Academic journal article Shofar

Punk, Jews, and the Holocaust-The English Story

Academic journal article Shofar

Punk, Jews, and the Holocaust-The English Story

Article excerpt

Punk in England is usually thought of as being related to a critique of stadium rock or to the disillusionment of a generation that saw nothing in the future but drudgery. In this article I argue that punk has more profound connections. Punk in England was driven by two Jewish managers, Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes, but, more important, punk's general politics of nihilism express in a cultural context the shock and trauma of the Holocaust. After almost three decades of near-silence, by the late 1970s the Holocaust was beginning to be named and talked about. The horror of this event on not just Jews but Western society more generally, as the acknowledgment of the genocide began to undermine the historical acceptance of Enlightenment assumptions about progress, science, and the moral righteousness of Western civilization, led to an existential crisis best expressed in punk. Whereas in the United States many punk performers were Jewish, in England the Jewish connections are to be found in the managers and in the lyrics.

"This ain't Rock'n'Roll

This is Genocide"

David Bowie,"Future Legend," Diamond Dogs (1974)

Punk was something special. Across the United States and England, and indeed across the whole of the West, the punk movement expressed not only a local politics but, ultimately, the existential affect of a nihilism bom in the slow surfacing of the cultural trauma embodied in what, around 1978, was becoming named, becoming known as the Holocaust.1 As Ron Eyerman writes, "cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion."2 Based in the idea of collective memory, Eyerman goes on to explain that "the trauma need not necessarily be felt by everyone in the community or experienced directly by any or all."3 It is a collective experience. In this case what I am suggesting is that what became known as the Holocaust was experienced as a cultural trauma by two different groups, first of all by those identifying as Jews, and second by those considering themselves to be members of the West, the heirs and beneficiaries of the moral and philosophical order of modernity.

Following the wotk of Cathy Caruth, Eyerman explains that "it is not the experience itself that produces traumatic effect, but rather the remembrance of it."4 There is a time lapse, a latency period, between the event itself and the bringing of it into memory. This does not mean that, during the latency period, the event does not have effects on the person or, in the terms of cultural trauma, the society, but that these effects are not consciously sheeted home to the event. What I am arguing here is that during the 1970s across the West, as the cultural trauma that would be identified as the Holocaust began to surface, so this process produced effects in the way many people experienced their society. For the Jews, the effect was relatively direct, the need to acknowledge and come to terms with the attempt by a European people to destroy their entire "race." For the members of the West more generally, the acknowledgement of the Holocaust meant a crisis in the very foundational beliefs that had underpinned the modern world. Punk, and the philosophy behind it, was, perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of this cultural trauma.

1978 was the year Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss (NBC, 1978) was screened, first in the United States and then across Britain and Europe, to huge audiences.5 The population was ready for such a program. Culturally speaking, as I have just suggested, the trauma of the Judeocide was not only about the recognition of the attempted extermination of a people, of six million or so individuals, it was about the shattering of the certainties which underlay what was called modernity - the end of the assumption that reason would pave the way for a better society, that science and industry would bring material improvement, that the West was leading the world in a global history that could be tiiought of in terms of progress. …

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