Swans 10th Anniversary
Jan Baughman interviews Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - May 8, 2006) Gilles, how do you feel on this 10th anniversary?
Ten years older and tired.
Sure, but aren't you elated to have gone this far?
I am happy that a group of people has been instrumental to make Swans what it is today, a tiny publication of quality with a growing following. But, personally, I never doubted that Swans would turn 10. Recall if you will that the DNS, swans.com, is registered until 2010 -- I will re-register it for another decade when the time comes to renew it -- and will carry on until I become ashes or I no longer have the support and cooperation of an active and collective cast of rather exceptional, yet unpretentious, characters.
Yes, though there have been times when you didn't know whether you'd find enough authors willing to work with you, especially when very few people knew of you or Swans. And there have been low times and times of upheaval, threatening the entire operation (I'll ask you more about this later). What made you carry on?
In one word: persistence. I've this little saying that someone framed and gave me a long time ago. I don't know the author, but it says:
Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipresent.
Must have been an American man who said that...
Possibly. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with American men...but it's an American woman who gave me the frame!
You started Swans early on in the Internet lifespan. What's the reason you started it?
Ah, the reason...as though one always needed a reason to do something. Bergson once said that, "[W]e want to know what reason made us decide and we find that we decided without reason, perhaps even against all reason. But that's precisely, in some cases, the best of reasons. For the accomplished action answers to the whole of our sentiments, our thoughts, and our aspirations." (Rough translation.)
I always wanted to write but made a few wrong turns on my journey. Remember when you first met me in February 1989? I was typing on an already obsolete Zenith z-148 PC (it was an IBM XT compatible with 640k memory, two floppy 360k disk drives, 30 MB hard drive 5/8 Mhz clock speed switch, a 13" amber monitor, MS DOS 3.0, and an FX85 Epson printer, all for the sweet 1986 price of just over $2,500). I was using Word Perfect 4.2 (another 1986 $500 -- hey, the external 2400 baud modem was "only" $379 and its cable $20) to write articles that I was sending to The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and many more corporate, ad-controlled media -- to no avail, for cause...
So, I took another turn in the road and became a "computer consultant" to make a living and ended up slaving for the likes of people like Richard Rathbun, Jim Burch, the puking Fittons (Don and Virginia), and the other fous de Dieu (God's crazies), as Olivier Coudert called that sect-like gang, who were selling their pseudo religious philosophy and pandering their reactionary snake oil to weaker minds in search of certainties. Do you remember this gang, those hypocritical dingbats?
When I discovered the Web in 1992, my eyebrows turned circumflexed. What is that, I wondered? I already was sharing my thoughts through Kermit with a few academics. Was a new communication medium coming into existence thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web in 1989? It was, indeed. I jumped on it the soonest I could.
Why "Swans" and not a more descriptive name for what the site represents?
I'm not sure I could define what the site represents. There is the publication part and the activist part; the latter has yet to materialize in the form I had envisioned. The choice of the name is explained in our old, no longer maintained FAQ. I wanted a one syllable word that'd be easy to remember; something more original than the usual culprits (Dissident this, Dissent that, Radical blah blah, Change the World, Save the Dolphins, Left Bachibouzouk, etc.); it had to somehow reflect the idea of a group and a sense of esthetic. Swans are magnificent birds with an incredibly rich mythology; and, with a slightly different spelling, it was somewhat related to my past.
What do you mean?
In Swann's Way, Marcel Proust wrote about a house that once belonged to my family and about my family itself (he was the lover of a great uncle for a while).
You do have a page about this on Swans with a picture of the house, no?
Yes, in the background. It can be reached through the old framed page, as well as other pages that reveal my thinking in these earlier days, or can be accessed directly -- but I have yet to finish those pages!
Do you recall the challenge early on?
Darn, it was pretty straightforward. I wrote then:
Publish every day
Each swan writes one commentary/article/essay once a week
A convivial place in Cyberspace
Words, and their subsequent meanings, to keep in mind: Creative, thoughtful, sarcastic, literary, political, informative, iconoclastic, humorous, curious, poetic, educative, sensitive...
Attract new swans
Keep the site free from commercial ads
Proof that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and the commitment we were undertaking!
I'd like to come back to what you've said earlier -- the activist side of Swans. What do you mean by it, and why has it not yet materialized?
That's a toughie. The entire project was based on a collective concept and a deep republican conviction -- the French one, that is: liberty, equality, fraternity. I could not be the only one who considered that our system was dangerously bankrupt and violent and who could not present his views because the corporate media would understandably ignore them. There had to be people out there who could write and offer an alternative vision...without re-inventing the wheel...but with a strong commitment to walk their talk. Swans would be the vehicle for such endeavor. I've often used the vehicle metaphor: I'd be the engine and one by one people would come until we had a fully constructed instrument, a conduit to change. Then, the engine room, like a big ship, would be fed by many workers, not just me, and the direction would be set not just by one individual but by a collective of thinkers and doers.
I thought that by now we would have hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers helping with the maintenance of the site, developing its growth, and generating policies.
The reasons it has not materialized would take too much time and space to explore within this interview. But in short:
First, I was not clear enough in defining the goals, which I could not do because I did not want to be the "definer" or the "decider" -- an eternal contradiction of mine. Activist sites usually have very clear parameters and are issue oriented. I've also been too prudent and uncomfortable with sloganeering and shouting matches that too often are a part of the activist scene.
Second, people did not know me. So, in a culture that exploits others for one's personal interests and dumps them when they are no longer "profitable," why would people trust some unknown folk that had no track record but in "business"?
Third, I totally misestimated the deep individualism ingrained within the current culture and the reigning societal conformism -- by golly, even Chomsky believes that there is a substantial difference between the Reps and the Dems!
Fourth, navel-gazing within the self-defined "radical community" took me by surprise. For the life of me, I had never imagined how much people were about self-aggrandizement -- the me-me-me factor, the huge egos that are so detrimental to any collective endeavor.
Fifth, I got squeezed by ideological purity, people utterly unable to compromise, swearing to their gods that they possess the "truth." The sectarianism of these groupuscules is unbelievable. In the French motto I referred to earlier, fraternity is generally understood as meaning solidarity. There was a variance of this motto that was painted on houses in many cities around 1793. It read, "Unity, Indivisibility of the Republic, Liberty, Equality or Death." Unity and solidarity are either nonexistent or largely absent in the current historical period. As Eugene V. Debs used to say, "We know that without solidarity nothing is possible, that with it nothing is impossible." Strangely, the Web may have brought people nearer to each other but certainly not closer.
Sixth, and I'll stop here, the commercialization of the Internet has deepened the already atomizing culture and heightened the divide-and-conquer ruling tactic of the capitalist system. Ironically, the so-called US Left, in its large majority, has fallen into the trap. The only praxis they share is self-promotion and internecine limb tearing they seem to feed upon as some sort of auto-flagellation. You end up with the spectacle of seeing so-called revolutionaries selling coffee mugs, baseball caps, magnets, T-shirts -- and even thongs, for hell's sake! -- with their names or operations on them. Please, talk about being utterly co-opted by the system.
Hmm, you mention power and atomization, two recurring themes that anyone who has read you or talked to you encounters again and again. Let me revisit them both. What's your "problem" with power? And are blogs, which you dislike, a fair representation of the societal atomization you so intensely condemn?
Wow, Jan, you have the uncanny talent to push the buttons, don't you? These are two huge issues that would be deserving of 10 to 50,000 words...
...Okay, I'll make it sweet for you. Let's separate the two questions and I'll give you no more than 500 words to express yourself -- retaining my right to interrupt you, of course (an almost 20-year-old habit!).
Power enslaves. Power kills. Power coerces. There is no power but that of intellectual authority, to paraphrase Raymond Aron -- controversy and reason in the realm of seeking improvement to the whole. Power, as it is used, is making each of us traumatized and, in turn, violent, worldwide. The strong subjugate the weak; the bosses impose their will on the workers entirely through coercion. Power is pyramidal. It's the antinomy of collaboration, cooperation, and suasion...
This is something you have internalized to the very fiber of your personality, is it not?
Talk about it...
I'd rather not. This is a painful, unfathomable road to follow...
Please, Gilles, talk about it...so that people know about you and your own journey.
Why should people know? And why should people care? Heck, we are killing people by the tens of thousands every fucking day so that we can keep going with our trip to the mall. Who cares?
I do, and I am asking you!
Okay, I'll only relate three snippets from my childhood...
Violence, sheer physical coercion, was an intimate part of my growing up. One evening, I recall, I asked my father why the heater was so hot, how did that "thing" work (it was a gas heater in the apartment where we lived). My question was inquisitive, matter-of-factly. His answer: He took me off the ground, got my pajamas off, and sat me, butt-naked, on top of the fired heater, and then said, "[N]ow you know why it's hot." I may have been 5 years old, at most.
But enough of me. There is so much that I don't know where I would begin and where I would end (there is no end). I had to flee. Here are two more glances into my childhood, and they both involve my mother.
One night, my older brother and I were in bed, and we heard screams through the door. I got out of bed, opened the door, and went to see what the commotion was all about. There was a fireplace in the apartment. My father had lit a fire. He was burning my mother's letters and, in my mother's words, "her cherished magazines of art." I was promptly told to go back to bed, which I did. I knew the consequences of not obeying...
Another night, another time, I again was in bed in the room my brother and I shared. I heard screams -- screams like when you kill a pig alive so that you can gather the blood to make blood sausages. My father was beating my mother to death. She was screaming, pig-like, and I clearly remember her saying, "I'm going to call the police." Then, he took her forcefully, opened the door to the apartment, and threw her out on the landing of the 5th floor where we lived. He said, "go to the police...now." She was naked, and naked she was left there till dawn, left in a fetus-like position, till the power-that-be, who must have been having a conflicting night himself, went to open the door and let the chastised women in. Eventually, she left and was branded a prostitute and child abandoner.
How do you remember all this?
Certain things, sadly, one cannot forget. 126 rue de Tocqueville, cinquième étage gauche, en dessous de madame Daladoire and her daughter, Eliane, with whom my father had an affair among the many, including his secretaries. Phone number: Mac 38 32 (for Mac Mahon 38 32). Monsieur d'Aymery was driving a Renault 4-CV, license plate: 5106 EG 75.
Enough, enough, enough!
Sorry, Gilles. Evidently it remains a trauma for you.
A trauma like it is in the entire Western culture, and the USA. All built on violence and coercion. Enough, enough, enough! That's what I am about. Enough coercion and violence!
Let's take a break. Why don't you go back to my question regarding blogging?
Sure. Blogs are a logical extension of individualism. They are exhibitionist and navel-gazing endeavors. They are all about the self. They are about the sempiternal existentialist question: "How can 'I' make it?" "What is in it for me?" "How can I be recognized, acknowledged?" "Where's the money?"
You have all sorts of blogs all over the ideological map. The Democrats in sheep's clothing à la Bérubé or Cole will play their own little dance. Bérubé will mention Cole. Cole will mention Bérubé. Where's the next TV appearance, the book contract, the speaking engagement? It's all about self-promotion. Marc Cooper, the Nation folks, and all the free-market left are in play. Just ridiculous...
Then you have some very solid fellows that have gone the blogging way. Let me take three examples. Stan Goff, the "feral scholar"; the Lenin Tomb guy; and the two anonymous folks at readingthemaps.blogspot.com. These are top-notch people, and there are many more. Each of them has gone their self, independent way, though, of course linking to other similar blogs. Now, imagine for a second, having those folks joining strength. None of them, none of us, has enough dough to really make it happen. But each of them, each of us, has enough dough to make it happen in a small way. None of them, none of us, will get funding from the real money, except if they or we sell out. Now, think for a moment: What would happen if all of these people got to pull their resources together?
Just imagine the power of the whole. Look at Znet. You may or may not agree with their politics, or "parecon," but they've been able to create an impressive body of work.
How do you bring those people together, Gilles?
No idea. They all are much over my head. Don't take me wrong. I respect them a lot. Perhaps, they know that a huge radical site would not survive long. Many of these people have gone to the barricades quite a few times. They are for real. Yet they do not unite. Why?
Again, I do not know. Sectarianism may have something to do with it. Ego possibly... But perhaps they feel that at any moment they (we) can be taken down by the IRS, a costly lawsuit, or the mafia and when all hell breaks loose, the National Guard or the military. These people know something I do not.
If Swans had 100 or 200,000 readers, members, activists, it still would make little difference and we would be left alone to quietly fade into the sunset. Had we a million or more, we would be targeted for destruction at a moment's notice. Maybe those folks understand the situation better than I do. Maybe they are spreading the risks and link among themselves to diffuse the risk. I do not know.
I happen to disagree. The revolution won't happen on line. Only in the streets will it take place. On line, we should be all together in one big place and accept to compromise among us (check the ideology at the door) in order to get the ball rolling, and let the chips fall where they may. We should have a huge site that is mirrored in many locations, internationally. Again, I do not know.
But, what's obvious is that blogging is synonymous with atomization. So, recuperated we will be or away we will fly. Right now, Jan, we are on the losing side. Does not make us wrong, though.
If you were to start Swans now, would you use the blogging format?
I don't think so. Perhaps I would use the software, but I would not allow anonymous comments, blogads, etc. Somehow, perhaps against all reason, I remain committed to singularity within plurality, the notion of togetherness that the Internet promised early on. But there are two things I would do: A WikiSwans for the activist stuff, and hypertext for the creative stuff.
It's good to see a piece by Alma (Hromic) -- why has she not been contributing more?
That's a rhetorical question, I figure. Actually, Alma keeps contributing -- just not as often as she used to do. And before you ask me why and I send you to ask her, I'll offer my own take. Alma has had to deal with a heck of a load. First she was dragged through the mud for being a Serb, and I suppose the wound to her psyche must remain acutely sore. She met Deck (Deckert) and moved to the U.S. all the while contributing to Swans. Then she got her "legalization" (Green Card). Like all new immigrants she must feel the need to be careful, with good reason (see how immigrants are being treated when they express their critical views). Then they relocated from Florida to Washington State, and bam, Deck had a stroke. She's been going through a heck of a time. Her writing career has taken off and she travels a lot on book tours. I mean, she has much on her mind. But she has not abandoned Swans. She is a giver, not a taker, and she's given a lot over time, and she keeps giving whenever she can. I am certain I can ask her any time and she'll beat herself to answer my call as best she can. I simply don't ask too often. I understand. One day she'll have more time and she will give again.
Actually, thinking of it, people who are steady on Swans are all givers. The takers never last. I have a deep affection for Alma, and trust. She's the kind of person who will take anyone into her house in the middle of the night. She'll continue to contribute. I'm sure of that.
You seem to have a lot of affection for the members of the "Flock," don't you?
Of course, I do. We've been working together for years. We share frustrations and disappointments, illnesses and tragedies, and joy, and calmer days. Fear, many people say, is a powerful motivator. Not in my book. Love is. Milo, Philip, Deck, Alma, Eli, Richard, Lou, Gerry, Charles, Frank, Phil, John......they all are extremely important to me. It's a company that makes you want to keep plugging along. They are Swans. And more will come. There are a lot of givers out there.
Do you take departures personally, like some sort of betrayal?
Betrayal, not really, with perhaps one exception; but personally, definitely. It's always a setback after so much investment in time and money, and attention given to each and every one with the most possible care, and if it happens that several quit at once or in rapid succession, as it occurred last year, it can quickly become an existential threat. Above all, it saddens me. You work with people for a long time and, bang, suddenly they are gone...
Do you face rocky times?
Now and then the going can get rough. A ruckus takes place among contributors. People get inflamed. A few depart -- some slamming the door with "friendly" epithets (funny how one is lauded as a great editor, an open-minded personality, keeping up a top-class Web publication and all of the sudden, after a short period of bickering, one becomes the enemy, a pile of manure, and other scatological favorites of the weak and confused). Fortunately, it does not happen too often.
When was the last time you went through a rough patch?
I'd say, from May 2004 to July 2005...
...That's a long stretch, no?
It was a combination of factors all at once, or in rapid succession. It coincided with our relocation from Menlo Park to San Francisco and Boonville -- these are always stressful times. It was aggravated by the wrong time-wrong place experience with the Santa Rosa Highway Patrol that led to the court case we had to fight, successfully -- and expensively -- I should say, for almost an entire year, combined with the 12-month suspension of my driving license that highly complicated our adjustment to the new settings. Adapting to Boonville has been another challenge that still beleaguers us. Then you got laid off in March 2005 and that added a smidgen of existential hazard to the operation. Meanwhile, during that period, we went though the brouhaha that surrounded the 2004 US presidential elections, with deep divisions among the contributors -- divisions that were expressed on our internal mailing list rather stridently. To top it all, a series of health hardships hit Swans contributors, which deeply reverberated on my capacity to see clearly and function intelligently. I'm not sure of the chronology, but I think it started earlier with Deck Deckert's stroke in June 2003 that affected him physically. Then Fran Greenspan, Philip's wife had a bad fall, broke a few bones, and went into a lengthy convalescence. Gerard Donelly Smith's wife, Clara, got into a bad automobile accident, which incurred much physical pain and financial distress. Ed Herman's wife, Mary, also went through a debilitating illness that forced him to essentially stop contributing. Lee, Milo Clark's wife, had to beat a bout with cancer (though Milo remained steadfast and kept contributing as best he could without saying much of a word about Lee's condition). Finally, I got hit real hard emotionally when Richard Macintosh died in June 2005. Richard was a wonder of support. He'd been struggling with his ailment for many years. By the end of 2004, he would apologize for not being able to contribute regularly. I would beg him to ignore Swans and get well. He'd keep at it as much as he could, believing in the project, adding his own stone to it. I took it quite personally.
But I am by and large responsible. I did not manage the complexities correctly. I was stressed and exhausted. I let the political bickering go on for too long. I added my own 2 cents too often when I should have kept silent. Dissensions and adversarial discourse can quickly get out of hand and disrupt, damage, even can lead to the break up of, any organization dependent on volunteers. I did not see it coming and evolving. I unconsciously added fuel to the fire.
When did you realize it?
One event sticks to my mind. Out of the blue, two "compadres" began sending me private messages attacking Lou (Louis Proyect) for his so-called dogmatism. Instead of cutting the crap immediately, I tempered -- you know, trying to make everybody happy, etc. by, and I am hard on me, opportunism. I wanted to keep everything smooth. But it went on. Now, Lou has almost single-handedly created the Book Review section that has become a staple of Swans. He has always conducted himself with the highest integrity and loyalty. Always done what he said he would. Here again, we may disagree on some issues but the relation has always been frank and loyal. Loyalty, I must emphasize, is instrumental to the kind of work we all do together. That's when I realized I had to put an end to this little cabal. But it was quite late in the process. By the time it ended, close to eight contributors had departed, you had a wreck of a man for company and Swans was in bad shape with a substantially lower readership.
What did you do?
I licked my wounds and kicked my butt for being an idiot. Then I pretty much shut down the "Flock," Swans internal mailing list. I put a couple of people on moderation before rapidly unsubscribing them. I tried to calm the waters by becoming quietly but indubitably more assertive, I asked for help from the old guard, rolled up my sleeves, and went to work.
Can you describe what it takes to publish an edition? What are the steps and actions involved?
Say, it's about 5:00 PM on a Swans Sunday, and I have just posted the new issue and sent the Swans Release e-mail. We immediately make sure that the posting was done properly and verify each new document one by one (and all the links). Within the hour, I check my e-mail box to take care of the bad addresses and the !@#$% "mailbox is full" automatic messages I receive back. The next morning, I begin a new page for the Letters to the Editor, which tend to flow in the first few days of a new edition. I've learned to immediately format these letters to avoid having some of them fall through the cracks. (I receive, beside the spammed BS, over 200 to 300 e-mails I need to attend to over a bi-weekly cycle. On average I may send some 150 e-mails over the same period). Every now and then I fight the multi-posters, the Web sites that steal Swans work, or in-frame or in-link it.
That same Monday, I endeavor to take it easy and stay away from the machine. However, since last July, I've pretty much kept at it day in and day out. Communication with contributors. Discussion with contributors. Acknowledgement and potential short e-mail exchange with letter writers (some letter writers, it turns out, become contributors), new contributors, correspondents of one sort or another... Then there is the maintenance of the site itself and the archives. I update or create between 40 and 50 pages every two weeks. All the HTML formatting is done by hand with the help of two software programs, Homesite 4.5 and UltraEdit 8.2. I format and edit new pieces as they come in. Once done, I create a M$ Word file (RTF) for each piece and send them to you by e-mail. You, on your part, write a description and meta-words for each piece, which you eventually send me by e-mail to incorporate into the final page. You edit them for spelling and grammar, and facts (through Google) in greater detail than I do -- changes that we finalize between the Friday, Saturday, and early Sunday before posting, or the weekend before, if the submissions are sent earlier. You and I check with authors when we have a question or a doubt. When shit happens you pass it on to me! I deal with it. The last thing we do, hopefully not too late on Sunday, is to figure out the order of the articles, and then one of us, sometimes both, writes the Note from the Editor.
Meantime, I spend between 2 and 3 hours a day reading books, or articles on the Web. I feed the cats and the chickens, and the darling of the house, our canine child, Priam, daily, and take time out to work around the house, fixing and maintaining the place. You work and make enough money to support the endeavor. Days fly. Seasons fly. We keep at it. The compensation is in keeping at it.
What's your proudest publishing achievement?
"Resistance: In the Eye Of The American Hegemon," the February 2004 Special Issue on Iraq. That was an amazing feat. Twenty-three authors -- high quality material that was well received and highly read.
Would you like to do more special issues?
Certainly, but remember the amount of work it engendered. Almost four months of work that generated over 1,000 e-mails, epic disputes with various authors, huge amount of editing and formatting, all the while keeping the bi-weekly editions going. My carpal tunnel syndrome was at an all-time high...I could barely move my arms... So, yes, I'd like to do it again. There are issues and subjects that would deserve deeper, more substantial exploration. Also, discussions among various parties on particular topics, like, for instance, the recent exchange with Jacob Amir on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it takes a lot of cooperation and collaboration when, lamentably, too often confrontation carries the day.
How did you arrive at the publishing schedule, and do you think that Swans is at a disadvantage from a readership perspective by only publishing every two weeks?
The bi-weekly format is a compromise between what I was hoping to realize and what I can humanly and physically do. The carpal tunnel affliction does limit my ability to type for hours on end. Even if I had enough original material to publish on a daily basis, I would not be able to maintain the quality of the site. There is you too, you know, having a full time job that pays the bills, and working late into the nights and practically every weekend on editing, writing the descriptions and meta-words, verifying links, writing articles when you can, most often putting together the "Note from the Editor," organizing the order of the articles, etc. I wish people would understand more the instrumental, essential, role you play. Simply put, without you, Swans would not be. There's also the "Flock," which perhaps I should have named a "bevy," those friends who contribute time and again. Without them too Swans would not be. They do as much as they can to make it happen every damn two weeks. I estimate that between the two of us each cycle takes about 100 hours of work. Add the time spent by all contributors and it may give people an idea of the endeavor -- and nobody is paid. Finally, it's a relatively good format. On average, we publish 12 pieces with lows of 8 and highs of 16. That's plenty of material for readers to digest over each fortnight.
Are we at a disadvantage compared to a daily Web publication? Quite possibly, in the same way that Harper's is at a disadvantage when compared to The New York Times. But they serve different purposes. And do you know of a non-commercial Web publication that publishes original material daily, stuff that is not cross-posted all over the Web?
Talk a bit about the money part.
Ah, this is a huge conundrum. Originally, I had imagined that we would receive enough donations to maintain the operation and share a modicum of financial compensation among all contributors according to time spent on the project. I had always thought that if you did a good job you'd get people to support that endeavor. But I missed something. People who can afford to support such work are usually wealthy individuals or they are determined activists who want to support a "cause." Well, I quickly figured out that opposing wealth and greed is not the best way to get support from the wealthy and the greedy! George Soros or Bill Gates will not finance Swans. And, as said earlier, we are not particularly known for our successful "activism."
This is truly bewildering. Many people oppose capitalism, greed, etc. They are particularly critical of ads and we are often complimented for the work we do, the absence of ads, the simplicity of the site (few graphics, proper and clean formatting, original content), but they seem to ignore that there are bills to be paid and we are doing all this at a substantial sacrifice. I'm sorry. I can't figure it out.
What I observe is that more and more "alternative" sites, left and right and everything in between, display ads by Google, or Amazon, or "blogads," sell paraphernalia... I don't judge them or accuse them to be traitors to the cause, whatever the cause may be, but I have to ask the question: How can you combat the corporate manipulation that ads entail when you depend on them to survive? How can you be anti-corporations, yet depend on them? To me the co-optation is evident. As I often say, you can't have your local bookstore and shop at Amazon. You can't go to Wal*Mart and lament the disappearance of your local grocery or hardware store. You can't fight neo-liberal globalization and feed at their trough.
This brings Milo (Clark) to mind, no? But why have you not implemented some kind of member fee?
Yes, Milo formulated what had been gestating in my mind for quite some time: That "the only way not to play a game is to not play," and, to paraphrase him (as well as Albert Einstein), "to use the same tools that created a problem to solve that problem is silly." We must find a way to build a new system. We must. It's a fundamental battle of ideas.
I've thought about some kind of membership fee, but it does not work for the publishing side of Swans. We would have rapidly become a vanity press. Actually, recall the past contributor who suggested that he would gladly entertain paying a small monthly fee to be regularly published. That is something that I absolutely want to avoid. Some contributors have generously sent money and I accept it with gratitude but I have never asked them to do so. They contribute their work.
But you know, as a parenthesis, my mother reminded me earlier this week (she turned 81 on May 3) that the great masons of the Middle Ages who built those extraordinary cathedrals were poorly paid. That a Gauguin painting today can fetch tens of millions but he was poor like Job. So was Van Gogh... So we need to keep some perspective here.
By the way, what do you do when you receive a donation?
Well, beside putting the check into Swans bank account, I do something rather strange in the electronic age. I always send a small hand-written thank you note through the USPS. Antediluvian, no? It's a small folded piece of paper (3.5"x3.5") on which I've printed a black and white picture of a swan taking flight from a pond, and I make sure to choose a beautiful stamp for the envelope.
Why do you do it, Gilles?
Well, why do you do it, Jan? I've already answered this question. We do it because we cannot but do it. Check the old FAQ.
- The urge to raise our voice in the name of reason and against the abysmal condition and deterioration of our social fabric.
- The desire to lift the veil of hypocrisy which, like a thick and sooty fog, shrouds the collusion of our governing and corporate elites.
- The sense that we, as a society -- indeed as a world -- have a long way to go to reach the shores of social justice and human dignity, and hence the call for action.
- The necessity to counter the subliminal messages spread by the main media, themselves an integral part of the powers in place.
- The enjoyment obtained from expressing ourselves in a censorless environment.
- The excitement to be part of a project in the company of fine human beings.
- The pleasure to be creative and write.
In the final analysis, we do it because we want to be another tiny link in the long chain of life -- the only one that counts: Love, justice, sanity, culture, beauty, etc.
What do you think will be the impact of the increasing commercialization of the Internet?
The commercialization of the Net was a choice made by the Clinton administration and it began in 1994. Like everything else in this society the Net has been commodified. It has essentially devastated the collegiality that existed in the early years (I first got on the Net around 1985, far before the advent of the Web). The free flow and exchange of information has been recalibrated entirely toward commerce. The Internet has been corporatized. It's very dispiriting.
Back to an earlier question: Very few Web sites are ad-free. Why the policy, and do you think you'll be able to maintain this?
Ads will take you over. You cannot compromise on this. We will be able to maintain this so long as we can. When we cannot any longer, we shall fold. Again, there is no compromise, here.
Are there causes for which you would consider accepting advertising?
Actually, Jan, we do advertise constantly. What we do not do is take financial compensation for it. We advertise Web sites, publications, book publishers, public actions. We never stop advertising for what we consider are worthy endeavors. We simply don't get paid for it and we would not ever accept being paid for it.
In the past few months, writers have contacted me to inquire about advertising on Swans. Mike Palecek has asked how much it would cost to advertise his books; I've been non-committal. Mike is an okay fellow. But I still need to discuss the issue with the "Flock." And, somehow, I don't feel at ease with the idea. When you begin, where do you stop?
Any plans to publish a book, either of your own or as a compilation of Swans articles?
This is a tough one to crack. I did look into it last year with one East Coast publisher. The problem is that all our pieces are available on line. I'd very much like to see a compilation of articles published in book format. It's a matter of time and right connection with a publisher.
What is your biggest frustration with the "alternative" media?
Again, the absence of cooperation and collaboration -- the competition is as ferocious as it is in the non-alternative media. Lack of unity and solidarity. Again, no hard judgment on my part. There are folks out there who work as hard or harder than we do, who endeavor to bring as many alternative voices to the fore as they can. Sites like Dissident Voice, Monthly Review, Marxmail; or look at the sheer amount of work Jeff does from his tiny office up north in Oregon for CounterPunch, and there are many, many more who deserve a lot of kudos for their unremitting efforts. But there is no synergy. It's a dog-eat-dog kind of scene.
Dissident Voice...didn't you get into a little fight of your own with its Webmaster?
You mean Sunil Sharma? Actually he is a very decent man and we have a friendly though occasional rapport. The issue had to do with him reposting a Swans article. He actually had not lifted it from Swans directly but from another site that had stolen the material. So, yes, this resulted in a little kerfuffle. I don't think he's ever done it again. He, like many, does not agree with our policy, but he respects it, which is all that can be asked.
One of the biggest struggles over the years has been this policy against articles being reproduced elsewhere in their entirety (the "no multi posting policy".) Can you explain why you feel this is important, as a publisher, as a writer, and as a reader?
Swans Web exclusivity is a sensible policy that we developed over the years against all the odds and despite all the obstacles. I don't think that it will surprise anyone that as a publisher I want people to read Swans. I want readers to feel confident that when they open Swans every fortnight they'll find fresh and original material, not stuff that's posted all over the Internet (Web sites, mailing lists, etc.).
All the material can be accessed openly and for free. There is no need to post it elsewhere when you can put a simple link to the URL. If one of Swans work is posted on another site, it brings traffic to that site, not to Swans, even if they eventually place a link to the original URL.
I'd like to remind people that you and I spend an incommensurate amount of time editing the work published on Swans. We add descriptions and meta-words for each piece. I spend day after day after day meticulously formatting (HTML tags) by hand pages and pages -- I reckon 40 to 50 Web pages are either updated (archives) or created (new material) on a bi-weekly basis -- making the effort to have the site properly validated in such a way that it can be viewed by any browser, whether text (e.g., Lynx) or graphical, whatever the size of monitors. Even people with impaired vision can access Swans through screen magnifiers or Braille translators, or again by increasing the font size.
But how do you answer the accusation often made against you that you do not share Swans work with the greater community?
This is pure hypocritical malarkey. Everything on Swans is 100 percent shared. Again, it's openly available and freely accessible on the site. Anybody can get on the site. Anybody can put all the links they want, to all the URLs they want, on Swans. So what is this baloney, that we do not share? Please!
In addition we encourage print publications to reprint Swans work for free (except commercial publications, which should pay their customary reprint fee to the author directly). Quite a few do.
So, what do we not share, what do we not give? This is so bloody infuriating. I mean, could people take a course in ethics 101 before accusing me of whatever sin under the sky? For goodness sake, we've been giving for ten years -- everything, everything for free. We've helped authors, given computers when we could, built Web sites for others, even loaned money (never repaid) to one guy who six months later asked for more and when we said we could not simply disappeared. I mean, what else can we, should we do? Maintain their site and pay their bills too? This is laughable, really.
Don't get started...
Well...Well...Okay. Here are two more reasons for our policy:
First, multi-posting is a nightmare for anyone who wants to get to the original source of a piece. You know, say you want to cite John Doe. You Google John Doe and find the article on Site A but it is a repost from Site B, which was reposted from Site C until with time and perseverance you may finally find the original source, which you should properly credit. Say I want to quote a short paragraph of an article written by Michael Yates and published on Monthly Review but reposted on site A, B, C, etc. I mean, the simple ethical behavior is to acknowledge MR and Michael directly. They labored to have the piece on the MR site. It was not done through some kind of immaculate conception. This is the very least of what one should do.
We have had instances in which we edited, formatted, and published a piece, only to find it published elsewhere as originally submitted (that is with typos, different formatting, etc.). Which version, then, is the original? This gets to the matter of integrity for the author, the publisher, and the reader.
Secondly, more and more authors appreciate our policy, not fewer and fewer as Phil Rockstroh claimed (and stats are there to prove my point and invalidate his). He wanted to change a policy that he had agreed upon for exactly three years. None of his arguments made any sense whatsoever but his message was clear. Either the policy was going to change for him or he was out. In my book, this was sheer coercion, pure blackmail. There was no intention on his part to have a discussion with the other members of Swans, the regular contributors. None. It was either-or. I chose neither. Amusingly, one of his rationale to see his work posted all over the galaxy was that the political circumstances were so dire that it required -- an ardent obligation -- the widest possible dissemination of his writing to stop, I presume, the villainies exacted by the Bush administration.
Why is this amusing?
Well, first it denotes the sheer extent of his ego (he used to append meta-words to his articles that would always begin and end with his name!), but if this was indeed his rationale, then one should wonder why he has not published much of anything in the past 12 months -- perhaps two or three pieces. More seriously, I've learned that the reasons advanced, or the fight picked, to cease contributing have little to do with actuality. The decision to quit is latent. It may be a disagreement on the politics (that was certainly the case around and in the aftermath of the 2004 US presidential elections), lassitude, time constraints, money, ego associated to a fair dose of vanity, etc., but in most cases it's not the reason(s) given.
Most people feel comfortable with the policy. I'll give you one very current example: In the next issue, May 22, we will publish an article by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan. I corresponded with Jonathan and offered him to write something for Swans regarding plagiarism. I pointed out to him our Web exclusivity and suggested that if he felt uncomfortable with it he could consider sending the piece to CounterPunch. I even mentioned that the piece would receive a wider audience with CP. They chose to send it to Swans.
What do you think of an author who argues that since the work is unpaid, or is so important that it needs the widest dissemination possible, and what do you say?
What do I think? I think it's undiluted hogwash. I think that they should check their ego in Swans cloakroom or in their own wardrobe. I've also heard the money argument made, mostly by people who actually are tenured professors and other professionals. I mean people who have a job, get a financial remuneration, making this argument to someone who's unpaid...laughable! But you know what, Jan, what I think is totally irrelevant. I do not expect that they will agree with our view. It's what I say that counts. I say to them that there are thousands upon thousands of sites that will be happy to "publish" their stuff and that they should not waste their time nor mine. Swans has a Web exclusive policy. Period.
What do you make of Charles's friendly criticism -- the Black Swan?
I did not take Charles's views as a critique. I took them as a sentiment of how he would like to see Swans evolve. He made some good points and ignored a few realities. When he refers to The Voice or Encore I think he fails to account for a substantial difference. They had some dough. We don't. It's essential to understand the limitations that this salient fact entails. I also think that the period to which he refers was much more creative and hopeful than what we are all confronted with. Steppling has an endearing personality but he was both highly negative and at times quite manipulative -- I'll refrain from going further here. Charles has a long experience as a cultural maverick and we should hear him carefully and adjust if we can. But, at the end of the day, Swans is very much a reflection of its volunteers. His reference to MoveOn.org is a bit puzzling. Beside the vast amount of money behind the operation, and I mean millions of dollars, this is nothing less or more than a conduit to the Democratic Party. Pascal, Rousseau, and Thoreau would have laughed with disdain at the contemporary MoveOn.orgs. I'd love to see more "action prose"; yet, again, I'm very much dependent on what I receive.
You do listen to input, don't you?
Not only do I listen to input, I value each and every contributor's work much more than I value mine. Which other publication do you know of that has the publisher and the main engine so much in the background? When is the last time you've seen my name in the "Note from the Editor"? How often have I featured my writing? Have you noticed my own, personal, archival page?
I put everybody before my own.
Yes, I do listen carefully, but at the end of the day I keep asking: Who does the work? Who is going to do the work? Then, I'm sorry, I have to move on. You and I can only do what we physically, financially, and mentally, can.
There is much that needs to be done. We simply cannot do it all.
How would you describe your politics and Swans editorial line?
Editorial line: Do you remember the early days? I prodded potential contributors to ask themselves: "Would I feel comfortable in the company of these people? Would I enjoy being seen in their company?" Then I stated, "pro-gun, so-called 'pro-life' (anti-choice), pro-death penalty, and religious extremist papers will not be accepted," and I concluded, "Humor and wit appreciated. These words, albeit quite subjective, are also relevant and worth pondering: Creative, thoughtful, sarcastic, literary, political, informative, iconoclastic, curious, poetic, educative, sensitive..."
Well, the concluding words still stand, but I do not think I need to let potential contributors know what's acceptable. Swans, now, has a reputation, small but steady. No pro-gun, anti-choice, pro-death, religious extremists bother sending me their stuff. Theirs has been ignored time and again. They don't waste my time and neither do I theirs.
Within the unsaid, established sensitivities, I let it flow. I do not edit but for facts, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You actually are the mother of all Swans editing. You are the one who, with your eagle eyes and your ethical backbone, have caught most of the errors and even unveiled the plagiarists.
New contributors are in or not according to my own senses and, I must confess, are in, sometimes, in spite of my senses due to the need for material, which results almost always in a mistake. Regulars are given much leeway. I will, at times, suggest and recommend, but I'll let it go most of the time so long as it does not cross a threshold that I consider, correctly or not, over the top. People -- those who are committed to Swans -- write as they feel and do me the courtesy to take into consideration my here and there suggestions; but that's all I ask: Take into consideration, not take a directive. I am more of a conductor enjoying playing the music created by others.
Overall, it makes Swans diverse, curious, and eclectic.
Can you provide a few examples?
Two recent pieces come to mind (there are many more). The one on the Israel lobby by Phil Greenspan and the Yyuran piece on conspiracy by Deck Deckert. I think people know that my analysis of the influence of the Israel lobby is quite different from that of Philip, and that I am a conspiracy skeptic. I can assure you Phil and Deck are fully aware of the difference. We disagree in good camaraderie. If I only published what and whom I fully agree with, it would become a lonely exercise quite quickly. On the other hand, had these two pieces come from a newcomer I would have probably not published them. Again, whether it makes good sense, I'm not sure; but regular contributors pretty much write what they want.
To go back to your question about my politics: I have always remained guarded. I happen to live in a country that is periodically hyperviolent against anyone who does not espouse mainstream dogmas: Capitalism is the god-given ideology; individualism is its manifest representation; consumerism is its temple. I happen to oppose these credences to the deepest fibers of my being.
I also happen to be a so-called "legal alien." These Martians are sent to hell now and then. I apologize for possibly looking like a "coward," as a Canadian neighbor once tagged me. I am no coward, though I won't get into a fight to prove my manliness. I am careful, refuse a cockfight not worth fighting. But for what's worth, and proving that I am neither careful nor prudent (in other words, I am an idiotic gadfly), here is a short take on my thinking:
I am closer to non-sectarian individuals like Louis Proyect than most people imagine, but without his knowledge and his activist background. I don't do Marxist talk because I don't know the language, lost among the many Marxist languages that flower out there. I do not call myself a Socialist because of the same reasons. Is Michael Bérubé a Socialist or a "Democratic Socialist" as he claims? How can a Socialist not be democratic? Beats me. I leave all these drawers to where they belong -- the sewers of intellectual modernity. Too many churches out there... I am not an ideologue.
I consider that it is more important to define what one is for rather than what label(s) one carries on one's sleeves (or thongs, mugs, T-shirts, etc.).
I am in favor of:
- Public ownership of natural resources, financial institutions, military-industrial complex (cut the latter by 90 percent, redirect the resources toward not-for-profit life and environment saving engineering).
- Labor representation in board rooms -- 50/50 representation -- till workers take it all over. They are the one who create the added value. They are the ones to lead our future.
- Steep progressive taxation.
- Estate taxes to the max (I need to expand on this: Want freedom to make as much money as you are able to? Fine. We'll let you do it. When you die, everything, absolutely everything you made/created beyond one modest dwelling and sum of money goes back to the State, which in turn has an obligation to sell it back to, or spread it among, the people. Get my hint?)
- Maximum wage rather than minimum wage.
- Single payer health care. Universal coverage -- national policies decided, regionally implemented. Preventive medicine. People's medicine, not shareholders' (get it?).
- Free public education.
- Public support for Arts and Culture (at the top of the agenda).
That's pretty much a worldwide approach. In addition and more specific to the USA:
- Double, at least, the number of representatives in Congress.
- Abolish the Electoral College.
- Make representation a civic obligation, like jury duty.
There is so much more that could be proposed and discussed... But those views, however positive they may be, are not a part of the American scene. To stray away from the fore, the "main stream," will carry a heavy price.
You and I and the masses will carry the price, and it will be painful.
But this said, I cannot impose my views on everybody else. So I tend to keep them in check. The diversity is more important than the credo. If not, Swans would just be one of those tiny sects or churches that abound out there.
How would you define yourself?
I'm a contrarian by nature (I enjoy contradictions); a gadfly. I think I've always marched to a different drummer. I revile power, coercion, violence. I'm a moral relativist but an ethical fundamentalist; strive for intellectual integrity; very low confidence in myself; culturally French but deeply internationalist; particularly endeared by lost dogs without collars, the weak, the child who sobs silently in the middle of the night, the dispossessed, the man who leaves his wife and children behind and engages into a perilous journey to find work that will allow him to feed his family (for goodness sake, Jan, for goodness sake, in the 21st century...so much poverty, so much greed, so much waste); entirely a-religious; a big doubter and not much of a believer; favor cooperation above competition; consensus builder with often opposite results; more emotional and empirical than intellectual; loyal; a zest of idealism and a reverence for humanism; relatively open-minded and non-judgmental though at times quite opinionated; believe (one of the very few beliefs I hold) in the inherent goodness of people; egalitarian; skeptic with a sense of humor here and there (I'm serious enough not to take myself seriously); nobility of the heart; humility of the mind; perfectionist; extremely slow writer; very solitary person striving for acceptation and inclusion; a damaged psyche leading to bouts or recurring depressive mood; Gallic temper not always kept in check; a layman who knows a bit of everything but nothing fully; refuse to treat people as enemies; could not hit someone, even in self-defense but a rather salient tongue that can be mentally abusive; drink and smoke too much; music and books soothe the soul; wish I had not existed; full of contradictions; still very much in love with you but sorry that you have to endure me.
In other words, just a human being.
What keeps you optimistic that change can be influenced by writing (assuming you're optimistic, that is)?
I am indeed optimistic and that's what leads me to drive the pessimists out. Without hope there is no future but barbarianism, whether Nietzschean or religious fundamentalist. Brown, red, or lately green, you need to fight for the future. I am convinced that we shall prevail. Just look at history. It's a long struggle, written by the people with its sweat, its blood, its words, but the gains are there for all to see. We are sailing through reactionary waters but the ocean is vast and fluid. They can do whatever they want, kill millions. They won't dam the ocean. People will prevail.
Out of curiosity, if you were given the opportunity to meet one public figure in the USA, who would he or she be?
Without hesitation, Harry Belafonte.
Any regrets, wishes, or concerns?
No regrets. Wishes? Several: I keep hoping that someone will join me in the engine room. We could do so much more. I'd like people to use the archives more. There's an amazing amount of knowledge and information on Swans. I wish people, contributors included, use hyperlinks within the site much more than we all do. I hope I'll have the time, the energy, and the creativity to develop a body of work based on hypertext. We are much too much linear and not enough associative. We are not using the power of the Web constructively (this would deserve a fuller explanation). Of course, I would like to see more synergies but in this atomized environment I don't see it happening in the near future. And the old dream: More creativity, always more creativity. My concerns? Just the human sorts -- that we may find ourselves unable to carry on due to poor health, lack of financial resources, etc., or that we outgrow ourselves (we need to remain small).
In conclusion, what's the next step, Gilles?
I don't know. There are plenty of turkey vultures circling around the house, awaiting to feed on my carcass. Let's hope that you will do another interview 10 years from now and that Swans will keep flying and evolving one way or another.
We are entering our second decade of uninterrupted ad-free publication. But while our publication is free to you, it is not free to produce. We could use, indeed we would welcome, your financial help. Please considerto keep us flying.