I made a stray reference in an earlier conversation to the band 10000 Maniacs and their late 80s album “In My Tribe”, which was such an important influence on so many people in my generation (man, starting to sound old when I say that now…)
When I was looking over some Wikipedia pages about the band, I noticed a tendency for the authors of those pages to gloss over a controversy in which the band involved itself. (I almost said “a controversy in which the band was involved”, but for reasons you should understand better in a moment, I am eschewing the use of the passive voice. This was a controversy in which they actively chose to involve themselves.)
The controversy to which I refer was the one which emerged when the band decided to discontinue playing the song “Peace Train”, which had been on the “In My Tribe” album, and to release any new CD versions of the album without the song. The reason they chose to do this was the band’s disgust with the public comments of the song’s author, Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens). I’ll call him Stevens here, basically because I don’t want my comments to seem like they are directed against a mainstream religion (after which someone has named himself), but rather at the apologies offered for religious extremism by one particular individual.
As you may recall, Stevens gave an interview in which he appeared to condone Iran’s fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie. He maintains that he does not condone this, but I will let you judge for yourself whether he’s believable on that point. Wikipedia has a good page on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_Stevens%27_comments_about_Salman_Rushdie
Salman Rushdie himself, to be clear on the matter, thinks he did condone it, and he still thinks that. Rushdie was reduced to quietly reminding Jon Stewart recently that Stevens said what he said after Stewart invited him to sing at his Washington rally. (Fortunately, Rushdie appears to have gotten through to Stewart, who agreed that “Death for free speech is a deal breaker.”)
The members of 10000 Maniacs got that right more than two decades before Jon Stewart considered who he wanted to entertain at his rally. So why are people – even decent, intelligent people like Jon Stewart – still educating themselves about this kind of thing now?
I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason is that people don’t want to be perceived as a part of a “backlash”. For better or worse, those raising an alarm about the behaviour of Stevens are painted as if they are in full “backlash” mode, standing against peace (the song is called “Peace Train”, after all) and against lands where people have darkly-complected skin and an experience of European colonialism.
Natalie Merchant said in this 1989 article, regarding the song Peace Train, “I wish we could take it off the album”. In another article from the same period ( http://www.gdrmusic.com/atnatalie/library/bmz/8909xxb.htm ), she said “We’ve made a vow never to sing the song again. It’s not a form of censuring him either. We chose to record the song, and we can choose not to record it.”
Yet most of the things you read today about this decision portray it as being a corporate decision, and a passive one at that. For example, the Wikipedia article on “In My Tribe” says this: “In 1989, the cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ was removed from the U.S. CD version following an apparent condonement by Stevens (by now a Muslim convert and known as Yusuf Islam) of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.”
“Was removed.” By whom? In these old 1989 articles, it’s clear it was the band that did the removing, because the band had a problem with Stevens and his “hypocritical remark” about Rushdie. But today we don’t hear about that. It was more just something that happened. There was some bad vibes, no one remembers why…let’s all get on with our lives, I guess.
We should _remember_ that this was not a passive decision, it was an active one, undertaken because people in the band understood the significance of what Stevens had said and made a conscious decision that they could not sing a song about peace written by someone who promotes death sentences against a writer of novels.
Yet, we can’t remember if people don’t continue to raise issues out of fear of having their views labeled as a “backlash”. And that was a legitimate worry for the band members, pretty evidently. One rock and roll anthology book noted, for example, that “in certain quarters, they scored points by removing Cat Stevens’ ‘Peace Train’ from ‘In My Tribe’.” In certain quarters? Really? Since when has concern for human rights only been a concern expressed “in certain quarters”? Are you saying that criticising Cat Stevens for threatening someone means you’re George W. Bush’s BFF? Why not say it out loud, folks? Why all the coy disguises?
My advice is that sometimes you have to repackage things. When it’s not really backlash, it needs a new name. I suggest “frontlash”.
My respect to the members of 10000 Maniacs, past and present, not only for providing my youth with such a fine musical background, but for standing up for what’s right while so many of my generation continue to look away.