Friday, March 27, 2009

Political Suicide: Malachi Ritscher, Andrew Veal, and Mecca Normal

Okay, so... there's a Mecca Normal show Saturday night at the Vinegar Factory - and if you're smart, if you're feministically-inclined, if you're interested in local music, and/or if you've never seen them before, as I suspect will be the case with at least some people reading this, you should go. But I'd like to suggest some homework first, pertaining to one of their newer songs, "Malachi." Jean Smith will no doubt preface the song with an explanation or mention it in her talk on "How Art and Music Can Change the World;" it deals with the self-immolation of an American artist and Chicago scene chronicler, Malachi Ritscher (pronounced "Richter"), whom the band got to know in their travels in America. It's a pretty interesting story, which I had no awareness of prior to hearing Mecca Normal's song; I've wanted an excuse to acquaint myself with the backstory, and writing this made a good one. I think readers of my blog will find my researches interesting...

Throughout his life, Ritscher had done much to document (through photographs and recordings) improvised and experimental music in Chicago; a list of some of the avant-gardists to whose recordings he contributed is here (and includes many projects by Ken Vandermark, who plays the Ironworks April 2nd with Ab Baars). Punks may better remember him for his bass playing (with a misspelled name) on the first Arsenal EP (led by Santiago Durango of Big Black - we assume that Ritscher knew the song "Kerosene," about self-immolation as a cure to smalltown boredom). Less Than Jake did a song about his suicide, which you can hear here. Ritscher burned himself to death in 2002, near a highway offramp during rush hour, to protest the US government's direction at that time (the War On Terror, the invasion of Iraq, etc); his "mission statement" for the act can be viewed here, in the form of an internet broadcast he issued prior to his death, and if you're going to click on only one link in this article, let me recommend that one. His self-written obit is here; reactions in Chicago can be read about here; a Pitchfork article detailing his contributions to the Chicago scene can be read here; and a blogger's article about Mecca Normal's song can be read here (also featuring video of the band performing it).

Hearing of Ritscher's death (at Mecca Normal's previous show in Vancouver) reminded me of a suicide that I'd read about a few years ago: a 25-year old Georgia man named Andrew Veal drove across America in 2004, two years after Ritscher killed himself, and after George W. Bush had won over John Kerry in the election that Ritscher refers to in his mission statement, to blow his head off at the site of the former World Trade Center. Leaving no note, Veal's was a less-focused but still apparently politically motivated action that, perhaps, in his choice of location, he figured would speak for itself. He and Ritscher are two recent examples of Americans that have killed themselves in acts of political protest; there's even a small handful of others who chose to die by self-immolation (a horrible, horrible way to go, and a striking contrast to the comfort-centered way most North Americans live). Alice Herz, described on Wikipedia as an "82 year old peace activist," self-immolated in 1965 to protest the war in Vietnam, as did Norman Morrison, apparently her "colleague" (according to Wikipedia, anyhow - a dubious source of information at times, but a useful starting place for reading). Other self-immolations in America - mostly during the Vietnam war - include George Winne Jr, Florence Beaumont, and Catholic Worker Roger Allen LaPorte. A later US self-immolation was conducted in 1996 by a Chinese-American artist/activist who called herself Kathy Change, an act that was apparently a protest against the way things were in America in general, rather than a reaction to any particular conflict or issue. The template for all of these self-immolations was probably the famous self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself aflame to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Diem regime in Vietnam. (Rage Against The Machine used a famous photograph of this action as an album cover). There are, in fact, enough political activists who have committed suicide in history worldwide to merit an index for that method of death on Wikipedia; not all of these deaths were intended as acts of protest, however. The line gets blurry in some cases: folksinger Phil Ochs, who hanged himself in 1974 (but somehow doesn't make the Wikipedia list!), was very much an activist and idealist, but his suicide was motivated by despair and depression, rather than any belief that he could bring any good about by killing himself (the poster shown here is part of Mecca Normal guitarist David Lester's "Inspired Agitator" series). Abbie Hoffman, too, was likely a suicide, which no doubt had something to do with despair at the direction his country was moving in, but there's no reason to think he meant his death to change anything on a social level.

There are, in fact, probably millions of other examples, throughout human history, of people killing themselves in political protests that Wikipedia is overlooking; and if we broaden the net to include suicides that are motivated by protests against more local, personal injustices, there are millions more names that can be added to the list. Maybe every suicide contains an element of protest? A. Alvarez, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, writes that in "primitive societies," suicide was a rather complicated form of revenge, undertaken by the wronged party on those who have wronged him or her: "either the suicide's ghost will destroy his persecutor for him, or his act will force his relatives to carry out the task, or the iron laws of the tribe will force the suicide's enemy to kill himself in the same manner. ...Suicide under these conditions is curiously unreal; it is as though it were committed in the certain belief that the suicide himself would not really die. Instead, he is performing a magical act which will initiate a complex but equally magical ritual ending in the death of his enemy."
Malachi Ritscher apparently was, as that video suggests, a man of considerable sincerity and intelligence, who likely was in full possession of his wits at the time of his death; still, hearing about his self-immolation raises a pretty significant question: does it mean anything - is it of any lasting value - that he chose to die in this terrible and terrifying way, or was he deeply misguided or confused about what he was doing? Not only did Ritscher's self-immolation not provoke "the death of his enemy" - Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld are all very much alive, and comfortably rich, to boot, having evaded all prosecution for their crimes - it didn't even do anything to directly lead to Bush's removal from office; even if the US media had rallied around Ritscher's protest - which they didn't - it's likely Kerry would still have lost that election, and it's equally likely that Barack Obama would have won the subsequent one, based on the growing realization even in the United States of Apathy that the Bush regime was monstrous and criminal. So what point could choosing such a painful death actually have?
While the accidental self-immolation of a homeless Vancouverite (known as Tracey) during our cold spell this winter - and media attention to the same - probably had some impact on the creation of new shelters in the city, this doesn't seem to be an argument for other people trying this method to provoke policy changes; to accidentally burn yourself to death because you're trying to keep warm (and happen to live in a cardboard box) is one thing, but to march down to city hall and douse yourself with kerosene is another. You're likely to be written off as a nut, for one (as was Ritscher, by some); unlike the case with Tracey, the very fact that the act was deliberate gives your enemies a defense against it ("surely no sane person would deliberately do such a thing"). And you're more likely to make people less inclined towards activism, rather than more, by such extremities. Sure, Christ instructs his followers, when speaking out against injustices, to "be not afraid of the cross" (or somethin' like that - I can never find the exact Biblical reference for it, but I think it's in there somewhere - sort of in the spirit of Luke 12); but I am afraid of the cross, thanks, and will dodge it as best I can for as long as I can. I might be prepared to give up meat or join the odd protest march or such, and can admire people (like, say, Daniel and Philip Berrigan) who are willing to endure jail time for their beliefs (which I hope I never feel I have to do), but if being politically active means setting yourself on fire, you can count me out, Jack, regardless of the cause you're selling. I don't think that's an unusual or unreasonable response: certain actions are so extreme that they're more likely to alienate people than win them over, no matter how sincerely they are intended. If Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and co. think next to nothing of the deaths of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis in pursuing their political objectives, and the mainstream media and American populus in general are too sluggish and bought off to raise much of a cry against them, what is one more death on American soil of someone who they can always claim is "clearly mentally ill?"

I'm grateful to Jean Smith and David Lester for making me aware of Malachi Ritscher, even if I consider his action tragically wrong-headed. To some extent, I respect Ritscher's choice: to deprive oneself of the many comforts that we are afforded in the west, because one believes it is right to do so, is an admirable and courageous thing, and it takes a lot of guts to set yourself on fire, as an extreme example of comfort-deprivation. All the same, I think one should expect a greater return on the investment than Malachi got; and I wonder if killing yourself as an act of political protest isn't ultimately just a sneaky way of passing the buck: "Someone else do something about this - I'm outa here."

I suppose I should note that a lot of Mecca Normal's recent songs are nowhere near as serious as this one, dealing with considerable wit with Jean Smith's experiences of internet dating. Here's an example, Smith's video for the song "Attraction Is Ephemeral." Actually, I prefer Mecca Normal's internet dating stuff to the "Malachi" song, myself - but the backstory is far less interesting.

By the way, Dave Chokroun's project for the Vinegar Factory show is called The Real feat. The Unreal, featuring Dave on bass (not drums, ala The Sorrow and the Pity) and Jonathon Wilcke on sax. Dave tells me it'll be "mostly free improv, couple of Ornette Coleman tunes, and some highly effective movie themes, which may be presented in a suite called something like, 'Seven Habits of Magnificently Effective Samurai.'" He thinks they go on last...

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