As a grandfather, self-described libertarian, registered Republican and ex-cop, Robb Topolski would appear to be the least likely opponent of corporate malfeasance one can imagine. But when this barbershop singer and aficionado suspected that Comcast was preventing him from sharing files of historic recordings with other aficionados, he decided to get to the bottom of things. As a professional network engineer, he had the know-how to examine TCP-IP logs and discover a pattern, in this particular case one that revealed Comcast’s disregard for what would become known as “net neutrality”.
The documentary “Barbershop Punk”, now playing at the ReRun Gastropub Theater (!) in Brooklyn, a theater seemingly created for such offbeat fare, is must seeing for anybody who needs to be informed about the threat posed to the Internet by corporations with a political agenda. (Plus, the $7 admission includes free popcorn and a cocktail.) Unless an informed citizenry acts, they can turn the Internet into a commercial and politically sanitized medium just as they have done already to radio and television. This is especially true in light of how both the Egyptian and American governments have pressured ISP’s and companies like Facebook to squelch leftist ideas. Perhaps pressured is not the operative term when we are dealing with knocking down an open door.
The punk part of the film’s title derives from the participation of two seminal figures from this world, Henry Rollins and the less well-known Ian McKaye of Washington’s legendary punk band Fugazi (I owned one of their records back in the day.) Rollins and McKaye are both men of the left and could be expected to denounce Comcast’s attempts to regulate free speech but Topolski’s crusade against the corporate giant would appear at first blush to defy conventional expectations.
However, this does not account for the deeply engrained beliefs in free speech in the United States, a nation where such liberties were not won by appeals to Platonic ideals but by blood in the street. Topolski’s immediate reaction to discovering that his mp3’s were being blocked was outrage, just as my regular readers would react to learning that an email containing references to the words socialism or Marxism had been blocked.
First-time co-directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield draw upon a wide range of interviewees, both pro and con net neutrality. On the pro side, we hear from John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier and a Grateful Dead lyricist (admittedly not a punk band). On the con side there’s Scott Cleland, a particularly oily character. At first blush, Cleland comes across as a giant-killer inasmuch as he has campaigned against Google’s monopolistic tendencies. But a review of the members of his netcompetition.board should leave no doubt about his intentions: AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, Time Warner, Qwest, et al.
Last Thursday the Senate voted to block Republican attempts to overturn net neutrality. President Obama is on record as stating that if any such bill came his way, he would have vetoed it—a rare example of him standing up for the rights of the 99 percent versus the one percent.
But it would be a huge mistake to rely on the Democrats considering the role of Mike McCurry, one of the “cons” interviewed in the documentary. In a valuable article by Counterpunch regular Joshua Frank, we learn:
There is quite an underhanded campaign going on by Net Neutrality opponents called “Hands off the Internet” who claim to want to protect the internet from regulators and Big Government. In the past year they have even run deceptive ads on blogs and other websites in hopes of pulling internet readers in to their camp. Some of the big names behind these cunning ploys include AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon.
Co-chair of this group is the ex-spokesman for President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, Mike McCurry who writes an occasional column at the Huffington Post. McCurry claims Net Neutrality will kill the internet.
Fact is Net Neutrality is what has gotten us this far. Yet McCurry writes, “The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky. You all worship at Vince Cerf who has a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate but you immediately castigate all of us who disagree and impugn our motives. I get paid a reasonable but small sum to argue what I believe.”
So how much does this guy get paid? Well, not sure how much the big telecom giants are dolling out, but McCurry charges $10,000 and up per speaking gig, so it’s likely he’s bankrolled by the telecommunications industry. Hands off the Internet wants to destroy the web just like the radio goliaths have killed the airwaves.
Not long after I accepted an invitation from the publicist for “Barbershop Punk” to review a screener, she asked me if I would also be willing to review “A People Uncounted.” While the film has not yet been scheduled for theatrical release and is currently only showing in film festivals geared to independent works, I strongly urge everybody to keep track of the film on its official website to see if it is being shown in your area. As the definitive documentary on the oppression of the Roma people, this is a film that must be seen by progressives and revolutionaries everywhere.
Until now, every film on the Roma has pretty much been the exclusive creation of the very gifted Roma director Tony Gatlif. Even in the case of “Korkoro” (the Roma word for freedom), a fictional tale about a Roma band exterminated by the Nazis, Gatlif’s emphasis has been on personal stories rather than the social and political context in which Roma have become scapegoats.
All of the principals behind “A People Uncounted” are Jewish, including the children of concentration camp survivors—the producers Tom Rasky and Marc Swenker. In acting as tribunes for the Roma people, they represent Yiddishkeit at its best.
The film is divided into two parts. The first is an examination of stereotypes about the Roma people and the threats they currently face in an economically stressed Europe. The second, drawing from the information gathered in the first part, is very much in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and consists of extremely moving interviews with Roma survivors of the Nazi death camps.
Perhaps no other people in European history have been the victims of vicious stereotyping than the Jews and the Roma. In one of the more powerful moments of the film, we see a sorry procession of pop singers like Cher singing songs with lyrics like this:
Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down
Like the Jews, the Roma were very much circumscribed by the economic conditions laid down by the majority nationality of each country they found themselves in. In countries where they were prevented from owning land or businesses, they would travel from town to town in search of day laborer or where they could ply their trades as musicians or metal workers. This explains the “love of the road” attributed to them. When laws were passed to give them the same rights as other nationalities, they bought houses and settled into a stationary existence.
The film benefits from the expert testimony of some of the world’s leading Roma scholars, including Ian Hancock (née Yanko le Redžosko), the dean of Roma studies. About forty years ago, I read his history of the Roma people and can’t recommend it highly enough.
The European left has a big responsibility to help defend the Roma against increasingly deadly attacks by ultranationalists who want to make scapegoats of this community in the same fashion as the Nazis. The film has footage of the Jobbik Party in Hungary, modeled on fascist movements of the past. Harping on “gypsy crime”, the party openly calls for ethnic cleansing along the lines of “Hungary for the Hungarians”. It has organized a paramilitary called the Hungarian Guard that parades in uniforms that resemble the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930s.
Things are not that much better in “civilized” and prosperous France where Sarkozy, of Hungarian descent, has declared open warfare on the Roma, expelling “illegals” by the hundreds.
“A People Uncounted” is a major contribution to civil rights movement that is unfolding throughout Europe. In our day, the famous words of Martin Niemöller would require some changes to reflect new realities:
First they came for the Roma, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Roma.
Then they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.