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A Blacklist The Left Could Use

If Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy had a kid, it would sound like Interpol. If they had another, more promising child with a likely trajectory into grad school, that little bugger would be called Blacklist. Fronted by Josh Strawn, … Read More

By / February 1, 2007
If Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy had a kid, it would sound like Interpol. If they had another, more promising child with a likely trajectory into grad school, that little bugger would be called Blacklist.

Fronted by Josh Strawn, this brooding and cerebral quartet is already a common fixture at venues like the Knitting Factory and Mercury Lounge. They’ve also recorded a popular video on YouTube and been swooned over by Ultragrrrl, not to mention every other tattooed gamine with access to MySpace.

I first met Josh outside a debate about the Iraq war at Cooper Union. Apart from a shared interest in American foreign policy, we were there to support our former New School professor and mentor Christopher Hitchens. That night it was Hitch versus local radio “personality” and Black World Today contributor Playthell Benjamin, who said things like "Kuwaitis weren’t worth saving from Saddam in ‘91 because, see, I used to work construction with a bunch of Kuwaitis and they were all assholes.” For perhaps the first time in his eminently patient career, Hitch walked off the stage.

You might say the high comedy of this event crystallized the mutual affinity Josh and I felt for each other. Our anger was directed at the rhetoric wafting over from so-called “leftist” circles after 9/11, where anti-fascism and internationalism were non-starter concepts, and where there was nothing to choose between Bush and Bin Laden, let alone Bush and Saddam.

Well, it’s about time, I remember thinking. Here was lank-haired, mascara’ed musician not polishing the throne of Noam Chomsky but citing Paul Berman and Oliver Kamm, and the latest articles out of the social democratic literary journal Democratiya. At the very minimum, more signatories of Euston Manifesto should style themselves after Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys.

Since this interview was conducted, Blacklist have hooked themselves onto even higher rungs of postpunk fame. They were included on a three-LP compilation album called Wierd Compilation [sic], which was recently celebrated in Art Forum (guess which act was most photo-friendly?) The band will be touring South By Southwest this spring.

Does your fan base turn away when they discover Blacklist is an exponent of the so-called “decent Left”? Your lyrics are allusive enough, but you have no compunction about wearing your pro-regime-change politics on your sleeve, at least offstage.

I couldn’t say whether or not our fan base knows about our politics, though in a way they already appreciate them by virtue of liking the music. We play the way we do because we’re sick of complacency. It’s no wonder that much of what passes for independent music today is drab and lifeless—the people who make it are often soft-headed postmodern liberals. We want the intensity that came with believing there was such thing as truth and shouting about it.

That shouldn’t be the exclusive enterprise of conservatives, but it has been of late. What must it have been like to hear razor-sharp, swirling guitars in a dank club in Leeds circa 1982? Likewise, what must it have been like to live in a time when the notion of fighting against dictatorship, genocide, theocracy, and totalitarianism was embraced by the Left? On these two seemingly different questions, the politics of Blacklist is the same, and we preoccupy ourselves with offering an answer.

I will say that I have had occasion to discuss political matters with friends and fans here and there, and I have not yet been excommunicated. I will also say that that’s the way I think it should be. Liberals, progressives, leftists, whatever your term of endearment, these are the people who should be having conversations and embracing disagreement and debate.

At any rate, I think most people I speak with are actually interested to hear that there is a current of thinking that does not force one to choose between blindly supporting an administration with an unhealthy romance for power and marching in the streets alongside fascists and friends of fascism.

On the other hand, nobody wants to budge too much from their anti-war position—which if you ask me is really more about being anti-American or anti-Bush than about being anti-war. People have a visceral hatred for Bush, which is understandable. But the politics of that side have almost nothing to do with internationalism. Or supporting the enforcement of the Genocide Conventions, for that matter.

The flip side is often forgotten. Namely, that the U.S. and Britain acted without the consent of major military and diplomatic powers, and in so doing, unilaterally (or bilaterally if you want) fulfilled their obligation to a very important agreement regarding the mass slaughter of national, ethnic, racial, and/or religious groups. We should be calling for more of this, not less of it, and I’d challenge anybody, whether they are a fan of Blacklist or not, to explain to me why they disagree.

I’m not asking for a Foreign Affairs white paper with this question, but what long-term strategies should we have for Iraq and Afghanistan?

I can make it somewhat short and sweet, then, and simply say that our strategies should involve nothing less than keeping our promises to the forces of liberalism and secularism in the Middle East. We shouldn’t abandon them to sectarian chaos and warlord-ism. Whatever anybody thought about the rationale for war, our having engaged in it can’t be reversed—which is, I think, the naive fantasy of much of the anti-war movement right now. Expressing solidarity with the liberal-democratic elements in the Islamic civil war should be the concern, in my opinion, of any decent Left.

And the issues in Gaza and the West Bank still need to be addressed. That the situation is an enormous violation of the rights of Palestinians should go without saying. As long as conditions of occupation remain the same, the situation will continue to provide a cover of legitimacy to bloodthirsty fanatics. If Sharon and George W. Bush can claim that the present arrangement is no longer feasible or desirable, then they should get on with seeing an end to it, regardless of what Hezbollah or Hamas does. To quote Christopher Hitchens, “Self-determination is not an award for good behavior.” Anybody who wants to be seen as a liberator by the Muslim world can hardly stand to sleep on this.

You used to read Proudhon and think that property was theft. But, like a lot of noble lefties, 9/11 changed your worldview. What sorts of dead philosophers are you absorbed in now, and what books can you recommend?

9/11 initially reinforced my worldview. At the time I believed that the chickens had come home to roost, that American corporate hegemony had been dealt a symbolic blow, etc. Not long afterward, that position started to strike me as an odd way to look at such a tragedy.

But the real break happened when I came to an impasse with postmodernism, which happened during a sustained engagement with both the writing of Georges Bataille and the current arguments in the philosophy of mind. As soon as the fashionable nonsense of relativism and authoritarian multiculturalism began to fall away, I found myself having to rethink things quite a bit. So it’s correct to say that 9/11 changed my worldview because I realized how wrong I must have been in making the same arguments as the Islamic Jihad Army and Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.

Lately I’ve come to agree with the point that history is philosophy with examples, so I’ve not been reading as much philosophy proper. When I do, my favorite dead ones are Spinoza, Hume, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. As for books to recommend, I think that if they haven’t done so yet, people should read at least a cursory history of the modern Middle East before anything else. Then, onto Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, and On Belief by Slavoj Zizek. I also think that the current scientific literature on the brain as well as the philosophical projects that have followed should be considered required reading for a human being living in this age.

I know you’re into promoting music from the Islamic world. Which are the hottest – and bravest – acts going? And why should we know about them?

Most of the artists making modern rock in the Islamic world that I know of are from Iran. They are all brave because the Iranian government prohibits their creative endeavors if they deviate even slightly from the government’s traditionalist template. Hack is by far my favorite. Every song on their most recent record, Man, is an absolutely fascinating blend of ethereal guitar textures à la The Cocteau Twins, driving rhythms and dark Persian melodies. It’s a very exciting record and, to my ears, some of the most musically adventurous stuff since The Mars Volta’s “De-Loused in the Comatorium” and Primal Scream’s “XTRMNTR.” Arsalan, Ban(s)hee, and Ahoora have some pretty great tracks too, many of which veer towards the psychedelic and bizarre, each in their own delightful way.

Hanging backstage with you once, I noticed that, apart from the usual vices of whiskey and cigarettes, the fare was pretty healthy. Soy Chips, etc. Are you guys vegetarian, or just trying to stay slim enough for the leather-and-jeans look?

Well, that’s what you get playing with a Smiths tribute band; the food was theirs. We do mainly Pakistani, Mexican, and Japanese. Some of us eat the flesh and others do not. Our favorite meal is Johnny Walker Black. Similarly, there are members of the band more hostile to regime-change policies than I am, and more inclined to postmodern relativism than to the Enlightenment. We’re a pretty pluralist bunch and we get along splendidly.

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