First, the alt-right stole Pepe the frog from cartoonist Matt Furie. Then, they stole enjoying milk from the calcium-deficient. Now, they’re trying to steal punk. Members of the alt-right have of late made the argument that “conservatism is the new punk” and that gadflies like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos are the modern day truth-telling equivalents of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, pushing back against social justice warriors and political correctness culture. In their eyes, their old, retrograde ideas—which inevitably manifest as fear and outrage at attempts to curb white male privilege—have suddenly become avant-garde because of…safe spaces or something.
Since it’s impossible to physically punch this loathsome idea in the face, Playboy reached out to some of our favorite young punks and some members of the old guard to talk about what punk really means. Many of our contributors pointed out that even though as a cultural movement it has always had its flaws and problems with representations, punk is still a place where people threatened by the right’s crusade can find strength, safety and community.
DOWNTOWN BOYS’S VICTORIA RUIZ: THE ALT-RIGHT IS A DISTRACTION
Alice Bag, who has actually done the work of being a punk rock star, recently said via Facebook: “Punk has been portrayed as music by and for angry white males, but in its inception, it was a rebellion against all rock cliches. Gender, ethnic, sexual and class taboos were all challenged by our early punk community and that is a story which is not very often told. People of color, queer folk, women—all were present from the very beginning of Punk.”
I think that this is exactly why it is nonsense when the alt-right strings together vapid words to try and incite a playground fight with those of us who put blood, sweat and tears into creating an expression that is the antithesis of everything that these alt-right meatheads represent. They are simply a distraction to the women, femmes, queers and people of color filling the columns of Spin, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, the New York Times and numerous other publications that report on culture. I don’t see actual alt-right bands headlining Coachella, I see Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar—two of the most punk in terms of crystallizing dissent about the status quo —artists taking the stage. Real punk is and will always be a total threat to the alt-right and their culture, which is based on white supremacy. Otherwise it isn’t real punk. The alt-right’s tactics are FAKE PUNK. The alt-white (I mean right) want us to sip tea, but we are drinking fresh water from a firehose.
PANSY DIVISION’S CHRIS FREEMAN ON WHY PUNK WAS THE FIRST SOCIAL MEDIA
Back in 1977, there was a lot to rebel against. Punk rock for me was about free-thinking more than free speech, and I say that not to minimize free speech but to point out how robotic life had become in the 1970s. Nobody questioned anything. Punk was about being different from the complacent norm of the era, which had reached a head musically and culturally with disco. It was about using your music and fashion to shed light on issues that were never discussed out in the open. This was so far before social media that it may be hard to provide a context for what that was like to anyone who was not there. Music was the social media and punk was like a group message board.
I had attended early punk shows in downtown Seattle to avoid the jocks from the suburbs who listened to AC/DC and beat up fags. It was a place for society’s misfits to go, dress up crazy, let out some pent-up aggressions and listen to some fast, loud, FUN rock'n'roll, without wondering if you were going to be beaten up.
In the ‘80s, punk took a hard right and was adopted by some groups that probably would have been comfortable playing the inauguration. I avoided those bands, but I knew they were there. I avoided those who listened to them, too.
That kind of aggro-punk had no place for me, someone who had to question every part and parcel of my being to try to make sense of my sexuality. (If I had tried so hard to “pray the gay away,” and was still gay, was it really ever my choice to be gay?) There was no more room for supremacy of any kind in my way of thinking. Since I didn’t choose to be gay, when I did choose anything about myself? How could I possibly discriminate against anyone, when no one has any choice?
I rejected any racist or sexist thoughts and ejected those in my life who were. I believed in the phrase “all men are created equal,” although my interpretation included women (“ALL are created equal”). I sought to eradicate those divisive ideas to the best of my ability. I moved from rural towns in Washington to the big city and eventually moved to an even bigger city (San Francisco) to find like-minded folk. What I left behind along with those abandoned ideas were the rednecks and religious nutjobs who refused to think for themselves and not accept what they are taught by their parents or their churches.
Now we are seeing what happened to all of those rednecks and nutjobs, and their underground ideas and progeny are at the surface, showing up everywhere on social media and news feeds. That doesn’t make it punk rock.
While anyone can ape a musical style and write some songs about how angry they are about the way their world turned out, which is certainly the essence of punk rock, that doesn’t make them punk either. Or does it?
In the '90s, there were huge discussions and even fights about what was punk rock, which bands were really punk and which were decidedly not punk. Maximumrocknroll had their take on it, and my band Pansy Division often had to defend ourselves for being labeled punk. In the end, there was no resolution. You could call yourself punk if you wanted to… but you had better be prepared to back it up, 'cause there were legions of punks around the world who were punk way before you were, and they would be the judges.
So, go ahead Milo, call yourself punk. Let’s see what you got. Your first interview is with John Lydon and Jello Biafra. Good luck with that.
ERIKA M. ANDERSON, AKA EMA, ON PUNK’S DIVERSITY
I think if you define punk as simply being a group of angry young men wanting to say “fuck you” to dominant societal norms and current values, then the roots of the alt-right are definitely one of the most punk things going on right now. But that’s like narrowing your definition of punk down to the Sex Pistols—which was basically a boy band put together by a pair of London clothing designers who wanted to use shock tactics to promote their fashion line. I much prefer Crass (who were anarchists, feminists, environmentalists and better songwriters!), X-Ray Spex or even Pansy Division. But my guess is that if you are truly invested in the theory of alt-right as new punk, then facts about the diversity of the movement aren’t really going to appeal to you.
So let’s take it back to the Sex Pistols, who did do an admirable job of first embodying a brick through the window of the establishment at the time, only to dissolve two and half years after forming.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Those were singer John Lydon/Rotten’s famous words at the end of the last Pistols show in San Francisco in 1978. When asked later by British TV what he meant by that, he said that both the band and the audience had been cheated by management, by “adults all around us who while we were not looking, put themselves in the driving seats.” He continued, “It’s so easy to become a rebel without a cause! If indeed your first cause is poverty, which of course all causes come from, we must have the bigger picture! We must not be divided by class, religion, race, or politics.”
Indeed, it’s all keks and lulz until a con man takes office and fills his cabinet with incompetent billionaires who don’t actually care about free speech, poverty, or really anything but themselves. Turns out there is a thin line between being punk and getting punk’d.
CEREMONY’S ANDY NELSON ON WHY RIGHT-WING PUNK ROCK IS NOTHING NEW
It is no great secret that for all its posturing and incremental progress over the years, underground punk is still, regrettably, a culture dominated by straight whites males.
The notion that expressing all the hateful bigotry that the entirety of American society has been reinforcing forever would resemble the anti-establishment in any form is a premise so asinine and feeble-minded it is nearly beyond comprehension. Insofar as “Alt-Right Punk” is a real thing, I remind you that we’ve seen this type of thing before, and we’ve seen how it ends: Just ask Dave Smalley and Michael Graves what kind of traffic that moronic website ConservativePunk.com is getting these days.
TITUS ANDRONICUS’S PATRICK STICKLES ON PUNK IDEOLOGY
In determining if conservatism/“alt-right” is the “new punk” or “political punk rock” or whatever they are saying, we must first address the distinction between “punk,” the ideology, “punks,” who practice said ideology, and “punk rock,” the musical genre/fashion template with which we associate acts like the Sex Pistols or Ramones or Black Flag and “punk rockers,” those who adhere to those templates.
From where I sit, “punk” is an ideology built to be enacted in the absence of higher morality in which we live and work. The true punk recognizes the chaotic nature of our universe and lives with the humbling reality that our existence is infinitesimally small, fraught with peril on all sides, and ultimately carried out alone. Accepting this reality gives the true punk the eyes with which to see that the structures of moral authority, by which the few might subjugate the many, are merely manmade ⋆, human responses to the never-ceasing nightmare of life in the jungle after dark — as such, their power is the totality of the people’s faith in that power, a faith often earned through fear. The patriarchy, the government, the police, the dollar — these arbitrary constructs have the power ⋆⋆. The true punk rejects the cheap comforts and false security offered here.
The recognition of all this empowers the true punk to face the void of meaning and create meaning therein. If the punk is truly true, the understanding will follow that, in this void of meaning, in this random and chaotic universe, all things are equal in their randomness and that the right and the duty of one particular individual to create meaning in their tiny corner of the void could be no different from that of the next individual, certainly no better and in all things equal. This is the hurdle over which the true punk will gracefully soar as it knocks the knees of the mere nihilist.
The stunted manchildren who compose the “alt-right” have had no dark night of the soul wherein they reject the cheap comforts and false security offered by the structures of authority into which they have invested their faith. Their fear is too great, the darkness when they close their eyes too dark, too vast. They nuzzle hungrily at the dry bosom of the hateful and death-loving patriarchy. Knowing not who they are, they jeer at others and curse that which they think they are not. Desperate and afraid, they strike at anything which threatens or contradicts their fragile understanding of the perilous world they would treat as they private playground. These people are not punks.
These people do have something in common, however, with the garden variety “punk rocker” you might find striking poses around yr local scene in that their fear and insecurity have lead them to adopt an “off-the-rack” identity which will do all the work for them of understanding the world, the self and the latter’s place in the former. Just as the fashion plate punk with the mohawk and the leather jacket carries on as though it is still 1981, the red-hatted drones of the alt-right would turn the clocks back to 1955. The true punk will work to construct a superior future which discards the useless and malignant infrastructure of the past, not pine for the return of an idealized bygone era that only ever existed in the warm and fuzzy memories people create to dull the anxiety of the present moment.
⋆ No, I’m not just being inconsiderate and sloppy with my gendered language this time—it was man who built these wicked structures, specifically the white man.
⋆⋆ Except that the police have guns and the government has nuclear bombs. Those things are definitely real and sort of render all this a bit moot. Oops.