “It’s been a long time coming, ” Obama proclaimed. “It’s been a long, long time coming,” Cooke sang. “..but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” “…but I know a change gonna come.“
Obama is, in a sense, the first protest song president. He grew up on the politicized soul of Stevie Wonder and used Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem “Move on Up” at his election rallies. During the campaign, a list of his ten favorite songs printed in Blender magazine included “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, “Think” by Aretha Franklin, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” which was written around a recording of his own speech, thus making him the lyricist of his own protest song.”
From Billie Holiday’s 1939 “Strange Fruit,” the first openly anti-racism song and the tipping point at which pop music fully embraced politics, to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and other anthems of the 1970s anti-war movement to contemporary songwriters addressing everything from nuclear energy to corruption, Lynskey lays out a layered and fascinating study of the intersection of music and politics.
For a while, in the dizzying rush of the 1960s, it was thought that pop music could change the world, and some people never recovered from the realization that it could not. But the point of protest music, or indeed any art with a political dimension, is not to shift the world on its axis but to change opinions and perspectives, to say something about the times in which you live, and, sometimes, to find that what you’ve said speaks to another moment in history, which is how Barack Obama came to be standing in Grant Park paraphrasing the worlds of Sam Cooke.”
Even though Henry David Thoreau’s beard ranks rather low on Underwood’s Pogonometric Index of poetic gravity by beard weight, his legacy as a poet, philosopher, abolitionist, historian, and transcendentalist makes him one of the most important thinkers in modern history. In his seminal 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau made a compelling case for individual resistance to civil government that would inspire generations of revolutionaries and ordinary nonconformists alike to engage in moral protest against being made unwitting accomplices in the injustices perpetrated by the state. The essay, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the form ever written, was inspired in part by Thoreau’s outrage over slavery in America and the Mexican-American War, and was based on his 1848 lecture “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government.” Insights and elements from it have inspired some of the greatest social change agents of the 20th century, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.”
FREEDOM ON THE MENU (2005)
What’s a Brain Pickings omnibus without a proper children’s book? In Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, a fine addition to our favorite children’s nonfiction, author Carole Boston Weatherford and painter Jerome Lagarrigue tell the story of 8-year-old Connie as she observes the spark of the African-American civil rights movement from the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of the infamous Greensboro sit-ins.
Just about every week, Mama and I went shopping downtown. I loved having her all to myself for the afternoon. Whenever it was hot or we got tired, we’d head over to the snack bar at the five-and-dime store. We’d stand as we sipped our Cokes because we weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counter.”
For a grown-up take on these seminal events and times, see The Movement and The Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee.
One thing this year’s unrest and its treatment in the popular media have exposed is the tendency of today’s scholars to reduce protest to “objective” factors like resources, evolutionary biology, and political structures. More than a decade ago, prominent NYU, Columbia and Princeton sociology professor James M. Jasper channeled his frustration with this conflation in The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements — a thoughtful and provocative treatise on the creative, subjective side of social and political protest. Since Jasper’s central focus is on mental life, his inquiry extends not only to culture but also to the role of the individual in the dynamic of social movements, something often ignored in theories of collective dissent.
Culture is everywhere, but it is not everything. We can only see it clearly by contrasting it with biography, strategy, and resources. At the same time, we cannot understand those other dimensions of protest without defining culture crisply.”
Jasper examines how issues of innovation, creativity, and change relate to culture and biography, converging to produce powerful social shifts.
Individuals often initiate small changes, many of which become widespread, and it is through cultural learning that they spread. People learn from the interaction between their existing cultural or biographical equipment and new experiences — a preeminently mental process.”
Burmese opposition politician, intellectual, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most inspiring figures in modern political history. Between 1989 and 2010, she spent nearly 15 years in house arrest for her political convictions and persistent whistle-blowing around the country’s undemocratic elections. In Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience, Justin Wintle peels away at the reserved demeanor, Oxford education, and gentle femininity of Burma’s Iron Lady to reveal the rugged fabric of her tireless dissent in what’s as much a rigorously researched biography as it is a deeply reverential homage to her bravery and character.
Thus has been created the best-known prisoner of conscience presently alive. In the narrow gallery of modern saints, her images stands out, and it is commonplace to hear Aung San Suu Kyi likened to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, even Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violence she assiduously espoused.”
For an even more personal perspective, see Suu Kyi’s own Letters from Burma, full of poignancy and urgency, published mere months before her release.
COMMON SENSE (1776)
On January 10, 1776, radical author, intellectual and revolutionary Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense. Though he did so anonymously, signing it “Written by an Englishman,” it gained immediate success, with the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history relative to the population at the time, and went on to become one of the most incendiary and important documents of the American Revolution.
Premised on the conviction that American colonists needed to attain freedom from British rule at a time of uncertainty around the issue of independence, Paine’s pamphlet resonated not only because of the candor and passion of its argument but also because it was written in a style that common people understood, a radical departure from the pompous style of Enlightenment-era writers, riddled with Latin references and over-intellectualized language. Instead, Paine borrowed from the structure of sermons and connected independence with the ethos of dissent fundamental to Protestant beliefs, ultimately crafting a distinctly American political identity.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”
For another layer of added relevance, Common Sense is also a powerful case study in successful self-publishing and the viral potential of books, something particularly hotly debated today.
PARASTOU FAROUHAR (2011)
One November evening in 1998, Iranian intellectuals and activists Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, supporters of the democratically elected Prime Minister, were savagely murdered in their home in Tehran. Their devastated daughter, Berlin-based artist Parastou Forouhar, channeled her grief in the language she spoke most fluently: art — powerful, poignant, subversive art that pulls you into its uncomfortable beauty with equal parts urgency and mesmerism. Parastou Forouhar: Art, Life and Death in Iran is a stirring chronicle of the artist’s protest against these most gruesome crimes against human rights, a commentary on both her painful private experience and the broader cultural tensions it reflected, exploring everything from democracy to women’s rights to her parents’ brutal murder.
With work that stands in stark contrast to the loud, conspicuous, explicit messaging of Iran’s street art, Forouhar uses soft colors and fluid shapes to draw you in, only to jolt you with the grave scenes of torture and tragedy they depict — living proof that art doesn’t have to be “street art” in order to be subversive and make compelling cultural commentary on even the most uncomfortable of subjects.
When I arrived in Germany, I was Parastou Forouhar. Somehow, over the years, I’ve become ‘Iranian.’ This enforced ethnic identification took a new turn with the assassination of my parents in their home in Tehran. My efforts to investigate this crime had a great impact on my personal and artistic sensibilities. Political correctness and democratic coexistence lost their meaning in my daily life. As a result, I have tried to distill this conflict of displacement and transfer of meaning, turning it into a source of creativity.” ~ Parastou Forouhar
Originally reviewed here.
STEAL THIS BOOK (1971)
As much a tongue-in-cheek survival guide for life in America (or, Amerika, as it were) as it was a serious piece of cultural commentary on the status quo, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book inspired a generation of social revolutionaries to challenge the cultural and political mandates of the day. Brilliantly and often scandalously illustrated by the one and only R. Crumb, this classic offers insurgent advice on everything from starting a pirate radio station to how to making pipe bombs to growing marijuana. The title reflects Hoffman’s assertion that it isn’t immoral to steal from the state, which he infamously calls “Pig Empire,” calling for rebellion against authority, both governmental and corporate. A frequent rebel himself, Hoffman famously wrote the book’s introduction while in jail.
Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit. When all today’s isms have become yesterday’s ancient philosophy, there will still be reactionaries and there will still be revolutionaries. No amount of rationalization can avoid the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on the planet. I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system and do not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.
Hoffman was also a fellow Marshall McLuhanite with a firm belief that “structure is more important than content in the transmission of information” — his modification of McLuhan’s iconic catchphrase, “The medium is the message.”
Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art, one of our 7 favorite books on street art, explores the history and context of illegal art, from traditional graffiti to performance to design interventions, as a powerful form of urban protest. As a proper Taschen treat, this lavish 320-page volume features work from 150 influential artists across four generations of visionary outlaws, including Keith Haring, Os Gemeos, Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, Blu, and Banksy.
Published October 31, 2011