Right now, most fans of Morrissey are probably thinking the same thing: “we’ve been here before, and it’s starting to get old.”
In an interview with British poet Simon Armitage published September 3rd in the Guardian, the former Smiths singer called the Chinese subhuman. It’s not an exaggeration, and it’s not a misquote; plainly stated, it was a jab at a nationality that comprise a full sixth of the planet and essentially relegates them to less-than-human status:
“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”
There’s a lot that’s simply stupid about this quote. First of all, Morrissey is well aware that China isn’t alone in its wretched record on animal cruelty. The outspoken vegetarian and animal rights activist should well aware of the horrible conditions that prevail in any western slaughterhouse. One would think too that he would be just as aware of how little control most ordinary Chinese have over their proto-police state government’s policies. Ultimately, his argument smacks way too much of vile Kipling-ism donning the facade of compassion.
What’s really frustrating, however, is the overwhelming sense of deja vu. Like most Morrissey fans, I don’t relish the idea of ragging on the man. In today’s troubled era, much of Moz’s old catalogue withstands the test of time brilliantly. Songs like “Margaret on the Guillotine” and “The Queen is Dead” are reminders of how even at the coldest depths of Thatcherism there remained a core of artists giving voice to a bit of sanity. His comments lambasting conservatism have always carried with them a certain, shall we say, frankness. But then, that was part of the charm.
At least that’s how it seems until the opposite side of the coin started to glint out. 1987’s “Bengali in Platforms” didn’t view its subject matter with any real sensitivity; in fact it’s conclusion was that the South Asian immigrant didn’t “belong.” Then came ‘91’s “Asian Rut,” followed closely by the infamous track “The National Front Disco.” By the time he started to pop up at Madness shows draped in the Union Jack, it wasn’t surprising that rumors of racism were swirling.
For whatever reason, though, Moz has always been able to beat the rap. His song lyrics could somehow be explained away as artistic license, the Union Jack incident as tongue-in-cheek provocation. Artists love to push the envelope, and somewhere down the line, Mozzer just decided contradiction was his bag. What’s more, his early support for Love Music Hate Racism seemed to put an end to all the speculation.
Which makes his recent behavior all the more quizzical. In early 2008, I wrote an article for Dissident Voice examining his seemingly disparaging remarks on immigration to the New Musical Express. Many of the comments and emails I received afterwards were, to say the least, discouraging. Some seemed convinced that there was nothing racist in saying that British culture was being “thrown away.” Others, including those who identified as part of the left, simply accused me of “journalistic laziness” and “intellectual cowardice,” though they failed to say exactly what made my article lazy or cowardly.
As it all played out, Morrissey quickly released a statement denouncing the NME, providing a rather compelling argument that he didn’t actually say what the rag claimed he did. Though the “my words were taken out of context” argument is something of a stock cliche in the world of celebrity, nobody could deny that the NME’s standards have declined in recent years. A few days later, when the publication withdrew support for the upcoming Love Music Hate Racism carnival in London, Moz stepped up and donated the sizable sum of 28,000 pounds to cover the difference. When push came to shove, it seemed the singer knew which side he stood on.
And now, this. One has to wonder how many times an artist of Morrissey’s status can make comments of this nature and be let off the hook. Tom Clark, writing in the Guardian, sums it up:
“He’s caused enough upset on race in the past to know perfectly well that he ought to take care with his public remarks. But he hasn’t. So if the charge is causing racial offence, the only feasible judgment is guilty.”
Other former allies have thrown in the towel with him. Martin Smith of Love Music Hate Racism tells me that several of the organization’s participating artists have decided they want to have nothing further to do with Moz.
“You know, you can make comments once, and everyone’s entitled to be wrong or change their mind once,” says Smith. “I think the problem we’ve got with Morrissey is that he’s done it several times! I don’t believe it’s a mistake, I think it’s conscious, and I think he’s gone too far… These are much more serious statements than he’s made before. I mean ‘subhuman’ is crude racism to put it mildly. If someone like Adolf Hitler said that you’d talk about biological racism, which everyone knows is genocidal!”
So is this in fact the last straw? Is Morrissey now finally fated to be forever branded a racist? Most likely, he would deny it up and down (though it’s worth remembering that some of the modern world’s most virulent bigots would never identify as such).
In the end, though, his personal views seem less relevant than the atmosphere in which he’s let these vile comments fly. Ideas like these, long relegated to the fringes of society, are becoming common currency again thanks to the rise of an emboldened far-right. The British National Party and other like-minded groups are winning parliamentary seats in Europe. Roving bands of open fascists are stalking mosques and neighborhoods of color, targeting anyone with brown skin.
All of this makes Morrissey’s comments dangerous. Straight up. The volatile atmosphere of hate is one in which young folks’ ideas become a literal battleground. Right now there could very well be some alienated kid in urban Britannia flirting with far-right ideas. Hearing a well-respected musician get away with calling another race a “subspecies” might be just enough to push their confidence over the edge into beating down an immigrant. Still others on the opposite end of the polarization are just sick of Moz acting like he doesn’t care when the rest of us clearly do.
Plainly stated, Morrissey needs to learn what Bowie, Costello, Clapton and countless others learned before him: that pop artists don’t stand above the fray. They can say what they want and sit back with a smug smile if they wish, but they shouldn’t be surprised when reality comes back to bite them in the ass.