What do Calvin & Hobbes author Bill Watterson, country singer Merle Haggard, and Gulf coast fisherman Mike Frenette have in common with my hapless next-door neighbor on Nantucket? They’ve all stood face-to-face with the bully culture of money in America, and felt the hand of power at their throats.
Merle Haggard, like so many musicians, signed brutal, confiscatory contracts with record labels just to get his music heard. He had no choice: they controlled the business and with that power came the opportunity, even the imperative, to exploit him. Musical artists who made millions for their labels died in poverty because of this rapacious disregard for their rights and disrespect for their talents. It’s still happening – only the rise of the internet threatens this hegemony in any long-term way: hence the Verizon/Google deal, and other scams, to control the freedom of the net and turns its immense potential for freedom of expression into profit. You can feel the fuming rage of the stymied power-brokers in the proposals they write and the bills they draft in Congress: how dare some nobody just post a video on YouTube and think millions of people will watch without having to pay for the privilege! The thought that some cocky little John Doe with a cellphone camera can post a picture that contradicts the news stories and the media narrative about some crucial event must make their blood boil. I remember when the video of Stephen Colbert’s Press Corps dinner speech was posted, amid the media spin that he had bombed: ten million hits on the video later, that particular lie was just another Colbert punch-line.
And now I read this on the AP news wire:
The latest guidelines for BP's $20 billion victims compensation fund say the nearer you are geographically to the oil spill and the more closely you depend on the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources, the better chance you have of getting a share of the money.Also, a second set of rules expected this fall will require that businesses and individuals seeking compensation for long-term losses give up their right to sue BP and other spill-related companies -- something that could save the oil giant billions.
The new rules for the claims process were released Friday by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was picked by President Barack Obama to run the fund and previously oversaw claims for 9/11 victims. Beginning Monday, the claims will be handled by Feinberg rather than BP, which is still footing the entire $20 billion bill.
I can’t think of any new story I’ve read in the last year that made me angrier than this one. “A second set of rules expected this fall” --?? Rules written by who? BP can just write new rules whenever they want, with no oversight? These people should be in jail, or better yet tarred and feathered (you can skip the feathers); instead they get to re-write the rules of their own reparations? Can’t the government stop this outrage? Isn’t the government supposed to be sticking up for the fishermen and business owners and ordinary citizens whose lives have been blighted by BP’s arrogance and ineptitude? No one stuck up for Merle Haggard or Frances Ballard, but this isn’t the back office of some cheesy record company, this is the United States of America, and the whole world is watching to see how we deal with the worst ecological disaster in modern history. But it turns out that it was the government itself, through Kevin Feinberg, the President’s hand-picked intermediary, who mandated these new rules. My sophisticated friends with PhDs laugh at me when I ramble on about “The Proprietors” –the corporations who seem to have turned the US Government into a wholly-owned subsidiary. But even these academic thinkers were given pause by the blatant collusion of Government and industry shamelessly paraded in the newspapers on Friday. And why should BP and the President be ashamed? No one condemns their actions, no one questions their motives, no one puts up a struggle … except the odd, ‘angry left’ blogger. We just get some Domino’s take-out and turn on the TV, instead. The Jersey Shore was hilarious this week. The Louisiana shore, not so much.
Which brings me to my neighbor, a smallish, humble, woman who rents one room in a chaotic house that could be the setting for Grey Gardens. You sense that she’s suffered a lot in her life; she’s accustomed to being a victim. How else could she endure the black mold on the walls and the black temper of her landlord? She’s not allowed to open her windows, she’s not allowed to clean up – any effort to turn the squalor around her into a livable home sends the owner into a howling temper tantrum, with insults -- and pots and pans -- flying. My neighbor says she can’t afford to move out. It may be true; I think she can’t afford to stay. The place is affecting her health. But her landlord senses this paralysis and preys on it with a relentless gusto that somehow reminds me of the much bigger predators at large in the world today. My son says I shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a country where the Founding Fathers obviously debated and compromised over what fraction of a human being a slave should be. You don’t get to “3/5ths” in a casual discussion. Perhaps we’re all just baboons, guarding our territory and shrieking at the intruders. The homeowners on Nantucket who build fences with locked gates on public- way paths to the beaches are no different than the Vanderbilts and Posts, using armed guards to keep city folk off the Long Island coastline in the 1920s. Sometimes it seems that nothing ever changes and the good guys never win.
Then you read about Bill Watterson.
When Calvin and Hobbes became hugely successful, the syndicate that sold the cartoon to the newspapers decided that they wanted to license the characters for merchandising: Calvin hats and Hobbes plush toys, and a million other iterations and trinkets. Watterson balked. He made the point that he didn’t want the issue of whether Hobbes was alive or not decided by a stuffed animal in a store window. Was he being a Prima Donna or a snob? Maybe, but it was his cartoon and his choice. The syndicate disagreed. They suggested he look at his contract – and indeed he had signed away all merchandising rights, just as the musicians signed away their royalties and the Louisiana fishermen will not doubt sign away their right to sue BP. Watterson tried to explain that when he signed the contract he wasn’t worried about the consequences and ramifications of Calvin and Hobbes becoming THE MOST SUCCESSFUL CARTOON OF ALL TIME. He just wanted to get one strip in one newspaper and pay his rent. Like Merle Haggard wanted to record “I Saw the Light” or that fisherman wants enough money from the people who destroyed his way of life to just keep on living.
The syndicate appreciated Watterson’s point, but told him it was moot. Watterson disagreed. What could he do about it? This: if they merchandised his characters, he would stop drawing the strip. He’d rather never do another Calvin and Hobbes panel than watch his work be hi-jacked by greedy corporate suits.
The syndicate said, fine, then -- we’ll get someone else to draw it.
And Watterson said – Good luck with that idea.
I guess they tried for a while. That’s the part I find most revealing and absurd and grotesque. These bean-counters were so blind to everything but money, so debased, so scrubbed clean of any vestige of aesthetic sense, so coarse, so mercenary and just so dumb, that they thought someone else could draw Calvin and Hobbes. It was just a product to them, a tool to generate income, a notation on the bottom line. But of course they couldn’t find anyone else to draw Calvin and Hobbes. And so eventually, they backed down. Amazingly, the little guy won. But as Watterson points out in the introduction to the boxed, three-volume edition of the cartoon, he had become pretty big himself, by then. And the victory was a costly one:
In hindsight, I see that, with so much money at stake, the artistic issues I argued about were irrelevant. In the end, it was simply might makes right. I was an unknown cartoonist when I started, and my contractual disadvantage reflected my nonexistent bargaining power when I got the job. Five years later, I was a big enough gorilla that I could turn the tables. Even though I finally got my way, the whole mess is depressing to recall, even all these years later. The fight was personally traumatic For several years it poisoned what had been a happy relationship with my syndicate, and in my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend the rest of my life cartooning. Both sides paid a heavy price for this battle.
I feel bad for Watterson, and I miss his brilliant cartoon, but I still find his triumph thrilling. It cheers and inspires me on my most angry despairing day, and I’m sure Mike Frenette and all the other fisherman fighting BP and the rock bands posting their albums on the internet, and even my sad and oppressed next-door neighbor would feel the same way if they knew what Bill Watterson did all those years ago, and they’d join me to celebrate what accomplished, and redouble their efforts to keep that accomplishment and the spirit of that victory alive. The bullies really do lose, sometimes.
It’s nice to remember that.