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Punk, Progressive & Political | The Nation

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Punk, Progressive & Political

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Letters submitted by our readers are read and published in the magazine.

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Chicago

How nice it was to see Johnny Temple's "Noise From Underground" [Oct. 18]. As someone who considers herself punk and politically active I have always been wary of media coverage of the two. I have been involved with everything from Riot Grrrlz to setting up some of the Voices in the Wilderness benefits mentioned in the article--and rarely have I read anything that I thought was as accurate, fair, enlightened, broad-based and truly understanding of the history of the political punk world.

JESSICA HOPPER


Tucson, Ariz.

I happened across Johnny Temple's article and was thrilled. As my husband and I try to raise an enlightened child in a society still in the Dark Ages, we're trying to impart to her the passion we found on the punk scene--which is far more than the music. It was on the punk scene that I was first introduced to Noam Chomsky, where I saw people creating their own art and politics without any help from the "experts." The left--not liberals, but the real left--ignores a vast well of informed, creative, highly political people ranging in age from their teens to their 40s. All too often, even progressives get their information about countercultures from Spin, so they have no idea what's really out there. Young women have no need for or knowledge of feminism, we're told; Kathleen Hanna is but one example that counters that. Truly independent media, whether publishers, record labels or whatever, can't survive for long without selling out; but look at Alternative Tentacles and Dischord. What the media, often even the "progressive" media, tell us cannot be is still alive--just as punk is, premature obits notwithstanding.

KIMBERLY DOSS-CORTES


Kent, Ohio

It was a thrill to see Johnny Temple's article, but I wish he had mentioned the international network based in Columbus called Anti-Racist Action. Its publication, ARA News, is the best zine of its kind in the country, and it pays attention to the punk culture. ARA has had nearly a thousand bands perform across the nation for benefits. The twenty-one band ARA benefit CD is a taste of punk, ska (and swing!), political consciousness and Jello Biafra.

LORENA FULLER


Highland Park, N.J.

As the unmentioned co-founder of Positive Force, imagine my surprise to read Johnny Temple's statement, "That year [1985] a group of local independent music fans and musicians founded a nonprofit organization, Positive Force, to pursue their political goals." The fact is that Positive Force was founded, in large part, by high school student activists who were searching for meaningful political engagement after the demise of the New Left (many of them were never punkers). This cohort of activists was involved in the antinuclear and the anti-interventionist movements of the eighties. We founded the group to network high school activists who felt isolated by the overwhelmingly conservative Reagan era. We joined with Mark Andersen and believed that punk offered some of the energy and values that Temple tried to describe in his article.

The point matters because these young activists eventually left Positive Force. Why? Because the organization, under Andersen's leadership, began focusing exclusively on punk rock concerts and fundraising. We felt that this forced us to become a sort of exclusive in-group of punks (besides, some of our members liked Bob Dylan and classical music more than hardcore punk). After about 1986 or so, the original group disintegrated, leaving behind Andersen and his vision of what the group should be (and what it became). The point is this: Punk and other countercultural and youth subcultural expressions are inherently exclusive. They tend toward creating small bands of the self-anointed, those who seek "purity" from the corrupt outside world. They wind up creating a niche for marketers to cater to in their endless search for the new thing. Indeed, our corporate society encourages acts of inarticulate rebellion--the angry sneer of the punk rebellion finds itself on the cover of fashion magazines today. Perhaps punk rock isn't the right place for progressives to look for meaningful politics, contra Temple's naïve pronouncements.

Stephen Duncombe and the editors of The Baffler have it right: Countercultural rebellion is increasingly meaningless in our corporate society. That's not to say that people shouldn't create independent music, but we shouldn't believe in their ability to transform our culture or our politics. A successful movement for a more progressive America won't be found in the three-chord wonders of tomorrow. It will be found in the work of community activists, writers and thinkers who can articulate something more than slogans and chants, and political leaders capable of crafting legislation. The rest is gravy, or should I say noise?

KEVIN MATTSON


San Francisco

Johnny Temple not only misconstrues the motives of punk rockers but also attempts to pull us into the diseased game of democratic politics. Temple is out of touch with what punk is today--his examples of punk culture are limited to bands and events from the eighties and earlier--the only current references involve Fugazi and Rage Against the Machine, neither of whom can be considered "underground" without a mighty stretch of the imagination.

The individuals of the punk community do not and will not play the games of society and rock music. We do not wish prominence or fame of any kind. There is a reason we have always been "doomed to political obscurity"--it is because that is the way we want it and the way we will continue to keep it. We have no interest in allying ourselves with the progressive establishment, to "stem the rightward drift of American politics" or even in "fostering healthy, democratic community." We have no desire to support in any way the political, social and economic systems imposed on us from birth. Any punks involved in political activism do so as individuals and not as representatives of "punk politics."

We have no conventional "political agenda." The community that has evolved over the decades is a mode of survival and a means of enjoying life. Any attempts by well-intentioned progressives and their ilk to assimilate us into their "democracy" will be met by laughs and possibly hostility. We will not participate in your dying society.

RAHSAN EKEDAL, EMILY FOX, ANTONIO ROMAN-ALCALA, GABRIEL RAMOS, TANIA PADILLA


Flower Mound, Tex.

I've read Johnny Temple's article and John Strausbaugh's criticism of it in the NY Press. Temple's article is an accurate and inspiring tribute to the many punk bands that have contributed to activist causes. I found Strausbaugh's retort baffling. He starts off with name-calling and follows by claiming that punk activism really does not exist in any seriously influential capacity because, well, because he says so. Temple provided so many examples of punk activism that I can only assume that Strausbaugh doesn't want to believe the activism exists.

Temple brings to light how crucial activism is to the nature and origin of these bands. I've read so many ridiculous articles that have critically compared Bikini Kill to PJ Harvey musically, or NOW politically, completely overlooking the relevance or unique purpose of the Riot Grrrlz scene. Temple's is one of the few articles to recognize what Bikini Kill was attempting to do as well as to acknowledge that there was a need for what they offered. They, like many other punk bands, seemed driven by a desire to provide a voice for an alienated group with needs that were ill championed elsewhere. Try to tell someone who finally feels understood, acknowledged and affirmed that there is anything small or insignificant about that moment.

Add to what Temple mentioned other contributions of artists like Sleater Kinney's involvement in Free to Fight, the Home Alive Self Defense program and benefit CDs supported by Seattle artists and founded in part by Valerie Agnew of 7 Year Bitch, musician donation support for the Mia Zapata Investigative Fund, Rage Against the Machine raising support for causes from Leonard Peltier to the Zapatistas and supporting the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, the Rock for Choice benefit concerts and benefit CDs organized by L7 and supported by artists from Lunachicks to Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic's involvement in the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee and the multitude of other punk-associated, -influenced and -supported causes. In my local area there are punk bands that participate in benefit shows for homeless shelters, AIDS outreach, animal shelters, domestic violence shelters, cancer research organizations and environmental causes. There are punk e-mail lists that provide a flow of petitions and political updates to subscribers. Acknowledge it or not, the bands and fans have something to be proud of.

TIFFANY BAGBY


Brooklyn, N.Y.

Finally! It's about time The Nation published articles like those by Angela Ards ["Organizing the Hip-Hop Generation," July 26/Aug.2] and Johnny Temple's "Noise From Underground." I hope this begins a new trend in The Nation's reporting with fresh, relevant voices. America's musical mainstream is crowded with groups that say nothing socially relevant. If there's a message it's this: Buy, react and conform. It has always been the responsibility of the underground to push from below to challenge those above to see the true face of their society. As Temple points out, it's time for underground artists across all strata to build partnerships with activists and community groups that share the same interest: sustaining a true democracy where people, not profits, rule.

As an artist myself, I resent the label "generation X" or "slacker." For my group of young (20s and 30s) artists/activists, reality is starkly different. We strive every day to challenge the current system of injustice and inequity through a combination of art and community activism, whether it be poetry, music or film. And for many of us it was punk rock that set us on the path. It gave us a loud, angry voice for our frustration and disillusionment.

Musical activities like the hip-hop benefit for political prisoners at New York City's Bowery Ballroom or the Human Rights benefit show featuring a host of punk bands prove that the underground is alive and well. A great first step to increase the impact of such events would be to unite the underground punk and hip-hop music worlds. Each has a strong voice with a clear message: We will not allow our voices not to be heard, our rights denied or our freedom compromised.

ANTONINO D'AMBROSIO


TEMPLE REPLIES

Brooklyn, N.Y.

For better or worse, punk rock is represented across the political spectrum. This is one reason it's impossible to characterize a singular punk experience. My article was an overview of current leftist activism in underground rock and its relationship--or lack thereof--with more socially mainstream progressive movements. In the volatile and fractured world of punk, it comes as no surprise that the piece would provoke a wide range of opinions.

It is encouraging to read the letters from Jessica Hopper, Kimberly Doss-Cortes, Lorena Fuller, Tiffany Bagby and Antonino D'Ambrosio, who appreciate the potential contribution of punk to the sedate leftism of the nineties. They have all witnessed the media's hatchet job of the rock underground over the past two decades. In the late eighties, media attention was lavished upon the abhorrent activities of neo-Nazi punks. Then in the early nineties, when major record labels began signing up underground bands by the dozen, commercial advertisers waited on deck, eager to mine the imagery of anger and cynicism. Punks now grace TV screens in beer and car commercials. Although this repulsive commodification process has diluted the aggression and vitality in underground music, many punks--leftist and neo-Nazi alike--are relatively undeterred, never having looked to television and glossy magazines for cultural guidance in the first place.

Kevin Mattson contends that progressives shouldn't waste their time with punks. Not having extended himself to Mark Andersen or Positive Force since his departure from the group thirteen years ago, Mattson is understandably unaware of what the group actually does. Positive Force is run by volunteers and has never limited its activities to punk rock concerts and fundraising; its current schedule includes grocery delivery to the homebound elderly and the ongoing development of a community center in DC that will focus on direct service to the surrounding low-income community.

As for the inception of Positive Force, I stand corrected: The group was initially conceived by punk organizers along with other young people, including non-punk high school activists. This inaccuracy was born of my own experience: When I was introduced to the group in 1987 (and I was immediately enlisted to night staffing duties at a homeless shelter), Mattson and his crew were long gone. Yet in the clique-ridden world of underground rock, the raggedy Positive Force house in Arlington, Virginia, was then, and is now, one of the few havens for serious political thought, discussion and action. Anyone who has been to a Positive Force event will likely scoff at the notion of it being some sort of hipster in-group, a niche for marketers, inherently exclusive. No need to take my word--readers can see for themselves: Positive Force meetings are held every Saturday at 1:30 pm, and they are open to everyone (3510 N. 8th Street, Arlington, Virginia; phone: 703-276-9768). Obviously the creativity and vigor in the underground will not by itself transform our culture, but punk rock continues to be an important point of entry into radical politics for many young people. And the broadening scope of leftist punk activism is reflected in many organizing efforts, including that of Jeff Guntzel, who recently accompanied a fact-finding Congressional delegation to Iraq as part of his work with Voices in the Wilderness.

Some of Mattson's gripes would perhaps have been more appropriately lodged with the letter writers from San Francisco (Ekedal et al.), whose cartoonish portrait of punk rock flies in the face of reality: Most punks come from white, middle-class families--not exactly the most downtrodden folks in America. This is not intended to ignore or denigrate the abuse, trauma and ostracism suffered by many punks, but who is served by Ekedal and friends' devotion to obscurity and disengagement, other than themselves?

With a slightly longer attention span, Ekedal et al. would have noticed examples of current punk activism in my article beyond the work of Fugazi and Rage Against the Machine. In any case, Fugazi is one of the few bands that have rejected lucrative offers from giant music conglomerates and can't be lumped in with the mainstream--its contributions to independent rock (detailed in my article) are unparalleled. While an argument can be made that Rage Against the Machine should not be considered an underground band because of its prosperous liaison with Epic Records (a division of Sony Music), the band's fervent commitment to issues of social justice sets it apart from the vast majority of successful mainstream musicians, whose political apathy is a disconcerting sign of the times. Fortunately--as most of these letters attest--Ekedal et al.'s nihilism is not echoed in the increasingly sophisticated, dynamic and inclusive political visions arising from a different zone of the punk underground.

JOHNNY TEMPLE

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