The Soundtrack for the Present – Ten Years Late

The Soundtrack for the Present – Ten Years Late

In 1993, a relatively well-known punk band from southern California issued an album comprising thirteen new songs and one instrumental epilogue. Some fans would come to call it their best, though the designation is inevitably a debatable one considering their consistently strong output. Others would call the album — the band’s first on a major label — the initial step in a process of selling-out from musicians who ought to know better.

Such opinions assume an ancillary position when one examines this decade-old release in the context of today. The characteristics that make the album noteworthy are the concerns it raises and their remarkable prescience: global conflict, American hubris, blind nationalism, military might unbalanced by perspicacity, a network of international highway paved with highly suspect intentions. Listening to that record now, it seems like the band identified problems that would not be recognised for a few years, problems that have only recently begun attracting the urgent debate they deserve.

The band was Bad Religion. The album was Recipe for Hate.

“I don’t need to be a global citizen/ because I’m blessed by nationality,” sings frontman Greg Graffin on the album standout, ‘American Jesus,’ a song that dealt with that favorite topic of postmodernists, cultural imperialism. “I’m member of a growing populace/ we enforce our popularity (or phonetically, ‘pop-you-lair-uh-tee-hee’).”

Graffin delivers his lines straight-facedly, as if he has stepped into the shoes of Joe Public and adopted his blinkered worldview. Complacent, full of pity for “the Earth’s population/ ’cause so few live in the USA,” he derives some comfort from the idea that “at least the foreigners/ can copy our morality.” America is the greatest nation on the planet, promising freedom, opportunity and redemption. So when he discovers that Americanism is “overwhelming millions every day,” much like Christianity once did, he sees no reason to panic.

The catch comes once Graffin has lured us into the trap of smug self-righteousness — because, of course, as Bad Religion listeners we’re too clever to be duped by jingoism and the rhetoric of widespread democratization. He casts aside his ironic mockery and launches into a rolling tirade that illustrates how protean and ubiquitous this American Jesus is: “he’s the farmers barren fields/ the force the army wields/ the expression in the faces of the starving children/ the power of The Man/ he’s the fuel that drives the Klan/ he’s the motive and conscience of the murderer/ he’s the preacher on TV/ the false sincerity/ the form letter written by the big computers/ he’s the nuclear bombs/ and the kids with no moms.” And then, just before one final chorus, he confesses, “[I]’m fearful that he’s inside me.”

Maybe, the listener is prompted to ask himself, he’s inside me, too? (Incidentally, this introspective foray resumes with ‘Lookin’ In,’ where Graffin states with a hint of disillusionment, “I scoff at labels/ I defy censuses/ and despise group mentality/ all along I thought/ that this was only human/ but I know now that/ I’m in the minority.”)

There have been more subtle analyses of the delusion of Americanism — that is, the American Jesus, or the misguided belief that the United States represents the apogee of human sociopolitical evolution and that the message must be carried to all parts of the globe and, if not accepted in due course, enforced — but few have encapsulated it so neatly and in a medium that lends itself to subsequent humming.

The American Jesus is pernicious because it has led to the War in Iraq — read: Invasion of Iraq — through the foolhardy notion that America’s loss of innocence requires retribution of some kind, and that the spread of American-style democracy and economics should take root in the Middle East to ensure world peace. But how can a country that sponsored countless wars and devastating coups consider itself ‘pure’ to begin with? And who’s to say that materialism and participatory government (an increasingly dubious term in America as the moment) is likewise the best solution for Arab nations? The apostle of the American Jesus does not halt his proselytizing mission to reflect and answer such questions.

For a portrait of this dutiful behavior in action, we turn to another song on Recipe for Hate, ‘All Good Soldiers.’ These lyrics seem to be describing to the present conflict. As of this writing, five British, or “coalition,” soldiers have been killed because of “friendly fire” (an oxymoron if there ever were one), thanks to good old American incompetence combined with a sickening amount of indiscriminate gusto.

Many of these US troops pray along with their civilian compatriots at the church of the American Jesus, ultimately toeing the same uncritical line: “All good soldiers fall in line/ when they march and shout –/ are a spectacle marching and singing –/ will go anywhere the president says/ because the president believes in God/ like all good soldiers should.”

There is, however, a drawback to all this reverent enthusiasm and noble willingness. “When the fighting starts,” asks Graffin, following the first verse, “who will/ be accountable, a cannibal, a cannonball?”

Accountability is not something ordinary Americans worry about. I recently phoned home to chat with my parents, who, like upstanding, patriotic citizens, sniffed around to find out whether or not I pledged my unmitigated support for the US troops currently entrenched and embattled in Iraq. My desired response to this was, like the exemplary 5th century Roman nobleman-soldier Cincinnatus, the troops have the dual duty of defending their country and acting in its best strategic interests; and invasion in the Middle East is not, for any reason proffered so far by our illustrious leaders, in America’s best strategic interests, long term or short. The resentful repercussions will be dreadful, and the undermining of UN authority will foil most attempts at an international council for some time. Therefore a refusal to fight and a return to the plough is the appropriate action of any solider with a genuine concern for his country. But the modern military is more mercenary than moral, and besides, debate is proscribed in my family, because my living abroad is misconceived as the root of an unforgivable bias, if not outright anti-Americanism. So I mumbled something equivocal, well within the parameters of what the good soldiers and their yellow-ribbon-wearing supporters would want to hear, and I quickly found a new subject to shift to, if only to keep the peace in my own small corner of the world.

But the question of accountability still looms. Who will take accountability when the Iraq conflict comes to an end, for better or worse? Americans like my parents? The soldiers who obeyed their God-fearing Commander-in-Chief? Wolfowitz? Rumsfeld?

Before I venture an answer, I would like to note that it is the latter, Rumsfeld, who was spouting hawkish, American Jesus-inspired polemic years before he stepped into his current role. Joined by the rest of the bellicose neo-conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, in 2000 Rumsfeld put forth a treatise entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which called for a worldwide Pax Americana achieved through omnipresent military domination — not to forget, one should note, the attendant ‘stabilizing’ involvement of big business.

This incomprehensibly grandiose will-to-power is perhaps best outlined in Recipe for Hate‘s title track. “Can’t you feel it, can’t you see it/ the promise of prosperity?/ it’s overwhelming you and me/ it afflicts us like a disease/ ubiquitous, compelling too/ we• inject such a potent seed/ it’s best for all humanity.” Ah, there it is again — the edifying, civilizing effect of America (with the bonus of kickbacks for the so-called civilizers), not unlike the British meddling in India, Ireland, South Africa and Cyprus. And one can assume the divisive effects will be the same.

The truth is that culpability is not limited to one or two persons. Anyone who failed from the outset to speak out against the war shares in the complicity. Graffin points this out quite plainly in ‘My Poor Friend Me’: “Lately I’ve come to see the solution,” he sings, “and it begins with me.” Is this news to anyone? Even Michael Jackson seemed to have come to terms with it, in principle, for a time.

Furthermore, it’s not as if we haven’t been given sufficient impetus to pause and reflect on the general situation or our individual roles in it. Although I have only placed three or four songs under the critical microscope, the rest of Recipe for Hate provides ample food for thought. Whether adumbrating the small truths in the hyperbole of career pessimists (“there’s a world outside/ that’s ready to blow/ and we’re all to blame/ when it finally explodes” from ‘Modern Day Catastrophists’), exposing the charade of multiculturalism and diversity in one jaded line (“Now everybody’s equal/ Just don’t measure it” from ‘Don’t Pray on Me’), portending a grim scenario (“Come let us make bricks/ and burn them hard/ We’ll build a city/ with a tower for the world/ and climb so we can reach/ anything at all” from ‘Skyscraper’) or castigating public apathy (“I was born on planet earth/ at a drastic time full of plastic mirth/ and everyday I’ve seen increasing signs/ and you would too if you’d opened your eyes/ you had a chance you did not try/ so now it’s time to watch it die,” from ‘Watch It Die’) this particular album is not only applicable to the current zeitgeist, it also draws out the most salient and distressing issues.

Some additional qualifiers: No, the band was not writing in a vacuum, and I am not making a case for Graffin et al as prophets. They had the advantage of their immediate milieu, which was after the Gulf War of 1991 and during the gross escalation of the Third Balkan War. And, no, Recipe for Hate was not the first Bad Religion album to broach these topics, but it is undoubtedly the most coherent thematically, and consequently the most relevant to contemporary headlines. The album foresaw a pernicious sociopolitical Hydra that has only recently revealed itself in full, due to a series of bumbling, childish attempts by the world’s sole superpower to establish a firm grip on an uncertain situation.

By way of closing, indulge me for a moment as I transcribe the rest of the title track: “The spread of culture/ the sword of progress/ the vector of suffrage/ a warm and septic breeze/ the pomp and elation/ the duty and vocation/ the blood of the hybrid/ it’s just a recipe•/ reliving our ancestry/ the frightful lack of harmony/ our forefathers who led the way/ their victims are still here today/ now it’s time to erase the story/ of our bogus fate/ our history as it’s portrayed/ is just a recipe for hate.” Similarly, any foreign policy predicated on unilateralism and unhindered military presence is, as one outspoken punk band labeled it over a decade ago, a recipe for hate. Many Americans, sadly ignorant — sometimes wilfully so — of the resentment and discord their intervention often brings (viz. most Latin American countries, Cuba, The Philippines, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and so on, ad infinitum) would be well served to buy the album and take heed of the points it raises. Less indignant than Chomsky, more direct than Zinn, more forthright than, say, Chiraq or Schröder, and conducted with more musicality and intelligence than the majority of their peers, Bad Religion composed a soundtrack for the imminent present and called it Recipe for Hate. One might have thought that ten years would be enough time for us to digest and understand it.

http://www.badreligion.com/http://www.nonviolence.org/iraq/http://www.moveon.org/nowar/http://www.petitiononline.com/iraq/

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