Recently, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has a been a very positive movement in the crypto and NFT community to support Ukrainian artists. Why not give a little extra help to creators who are under increased to extreme duress? And after the war started, I discovered that a lot of the NFT artists I followed on Twitter were Ukranian. But there’s another side to this, which is punishing artists from other countries. There is the sudden deleting of their accounts on OpenSea, which is the biggest platform for selling NFTs, and the closing of their Metamask wallets, which allows them to sell NFTs. This applies not only to Russian artists, but other countries sanctioned by the United States, including: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Venezuela.
When I was traveling in Myanmar over 15 years ago, I was accosted by a man outside my guesthouse because I’m American. He challenged me about the war in Iraq, and asked why America was attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. I was able to get him off of my case by explaining that I had protested that war in the streets 4 times, and like half the population, hadn’t voted for George W. Bush for the express reason that I thought he would get us into a war. I knew that the war was declared after weapons inspectors found no WMDs in Iraq. I argued that the world was better off with Americans like me who fought against our own government when we saw that it was doing wrong. He couldn’t come up with a better argument, and decided I was OK after all.
Merely being born in a country does not make one amenable to, or responsible for the brutality of the government or leaders of that country. This is child’s play ethics 101. If I discovered a North Korean artist, or example, selling NFTs, my reaction wouldn’t be, “SHUT IT DOWN! SHUT IT DOWN!” I’d marvel at the fact that they were able to pursue art in a repressive environment, and I’d be rooting for them, assuming their art was any good. I have empathy for artists, and people in general, who are trapped in countries with less freedom and human rights. The idea of punishing them because they are already disadvantaged does not strike me as being kind or generous. If they support the more heinous deeds of their rulers, it isn’t much different than all the basically decent Americans who were putting “WE SUPPORT THE TROOPS” stickers on their car bumpers when I was protesting the war. They had mostly just innocently trusted the propaganda that was being crammed down their throats. This is not true of politicians that knew better.
[Just an aside, but the sleight of hand was glaringly obvious to me at the time. If you didn’t support a war, then you were supposed to be bad because you didn’t support soldiers. My counterargument to “WE SUPPORT THE TROOPS” was, “then why send them off to fight when it isn’t necessary?” Decades later, you couldn’t use that slogan to hoodwink Americans into a war with Russia. I think by now people realize sending soldiers into battle to possibly be killed, critically injured, or traumatized, isn’t showing them support. Not demonizing them once they’ve been sent, or when they come home, is supporting them. Hopefully I’m not wrong about that.]
I have nothing against artists from anywhere in the world, or of any race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation, etc. It strikes me as maddeningly insipid to slam artists with a cookie cutter and dismiss them or obliterate them based on a word and an association.
When I was living in New York I became fascinated with the Qawwali music of the Sufi religion of Pakistan. It’s a deeply devotional, religious music that speaks to me — while I can’t understand a word — because of the attempt of the musicians to create an ecstatic state of spiritual awe. I went to a couple live concerts, including Badar Ali Khan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. I was going to go to a third concert (I forget which musicians it was) when their visas were cancelled in connection with 9/11 or the war on Iraq, because Sufism is a mystical strain of the Muslim faith, and they were coming from Pakistan.
And so that positive connection between New Yorkers and Pakistani musicians, during a time of prejudice towards Muslims, was not permitted. And the shutting down of accounts of people from countries, the leaders of which are on the wrong side of America’s rulers, does not seem to be a good thing in that it prevents ordinary people the world over from becoming better acquainted and having more understanding and compassion for each other.
Many of my readers will know that I lived in small town rural China, where I taught English at a university, and private schools, for over 5 years. I was fairly cut off from the Western world while living there, thanks to, among other things, the Great Internet Wall of China. Even without that, my first year living there I didn’t have internet in my apartment, and trying to use internet cafes in a small city was so difficult and unpleasant than I hardly ever bothered. I saw so few other foreigners — maybe a dozen in a year — that my eyes popped out of my head, just like the locals, when a new one would appear at the only Western restaurant in the city: KFC.
I was there so long that Chinese people looked nothing alike to me, but I started to confuse white people when I watched a Western movie. I found English in movies difficult to follow because the actors ran all their words together. The only people I spoke to were Chinese or other English teachers, and we English teachers have a tendency to habitually speak very clearly so students can understand us.
The point of all this is that Chinese people in China just became normal people to me, as in “the norm”. Few other than students spoke English, and so I had to speak Chinese wherever I went. I have a funny analogy for the psychology of this. When I finally went back to visit America when my university gave me the first paid vacation in my lifetime, I had some Chinese currency with me along with dollars I’d exchanged for. It was very clear in my mind that now that I was back in America for a month I needed to use the right money: the normal, usual money. The other money was just to get home from the airport when I returned to my job. Well, right away when my brother picked me up at the airport, I tried to treat him to a Starbucks coffee by taking out some 100 note yuans.
I repeated this mistake the next day when trying to get donuts in the morning, which I hadn’t had for years and years. I handed the woman, who was Vietnamese, a bright pink 100 yuan note. She said “What this?!” She thought I was trying to use play money. I had to do a lot of back-peddling and try to explain that I just arrived from China and somehow I associated Chinese yuan with regular currency, and dollars with something foreign and exotic. That’s how normal China had become to me. It was my home.
My university students in particular were very nice people. Mostly they were hard-working students who managed to score high enough on their exams to qualify for a public university, but because of where I lived they were almost universally the children of farmers who hadn’t gone to college. The vast majority of Chinese people I met in all my years and fairly extensive travels were just like Americans to me, aside from a handful of comparatively superficial cultural idiosyncrasies. Just a bunch of ordinary people trying to get along and make their way in the world.
In the case of China, the country itself has made holding any crypto a crime, so has taken their whole population out of the international NFT community. As with their alternatives to Facebook and Amazon, they will just come up with their own versions, and keep those profits in the motherland. But if that weren’t the case, and your average Chinese citizen could share and sell their art internationally via crypto and NFTs, it would strike me as horrendous if they were then suddenly prohibited to do so because of something the leadership did. And this is just because I know they are ordinary decent artists, just like me. And I assume this is true of Iranian, Venezuelan, Cuban, Syrian, and Russian artists as well.
Speaking of Iranian artists, a friend recommended me a movie by an Iranian director last year: Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami. I liked it so much that I watched everything I could find on YouTube by the same director, as well as a bunch of other Iranian films.
The art of people from other countries and cultures allows us to expand our own horizons and have a richer and more complex, multifaceted appreciation of the human condition. Those Iranian movies, or Sufi music, allow me to know, unequivocally, that the perceived enemies of my own leadership are just other regular people who suffer an have beautiful and transcendent experiences.
By smashing the accounts of artists with the misfortune of being born sometimes in less fortunate circumstances, we reduce the shared broth of the international community, and instead of empathizing with ordinary people on the other side of the wall, we demonize them and make them into cardboard cutouts. This kind of mentality makes future wars more likely.
I can’t countenance a war with China because I can’t stomach my own students being bombed or irradiated in a nuclear holocaust. But this is the same reason I protested the war on Iraq decades ago. Bombing Baghdad with “shock and awe” did not strike me as a humanitarian mission. The more interaction we have with the ordinary people [as in not the leaders] of other countries, the less anyone would find going to war with them anything other than horrific.
Blocking artists from having a career because of their nationality is a bit like going to war with them because of where they were born, and being smugly self-satisfied with taking civilian casualties. Whatever the benefits of such practices — rhetorically to obliquely place pressure on the leaders via the suffering and malcontent of their citizens — it is not pro art or artist. It is a sanction directly applied to artists. It is economic war practiced against them on an individual, private basis.
I had hoped back when the year 2,000 rolled around that civilization had evolved enough that there wouldn’t be any more war. My hopes were almost immediately crushed. Will a year come where we are just too civilized to think of artists from the wrong countries as enemies or collateral damage to be sacrificed for the greater good of ostensibly punishing their leaders?
Can we at least not congratulate ourselves for it now? Snuffing out the chances of other people to have an art career for reasons completely outside of their control is cruel and inhumane. The least we can do is acknowledge that it is lamentable, and not pretend that it is in the name of justice, doing good in the world, humanity, peace, or art.
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