Writing nonfiction: “What’s Left?” February 2021

Rule #1: If an idea cannot be expressed in language that a reasonably attentive seventh-grader can understand, someone’s jiving someone else.
Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, The Soft Revolution, 1971

I wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Polarity Thinking vs Integrative Thinking.” It was a highfalutin pseudo-philosophical screed that proposed going beyond the politics of Left and Right from a libertarian perspective, following along the lines of Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought run by Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard from 1965 to 1968. I’m a writer who was into self-publishing what eventually became known as fanzines—zines for short—a subculture of small format hand-made xeroxed or printed magazines published in limited quantities about whatever the creators found interesting. I think this essay first appeared in something I created called ELF: A Journal of Creative, Practical Anarchy. I even ran a crossover libertarian study group in Santa Cruz for a time with a couple of anarchist capitalists and me and a fellow left anarchist. Fortunately, the “integrative thinking” of my libertarian if clueless “third positionism” was blissfully short-lived. I realized that having anything to do with rightwing anarchists was bullshit as I reaffirmed my commitment to revolutionary leftwing anarchism.

But that essay had a life of its own and it was eventually reprinted by a right libertarian zine called Against The Wall. The publisher of Against The Wall sent me a copy of his zine with my writing prominently displayed, accompanied with a letter effusively praising it as brilliant and groundbreaking. I wrote him back disparaging all rightwing libertarians as crypto-fascists. What I didn’t tell him was that I could barely understand what I had written because it was so egregiously convoluted. The essay was written at a deliberately high and abstract level, and I was embarrassed because I was also being too clever by half. I was talking for the sake of hearing myself talk and reveling at being oh so smart. If you google the essay’s title, it comes up under my name as part of the Libertarian Microfiche/Peace Plans project.

My zine’s name—ELF—was short for Education Liberation Front because I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics at the time. Postman and Weingartner, from which I cribbed Rule #1, were definitely on the liberal/progressive/social democratic end of a politics that was characterized by Jerry Farber’s collection of essays entitled The Student as Nigger. The sentiment for simplicity behind Rule #1 accorded well with other philosophical principles for intelligibility—like Occam’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied without necessity”)—that I admired as a writer, but which back then I rarely practiced. About the same time, I took to carrying around the slim volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, Rule #17 of which famously declared “avoid needless words.” Known as “the little book,” Strunk and White’s manual for writers is a paean to brevity, but there is a difference between brevity and intelligibility. Making an idea simple often requires using more words to make the meaning clear, whereas brevity can sometimes make a notion’s significance more obscure.

I must admit I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of brevity. Years ago, I settled on a maximum length of 1,500 words for my columns, an arbitrary upper limit I struggle with even though I no longer write for Maximum Rocknroll. But I now always strive for legibility and simplicity in my political writing. Before I dig into how I write my post-MRR columns, let’s spend more time considering the importance of clarity. Having hung around the Left all my adult life, I’m appalled by the confounding complexity and deliberate obscurantism often practiced in these circles. I remember debating a Frankfurt School acolyte in the late 1980s. When I brought up Rule #1 he defended the need for his highly abstruse Hegelian argumentation. At the time I equated simplicity with an anarchistic desire for unmediated relationships in general, but he was having none of that. “Unmediated relationships are fascist,” he declared. Which, in turn, reminded me of the 1970 film The Revolutionary in which Jon Voight played a hapless youngster named “A.”

A college student under the tutelage of a liberal professor (Lionel Murton), “A” is disillusioned when the students are easily arrested during a slapstick campus protest. He then joins a Marxist cell of factory workers lead by union leader Despard (Robert Duvall) for endless meetings and leafletting in anticipation of militant labor picketing and strikes. “A” is committed, but he doesn’t seem to accomplish much, and he certainly isn’t having much fun. Then he meets Leonard (Seymour Cassel), a wild quasi-Yippie revolutionist his own age who looks like Freewheelin’ Frank of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Together, they liberate a pawn shop and give away its merchandise before Leonard sets “A” up with a bomb to carry out on old-school anarchist attentat to assassinate some class enemy. When Leonard first hears of “A”s insipid experiences and resounding disappointment with the Marxist workers cadre he asks: “What? You don’t speak dialectics?” Then Leonard quacks like Donald Duck, and they both laugh.

The movie was an overly simplistic illustration of the differences between political action and direct action, and between Marxism and anarchism. Back then I was transitioning from the latter to the former, while today I maintain a commitment in my writing to the simplicity and direct expression of anarchism while I hope to engage meaningfully in the subtleties of Marxism. I have a default format for my columns, which often entails starting with some personal anecdote or recollection before delving into heavy-duty political subjects. This present column has a little more of the personal and a little less of the political, but the formula remains tried-and-true. I rely on a clear premise and conclusion, evidence, research, and logical argumentation using cause and effect and creative comparisons.

The Elements of Style is intended to provide classic precepts for good writing applicable to both nonfiction and fiction work. While rules such as #17’s insistence on brevity are applicable to both forms of writing, in my experience the use and feel of injunctions like “avoid needless words” differ markedly between nonfiction and fiction writing. There are also elements in fiction like plot, character development and dialogue that have no direct comparison with elements in nonfiction. I do both kinds of writing, and I find fiction writing far more difficult than nonfiction writing. Some readers may contend that my nonfiction work is every bit a fiction, and not because my personal remembrances border on memoir which is borderline between the two.

I also try to maintain a balance between current events and historical analysis and the related dichotomy between being au courant and timeless. The distinction here is not merely the difference between the individual and the collective, between what is individually compelling versus what is socially significant. I participated in several countercultural movements—from 60s rocknroll to 70s punk—that turned out to change the culture, society and arguably the world. Yet who hears much about raga rock these days. It’s a style of music I was briefly fascinated with after the Byrds did their March 28, 1966, “raga rock” press conference during which Roger McGuinn played a sitar to debut the release of their song “Eight Miles High.” He subsequently tuned his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to sound like one. Nothing ever really dies musically—or for that matter counterculturally or politically—and raga rock has recently experienced a revival of sorts. But there’s a reason why it’s called someone’s personal “taste” in music.

I recently wrote a column about the antagonisms between modern historical time versus traditional and rightwing cyclical time. Arguably, the discussion of what is currently newsworthy and historically important is this column’s bread-and-butter. In that previous piece I make a distinction between the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle) and the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures which I consider history proper. What isn’t obvious is how I sift one from the other or, alternately, how I weave one into the other. Both are very much behind-the-scenes processes that rely on my subjective tastes and my objective judgments, with the distinction between subjective and objective sometimes being hard to draw.

In the days when Maximum Rocknroll had columns, there was a kind of end notes “arms race,” when several columnists developed them as standalone vignettes. A couple of prominent MRR columnists even claimed to have invented the magazine’s end notes feature. End notes were like a literary selfie, a capsule summary of who the columnist was, what they were into and what they’ve accomplished. I frequently boiled mine down to a rote few lines advertising my book and my interests which I labeled Personal Propaganda. In this post-MRR reality, I try to end each column with a select bibliography, a reading list focused on the column’s subject.

That’s “Lefty” Hooligan 101.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

Buy my book, 1% Free, here.

Rob Miller, Tau Cross and the spiritualism of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2019 (MRR #435)

Music in the 60s tended to be godawful serious. The folk protest music was self-righteous and the rock and roll was full of itself. I’ve had a decent sense of humor about most things, including music, and thanks to my rather broadminded parents I was introduced early to Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer. When I transitioned to all that hippie music I appreciated the satire of Phil Ochs and The Smothers Brothers and the sarcasm of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and of course Captain Beefheart. And I enjoyed the music of various outliers, the surreal humor of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (“Yeah! Digging General de Gaulle on accordion./Rather wild, General!/Thank you, sir.”) and the playful Americana of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. When I heard that vocalist and guitarist Jim Kweskin had joined the Lyman Family, the LSD cult of banjo and harmonica player Mel Lyman, I was taken aback.

I mean, the 60s counterculture was full of cults centered around charismatic asshole men, from Charles Manson’s Family to the Process Church, Steve Gaskin’s The Farm, and David Berg’s Children of God. The New Left was little better, spawning the likes of Lyndon LaRouche, Donald DeFreeze’s Symbionese Liberation Army, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party, one of the rare political cults lead by a woman. And let’s mention Synanon, the Élan School and Scientology simply in passing. For all the talk about spiritual or political liberation back in the day, the first kneejerk response by people seeking their own liberation was often to join an authoritarian mind-control cult. So no, I wasn’t really surprised that Kweskin was part of the Fort Hill Community in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Mel Lyman had been called the East Coast Charles Manson by Rolling Stone in 1971. I was seriously disappointed however, and I just couldn’t listen to his music anymore.

So I get it.

You’re listening to your favorite band’s cryptic lyrics in your favorite song that really rocks and you’re slamming to it when somebody tells you, hey, they’re a bunch of Nazis or Christians or Krishnas or whatever. Suddenly, instantly, you experience the band and their music in a whole new light. You can never listen to them the same way ever again, or listen to them ever again for that matter. No doubt that happened to Tau Cross fans upon learning that frontman and former Amebix bassist Rob Miller was an admirer of noted Holocaust denier Gerard Menuhin. Tau Cross’s record label, Relapse Records, is refusing to release the band’s latest album, “Messengers of Deception,” or work with Rob Miller anymore due to that association. Rennie Jaffe says in his Relapse Records statement: “Suddenly the lyrics and themes of the new record were cast in a new light, for me. I spoke with Rob Miller, […] and while he denied being a Holocaust denier, I cannot comfortably work on or sell a record that dabbles in ideologies such as these.”

Personally, I was never a fan of Amebix or the sound they pioneered in punk. Too sludgy, too speedy, and way too metal for my taste. I hear Tau Cross is more of the same. Still, I empathize with what fans of Tau Cross are going through. It’s not productive to ask why Miller’s fellow bandmates didn’t know about his scummy beliefs while they worked and socialized so closely with him. Clearly, Miller kept his rightwing, conspiratorial, Holocaust denialism a secret and cloaked its expression in obscure, enigmatic song lyrics. More productive would be to examine how Miller arrived at this alt-right idiocy from his original anarcho-punk orientation in Amebix. I’ll be using Miller’s own words, past and present, for reference.

Nothing in punk or anarchism guarantees critical thinking, so we can find a number of non-rational thought processes dominant in their anarcho-punk hybrid. Some animal rights, veganist and pacifist beliefs found in the anarcho-punk milieu have an unchallenged “spiritual” component. Throughout his career, Rob Miller professed an interest in mythology and mysticism, contending in a 2010 interview with PunkNews that: “I think at the end of the day, Amebix is primarily a spiritually influenced band. The great thrust or message of an esoteric nature, and that is open to interpretation too.” From a fascination with Celtic paganism, Holy Grail romances, Enochian stories and “the archetypal form of the sun/fertility god,” Miller has become enamored with an equally mythological subject—Holocaust denialism—as evident in his latest, stereotypically alt-right screeds in defense of his association with Menuhin. Miller’s occult blather about the “lens of the Gnostic heresy” alludes to an often-used dichotomy between spiritual truth and religious falsehood. Coincidentally, it’s also a dichotomy common to occultists from the Thule Society that presaged Hitler and Nazism to Julius Evola who was on the far right in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. (A list of Miller’s spiritualist interests actually reads like an Evolan esotericist bibliography.) Miller talks about seeking “the Truth” with a capital T, and labels any affirmation of the historical evidence for the Holocaust a “Religious obedience.” Even the band name and symbol Tau Cross—in referencing the Roman execution cross associated with St. Anthony of Egypt which was later adopted by St. Francis—has esoteric meanings related to the incantatory “I am the Alpha and the Omega” and the End of Days. Miller calls it a sigil because—no surprise!—he believes in chaos magic. (Or kaos magick for the initiated.) Thus we return to Miller’s annoying mystical preoccupations.

For country music and punk rock, it’s all about three chords and the truth. But that’s not the kind of “Truth” Miller means. There is commonly perceived reality, what “99 percent of people” believe in, the perfect prisoners who are “both the guards and the snitches” with “no walls, no guard, no wire, no yard.” Then there is the Truth which can only be had through study, research and “trying to refine the material and ideas to some kind of overarching theory” as only great minds like Rob Miller are capable of. “I have spent my life seeking answers, immersing myself in the forbidden, the occult, the Taboo, the places where there are still clues to how we got here, and how we can get back out.” Miller considers himself a “Free man,” part of an illuminated cognizanti, “the very few men and women who have reached out on their own initiative,” an elite initiatory 1% that accords with Ernst Jünger’s concept of The Anarch rather than any crust punk anarchy or anarchism. Miller’s Truth is the reality behind reality, which is completely divorced from fact. Miller certainly plays fast and loose with the facts, from the fudged ratings of Menuhin’s book on Amazon and Goodreads to his lie that people in Germany have been executed for denying the Holocaust and the denialist bullshit that the Holocaust never happened. In also raising his “9/11 research,” Miller firmly positions himself as a believer in conspiracy theories in general. That’s a hallmark of conspiracism, the insistence that facts don’t matter. More precisely, it’s the circular logic that any evidence against the conspiracy in question, including an absence of evidence for it, are actually evidence for the conspiracy’s truth. Thus the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than of proof. Once again we touch on Miller’s crap spiritualism.

By mentioning the apologist propaganda video “Europa: The Last Battle” and decrying the “virtue signalling and outrage” over a “book they have never read”—not to mention slagging the “vague ‘Patriarchy’” and the “compromised media”— Miller demonstrates that he’s drunk the alt-right’s Koolaid (or alternately, been “red pilled” in the alt-right’s parlance). And much like the alt-right, he contends that Relapse Records is engaged in “suppression of speech” by refusing to release the band’s latest album or work with him anymore. As Axl Rosenberg points out on MetalSucks, no one is denying Rob Miller his free speech. No government broke down Miller’s front door, arrested him, or threw him in jail for his album or his beliefs. Miller’s relationship with Relapse Records was strictly business, and Relapse decided not to work with him any longer. That’s their fucking right.

As I’ve indicated, Miller’s conspiracist and Holocaust denialist beliefs are counterfactual, much as is his posturing as a victim. I feel sorry for his fellow bandmates who worked so long with such a duplicitous asshole and for the band’s fans who deserve better than the steaming pile of neo-nazi bullshit that are Miller’s lyrics. Rob Miller’s preoccupation with esoteric spiritualism and occultism was evident from his days in the Amebix. With few exceptions (OTO communist Jack Parsons), such an obsession traditionally has been the province of the far Right, where occultism, conspiracism and Holocaust denialism comfortably cohabit. It’s little wonder then that Miller has gone from one to the other so easily, or that he now defends those moves with the language of the alt-right. Much like crust punk’s alternate moniker “stenchcore,” Rob Miller and his vile connection to Gerard Menuhin stinks.

Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.