I recently heard a well-known Spanish musician say that the far-right — specifically, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, president of the Community of Madrid Isabel Díaz Ayuso and Donald Trump — had appropriated punk. I got what he was saying, how populist leaders play the victim to win votes from a disillusioned and polarized society. Then, like many other well-read people, he repeated an oft-heard complaint of our times: the left is puritanical and takes itself too seriously. It always has to pause and think before laughing. And then he insisted that the right wing has appropriated punk.
What did he mean by punk? I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about appropriating fascist symbols to subvert them because neither Trump nor Bolsonaro have been shy about denying the Holocaust. Remember Trump’s recent dinners with white supremacist Nick Fuentes and rapper Ye (Kanye West), who once admitted to loving Hitler? No symbolic appropriation there — just literal adoration.
Then I thought: is he talking about punk as an anti-establishment movement? Far-right politicians all over the world are certainly prone to railing against the system they belong to, but no one with half a brain buys that rhetoric, least of all someone intelligent.
While we’re on the nebulous subject of narratives, let’s dispense with them for a moment. Let’s talk about something tangible like Amnesty International’s study revealing that the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil could have prevented 120,000 deaths in the first year of the pandemic if it had taken adequate steps to fight Covid-19 instead of decreeing austerity measures for the public health system. Bolsonaro constantly attacked the news media and threatened the rule of law. Access to firearms was expanded even though Brazil has one of the highest rates of gun-related deaths in the world. Climate change denial supported policies of rampant deforestation. The deeply homophobic and anti-feminist former president’s invective dovetailed with Brazil’s top position among countries with the most murders of transvestites and transsexuals, according to a recent report by ANTRA (National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals of Brazil).
Moving on to the United States, the cradle of that supposed woke puritanism that is allegedly causing another cancel culture wave. Tennessee is now the first U.S. state to ban drag shows in public and around minors. The law was signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee, and follows in the wake of relentless far-right harassment of drag queens and transgender people.
Meanwhile, Florida’s ultra-conservative governor, Ron DeSantis, wants to pass a law restricting sex education for minors. Teachers will have to teach abstinence from sex outside of marriage, while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage. The bill has already passed in the Florida House of Representatives. But wait — weren’t those on the left the puritanical ones?
Lest there be any further misunderstandings about punk, allow me a bit of “punksplaining.” Punk was born in the 1970s from a working class ethos frustrated by a decade of inequality. Youth centers were places of resistance in this subculture. Punk ideology was footloose and multi-faceted, but it was always for mutual support, gender equality, civil rights, and against authoritarianism, racism and sexism.
That’s why in the 1970s, when England was experiencing a serious economic and social crisis, a cultural rebellion arose to counter the police-abetted, right-wing National Front. It was an alliance by disaffected youth — white, Black and Asian — with feminists, anti-capitalists and the Anti-Nazi League in the U.K. They called themselves Rock Against Racism (RAR), a response to racist statements by well-known rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, who publicly defended the National Front. Standing against them were the punk rockers — The Members, The Ruts and The Clash — who played at the Rock Against Racism music festival.
Punk is not Bolsonaro – it’s Pussy Riot, jailed for criticizing Putin. Punk are my buddies Marc Giró, Isa Calderón, and Irantzu Varela, who rage against the machine, the far-right and machismo every day. Do you really think Bolsonaro is punk? I still remember the effigies of Judith Butler being torched in Brazil by the throngs yelling “Burn the witch!” Please stop appropriating punk and leave it alone. Keep your grubby hands off punk, dammit.
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