Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Revise and Re-Submit 2: Jews Choose Confusing Ruse

Another example of the "transference" tendency (Jewish artists coping with the catastrophe of the Holocaust by creatively engaging with radically evil personae) noted in the previous post on Lemony Snicket and Gene Simmons? Why not!

Today's subject?: Scott Ian(Rosenfeld)'s 1980s thrash/hardcore band Stormtroopers of Death.

I recall seeing a review of SOD's album "Speak English or Die!" in Guitar World magazine when I was 13. The band name and title terrified me. At the time, I knew a little bit about about neo-nazi oi bands like Skrewdriver (talk about irony: the name of the most antisemitic genre of music ever, "oi," sounds like the universal Ashkenazic expression of resigned disgust) from other kids in junior high who would go on to embrace skinhead/white supremacist ideology more sincerely in high school, and I was freaked out to discover that heavy metal was a place I could expect to encounter xenophobia and racism. Shortly thereafter, Axl Rose sang about "immigrants and faggots" on the G'n'R Lies record, and Sebastian Bach wore an "Aids Kills Fags Dead" t-shirt at a concert. Except for the speedy instrumental variety, I was done with heavy metal.

At around the same time, Public Enemy started attracting attention for their vaguely antisemitic lyrics. It is no wonder that I abandoned the typical antisocial musics (rap, metal, punk) of adolescence for a while around my Bar Mitzvah (punk I was already wary of because I had been many times to the punk head shops on Yonge Street-- their booming business in swastikas and German iron cross pendants unsettled me, and I didn't know how to make sense of songs like the Sex Pistols' "Belsen Was a Gas" which made light of concentration camps).

So, in the 8th grade I started searching out alternatives to adolescent anomic musics: delta blues, bluegrass, bebop, whatever. It took a while for the aversion to heavy metal, rap, and punk to wear off, and, to be honest, I am not sure it ever has. For example, now I make exclusively instrumental music (or collaborate with lyricist/vocalists who write sensitively about their feelings in a manner that could offend no one, save perhaps for Ted Nugent). And not just any kind of instrumental music, but a kind of instrumental music that is devoid of literal meaning and narrative, deliberately esperantic, inclusive and utopian. I can't say that my attraction to this form of creative expression was not motivated by early traumatic encounters with aggressively particularistic music.

OK. Let's transition to the next point: I don't think that sticking with my 13-year-old's aesthetic framework is useful. Condemning aggressively particularistic music for its biases and petty hatreds gets us nowhere, especially if our ids remind us we sort of like objectionable music while our super-egos command us to resist its charms. We live in a world full of evil and pain, and we shouldn't ask culture to be a refuge from engagement with difficult topics or an oasis of contradiction-free, pre-authorized party line pablum. Finally, we shoudn't neglect the vitality of "transference" as artistic strategy. Snobby culture critics tend to deny that popular music performers and listeners have the intelligence to neogtiate this strategy. These critics are pretty cavalier with their evidence, or, more precisely, they muster no evidence whatsoever besides haute-bourgeois disdain for pop culture consumers.

Let's return to Stormtroopers of Death. SOD was a thrash/hardcore side project that Scott Ian started to supplement the more metallic music of his main band, Anthrax. According to the wikipedia entry on SOD, the inspiration came from sketches that Ian scribbled while killing time in the recording studio. In the tradition of so many American Jewish comic book artists (who more or less dominated the comics biz in the postwar era), Ian created a character who embodied radical evil : Sargent D. While SOD singer Billy Milano did not take on the voice of Sargent D, the band seemed to channel his psychopathic militarism and bloodlust.

How offensive were SOD's lyrics? Pretty offensive. For instance, "Speak English or Die":

"You come into this country
You cant get real jobs
Boats, and boats, and boats of you
Go home you fuckin slobs
Sellin hot dogs on the corner
Sellin papers in the street
Pushing, pulling, digging, sweating
Where you come from must be beat

You always make us wait
You are the ones we hate
You cant communicate

You dont know what I want
You dont know what I need
Why must I repeat myself,
Can't you fuckin read?
Nice fuckin accent
Why cant you speak like me?
What's that dot on your head,
Do you use it to see?

You always make us wait
You are the ones we hate
You cant communicate

Now, of course these are hateful and obnoxious words... but we are not evaluating here whether we want to have SOD as keynote speakers at the Porto Allegre World Social Forum. The key point is that the status of the voice that delivers these lyrics is unstable. If Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits can sing "in character," why can't SOD? And the voice that is channeled is not one with which we would imagine short, skinny, heavy metal musicians (by the 1980s a thoroughly "nerd" subculture, as Will Straw noted in his seminal essay on metal fandom) named Rosenfeld and Milano. In fact, we can imagine the grandparents of Rosenfeld and Milano being taunted with these very nativist slurs, and that the memory of this racist intolerance (which incidentally compromises America's nauseating self-congratulation vis-a-vis its history of openness to immigrants) inflected the world-views of young Rosenfeld and Milano as they grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

We can leave it at that, and still have a productive re-contextualization of SOD. It is possible that the impulse to embody the hateful intolerance that, a generation earlier, tormented their ancestors in the United States is straight-up Stockholm Syndrome. Or, like the Israeli producers of Rambo movies, the editorial board of Commentary, Antonin Scalia and Carmella Soprano, SOD simply reflect the trend of once-victimized ethnic Americans jumping at the chance to identify with a conservative movement that happens to include them in the "us" rather than the "them" (gays and lesbians, Arabs, urban African-Americans always, etc.) against which ideological battle is waged. Perhaps SOD predicted this trend with their screed "Fuck the Middle East," which sounds like a distillation of every prejudiced morsel of bloodthirsty orientalism I ever heard from Zionist counselors at summer camp. I am still unsure whether Rosenfeld was sending up the idiocy of anti-Arab hate-mongering, or slumming in its sludgy waters...

I will conclude with a final thought, one which my training in anti-racism makes me hesistant to even contemplate. Is there anything valuable in art that minimizes the hurtfullness of racial intolerance by mocking it or otherwise making it ridiculous? I recall a moment in a video of Norman Finkelstein's recent lecture at Yale, where he was assailed by angry students who asked questions along the lines of: "antisemitism is on the rise in France-- how can you justify doing scholarship that endangers Jews?" Now, Finkelstein seems like a complicated guy, and I am not sure I like all of his tactics, but I have great respect for him on a lot of levels. His response, which seemed more off the cuff than usual, was to point out that "anti" sentiment is universal in pluralistic societies (and, one might add, very difficult to measure). Should we be concerned with the inevitable presence of antagonisms based on difference, or with the real crises that bring about death and misery for millions of people?

And should we not be interested in the process by which a banal antagonism (such as the vaudeville racism of stereotypes and caricatures) becomes the fuel for a pogrom or a mass slaughter? Clearly, the accepted wisdom regarding this continuity-- that is, the idea that ideology and action form a seamless continuum-- proved itself to be an aid to genocide in the 1980s and 1990s, not a means to prevent it. Samantha Power is very effective at showing this in her book A Problem From Hell. She notes that Clinton et al's belief that "ancient hatreds" were at the root of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or Rwanda or the Congo stymied efforts to prevent catastrophe (when Western diplomats and NGO agents on the ground were desperately trying to convince the State Department that rapidly changing, non-predetermined conditions over which the US government might have exerted influence, but didn't, were about to escalate into mass murder).

From this we might conclude that "ancient antagonisms" ought to be taken less seriously-- indeed, that the banalization of petty racism might be an effective tool in the fight for a more just and egalitarian society. From Mel Brooks to the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis and beyond, we can certainly see a strain of this banalization in American comedy. And in the work of certain European satirists, such as the slavic band Laibach and the brilliant Russian/British/Jewish comedian Sascha Baron Cohen, we can behold a less timid approach to underminining the power of racist symbols and attitudes.

I have no idea whether SOD can be included in this category, and more research would definitely be needed to figure out the ramifications of their "politically incorrect" gestures. It is conceivable that they were merely irresponsible jerks who congratulated the bonehead prejudices of other irresponsible jerks. But maybe not.

Great post.

You know, it's funny. I too encountered SOD at a young age. I was very into metal but none of the aggressive, angry, "satanic", or violent bands like Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Metallica, etc. With a few exceptions here and there, for years I stuck to the metal equivalent to boy bands. Poison, Warrant, et al: closer to glam than metal.

Anyway, I heard SOD when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. I did not grow up with any kind of strong racism around me so I have no reason to believe that even at that age I wouldn't be sensitive and averse to it. The odd thing is, my friend Jack (who introduced me to SOD, he found the tape at his babysitter's house, age 12 or 13 at the time) and I weren't offended by SOD, we thought it was hilarious. Your post has made me think about this for the first time.

I can say with certainty that we did not agree with any kind of racist rhetoric be it against Jews, Arabs or what have you so I can only conclude that we thought that a band with the album title "Speak English or Die" was so absurd that it couldn't possibly be taken seriously.
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