At some point, Punk Planet stopped sending me copies of the issues in which my columns appeared, so I have no idea when exactly this one was published — I’m guessing early 2005. This was also my last column. I had a weirdly distant relation to Punk Planet compared to mine with Maximumrocknroll, the tenor of which I think comes through in this column quite clearly.
It seems a fitting coincidence that Ronald Reagan’s death served to bookend the twelve years comprising my Berkeley biography as a punk rocker (and as a punk rock expatriate), spanning the Bay in a circuitous route through BART tunnels, warehouses and a life otherwise built underground. In the midst of revelations of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and disappearing (and fictional) justifications for unilateral war, it seemed to me that the Ronald Reagan memorial became a national pastime. It also became a reprieve from the political, as the triumphalist deification of Ronald Reagan allowed embattled Americans –beset by death tolls and fierce debates—to feel good about their country again. During the weeks following his passing, journalists and politicians across the Congressional aisle offered radiant portrayals of Reagan as both a giant of American superiority (the man who “ended” the Cold War) and a grandfatherly figure (a kindly eater of Jelly Bellies) guided, occasionally mistakenly but never maliciously, by his good intentions. Even the weathermen presumed to divine that God would weep the day Reagan was buried.
Because of this I thanked punk rock on the day Ronald Reagan died. Immediately graffiti appeared all over the City with a discernable sneer, “Punk’s not dead, but Reagan is.” These anonymous messages, scrawled across concrete, brick, and wood, felt like welcome blasphemy in the midst of a national funereal frenzy. Maximumrocknroll had been planning for the occasion for years. On the afternoon of Reagan’s passing, a handful of volunteers hastily assembled a radio show of nothing but anti-Reagan songs, including Reagan Youth’s “We are Reagan Youth, seig heil!,” The Crucifucks’ “Hinckley Had a Vision,” and The Minutemen’s “If Reagan played disco he’d shoot it to shit / You can’t disco in jack boots.” Reverberating over the airwaves of a neighborhood pirate frequency and across the hillsides of San Francisco, it was a play list appropriate to the task of recording the effects and impressions of a notorious life in power.
Maximumrocknroll had held a meeting at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency to prepare for the inevitability of Reagan’s passing, making lists of issues to address, planning covers to counter the likelihood of fawning tributes at the magazine rack. Filled with Reagan Ranch calendars (all featuring a still-robust Reagan in his cowboy gear), old anti-Reagan flyers and yellowing newspaper clippings, a cardboard box labeled “Reagan” sat gathering dust above the retired waxing machine in the office corner. A few days after his death, a ragtag group of volunteers hastily assembled to discuss features and deadlines for the Reagan counter memorial issue (possible covers included the slogan, “Punks: 1, Reagan: 0”). Poring through three years’ worth of our collected materials, I found an old friend’s four-page outline for a survey of Reagan’s presidency, which he had prepared at my nagging request three years past. It was jarring, being reminded of him, of Charles, in this manner and on this occasion – Charles, whom I hadn’t spoken to since the attacks on the Twin Towers, who’d once been a punk rocker but had since become a patriot.
In the early 1990s, Charles and I were among the hordes of black-clad teenagers drawn to the East Bay, and the City, on the strength of their reputations as the centers of punk rock, and it’s here that so many of us found (and fought) each other. Charles was from a small town in Mississippi, the son of a college economics professor surrounded by Confederate nostalgists and Southern Baptists, so of course he tore up Bibles, wore black eyeliner and scandalous punk t-shirts, destroyed a public memorial to a Southern general and published a fanzine with the optimistic name Assault (With Intent to Free). I was a disaffected, punk rock teenager in suburban San Diego when the first Persian Gulf conflict erupted. Feeling desperate and disorderly, I would sprawl across the flowered comforter of my white four-poster bed, staring at blurred photographs of punk rockers rioting against the war, the romantic pin-ups of my teenaged dreaming. With fingers blackened by newsprint, I traced the lines of their arms swinging, caught in mid-motion, their faces hidden behind bandanas and hooded jackets. Both Berkeley undergraduates and Epicenter Zone volunteers (EZ was a not-for-profit punk rock record store in the City), Charles and I became fast friends on this foundation of punk rock and politics. Late one night as we sat talking and listening to records, he told me that he would be grateful to punk forever for saving his life. It was a grand declaration delivered with some embarrassment (we were often surrounded by persons who scoffed at any sentiment not uttered with cynicism). But at the time, a seventeen year-old me felt the same.
Of course, I know better now than to fall for the romance of revolution, and it’s been a long time since punk rock failed so miserably to fulfill such hopes with its dumb side, its dark side, its dangerously reactionary side. But I wouldn’t deny what punk rock has made of me, even as an expatriate, and there’s still a heart-stirring, a promise that flirts with me the way I sometimes like to be flirted with – with dirty, sprawling, mad-eyed intensity, and a permanent snarl. For Charles, however, punk rock proved to be something different – an embarrassment, though partially of his own making, of political extremities. Having once designed himself as the ultimate punk rocker and “militant vegan,” he then threw himself a different role, another persona, as a “normal” law student. Finally, in the last years of our acquaintance, we argued constantly. He had certain revisionist tendencies, rewriting his personal history to renounce punk and, it seemed to me, what it had made of us. He wanted to leave the subterranean routes of the City, outlined in murals and graffiti scrawls and set to a cacophonous soundtrack, for the distilled stratosphere of its high society. In this immaculate conception, Charles gave birth to himself as a high-powered lawyer (no more talk about working immigration cases) with sophisticated tastes (Prada suits and two-hundred dollar dinners at the “best” restaurants) and no particular past at all (and certainly not one involving eyeliner). For some reason this irritated me – not because I had anything against either expensive fashion or food, but because it seemed to be an amnesiac effort at dis-remembering how we both arrived at the historical present. So I took special delight in reminding him of the late nights we spent listening to The Ex in the dark, falling asleep on the ratty (possibly flea-infested) couches at Epicenter, and wandering the City during the 3 a.m. lull, political slogans spray-painted in the wake of our paths. He accepted these admonishments with some embarrassment, muttering half-jokingly about temporary phases and juvenile delinquency. Nonetheless he eventually threw away everything he once owned (his beautiful, if impersonal, apartment seemed to have bought from a catalog or magazine clipping), including his leftist politics. After 9/11 all our arguments turned into silences. He became an avid supporter of the amorphous war on terror, a flag-waver and a “love it or leave it” sloganeer, and through some unspoken agreement – our last such agreement—we ended our stilted communications.
The outline I had found in Maximum’s stockpile of Reagan-ready materials provoked a sense of loss in me, an alternative mourning for someone who had effectively “died” in his self-induced transformation from punk to patriot. Charles was once an encyclopedia for the abuses of the Reagan administrations, especially with regard to its foreign policies and support for authoritarian regimes; I had no doubt that he tossed off this outline, at my request, without need for references or reminders. I wondered then, did his punk past stir secret, seditious feelings upon hearing of Reagan’s death? Or have those particular politics, like punk, been too long buried like corpses in graves? And did his revisionism match the hagiography in the weeks following, stretching to encompass and deny El Salvadoran death squads, the Contras, homelessness, union-busting and AIDS silence?
It is with Charles in mind –Charles and his unwillingness to confront the contradictions or conflicts of his personal history— that I thanked punk rock for once saving my life.
In a collection called Materializing Democracy, political theorist Dana Nelson wrote, “It is a widely regarded patriotic fact that the President of the United States ‘stands for’ U.S. democracy, and in particular its national unity. But we should interrogate the democratic value of this national common sense.” With Ronald Reagan’s passing, “mourning in America” organized national unity as a forcibly consensual space emptied of democratic contestation. A public patchwork of familial metaphors emerged to shape a sentimental model of infantile citizenship, indulging Reagan’s supposedly grandfatherly image in order to command, on his behalf, our final respect. (Much in the manner in which wayward children are scolded, “But he was your grandfather! Be polite and give him his due!”) But this discourse of mourning also demanded the sacralization of the office – as if the presidency were an abstraction outside of history or politics—at the expense of the historical memory of Reagan’s actions while in the seat of power. Even as the hagiographic tenor of most eulogies appealed to a moral authority assumed to transcend all ideological partisanship or political stances, they failed to acknowledge that Reagan’s presidency was entirely driven by ideology. His was a presidency crucially informed by a paranoid anticommunism, crafting foreign policies that resulted in death and destruction throughout Central America and the Middle East, and whose claim to a moral high ground also shaped public acts of intimate violence, most spectacularly in its deliberate neglect of the AIDS epidemic.
Running counter to democratic process, this vague articulation of a sacred body (belonging to the President) as the embodiment of democracy takes the form of an antidemocratic move that discourages dialogue or debate about the political implications not only of Reagan’s administration, but also the nature of democracy being conceptualized here. Mystifying the political through recourse to nonpolitical categories of national collectivity, the memorialization of Ronald Reagan is an important instance of how contemporary national discourse privileges a conception of politics that reduces it to expressions of unity and love of country. While democracy ostensibly remains the reason that America is imagined as an exemplar of the “free world,” recent popular discourse –especially after the crisis-event condensed as “9/11”— seems to suggest that Americans are discomforted by democratic contest. Instead the political good life is imagined to reside in ceding power to the presidential representative who promises to “protect” us from contact with democracy, a conditional belonging under which dissent is construed as an intrusion upon his political order and a danger to the social good.
And so, in a political climate in which feeling differently is tantamount to treason, the echo of punk rock encouraged me to feel treasonous. It might be particular to those of us who grew up under Reagan’s legacies of social hysteria and brutal discipline (disguised as a moral majority and tough love), but punk rock did pose a challenge, for at least a while, to the short-circuiting of the civic imagination. Because punk rock can address the intimate levels of consciousness at which identification with or against authority was lived and felt (whether manifest as a boy in eyeliner in a Southern small town or as the brick in hand at the anti-war riot), it also allowed some of us to interrogate the intimate levels of consciousness at which nationalism and democracy are lived and felt. Against an obligatory mode of presidential mourning that constrained and blocked contestation, I am grateful that punk rock continues to fuel alternative narratives, and seditious feelings, about Ronald Reagan and the practice of democracy.
Because it was the end of an era, especially for those of us who’d found punk rock in Reagan’s America, it seemed appropriate that there be some final farewell gesture on our part. On a beautiful Friday afternoon in the Mission, we came in twos and threes to meet in Dolores Park, dressed in our blue suits and red ties hastily assembled from thrift store racks, a punk rock caucus of ragged Reagans. A counter memorial that began as one person’s wistful daydream, we gathered for our own accounting of the Reagan presidency on the same day of the final funeral procession that would straddle both coasts. Bearing our makeshift icons of his presidency, we each in turn admired Gordon’s red silk tie with the small hammer and sickle embroidered in gold thread, Anna’s black umbrella with the words “STAR WARS” burned into its shade, and Michael’s hand-made sign reading, “Newsflash! Reagan dead! Polluting trees suspected!” (A Reagan administration official once blamed pollution on trees, no lie.) Someone had made small flyers listing Reagan’s abuses in office; it also read, with equal parts sincerity and sarcasm, “You touched us in ways we didn’t want to be touched.” And, feeling dapper in my own fitted blue blazer and red striped tie, watching my fellow Reagans assemble themselves for our silent march (“no chanting” was a condition with which we all happily agreed to comply), I felt a brief pang of regret that Charles wasn’t here, to remember Reagan but more to remember what good punk rock had made for us.
Thus arrayed, we strolled along the sidewalks of the Mission District (where so many Central American refugees from US-sponsored conflicts live) and through the Castro (past an AIDS memorial remembering the thousands dead for Reagan’s silence and inaction) with our signs about death squads and PATCO, Star Wars and homelessness, chatting about politics but also our co-ops, partners, and graduate dissertations. One cowboy-hatted Reagan passed out ketchup packets to confused (and then amused) spectators. One young woman received her ration of vegetables enthusiastically; she told us that she had just moved to San Francisco, and our performance of counter memory was a guarantee for this decision. Older gay men watched as we walked past, tears in their eyes and fists raised in salute. And a middle-aged black woman took a flyer from me and declared out loud, to no one in particular, “I wondered when something was going to happen! And it’s about time! I almost thought I wasn’t in San Francisco anymore!”
I moved a month later, taking a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship, and a position as a visiting assistant professor, in the Midwest. But in those last summer months before leaving, it seemed as if all those things that brought me here — including my romance with riots and revolution — were suddenly being amended with surprise resolutions and footnote denouements. So it seems fitting that among my goodbye gestures to the City, the Reagan counter memorial included both obscenities (a “fuck you” accompanied by a raised fist) and a love letter to those things (punk rock and politics) that drew me here in the first place.