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Wrong ‘Em Boyo

Lonely Planet/Getty

In a 1999 interview for CDNow, Jason Gross asked Joe Strummer of the Clash what would have to be among the fundamental philosophical questions governing his life’s work: What is punk rock? A man of uncommon associative intelligence as much as a punk icon, Strummer considered his way to this opinion: “My motto is, ‘Never take your eye off the ball,’ which is a soccer motto. I like to be completely aware of what’s going on at all times, even if it’s four in the morning. She needs a chair or he needs a beer. There’s no long wait ’cause I’ve already clocked it while everyone’s going [jabbering] meh-meh-meh. I’m going meh-meh-meh too, but I know what’s going on around me. This is punk rock. In fact, punk rock means EXEMPLARY MANNERS TO YOUR FELLOW HUMAN BEING.”

He then added a few idiomatic flourishes I’m advised are best excluded from an editor’s note, but even without them, this is interesting to think about today. In its emergence, punk was one of the late twentieth century’s great ethea of resistance—to cultural indulgence, to corporate domination, to political injustice, to complacency with any number of other sources of legitimate dissatisfaction or rage toward contemporary life. Yet here’s one of punk’s great cultivators, dismissing everything that was reactive or superficially signaling about it and emphasizing, instead, humanistic vigilance and care. If this is a case for civility, it’s not civility in the lite sense of putting serious disagreements or grievances aside in the name of polite forms. It’s a recognition that however justly we’re moved to antipathy, and however gratifying we may find it to let the refutation of the horrible rule our words and deeds, we’re ultimately responsible for creative engagement with the world around us and the fellow human beings who compose it.

The thing is, out here in the public sphere, I don’t know you. Maybe we agree about the issues we try to take seriously, maybe we don’t. And if we don’t, maybe that’s because you don’t know what you’re talking about; or maybe it’s because you understand something better than I do; or maybe our moral orientations are incommensurate; or maybe one of us is just horribly unscrupulous. But here’s the problem for us as fellow human beings: Without knowing you, the more I take the occasion of disagreement with what I think you’re saying or doing to impugn not just these things but you and your motives along with them, the more I tacitly withdraw from the whole idea of democratic discourse. And the more we follow this habit together, spurring it in one another, the more we subject ourselves and everyone witnessing our mutual condemnations to the corrosive dynamics of culture war. Yes, there are many badly motivated people among us, some corrupted by power, and we need plain language for them. It’s the implicit theme of this issue of The New Republic. But refusing to give in to a politics of negation, despite it all, this is punk rock.