John Bohn: Let’s build a coalition of artists and activists

By John Bohn, Daily Community Culture Columnist
Published September 12, 2013

Rivaling Shakespeare, Washington D.C. has had a significant impact on our language over the past few years, from the reinvention of old words (such as “Citizens United” and the concept of a “person”) to the creation of new ones like “enemy combatants.” Its latest poetic endeavor will be to reinvent the notion of a “trade agreement” this fall.

Currently in D.C., the final drafts of what will become the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are being written. The TPP is a massive new “free trade” agreement being negotiated by the United States and 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim, totaling at 40 percent of the global economy. President Barack Obama has given 600 corporations official “trade advisor” status, while Congress and the public have been left in the dark. What we, the public, do know comes from leaks. Congress fares not much better. Remember those protocols by which a member of Congress could learn about PRISM? Same deal. They have a few hours to look at select documents without any means of note-taking and then are not allowed to tell others what they have learned.

More about corporate rights than about trade, the TPP, referred to as the son of SOPA, will reach into Internet policy and extend the criminalization of certain activities. It will affect food labeling, turning those such as “locally grown,” “renewable/recyclable” or “sweat-free” into acts of discrimination and barriers to “free trade.” It will extend drug patents for the major pharmaceutical companies, which would delay the production of cheap, generic medications. It will also raise transnational corporations to the status of sovereign nations in international tribunals, allowing them to sue governments whose policies (environmental, work-place safety) have affected their projected profits, an act already begun under past free-trade agreements. See: “Metalclad Corps. v. United Mexican States.” Already, countries and their taxpayers have paid $365 million to corporations in this way. The list goes on.

I am writing today to the artists of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti because I believe this to be terrible poetry. And I think you might agree. I am writing today because we are on the eve of this bill’s passing, and while there is still time to act, we need to act fast. President Obama will look to Congress to grant him Fast Track sometime this fall, which would allow him sole authorship of the bill. To deny him this opportunity would allow our Congress members a say in that process.

Let us, as good artists, teach our struggling writers over at the Washington School of Poetry about the healthy benefits of workshopping your writing.

If you are starting an art studio, music composition class or creative writing workshop, I challenge you to use that time and space to explore and expose the implications of the TPP. Due to its scale, the TPP’s effects will stretch across a multitude of narratives.

Where are the stories about threatened small farms? Where are the short films about genetically modified food? Where is the satirical play about the corporate lawyers who settle disputes between nations and corporations? Where are the paintings of the broken faces and broken homes of the dispossessed? Where are photos of abandoned factories? Where is the poetry that reclaims our exploited language? Where are the songs commemorating the success of past struggles? Let this art culminate in a rotating gallery and performance space where voices are heard. Let our art fill online galleries and the mailrooms of our elected representatives. Let’s build a coalition of artists and activists.

Do not let Washington monopolize the telling of this story. The voices of those most affected will not be lost, but neither will they be replaced. Our art, as best as it can, will serve as a humble proxy.

The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area can only do so much in this endeavor, but let us start a wave of protest art that spreads across the country. The scale of Washington’s literature is immense. Ours must be equally immense.

We are not alone in doing so. We take our inspiration from groups like the Beehive Collective and affirm our solidarity with an international struggle well underway by farmers in Japan, human-rights groups in Malaysia, protesters in Australia and here in the United States.

For those looking to further inform their art, campaigns such as “Expose the TPP” and “Topple the TPP” run by United Students for Fair Trade (USFT) have begun the process of informing the public and can be found online. Feel free to email umichusft@gmail.com with questions, requests for more information or to affirm your solidarity. Sept. 23 will begin the national week of action, and the University’s chapter of USFT, with meetings Mondays at 8 p.m. in B810 East Quad, will have events to look out for.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote nearly 200 years ago.

I am not here today to agree. I ask that Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti artists demand their acknowledgment this fall.