Bigger lessons from an argument over a band name.
Disclaimer: During this article this article I have used the phrase "alt-right." I am reluctant to do so, as the phrase allows people with abhorrent beliefs to makes themselves seem more palatable. However, I felt that the meaning and message of this article would become garbled if I did not use the term. Members of the alt-right are essentially neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but I am worried that my point might be easily dismissed if I repeatedly accused people of being neo-Nazis.
Those clued in to the DIY scene in Madison are well aware of an Internet shitstorm that happened earlier this month over a Madison band's name: The Malcolmexicans. The original thread, on a Facebook event for a show, had over 50 comments, with many replies, and the conversation has continued both online and off. I feel it's worth revisiting the whole debacle now that we have a couple weeks of hindsight. The episode is more significant than just whether one band's name bothers you. It illustrates the role music communities can play in building a more tolerant world, and it illustrates some misguided notions about art's relationship with controversy.
First, I'd like to dispense with the assumption that this incident happened simply because of the band's name. This debate and its rapid escalation happened for other reasons: The band's response to the criticism, and the support given to the band from people using terms and slogans popularized by the alt-right. The band members also did themselves no favors when it came to explaining their name. Originally they claimed that the name meant nothing, that it was just a simple play on words. After the controversy erupted, they then claimed that the name was in part a tribute to Malcolm X and to Mexicans(!).
The poor response by the band to the criticism has been covered in the previous article on Tone Madison, so I will try and be brief. Cyrus Pekala, a member of the band, first responded to a commenter who suggested the band name be changed, with "Put your big boy pants on......." Other commenters then politely asked the band to explain their name. The posters were again attacked and dismissed with phrases like "I don't care what offends you. That is your issue." and "grow some thicker skin, child." These initial rude and dismissive responses prompted an understandable backlash.
The thread really took a downhill turn when people started using alt-right jargon to make fun of the people who had questioned the band's name. "Don't you guys know that everything everywhere has to be Generation Snowflake approved?" wrote one commenter, in a post liked by the band's Facebook account. "Maybe your name should be Triggered Beings from the Safe Space Dimension. Album name: Hot Cocoa and Positive Reinforcement." ("Snowflake" is a popular term to call liberals deemed too sensitive.)
Beyond what happened in that one thread, an alt-right/neo-Nazi website started to support the band with memes (natch) and supportive posts. While people would normally object to this sort of bullshit anyway, reactions are stronger at the moment for several reasons. Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election has empowered the far right. Hate crimes have gone up considerably since the election. The alt-right and the online trolls have been attacking the left using derogatory language such as "snowflakes." The need and right that people have to feel safe have been attacked. In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Oakland, which affected members of our local community, alt-right members have been looking to use the event as an excuse to try and shut down DIY spaces and venues. "REPORT ALL "ARTSPACES" AND ILLEGAL VENUES TO CRUSH THE RADICAL LEFT," one member wrote on an alt-right message board discussion on how to use the event in Oakland to attack DIY spaces.
And, you know, people just don't like fucking neo-Nazis.
These alt-right posts were mainly (though not all) from people who run a website called Obzeen. This website is extremely racist, homophobic and sexist. It attempts to hide hate speech behind a façade of being wackily controversial and cartoonishly offensive. But a Nazi in a clown costume is still a Nazi. When challenged about the support they received from Obzeen, band members said, "We disavow those statements and will not be held accountable for the social transgressions of others." But band members have regularly posted on the website and have agreed for the website to post and promote the band's songs and videos. The website also supports other Madison bands that share members with the Malcolmexicans, such as White Bush Unicorn and Meat Faucet.
[Editor's note: People at Obzeen object to the way this opinion column characterizes the site. We signed off on running with Ross Adams' description based on public posts on the site and its social media accounts that use imagery and words associated with online far-right movements, including Pepe the frog, Pizzagate, and the use of "googles" as a substitute slur for black people. There has been a great deal of debate about how media outlets should characterize such posts and the entities behind them, and indeed these labels should not be applied casually or lightly. In this case, we determined that it was right to let our guest columnist call it as he sees it, and that he had a reasonable basis for perceiving the site's posts and behavior the way he did. Obzeen is free to dispute his characterization.]
While the band members themselves may not subscribe to extreme far-right beliefs, the two parties clearly bond over a disdain for "political correctness." It reminds me of an incident back in the UK, where a local animal rights group joined forces with a local Nazi group because they were both against Halal meat! Can the band really ignore hate speech and Nazism because they happen to share a love of Primus with somebody?
I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that a racist band name and the band's reaction to the criticism of the name would alienate members of our community. Promoting an alt-right website, without a doubt, makes members of our community unsafe. But the conversation shouldn't stop with one band.
The band and its defenders of course pointed out that the band members are super nice guys, who just happened to choose a funny pun name. That they just want to play their music and have fun. But talk is cheap (I guess that's why they call it free speech—boom boom!). And a closer look reveals something very different: A band—who supports and is supported by a racist/sexist/homophobic website whose raison d’etre is to be controversial—chose a racist and controversial name. Things that make people feel unsafe and excluded.
Over the years I've heard the "nice guy" defense many, many times. Someone gets accused of sexual assault—"oh, that guy's always been nice to me." Someone gets called out on being homophobic—"Well, I've never heard him say anything bad to me, and if he has, I'm sure he was only joking."
What people really mean in these situations is, "I'm a cis white male. That doesn't affect me at all, so I'll ignore it." This shows a remarkable lack of empathy.
There is nothing wrong with standing up for your friends. There is also nothing wrong in highlighting the more positive aspects of a person's character—"oh, they're nice guys"—but don't ignore problematic behaviour. I don't think that the Malcolmexicans are horrible or nasty people. In fact, the band members and I have several mutual friends. Still, the "nice guys" defense illustrates how music communities often fail to repudiate harmful ideas and acts.
The whole episode also reminds us that people cling to some pretty simplistic notions that "good art should be controversial" and that punk in particular should be controversial. This is something that has always annoyed the fuck out of me.
The mainstream media have always often used the tactic of making social movements that they fear into caricatures. The English press in the late 70's purely focused on the controversial aspects of punk—painting punks as just a bunch of spikey-haired ne'er-do-wells who swore and spat a lot. In the US there was an infamous episode of the crime show Quincy that tried to warn people about punk, portraying the punks as violent nihilists. I find the fact that people still buy into this portrayal of punk really sad.
Obviously, controversy is an aspect of punk, but in the bigger picture, the important aspect of punk was always about being outside the mainstream, embracing the notion that anyone could play in a band, write a fanzine, put on a gig. It was also a place where weirdoes could go and find acceptance. An anti-PC backlash immediately makes LGBTQ communities unwelcome, people of color unwelcome, women unwelcome, and that's anathema to the DIY spirit.
And by the way, fuck you if you think people should develop thicker skins. The last time I looked out of the window we still lived in a capitalist society that took advantage of the proletariat. We still live in a society that is racist, sexist and homophobic.
I've heard the argument that now the mainstream ideology is a "liberal" one, and that punk should be anti-PC because being PC is the mainstream. Well, let's take a quick look at the sort of groups and people who are against PC:
Ben Carson, neo-Nazis, Pat Buchanan, Breitbart, Alex Jones (basically, name a total prick and they'll be anti-PC) and of course Donald Trump. You know, the fucking president-elect. You're really not doing all that well at punk if you're on the same side as Donald Trump.
If you want a bunch of chino-wearing young Republicans, pick-up artists, and conspiracy theorists at your shows, then cool, have fun with that. Just know that the whole "anti-PC backlash" is purely designed to trivialize and undermine people's objections to things which are racist or sexist or otherwise punch down on a marginalized group. This is what insults like "snowflakes" are designed to do.
Using the defense of "don't be so sensitive" or "it's just a joke" is very insidious. The alt-right is adept at using this tactic, as a recent Vox story illustrated. An alt-right website posts a cartoon meme that is transphobic. The people who react angrily to the meme are mocked and told, "it's just a joke." Then the website posts another transphobic meme, which now, instead of being challenged, is ignored because people don't want to get fooled again. Which allows for hate speech to be spread even further.
When people complain about PC liberals taking away their rights, they really mean taking away their privilege. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or anything that makes the music scene (and life in general) less safe and inclusive should always be challenged.
People have every right to use name their bands how they want, and to think, behave, and speak as they choose. People also have every right to criticize those choices, and also have the right to boycott bands. I am going to use my freedom of speech to suggest that people should think about whether they should support bands like the Malcolmexicans, White Bush Unicorn and Meat Faucet. And more broadly, people should think about where they and the music community fall short in standing up for marginalized people.
Thanks for reading. I love you all.
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