"Lester Bangs’ Epic Take on Hipster Racism Shows Us How Little Things Have Changed"
Following up on yesterday’s conversation about the odd tendency of some hipsters to cling to racism as proof that they are edgy, fearless truthtellers, reader BC sends along Lester Bangs’ “The White Noise Supremacists,” (NB: the link leads to a PDF download) published in the Village Voice in 1979. It’s quite the piece of writing, in which Bangs tries to square up honestly to his own past as someone who used racist language and sentiments to project what he saw as a certain kind of coolness, and to examine the persistence of racism in some of the music scenes that he loves. Bangs isn’t perfect here, or elsewhere, but his assertion of empathy as a radical value that transcends accusations of corniness is important to the debates that we’ve been having over the past few weeks.
It’s also an amazing illustration of how, even if there’s less tolerance for outright assertions of white power in scenes that like to style themselves cutting edge, certain kinds of behavior still get mined for the theoretical currency they convey. Bangs writes, and I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting at length from a very long piece:
You don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual….
I figured all this was in the Lenny Bruce spirit of let’s-defuse-them-epithets-byslinging-‘em-out in Detroit I thought absolutely nothing of going to parties with people like David Ruffin and Bobby Womack where I’d get drunk, maul the women, and improvise blues songs along the lines of “Sho’ wish ah wuz a nigger / Then mah dick’d be bigger,” and of course they all laughed. It took years before I realized what an asshole I’d been, not to mention how lucky I was to get out of there with my white hide intact.
I’m sure a lot of those guys were very happy to see this white kid drunk on his ass making a complete fool if not a human TV set out of himself, but to this day I wonder how many of them hated my guts right then. Because Lenny Bruce was wrong—maybe in a better world than this such parlor games would amount to cleansing jet offtakes, and between friends, where a certain bond of mutual trust has been firmly established, good natured racial tradeoffs can be part of the vocabulary of understood affections. But beyond that trouble begins—when you fail to realize that no matter how harmless your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any shit that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. Took me a long time to find it out, but those words are lethal, man, and you shouldn’t just go slinging them around for effect. This seems almost too simple and obvious to say, but maybe it’s good to have some-thing simple and obvious stated once in a while, especially in this citadel of journalistic overthink. If you’re black or Jewish or Latin or gay those little vernacular epithets are bullets that riddle your guts and then fester and burn there, like torture- flak hailing on you wherever you go. Ivan Julian told me that whenever he hears the word “nigger,” no matter who says it, black or white, he wants to kill. Once when I was drunk I told Hell that the only reason hippies ever existed in the first place was because of niggers, and when I mentioned it to Ivan while doing this article I said, “You probably don’t even remember-” “Oh yeah, I remember,” he cut me off…
Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mind-lessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool…
I can go just so far with affectations of kneejerk cretinism before I puke. I remember the guy in the American Nazi Party being asked, “What about the six million?” in PBS’s California Reich, and answering “Well, the way I heard it it was only really four-and-a-half million, but I wish it was six,” and I imagine you’d find that pretty hilarious too [the you is Miriam Linna of the Cramps]. I probably would have at one time. If that makes me a wimp now, good, that means you and anybody else who wants to get their random vicarious kicks off White Power can stay the fuck away from me.
Just go read the whole thing and then come back so we can talk about it.