Monday, May 14, 2012

The Exegesis: Hardcore

 Showing off boot-loosened teeth at
the Bad Brains 1982 Boston debut

These are dangerous times for the unaffiliated, for the freelancers. For those who aren't willing to turn off their minds and join the parades of the Left or the the Right, the Nü Atheists or the EvangeliCIAls.

The problem is especially acute this election year, since both Obama and Romney are papering over their essential sameness on truly important issues like the economy, the jobs crisis, and the ongoing imperial project by ratcheting up the Culture War, focusing on gay marriage, contraception and the like.

If anyone is wondering why the skeptics and the atheists are out in force this year, this is exactly why.
The Obama team doesn't dare align themselves with the SkepAth neckbeards openly (even Neil De Grasse Tyson is keeping the NüAths at arm's length), not only because they don't want to alienate black and Latino voters (who tend to take their religion very seriously) but also because of the sizable- and sickening- dark underbelly of the movement (Atheist hotspot Reddit was recently exposed as a clearinghouse for kiddie porn and CFI/CSICOP has had militant pedophilia advocates like Vern Bullough in its upper echelon).

But it can count on billionaire allies like cosmetics heir Todd Stiefel (who made a king's ransom when he sold his family business to GlaxoSmithKline) to bankroll the atheist movement with the goal of harnessing the movement the way the Republicans have historically used the Religious Right.

The problem is that despite the headlines being tossed around- where agnostics, New Agers, Buddhists and Home Church Christians are magically transformed into atheists, the number of committed atheists remains extremely small. This fact was driven home when Stiefel's Reason Rally couldn't put more than an smallish megachurch's worth of atheists on the Mall for the big "coming out" party.

But the Nü Atheists have very powerful allies; in the media, in the Democratic Party, in academia, and a not-insignificant number of celebrities. Normally, I'd think this was all great- I've spent a lot of time railing against the Religious Right on this blog and it's long past time there was a counterweight to their power. 

But I'm not sure taking on the Religious Right is on their agenda. Part of it because they realize the SkepAths don't have the numbers and that the Right is almost completely immune to their lines of attack. And now I see the Nü Atheists gathering outside my gate.

Make no mistake, there's a definite alternate strategy being rolled out. The SkepAths are going after the moderates, after the agnostics, after the spiritual-but-not-religious. They see this as their mission field. They think they can systematically shame, bully and intimidate these people into walking away from their beliefs and join the SkepAth parade.

In many ways, this is a sound strategy since America has always worked to prevent any kind of infrastructure to emerge which would challenge the Religious Right and spiritual-but-not-religious types usually have no support system to defend them against such a concerted and well-coordinated campaign of intimidation.

So the SkepAths are taking on the role of hyenas, metaphorically. For all the huffing and puffing, they dare not engage the Religious Right directly, which has the manpower and the resources to make SkepAth lives miserable. And even though the mythology has it that 9/11 was the impetus behind the atheist revival (atheist movements date back millennia), the SkepAths are even more terrified of Radical Islam, which wouldn't hesitate to defy all convention to strike back at them (see Van Gogh, Theo).

So, too weak and cowardly to take on the leaders of the pack, the SkepAth jackals instead resort to picking off the stragglers in the moderate-to-liberal religious sphere.

This is why you're seeing a lot of weird and hyperbolic articles on religion in the press, pseudoscientific reports arguing that "critical thinking destroys religious belief" and that religious people don't perform acts of charity out of compassion. These are all designed to create sensationalistic headlines- the actual data in the body copy always fails to back up the shocking ledes. They're meant to shame and intimidate your average moderate churchgoer into believing she's missing the boat.

It's also why you're seeing a new wave of UFO debunking and hoaxing (the lion's share of UFO hoaxes are perpetrated by skeptics), and a film version of Pilkington's establishment-hyped Mirage Men, a book whose basic thesis was totally debunked by Jacques Valle two decades ago. It's also why you're seeing attacks on purported alien abductees in the media, via the media pimpings of the unscientific ravings of a lucid dreaming cult out of LA and the recent ridicule campaign spearheaded by the grotesquely distorted portraits taken of abductees by photographer Steven Hirsch, even though the abduction issue has been marginal at best in the UFO underground for more than a decade.

So why are we hearing about it now? Again, this is the Culture War agenda in action.

Elite Democrats like Bill Maher think all alien abductees are backwoods bumpkins named Cletus or Bubba, as they love to remind you with their tired, unfunny jokes whenever the subject is raised. And anyone named Cletus or Bubba is sure to be a GOP voter and so are fair game for dehumanization, as Hirsch's photos prove (all of which are of Middle American whites, the majority are middle aged). By contrast, Hirsch also has an exhibit of homes of sex offenders, all of which are placid, sunlit and idealized suburban dwellings.

The obvious takeaway is that these poor, tormented souls are folks just like you while these alien abductees are the real freaks and monsters.

At the same time I sense this strange wavering among some in the alt. research community, as the tidal forces are pulling people towards the Left and the Right.
Born-again skeptic conversions are nothing new, especially among those mercenary types who realize they can't make money off their books and such in the Internet Age. But the greater forces at work- the macro-cultural and macro-political forces that are Balkanizing America as we speak don't stop at the door of the alt.research cathedral, especially since there's no such thing.

It's always been the great downfall of esotericism that it has failed to plant its feet in the ground. It's allowed everyone to pursue their own interests under its umbrella but at what cost? At what point do researchers cut loose from their peers merely to distinguish themselves, even if means betraying people they spent their lives breaking bread with?

The ancient Gnostic cults were crushed by their refusal to deal with reality, to follow the lead of the Buddhist sects they took inspiration from and create an infrastructure and support system with which to sustain themselves. In the east, groups like Mandeans and the Druze would learn from their mistakes.  The Cathars and the Bogomils suffered greatly for defying Rome's monopoly, but the Mormons-- Gnostic to the core-- would find unparalleled success in the New World.

Esotericism has always had to contend with enemies on the Right- the Fundamentalists and the Vatican have traditionally used conspiracy theorists to defame and impugn its competition. Today an entire industry of shills is eagerly doing the dirty work of the religious establishment-- ultra-right wing Christians like Alex Jones, Vigilant Citizen, Mark Dice and so on-- and the Skeptics and Nü Atheists have now joined the fight from the left, on behalf of the Democratic Party establishment.

It reminds me a lot of another esoteric movement, albeit in a slightly different sphere.

Getting strongarmed in the pit,
SS Decontrol at Gallery East 1981

The smart money had it that Punk Rock was dead in 1980. The smart money had it that Punk was just another 70s fad. The arena rockers and superstars that it somewhat foolishly threatened to displace were still well-entrenched, and the Baby Boomers who had the music industry by the balls had no interest in Punk.

Its answer was a watered-down replacement it dubbed "New Wave," a toothless, unthreatening movement built around novelty acts like Devo and The B-52s. The Sex Pistols had split after a disastrous US tour and The Ramones were working with Phil Spector, of all people. The "angry young men" like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson were told in no uncertain terms that they'd only get played if they cut out the anger shit, and soon enough they were making records indistinguishable from the soft rock they were originally supposed to replace.

Even The Clash were made to toe the line. After releasing a string of classic punk albums and singles, they learned that American radio programmers weren't even breaking the shrinkwrap on their records. Some of the more enthusiastic critics at Creem and Trouser Press loved them, and they even scored a Time magazine feature, but zero airplay. And without airplay in the late 70s there was no way of getting heard.

Faced with overwhelming pressure from their record company and disinterest from the industry as a whole, they blinked. The result was London Calling, a classic Rolling Stones album in all but name. The critics loved it, radio would play it, but for young punk rockers like myself reactions ranged from disappointment to confusion to betrayal. "The Clash sold out," became a mantra in punk circles.

I saw The Clash on that tour and had a genuine out-of-body experience, which went a long way to allay my fears and doubts. The Clash were still very much The Clash on stage, more so than ever in fact. But it bothered me-- and a lot of other fans I knew-- that I couldn't go home and hear those songs the way they were played onstage (until I began my lifelong obsession with Clash bootlegs, that is).

And for punk rock Clash fans, it didn't get any easier; their records became increasingly un-Clash-like, heavily produced studio concoctions designed to get past the gatekeepers at US radio stations.  I knew a lot of people who took it all very personally. I mean, this is Boston we're talking about.

Unfortunately, other bands followed The Clash's lead. Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones-- obvious heirs for The Clash's crown-- also watered down their sound soonafter. The Buzzcocks broke up. The Ramones seemed to drift into irrelevancy and The Plasmatics went metal. For my generation, it seemed that punk had evaporated as soon as it came to our attention. We all felt cheated.

Aside from the New Wave material which outside of Devo and The B-52s was regarded with deep suspicion by my set, the sounds we were hearing coming out of Boston, New York and London were not encouraging. No Wave, art-funk, synthpop and the rest might be all fine in theory but outside of a few key singles you're talking a tidal wave of terrible music.

Postpunk still hadn't filtered down, though I was hearing very promising signs on the Emerson College radio station in the summer of 1980- Bauhaus, Siouxsie, U2, Killing Joke, Psychedelic Furs. But again, with Punk having vanished, there was never any guarantee any of these bands would ever gain any traction.

At the same time, there was a lot of discouraging portents in the culture at large. Ronald Reagan was riding a conservative political and religious renaissance that would take him into the White House. Even though I lived less than 20 minutes from downtown Boston, my school was in the grip of a Southern Rock boom, and Confederate flags were everywhere. The general mood was extremely hostile to anything remotely Punk and I was the only kid in my grade who wore Punk t-shirts to school. Needless to say I learned to spend a lot of time alone. I spent a lot of time in the weight room too, which helped keep punk-bashers at bay.

The New Wave/Art scene in Boston that had emerged in the wake of Punk was in serious danger of collapsing-- not because of any lack of enthusiasm in the audience but because nightspots like Kenmore Square and Queensbury had been targets for roving gangs of Southie boys, who took great pleasure in ganging up on poor New Wavers as they left the clubs. The fact that the scene was heavily gay was a red flag for the wolfpacks. The violence became a major topic of concern in local magazines like Subway News and Boston Rock and the cops did absolutely nothing to stop it. By 1982, the entire scene had imploded.

The conservative backlash, the collapse of first wave punk and the atmosphere of violence and harassment were the tinderbox- the match was Black Flag, the LA hardcore band who set Boston aflame in the summer of 1981. Black Flag were a four-piece at the time, led by gravel-throater screamer Dez Cadena, who had recently replaced Ron Reyes.

Black Flag were absolutist, uncompromising, fundamentally anti-commercial. Their music was tuneless, coarse, dissonant and totally exhilarating. Pound for pound The Plasmatics were better and were doing hardcore first, but they were too cartoonish and accessible. Unserious. Not truly hardcore.

Having been double-promoted in elementary school I demanded that I be kept back in 9th grade, since I didn't want to graduate when I was 16. And it was the best decision of my life. It put me on the right side of a subgenerational divide and in the midst of a large group of kids who loved comics and punk rock as much as I did.

And it was with them that I entered the neo-Mithraic mysteries of Hardcore. It was a transformative experience for me, and it changed the way I saw myself and my relationship to the world. It informs everything I write on this blog.

Brothers in arms- singing along with Minor Threat, 1982

Hardcore rewrote the rule book. It changed the expectations. It loosened the deathgrip of the music industry, if only for a few years, and let more idiosyncratic and individualistic voices through. Mind you, these were the ones who came of age during Hardcore and then broke its rules; bands like Jane's Addiction, Beastie Boys,  the Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Faith No More and so on. But it was hardcore that gave them the strength and courage to rewrite rules people once thought were set in stone.

Hardcore was an enema, it was a flushing away of the detritus that killed first wave punk. Most of the essential hardcore records were made between 1980 and 1982 and were usually the various bands' first releases but it was a movement that needed to happen. It created an infrastructure for punk bands to exist and write their own rules. It created a network of labels, venues, organizations and individuals that informed everything that came after.

And in Boston, it sure as hell kept the wolfpacks at bay.

Yes, it was reductionist. Yes, it was violent and simplistic.  Yes, it created a whole new set of rules that were often worse than the ones they replaced. But that was only for the people who stayed trapped in what was a corrective. The ones who kept taking the antibiotics after the infection was gone. And the problem today is that its lessons-- the worthy ones-- have been forgotten.

Even The Clash acknowledged its power and their influence on it, both positive and negative. When The Clash were set to finally break America in 1982 with the toothless Combat Rock, Joe Strummer pulled a power play that resulted in their drummer-- who was a major influence on their increasing drift away from not only Punk but Rock-- getting sacked and being replaced with their original drummer, whose style was far more brutal.

He also cut his hair into a mohawk and significantly toughened up their live set, which had been drifting into Jazz Odyssey-type funk and dub jams on their previous tour. When they played Boston they made sure their set was jam-packed with their early punk material. Ironically, so hardcore-crazy was Boston at the time that hardcore fellow traveler Jim Sullivan headlined his review "Half-Speed Clash Go Through the Motions."

Needless to say, the show formed the backbone of the first Clash live album and the soundboard recording is a favorite with bootleg traders for its ferocious, uncompromising sound.

So, what's the point of all this, aside from a walk down memory lane? 

Maybe it's time for esotericism (for lack of a much better term) to go through its own hardcore phase. Maybe it needs to strip things down to the bare essentials for a while and concentrate on building an infrastructure that will nurture and protect its adherents the same way Hardcore did in the early 80s.

Maybe it's time to for esotericism to define what it is and what it wants to accomplish and why. Because these are dangerous times, and any sign of weakness, uncertainty or self-doubt is like blood in the water to all of the sharks on the Left and Right that are circling us as we speak, looking for their pound of flesh.

Maybe it's time to build a canon. Maybe its time to draw up a manifesto. Maybe its time to define who we are and what we want to contribute.

Maybe it's time to start drawing lines in the sand. Maybe its time to stop fighting amongst ourselves and start fighting with our enemies, who are legion.

Maybe it's time to look at the work of people like Mitch Horowitz and argue that it was esotericists who are in part responsible for the best of what America was and could be. And not just America, the whole world, because this is an international community.

And maybe it's time to come up with a better term than "esotericism."

Atheists like Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot have proven that they're willing to kill tens of millions for their beliefs, but I doubt hardly any of them today are willing to die for them. And that puts them at a distinct disadvantage if they're serious about "destroying religion." And once the adrenaline rush of conflict wears off they'll discover they have nothing. If you read PZ Myers carefully, that's exactly how he wants it.

They have no monopoly on science or technology- in fact, I very much want to explore those topics with more gusto here in the future, since I don't believe for a second they're incompatible with spirit. Scientism most definitely is, but that's a philosophy for people who don't see the leash around their necks.

But what the SkepAths can do is bully and harass us, unless we gather together and stand up against them. Like the wolkpacks in Kenmore Sq., the SkepAths are cowards and will only attack if they think they can get away with it unscathed.

One of the first orders of business of a hardcore esotericism would be to ensure that they cannot.

UPDATE: Right on schedule, the BBC is running a series ridiculing "conspiracy theorists." They've even enlisted PZ Myers for an episode on- wait for it- alien abductions. Jesus, why the sudden fascination with abductions among the SkepAth set?

I'm sure no one informed the Beeb that PZ Myers' daughter- a self-described "moral nihilist"-- wrote an impassioned plea for the legalization of bestiality.  

UPDATE: The Agenda is in full effect, people. AOL links to a Reddit page where a neckbeard reveals a blurb Jeffrey Dahmer wrote in his yearbook. The author then adds this egregious dig:
On a side note, Jeff's mom was on the nutty side. My dad remembered hearing some strange noise outside one night. He looked out the window, couldn't find the source of the noise, but saw some lady running out on the street chasing something. The next morning he heard that Dahmer's mom was supposedly chasing a UFO. The crazy part is that my dad remembers hearing the strange noise.
So a UFO that more than one person witnessed is somehow linked to Dahmer's psychopathy right? Well, guess what? We have Dahmer's own justification for his murders. And it sounds just like the life philosophy of your typical Redditor (or POS Myers and his moral nihilist spawn):
"If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…" [Jeffrey Dahmer: interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994].
UPDATE: Vanderbilt heir Anderson Cooper gets in on the Agenda with his recent UFO debunking. Cooper even dredged up human clownshoe Joe Nickell (aka "Cap'n Combover") for the exercise. Click the link for some hearty laughs.