Beyond Petty Tribalism: Could We Rescue a Subcultural Dispute from Its Seemingly Inevitable Pointlessness?

February 27, 2016

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I am going to attempt to as concisely as possible address, if not the substance of the text, at least the very existence of a piece of writing called “A Field Guide to Straw Men: Sadie and Exile, Esoteric Fascism, and Olympia’s Little White Lies,” which addresses an ongoing controversy within Pacific Northwest subculture, which in part is devoted to an explicit critique of my own text “I Say Potato, You Say Dangerous Resurgence of Fascist Ideology.” This post comes at an extremely busy time for me and is being written in a single sitting with every effort at haste—anyone looking for a devastatingly literary assessment of the true meaning of Julius Evola or some such thing will be disappointed. This is solely an effort to suggest strategies for proceeding with future dialogue and interaction, within subculture generally and within sub-echelons of it.

For all my profound and experientially-justified cynicism about humans’ collective capacities, I remain deeply devoted to the notion that we must, in an age where existing strategies for resistance and indeed survival are so clearly outmoded, find new ways to fight. This inevitably implies developing better tools for interacting and organizing ourselves, and a subset of these tools should be methods for solving inter-clique hostilities such as this one. I want to constructively engage this dispute to do my part if at all possible to rescue it from a seemingly inevitable morass of pointless, interminable bickering. I think “Straw Men” exhibits poor judgment in favorably referencing violent intervention at underground music shows, and I don’t necessarily share all of its author’s conclusions, but I do think it makes a far more coherent argument about the situation, with vastly more sensitivity both to the idiosyncratic subcultural forces at play and the meaningful moral ramifications of the situation (e.g. describing the putative cultural and political impacts of a scene being vaguely allied with fascist tendencies, rather than speculating that said underground is going to morph into a politically mobilized fascist force, a speculation which strikes me as wildly implausible), than I had seen thus far from “the other side.”

For these reasons, I feel it is my responsibility to respond to this text. The central thesis of my writing on this subject in “I Say Potato” was that radical politics fails when it can no longer accommodate legitimately complex dialogue. I feel like the “Straw Men” piece constitutes precisely that—complex dialogue—and therefore provides some tentative foundation for me to hope that this whole affair could produce something other than incredibly painful nonsense.

I want to very briefly clarify one thing that is not actually directly related to the “Field Guide” text but which emerged in other writings and comments directed at me subsequent to my foray into the very murky waters of this dispute. It has been suggested that I personally adhere to European indigeneity as a basic aspect of my identity, and it seems worth stating that isn’t the case at all. I am emphatically disinterested in my ancestry because I personally consider all specimens of H. sapiens to have undergone the same cognitive revolution in evolutionary history, to all represent the same behavioral and psychological tendencies, and to all be fairly superficial (literally skin-deep) variants on the same essentially African species.

This disclaimer about my convictions complete, let me say that I am interested in finding ways in which the amorphous but definitely existent black metal/neofolk/experimental underground—or at least that echelon of it I know on the west coast of North America—can do something that feels more coherent and decisive to distance ourselves from neo-Nazism. I can justify this on any number of grounds, but the one that might appeal most to my friends and collaborators within this community is that it feels essential for this work to actually achieve its intended effect.

I’m one of those “art is a hammer” people, one of those people who has a fairly ardent desire to affect the world with symbols. For me the performance modes I engage are intended to explore the emerging mythology of the Anthropocene. This is serious work for me. It is work that is attempting to address the profound emotional challenges we encounter trying to meaningfully struggle in a world that provides overwhelming incentive to become paralyzed by despair. The cultural context and the lenses through which the work is viewed are meaningful, and it is absolutely not helpful to my project, nor to any of the cultural projects the vast majority of us are engaged in, to have them ambiguously contextualized within neo-fascism.

That said, it is also not helpful to any of our cultural projects if we allow them to be curtailed out of mere acquiescence to the assessments of others. I am not offering an assessment of the merit or lack thereof of the anarchist perspective set forth in “Straw Men,” and therefore want to be clear that I’m not stating this explicitly in relation to any particular individuals or projects within our loose-knit scene. I am however saying that I am sick of explaining that I’m not a Nazi every six months. I don’t have a truly specific formula for what this looks like—it would inevitably be an emergent, collective affair—but I think those of us who feel like their work would benefit from it should consider doing something to more decisively distance themselves from neo-fascism.

Thus far, we have essentially contented ourselves with disavowals of accusations. But while much of the attack on neofolk/black metal/whatever has been a paramount expression of precisely everything everyone finds alienating about anarchists, there does remain the ineluctable truth that an aura of obscure occult-fascist intrigue continues to pervade our underground. Both black metal and neofolk have origin stories involving overt racists like Varg Vikernes and Tony Wakeford (the latter having since disavowed racism, but the point being that he was simultaneously making seminal neofolk music and a far-right white nationalist). Here on the west coast, the trajectory into this subculture is very often through punk rock, with its attendant egalitarianism, and the political spectrum essentially goes from progressive to eco-anarchist. It is easy enough for those of us on the inside of this subculture to dismiss the accusation that the vague associations are anything greater than that because we happen to know it’s true. We can see it with our own eyes. We understand who we are and who we aren’t. It’s easy to feel a native contempt for this kind of scrutiny because it can seem horribly naive, and easier still when in many cases the critiques are, in fact, horribly naive.

But here’s what I will argue, that speaks directly to the heart of whether our art, good or bad, is just an aesthetic indulgence or a legitimate attempt to make an assertion about a mode of existence in the real world. If we want to continue to evolve this work, if we want to continue to explore reality through it, we must be able to maturely and sincerely grapple with complex topics that confront us. This may very well require a dialogue about how we—by “we” I mean myself and the vast majority of my friends within this underground, who have limits on the proximity we feel comfortable having to crazy nationalists and the like—collectively want to respond to situations in which ethical conflicts arise for us.

There has been at least one case in which I desperately wanted some mechanism for collective disavowal or negotiation to exist within our scene. This was the Stella Natura festival in 2013, at which Counter Currents Press—a distributor of wingnut racist ramblings—was allowed to table. This event honestly broke my heart, made me feel foolish for being publicly involved in this community, and made me feel frustrated with my friends for not reacting more strongly. There is nothing obscure or aesthetically beguiling in many of the titles this publisher produces. It is unambiguous dumb-white-guy-angry-about-the-economy racism (take this book called Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country, for instance, which discusses the vexing problems of white extinction and white genocide). If you are the sort of person who gains emotional release from laughing at this sort of thing, you might find the Counter Currents website tremendously entertaining—they sell a novel by “the Tom Clancy of the alternative Right.” The argument of “free expression” made by the event’s organizer is absurd in the context of a music festival—would such an argument have justified the presence of a pop punk or light jazz artist on stage? How can allowing this publisher to table not be interpreted as an endorsement of some form or another?

But we had no real process to talk about rejecting this development in some meaningful way. We could register our opinions on social media and choose to go or not to go. I registered my opinion on social media and didn’t go. But that isn’t enough for the work I personally am doing to exist in the proper context, to have the right meaning, and I’d argue this is true for many of us. This event touches me still, and everyone else. The recent association with an overtly racist publisher remains with our scene. It would be nice to articulate some framework which says, in effect: “We are not only willing to say that we are not Nazis, but to discuss what responsibilities we have to make the cultural space we are creating and operating in have less fuzzy borders with Nazism, and perhaps to specifically explore mechanisms for collectively addressing ethical objections that might arise for us in this scene.”

As I said before, I would argue that these responsibilities we have to make our cultural space have less fuzzy borders could be thought of, if you’re the kind of person who is staunch apolitical, in purely artistic and cultural terms. If our aesthetic has any substance, if it is actually saying something about the world and suggesting a way of living in it, then we cannot resort to the kind of nonchalant arguments that were used to defend Stella Natura, the argument that politics is incidental, and music and friendship are central. If our collective endeavor can truly be reduced to playing music and hanging out, we really have no need for the mythopoetic liner notes about how our music stands in opposition to the modern world or speaks from an eternal well or anything like that.

We either have to admit that our aesthetic extravagances—music projects devoted to the end of civilization, performance art in which we claim to be going on spirit journeys—are merely aesthetic extravagances, or we have to be willing to engage in complex discussions and cultural processes beyond the level of internet forum and music festival. Are we a cultural force that is exploring ways of maintaining contact with nature in the age of annihilating machines, exploring some primordial impulse or another, really? If so, we are certainly capable of the adult act of navigating a complex discussion about how we want to deal with things we object to or want to distance ourselves from. A meaningful cultural force doesn’t have to be explicitly political—we don’t have to all share a political position and quite clearly don’t—but it can’t be so avowedly apolitical that it doesn’t even register an opposition to something so elementally relevant as white supremacy. If we do this, whatever the ethical implications, from a cultural and artistic perspective we’re consigning ourselves to total irrelevance. We’re admitting that our cultural project doesn’t have much tangible relationship with the real world.

I thus state what I would like to see from “my” side of this debate, in the spirit of precisely the complex dialogue I lamented the lack of in “I Say Potato”; I’ll turn now to what I’d like to see of the “other” side of this debate. My hope is that in a few more permutations of dialogue, these sides will be less clearly delineated.

To the author of “Straw Men” and to Olympia anarchists in general who make statements to the effect that imminent violence against an ambiguously broad swath of undesirables is justified, I still find this kind of behavior antithetical to your stated values. I fail to see how a legitimate anarchist praxis could possibly place such a premium on violence at the expense of less coercive forms of cultural change. Fun as it is for all of us to posture—I’m no more immune to the thrills of a street fight and the emotional appeal of stating my psychological preparedness for such affairs than anyone else—these sort of statements make it infinitely, infinitely less likely that anyone would be receptive to suggestions you might have about how, specifically, people should consider changing their behavior, if you were to make them.

Which is precisely what is lacking from “Straw Men,” and what makes the threat of violence so unwarranted. The singular focus on making the case that Exile and Sadie are fascists, as the author carefully specifies the term to avoid confusion with more overtly political fascists, excludes any clear statement about what responsibilities the author feels lie with what individuals. If it were the case that one concluded the author was entirely correct, for instance, what obligations does that present one with? One individual is not the “scene”; one individual arguably cannot control who attends shows they attend—what actions must the individual take when they find themselves in a room with a fascist lest they brave the fists of an anti-fascist?

This is the central question that has not been addressed. “I Say Potato” has repeatedly been characterized as a defense of Exile’s blog Loyalty Is Mightier Than Fire specifically or the swastika generally. It is in fact neither of these things, but centrally focused on our obligation to engage in complex conversations in ways that are not completely idiotic. I would argue that “Straw Men”—and again this isn’t the same as a concession that the arguments of the piece are entirely valid—did a reasonable job of dealing with the central contention that Sadie and Exile are neo-fascists. It at least clearly designated what was meant and the piece tried to evaluate what the implications were in reasonable and sincere terms. But the apathetic, i-Phone gazing black metal scenesters the piece derides are left to their own devices in trying to figure out how to avoid the bizarre prospect of inter-subcultural gang wars, in which the kids in all black with the tree tattoos fight the kids in all black with the tree tattoos, should they happen to agree with every word of “Straw Men.”

But this is truly crucial. If your writing is intended at all to persuade people to change their behavior, shouldn’t one have the vaguest clue what it is you individually expect of people before you start threatening them with violence for not doing it? At least one person had their automobile windows broken for working at a bar frequented by Sadie and Exile. What isn’t clear to me, beyond this question of what it means to say they are fascists, is what exactly that individual was supposed to do to sufficiently distance herself from the situation from the perspective of the anarchists involved, and how she was supposed to know. I speculate that I’ll be physically assaulted in Olympia as a fascist sympathizer sometimes but I don’t know what—exactly—is expected of one to prove one isn’t. If one talks to but disagrees with a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one says hello to but otherwise doesn’t talk to a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one goes to a show where there is a possibility a fascist might be—think about the answer to this question carefully and remember how all the Nazi skinheads used to inexplicably love MDC, of all bands—is one a fascist sympathizer?

I’m guessing—and despite that I sometimes think I’ll be attacked, I truly am just guessing, because no one’s ever explicitly told me—that the thing being demanded by anarchists as a minimum ethical obligation of people like me in this situation is total social exclusion. I’m further guessing that there’s a perceived obligation to collectively enforce this exclusion by excluding anyone who does not exclude the initially guilty party, and so on, in a great eternal chain.

There are a thousand complex facets of this approach to regulating behavior via the threat of social exclusion that simply can’t be gone into in the time that I have. I want to very briefly address two. The first is that we essentially lack any coherent framework for evaluating what insidious behavior, or compromises with insidious forces, we consider it productive to antagonize within our immediate social worlds.

In this case, the claim is made that two people adhere to Third Position fascism, or some variant thereof. There’s a reasonably clear claim made about some of the reasons this might matter, and they don’t require fantastical indulgences in scenarios of experimental music becoming a politically ascendant force. Even if one is convinced all these arguments are perfectly valid, what is lacking at the moment is the clearly stated criteria by which people decided this particular issue was the one they get to beat up people who might otherwise be their friends over. At the moment, it has this really uncannily empty feeling to be told that some element of my life is an acquiescence to evil, because I would argue that most of my life is an acquiescence to evil.

This isn’t a rhetorical device. It’s not me being clever. It’s me being really sincere when I tell you that literally everywhere I look I see appalling cruelties and I have no idea how to grapple with any of them—despite spending a huge amount of my time trying—and so it’s not at all clear to me what ethical implications it has to be told that the music scene I’m in is impure. I routinely see injustices I do nothing about. The civilization I live in is entirely made out of them.

I am not making the claim that we are absolved of any obligation to consider our actions because we all allow evil to unfold before our very eyes every day. I’m making the claim that we need some kind of coherent framework to evaluate which kinds of evil it makes sense to pressure one another to confront. Maybe the analysis of some is as simple as claiming we should pick fights solely based on whether we think that we can win them.  Maybe others have more elaborate theories.

If you tell people who participate in the destruction of peoples and species every time they flip a light switch or go grocery shopping, and who in many cases grew weary with the grief of not feeling like they could do anything about it long ago, that they have an ethical obligation to change some aspect of their lives—the ideological implications of their participation in a music scene, for instance—you really should have some clear way of conveying why this matter uniquely warrants their attention over every other evil they could address.

I can honestly think of some—one could argue we have both more liability and more agency—but I have to say the actual boundaries of where obligation starts and ends are incredibly fuzzy to me. I participate in political struggles which feel desperately vital to me but I am not able to feel like people who don’t are eschewing an obligation. I somehow managed to stumble through a couple decades of veganism without ever ostracizing anyone for their diet, but it wasn’t because I don’t have strong feelings about industrial animal agriculture. If someone told me I should be doing more to make eating factory farmed animal products socially taboo I might feel like they have a point. If someone told me I should be doing more to make it clear that the world of west coast neofolk and black metal and whatever else is not subtly aligned with Nazism, I might also feel like they have a point. But inevitably the question arises of how the fuck I’m supposed to simultaneously hold all the disparate actions I could potentially be taking to combat evil in my hands, to evaluate them all and identify the ones that are somehow the most pressing.

David Graeber claims that anarchism excels precisely at being a practice rather than a grand theory, at producing thoughtful dialogue around fairly immediate matters of life and struggle, e.g. “How do we deal with the deflation that comes after a surge of political activity?” or “What unique challenges are presented by coming into a rural community from the city to organize?” In theory, then, the people who are presenting this critique should be inclined to evaluate this scenario, as it has unfolded thus far, as a means of scrutinizing their praxis. I think that if they do they will find that, whatever the merits of their points, they have thus far failed to really convey to the actual individuals who comprise the broad scene that is so relentlessly mocked in “Straw Man” any constructive suggestions for engaging with the situation.

For people notoriously prone to elaborate processes of self-examination, complete with a fairly specialized language and set of cultural conventions, anarchists in this situation have thus far offered no concrete models that I am aware of for collective or individual action other than total social exclusion. This seems remarkably one-dimensional and wooden coming from a scene that knows how to embed virtually anything in multiple layers of formal process.

My other really substantial issue with the total social exclusion model—and the layers of exclusions it must enforce to work—derives largely from my experiences growing up in a religious cult. The insight is essentially this: if it sounds good to you on paper for us all to collectively enforce moral standards through intense forms of social pressure, if this sounds like a more free world than the one we currently live in, my experience tells me that the real world version of this gets extremely dark extremely fast.

There’s no inherent, logical reason that we shouldn’t be able to collectively establish standards of behavior that we absolutely insist on, and scrutinize one another’s adherence to those standards, without becoming completely evil. But the empirical reality of such situations suggests that something profoundly vile often emerges in human psyches engaged in precisely this kind of work. I have been spooked to shit in my life by accountability processes and efforts and collective self-examination within activist settings because they have honestly reminded me of the crazed group processes which occurred with anguishing regularity through the interminable hours of my childhood, complete with the same high-stakes games of group punishment and social control of individuals. What I think when I think of the people who participated in these processes is not that they were particularly evil, but that these processes make people a little crazy.

To me, these are truly essential things lacking from the current dialogue which would be expected of “your side” to produce. A framework for evaluating how we prioritize claims about moral responsibilities in a world like this one, and process suggestions for addressing the claims that are publicly accessible (you are indicting an entire subculture, after all) so that you could at least claim you offered people a path to not becoming the target of your aggressions. That, with an explanation of why this isn’t going to get incredibly out of hand incredibly fast, or at least some kind of evaluation of the possibility. It’s extremely difficult to me to understand how doing otherwise would be anything but blindly and pointlessly coercive. In what anarchist framework is one operating if one chooses to threaten people before having even articulated to them what they think they ought to be doing differently?

It will forever dismay me that the writing I have thus far done about this subcultural dispute has garnered more actual attention, in terms of internet statistics, than I could ever hope to gain by familiarizing myself with fossil fuel industry minutia in order to write an assessment of strategies against ecological collapse. But it is also crucial to me to use these situations as a means of developing better protocols for communicating and interacting in the future. It would be my hope that this dispute, which seems so inexorably bound to continue unproductively and always across a single neat chasm, could miraculously, if not be resolved, break out of its predictable schematics, out of its petty tribalism, and help develop capacities for self-examination on both “sides.”

I continue to be somewhat confused by claims about neo-fascism within my subculture, and to have experiences which don’t feel like they correspond very well with characterizations made by others. For instance, in the last couple of years I’ve had a number of email exchanges with Exile that have traversed an astonishing breadth of intellectual territory, and these exchanges haven’t led me to identical conclusions as the author of “Straw Man.” I’d say he is someone who pushes my political buttons fairly often but who also I find myself curious about for precisely this reason, because I am not totally certain why this is so or what fundamental or superficial difference between us it reveals.

The copious swastikas on Loyalty Is Mightier than Fire exhibit a judgment I myself certainly wouldn’t make, but I also would be lying if I said I hadn’t been exposed to new perspectives on Bach and  mystical interpretations of nonviolence through my (remote and infrequent) acquaintance with Exile. I continue having difficulty mapping the terms others speak of this situation in onto the terms I experience it in, and I remain resolved to form my own thoughts from my own experience. Mostly, I haven’t wanted to address this immediate debate—does fascism or does fascism not lurk in the rainy heart of the Cascadian music underground?—because it felt inevitably repetitive. It seems like suggesting processes by which people who care about the situation, whatever their perspective, might constructively interact with it is more useful.

I’m far too cynical and wounded to seriously suggest we all try to have some great moment of reconciliation, but it’s worth asking ourselves what it would actually feel like if other people weren’t so frustrating. It is easy to feel like everyone but you and a few friends are assiduously working day and night to be as frustrating and idiotic as possible, and that makes it easy to approach situations with a sort of innate, a priori hostility. The consequence of this is that sometimes we may simply not bother to think about what other parties in a dialogue could do that we would not consider ridiculous. Dialogue can be a formality that justifies our hostilities, or it can be an honest exploration of what differences exist, what there is to learn from these differences, and what possible directions of travel the future presents.

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