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.

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From baby boomers to baby bombers: “What’s Left?” March 2010, MRR #322

What an incredibly fucked up, crazed and hysterical country we live in.

I’m not referring here to the latest, unsuccessful attempt by a young Nigerian man to blow up himself and an American airplane just as it landed in the US on Christmas. He was a kid, really, who zealously tried to follow an extreme Islamic religious sect the dictates of which he barely understood. He’s now being called the crotch bomber, underpants terrorist, and the like.

Mykel Board, eat your heart out.

The panic-stricken aftermath of this failed incident certainly reveals the eagerness with which Americans are willing to throw away their personal freedom and privacy for the Big Brother security state they ordinarily eschew with such vehemence. So long as they’re safe. A few more such failures, with the attendant public frenzy, and the Constitution will have been effectively suspended. That’s not my subject this column, however.

What caught my attention was an under reported story from November, 2009, that Santa Claus had finally been exposed as a child molester.

Well, not Santa himself. One of the volunteers who answered letters addressed to Santa at the “North Pole” turned out to be a registered sex offender. At first, the US Postal Service decided to cancel the whole “Dear Santa” operation. Then, the USPS reversed itself and resumed the program, with increased security to screen out the perverts.

This is a nation of goddamned idiots.

I’m not talking here about those rabid fundamentalist Christians who sanctify the embryo in the womb as human life, yet who insist that “to spare the rod is to hate the child.” These wingnuts demand that mommy and daddy be permitted, no, encouraged to beat their kids for the slightest infraction.

Instead, I’m talking about the normal members of society who put warning notices on music, videos, films, websites and just about everything else, yet who insist that teens and preteens be tried as adults for their crimes and who have no problem seeing kids on death row. I mean, if children are these incredible innocents who must be assiduously protected from an evil world, then why hold them responsible when that world succeeds in ultimately corrupting them?

It makes no sense.

Adults go to incredible lengths to control children, under the guise of watching over them. They institute dress codes in school so that kids are not allowed to see clothing with dubious messages, let alone gang attire. They use schools and cops to monitor and prosecute kids for what they say over their phones or post on the internet. They’ve even resorted to microchipping their own progeny, in order to track them, as an excuse to keep them safe. These same adults bewail the fact that, ultimately, technological progress thwarts them at every turn. Or, at least, it runs one step ahead of their efforts to keep the kids in line. Given that youngsters frequently know far more about everything software related, is it any wonder that they can run circles around their parents with respect to “parental controls” on their computers? Sexting and beatdowns are regular features of modern adolescent communication, all powered by iPhone 3G technology. And, you want to bet that somebody, somewhere is working out a clever hack to circumvent those pesky RFID chips, even as you read this?

Don’t get me wrong. I could spend column after column eviscerating fundamentalist yahoos, as when Lawrence O’Donnell ripped Patrick Buchanan, and his fellow über Catholic morons, a new asshole for supporting the Pope’s condemnation of abortion, while conveniently ignoring the Catholic Church’s equally strong denunciation of the death penalty. And I could spend endless column inches condemning the absurdity of the mainstream imbeciles who legislate that sex offenders can’t live anywhere near schools, parks and churches, and who then wonder why there are so many pedophiles living on the streets in major urban areas. The lunacy of my fellow citizens is endless, and endlessly amusing, yet this is about the kids.

It’s all about the kids.

Gregory Bateson took on one of the most famous behaviorists of his day, B.F. Skinner, for raising his kid in his notorious Skinner Box. Skinner’s premise was simple. Raise a child in a box so that you can control all the kid’s environmental inputs. Control those inputs and you control the final output, the nature and character, the thinking and action of the human being that emerges from that box. Bateson argued that this was impossible. The human brain, and by extension the human mind, is a black box. You can control the information that goes into that black box—the brain. But you cannot control what the brain does with that information, nor can you determine what emerges from that brain, that mind, that black box, that Skinner Box, in the end.

Bateson illustrated this by kicking a dog. A hypothetical dog. Kick that canine, and the dog follows a trajectory determined by Newtonian physics. But once the dog lands, its behavior is no longer predictable. The dog might run away, tail between its legs. It might turn back, and bite. It might skulk just out of reach, waiting for the opportunity to either attack or ask forgiveness. The argument from die-hard Skinnerians—that if we only knew all the factors and information that went into making the dog what it is we could accurately predict what the dog will do to any given stimulus—simply doesn’t hold water. You can’t know what goes on in the dog’s brain, how it processes the fact it was kicked, nor how it acts upon what it thinks about being kicked. You might be able to control all the information that goes into the dog’s brain, but you can’t control what meaning the dog makes of that information, or what it does based on that meaning.

Frank Zappa scared the bejesus out of the parents of the baby boomers when, in the June 28, 1968 issue of Life Magazine dedicated to “The New Rock,” he wrote: “If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot, what kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Before we ascribe to Zappa prescience in predicting the evolution of punk rock out of hippie rock per this quote, understand that he had absolutely no truck with the idea that music of any sort could make people do anything. He, among many others, fought Tipper Gore and her ilk tooth-and-nail, unsuccessfully attempting to stop “concerned parents” from slapping warning stickers on all sorts of music “to protect the children.” Now, the whole world has a warning sticker. When a string of murders associated with the horrorcore music scene hit the news, Mars, a Bay Area performer in that musical genre, repeated the popular horrorcore line: “Charles Manson was a Beatles fan.”

So, not only is technology outpacing parental control, even if adults could reliably use technology to effectively shackle their children, that wouldn’t guarantee control over what the kids think, or how they behave. After all, wasn’t that the point behind the 1950s mantra of prosperity and progress for the parents of the baby boomers. Think of the suburbs as the Eisenhower Era’s attempt at a Skinner Box, and then ask yourself how that turned out.

Returning to the Christmas bomber in conclusion, let’s now link Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with this column’s main topic. TSA’s response to his failed terrorist attack has been to deploy full body scanning technology that reveals virtually naked images of those individuals being scanned. But, of course, TSA has insisted that these scanners won’t be used on children, out of fear that this might violate child pornography laws. So, what’s al-Qaeda’s next logical step? To strap explosives to babies going on airplanes in order to commit terrorist acts.

From baby boomers to baby bombers in one fell swoop.

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