The Sound of Whiteness Under Siege:
Punk Rock Viewed From the Right
Steve Sailer recently compared the Alt-Right to punk rock. It’s an apt analogy in more ways than one, and as someone whose adolescence was informed by that music, it’s one that I readily appreciated. I’ve long thought of writing an essay about the implicit whiteness of punk and hardcore music, especially since it’s a rather under-appreciated genre on the AltRight.
That’s partly understandable since a lot of punk rock is utterly nihilistic and degenerate — indeed, punk got its start by unabashedly wallowing in the filth of New York’s urban decay of the 1970s. But it can be seen in the larger context as a reaction to an already degenerate society, much the way Julius Evola regarded the Beat movement a few decades prior.
Music journalist Simon Reynolds writes:
In ‘The White Noise Supremacists,’ a controversial Village Voice essay published in 1979, Lester Bangs pointed out the uncomfortable connections between the near total absence of black musicians on the CBGB scene, punk’s penchant for using racist language (all part of its antiliberal, we-hate-everybody-equally attitude), and the perilous ambiguity of punk’s flirtations with Nazi imagery. Factor in the sheer unswinging whiteness of punk rock and most New Wave music, and you had a situation where, for the first time since before the 1920s hot-jazz era, white bohemians were disengaged from black culture. Not only that, but some of them were proud of this disengagement. Just a week before the Bangs essay, the Village Voice profiled Legs McNeil of Punk magazine. Writer Marc Jacobson discussed how McNeil and his cohorts consciously rejected the whole notion of the hipster as ‘white negro’ and dedicated themselves to celebrating all things teenage, suburban, and Caucasian. Years later, McNeil candidly discussed this segregationist aspect of punk in an interview with Jon Savage: ‘We were all white: there were no black people involved with this. In the sixties hippies always wanted to be black. We were going, “fuck the Blues, fuck the black experience.”’ McNeil believed that disco was the putrid sonic progeny of an unholy union of blacks and gays. Punk’s debut issue, in January 1976, began with a rabid mission statement: ‘Death to Disco Shit. Long Live the Rock! I’ve seen the canned crap take real live people and turn them into dogs! The epitome of all that’s wrong with Western civilization is disco.’ (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again, Chapter 9: “Contort Yourself: No Wave New York”)
If you watch the documentary American Hardcore about the ’80s hardcore scene, you’ll hear this same sentiment about white kids wanting to move away from black culture and have something of their own. Of course, it’s always couched in anti-racist language, made out to be about not wanting to culturally appropriate black music or some such thing. But even if that is the legitimate sentiment, whites will find themselves in a double bind, since rejecting black culture can easily be seen as racist in motivation, just as embracing it is also racist since it’s usually characterized as a kind of theft (such as with the recent denunciations of Justin Timberlake). Whites are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and this impossible situation is no small cause of the present discontent.
The manifestations of anti-liberalism and white racialism in early punk rock ranged from merely failing to pay heed to the absolute prohibition of the swastika (The Sex Pistols, The Dead Boys) to songs like Black Flag’s “White Minority” and Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White,” the authors of which vehemently insist that they were completely tongue-in-cheek, ironic, satirical, or whatever other description allows them to keep their antifa credibility and avoid having to acknowledge the legitimacy of the feelings they expressed. (In contrast, non-white journalists like the New York Times’ Kelefa Sanneh are more honest in saying that 1980s hardcore punk was “among other things, the sound of whiteness under siege.”) And because such songs could never be written by anyone remotely near the mainstream today, in a culture that has moved considerably leftwards since 1980, they continue to haunt their creators, who keep having to “whitesplain” them to new generations, much to their chagrin and embarrassment I imagine.
“White Minority” was a song by Black Flag (named after the anarchist symbol) from 1980, written by founding member Greg Ginn. It goes:
We’re gonna be a white minority
All the rest will be the majority
We’re gonna feel inferiority
Gonna be a white minority!
White pride –
You’re an American
I’m gonna hide – anywhere I can.
Gonna be a white minority
Better believe it’s a possibility
Just wait and see
We’re gonna be a white minority.
Ginn has always said that he wrote the song to ridicule the concern that it expresses, and there is no reason to doubt him on that, especially since the song was usually sung by a Latino singer before the band settled on Henry Rollins as their main frontman. The irony is that, regardless of intent, the lyrics proved to be prophetic, as a 2015 Washington Post article about American demographic change since 1980 shows. Indeed, in California, where the band was from, whites already are a minority. If young punks thought it was funny to mock concerns about impending white displacement because it seemed like it could never happen, the joke was ultimately on them.
Black Flag can be seen performing the song in Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary about the L.A. punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, recently released on DVD. The Spenglerian title of the film came from Germs’ singer Darby Crash, who was heavily influenced by Spengler’s magnum opus, and who openly called himself a Fascist.
Around the same time, on the other side of the country, Minor Threat recorded “Guilty of Being of White.” Written by Ian MacKaye, the lyrics stem from MacKaye’s experience as a white minority in a majority black school in Washington D.C., an experience he shared in common with Henry Rollins:
I’m sorry — for something I didn’t do
Lynched somebody — but I don’t know who
You blame me — for slavery
A hundred years before I was born
Guilty — of being white
I’m a convict — of a racist crime
I’ve only served — nineteen years of my time
MacKaye now describes the song as “anti-racist” since he felt that blacks were being racist against him. Apparently, he didn’t get the antifa memo that blacks can’t be racist no matter what, and everything they do is an appropriate and excusable response to oppression. Indeed, MacKaye has been taken to task by the Punk Rock Thought Police for the song’s lack of political correctness ever since he wrote it.
In a 1983 roundtable discussion with two other musicians, including the leader singer of the far-left band MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), MacKaye explained why he wrote the song:
I live in Washington D.C., which is 75% black. My junior high was 90% black. My high school was 80% black, and throughout my entire life, I’ve been brought up in this whole thing where the white man was shit because of slavery. So I got to class and we do history, and for 3/4 of the year slavery is all we hear about. It’s all we hear about. We will race through the Revolutionary War or the founding of America; we’d race through all that junk. It’s just straight education. We race through everything, and when we’d get to slavery, they’d drag it all the way out. Then everything has to do with slavery or black people. You get to the 1950s, they don’t talk about nothing except black people. Even WWII, they talk about the black regiments. In English, we don’t read all the novelists, we read all the black novelists. Every week is African King’s Week. And after a while, I would come out of history class, and this has happened to me many times, like in junior high school, and you know that kids are belligerent in junior high, and these kids would jack my ass up and say, ‘What the fuck, man, why are you putting me in slavery?’”
And I’m just saying I’m guilty of being white — it’s my one big crime. That’s why I get so much fucking shit at school, that’s why I cannot get on welfare in Washington, most likely. That’s why when we took the PSATs, when Jeff checked off the black box, he got awards, he got scholarships, he got all kinds of interest, but when he admitted he was white, all that was gone. Just like that. It’s ridiculous. I don’t think it’s fair.
MDC vocalist Dave Dictor then goes on to comment about the history of slavery and the oppression of the black race. MacKaye responds:
MACKAYE: But what is guilt going to lead to? . . . if someone made you constantly feel guilty, what do you think that may result in?
DICTOR: A resentment . . .
MACKAYE: Thank you. And what would that resentment lead to? You just go right back. They’re going to beat me over the head about African kings and stuff to the point where I’m going to say “well, fuck the African kings. And fuck the black people too. Fuck all this shit.’ . . . It’s an unfortunate thing, but when I’m in Washington D.C., I’m the minority, so I have a totally different view. . . . [I]f I’m walking down the street and I see a whole lot of black kids coming up the street, I know from my experiences, I know that there can be trouble. I know someone can say, ‘Oh, you’ve been bred to hate black people.’ But if I’m walking down the street and I see a bunch of rednecks coming down, I know even more that my ass is about to get fucking kicked. But people don’t jump on me for hating rednecks . . .
Another Minor Threat song with a lasting influence on the punk scene was “Straight Edge,” which has the distinction of spawning an entire social movement from just one song. Straight edgers were a fixture of the hardcore scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and represented something very different from the punks of the 1970s.
From Punk to Hardcore
If punk was ultimately a nihilistic reaction to the decadence of the 1970s, then its transformation into hardcore punk in the ’80s was a step towards positivity, towards creating a scene with healthier values, rather than merely wallowing in self-destruction as so many of the original punks were wont to do. Straight Edge, for example, rejected punk’s ethos of alcoholism and drug abuse in favor of an ethic of sobriety, self-care, and moral uprightness (even if that was sometimes confused with moral uptightness and all-around priggish behavior, as anyone ever accosted by a straight-edger for drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette can attest). Considering the huge problem of drug abuse and addiction among poor white youth today, the fundamental message of Straight Edge is as relevant as ever.
Furthermore, many hardcore bands’ lyrics often contained messages of encouragement and hope, of keeping it together in the face of adversity, of standing strong and proud, of not giving in to the decadence and decay all around, but rather building something positive. The audience for these words was mostly poor white kids, utterly lacking in any kind of wise guidance from their family or environment. Whatever its faults (including lack of musical ability, aversion to melody and beauty, and a general tendency to YELL! instead of sing) hardcore was an attempt by a neglected generation – the children of the baby boomers – to create some sort of structure amidst the chaos, to salvage something positive amidst the ruins of the sixties.
Another sub-genre of hardcore was, of course, Oi! and RAC (Rock Against Communism), explicitly pro-white and usually associated with the skinhead movement. I’m not an expert on this scene, and so I’ll refrain from commenting on it here, as I’m sure there are plenty of more qualified writers on the subject than myself. But the flip side of the emergence of explicitly racist hardcore punk was the emergence of explicitly anti-racist and anti-fascist punk at the same time. Anyone familiar with the genre can see that this is the form of the music that came to predominate. While being illiberal may have been an acceptable anti-establishment pose during the Carter administration, anti-conservatism became the new order of the day (or rather, disorder of the day) during the Reagan years. By the time the ’80s ended, ten years of growing older while hating Reagan and Bush led easily and effortlessly into becoming full-fledged ’90s liberals. A good example of this transition is Henry Rollins, who I’ll critique a bit in Part Two of this article.