As we near the end of Donald J Trump‘s second year in office, it is chastening to hark back 15 years, half-way through an earlier Republican leader's first term, to a time when it seemed impossible to imagine a US president more self-serving, ill-educated and unworthy of office. A decade-and-a-half later, George ‘Dubya’ Bush seems like Abe Lincoln compared to the current White House incumbent and this high-speed tirade against "simpleton culture" - interrupted by a pensive ska bridge bemoaning the ignorance of the electorate - seems more relevant than ever.
"Now angry mob mentality's no longer the exception, it's the rule," sings NOFX bassist and frontman Michael "Fat Mike" Burkett, "And I'm starting to feel a lot like Charlton Heston / Stranded on a primate planet".
In the 90s, NOFX wore their underground credentials as a badge of honour, even titling the fourth album White Trash Two Heebs and a Bean, a direct reference to their social and ethnic backgrounds, setting out their stall as outsiders. But the election of George W Bush in 2000, and subsequent evidence suggesting that the votes had been rigged in his favour, resulted in the band becoming political activists. Their ninth album, The War on Errorism, was released in 2003 and Fat Mike was integral to the organisation of the Rock Against Bush project - two fund-raising compilation albums, a national tour and a voter registration drive in the vain hope of preventing Bush’s re-election in 2004.
Bush was the man who, when asked to name a favourite book from his childhood while on the campaign trail in 1999, said that he couldn't "remember any specific books". His "Bushisms" betrayed a frighteningly innate ineloquence peppered with meaningless buzzwords, such as his 2000 clanger: "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family" or "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream" or, two years later: "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."
"We’re not really known for our politics," wrote Mike in the extensive sleeve notes for The War on Errorism, "but maybe it’s time we are. Maybe it’s time for people to start sharing information and opinions instead of relying on our government or the corporate owned media to tell us what they think we should know. You don’t have to be a political analyst to see that America is suffering from a general lack of knowledge. In fact Americans seem to have a very limited knowledge of knowledge. Lots of opinions floating around, but very little actual knowledge. For being one of the wealthiest and supposedly greatest nations on the planet, one would think that the people of this great country would reflect that greatness. They don’t. Compared to other Western countries, Americans rank among the lowest when it comes to education and general knowledge of world affairs."
"The first question one would ask is why?" he continued. "Why are Americans so ignorant? Could it be that the American government wants them that way? If they don’t, they must spend more money on education. The best way to keep the status quo is to keep the majority of people happy. The best way to keep them happy is to keep them ignorant. Ignorance is bliss and the blissful don’t revolt. How do you keep 300 million people from knowing or caring what’s going on in the world? Well that seems pretty easy. First, you make sure that people spend most of their time concerned with their own security. You make sure local news shows cover all the local shootings, kidnappings and armed robberies. Throw in the sports, weather, and the ever-changing price of gasoline. It seems that all major new sources provide the same one-sided stories. When all you get to see is one side, it’s hard to understand the complexities of an issue or have empathy for the other side."
Looking back on the first two years of George W Bush's term in office, his appointments and misguided policy decisions will be shockingly familiar to anyone following the news from today's White House.
"The first inkling anyone had of what we were in for was on March 28, 2001," wrote Molly Ivins and Lou Dubois in their book Bushwhacked, published in the same year as The War on Errorism, "when Bush called off America’s participation in the Kyoto protocol on global warming. He didn’t try to renegotiate or change what he didn’t like about the treaty, he simply pulled out and then tried to scuttle the whole thing. Since the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, produces 50% of the emissions that cause global warming, more than any other country, its withdrawal was devastating to the treaty."
And in an age when Donald Trump routinely assigns diplomatic duties to people who seem hopelessly unqualified for their posts, Bushwhacked reminds us that this is nothing new. "In May 2001, Bush’s delegates to the UN Commission on Human Rights were so obstreperous and uncooperative that the Europeans refused to re-elect the United States to the Commission for the first time ever," wrote Ivins and Dubois. In July, the three people Bush sent to represent the USA at the UN’s World Health Assembly were an anti-abortion activist, the wife of an apocalyptic evangelist and a former Vatican negotiator. “That Bush would have sent such an eccentric delegation to an international conference," their book continues, "is indicative of the contempt with which the administration views [the World Health Assembly's] efforts."
After years of joking around on stage and never taking themselves seriously, NOFX weren't an obvious band to lead the campaign for critical political thinking. NOFX are about having fun. Their live albums, for example, are called I Heard They Suck Live (1995) and They've Actually Gotten Worse Live (2007). Mike is also the frontman of the hilarious punk rock covers band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who developed a cult following with 100 mile-an-hour covers of Leaving on a Jet Plane and Uptown Girl. More recently, this summer, Mike got into trouble by making an ill-judged joke about the October 2017 Las Vegas gun massacre. "At least they were country fans and not punk rock fans," he told the crowd at the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival in Vegas, adding: "You were all thinking it!"
But when an issue is sufficiently urgent, even the most underground, frivolous and anarchic punk has to enter the wider political arena.
"A lot of you reading this might be thinking that we are assholes or American traitors," concluded Fat Mike in the hand-written album sleeve notes. "Well, we may be assholes, but we are certainly not traitors. We are actually patriots in the true sense of the word... Did I just say that? Let’s go back. Patriotism is a little too close to nationalism. Or is it the same thing? Either way, we are fucking better than patriots. We are world patriots. Not only do we care about our own country, we care about the whole fucking planet. We are human beings with the capacity to care for more than just ourselves. So let’s use that capability. It’s not enough to simply think locally or nationally. We must think globally."
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About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
4 March 2021
A high-speed combination of punk chorus and ska verse, Mustard Plug’s singalong Unite and Fight is just one of a sensational 28 tracks on the Ska Against Racism album compiled by Bad Time Records in 2020 to raise funds for non-profit organisations working to improve education, opportunity and justice for black people in the USA and beyond. With a barrelling momentum and a repudiation of violent action, this uplifting song is a call to arms for those of us committed to disarmament.
8 September 2020
Celebrating the determination of “one hundred thousand teenagers” to take over the streets of London to save their future from calamity, KIDSTRIKE! by novelist and singer songwriter JB Morrison – aka Jim Bob – is taken from the UK Top 40 album Pop Up Jim Bob released in August 2020 and inspired by the real life activism of countless young activists. But the song is run through with a rueful recognition of the singer’s own fading urge to save the world.
28 July 2020
Inspired in part by the fatal shooting in New York of a ten-year-old black boy by a white plain-clothes policeman, the audacious centrepiece of Stevie Wonder’s experimental 1973 album was a seven-and-a-half-minute meditation on the brutality of black America: Living for the City…