By Alexander Billet
It's been over a month and I still can't bring myself to listen to the Smiths. The controversy over Morrissey's recent comments regarding immigration in the Britain's NME is well worth examining on this side of the pond. It should be said straight away how disappointing and unacceptable they are. They also, unfortunately, shed light on an element completely absent from the narrow debate on immigration taking place this election season.
In late November, the former Smiths singer blurted in an interview with the NME that "the gates of England are being flooded. The country's been thrown away." Moz didn't stop there. In the interview he seemed troubled by what immigration meant for British culture. "Other countries have held onto their basic identity," he said, "yet it seems to me that England was thrown away... If you walk through Knightsbridge [in London] on any bland day of the week you won't hear an English accent. You'll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent."
It's the kind of remark that smacks of Eric Clapton's 1976 comment that England was becoming a "black colony," where he urged fans to vote for anti-immigrant Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. Those comments would be one of the reasons for the foundation of Rock Against Racism, the forerunner to today's Love Music Hate Racism campaigns against the fascist British National Party.
Ironically, Morrissey himself had only days prior agreed to endorse LMHR, and have its logo present at all UK shows in 2008. Yet he sees no conflict between formally being against racism, and letting slip remarks that make out immigrants to be a threat of some kind. It brings up a fundamental question: who does Morrissey exactly think the BNP are whipping up their racist drivel for in the first place? Racism isn't an abstract concept in the UK. Like the US, it has a large immigrant population that hails from places as diverse as Jamaica and India, and a large number of hate crimes are directed against these communities. "Paki-bashing" isn't infrequent. Since the London bombings of 2005 the profiling of immigrants (mostly folks of color) has been quite common. This is not the first time Morrissey's racial politics have been questioned. In 1992 he draped himself in the Union Jack at a carnival in Finsbury where a sizeable neo-Nazi turnout was expected. The NME also took him to task for that move. His 1988 song "Bengali in Platforms" was immensely condescending toward its South Asian immigrant protagonist. Moz ends the song by saying it may be best for the young man to "shelve his western plans." And his "National Front Disco" hardly seemed to take any kind of clear stance on the National Front.
His politics haven't always been in question, though. Songs like "Margaret on the Guillotine" and "The Queen is Dead" were rather open protests against Thatcherism. More recent songs like "America is Not the World" have taken Bush to task. He has even been investigated by the FBI and British intelligence, so vocal is his opposition to Bush and Blair.
His alliance with LMHR was rightly welcomed. But these comments throw his actual commitment to the cause into question. While Moz hardly identifies himself as a racist, the fact is that putting British culture on a pedestal and trying to hermetically seal it off from "outsiders" creates an us-versus-them dynamic that Bush and Gordon Brown are all too happy to take advantage of.
Moz has given little sign of backing down from his comments. In fact, the ever-litigious rock star is now suing the NME for speaking ill of him. His behavior is that much more regrettable when one considers the fact that Stephen Patrick Morrissey was himself born to Irish Catholic immigrants. The culture he comes from seems to pose no threat to Britishness, but evidently those from non-English-speaking, brown-skinned countries do. No doubt, Morrissey hardly recognizes this as racist.
That recognition is also completely absent from the immigration debate in the US. Presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee can take advantage of the Pakistan crisis by exaggerating the number of Pakistanis here "illegally." Lou Dobbs makes outrageous claims that Mexicans bring leprosy across the border. Though both may be called out for being incorrect, the media rarely has the guts to peg them as bigoted.
Morrissey is hardly as bad as these buffoons. Nonetheless, when an artist who enjoys sticking it to the worst politicians in society starts to sound like those very same politicians, it is, to say the least, disappointing.
The line needs to be drawn as boldly as possible: if you are an anti-racist, then you stand up for the rights of immigrants. As for Moz, one can hope he'll apologize for what he said, but I'm not holding my breath. It's going to be a while until I can listen to his stuff again.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice. He is currently working on his first book The Sound of Liberation: Music and Social Change in the 21st Century.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com. To subscribe to his column, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.