Monday, August 27, 2012

The "Pop-Washing" of Apartheid?

First came the news that Lollapalooza, one of the world’s biggest and best-known alternative music festivals, was headed to Israel next year. And with it, producer Perry Farrell is likely bringing millions in revenue, not to mention a massive boon in cultural cache designed to portray the world’s last legal apartheid state as a bastion of diversity.

Those who haven’t read Benjamin Doherty’s in-depth post on the Electronic Intifada’s blog absolutely should. Doherty is thorough in not just describing how virulent the supposedly liberal Farrell’s Zionism is (he raised funds for soldiers during Operation Cast Lead for example) but also in revealing that next year’s Lolla Israel will literally sit atop the ruins of a Palestinian village.

Now, however, one has to wonder whether there isn’t something larger at play. Last week, advertisements went up around Chicago stumping for the “Rock the Green” festival in nearby Milwaukee. Presented as a “green music fest,” Rock the Green front-loads its rhetoric about environmental sustainability. Its commitment to “near-zero waste” is touted, and interviews with its headlining artists (including Third Eye Blind, Switchfoot and others) all feature their thoughts on what it means to be green.

Just as up front in the publicity for Rock the Green is its primary sponsor and financial backer: Veolia Environmental Services.

Veolia’s record contradicts “socially responsible” image

Veolia is a name infamous among Palestine solidarity activists, and the French company’s role in Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid is a far cry from the “socially responsible” image they attempt to promote with events like Rock the Green.

In an effort to see how the organizers might excuse this glaring contradiction, I emailed the following inquiry via the festival’s website:


My name is Alexander Billet; I’m a freelance journalist and social activist in Chicago. I’m wondering if I might be able to get some information and/or a response from some of the organizers or publicists about Rock the Green’s connections with Veolia Environmental Services.

As you may know, Veolia is in charge of constructing a transit system in Jerusalem that solidifies illegal settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are literally built on top of the wreckage of recently evicted homes of Palestinians. It’s this that’s led the UN to condemn the tramway in 2010, calling it “in clear violation of international law.”

What’s more, despite Veolia’s environmentally responsible image, its waste in Israel is summarily dumped in a rather un-green way in the Jordan Valley. The Tovlan Landfill, as it’s known, collects 200,000 tons of trash from Israel and the settlements annually, and thus far there has been no plan to establish any infrastructure to prevent ground pollution. A nearby Arab village, Abu Ajaj, has been left ‘virtually uninhabitable.’

I am not looking to barrage Rock the Green’s organizers here, but do, as a journalist, want to know how it is that the festival squares its socially responsible practices while doing business with a company recognized by the UN as guilty of human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

If someone from Rock the Green may respond to this in a prompt manner, I would appreciate it.

Thank you,

Alexander Billet

At the time of this writing, nobody has responded, which isn’t really surprising.

Music festivals are surefire ways for corporate sponsors to burnish their image. Over the past thirty years they’ve gone from being a relatively independent venture (sometimes with small local businesses as sponsors) to being backed by some of the largest companies in the world.

It would be wrong to simply say that all these companies get out of music festival sponsorship is a large cut of extra cash, though they certainly get that. Rather, what these companies really get is something that money can’t really buy: cultural caché. Massive institutions like Veolia, Nike, even the US Army get into the festival business for largely the same reason that they spend so much on advertising -- to make capitalism, with all its ugly and oppressive contradictions, look cool.

After all, how could the US Army, who provide the rad rock-climbing wall at the Warped Tour, also be responsible for war crimes? How could Nike, who sponsor the Afro-Punk festival for crying out loud, also be guilty of sweatshop labor? Answering these question means digging through a pile of bullshit -- but undeniably well-crafted bullshit. Bullshit that certainly plays a role in obscuring some very real crimes that otherwise might get in the way of profits.

That’s what Israel gets out of Lollapalooza, and it’s what Veolia gets out of Rock the Green.

Time to boycott whitewashing music festivals

What both examples force to the front, however, is whether it is now time for cultural activists to call for a boycott of certain music festivals. For sure, Israel itself hosts several music fests of various genres, all of which have rightfully been the target of boycott campaigns -- and some with real success.

However, Rock the Green is the first time -- at least in this writer’s memory -- that a company connected with Israeli apartheid has so obviously placed themselves at the center of a music festival outside the 1948 borders. It is also worth recalling that Lollapalooza in Chicago will still be happening, and if all goes well in Israel, then the two festivals will likely be spoken of in the same breath for some time to come.

Whether Rock the Green and the recent Lolla announcement represent anything like a “trend” for Israel or companies that do business with it is too soon to say. It would make sense, however.

The deep and seemingly never-ending slump in global capitalism certainly puts extra pressure on every corporation to appear “responsible” or “hip.” Likewise, the need for Israel to ramp up the hasbara has been clear given the country’s precipitous decline in credibility over the past several years. Several Israeli officials have said as much, pointing to culture’s unique role in promoting a better image for the state.

In some ways, Veolia encapsulates both of these processes. Public pressure and targeted “drop Veolia” campaigns have taken root in cities across the world, particularly in Europe. Several local and city governments have refused to carry through contracts with Veolia due to local boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign efforts.

According to the Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman, the company “has lost tens of millions of dollars in the last year due to concentrated efforts by BDS groups in Europe.” This is definitely a firm that could benefit from a bit of an image boost abroad.

BDS activists, however, should be taking these efforts and throwing them right back in Veolia’s face -- and, for that matter, Israel’s. Acts that are playing at Rock the Green need be made aware of their festival’s ties to gross human rights violations. They need to be reminded that apartheid never deserves to be green-washed, or entertained. To be sure, acts have cancelled their Tel Aviv dates with far less notice after being approached by the movement. Perhaps the Milwaukee festival itself should be picketed by BDS activists.

As for Lollapalooza, perhaps it goes without saying that both its incarnations need to be boycotted too. This is a tall order for BDS activists to take on, but given the massive amount of clout that Lolla carries in the music world, it also presents an opportunity to bring cultural boycott efforts to a whole new level.

First appeared at the Electronic Intifada

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pussy Riot: The Struggle Continues

Chaotic and dramatic. That definitely seems the best way describe the August 17th action in front of Chicago’s City Hall. If for no other reason than its inclusion of the brightly-colored balaclavas, the punk rock energy and defiant attitude that crackled through the attendees.

Yes, it was small -- press estimated forty of us. But the news from Moscow earlier in the day that the three members of Pussy Riot had been found guilty of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” certainly made everyone a lot more pissed off, and rightfully so.

Chants that went up: “What do we want? Free speech! Where do we want it? Everywhere!” “We are all hooligans!” “Women’s rights are human rights! Free Pussy Riot!” “From Russia to Palestine, free speech is not a crime!”

Chicago is Moscow’s sister city, so there was a certain symbolism. Ours was far from the only action taking place in solidarity with Pussy Riot, however. In Moscow itself a crowd of 2 to 3,000 gathered outside the courthouse, with several demonstrators arrested. Embassies and consulates in Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, San Francisco and no less than 20 other cities were beset by supporters.

This, in essence, is the exact kind of bottom-up punk-infused outrage that has allowed the three members of Pussy Riot -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina -- to become so well known. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the face of Russia’s still burgeoning movement for democracy now wears a neon balaclava.

The decision to convict Nadia, Masha and Katya (as they’re affectionately called by supporters) doesn’t exactly come as a shock. The three women have faced an almost circus-like variety of repression ever since being arrested in February and March. When the verdict was announced on the 17th, Judge Marina Sirovaya made the defendants stand for two and a half hours as she unnecessarily went through detail after detail of their case.

Among her list of incriminating evidence, the judge included the fact that Pussy Riot were  "engaged in homosexual propaganda," and that they behaved “provocatively” due to their short dresses. In the face of all this, it’s really no wonder why Alyokhina in her closing statement called the proceedings a “so-called trial.”

The use of such blatant homophobia and sexism is indicative of the Russian state’s vicious repression against both feminist and queer liberation movements. A poll cited by the website Jezebel finds that only seven percent of Russian women identify as feminists, while 45 percent of men find feminism “detestable.” Though non-straight sexuality and relations are technically legal under Russian law, seven regions have passed bans on “homosexual propaganda,” five of them in 2012. The very same day that the Pussy Riot verdict was handed down, a Moscow court banned all LGBT pride marches for the next hundred years!

As for Nadia, Masha and Katya, all three have been sentenced to two years of labor in a minimum security prison colony (a phrase that carries with it all the quasi-Stalinist ominousness it is intended to). Upon leaving the courtroom, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov (a fellow member of the radical art collective Voina) quipped "Whatever Putin wants, Putin gets.”

Though the three women could plead for clemency from Putin himself, they have no intention of doing so, as it would entail them admitting guilt. Instead, according to their lawyer Mark Feygin, they will be appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.

This brand of repression is nothing new for Russian artists and punks. The censorship and abuse that punk bands endured during the final decade of the Soviet Union continued relatively unabated with the rise of the Russian Federation.

The stultifying political atmosphere ramped up under Putin and his lackey Medvedev during the last twelve years has until recently pushed political resistance to the margins. None of this signified any such “business as usual” for most people -- in particular the brave LGBT rights movement that consistently braved billy clubs from cops, pro-Putin street gangs and even neo-Nazis.

It’s no wonder, then, that Russia’s avant-garde art scene has been revived during this period. All three members of Pussy riot referenced the country’s rich history of subversive and revolutionary art in their closing statements -- as well as a list of repression against it, going back to young Dostoevsky’s prison time for his association with utopian socialists.

What seems to have truly unleashed this scene onto a whole new level, as well as put some real fear into the Russian authorities, is the political climate -- not only in Russia, but around the globe. For this same reason, fight around Pussy Riot, the artistic movements they’ve inspired, and the repression meted out to them, are likely just beginning.

Why Putin's Pissing Himself

One can’t help but see the similarities between the Pussy Riot case and that of Hamada Ben Amor. On the morning of January 6th, 2011, Tunisian secret police busted down the door of Ben Amor’s home in Sfax and arrested him. Ben Amor’s “crime” was recording and releasing a hip-hop song under his moniker El General.

The song, “Rais Lebled,” was a protest against the corrupt, neoliberal regime of President Ben Ali. These were the initial weeks of revolt in what would become the Tunisian revolution, and Ben Ali’s security forces were going to every length to crush dissent of any kind.

As the world now knows, they wouldn’t succeed. As word spread of Ben Amor’s arrest, and as the video for “Rais Lebled” rocketed around the world, demonstrators began to rally outside police headquarters in Tunis where he was being held. After three days, Ben Amor was released unharmed.

Of course, there are obvious differences between the case of Pussy Riot and that of El General. For one thing, Russia is (at least nominally) a democracy, while most serious Tunisians had disposed of that pretense about the Ben Ali regime years ago. For another, El General’s case never went to trial.

Where the similarities converge the most, however, has been the amount of mobilization that both have provoked among newly radicalized layers of young people. In fact, for better or for worse, the level of solidarity for Pussy Riot has far outstripped that for El General.

Here is a cursory list of artists who over the past several weeks have come out in support of Pussy Riot: Sting, Kate Nash, Madonna, Franz Ferdinand, Kathleen Hanna, Björk, Peter Gabriel, Faith No More, Jarvis Cocker (formerly of Pulp), Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, Die Antwoord, Yoko Ono, Rise Against, Nina Hagen, Peaches, Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Modest Mouse, Paul McCartney, Corinne Bailey Rae, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bryan Adams, Pete Townsend and several others.

Some of these artists have a genuine history of political activism (Patti Smith, Rise Against). Others, like Die Antwoord and Peaches are relative newcomers to the realm of solidarity. And still more like Madonna and the Chili Peppers find themselves in contradiction between their support for Pussy Riot and their refusal to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.

All of them, however, reflect a genuine groundswell of activism and support that sprung up from the beginning. Within days of news of the arrests, impromptu actions came together emulating the group’s signature balalava’d performances. Plenty of DIY benefit gigs were thrown by local punk bands and avant garde performers. In a matter of months these small actions have snowballed into such pressure that even Russian oil tycoons and the German Bundestag have been forced to express support (albeit quite often for their own opportunistic reasons).

Activists should be aware that Russia’s powers that be and Putin himself have felt this pressure too. On July 20th, state officials were so sure of themselves that Judge Sirovaya was able to rule that the three women would face at least six more months in jail without even the mention of a trial. The uproar from artists and public figures of every stripe was so sweeping that within a week the same judge not only pushed through a trial date but started the trial itself!

A few days later, Putin, who had said very little about the case in an effort to appear not so “l’etat c’est moi,” mentioned that he didn’t believe the women should be treated too harshly. Even the two year sentence, as opposed to the seven years that a religious hatred sentence can potentially bring with it, reveals to a certain extent the results that public pressure can yield.

It also reveals that in times like these, even the most unshakable powers can be scared shitless. Not of the musicians themselves, but of the movements they represent. It’s hard to imagine the public support of Pussy Riot or this scale of repression if tens of thousands hadn’t protested the winter elections. In turn, it seems impossible to separate the revived Russian democracy movement from the revolutions that shook the Arab world, the Occupy movement, or the general strikes in Greece and Spain.

In this context, lyrics like “do Tahrir in Red Square!” and “Putin’s pissed himself!” seem like a lot more than mere words. They’re living breathing realities. I’m not the only one who thinks so either. Even Masha, Katya and Nadia have been taken aback by how much traction their ideas have gained. As Tolokonnikova said in her closing statement:

“[S]trange as it may seem all our songs have turned out to be prophetic, including the one that says: ‘The KGB chief, their number one saint, will escort protesters off to jail!’ That’s us. What I’d like to quote now, however, is the next line: ‘Open the doors, off with the shoulder-straps, join us in a taste of freedom.’”

It tastes sweet. And all of Putin’s sourness can’t take that away.

First published at Red Wedge magazine

Monday, August 13, 2012

Kicking Fascism Out of Music

Wade Michael Page was, among other things, a musician. The man who on August 5th stormed into a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee and opened fire, killing six worshippers and wounding several others, was the singer of a hardcore band called End Apathy.

Rough and aggressive, with a clear “fuck all authority” theme running through all the lyrics, this is the kind of music that understandably appeals to any young, disaffected kid forgotten by the system. But, of course, as the world now knows, this band isn’t just another garage cohort designed to let the young folks channel their anger into something productive. Far from it, this music is designed to lead them down a path of bigoted terror.

That’s how Page himself got started. In an interview posted on the website for Label 56, who until very recently distributed End Apathy’s records, he said "I went to the Hammerfest 2000 in Georgia,” a festival of white power bands that takes its name from the active Hammerskin neo-Nazi organization. This wasn’t long after he ended his stint in the US Army at Fort Bragg, where he was first exposed to white supremacist ideas.

"That’s when I joined Youngland,” Page told the interviewer. “I filled in for various bands on guitar and bass including Celtic Warrior, Radikahl, Max Resist, Intimidation One, Aggressive Force, Blue Eyed Devils."

In other words, Page wasn’t a peripheral figure in the white power music scene; he was a fixture. Nor is this some small, piddly provincial subculture. Experienced anti-fascist and anti-racist activists have been aware of this scene for about as long as it’s existed. Now, in the wake of the August 5th shooting, the mainstream media has started to pay attention.

Huffington Post, the New York Times and Slate among others have run pieces examining the phenomenon of neo-Nazi and fascist music in the US. In the Times, authors James Dao and Serge Kovaleski point to National Alliance leader William Pierce’s purchase of Resistance Records in 1999. At the time, Resistance was the premier white power record label in North America; not long after gaining the helm at Resistance, Pierce also purchased Swedish hate label Nordland Records, essentially doubling Resistance’s roster.

Quoting researcher Devin Burghart, the authors point out that this was a significant turn in strategy for the far-right: “The music became not only the No. 1 recruiting tool, but also the biggest revenue source for the movement.”


About ten days prior to Page’s act of racist terror, all the way across the Atlantic and halfway across the Mediterranean, another musician was getting his day in the sun. Artemios Matthaiopoulos, the bassist for a Greek punk band called Pogrom, was being sworn in as a deputy in the parliament.

As one might guess from the name, Pogrom are far from subtle. One song, entitled “Auschwitz,” features lyrics such as these:

“Fuck Anne Frank!
Fuck the whole tribe of Abraham!
The Star of David makes me vomit!”

It was these lyrics in particular that provoked a roar of protest from several groups representing Greece’s Jewish community: “This composer of hate lyrics that praise Auschwitz, offends the memory of the six million Jewish victims of Nazism — of whom 65,000 were Greek Jews, and also offends thousands of their Christian fellow Greek citizens and vulgarly trivializes Jews and their sacred places, is now a member of the Greek Parliament.”

Oddly enough, Matthaiopoulos isn’t the only musician with such views sitting in Greek parliament. In May, during the first round of Greece’s elections, George Germenis, also a bass-player for a black metal band called Naer Mataron, was elected. Both Germenis and Matthaiopoulos are members of Golden Dawn, a party who polled around seven percent in both rounds of elections and whose neo-Nazi stances are covered by only the thinnest of veils.

Golden Dawn’s rise to Greece’s parliament is truly horrifying. The ongoing economic crisis and rapid decline in Greek living standards has caused an earthquaking polarization in public opinion. While this has certainly opened the door to magnificent developments in resistance (seventeen general strikes, the rise of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA), it’s also allowed for the most toxic flotsam in Greek society to rise to the top. Golden Dawn are that flotsam.

In the May elections, their campaign slogan was "So we can rid this land of filth.” Not only have deputies representing the party been involved in recent public assaults on left-wing candidates (one of whom Mathaiopoulos is now replacing), but the group has a long history of terror against immigrants, leftists and religious minorities.

The party’s swastika-like symbol has been found at vandalisms of synagogues and mosques. Countless Albanian and Turkish immigrants have been assaulted by individuals connected to the group. Making matters worse, after the June elections, it was found that around half of Greek police officers voted for Golden Dawn. That this kind of party now has eighteen seats in the nation’s parliament represents a very dark cloud.

Matthaiopoulos and Germenis are both the logical result of Golden Dawn’s own conscious attempts to reach out to young people using music. The party’s youth wing regularly puts on “Rock Against Communism” concerts, involving bands from the country’s own hate-core and racist metal scenes.

The Golden Dawn Youth Front have also collaborated with far-right groups from across Europe, such as Italy’s Forza Nuova and the National Democratic Party of Germany, to put on continent-wide white power music fests. It’s not a far leap to imagine a young Matthaiopoulos or others like him today drawn in by these types of events.

Martin Smith, convenor of Love Music Hate Racism in the UK, is well-acquainted with these types of tactics:

“The British National Party — a fascist party in Britain — produced a CD of various folk, Oi! and ska music. Lots of the bands are not identified, and they were giving them out to school kids at the school gates... We're seeing overall an attempt to reach out to kids who are looking for a bit more raw in their music, so they used music to do that.”

As Smith points out, this is certainly made easier by the long, albeit somewhat marginalized, tradition of far-right punk groups going all the way back to Skrewdriver in the late ‘70s.


The collaboration with Golden Dawn extends well into the United States. In 2001, William Pierce, the same National Alliance leader who had purchased Resistance Records just two years earlier, met with party leaders in Thessaloniki to share ideas and strategies. Resistance Hellas-Antepithesi, magazine of the Golden Dawn Youth Front, is the official sister publication of Resistance, run by its namesake record label.

It seems no coincidence that the National Alliance was one of the many white nationalist groups that Wade Michael Page would drift between.

The public attention in the wake of the Sikh temple shooting has caused Label 56 to remove all articles and merchandise connected with Page’s End Apathy (as well as release a crocodile tear-stained statement condemning his actions). This hasn’t stopped them from maintaining the rest of their fascist dreck, including an interview with a Greek white power punk identified only as “Kostas.”

Kostas, according to the interview, runs the “Skinhouse Hellas” project, and has been involved with several far-right bands over the years. Among those bands? Pogrom, Artemios Matthaiopoulos’ group.

It gets worse. Naer Mataron, the black metal group featuring George Germenis, is signed to Season of Mist, an imprint distributed by EMI — one of the world’s biggest three record labels!

All of this alarmingly contradicts the persistent tone in much of the present coverage of white power music. While it can’t be denied that mainstream acknowledgement of this scene is a positive, most pieces fail to realize just how close some of these acts may potentially be to puncturing the mainstream and reaching a larger audience.

True, the US doesn’t have any Nazis seig-heiling on the floors of Congress (at least openly). But the toll of the Great Recession, mixed with America’s adventures in the Arab world and the virulent racism that come with them, have created a potent atmosphere for targeting the easy scapegoat.

Right populist astroturf movements like the Tea Party make no bones about allowing white supremacists to organize in their ranks. Furthermore, the befuddled handling of Page’s terrorism by authorities (not to mention the complacency of record labels like EMI) reveals an utter failure on their part to prevent such a thing from happening.

Of course, one obvious point never mentioned in any of the recent coverage is what useful idiots white power punks willfully make of themselves. Every fascist regime has had a long string of vicious censorship running through it — including subversive artists who may have even been supportive of fascism at one time, but soon found themselves on the unfriendly end of the law.

“I had seen the Clash on the first night of the White Riot tour,” says the legendary Billy Bragg, “and I remember thinking that the fascists were against anybody who wanted to be different — once they had dealt with the immigrants then they would move onto the gays and then the punks; before I knew it the music I loved would be repatriated.”

And so, as always, it falls to us. Which isn’t entirely bad. Their side may have a network and infrastructure at their disposal, but so do we. For every bonehead screaming about the purity of the white race into a mic, there are countless Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) or Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH) sick of seeing their culture become a synonym for hate.

We have a history of bottom-up mobilizations against the far-right — from confrontations with the German-American Bund in the late 1930s to anti-Klan mobilizations in North Carolina this past May. We have the history of Rock Against Racism and the example of Love Music Hate Racism today. And a growing sense of solidarity — from Syntagma Square in Greece to the Occupy encampments here at home — has inspired a growing number of young people to take on the policies of austerity and racism that has allowed the far-right to grow in the first place.

What form this tradition might take today is anyone’s guess, be it a petition to EMI urging them to drop hate musicians or a full-on network of punks, heads and indie kids screaming “not in our name.” Whatever form it takes, however, it needs to happen with a quickness.

"Exposing these links is a key task for anti-fascists,” says Martin Smith. “‘Never Again!’ must be our watchwords."

First published at Red Wedge

Friday, August 3, 2012

From Sanctimony to Spectacle: Madonna vs. Marine Le Pen

If there is anything that Madonna has become known for, it’s spectacle. Spectacle in the truest sense, the sense defined in the dictionary as “a public show or display, especially on a large scale.” Note that this definition says nothing about the actual substance of this display; it could be completely devoid of anything consequential. In fact, it was this complete lack of substance--especially in art and culture--that provoked French radical theorist Guy DeBord into tearing down the “society of the spectacle.”

It may be somewhat appropriate--albeit in a very twisted sense--that DeBord’s own country is where Madonna’s penchant for the spectacular gets her into trouble. But it’s not any of DeBord’s situationist co-thinkers or any others on the left seeking to challenge the queen of pop. It’s their polar opposite, the worst kind of hateful, racist, xenophobic trash.

Marine Le Pen, who took over leadership of the far-right Front National from her notorious father Jean-Marie, first put Madonna in her sights in June. At the opening show of her “MDNA” tour she, true to form, had a massive screen in the back of the stage projecting images designed to incense. Among these was a picture of the younger Le Pen with a swastika imposed on her forehead; the image then morphed into one of Adolph Hitler.

“If she tries that in France, we’ll see what happens,” Le Pen told a journalist, the implication being that legal action would ensue. Well, on Madonna’s recent tour stop in Paris, she did try it. She used the exact same slide show, and Le Pen, true to her promise, is suing for defamation.

There is something truly absurd in all of this. Namely that a politician who routinely tells outright slanderous lies about the French Muslim and immigrant communities can be offended by having her own stances reduced and simplified to their logical extreme.

What seems truly odd, though, is that some are of the mind that Le Pen and the Front National may very well gain from a possible court showdown. Bruce Crumley, writing for Time magazine, lays out the logic thus:

“[I]f the singer gets mostly applause from international audiences who identify Le Pen as Europe’s best-known face of xenophobic right-wing politics, she may find herself with fewer allies in France as a result of associating Le Pen with Nazism. The reason? Though Le Pen presides over a reactionary and Islamophobic party, she’s also clearly not a fascist, not a Nazi and not Hitler.”

The rationale is, at least at first glance, convincing. Madonna has made a victim of the politician, thus further cementing her underdog image as France’s political “bad girl” (which is not my term). Sympathy is fomented, votes for the FN rise, and all of the awful, racist, Islamophobic much that are their core politics are bulldozed through as law.

The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is twofold. For one thing, it assumes that bullies like Marine Le Pen are somehow convinced not to be bullies by acting rationally with them. For another, commentators like Crumley are severely, horrifyingly mistaken in treating the Front National as just another bourgeois conservative party, subject to the same rules as the rest of us. In fact, there’s little to lead us to believe that the FN isn’t a fascist party.

Quibbles over whether the FN perfectly fits into the term “fascism” too often forget that they have very real history and character. More dangerously, it’s left out that the FN’s rise is part of a terrifying trend in an uptick of avowedly anti-immigrant, Islamophobic parties across Europe.

Some of these parties might be better described as “right-wing populist,” such as Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party. Others, like Greece’s Golden Dawn and the Hungarian Jobbik Party, make no bones about their fascist sympathies.

Still others, such as the recently-fractured British National Party, maintain a fascist core that they go to great lengths to hide. Martin Smith, a leading anti-fascist campaigner, calls this “the Euro-Nazi strategy.” He recalls a young former BNP recruit who volunteered to go undercover for Unite Against Fascism at a party meeting.

“After the meeting, he still has his camera and his little hidden microphone inside his shirt, the organizer for the BNP meets him... and he says to him ‘look, Nick Griffin [the BNP chairman], what he’s told you just now is a crock of shit. He has to say that in case there are any spies from the left around... But trust me, we’re going to have to get rid of the Asians in this country, even if it means another Holocaust like Hitler produced.’”

The French Front National can most accurately be lumped into this final category (and indeed, there is a history of collaboration between the FN and the BNP). In fact the elder Le Pen was an innovator of the Euro-fascist strategy, at one point calling it “enlever le pied-noir” (taking off the jackboots). The party also continues to use the “tricolor flame” as their symbol; modeled off the logo of the Italian Social Movement, an open fascist party formed after World War II by admirers of Mussolini.

Has this fundamental nature changed in the eighteen months since Marine Le Pen assumed leadership from her father? She is widely regarded as more democratic than Jean-Marie, and has said she merely wants to greatly curb immigration as opposed to abolish it.

She is however certainly willing to use the same racist generalizations about Muslims--that they’re criminals, un-learned in western ways, a threat to the French way of life. The party base, estimated at around 50,000 is full of white street gangs more than willing to commit violence against Africans and Arabs. At this point, there’s little to suggest that slightly tamer rhetoric means anything significant. Madonna’s Hitler comparison, while perhaps clumsy, isn’t completely out of left-field.

Still, the change in tactic, the shoving of straight-arm salutes and blackshirts into the party’s back seat, has been an effective one, as it has been with the FN’s counterparts across Europe. It would have to be if Florian Philippot, the party’s vice president, is able to say of Madonna’s stunt (and get away with it) that “We can’t accept this despicable association... Marine Le Pen [will] defend her own honor, but also those of [party] members, supporters and millions of National Front voters.”

Thus, the absurdity: an organization guilty time and time again of defaming people of color, immigrants and religious minorities, is claiming defamation itself because an artist made a far milder simplification of the party’s leader.

Of course, anyone who gives a damn about free speech and fighting racism must condemn the attempts by Le Pen and the FN to drag Madonna into court (though there’s a good chance the singer will simply send lawyers to argue her case). If for no other reason than a victory for Le Pen would mean increased confidence for racists in and around the FN.

In a country where vicious Islamophobic scapegoating is scarily close to the norm, this has real consequences. French courts were all-too-happy to bulldoze fines and legal injunctions onto the general strikes over pensions in the fall of 2010. In the run-up to the notorious passage of the “hijab ban,” these same courts were all-too-happy to sanction restrictions on Muslim dress. It’s not far off that they’d be all-too-happy to give Le Pen and the Front a wider platform to spew their filth.


There is a difference, however, between unconditional opposition to the FN and uncritical defense of Madonna. The distinction is an important one to make, especially because lately, Madonna herself has done a great deal to make the tasks of Le Pen’s ilk--namely empire and Islamophobia--a lot easier.

Nobody can deny that Madonna’s music and performances once broke a very strict mold in the early ‘80s. These were the years when MTV was still something of an upstart, and gave her videos had the room to do what they did. Plenty of debate has flown around among varying camps of feminism over whether Madonna’s work was liberatory in its unavoidable treatment of female sexuality, or if it simply reinforced some of the system’s worst sexist dreck (in this writer’s view, it probably did both to various degrees).

And certainly, if a well-known French politician--however opportunistic--has been spurred into sanctimonious outrage, then there’s at least a kernel of Madonna’s provocational spirit that remains intact. But what the queen of pop originally brought to music thirty years ago has become the norm now. It’s hardly shocking to see a woman singer scantily clad, gyrating dance moves that simulate some kind of female stimulation. The difference is that now, its common place in the music industry (which remains it stubbornly male-dominated) has made it thoroughly exploitative.

In other words, Madonna’s repackaged rebelliousness obscures more than it reveals. Case in point: her show in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she launched her tour and first came to the attention of Marine Le Pen. She was quite public about her decision to perform there, and was equally public in brushing off the demand for her to observe the Palestinian call for cultural boycott of Israeli apartheid.

Madonna’s claim was that her concerts promote “world peace.” The contradiction was glaringly obvious, even to many who defended the Tel Aviv show. While pie-in-the-sky platitudes were spouted about the power of music to bring people together, Israel’s government was touting the show as a hasbara (propaganda) victory. Israel’s occupation of Palestine and apartheid treatment of Arabs was rebranded as a matter of two equally misunderstanding sides. Colonialism was never confronted from the stage, and neither was the gutter anti-Arab racism daily spewed by the state of Israel.

This, in a nutshell, is the reality of culture and politics under capitalism. What seems rebellious can be so easily twisted back to bolster the system. Bigoted politicians are painted as underdog victims. Pop stars who once may have shocked the system become its most prominent apologists, and the cause of world peace is used to paper over crimes against humanity.

It’s been said that taking on the far-right requires a short-term and long-term strategy: facing them down wherever they rear their ugly heads, and presenting an alternative society where the conditions that allow fascists to thrive are done away with. That means not only denying bigots like Marine Le Pen and the Front National any kind of platform, but making the case for a fundamentally different world. That’s a world where our art isn’t so crassly used to run cover for racism and empire.

First published at ZNet