Sunday, March 05, 2017

Trump May Be A "Punk," But No, Trumpism Is Not The New Punk Rock, Even If There Are Some Common Roots


I hadn't been back in America very long-- having been living abroad for nearly 7 years-- when I ran into someone I had met years before when I booked a Doors concert at my school. It was Danny Fields, who had gone from being an A&R man at the Doors' label, Elektra, to working as a journalist and managing a new band. He wanted me to see the new band. I didn't want to. He insisted and insisted until I agreed. I went down to the Bowery to a skeetzy club I had never heard of, CBGB's and saw a brand new band that hadn't recorded yet-- the Ramones. It charged my life, quite literally and completely. Along with others, I started one of the first punk rock magazines, one of the first punk rock radio shows and one of the first punk rock record labels in the U.S. Long before I wound up as general manager of the Ramones label, Sire Records, I had become close with virtually all the punk bands, from the Pistols and the Clash to locals like the Dead Kennedys and Crime. In fact, Johnny Strike of Crime just sent me this piece by Scott Galupo, Is Trumpism The New Punk Rock?

This post is meant to respond to Galupo's and Ijust want to establish that I was there and had a hand in it and understand what it was and why it was and feel confident that the Alt-Right isn't and never could be anything do do with punk rock, other than maybe being the antithesis. This goes way beyond the little dust up over American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer and his assertions about his love for Depeche Mode, unrequited I might add. After writing this little piece about what Depeche thinks of neo-Nazis, I received an e-mail from Daniel Miller, head of Mute and the guy who discovered Depeche Mode, signed them and produced their early music and helped guide their career. It don't want to quote it because it was a little more violent than the way Daniel has always portraysed himself but let it suffice that he wished bodily injury on Richard Spencer.

Anyway, back to punk rock-- which has always used fascist iconology to communicate anger, irony, and, most of all, perhaps, attention-grabbing outrage. Punk bands have always drawn some equivalents of simple-minded, low-IQ Trump supporter-types (i.e., facsist dupes.) and the bands have always had to respond to it. The Clash, Morrissey and the Dead Kennedys all had mini-crises over fascist followers and all disavowed them in no uncertain terms-- the way Depeche Mode did with Richard Spencer last week. Is there anything unclear about this Dead Kennedy's underground hit and the way Jello Biafra introduced it at this 1982 show at the Ritz in Austin?

Punk ain't no religious cult
Punk means thinking for yourself
You ain't hardcore cos you spike your hair
When a jock still lives inside your head

Nazi punks
Nazi punks
Nazi punks-Fuck Off!

Nazi punks
Nazi punks
Nazi punks-Fuck Off!

If you've come to fight, get outa here
You ain't no better than the bouncers
We ain't trying to be police
When you ape the cops it ain't anarchy

[Repeat chorus]

Ten guys jump one, what a man
You fight each other, the police state wins
Stab your backs when you trash our halls
Trash a bank if you've got real balls

You still think swastikas look cool
The real nazis run your schools
They're coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real fourth reich you'll be the first to go

[Repeat chorus]

You'll be the first to go
You'll be the first to go
You'll be the first to go
Unless you think
Galupo writes that a young CPAC attendee explained that he'd grown up a standard-issue George W. Bush conservative Republican, but had more recently migrated to the alt-right movement. One of its attractions, he said, was that it felt like "the new punk rock." I suppose he's never seen Biafra's 1982 explanation at the Ritz. "The word 'punk,' to many, evokes images of angry hooligans and anarchic behavior," continued Galupo correctly. "Then again, it may sound blasphemous: The memory of 'punk rock,' as it has been canonized in the upper echelons of rock criticism, is associated with left-wing anti-authoritarianism. Hence it would be ridiculous to call yourself 'punk' while supporting a right-wing authoritarian like Trump." Exactly... like Trump-- an acolyte of Joe McCarthy collaborator Roy Cohen-- accusing President Obama of McCarthyism, as he did in an Adderall-fueled rage before dawn on Saturday morning on Twitter. He references his friend and former editor Daniel Wattenberg for his rejection of "any association between punk rock the alt-right, racialism, or white identitarianism. Rather, he sees parallels between punk and Trumpism more broadly. "I have to say, it does feel similar in a lot of ways, psychologically and emotionally," he says.
The first thing one must understand about the right-wing character of punk, Wattenberg says, is not that its exponents were soi-disantYoung Republicans, quoting Goldwater or God and Man at Yale. New York-centered punk began as "an intramural insurrection within the counterculture," he says. It was the punks vs. their somnolent, sententious hippie older brothers and sisters, who had for years propounded what Wattenberg calls the "reverse pieties" of anti-Americanism and anti-commercialism and white guilt.

What does this have to do with the president and his core following?

Wattenberg says Trumpism was "an insurrection against Conservatism Inc."-- a political establishment that had become flabby, complacent, and self-indulgent in the same way that 1970s progressive rock music had grown bombastic, pretentious, and long-winded. Whereas Republicans before Trump had been terrified of deviating from orthodox positions on trade, the desirability of immigration, or the wisdom of the Iraq war, Trump thumbed his nose at this orthodoxy.

Then there's Trump's seeming amateurism-- his "inexperience and rawness," Wattenberg says. Just as punks weren't trained musicians, Trump is frequently assailed for not playing politics the right way, that is, the professional way. When Wattenberg hears the media establishment pounce on Trump for falsehoods, misstatements, or exaggerations, he hears echoes of musical sophisticates belittling punk rock for its primitivism. Trump may get lost in the details, but he gets the big things attitudinally right. Put another way: He may know only three chords, but Wattenberg says his followers hear the "right three chords."

He also sees in Trump a political manifestation of punk's do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos. (By "do-it-yourself," punks don't mean changing the oil or remodeling your bathroom; it's meant as a command: Write your own song. Paint your own painting.) Punk-rock bands created their own independent labels and staged gigs in small clubs or church basements. Trump lacked support from Republican Party elites in the same way that punks lacked support from major labels and promoters. So he ran a shoestring campaign and made himself recklessly accessible to the media in pursuit of free coverage.

Finally there is the transgressive appeal of Trump's rejection of political correctness. Wattenberg says: "There's power in that. Punks were also occasionally misrepresented as harboring fascist sympathies. Once they call you a fascist, there's nothing more than they can say. That's the source of excitement Milo [Yiannopoulos] generated on campus: 'We're free again.' That's the thrill and the power of busting taboos."

Where does Trumpism lead, then? The legacy of punk rock can be looked at two ways. It could be seen as a musical movement that, outside of two bands (the potent, one-and-done Sex Pistols and the more creatively catholic Clash), ultimately didn't amount to much. Or it can be seen as a vital current that runs through subsequent movements from grunge to emo to more recent garage revivalists like the White Stripes.

Wattenberg, for his part, doesn't see Trumpism disappearing any time soon. "There are no longer any criteria of judgment independent of politics," he laments. For as long as the left gets to define the "permissible boundaries of expressive freedom," there will be some variant of Trumpism spoiling to defy it. And for as long as politics overspills into awards shows and sports pages and our personal social media, he adds, Trumpism will continue to appeal to those who want to escape its clutches.

It's enough to make you wanna be, well, sedated.
Wattenberg goes wrong in his belief that punk "as a musical movement that, outside of two bands (the potent, one-and-done Sex Pistols and the more creatively catholic Clash), ultimately didn't amount to much." This may sound blashpemous but by almost any conceivable measurement Green Day has had a bigger impact than their spiritual parents (the aforementioned Pistols and Clash). Green Day has had quite a lot to say about Trump and Trumpism to the non-Alt-Right among us. Another figure from the heady early days on punk rock in the late 70s and early 80s San Francisco punk scene was then-producer, now cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist and best-selling author Dan Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession , The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature , The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload and last year's A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Literally, moments after Johnny Strike of Crime sent me Galupo's piece, Dan sent me one he had just penned for the Daily Beast, The Butchering of the Age of Reason. "Our country," he wrote, "is in a crisis that threatens to set us back 400 years." He didn't even specifically reference Trump. "I’m talking about reversing the Age of Reason, which ushered in a period of unprecedented intellectual, economic, and social growth. The Enlightenment, as it is also called, drew a line in the sand between rumor and fact, between testable hypotheses and anecdote, and between demonstrable facts and nonsense. Prior to the Age of Reason, people who heard voices in their heads might have been drowned or burned at the stake as witches; by the 20th century we had identified a biological disease that causes this (schizophrenia) and developed drugs to treat it. The Age of Reason led us to the germ theory of disease, penicillin, and-- although it took a while and is still not ubiquitous-- women’s rights, child labor laws, and a reduction in racism." The essence of punk ethos is far more in tune with Dan's critical analysis than in Wattenberg's hand-wringing stretch.
[U]ntil the last few months, [the Elightenment] allowed we citizens to engage in constructive discussion with elected officials about public policy matters, based on facts. It has allowed a free and independent press, with trained investigative journalists, to help us understand what is true and what is not. If the current administration brands as “fake” facts they find inconvenient, it undermines the entire political system. If we are going to throw out facts as a prerequisite to discussion, we are reversing centuries of cognitive progress.

...Why is it that musicians and scientists reach different conclusions when considering the same data? Perhaps for the same reason that voters reach different conclusions when considering the same statements, claims, and data presented by politicians. We engage in expectation-driven perception, and opposed to evidence-driven perception.

Expectations retune neurons and change the way our retinas, our eardrums, and our brains work. They cause firing patterns in our brain consistent with what we think we saw or heard rather than what we actually saw or heard.

Simply knowing that an instrument has a certain history could alter auditory pathways so that they actually sound better to us-- that is, if we know which one we’re hearing. Simply knowing that a person whose political views usually align with ours is speaking may cause us to evaluate the information less critically. Lord Chesterfield understood, over two hundred years ago, that we form impressions of others based on what we see and what we think, and that the seeing tends to overpower the thinking simply because seeing is so much easier than thinking. But we would do well to remember the words of his friend Voltaire: Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

When we listen to someone we like, such as an elected official whom we have supported, we tend to accept what they say more trustingly, even gullibly. We filter their remarks through a cognitive bias that they have our best interests at heart. We focus on aspects of the remarks that confirm our hopes, and we discount those that confirm our fears. We do the opposite with elected officials whom we oppose, thinking there can’t be anything of value in what they say. This has led to the current polarization of political parties, and obstructionism in congress. Evidence-based thinking would have us evaluate each statement objectively, and avoid jumping to conclusions. But that’s hard to do. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has shown, under conditions of cognitive overload, we are much less likely to be able to do this.

So it takes some work. We need role models in positions of authority and influence to show us how evidence-based thinking works. Fortunately we have three institutions to help us, institutions that are the foundation of a free and democratic society, institutions that need our support more than ever. They are the judiciary, independent press, and the scientific method. When the panel of federal judges reviewed the Trump administrations immigration ban, note the language in the ruling: “We find no evidence.” Journalists reported that there was “no evidence” of WMDs in Iraq. Science reports “no evidence” of a link between vaccinations and autism. Former Republican President George W. Bush said in an interview recently that an independent press is “indispensable to democracy.” Cutting funding to education, interfering with judges and the press should never be made political issues-- supporting them supports the power of reason.
Punk rocker Billie Joe Armstrong's immediate reaction after learning that Trump had won the election was to urge people to "treat each other with respect and kindness and love" and then to re-write a song slightly, one I don't see the alt-right kiddies embracing any time soon:

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