Jello, Rage and Public Debate
By John Kenyon
If the Spitfire Tour accomplishes nothing else, it shows that if you want to reach the malleable minds of the nationís college students, there are few better mediums for your message than musicians, actors and other entertainers.
How else to explain the spirited discussions taking place on campuses this fall as students animatedly talk about social security, prison conditions and redistribution of wealth?
"Itís meant to be sort of an inspiring wake-up call of sorts," says Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys and a tour participant. "People find themselves thinking if they want to or not."
The tour, the brainchild of Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha, is on the road this fall, hitting 20 college campuses with a mix of spoken-word performances, standup comedy and good old-fashioned public arguing.
Biafra is joined on the tour by 18 other entertainers and activists who hit colleges with a team of five speakers. At each stop on the tour, a film about Spitfire is shown, the speakers talk, questions are answered and, in breakout sessions, attendees can talk one-on-one with the participants.
According to tour organizer Sarah Haynes, the idea for the tour arose from a discussion De La Rocha had about fans missing the message in his lyrics. The kids were too busy bouncing up and down to the beat to notice there was a point to it all.
Hence, the Spitfire Tour.
At the tourís second stop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on October 16, some of the bigger names among the rotating cast of speakers - Chuck D, Krist Novoselic, Perry Farrell, Woddy Harrelson, Bill Maher and de la Rocha himself - were not in attendance. The students didnít seem to mind, however, taking in the likes of Biafra, Spearheadís Michael Franti, former MTV VJ Kennedy, Everclearís Art Alexakis and Exene Cervenka from X.
Franti set a disjointed tone early by skipping around from topic to topic. Like his fellow speakers, he shared his views on a number of issues, which rendered the announced lecture topics a rough guide at best. Frantiís was easily the most interesting talk, as he rapped much of his presentation about racism in a sing-song style that was more poetry slam than lecture.
I donít give a damn who theyíre screwing in private," he said of elected officials. "I care who theyíre screwing in public."
Biafra, with his well-oiled screed about corporate greed and the problems of wealth addiction, drew the best response, his talk punctuated by frequent hoots and hollers of support.
Oddly, for someone associated with such extreme stances as those espoused in punk classics like "Holiday in Cambodia" and "Kill the Poor," Biafra offered a voice of reason, and one of the few true calls to action.
Biafra said he sees many people who start out with a hardcore view of the issues for about six months, but who make their lives so miserable with an all-or-nothing stance that eventually they spring back to the other end of the spectrum.
"Donít let the more hardcore than thou get you down," Biafra said. "Doing something is better than doing nothing."
And after railing against Wall Street and the move toward privatization, he even had a kind word of advice for the aspiring MBAs in the audience: "Even if you do go into a financially lucrative field, one way to give back to the community is to provide your skills to poor people some of the time."
The tour is designed to offer views from all points of the political spectrum, but this lineup veered heavily to the left, with only Kennedyís rather conservative take on the need for smaller government offering any balance.
Haynes said organizers approached "anybody and everybody under the sun with an issue," but admitted that those with a liberal viewpoint were quicker to get on board.
Despite or perhaps because of the particularly liberal bent of the presentation, the students were eager to listen. It was an odd juxtaposition: Frantiís dreadlocks and Cervenkaís aging punk ensemble bumping up against a discussion that would not seem out of place on Crossfire.
Although the students were hearing things that arenít likely to fall from Mary Matalinís lips anytime soon - such as Biafraís contention that "80 percent of the American people havenít seen dick-all from the supposed American boom", - the nuts and bolts of these talks are the types of things economists, politicians and social activists have been trying to share with college students for years.
The advertised goal to "educate, enlighten and entertain, while instigating action" seems to have been met. The event, at least at this stop, was used as a booster for several local groups who set up booths at the back of the hall or shoved a meeting notice in Frantiís hands to be read during a break in the program.
And though the politics of the entire operation are a bit muddled - Biafra rails against corporations and commodification while the Colleges.com Web site that offers information about the tour hits viewers with ads for the likes of Business Week - it did create an atmosphere for action on the campus.
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