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.

My driver, and a monk, Amarapura, Myanmar, 2006.

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.

Me in Myanmar, with a waitress at my friend’s tea shop, 2006.

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.]

Anti-war political cartoon I made in 2002.

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.

My first city in China, Hanzhong, 2007.

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.

Me teaching young kids in my fist teaching job in China, 2007.

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.

Me with some of my university students, Ankang, China, 2010.

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.

My home for 4 years: Ankang, China [2010].

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.

~ Ends

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15 replies on “Is Banning Artists Because of Their Nationality Cruel and Inhumane?

  1. People very often forget that the first people resisting fascism were Germans, the first ones to resist communism were Russians, that the first Christians were Jews, etc… I’m very much opposed to any cancel culture that is exclusively based upon race, gender, nationality, religion, or any other factor that is inherent to an artist’s identity.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I concur with you very strongly here, Eric. The main reasons I left Britain were Thatcher’s war on innocent Argentineans followed by the equally heartless attack on and fascist style suppression of coal mining families of my home county Yorkshire and anyone who supported their strike for survival. Example my friend and I in a car on the way to a nightclub were stopped by the police and sent home as ‘two men in a car was prohibited.’ (Miners were travelling to other towns to support fellow strikers…shock, horror!)
    It would be easy to think of these political acts as ‘classically right-wing,’ but suppression of opinion and the restriction of movement has been strongly supported, if not promoted, by the left in Britain and not only.
    The ‘No platform for fascists!’ of the British ‘radical’ left has to be one one the most short-sighted, idiotic policies of modern times.
    The same goes, today, for any person or party promoting censorship of any kind – dare I say it? – for any damned reason. You have to be pretty bleedin’ simple to not realise that one day those in power will you the same tool/weapon against you.
    I believe this present day outpouring of false indignation, and the hunger for a good witch hunt, is the product of a total and utter lack of ideas and ideals, above all, by the left. If you have no answers to today’s problems, just gag the opposition, no? If you can’t do that, anyone associated, even geographically, will do. That way, minimum, you gain your virtue medals among like-minded Neanderthals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to hear from you Steven. Yes, I agree with your general sentiments here. A pet “theory” I have about the left is that while they were clearly the more reasonable and just choice a quarter century ago, as they have taken power they have themselves become corrupted, and radical corruption can be much more dangerous than traditional corruption. Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong were on the left. Both the left and the right can go too far into totalitarianism. As the old saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Whenever there’s a concentration of power with a few people, whoever they are, whatever they supposedly stand for, you can kiss democracy, human rights, and freedom goodbye. If I suddenly had that power, I too would probably become an evil overlord canceling my critics with a wave of the wrist. Worse, I’d believe that I somehow divinely deserved that power, and was inherently above everyone else, and that they were innately inferior. This is the mindset of the power elite and super privileged.

      Have you checked the dictionary recently. I’m wondering when the word “hypocrisy” is going to be removed as an outdated term that nobody understands anymore. The idea of “no platform for fascists” is on the face of it a fascistic platform. It is that same situation where a group of people is claiming for themselves the power over others to eradicate them.

      I imagine a scenario where one has several children and gives one of them favored status and absolute authority over the others. That child will become an authoritarian monster. And so it goes with adults and institutions. The human mind is not strong enough to resist that kind of temptation.

      The left suffers these days from taking on “theories” that were designed as a kind of devil’s advocate opposition to everything that was sacred to Western civilization. They start with the conviction that everything about the West is absolutely wrong, they cherry-pick evidence, and then they concoct theories to make the case. Hence the nuclear family is bad, reason and logic are bad, and so on down the list. Instead, we should have been trying to improve upon the recipe of the West, which was surely among the most successful at giving general populations a chance at prosperity. Instead of fixing the machine with accurate criticism, we are trying to replace it wholesale, and in the end just end up with an un-elected, corporate, behind-the-scenes oligarchy that positions itself as the ultimate source of justice (always acting in its own self-interest).

      Without the tools of the primacy of reason in debate, or free speech, or the right to protest (without being demonized as “terrorists”), the people have no way of fighting power. Propaganda must be memorized and regurgitated. Please, issue the little red books for our back-pockets so we know precisely what we think and believe, so we can loudly proclaim it as our heartfelt personal beliefs. I welcome the sci-fi dystopia as a fascinating nightmare. 1984 made into an instruction manual, and played out with technology George Orwell couldn’t have dreamed of. To have a computer chip embedded in ones hand is, after all, a kind of development unavailable to our distant ancestors. We can be the good, meek, obedient, and utterly obsequious wretches willfully servicing our righteous leftist overlords as they mete out divine justice on this world.


  3. It’s been a weird experience being in the U.S. when the anti-Russia fervor blew up here. I get that Russia is our geopolitical enemy (though Obama would have mocked me for saying so just a few years ago), and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “speak softly and carry a big stick” when dealing with world leaders and governments. I also don’t think war or some kind of miliary engagement is always avoidable.

    But, people dumping their vodka down the drain and blocking the credit cards of Russian citizens? Calling anyone “pro-Russia” who makes any but the most simplistic statement? Come on. These are the same people who would fiercely condemn the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, yet they are in the exact same mood right now.

    IMO, this is coming from the Critical Theory mentality that has recently swept out of academia to become mainstream in the U.S. In this mentality, guilt resides in groups not in individuals. Your individual behavior, intentions, or character don’t matter; all that matters is your intersectional identity and where “your” group falls in the power matrix. This kind of thinking is a recipe for purges and simplistic, knee-jerk thinking. You say you had hoped that by 2000, we would be sufficiently evolved not to think this way. Unfortunately, wherever this cultlike mentality has reached, people have gotten less intellectually and morally sophisticated compared to the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right, Jennifer. I agree on so much of that. Of course war isn’t avoidable, just like fighting isn’t, because if you can’t defend yourself, other people will take advantage. Being a purely peaceful tribe with no weapons would be a recipe for being slaughtered wholesale. As some people have pointed out, if Ukraine had maintained and kept up their nuclear arsenal, Russia might not have invaded.

      But mostly I agree that things have gotten worse since the onset of the new millennium, and for some of the same reasons you pointed out. As you may know, I have a black belt in identity politics via my MFA, so understand it inside and out, and have always had serious reservations about it because it told me that all problems with the world were due to me. The Inquisition may be able to convince any number of people that I’m a witch, but you can’t convince me of it. It has always been plagued with the critical flaw of utter hypocrisy. In order to get rid of discrimination based on race, gender, etc., we must dis-empower the evil race and gender by any and all means necessary. As so many people have pointed out, the “critical theory” approach starts with conclusions, then cherry picks evidence to support it, and any disagreement means that you are the enemy who must be destroyed.

      I’ve argued many times that I’d take the Christian notion of a “soul” over identity politics any day. We all have an invisible inner being that is judged by its actions, not by what was written about the body on the birth certificate. But when I say something like this, I am perceived as someone who belongs to the evil group that must be punished trying to wriggle my evil way off of the hook.

      Back when Alex Jones was purged, I knew this was going to just get worse. I blogged about it at the time, even though I thought he was a compete nutter, who may also be LARPing to all hell. My concept of America did not include erasing people who had nutty or offensive ideas. But now it’s being revealed that we are just erasing people who stand up to the powerful, their monetary interests, and their ulterior motives. You are now a “terrorist” if you dare question policies that are highly debatable from a purely reasonable stance.

      Totalitarianism in the digital age must be extremely tempting to the ruling elites, because it has never been more possible. Who needs Big Brother when were are already tracked on our computers and smart phones. It has never been easier to monitor people, or harder for an individual to speak or act freely without being detected. And sometimes the universe seems like a place where every scenario must be acted out just to see what will happen. I had hoped China could do the digital dictatorship experiment for the rest of us, but it’s just too tempting for others.

      It seems like our ruling elite have attained so much wealth relative to the rest of us, and have tools nobody could even have dreamed of before for using and silencing us, that it is irresistible to our weaker natures to exploit those for personal gain.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m here to say that I share your interest in Abbas Kiarostami, and the obtuse policy of cancel culture. But still, à la guerre comme à la guerre, so there’s a precedent, well, dozens of them. Human mind is faulty, and that’s what makes it difficult to act reasonably under conflictual circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Human mind is faulty, and that’s what makes it difficult to act reasonably under conflictual circumstances.” Right, Crina. You nailed it there. You can never fix a broad societal problem by just eliminating certain people, because the problem is in each of us. We all struggle on a daily basis to make right decisions, to control ourselves, and with how to act in the world in regards to how we influence or impact other people. When we scapegoat some other people as the “evil other” that must be banished, we deny our own capacity to do terrible and stupid things, and in so doing increase the likelihood that we very well will do just those things, because we are not honest with ourselves and working on ourselves. We can all see centuries later that the Inquisition was much uglier and deadlier than the “witches” the persecuted, tortured, and murdered in the name of protecting society from evil. In each of us is a witch and a witch burner. If we want to fix the world, we have to fix ourselves first. If we can’t fix ourselves, how the hell are we going to fix anyone else?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not American born, but everywhere I travel with an American passport or with other Americans, I tend to dislike the way I am spoken to. Only recently have I been able to vote in the US and I do’t even feel like my vote counts all that much. I also dislike the idea of penalizing civilians for the wars waged by their dement leaders.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a Russian, I can obviously relate to all of this. On hearing of my nationality, some people always start the attack: “Putin this and Putin that, what I think and bla bla bla”. I am, as I am sure most ordinary Russian people, are anti-war, very removed from politics and very powerless re what is going on on a political level and completely blameless, especially since few people in the West realise that Russia is not a “civil rights” country where politics is a popular subject of discussions or is constantly talked about…I have to “justify” myself all the time, with people making me feel guilty for having been born in that country. That’s one discrimination and prejudice that needs to be combatted. And when organisations and governments “ban” Russian artists that were born say in the 18th or 19th century because of what is going on now, I am just speechless. I love Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. That film is very nuanced and sadly is often rather misunderstood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really sorry to hear you are having to take flack because of your nationality. It’s so incredibly dumb and hypocritical that it makes my brain hurt. We have been reduced to judging people by what it says on their birth certificates. I can’t bear the stupidity.

      If people really are against war, they need to evolve to understand that judging people by where they are born is the foundation of war, and they are guilty of it.

      Glad to hear you are a fan of Kiarostami. When Russians and Americans can agree on Iranian cinema, that’s an antidote to war and its underlying mentality. We don’t vilify people just because of where they live, or what they look like. This is a lesson people should learn in elementary school. It’s not difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

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