Dr. Frank of The Mr. T Experience joins us this week to talk about the politics of punk rock. What is punk rebelling against? Is it inherently political?
Why do anti-authoritarian, counter-cultural movements so often reject free markets and libertarianism?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Dr. Frank’s young adult novels are King Dork (2006), Andromeda Klein (2009), and King Dork Approximately (2014).
The song in this episode’s outro is “Institutionalized Misogyny” by The Mr. T Experience from the album Yesterday Rules (2004). Used with permission.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Frank Portman, Dr. Frank, he’s the founder and front man of the legendary Berkeley punk band, The Mr. T experience, and author of novels: King Dork, King Dork Approximately and Andromeda Klein. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Frank.
Frank Portman: Thanks for having me.
Aaron Powell: How did you get into punk rock?
Frank Portman: I suppose the way [00:00:30] I first heard it was on the radio, and that would have been … I turned 13 in 1977, which was the date, the punk rock date. I lived in a very sleepy suburb with pretty much no contact with the world outside other than the radio. I believe the first time I ever heard anything that you could [00:01:00] categorize as punk rock was on the Dr. Demento Show. There were all sorts of other radio contexts in which you could hear punk rock at the time. It was the supposedly underground happening thing in the world of culture at the time, but there were these specialty shows on all the major radio stations that would play.
There was one called [00:01:30] the Outlaws, and one called the Heretics. Then there were college radio stations. I would just sort of huddle by my radio trying to right the dial, trying to find the interesting things that were all bunched up on the left and they would all … The left of the dial, and they would all bleed into each other and as far as why it appealed to me, it was not what was [00:02:00] being paid attention to by any of my peers. I felt that this was something I could adopt as my own kind of emblem that would set me apart from everyone who I hated. The rhetoric of it was very salutatory in that regard as well, because there was a lot of rhetoric in the songs that I was listening to about alienation, about [00:02:30] hating people and so forth. I really gravitated towards that.
That phase didn’t last too long, but while it lasted I was all punk rock all the time. I had to go through a lot of, they were a degree of a lot of people who are my age who were interested in punk rock at that time, probably have a similar story. It was sort of mild [00:03:00] to medium level harassment from everybody once they found out that you were a punk rock person. I had some … There were some fisticuffs involved in certain … Hey punk rock, hey Devo. That was the thing that they used to say.
I’m gonna tell you, the best anecdote of this with little doctor frank and the radio, where there was a show that I liked to listen that was on the Stanford [00:03:30] College Radio Station, KZSU and it was very hard to tune in. I found out that there was this one tree that I could climb with my little radio that if I climbed to a certain height I could get the show that I wanted to listen to. I would do this during the lunch period at my intermediate school. I was in seventh grade.
That was a great way to spend [00:04:00] lunch until I was discovered by the other kids, there were a lot of means guys that you’d encounter in school as in life. They thought it’s kind of obvious the thing to do when there is a scrawny little guy up in a tree listening to radio, you throw rocks at them. That ended my experiment with high wire antennae seeking. [00:04:30] I would do anything for KZSU and punk rock, but I would not do that. I had to come down to earth so to speak.
Trevor Burrus: Does that make punk rock somewhat inherently political on a very broad sense that you … It somewhat defines your relationship to other people, and a lot of political attitudes are actually about your relationship, what you think of other people, and if the establishment is doing X, listening to [00:05:00] disco then it’s kind of a political move to not do that? Not obviously but it has political undertones.
Frank Portman: Kind of. Then there is the irony of that becoming if not, the absolute mainstream becoming as, close to it as it might as well be, and then now I think when Green Day became the biggest rock [00:05:30] band in the universe and probably the last big rock band that there will ever be, it becomes, there is a bit of irony talking about this social rebellion that I was referring to and that you are talking about. That goes all the way back to the beginning. When I was 13, I was the only person I knew who was aware of The Clash say. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were like [00:06:00] kind of the biggest thing going. They were in Time Magazine. They were on television.
They were as mainstream as you get as well. There was nothing other than your own personal mythology that you build up when you adopt these things as your thing that you are interested in. There was nothing that different to distinguish The Clash from any other rock band as far as your relationship to society [00:06:30] for deciding to like them. Obviously you could point to differences between different bands and what they sound like and what it means that they sound like that and so force, which is a whole other question.
I agree with what you said, but I think that there is a line of irony that runs through the whole thing, which makes the rebellion angle of punk rock [00:07:00] very hard to pin down in many cases and it makes the behavior of people that are infused with that spirit often rather silly. I’ve been involved in this since I was a little kid, involved in it as an oddball off to the side, not involved in it as a central activist or anything. I’ve always, probably one of the reasons I was always an oddball to the side on this is the same reason I was an [00:07:30] oddball in seventh grade.
I just don’t get along with communities of people, and I don’t like the idea of communities of people. And while the sentiments of a lot of these bands that I was listening to when I was at the prime age, relating to this kind of coincided with that sense of alienation, there was a greater world of … There was a [00:08:00] so called punk rock community in which the same dynamic was busy at work, marginalizing and ostracizing with oddballs like me with our, not against our will.
I was always happy to be ostracized. I’ve always felt, even as a little kid I must be doing something right, even though that carries with it a bit of misery.
Aaron Powell: That’s puts me in mind of, I think [00:08:30] punk rock for me played a big role in my development as actually a political thinker and the path that I took, but I realized a sense of alienation and the kind of subversion of the mainstream part of it, whether that was authentic or not. That I think I might be able to therefore credit you with putting me on this path because my first [00:09:00] like I guess … The very first punk rock show I ever attended I think I was a freshman in high school, maybe a sophomore. I don’t remember, but it was to see you guys perform at the shelter in Detroit, with I think the band Telegraph, because my friend Mike Wheeler said you guys were good. And then he and I we sat in a car in the parking lot at my high school listening to [00:09:30] the album Love is Dead. The president of our student, our student council president who was a-
Trevor Burrus: Square.
Aaron Powell: A square and was very Republican, and he used to read Rush Limbaugh’s books in class. He walked by-
Trevor Burrus: Square is not a good enough book for this guy.
Aaron Powell: He walked by us two scrawny kids in our crappy car [00:10:00] in the high school parking lot, and I think the song was playing. He stuck his head in, and in his role as student council Republican president said, “That’s the fruitiest song I’ve ever heard.”
Frank Portman: I love that story. That encompasses and encapsulates not only a common experience in a general way but also the [00:10:30] relationship of people who like my band to the band. You are always having to defend it from people. It’s interesting because I grew up in California, we didn’t have guys like that. I never met someone who would have done the equivalent of reading a Rush Limbaugh book. The guy who would do that where I grew up he would have been carrying the Noam Chomsky book.
It’s the same dynamic [00:11:00] really. There is an acceptable complex of behavior, attitudes and it mostly boils down to manners and etiquette that is safe and vindicated by the community at large. And one of the ways that you prove you are part of that acceptable community is to identify [00:11:30] the weaker elements and attack them, and this is something that once you have recognized that pattern, which is something I did recognize at a very young age, you see it played out over and over and over again in pretty much every context that there is. I think that’s something that I was … That’s an important lesson that I was taught.
That is a political insight. It doesn’t make you want to join a party, quite the [00:12:00] opposite. Unless your ambition is you really want to be that guy, which I never felt like I wanted to.
Aaron Powell: Then how did you go from being the 13 year old climbing trees to listen to radio to then playing in a punk rock band?
Frank Portman: It was a … You listen to bands and you have a fantasy life where you are a member of a band, where you are in a band. You are the greatest band [00:12:30] in the world in your head. You practice, you start miming, playing the guitar with a tennis racket, and then you maybe switch to an actual guitar at some point. It’s very much like when you first start doing it. When I first started doing it, it was very much like playing Batman or Star Trek or Billy Jack or whatever we used to play.
[00:13:00] For me, that kind of current of fantasy extended through, all the way through when I entered high school, became a teenager and then you gradually got more elaborate with playing batman and playing rockstar. You had a real guitar and found some other guys to play with, and you pretended to be a band, [00:13:30] and you would have pretend shows, which at first was, just in the basement, and then you managed to maybe finally find a place to play. It was … You see the dichotomy that I’m setting up. There is a real world of real rockstars, real show business, and then you haver this fantasy imaginary version of it that you play at, and then for me and people like me, [00:14:00] this mirror, sort of rather pathetic parallel version of the real thing continues on for your whole life, and you wind up with a sort of career.
It never, when I first realized that I had a band that some people thought was a real band, it was sometimes in the 90s, and it just really shocked and amused me, because it never [00:14:30] quite seemed real. It never was real on the sense that … Nobody ever got rich over the Mr. T experience in any way, shape or form. It didn’t justify itself economically at all. Sort of in terms of the gratification that you get from being in a band, you do have a lot of fun in being in a band. You meet a lot of girls, you have [00:15:00] a lot of interesting experience, but it’s … I’ve only recently, just very recently in the last few years had the experience where I can look back at it and pick bits of it out that seem edifying, where I can say I’m glad I did that. Look I did that.
I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. That kind of, where you have the satisfying artistic career [00:15:30] that always … That was never part of the world of doing it. As far as what you were thinking of when you do it, the whole time when you are in kind of a marginal operation like not just my band, almost all the bands, hardly any bands are ever successful in any tiny degree. You don’t know why you are doing it and you are thinking, what the hell am I doing here? Nobody is at the show? This is the last one I ever do. Then you [00:16:00] end up for some reason doing another one.
Trevor Burrus: Then you do it for 10 years, that’s the next thing you know or longer. When you started out in the Bay Area with the political scene in the punk world. There is a lot of association with say the Sex Pistols and Margaret Thatcher and the coal towns and of course Reagan, America, I was listening to Black Flag the other day. Definitely on some live albums and definitely some references there. Was that pretty the kind of scene that, the politics of the scene that you came up in?
Frank Portman: [00:16:30] Yeah. I never liked that. Mostly because of the aesthetics of hardcore, hardcore being whatever was happening at that time when my band was starting mid-80s, early 80s to mid-80s. I used to complain about it at the time and joke about it, but all the songs were, they were all Reagan bands. All the songs abour Reagan or El Salvador. [00:17:00] Partly I got a lot of energy out of the fact that when I started … When my band started out and we were playing not very, we didn’t do it quite ineptly but we were attempting to play pop songs, traditional topics hopefully add a little twist to, and to make just over its existence.
Basically it’s pop songs about girls, love songs, breakup songs, that sort of thing. Very [00:17:30] traditional approach to music, which was extremely offensive to the, “political establishment.” It’s like where is your El Salvador song? Where is your Reagan song? It’s like I’m absolutely Reagan band, we are playing with four Reagan bands. The thing, the reason that I didn’t like it though was if you wrote a great song about Reagan I would be the first to applaud [00:18:00] it. What I didn’t particularly care for was the fact that there was very little attention paid to the songwriting, the songs were not that good.
The bands all played really fast, so there not much rock and roll about it. Then lastly, and least importantly, although maybe most annoyingly, it was all very preachy, as a combination of ideological preaching and almost complete ignorance, [00:18:30] which, about what they were ostensibly talking about. I rebelled against that immediately. The way that I felt about it at the time was, I was born too late. Why couldn’t I have been 20 years old in 1977? Then I would have jumped into a world where punk bands were still playing pop songs?
Trevor Burrus: This is again-
Frank Portman: That’s how I felt at the time.
Trevor Burrus: That relationship to punk bands, and Republican administration, I think it’s probably still continuing to this day but for yourself [00:19:00] other than rebelling against the sort of predominant and somewhat banal political views that were everywhere, did you have political views yourself where you thought at that time that they were overstating or wrong about what they were saying?
Frank Portman: I’ve revised this opinion a bit now. I assumed that nobody believed any of the things that they were saying and that they were just faking it. I think to a large degree they were. I think now that probably I’ve seen, [00:19:30] I’ve had more experience of ideologically committing people to realize that it is possible to endorse the silliest rhetoric as though it comes from God on high. On the other hand, the context I grew up in, San Francisco Bay Area, there was no significant, in my class, I’m assuming [00:20:00] you can use the word class with this. In my class context, there was no significant political disagreements or diversions from anything. It was just obviously our interests are the interests of the democratic party.
I was as much in that mode as does anybody else. My parents, my teachers, clergy, the police, they were all kind of leftish, feel good, [00:20:30] Democratic partisans. I never had any reason to think that that wasn’t the obvious truth banal as it is. It wasn’t until I was much older and I actually met some Republicans that I realized that they were actually people I had never met.
I think I met my first Republican at age 25. [00:21:00] Actually a lot of them are pretty nice, and not stupid necessarily. Stupidity is widely distributed across the landscape anyway. The thing that I believed at the time and that I would maybe back off from a bit was that there was just, it was appropriating the iconography and rebellion of [00:21:30] the previous eras that they were ostensibly in rebellion against. It was punk rock politics at that stage was hippie politics basically, even if they might have killed a hippie song.
It’s because that was associated with the … In that class, that’s the middle, to upper middle class, people who went to college type. People who were almost everybody [00:22:00] in that world. In that class, the way that you … The acceptable way to express youth rebellion was conforming to your kind of-
Trevor Burrus: Ethos, aesthetics-
Frank Portman: There is, all the leftist rhetoric, in a very mild way. The reason why I didn’t think that they ever [00:22:30] meant it was that obviously they would, if they’d be the first step against the wall if the revolution comes, obviously. They are the class enemy, sort of by definition. The idea that you are … The idea that, apotheosis of rebellion that involves joining [00:23:00] this mass of co-thinkers always just seemed like nobody could fail to recognize the paradox there. In fact, I know that that happens all the time. At that time, all these thoughts were born off just basically hostility to the aesthetic really.
I was resentful of the fact that if my ideal of punk rock was the Buzzcocks, there [00:23:30] was no Buzzcocks to join, there was only MDC and Reagan Youth and tens of fighting coherence or whatever the bands were called, and I resented it greatly, because I really liked the Buzzcocks. My reasoning wasn’t necessarily completely sound. I think there is something in that vague class analysis, because [00:24:00] there was a … How can I put this?
When I was a kid, and I was in school or I was with my parents or I was with the clergy, the police, and all the authority figures. There was one way that you could really impress them and get a Pat on the head, which was to be “political.” That meant if some vaguely leftish rhetoric spilled from your mouth, they [00:24:30] would give you a gold star and say, “It’s very nice that you are so interested at your age.”
We all learned to do it and I was not above doing that. It was the path of resistance. I probably noticed that in fourth or fifth grade. And then fast-forward to San Francisco punk rock scene, that was precisely the dynamic Tim Yohannan had with all of his acolytes. It was this-
Aaron Powell: Who is [00:25:00] Tim Yohannan?
Frank Portman: Tim Yohannan was the patriarch of the … He lived in San Francisco, patriarch of a certain type of an interpretation of punk rock, where punk rock wasn’t the main thing. Punk, if you want to talk about political punk, he is the guy that brought the hippie politics into the 80s and made it mandatory for people who wanted to loud and fast music, [00:25:30] that’s who he was. Founder of Maximum Rock ‘n Roll. I knew him a bit. I liked him, he’s not around anymore. I liked him very much. I had long conversations with him, and he … During these conversations I was probably more shocked than I have ever been in my life when I realized that he didn’t really like the music that he was championing either.
He liked the kind of music [00:26:00] I liked which I was shocked about, because if you listen to Maximum Rock ‘n Roll it was not. It wasn’t the Buzzcocks, I can tell you that. If you looked at his record collection he had all the sweet singles, he had all the stones singles. He was championing this very … To me, un-listenable music. Because he believed that, he was a communist and he believed that this was the way to the revolution to start a [00:26:30] youth movement that would overthrow the government. He really seemed to believe that.
The idea that you can embody some spirit of rebellion by stepping into a complex of clothing, iconography and rhetoric, people loved to do it and these authority figures encouraged it in my way of looking at it at the time. [00:27:00] And now I think that’s true. Basically this fourth grade situation of your teacher patting you on the head because you’ve heard of Noam Chomsky continued on through the rest of social dynamics as I observed it through adulthood.
Aaron Powell: Your kind of rebellion against that I suppose in the scene was in playing pop songs about girls, but were there bands [00:27:30] around then that were political but were pushing a different sort of politics?
Frank Portman: Not in my experience. I have to say, the scene that happened, that became famous, that happened around the stuff that we were doing. One of the things that characterized it, and one of the things that was good about it was a de-emphasis of that [00:28:00] and more of an emphasis on what makes music interesting and fun? I would accept, it’s the kind of hardcore political thing where every band was like a, they had to issue position papers on the issues of the day. That wasn’t a part of that scene. However, in a passive way where everyone pretty much agreed with everyone else on this kind of watery [00:28:30] left liberalism. That never changed in my world.
In fact, there was a scary other politics associated with punk that was the right wing, the Nazi punk, and that sort of thing. I never directly encountered that, other than in denunciations of it by [00:29:00] Maximum Rock ‘n Roll. It turns out now that he was like the “Witchfinder General,” he went a bit too far and if you read the agnostic friend stuff, the book that has come out lately. I think he was unjust towards them, but at the time they terrified me, and I didn’t want anything to do with that. [00:29:30] The way that a communist denounces someone is to call them a Nazi, no matter who they are.
That was what Tim did. He wanted control over the intellectual kind associated with punk. It was his, it is syncretic in some ways, but in other ways quite mainstream communist. He was like a communist organizer in many ways. [00:30:00] He was trying to gather the youth around, and to use them to create a vanguard. All of the stuff that when you read it in the theory, it just seems so preposterous.
Some people did try to put it in practice very literally. Tim was one of those guys. He was successful at it in his way but also the success that [00:30:30] he had was also the San Francisco Bay Area, which is basically a monoculture even now and certainly then. You would have to go to, in this class of people, where the highest thing you could do was to be regarded as political, you get a political medal. That’s great. The reason why the class angle of it is so salient [00:31:00] is because … I think it goes back to universities. Do you ever think about … Do you ever wonder why, this is something I wondered at the time and I wonder now, why the terrorist groups of the 70s that were more salient here were, The Weatherman and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
They had precisely the same rhetoric. They did the same sort of things. [00:31:30] They were the same people basically. The Weather Underground came out of the university system that were people like us. I think that people associated them with some kind of higher truth, higher meaning that was left as political whereas these SLA bozos, they were saying [00:32:00] the rhetoric but they didn’t have the [inaudible 00:32:04]. The reason why I’m thinking of this in connection with punk rock is that a lot of the aesthetic that, and the kind of accoutrements of the punk iconography seems to have come directly from that world.
When I went to my first punk rock show pretty much, which was The Clash [00:32:30] at Kezar Stadium, and I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to punk. I was 13 years old. The thing that happened when you left the concert hall, you picked up all of your punk rock stuff. If you went to see Steve Miller, you’d get your Steve Miller shirt, and your Steve Miller hat. What you got was people handed you [00:33:00] the revolutionary worker, and I still have the … I swear to God, somewhere I have a handbill for the RAF, which is the Red Army Fraction, the bottom nine half gang. I thought it was cool.
It had a machine gun and a circle. And it looked like a punk flyer. That [00:33:30] aesthetic in a sort of only half understood way in many cases of what it refers to cycled through the generations of punk and you still see it now. A lot of these things came as sort of crashing revelations to music. I was carrying around this terrorist flyer, and [00:34:00] when my dad came to pick me up and he saw my armful or revolutionary communist propaganda that I was coming back from The Clash concert with, I just remember the one thing he said sort of staring off into space was the communist often try to find alienated youth of high intelligence.
They didn’t catch me, but … [00:34:30] To answer your question, no. I never encountered this scary right wing, even though it certainly existed. It existed in Europe. I guess there were skinheads here as well, though I never believed … I never thought anybody was serious about anything, because I thought how could they be?
Trevor Burrus: Do you have a theory about why any authoritarian kind of cultural movement would [00:35:00] so reject free markets and libertarianism? Do you think it’s at all substantive or we are giving them too much credit?
Frank Portman: It’s funny because-
Trevor Burrus: Another part of that is-
Frank Portman: When you look at some of these people, they are in their … The way they conduct their lives that there is something very … If you look at Maximum Rock ‘n Roll, [00:35:30] he built a successful business and there is thing they called DIY that they elevated into a kind of a sacred principle. DIY at least before I encountered it in the punk rock context just meant putting up shelves. If you DIY, you can make your own products, sell them and keep the money for yourself rather than giving it away to some-
Trevor Burrus: [00:36:00] Corporation.
Frank Portman: Corporate entity. They were the most committed capitalists that you’d ever meet. Of course, not a name. I think the explanation has got to be psychological and because what I’m saying is a lot of the figures in the punk rock world scene, the spouse [00:36:30] libertarian idea certainly. That was certainly a libertarian as an adjective strain in the, in a certain sector of the hippie politics that they adopted again, not a name. You would think that there would be an affinity. I think a lot of times as people get older, they recognize that.
Sometimes you don’t, but I think it’s psychologically [00:37:00] I think that there is a mode of, associated with youth rebellion, and it goes back to the 60s, and that mode is not, it is-
Trevor Burrus: Anti-capitalist.
Frank Portman: It’s anti-capitalist right. Regardless of what capitalist means, it’s anti that.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that a punk rock band in, if it’s just relative. Some of it could just be relative. You have to define the establishment in your head, who you think it is, and then rebel against them. [00:37:30] Would in a punk rock band in the soviet union be all for capitalism? Be all about free market?
Frank Portman: Not so much in terms of punk rock, but the example of the checked incidence, and [crosstalk 00:37:49]. They were not anti-western the way their counterparts on the other side were anti-western, for a good reason. I don’t [00:38:00] know … I wish I knew more about eastern block punk so to speak. My band did a tour of Europe, the first time we ever went to Europe, tour is kind of a grandiose way of putting it. We visited Europe in the summer of 92 and went to several eastern block countries, pretty close to when the 1989 [00:38:30] obviously, three years after 1989, including Poland and Belarus and-
Trevor Burrus: Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic.
Frank Portman: And Czechoslovakia. The main thing I noticed was there was that these kids had no experience of the scene we were bringing to them at all, and they didn’t know what to do. There was obviously no scene [00:39:00] there. I don’t think … Obviously if you are living in a totalitarian country, you are not gonna have a punk rock scene. The lesson there is there may be more than three years to develop those traditions. I’m sure now they exist and now they probably are just aping the American ones is my guess.
Aaron Powell: I want to shift gears a little bit to talk [00:39:30] some about your current hobby horse seems to be the freedom of expression issues, and kind of shame culture and campus speech and so on. In 2004, you guys put out the album Yesterday Rules. It has on it one of my favorite songs that you’ve written, Institutionalized Misogyny, which is a very funny song. It was particularly funny for me [00:40:00] because that was when I was finishing up at the University of Colorado at Boulder as an English major and studying literary criticism and so on.
I was very kind of embedded in the stuff that that song was making fun of. It occurred to me that while that song was funny in 2004, if you were to release that song today, I wonder how much you would get told that [00:40:30] that song is not okay. The stuff you that you were making fun of. Could you I guess tell us a bit like-
Frank Portman: That’s an interesting … It’s true. It’s going back in time, because at the time, the inspiration for that song was a conversation I had with a woman, a young woman who was on a tour that I sang … A tour of singer/songwriters, [00:41:00] a little brief tour that I did. There was just this night where she just was talking kind of candor rhetoric about Foucault et cetera. I just found it really amusing but at the time I thought, and I was not wrong, I thought that that was, that it’s the day where that rhetoric rule supreme had passed, and she didn’t realize it. That’s why it says [00:41:30] you are repeating prerecorded things that you used to say in universities.
Now it’s even more so than it ever was from what I can tell. The whatever you want to call that mode of thinking, and talking post modern, they have a lot of names for it now.
Trevor Burrus: Neo-Marxism.
Frank Portman: Right neo-Marxism, sectional-
Aaron Powell: Critical theory.
Frank Portman: Whatever the buzzwords are. [00:42:00] It’s come back with a vengeance and now it controls everything it seems like pretty much. I was a little more secure in the ridicule than I probably would be now, but that’s one of the things about songs, art, what have you, it not only exists in its own world divorce from time and anything [00:42:30] outside it, but it also is a snapshot of a particular state of mind of the, in time of the artist. It’s like a historical, not a circle novel. We don’t have a world for historical song, but whatever, the song equivalent of a historical novel would be a song like … I tell you though. People with your background universally [00:43:00] love it.
Those are the people who love it. Nobody else ever mentions it. If everyone has been to grad school, that’s what … If someone tells me that’s their favorite song I know you went to grad school.
Trevor Burrus: It was freedom of expression and what’s changed, and you do go to high schools and you are a young adult author, and there is a lot of controversies there too about young adult authors and what they can say. Do you have any theory about what [00:43:30] has happened? Because when your whole life is kind of a bit about expression and saying things. You’ve been in different scenes where it was about expression, obviously punk rock being the biggest example of that. Do you have any theory about what happened?
Frank Portman: What happened?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Why we have college students protesting on this and why free speech seems to be heavily under attack from the left, the kind of people who probably have punk rock bands? I imagine, I haven’t been to a punk rock show in a while, especially [00:44:00] now with teenagers, but if that kind of any free speech rhetoric is being punkified. If you go to a show now, they might be singing about why liberalism is hate speech, or some of these things that you hear coming out of campuses.
Frank Portman: Maybe. The premise of your question is right, but we are … It’s a post-rock world that we live in now. [00:44:30] That brand of that collegiate rhetoric, what’s that Olympia College, Bret Weinstein incident?
Trevor Burrus: They are so many I can’t even keep track.
Frank Portman: Those kids are not listening to punk rock and rock music. There is a line that separates us from them as far as culture and music. [00:45:00] As you have experienced when my band does shows it’s all people well into adulthood. They sometimes they bring their kids. There is maybe a few oddball teenagers that become interested in it as well. It’s not the same sort of thing. It’s not on the cutting edge of anything, it is what it is. I have found that kind of liberating in [00:45:30] a way, since there is no possibility of ever being, jumping into the mainstream at all by any means. It’s kind of a bit freeing for what you can do, at least your attitude.
As far as the question goes, I do kind of have a theory. This is something that I came across in Thomas Martin’s diaries. [00:46:00] It’s a quote that I’ve quoted many times, because it really hit me like, it was like a lightening bolt. Where he’s talking about the politics within the catholic church. What he says is, I pulled it up here just as you were asking the question, “Both the conservatives and the progressives seem to me to be full of the same kind of intolerance, arrogance and empty-headedness, and to be dominated by different kids of conformism. [00:46:30] In either case, the dread of being left out of their reference group.
I read that, when I first saw it I read it 10 times. It suddenly dawned on me that of all, no matter … All the confusion that is brought by trying to understand political politics, and political rhetoric and actions and thoughts and everything, there is a … It is [00:47:00] ultimately human behavior and usually a situation like that can be far more easily understood with reference to group dynamics and behavioral psychology. Since sort of following that teaching as far as how to look at political behavior, [00:47:30] I have never seen a situation that does not, a political situation that does not bear that out. Certainly in this social media world, on Twitter, Twitter might have been created as a grand illustration of it on purpose.
I think that we, it’s some of the same social dynamics though that I observed and [00:48:00] hated and sort of cast the jaundice eye on and ridiculed back when I was a kid, which is we are basically glorified chimpanzees and part of their behavior is that the strong identify the weak, and then they descend on them and rip them apart viciously and bloodily. We can kind of justify it with high fluent rhetoric and do it while we, because of being humans [00:48:30] we adopt a righteous mental for ourselves when we do it. Everybody does it, and everybody participates in it. I cannot think of a better explanation for the phenomenon that you referred to than that.
Aaron Powell: When we talk about this phenomenon we tend to see it, the examples that are given of it are either on Twitter. Twitter mobs or on campuses. As a YA author, you write books about high school kids. [00:49:00] A lot of your audiences, high school kids. I know you go around and give readings and perform for high school groups. Do you think that this same sort of stuff is as prevalent with that younger generation as well or?
Frank Portman: I’ve heard stories about schools that deliberately try to inculcate this, which I’ve never encountered. I think a school like that would never bring me to their school [00:49:30] for sure. I’ll say, I’m not a very good person to ask about that, because I only see it from one side. You can’t tell what you … In any serious way what’s going … You go to a classroom, or a school auditorium of captive audience of kids bored out of their skulls, there is nothing, [00:50:00] you are lucky if you can get any … I’m fortunate because I’ve got a secret weapon, which is the song Even Hitler had a Girlfriend, which no matter what audience I play it for, it always captures their attention, and always gets a laugh.
In general, beyond that I couldn’t say. What I will say is that, to the degree that my books have struck a cord with actual teenagers, what [00:50:30] that shows to me, and I know this not just from … It’s not just fanciful speculation, it’s because I have, I talk to them and I get emails from them, and messages and so forth, that the essential experience of alienation that they express in those books, and they tried very hard to make it both universally applicable, but [00:51:00] also different enough from all the other versions of it, so it justifies its own existence. That that still strikes a cord, and things have not changed since the experiences I had that made me think of that stuff, and the experiences people had now.
I suppose that’s like a, that bears out of a conservative insight, of there being nothing new under the sun. [00:51:30] As far as what kind of politics these kids will have when they are forced into a situation where they have to adopt the politics, it’s kind of a tragedy in a way that this is necessary part of life that we have now. Who knows? I think they will adopt the safest, generally the safest one. The one that prevents you from being torn apart by the [00:52:00] dominant people. That’s what most people do.
Aaron Powell: Maybe as a final question then, you got your start into this as part of the alienated rebellious youth, and built your career in a scene that attracted alienated rebellious youth, and now write novels, largely about alienated rebellious youth. Looking back, if you are talking [00:52:30] to that, the next 13 year old kid getting rocks thrown at him because he’s listening to bizarre music, what advice do you have for the alienated youth of today, to the person who looks up to you and wants to know how to do about it?
Frank Portman: It’s terrible advice. It’s a horrifying, the advice is a horrifying message, which is that it doesn’t get better, it gets worse, [00:53:00] and try to keep your head down, but you’ll probably not be successful at that. The only saving grace is that you could retreat into your own world and build something interesting there that you might be able to make use of in the future if you become an artist, which is not necessarily that encouraging. I think there is [00:53:30] some solace in community with, the like-minded and, the like-minded people, and people who’ve said, and experienced interesting things in the past, doing as much reading as you can, never goes astray.
I’ve been asked the advice question, and I don’t have good advice. I don’t think there is any [00:54:00] good way to navigate this. There is no redemption. You just have to fend for yourself as best you can, which is often not good enough frankly to protect yourself. If you join an ideological mob you’ll regret it because you’ll look back on it and that never goes well, if only [00:54:30] because what you are doing when you do that is you are farming out your own mind to other people whose motivesare sometimes nefarious and whose actions almost always are. I would advise radical individualism.
Aaron Powell: [00:55:30] Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more visit us at www.libertarianism.org.