The underground/independent music scene has always been a fertile ground for fascism. But while there are clear examples of neo-Nazi bands that are widely condemned or derided, like Skrewdriver or Burzum, the use of fascist or racist imagery by some bands gets downplayed, set aside, or even vehemently denied and defended by people who should know better. More than just reveal moral hypocrisy, however, it reveals that fascism in the Trump era is taking on novel forms, that fascist attitudes and forms of life can be reproduced without there being individual commitment to fascist ideals. In our political moment, I am claiming, a certain mood or feeling is emerging that’s making people act, even if unwittingly, as an auxiliary wing of the neo-fascist creep: in the 21st Century, you no longer have to be a Nazi to be a Nazi. Call this “playing fascist.”
The case that interests me is the Danish postpunk band Iceage and their hipster fanbase. Evidence of Iceage’s flirtations with fascism is extensive. They wear Fred Perry polos—a brand that has become the unofficial uniform of the ultra-right hate group, the “Proud Boys,” and which is historically associated with racist skinheads (despite the fact that Fred Perry’s chairman has disavowed the Right’s use of their clothing). They think the neo-Nazi black metal band Absurd makes “beautiful Norse sound filled with pride and emotion.” They wear buttons of the openly racist band, Burzum. The motif of their logo invokes Nordic runes—which, while not necessarily racist, have been hijacked by white supremacists as symbols of white power. For a festival that Iceage curated, they booked a band called “White Nigger” (see bullet point 6 here). They recently toured with another band that’s been accused of racism, “Black Lips”—a band with this name that is yet composed entirely of white guys from the south, one of whom, Jared Swilley, has affiliations with a Georgia chapter of the Proud Boys. The guitarist of Iceage has a tattoo of the Nazi-adjacent neo-folk band Death in June. Their music video for their song “New Brigade” shows them running around burning things in KKK-esque hoods. Their music video for their song “Ecstasy” features prominent imagery of fighting Pitbulls (another favorite white power image). Not long ago, a video surfaced of fans sieg heiling at one of their shows, without Iceage saying or doing anything to stop it. And the vocalist, Elias, published drawings of Klansmen and skinheads engaging in what looks like race war.
Iceage defend themselves by insisting they are apolitical and, so, apparently, indifferent to the imagery they’re releasing: “It’s not political in any way…,” they say, “our political standpoints… [have] nothing to do with the nazis at all. We just do what we feel like… and it wasn’t the intention to have any, any you know offensive.” About the drawing: “Elias… didn’t try to show any fascist side of himself in any way, because he is not a fascist.” And the Klan-like hoods in the music video: “we just used them for fun.” Regarding their nonwhite fans: “I don’t even really care if people think that we’re nazis…. [But] if black people or if Jewish people, you know, got offended by stupid people calling us fascists… that would be a shame… we’re just making music. They are the ones judging us even though they don’t know us.”
What to make of a duck that won’t hear itself quack? On the most damning interpretation, Iceage are crypto-racists/-fascists, blowing dogwhistles, and gaslighting or ignoring the blowback. This is a common tactic on the right. Trump supporters will deny, over and again, that they are racist. Trump will condemn the violence at Charlottesville while simultaneously condoning it. Melania will visit children who’ve been taken from their parents—and who are being drugged at Detention Centers—while signaling that she really doesn’t give a shit about them. It’s not about race, they’ll say. You are reading things into it. Like neo-Nazis laying claim to “freedom of speech,” Iceage cloaks their moral intransigence using the language of anti-politics and artistic freedom.
To anyone who thinks, however, the moral turpitude behind these kinds of denials and disavowals is obvious. In the 1940s, Dorothy Thompson pointed out that “going Nazi” had more to do with being a certain type of person—a person with certain moral defects, with a certain type of bad character—than with race, ethnicity, or social background. After all, there were poor and rich Nazis; there were even Jewish and gay Nazis. Echoing Thompson, a recent commentator made the same suggestion about people who “go Trump.” After all, there are Trump supporters of every kind, even Latinx and Black ones. Some of them are explicit (or crypto-)racists or fascists. But the fact of the matter is, as I have already said, that in the 21st Century, you no longer have to be a Nazi to be a Nazi. As Umberto Eco pointed out, fascism can take on quite different, even unexpected forms. Many people who support Trump seem sincerely to think that they’re not at all racist, and some of them really would have no issue engaging socially or cooperatively with a person of color in unstructured interpersonal contexts. Their actions produce a dynamic that is independent of whatever is in their heads or hearts. Neo-fascism, in our time, has surpassed itself into a kind of “post”-fascism; it is now possible to “play Nazi” without being explicitly committed to a fascist ideology—all the while contributing to the Nazification of national life and politics that is allowing, for instance, the concentration camps we call “Detention Centers” to exist at the borders of this country.
A few years ago, I should now disclose, I saw Iceage perform live. I caught them at the Nordic Museum in Seattle. The crowd was typical for any indie-underground postpunk show: hipsters, queer folks, goth types. Even at this time, I was aware of the rumors surrounding the band—part of the reason I’d decided to attend was to see both what they were about and who would show up. I wondered if any of the people in attendance, in this prototypically “left”-leaning demographic, in the stereotypically “liberal” city of Seattle, had considered what it looked like that the museum, whose name—to anyone with any sense of history—sounds an awful lot like “The White Pride Museum,” (formerly their name was “NordicHeritage Museum”), were hosting a band that symbolically associated itself with Nazism.
Near the end of the show, I saw a guy sieg heil. He was—we shouldn’t be surprised—a Brown guy; tall, wearing a military-fitted cap and jacket. No one else seemed to notice. I pointed it out to a concert buddy. He shrugged.
Of course, it’s always possible the guy was simply raising his hand in praise; it’s always possible I misperceived things. But that’s just it. Whether it was a sieg heil or not, whether the Nordic Heritage Museum is a White Pride Museum or not, whether Iceage are neo-Nazis or not—none of this ultimately is required for these things to be reproducing racist effects. What cases like this show, is that across all spheres of life, an as yet invisible tendency is taking shape, working “through” even those people who, like Iceage, if they are to be believed, “are left-wing.” The hand moves forward: objects move without being touched. It’s like such people have been body-snatched, but remain unaware of what they’ve become—or, perhaps, of what they always were, to quote James Baldwin: moral monsters.
This “new” racism is still crystallizing, and will perhaps in time become something much worse. In the meantime, I say to those willing, as another commentator put it, “to overlook the worst in something in order to enjoy it,” what Aimé Césaire said to Europe of their relationship to Nazism: “without being aware of it, [European man] has a Hitler inside him, Hitler inhabits him, Hitler is his demon.” In the 21st century, it is you who “goes Nazi.”