the red scare

well, the creative commies graphic i whipped up a couple of days ago continues to make the rounds. today wired news has a story about the web community’s reaction to bill gates’ comments to likening intellectual property reformers to modern day communists. normally i’d be pleased to see a piece of work get such widespread circulation, but in this case i’m actually a bit torn.

being that this is the first meme (or more acurately mini-meme) i’ve been directly involved with, i’ve followed it’s spread pretty closely through technorarti, and it’s fascinating. but what’s more fascinating is the reaction. i went on to a few forums and read what was being said and was utterly perplexed. on the one hand there are those who laugh, and say, “hey cool image,” which seemed the proper response. on the other there are those who are annoyed and alarmed at the implications of willingly equating what is essentially a “market-based approach to copyright” with the great american bugaboo of communism. it upsets these folks to see people actually embracing what was essentially a slur. the reason it upsets them is the same reason i’m troubled, because conceptually, i think they are correct: it’s not the embracing of a negative in and of itself but the fact that the comparison is totally flawed. embracing it in many ways does a disservice to the cause of intellectual property reform because it allows the opposition to frame the argument in a disingenuous way. a tactic of debate i think we are as a culture very familiar with at this point.

here is some of what’s been said thus far from a couple of different forums:

patrick nielsen hayden:
The real story is that a relaxed intellectual-property regime is one of the things that made America a great power, and that the kind of ultra-restrictive, we-own-everything-forever IP now being promoted by Hollywood is in fact the new, alien, and un-American thing. The bad guys’ basic strategy is to portray themselves as defending the status quo while in fact effecting a revolutionary change. When you, their opponents, allow yourself to be defined as the alien, you’re doing exactly what they want you to do, and you lose. So knock it off with the photoshopped Soviet Constructivist fun and start wrapping yourself in the American flag.

Henry Farrell
I’m increasingly convinced that the “free culture” movement could, and should, be revolutionary in its implications - it’s maybe the best thing to hit the left in the last twenty years, if the left will only wake up to it. Which isn’t to say that the Soviet riff makes good political sense - but free culture is, and should be revolutionary. In other words, it should be all-American in exactly the same sense as Eugene Debs, Joe Hill and Woodie Guthrie were all-American.

xeni jardin
The notion that people who support copyright reform are “commies” is hilarious, and I think these little bloggable visual jokes are a perfectly appropriate and effective way to point out just how ridiculous that notion is.

Greg London
Satire is fine as long as you’re casting the bad guys as bad. The Hermetic President pokes holes in the Administrations attitude that dissent is the same as “aiding the enemy” by showing it for what it is: bald-faced nationalism that could easily lead to facism. So framing Bush as Hitler has it’s purpose.The problem with the “copyleft == communist” satire is that it takes an inherent trait of intellectual ideas (that knowledge is community property) and casts it as evil (communism).

Lucy Kemnitzer have no intention of advocating a cramped, joyless, fearful and tongue-tied opposition. But I do think that the result of being afraid of communism jokes and defiant and ironic humor will be that. Actually, I believe this is one of the two or three things I know for sure. When we’re outspoken, and we offend a few people, and we glory in ourselves, we win. When we hedge, and mumble, and worry more about offending than about getting our say, we lose.

I love the creative Commies meme. It makes fun of the Man. Nobody thinks open-source programmers are going to send Polish Army officers to the Gulag, send tanks into Prague, or bug the American Embassy in Moscow. By reveling in it, we demonstrate that this frame has no power over us: cf “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

cory doctorow
It’s funny, in the whole copyleft=communism debate there’s been a lot of ‘CC is communist,’ ‘No, extreme copyright is communist!’ But the fact is that neither are particularily communistic. Many of copyleft’s advocates have an anti-corporate agenda, but many others believe in copyright reform because they support the rights of entrepreneurs to enter the market with new products without the say-so of the incumbents; that’s not communist, it’s practically libertarian.

charles stross
we’re up against folks who are hired for the sole purpose of looking good in public. And the court of public opinion is where this argument is going to be won or lost. Please let’s not undermine our own campaign to be taken seriously before we get started? Instead, we need to take the fight to the enemy. Paint them as copyright thieves, stealing the bread from the mouths of writers’ and musicians’ starving children. Paint them as copyright fascists, preventing you, the listener, from copying your CD’s that you paid for onto your iPod. Paint them as the corporate blackmailers they are, threatening 12-year-olds with jail time. But don’t, please, let them portray us as elitist weirdos, or we’ve lost.

lawrence lessig
If I had the time, and the money, I’d do the deep analysis that it would take to explain to myself why it is I constantly hope to be surprised by Mr. Gates. Yet I never am. It’s one thing to read this sort of thing from a studio exec, or head of a record label—surrounded as they are by the sort that surround them. But the people I’ve met at Microsoft are miles beyond this sort of silliness. Does Mr. Gates not even talk to them?

Fear mongering is not something that happens in singular isolated instances, it is a cultural wave which grows in force with each seismic event. The “family values” crowd are neither liberal nor conservative politically, the McCarthy crowd were not economic conservatives, the salem witch trials were not fostered by conservatism…. but all of those events have strains of the same subculture of zeaoltry within them. The average american, in my view, understands less about the idea of open source than they do about presidential politics. They do however hold tremendous faith in iconoclastic symbols, labels and references. Gates is shrewd enough to start slinging the mud and co-opting the labels before the debate begins. Watch how fast open source becomes synonymous with “Communist left over hippies that lack creative talent and want a free ride on the backs of honest hard working americans who understand the sense of self-satisfaction that can only come from making something with your own two hands”

anon sili valley werker
If you don’t think there’s a fight, you haven’t been paying attention. Now I have nothing against money itself as a means of exchanging energy, but *nothing* I do is to make money first. And I am richer as a person when other people are enriched. If that makes me a communist, I’m a communist. I happen to think, rather, that it makes me civilized.

initially i was totally perplexed by the gravity of the negative reactions. i kept thinking, “hey, wait a minute, this was a lark, a goof.” i tried saying as much on a forum and was burnt to a crisp. “the idea that something is immune to criticism if you make the magic hex sign and declare ‘It Was A Joke’ is dumb coming out of the mouth of a twelve-year-old” was one such zinger i got for my troubles. i never intended to stave off criticism by expressing my befuddlement over the whole thing, because in point of fact the idea that there would be any reaction, positive or negative, never even entered into my mind. i was in fact genuinely befuddled.

from my standpoint, as a creator, the thought process went as follows:
mmmmm coffeee. yawn…. hey look at that flag! (read quote) “obviously, what we need is a large red flag with a gold copyleft in the upper left, replacing the hammer and sickle.” haha. pretty funny. but hey, you know what? when i think communist imagery i think constructivism. that’s some beautiful stuff. from an artistic standpoint that would be more fun wouldn’t it? lot’s of possibilities there… hell, why don’t i whip one up real quick? i can do better than a simple little flag logo. gives me an excuse to dabble, do something different for an hour before i get to work. hell, if it turns out good i’ll email it to xeni jardin…

and that was it. plain and simple. it seems to come as a shock to some of those arguing the conceptual validity /stupidity of the various images which cropped up that perhaps the creators weren’t thinking too deeply about the conceptual implications, and that maybe we were having a bit of fun. so far as i can tell the initial copyleft flag was meant as a joke. my contribution was meant as an extension, artistically, of the theme. that the theme itself may have been flawed meant nothing to me. i know some people will say that the lack of forethought proves their point, that this kind of discourse is serious, that there are stakes, etc etc…

forum post: Thinking for two or three seconds about who it is we need to convince, and what might work to convince them, is also needed. Or, we could just exchange t-shirts to tell one another how much cooler than Microsoft we are. That’s a plan, I suppose.

i happen to agree with that sentiment. who wouldn’t? the business of convincing people of things must certainly benefit from two or three seconds of thought, but here’s an admission: i’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. i’m trying to do what i enjoy which is create beautiful things. that’s about the extent of it. if one of my beautiful things can generate interest in the world at large, well bully for me. but if by doing what i enjoy i can manage unintentionally to jeopardize a political / legal movement, even in the most minute, peripheral way, then those who are doing what they enjoy, that of convincing people of things, are not doing a very good job of it. i don’t happen to think that is the case, i don’t believe this little web-blip warrants nearly such a high word count, but i’ll refrain from trying to convince anyone.

this stance may well be characterize as naive, careless, and foolish. and that’s o.k. i am not well educated on the issue of intellectual property. i am not well versed in its finer points. i have done more pro bono design work in my life than i care to admit. i often give stuff away. i tend not to capitalize on interest when it’s expressed. i make zero money off of any of it. these seem to certainly qualify me as naive, careless, and foolish. but in the final counting i’m pretty sure i’m only qualified to do one thing, create art, which is just fine by me, because that’s all i want to do.

it strikes me that the first chapter of rothko’s the artists reality deals with just this stance often attributed to, and to some degree fostered by, artists:

what is the popular conception of the artists? gather a thousand descriptions, and the composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs. the picture does not necessarily involve censure or unkindness. these deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist’s preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself… biographers contrast the artlessness of his judgments with the high attainment of his art, and while his naivete or rascality are gossiped about, they are viewed as signs of simplicity and inspiration, which are handmaidens of art.

strange, but the artist has never made a fuss about being denied those estimable virtues other men would not do without: intellectuality, good judgment, a knowledge of the world, and rational conduct. it may be charged that he has even fostered the myth. in his intimate journals vollard tells us that degas feigned deafness to escape diputations or harangues concerning things he considered false or distasteful, if the speaker or subject changed, his hearing immediately improved. we must marvel at his wisdom since he must have only surmised what we know definantly today: that the constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth. it is understandable, then, how the artist might actually cultivate this moronic appearance, this deafness, this inarticulateness, in an effort to evade the million irrelevancies which daily accumulate concerning his work. for, while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done. -mark rothko.

as i said that this creative commies thing gathered any steam surprised the hell out of me, and i still think it’s all a bit silly, but if i were pressed i’d have to say i’m sympathetic with the points made that conceptually the comparison is totally flawed, and as a tool for the ip reform cause it’s of little use in that it’s so loaded. communism is an allusion no one can win with here in the u.s. of a. i don’t think embracing the word “communist” would ever play out the same way it did with the slur “nigger”, effectively being stripped from its hurlers and changed into something else all together. the frame wont shift in that way. better to point out how wrong gates’ statement was in the first place. lawrence lessigs distinction was the most successful i think, namely that copyright reform advocates are “commonists,” not “communists.” can the truth, the facts, the reality of the situation win any converts? i seriously doubt it. but that’s not my area of interest so i’ll leave it alone. as a graphic, as a bit of fun, as an emotionally fueled fuck you from the man on the street to the billionaire monopolist in the ivory tower, i think it’s fantastic.

i’m interested in what you all think about this kind of thing, especially from the artist’s point of view. feel free to chime in and enlighten me.