Annals of the Inalienable, 2010 Edition

I have decided to start an annual list of the most remarkable efforts to resist market enclosure over the preceding year:  Annals of the Inalienable.  It’s about people who are so committed to a certain set of values – the sanctity of a cherished piece of land, the integrity of their community --that they resisted great pressures to cash in.  The idea is to showcase those people who showed great courage and tenacity in resisting the siren call of The Market in order to preserve something of deeper value.

In a time when human organs and living organisms are routinely propertized and sold, the act of standing up for “the inalienable” is a radical act. 

I was much inspired by a story in the New York Times about Jake Locker, a quarterback for the University of Washington who was destined to be a top draft pick for the NFL last year.  That enviable spot could easily have made Locker a multimillionaire.  Instead, he turned down the offers in order to finish his education, continue playing with his team and live in the small town of Ferndale with his fans -- the "Ferndawgs."  In his junior year, while football scouts were swarming for Jake's attention, the crowds actually chanted, “Don’t go, Jake!”

And he didn’t. He stayed for his senior year, which just ended. 

The U. Washington football team had a mediocre 6-6 record this past year, and Locker’s ranking in the NFL draft has dropped considerably.  But he has no regrets – and his town has embraced him as a local hero.

Who dares to resist The Market?  Do we have some other nominees for the Annals of the Inalienable, 2010 Edition?

Another worthy candidate is Saugatuck Township, Michigan, which has bravely resisted attempts by right-wing billionaire Aubrey McClendon to convert 400 acres of undeveloped dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan into a sprawling luxury resort.  McClendon spent $39.5 million to buy the property, and has been waging an intensive effort to get the zoning changed so that construction can proceed.  (More here.)  

The township has adamantly refused to change the zoning and let a beautiful, ecologically sensitive shoreline be ruined. As the Wall Street Journal reports, "Locals call the dunes a haven for family picnics, sunset strolls and first kisses."  They also worry that the proposed resort development would ruin the dunes and siphon away business from Saugatuck and nearby towns.

But Saugatuck Township has already spent more than one-third of its $715,000 annual budget on legal bills to fight the project.  Local citizens now charge that McClendon is trying to bankrupt the township so that it will be forced to rescind its zoning decision. The fight goes on -- with no clear outcome in sight.  The WSJ reports:

In May, township residents voted 491-489 for a tax increase to help pay legal bills. Ballot inconsistencies halted a recount. Two residents have sued to void the election. Mr. McClendon is paying their legal bills.

With an annual budget of $715,000, the township has spent more than $250,000 fighting the executive over zoning, taxes and the election. Officials say the burden could force it into state receivership. They have considered selling the township hall and canceled a $297 purchase of Christmas decorations.

Saugatuck Township is certainly deserving of an Annals of the Inalienable salute!

To me, these are the most notable incidents of 2010.  I’m sure there are others – and I invite you to submit your stories.

But let me revisit a tale that still inspires me -- the artistic conscience of John Densmore, the drummer for The Doors.  I still remember that remarkable article that he published in The Nation magazine, on July 8, 2002.   

Densmore was writing about the incessant offers of millions of dollars to license the Doors' songs for corporate advertising.  During his lifetime, Jim Morrison had always refused, and the rest of the band agreed.  The group had a deal among themselves:  to split everything four ways, but to give each band member veto power.  So it only took one band member to reject a marketing offer.  On more than a few occasions, Densmore has been that one.

One band member whom Densmore declines to name always wanted to sell the music, as he recalled in The Nation:

"Commercials will give us more exposure," he says. I ask him, "so you're not for it because of the money?" He says "no," but his first question is always "how much?" when we get one of these offers, and he always says he's for it. He never suggests we play Robin Hood, either. If I learned anything from Jim, it's respect for what we created. I have to pass. Thank God, back in 1965 Jim said we should split everything, and everyone has veto power. Of course, every time I pass, they double the offer!

It all started in 1967, when Buick proffered $75,000 to use "Light My Fire" to hawk its new hot little offering--the Opel. As the story goes--which everyone knows who's read my autobiography or seen Oliver Stone's movie--Ray, Robby and John (that's me) OK'd it, while Jim was out of town. He came back and went nuts. And it wasn't even his song (Robby primarily having penned "LMF")! In retrospect, his calling up Buick and saying that if they aired the ad, he'd smash an Opel on television with a sledgehammer was fantastic! I guess that's one of the reasons I miss the guy.

Densmore wanted to maintain the integrity of the Doors' songs – so the meaning wouldn’t leach away and become associated in the public mind with the product or corporation. That’s essentially what has happened to George Gershwin’s luscious Rhapsody in Blue.  Bet you can’t listen to it without thinking of United Airlines! 

Densmore writes: 

…..the "bottom line" is that our songs have a higher purpose, like keeping the integrity of their original meaning for our fans. "Many kids have said to me that 'Light My Fire,' for example, was playing when they first made love, or were fighting in Nam, or got high--pivotal moments in their lives." Robby jumped in. "If we're only one of two or three groups who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the long run. The publishing will suffer a little, but we should be proud of our stance." Then Robby hit a home run. "When I heard from one fan that our songs saved him from committing suicide, I realized, that's it--we can't sell off these songs."

So, in the spirit of the Bob Dylan line, "Money doesn't talk, it swears," we have been manipulated, begged, extorted and bribed to make a pact with the devil...

Densmore remains an inspiration.  Surely there are other heroes of inalienability who deserve our applause.