The Great Divide

The fallout from Ben Weasel’s meltdown continues to rival that from the Fukushima reactor: the most recent news is that his entire band has walked out on him, though, in light of the tactful and thoughtful way they tendered their resignations it might be  more appropriate to say that they made a dignified exit.

Apart from publishing an apology on the Screeching Weasel website, nothing has been heard from Ben on the subject, but he’s in a distinct minority: the events of the past several days have ignited a firestorm of controversy that’s attracted attention from almost everyone with a more than passing interest in punk rock music.

While Ben might understandably be feeling like a man beset by tribulations of near-Biblical proportions – I half expect to hear news of a plague of locusts descending on Wisconsin before the week is out – much of the talk has moved on from his plight and turned into a spirited and at times ill-tempered back-and-forth about morals and values.

Every few years punk undergoes some sort of identity crisis, and this appears to be one of them.  The objection that punk no longer has an identity – or, perhaps more accurately, that it has at least a dozen of them – may be valid, but with thousands of people burning up the internet and the airwaves, it’s clear that this incident, and its implications for the subculture they’re involved in, matters quite a bit.

First, let me say that I myself am mildly embarrassed to be embarking, some 34 years after attending my first Ramones show, on yet another discussion that touches, if only tangentially, on the hoary, timeworn topic of “What is punk?”  Arguments of this kind have been going on ever since a girl with a fake English accent spit her bubble gum at my leather jacket and called me a poser in the summer of 1977, and probably well before that.

But here I am in 2011, and after all this time, I’m still in a situation where some of my favorite people play in bands or attend shows or put out records or write for zines that loosely but undeniably fall under the general rubric of “punk.”  What this past week’s events have rather painfully made me aware of is that that rubric also extends to include some truly awful individuals, and a lot more people, who while not morally bankrupt or perhaps not even morally questionable, are not likely to be invited over to my house for tea anytime soon.

Some of the most neanderthal views about l’affaire Weasel were posted on Ben’s own Riverdales Discussion Board, recently renamed “Weasel Acres” (but don’t bother looking for them there, because messages there are routinely censored and/or rewritten) and in response to a Facebook diatribe by the legendary Joe Queer.

Joe can be an engaging, witty, and delightfully wry writer, as anyone who’s seen his fishing diaries can attest, but he’s not always at his best in the heat of the moment,  as when he uses phrases like “The chick deserved a punch,” or “You’d think he was throwing Jews in the oven at Auschwitz” to defend his old friend Ben Weasel and attack the bands who’ve decided they no longer want to be associated with the Memorial Day weekend mini-fest that had been billed as a celebration of Screeching Weasel’s 25th anniversary.

Joe might have spoken too quickly – it wouldn’t be the first time for him, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it, too – but some of the comments he elicited got truly ugly.  “Some chick should have took care of the cunt for Ben!!” (this posted by a woman), “A-fuckin-Men brotha!! If he’d had hit a dude, we’d all be laughing about it, wouldn’t we? That chick had it coming,” “Ok ladies, if you don’t wanna get hit, don’t act like a cunt. Just saying. I’d have hit ’em too” (another woman).

About 90% of the commenters, in fact, seemed to believe either a) Ben shouldn’t have done it, but it’s not like he did it all the time so he should be given a pass; or b) “the bitch had it coming.”  Another overriding theme – several people mentioned GG Allin in this context – was, “Hey, it’s punk rock, get over it.”

And that’s where I run into problems.  People have been saying, “Hey, it’s punk rock” to justify, even glorify all sorts of idiotic, violent, and self-destructive behavior for as long as there’s been punk rock, but recent events have brought into sharp relief what should have been an obvious schism between two cultures that share a name but have little else in common.

When I started getting to know people in bands during the 1960s and 70s, even before the concept of punk rock had been invented, I would often be disillusioned by how radically my rock and roll heroes differed from the image I as a fan had constructed of them.  I expected them to be idealistic, ethereal, almost other-worldly fantasy creatures, and found as often as not that beneath the costumes and hairdos, they weren’t that different from the everyday working stiffs I’d encountered at the factory or the steel mill.  “They just carry guitars instead of lunchpails,” I remarked at the time.  And though the great majority of rock musicians back then were men, I had a similar experience with one of my great heroines, the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.  On stage she was an unreachable goddess; hanging out in the kitchen, she came across as a red-faced suburban housewife.

I got a different view when I began working with bands and putting out their records.  Though I was too enthusiastic and excited to think about it at the time, I realize now that as, in a sense, their employer, I wasn’t seeing the same side of bands’ character as their friends, families or fans might.  Also, most of the bands I worked with in those early days were still quite young, as was the scene they came out of, and few if any of them expected ever to earn any money from this punk rock racket.

So it was mostly about fun and camaraderie and self-expression, and it was only in the mid-90s, when the big bucks started rolling in, that I began to see that many – not all, but many – of these musicians differed little from the  lunchpail-toting guitarists I’d encountered in an earlier era.

Simultaneously, the rise of baggy-shorts punk, frat punk and, basically, a hefty portion of the whole Epifat aesthetic, led me to the unhappy conclusion that I had next to nothing in common with many of the record buyers my business had been built upon.  When we started Lookout, it was meant to embody a youthful, irreverent, non-macho and progressive attitude, a clean break from the aggressive and violent chest-thumping and knuckle-dragging that thrash, hardcore, and speedmetal had championed in the 80s.

And to a degree, we were successful: the Gilman Street DIY model that Lookout sprung from would end up spawning imitators around the country and the world, and fundamental to the image (and, most of the time, the reality) of Gilman Street were its legendary strictures against not just drugs, alcohol and violence, but also racism, sexism and homophobia.  Some of the more old-fashioned punks took offense at these limits on their “freedom” and mocked or tried to defy them, but eventually they took their custom elsewhere – mostly to bars and other commercial venues – and the progressive spirit pioneered by Gilman took hold in much of the punk community.

The millions of new fans attracted by the rise to mainstream popularity of some of our bands temporarily threatened to overwhelm any such consciousness, but as most of them drifted away into the Next Big Thing, it became obvious that there was a punk scene, as vibrant and healthy as ever, that was at least attempting to grapple with issues like sexism, politics, interpersonal relationships, and having things be about more than just music and drinking beer.  And that at the same time there was also a punk scene, as loud and oblivious as ever, that was fundamentally reactionary, that was only concerned with replicating things exactly as they always had been, only more so.

It’s why I’ve increasingly lost interest in attending shows in anything other than basements, garages and DIY spaces, even when friends of mine are playing (I’ll still make exceptions for stadiums when Green Day are playing), and why, I suppose, I was genuinely shocked by some of the vitriol that came spewing forth in defense of Ben Weasel even after he himself admitted he had been in the wrong.

Not because I didn’t know there were people out there who still thought that way, but because, thankfully, I’ve been able to arrange my life in a way where I seldom have to encounter them.  I’ll admit straight up that it’s a little embarrassing at my age to still have to acknowledge some heartfelt connection with punk, possibly the only subculture in history originally based on low self-esteem.  Greaser, hippie, glam rocker: I can indulgently, nostalgically dismiss those previous cultural identities as youthful follies, but something about punk has clung to me enough so that I’m genuinely aggrieved when it becomes a rallying cry for the bullying and backward-thinking thuggery that I spent much of my early life trying to escape from.

At least I’m in good company: Aaron Cometbus, younger than me, but still well into middle age, still speaks unabashedly of his connection to and affection for punk, and if it’s good enough for one of the better writers of our time, I can hang with it, too.  In the past, I’ve teased Aaron over what I had judged as an overly PC concern with feminist issues and with how punk was presented and marketed to the mainstream, but I’ve come to believe he was on the right track all along.

As much as my heart goes out to Ben Weasel in what must some incredibly dark days for him, as much as I devoutly hope this experience will help him rethink and reshape his outlook for the better, I really don’t feel like hearing his voice or his music right now, nor am I much interested in that whole branch of punk rock that takes much of its inspiration from him.  For a long time, Ben was able, to a degree few others were, to bridge two worlds, that of old school meat-and-potatoes punk rock, and that of progressive, witty, sensitive and lyrical insight.  It was part and parcel of what made him so great.  Most of his imitators never came close to mastering that formula.

But somewhere, somehow, the balance shifted in the wrong direction; he (and a big part of the punk rock scene) went one way and I went another.  Tonight I’ll be going down to a local DIY space to see some bands that 99% of the world has never heard of and probably never will (for those of you who follow this stuff, they include New Creases and Ohio’s awesome Delay), and I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it a lot more than any “big” (as in commercially meaningful) punk rock or pop punk show going on anywhere in the country.  Some of the people who’ll be there – the bands included – weren’t even born when I attended my first show, but they’re imbued with a spirit that has not just survived, but developed and grown for the better – much better – ever since those early days of nihilism and razor blades.

Will I miss being one of a thousand-plus people jumping in unison and singing along to the “whoa oh oh oh” of “Veronica Hates Me” like we did at the last McGregor’s show?  Of diving exuberantly into the pit and braving, defiantly dodging the flying kicks and punches of the requisite boneheads who always feel the need to dominate and hurt?  A little, maybe, but it’s mostly just memories now anyway.  That world is gone.  A better one beckons.

 

31 thoughts on “The Great Divide

  • March 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm
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    THANK YOU for this! Also, my friends in New Creases and Delay thank you! Have fun tonight. I miss my Columbus friends quite a lot.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm
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    I feel ya. When people point to events like that and say, “Eh, that’s punk rock!” I think, “Not the kind I grew up with.”

    Not that no one ever got hurt at a show, or said something terrible. But the shows I go to, the crew I ran with… people take care of each other. Had a singer ever punched a chick, the crowd would have – at the very least – booed them off the stage.

    I don’t know if it’s the crowd, or the venue, but it seems like some kind of mob mentality takes over in these situations. And I’ve long thought that the anonymity of the internet causes people to be far crueler than they’d have the balls to be in person.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm
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    This made me think a lot. Part of me feels that not hitting girls just because they’re girls is just as sexist as asking one why she’s out of the kitchen. But that’s not really the issue here, as Ben and the woman in the crowd were on far-from-equal footing. As you mentioned in your previous blog post, Ben had a number of ways he could’ve better reacted to the circumstances he found himself in, whatever the woman was doing to provoke him.

    I can certainly relate to your not wanting to listen to the Screeching Weasels at the moment. While I’ve known a few of their songs for a while, I won’t claim to be well-versed in weaselry, or a huge fan of the band. Listening to some of their other offerings today, I could taste a little bitterness. While I can appreciate their music, I won’t be in the mood for it for a while.

    Thanks for another great post, Larry!

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  • March 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm
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    Your comparisons of weasel , et al with Neanderthals does a great disservice to the paleolithic community.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm
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    GREAT blog entry.
    Thanks so much for these words. They meant a lot to me.
    Greetings from CHILE.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 6:04 pm
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    Let’s be realistic here: Ben ranting about not getting paid enough at SXSW, a major music industry showcase, has basically nothing to do with “punk rock” at all.

    Maybe I’m being close-minded as to the dreaded “what is punk” issue, and I’m the last to care about “selling out” or other such things, but I really don’t understand what makes people continue to pile Ben Weasel in under the umbrella of “punk.” Is it that his singular motivation seems to be dollars? Is it his apparent distaste for anything liberal, “PC,” or DIY? I just don’t get it.

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  • Pingback:Larry Livermore – Original Founder of Lookout! Records – Weighs in on the Ben Weasel situation : AMP Magazine

  • March 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm
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    Something had to be impairing his judgement at the time. You don’t punch two people after getting hit in the face with an ice cube and some beer. That shit happens all the time at shows.

    It shouldn’t be a matter of “is it more sexist to punch a woman, or to not punch a woman because she’s a woman?” You don’t punch people, period. Humans didn’t evolve into complex life because we punched each other all day. If we revert back to this “neanderthal” way of solving our problems, then we’re not going to continue to progress.

    As for the “what is punk?” question. Punk, to me, isn’t supposed to follow any rules. I always thought of it as a way of expressing your feelings and beliefs, being accepted regardless of what they are.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm
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    Don’t lose this in the “Does it matter if she was a girl?” debate; Ben hit a person. Very few reasonable, responsible people over the age of six will find themselves thinking that throwing a punch is the proper thing to do in a particular situation.

    Ben Weasel is forty-three years old, and he punches people.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm
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    thank you for this larry, i have some of the lookout fanzines that i keep them as a treasure and through the years i still read your blogs. Now that this hellhole rose up about weasel, all i wanted to know was your opinion on the matter. you’re an amazing human being.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 7:53 pm
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    The fallout from Ben Weasel’s meltdown continues to rival that from the Fukushima reactor

    Seriously? Drama much? Yeah, this totally rivals a bunch of people dying from radiation poisoning and a long term environmental disaster.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm
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    I just wrote an epic about why this event is meaningless taken in a global context, I’ve deleted it…. Ben did something wrong…. No one died…. People are dying in Libya, a huge natural disaster just hit Japan… Ben fucked up and is being a dick… End…

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  • March 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm
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    I blew it by not going to that show tonight. Big Soda is one of my favorite bands going.

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  • March 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm
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    I’ve noticed an incident that parallels this one that also arose from SXSW this past weekend…yet, it resulted in much different reactions from people, and far less attention has been paid to the incident in the media, despite it being a much uglier scenario and involving a much more famous celebrity than Ben Weasel.

    Professional skateboarder and Jackass star, Bam Margera, also got into a physical confrontation with a woman, one that also stemmed from her harassing him and ultimately hitting him. His reaction? He, too, punched a woman. However…during the scuffle, he fell down, got kicked in the face, knocked out cold and, subsequently, robbed of the $500 bracelet he was wearing.

    Why was Bam not demonized for punching a woman? Why have the responses been of the “you go, girl” and “ha, what a fag…got his ass kicked by a girl” variety? Surely, his name is forty-five to fifty times more recognizable than Ben Weasel’s…but where was the blurb on rollingstone.com about this? Why is it the media outlets that had covered Bam’s story did so with an air of humor?

    The real question is–would any of us be talking negatively of Ben (or of the incident at all) right now had he gotten beat up, robbed or any other conclusion that would’ve perhaps empowered the opposite sex?

    I seriously doubt it. We would’ve had a few days worth of mockery and “Wimp Fest” references amongst the punknews.org community, someone would’ve started a rumor on Facebook that Ben was joining Pansy Division and someone else would’ve drawn a black-eye on the Weasel logo that would’ve circulated the Twittersphere until the workweek began.

    Larry, I didn’t grow up in the Berkeley scene, but I did grow up with its music and its mentality a continent away thanks in part to various zines and mail-order records (most of which is accredited to you). I know for an absolute fact that this positively charged subculture you speak of helped shape me at a young and impressionable age. I access the world around me with what I consider a very clear, open-mind and I do not pass judgement on someone due to their race, sex, nationality, age or how long it takes them to shit. I see humans as humans…and after two decades of meeting countless “punk rock affiliates,” I was fairly certain I wasn’t alone with this mentality.

    That’s why I find all this a big fucking joke. Gender is clearly an issue amongst all of these “progressive” thinkers. My gender is not inherently better than another. The opposite sex does not need to be treated as fragile, or handled with kid gloves. Does this give men the right to hit women? No. Men shouldn’t hit men either. 

    However, as illustrated by that strikingly similar situation that happened not only at the same place, but the very same weekend, our society’s stance on feminism, sexism and, no doubt, a whole lot of other isms is completely skewed and hypocritical. I’m not condoning “equal rights, equal fights,” but these people who’re aggressively opposing Ben showcase some serious inconsistencies in their belief of equality. Sociopolitical contradictions are one thing, but even more of it reeks of bullshit posturing for figurative high-fives. Then, of course, there’s the people who enjoy lynching someone for a mistake, and continuing to do so after this person has acknowledged and apologized for it….that’s twice as sickening as the act that spurred it all in the first place.

    Ben Foster is not a terrible person. Ben made a mistake, but he shouldn’t be condemned and abandoned for it. He’s a human being, and lately, he really isn’t being treated like one. 

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  • March 25, 2011 at 12:56 am
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    You’re the punkiest punk that ever was punk Larry! What is the point you are trying to make in this article? Really, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Did you just explain what punk is?

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  • March 25, 2011 at 12:56 am
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    Couldn’t have said it better myself… Me being involved in the punk scene like I am, I see a bunch of hypocrisy….. like the reaction to this whole mess… “It’s punk rock”…. well a lot of punks go against governments and the powers that be for justifying their immoral doings and operations… well the ones saying that it’s punk rock and justifying this are no better than the system they blatantly speak out against…

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  • March 25, 2011 at 12:58 am
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    melodramatic

    if everyone let it run its course and left it alone, we’d see the matter for what it really is

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  • March 25, 2011 at 3:23 am
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    “As much as my heart goes out to Ben Weasel”

    So a 43 year old man, who’s played punk shows for 20 years and should know how to handle himself on stage in any situation still gets a pass?

    The guy pissed & moaned about having to play the show relentlessly on his twitter account. No one held a gun to his to play said show. If he’s too inept to get a guarantee in writing, I can hardly feel sorry for his non-business savvy.

    So what do fans get that payed to see this hyped show. A non-stop diatribe of whining and misogynistic verbal wanking.

    He has no one to blame but himself.

    It’s clear that the bands that have bailed on Weaselfest and his band mates bailing on him speak volumes.

    Their are Neanderthals in punk,metal,rap….hell, any genre. Nothing new there.

    Joe Queer would be better served to keep his comments to himself. Him & Weasel show why they never made it to the next level as Green Day. Perhaps that’s where this pent up anger stems from?

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  • March 25, 2011 at 5:36 am
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    Please don’t even joke about a, “plague of locusts descending on Wisconsin.” After what they’ve done to their teachers, they’d deserve it, but I don’t think they can stand any more troubles for the same reason.

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  • March 25, 2011 at 10:19 am
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    I’ve had many a good time pulling no punches with Ben Weasel. Great wit, sharp tongue, very competitive and sometimes actually downright enjoyable.

    The other day when I saw the video on the “Punch Heard Around The World”, I rubbed my eyes and immediately thought “hoax”. I had it on good word that he was going to mix it up in Austin. Little did I know that after 20 plus years, Impunity Ben would crash and burn in mere second in a furious tantrum akin to that chimp who was on Xanax who ate it’s owners face.

    I’ve come to learn there are many sides in this discussion, and as I push middle age I seem to fall into an antiquated position, “You never hit a women, ever”. What’s odd to me is Meatheads and Gender Warriors seem to have found common ground; “Bitch deserved it” vs. “I can stick up for myself, man pig”. The gray hairs on my chin make my heels dig in, plug my ears and rock back and forth humming, knowing in my heart of hearts that on this matter, I’m right.

    If I said this situation was disappointing that would be an understatement. I sincerely hope Ben figures all this out. If and when he does, I’m not certian it will ever be enough. I figure 25 years of antagonism takes that much time to undo, maybe more?

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  • March 25, 2011 at 12:31 pm
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    Oh Mr. Livermore, you lost me at the first line. This situation rivals the tragedy in Japan? I know you’re a better writer than that.

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  • March 25, 2011 at 3:27 pm
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    Both parties were at fault — spitting on someone is considered a criminal assault under the law.

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  • March 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm
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    Yes. Ben berated her friends for an hour. She spat. He punched. Equally bad.

    dan10things, is that some sort of meta humor where the second fake overreaction to the first fake overreaction is supposed to be funnier by purposely driving the joke into the ground?

    Ben’s a prick. A talented prick at times, but still a prick. There is no defense for his actions. He went out of his way to create an ugly situation.

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  • March 25, 2011 at 11:08 pm
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    I don’t think this Livermore chataracter should be discussing the sexism of others until he does a self-examination on his sexism as related to Sarah Palin. Dude has issues and needs to look in the mirror. I didn’t finish this whole piece because Livermore’s blog posts are insanely long-winded and dull.

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  • March 26, 2011 at 11:31 am
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    That’s not sexism. Nobody dislikes Sarah Palin because she’s a woman. They dislike her because she’s a horrible person.

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  • March 27, 2011 at 11:06 pm
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    “In the past, I’ve teased Aaron over what I had judged as an overly PC concern with feminist issues and with how punk was presented and marketed to the mainstream, but I’ve come to believe he was on the right track all along.”

    That aspect of the scene used to grate me a little at times; it seemed like people were just a little TOO sensitive. I remember once during the glory days of the Lookout Records “Message Board” or whatever it was called, getting called out for using the term “prison bitch” in jest. “It’s actually not really a term usually applied to WOMEN, per se,” I weakly protested to the inevitable accusations of misogyny.

    But I see it now. More than ever, I see it. There is an ugliness out there, and if you’re going to fight it in a positive way, you have to choose your messages very consciously.

    The old Message Board “nannies” win, in other words; I’d never use the term “prison bitch” now, because it seems like such a bone-headed, macho kind of thing to say. I am proud of NOT being those things.

    Also: I’m pretty sure equating “Ben Weasel’s fist crosses gender boundaries at SXSW” with “nuclear reactor melts down in Japan after deadly earthquake and tsunami” is an example of hyperbole. THAT part of the “punk rock sensitivity” thing still grates me, the thing where people take stuff really, really literally.

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  • March 30, 2011 at 10:29 am
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    Ben Weasel, what a complicated guy.

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  • April 3, 2011 at 2:25 am
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    fallout… meltdown… reactor… a play on words and a reference to current larger tragedy. good writing actually!

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  • June 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm
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    http://www.benweasel.com/2011/05/31/a-little-sanity/#comments

    Ben is the Sarah Palin of the punk world. He dishes it out but can’t take it in return. He was a total asshole and completely out of line, yet he sees himself as the victim in all of this. And the comments from his adoring fans… blech. There is nothing sane about what Joe “The chick deserved a punch” Queer or Jessica “At least he didn’t rape anybody!” Hopper wrote. Jenny Choi’s response is more honest, but she’s still blaming the victim and the venue owner. He baited. They responded accordingly. He threw a couple of punches. It starts and ends with Ben. — I was prepared to let it fade, but he’s still being a dick about it. Show a little humility, douche. Admit that you were wrong. -or- So I don’t hate you anymore, apologize.

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