Biafra’s wobbling in the face of the BDS onslaught neatly captures the slippery nature of punk rock’s political interventions. On the surface as with the root causes of anarchy itself, the genre seems uncomplicatedly leftist. Examined more closely, the narratives — there’s that word again! — are more complex.
The Sex Pistols came across as boneheaded nihilists (“Don’t know what I want/But I know how to get it,” they spat, in their legendary “Anarchy in the UK.”) The Clash seemed virtually schizophrenic: they paid homage to the terrorist chic of armed European leftists like the Red Brigades (“I wanna get a jacket/Just like yours,” they sang in “Tommy Gun”), yet their celebrated 1978 documentary, Rude Boy, included a delightful scene in which their drunken roadie, Ray Gange, tussled with a long-haired devotee of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party, who’d refused to let his beloved employers play an encore at an anti-fascist music festival. Insofar as The Clash clearly didn’t want to belong to a club that would have them as members, this was the Marxism of Groucho, not Karl.
What was true of these punk originators was also true of Biafra and the Dead Kennedys. Indeed, “Holiday in Cambodia” was a sublimely witty takedown of privileged American liberals (“Bragging that you know/how the ni**ers feel cold/And the slums got so much soul,” the song taunts a liberal college student.) It was a parody directed at precisely the type of dunderheadedness, exemplified by “Punks Against Apartheid,” that posits a moral parallel between Israel’s policies in the disputed territories and the hellish slaughter of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Nonetheless, for all his lyrical bombast, Biafra — by reneging on his pledge to play that citadel of “apartheid,” Tel Aviv — has now revealed a surprising wimpishness. Is this a consequence of the “stress” he described in his statement? From the man who revised the words of “I Fought the Law,” so that they end with “And I won”? Surely not!
In determining what to do — as distinct from what to say — Biafra would have been well-advised to consult the emperor of punk, John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten, as he was known during hs days as the Sex Pistols’ front man. Almost a year ago, Lydon found himself in exactly the same position as Biafra does now.
Like Biafra, he gave his BDS critics short shrift. “Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how [the Palestinians] are treated,” he admonished them.
Unlike Biafra, Lydon honored his Tel Aviv appointment. An honorable precedent, then, for Biafra — the artist who insisted, in his joyfully unambiguous track, “Nazi Punks, F–k Off!,” that “punk means thinking for yourself” — to reverse his reversal, and do the same.