“When I started, they told me I only needed three chords and the truth… It turned out I could manage with two and some vague ideas.” Joe Strummer
Those vague ideas included “the future is unwritten,” and thereby anything is possible. Other ideas informed the oeuvre of Strummer and Mick Jones, collectively and apart, and their actions as musicians and citizens. Still, for me, the variations on this theme guided their best representations of our world back to us, and the still-valid demand issued back in 1979:
“What are we gonna do now?”
It’s the opening line, of course, in “Clampdown,” the second single from London Calling, and I figure Strummer here is using the royal “we.” For my tastes, outside of Dylan’s oeuvre, it’s one of the two most haunting questions in rocknroll: the other comes courtesy of Jagger-Richards, in “Sympathy for the Devil”:
“I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ /
When after all, it was you and me.”
In other words: how are we complicit in this mess and, in turn, how can we clean it up?
The measures of responsibility for the clean-up—and, in the wake of Trump’s triumph, the formation of a resistance against what horrors lie ahead—remain a hot topic in left-liberal circles.
In a phone conversation with a recent college graduate, I listened to a compelling tale of her struggle with her post-election despair. The despair, she noted, was sustained by her inability to find a group among her friends able to articulate the complexity of her fears, for her friends and herself, as a queer woman of color. We talked through this a bit—and she’s a good reader of cultural theory stuff, and is well-versed in building political alliances via strategic essentialism and strategic anti-essentialism—and then I told her about my bike ride home from work, 10 days after the election.
It was 530pm, and I waited at the light to turn left onto one of the main roads in town. (Since it’s apparently germane: couture-wise, I’m doing a fine impression of George Will: striped shirt, bow tie, and blazer, along with my neo-Easy Rider Nutcase helmet.) A guy in his van does a lazy right turn, overcorrects, and offers but three feet of grace between his side mirror and my shoulder. I turn to my left and say, “Jesus, chief,” and he slows to a stop 200 feet behind me, sticks his head out the window, and shouts, “F*ck you, liberal!” And drives off.
Now I’ve been slandered for my couture and my mouth almighty over the years, as some of you know (from p. 5, of *Stealing*).
I always imagined that this use of “faggot” carried traces of ambivalence, or at least vulnerability. Were select varsity footballers so insecure in their own masculinity that a lavender shirt or glacier-blue Top Siders could get their Jockeys in a bunch? I liked to believe so.
But “liberal!”? Not possible were “Whitey!” or “Male!,” I suppose, since we had that in common—and, bow ties aside, plenty more, I figure. Yet here we are. At the close of the Obama era, “liberal,” in-and-of-itself, free of any descriptor (e.g., “tax-and-spend,” “kale-loving”) serves a term for defamation.
My friend laughed at me, and in solidarity. Like Tom Waits notes,
“We’re chained to the world /
and we all gotta pull.”
And hey: like another one of my favorite scruffy-faced white guys said, “each according to his abilities, each according to his needs.” As a straight white guy, I understand if I’m expected today to pull above my weight class. But there’s lots of room along this chain. Grab hold.