Don’t Let Your “Alt” Identity Sabotage This Election

Josh Strawn (Azar Swan, Vaura) talks getting over identity politics in the interest of the greater good.

I’ve written a lot of embarrassing emails in my life. Sometimes I accidentally stumble across emails I wrote to my Blacklist band mates back in 2007 and 2008 and find myself contemplating what percentage of the reason for that band’s demise can be blamed on my overlong, sometimes rude, often useless emailing. But of all the embarrassing emails I’ve written, it was a resignation note to my boss at the Philadelphia chapter of the community action group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) that I think about the most.

The 2016 election, especially, has made me think of this email over and over again. Every time a fellow Bernie Sanders supporter says they won’t vote for Clinton — even to block Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — I think about it and I cringe. Back then, I was a community organizer and self-styled radical, and ACORN was asking me to do campaign work for an establishment politician whom I saw as corrupt. I refused. I no longer see this as an easy calculation or a simple principled stand. I’ll explain why…

The reason becoming politically involved because of music can be bad may be less obvious: those politics often tend to be a form of identity politics.

It’s probably best to rewind a little and start with music and how it has affected my political life. Music can be key to how many of us form — and perform — our identities, and it starts infecting us with political sensibilities early on. Being moved to political awareness by music can be both good and bad, and after all these years I still can’t figure out if it’s more good than bad. The reason it can be good is obvious: awareness is better than no awareness. The reason becoming politically involved because of music can be bad may be less obvious: those politics often tend to be a form of identity politics.

Plenty has been written about the uses and abuses of identity politics, the idea that the personal is political. Some, like civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, believe it is a tool for awareness and mobilization. Others, like sociologist and writer Todd Gitlin, believe it is a vehicle for narcissistic look-at-me-and-my-beliefs performance. I believe it can be either.

Here’s the email address I used in the years leading up to ACORN: radicalchic68. It was both a reference to the leftist sioxante-huitard agitators of Paris in the late 1960s that I so admired, as well as a tongue-in-cheek reference to journalist Tom Wolfe’s term for people who get into radicalism because it’s perceived as stylish and edgy. I was making a joke at my own expense before someone else did. It was all too noticeable to friends and onlookers that my fascination with the British electronic music duo Autechre and the philosopher Jean Baudrillard was somehow a manifestation of the same interest in arcane European culture. And that I got into Naomi Klein’s book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, and the writings of anarchist Noam Chomsky and historian Eric Hobsbawm, because of Radiohead.

But it’s important to note that within communities that are into underground music and radical politics — at least those I’ve experienced both years ago and today — admissions such as these are almost taboo. It’s because those aren’t exactly the most cool or the most edgy bands anymore. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were. I have found that people’s willingness to admit and broadcast these influences is proportional to how cool the influences are. And this is how the politics of cool gets wrapped up in the politics of social justice, where the goal is supposedly to fight for the oppressed and marginalized: people who aren’t you.

It was time to put down the guitar and try to make a difference more directly.

When I picked up everything and moved from southwest Virginia to southwest Philadelphia to work for ACORN, it was partially out of a conviction that it was time to put down the guitar and try to make a difference more directly. Every step of that journey had a soundtrack. Chicks on Speed, To Rococo Rot and Arvo Pärt accompanied me to the field every day. There I would have two to three dozen political conversations about mobilizing power for themselves and their communities with people from low-income neighborhoods with a high proportion of minority residents. I had experiences that summer that changed me forever. I’ll never forget the connections that I made. One woman suffered from terrible emphysema and coughed a harrowing cough constantly as we spoke. But she always had time for the cause. People who were involved with the original Civil Rights movement told me inspiring stories and always hustled hard to turn their neighbors out to meetings. There was a real feeling of human connection and of the substantial possibilities of collective action.

Then one day at our morning staff meeting, we were told that the coming fall we would be helping campaign for Ed Rendell to become governor of Pennsylvania. Ed Rendell had been DA during the MOVE bombings and the trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal. MOVE was a black liberation group founded in the early ’70s. It was based out of a row house in West Philly in 1985 when the police bombed it from a helicopter. Mum Abu-Jamal was a radio journalist who was sentenced to death, then life without parole, for the murder of a police officer — under pretenses that many believe were unfair and false. These events were an affront to my political views at the time. MOVE and Mumia were causes célèbre to me and my anarchist ilk. How could I actively help elect the man who had presided over these cases?

This wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of the main reasons I decided to quietly visit the local IWW office and file an official complaint. The IWW is short for the Industrial Workers of the World, and it is one of the oldest socialist and anarchist labor unions in the country. I went straight from their office to board a Pittsburgh-bound bus to crash with some friends while I figured out my next move.

The night before I left however, I composed that very stupid email. In it I explained to my boss (with whom I was living, because he and his family were kind enough to take new employees and recruits into their home) that I was not going to have anything to do with helping elect Ed Rendell. That if we were truly for the plight of the underclasses, the dispossessed and the marginalized, we had no business making common cause with such a cretin.

I put my headphones on, listened to a Manic Street Preachers record, and made my way to the Iron City.

He politely replied a day or two later that he was sorry to hear that I was leaving. He mentioned something about how ACORN’s basic goals and agendas would simply have a better chance of being accomplished under Rendell, who was a Democrat, as opposed to his rival, Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher. I was having nothing to do with it. I put my headphones on, listened to a Manic Street Preachers record, and made my way to the Iron City.

While doing canvassing for some gay rights groups in Pittsburgh, I decided that, after some time in the field, I wanted to go back to school and learn how to properly read all these radical thinkers I had been flirting with and admiring for so long. I ended up at the New School in New York, and then I started playing music again. Ever since then I have tried, though I’m not sure with how much success, to balance my political passions and my musical endeavors. One of the most important things I took away from my education, which was steeped in philosophy, was an appreciation for realism and bottom lines. That appreciation changed every aspect of my life.

This may sound counterintuitive — philosophy is often painted as the realm of pure abstraction and inaction. That’s the cartoon version, the popular way to make the endeavor seem like a bunch of useless thinking. But at its best, it can be the opposite — it can help you understand the use of abstract thought as it relates to action in the world. I personally subscribe to a school of thought known as “embodied realism.” Without going too deeply into the science (it is heavily based in neurobiology), it’s a school of thought that states that we are our brains, and our brains are not separate from our bodies. It’s a materialist philosophy — not in the sense of Madonna materialism, but in the sense of the physical material of the world. There is no soul or essence, no invisible better world on another plane or after death. Just us, in the here and now, a small slice of the cosmos experiencing itself. We decide what’s important and what we value.

This is relevant because it places the abstractions of the mind in a specific place. Political and ethical principles are abstractions of the mind. They are, in an important sense, tools. They have no special value beyond their ability to help us achieve the outcomes we want in the world. This is why the elevation of principles above people is, in my view, almost always a mistake.

As of late, we are hearing a lot about conscience and principle, about how people just couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate most likely to defeat Donald Trump, because of their principles. But the question then becomes: if that will produce an outcome more at odds with your principles in which more people will suffer, are you not failing to understand why principles exist in the first place?

While I’m no longer really an anarchist, I don’t feel as if my core principles have changed all that much since my days in Philly and Pittsburgh. But over the past decade of using social media, I have been openly “dealing” with the crisis between radical identity, music and hard reality. I’ve especially been fascinated by the places where realities run uncomfortably up against identities. I’m susceptible to the charge that even that very thing is my identity, my performance and my “brand.” If that’s the case, I can say one thing for certain: I know that I could have crafted a brand that would have been more expedient to my career and more convenient to my personal and public relationships. That’s because a key ingredient of almost every form of effective self-marketing in 2016 is the ability to give people something that confirms their identity. As a “content generator,” which is what musicians have been reduced to in the current media economy, that is the kind of content people eat up. Challenging their identities and the value of those identities and your own is not good business. But over the years, I’ve continued to have my radical idealisms re-worked and re-imagined.

I’ve read more Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and even Castro than your average weekend leftist. But when my band mate in Azar Swan, who is Afghan, walked into my house once and saw my posters of the 1917 October Revolution and told me the Soviets executed her grandfather, it changed the way I saw everything. Over subsequent years, I’ve heard radical chic white metal dudebros try to tell my refugee band mate what a shithole America is, and I’ve listened to her testimony of her America. Not the best place, but not the worst. A little boring, right? Not the corporatist totalitarian state that suburban radical punks say it is. Sounds too much like something your moderate dad or aunt might say. Sometimes reality and the disposition of radicalism and radical culture don’t line up. I take that back, often they don’t. Which leads us, finally, to 2016, Hillary and Bernie.

I supported Bernie Sanders for president both financially via contributions and as a campaign volunteer. Most of my friends in the music world and the art world did. I don’t claim they all got their politics from records. But I know plenty of them did, and yet I know that only a few of them have had the diverse experiences I’ve had on the streets of Philly — or being in a band with an Afghan woman for years and seeing the fabric of life for a Muslim in candidate Trump’s America much more closely than most do. These experiences don’t make me an expert, but I count myself as lucky to have had them and I think they broadened my understanding of how countercultural politics interact with realities that don’t suit them.

The point here is to ask people — especially on my side of the fence who share my cultural disposition and political preferences — to ask themselves deep and serious questions about where their identity ends and the well-being of others begins.

I strongly dislike Hillary Clinton. Much of what her detractors are saying about her this election cycle are things the left was saying about her and her husband during my days at ACORN. I’m onboard and agree with most of it. But when people say they won’t vote for her, even to block Donald Trump, I’m barraged with traumatic images of that email. Because there are people out there, living, breathing individuals who will suffer more in one scenario than they will in the other. The reason that email haunts me is because that decision was mostly about me and about who I was and how I saw myself, not about the lady with emphysema.

The point here is to ask people — especially on my side of the fence who share my cultural disposition and political preferences — to ask themselves deep and serious questions about where their identity ends and the well-being of others begins. Sometimes these may line up, other times they do not. I personally believe that in this election they very often do not. Hillary Clinton is an undesirable candidate to me, and voting for her will be difficult. She’s also boring, and extremely uncool. But I will do it.

Today, alternative identities are even being deployed by the resurgent far right. They even call it the “alt right,” as if Milo Yiannopoulos is the Perry Farrell of the great Breitbart Lollapalooza. Their followers purvey a weird mixture of Death in June-style “Am I a fascist or just a postmodern provocateur?” mixed with tacky red-white-and-blue Duck Dynasty jingoism (not to mention a taste for cuckold porn). It’s always been worth asking whether transgression and radicalism are inherently good things. Oftentimes, counterculture seems to assume transgression is an unquestionable good in itself. Our current moment offers truckloads of proof to the contrary. It proves that the value of a transgression can only be understood in relation to what line is being crossed.

More than ever in my lifetime, it’s an excellent year to put our “alt” identities to the side at the voting booth and ask what bottom line consequences our choices will have for other human beings. It may be that doing the kinda boring, uncool, not-so-radical, not-so-transgressive thing ends up being the best thing.

Josh Strawn is currently one half of the electronic duo Azar Swan and the lead singer of the moody metal supergroup Vaura. He was closely involved with the now-defunct Wierd Records label and party, at which time he fronted the post-punk band Blacklist and played in the psychedelic doom folk band Religious to Damn with Azar Swan co-conspirator Zohra Atash. He has contributed written works of political and cultural commentary to various publications including Flavorwire and Slutist.

(photo credit: Jason Rodgers)