Big (Racist) Mouth Strikes Again

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.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 7:38am #

    Regarding the statement that chinese have little influence on china’s govt or ruling party, it needs an elucidation or proof that chinese people do not influence their govt to a greater degree than asocialists [fascists] say.

    Dieticians tell us that chinese people, on the whole, eat less meat than west does. And some chinese ethnoses eat no or still less meat than other chinese.

    Chinese may eat dogs, frogs, cats, or even snakes. Are most chinese cruel to these animals? The writer offers no evidence. It may be true. But, please, show us.

    And if chinese vote in the communist-socialist party, then they approve of what their govt does.
    It may be similar to what happens in US with 99% of americnas voting for one war-party, bailouts, deformed healthcare, privately-owned information, etc.
    tnx

  2. Alexander Billet said on September 7th, 2010 at 8:26am #

    Bozh, I think you’re being rather obtuse here. First of all, this was an article about Morrissey’s racist comments; not about the Chinese government or animal rights.

    Second, as I make clear, there is no evidence that China is uniquely cruel to animals, and in fact given the conditions in most US or UK meatpacking plants (look at, for example, the Smithfield plant in North Carolina) the accusations from Moz are, in fact racist. It’s a rather simple case.

    On the subject of voting, you’re being similarly oblique. You can’t possibly say that most Chinese citizens approve of what their government does simply because some vaguely formal semblance of democracy exists in the country. This is a one-party state where anyone outside the ruling party is prohibited from running. In fact, the recent strike wave originating in the auto industry there reveals a massive discontent with the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

  3. MichaelKenny said on September 7th, 2010 at 8:46am #

    This strikes me as a very silly article. Clearly, the use of the term “subspecies” is hyperbole and not meant to be taken literally! If he had called the Chinese a bunch of bastards, would Mr Billet accuse him of impugning the honour of Chinese women? Equally, the idea that you can’t criticise someone unless you criticise everybody else who does the same thing is just laughable! He was referring to a news report on China, so he commented on China! If the report had concerned a whole host of countries, he would no doubt have applied his comment to all of them. Thus, hyping this up into some sort of racism is just plain silly! I’ve never heard of Morrissey, by the way, but I see he was born in England to Irish parents in 1959 and is noted for his violent language. At age 51, he is hardly a major pop star and waning stars often try to attract attention to themselves by making “shocking” comments. Mr Billet and others have certainly fallen into that trap! Finally, strong, even violent, language and exaggeration are a very common form of humour in Ireland, especially in Dublin, and, in fact, the more lurid the formulation, the more it is regarded as funny. That’s probably where Morrissey got the idea. Now that he has got your attention, you’ll probably go out and buy some of his CDs just to see what he sounds like! Which is probably what he wanted in the first place …

  4. mary said on September 7th, 2010 at 9:01am #

    Morrissey is a hypocritical racist. He showed no compunction in going to Israel to perform in Tel Aviv in the year that that ‘plucky litle state’ celebrated its 60th birthday, ie the 60th anniversary of the Occupation of Palestine. His gig was 6 months away from the greater shoah (Cast Lead)enacted upon the people of Gaza.

    This was in spite of our many requests and pleas not to go.

    http://www.thedailyswarm.com/swarm/palestinians-slam-morrissey-israel-concert-plans/

  5. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 10:34am #

    AB,
    By labeling what is said “obtuse” and then go on on basis of that deliberately chosen label [and which is not found in my post] to add more to that, you have told me that you are an asocialist; i.e., a fascist.

    Conductive to a civilized talk is to quote what was actually said and not to condemn the person’s real or imagined faults by using arbitrary label.
    Did i give you permission to use it?
    Labelin what a person said an dthen using the own label to attack what others say is an ancient ruse.

    I have stated clearly that i assume that chinese voters vote in communists.
    It is just like americans voting in uncle sam’s war party. You’re not suggesting uncle sam has two parties, are you? Who’d be that stupid? I have only one party!
    So, one party in US, the plutocratic party, rules US and one party, the communist party, rules china and avowedly to prevent plutocrats to rise and rule china.

    So, why a priori condemn one party for whatever it may be building and not the one party which already has a finished product; an ideally apsolute plutocratic rule with chasmic differences in earning, while neeeds being about the same.

    And chinese communists not killing children and women while US does that with great pride.

    M. does condemn chinese for cruelty and for being subhuman. So how’s what he said not pertinent? Thus, i condemn M’s utterances! tnx

  6. Alexander Billet said on September 7th, 2010 at 10:54am #

    To MichaelKenny: so your solution to racism is that when it raises its ugly head is to simply ignore it? Your insulting words notwithstanding, I actually am quite familiar with Morrissey’s past and music (which, as you admit, you are not). It would be one thing if this were the first time he’s spoken like this; it’s not. Furthermore, his exact words were “you can’t help but feel the Chinese are a subspecies.” That’s flat-out racism, the kind of shit you’d hear from a pith-helmeted colonialist looking for a biological justification for conquering. It’s undeniable, indefensible. If he wanted to make a comment about animal rights, then

    To Bozh: Here comes another label: laughable, which is what your comment above is. I don’t need permission to call you either that or obtuse, because you simply were. I can assure you I’m no fascist, as my article makes quite clear in renouncing fascism and racism. You seem rather hellbent on forcing a definition here, not to mention quite influenced by Stalinism (i.e. your insistence that China is not guilty like the US of “killing children and women with pride”–I think the Tibetans might disagree with you on that). So really, I would encourage you to please read the article more carefully and not jump to assumptions before you start posting on these message boards.

    There isn’t any apology for what Morrissey said here. It would be a bit blunt to tie it directly to his smug defiance of the cultural boycott against Israel (the link that Mary put up), but it certainly doesn’t help his case. I wasn’t aware he had made such a move until Mary posted that link. So thanks for that.

  7. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 10:59am #

    There is no reason why the best governance ever developed for ruling a mass of americans with an iron grip, would not call such a near-perfect asocialistic structure “democracy”.

    Alas, its is not a timocratic nor pantisocratic governance. It can be seen with naked eye and even CNN is raising questions about it now.

    Actually, US appears lawless, or as i say, diktatful. While constitution is interpreted solely by judges and appointed to that role by lawless people. And who are assured that interpretaion of any ‘law’ is as expected-ordered.
    Won of its interpretations is that truman was justified for incinerating ?220 innocent civilians.
    And truman did not know with certainty that his act wld be declared constitutional????
    What a democracy?? I wldn’t wish it even on colombia let alone cuba, vietnam! tnx

  8. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 11:19am #

    People label. I do think that they believe in magic of words. But labeling does not explain anything. However, it tells s’mthing about the user who labels a person or what he says euphemisticly or dysphemisticly!

    So, when i call any person “fascist” who condemns chinese govt while ignoring crimes by israeli, UK, french, US govts, i am aware that it does not impart knowledge unless i had previously listed a fascsist’s traits.
    So that’s the difference that makes an enormous difference.
    And from time to time i do that , but use the word “fascist” only as a shortcut.
    Yes, i am against china’s occupation of tibet. But china killing children and women? It is possible! tnx

  9. bozh said on September 7th, 2010 at 11:28am #

    I’ve just reared AB’s piece and have not found the word “fascism” nor condemnation of M’s or any fascism in it! tnx

  10. mary said on September 7th, 2010 at 1:41pm #

    I appreciated your article and I liked your interesting blog which I have just visited.

    Above you say ‘Right now there could very well be some alienated kid in urban Britannia flirting with far-right ideas’. Not just kids I’m afraid Alexander. Grown adults too.

    In line with the fascists Berlusconi and Sarkozy who are rounding up Roma people camped on the outskirts of Rome and Paris, demolishing their makeshift shelters and deporting them, we have a council in England that is sending in the bulldozers to get rid of homes that are said to have been built without planning permission by travellers or gypsies as they are called and whose origins are mostly Irish. There are also connections with the Romanies and we know what happened to them in the holocaust.

    They want and need a permanent dwelling place and education for their children. They are subject to great discrimination and are often called ‘pikeys’ which is a derogatory term. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pikey)

    This local authority is spending £2 million on the evictions and demolitions and are employing baliifs who have a thuggish reputation.

    Fascism is alive and well here. It it shocking and upsetting that such inhumanity exists and that ethnic cleansing is happening in the UK in 2010.

    A series of messages here –
    http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/

  11. mary said on September 7th, 2010 at 1:54pm #

    I appreciated your article and I liked your interesting blog which I have just visited.

    Above you say ‘Right now there could very well be some alienated kid in urban Britannia flirting with far-right ideas’. Not just kids I’m afraid Alexander. Grown adults too.

    In line with the fascists Berlusconi and Sarkozy who are rounding up Roma people camped on the outskirts of Rome and Paris, demolishing their makeshift shelters and deporting them, we have a council in England that is sending in the bulldozers to get rid of homes that are said to have been built without planning permission by travellers or gypsies as they are called and whose origins are mostly Irish. There are also connections with the Romanies and we know what happened to them in the holocaust.

    They want and need a permanent dwelling place and education for their children. They are subject to great discrimination and are often called ‘pikeys’ which is a derogatory term. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pikey)

    This local authority is spending £2 million on the evictions and demolitions and are employing baliifs who have a thuggish reputation.

    Fascism is alive and well here. It it shocking and upsetting that such inhumanity exists and that ethnic cleansing is happening in the UK in 2010.

    A series of messages here –
    http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/

  12. hayate said on September 9th, 2010 at 11:47pm #

    This public skoolboi morrissey is a piece of dung. Correction, he’s a gigantic, stinking, steaming pile of the stuff, and a good representation of what went wrong with the greedy, drooling, knuckledraggers who bought into “me first” wankery espoused during the 80’s. His racism has been out there for sometime now. The guy is surplus. Always has been.

    Bit of trivia: a Russian teenage girl duo did a much better cover of the smith’s tune “How Soon Is Now” than the smiths ever accomplished:

    The smiths original

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUMh8GQnDW8

    t.A.T.u’s much better cover

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eGvmB8Phk8

    Enjoy :D