By John A Duerk
December 29th, 2019
“Simply being straight edge doesn’t make you better than anyone else, especially if you embrace and perpetuate a lot of the fucked-up aspects of mainstream culture.” –Eva Hall, p. 28
Gabriel Kuhn has done it again. Nearly a decade after his initial effort to capture the political elements associated with straight edge, he offers us another well-conceived title, X: Straight Edge and Radical Sobriety, published by PM Press. Without question, it is a solid companion to the first book, Sober Living for the Revolution, that he compiled about a song that has evolved into subcultural phenomenon around the globe. This collection of interviews and essays further demonstrates how the choice to oppose a pervasive “intoxication culture” warrants further exploration.
One of the more stirring essays is by Clementine Morrigan, a queer anarchist who describes how her experience of incest led to years of reckless self-medication with alcohol and drugs as she sought ways to suppress her pain. Once she realized that she could not continue this self-destructive behavior, she entered a twelve-step program to regain control and later became an advocate to assist others. “I built relationships and community and helped newcomers get sober…I did a lot of…organizing and facilitated workshops on intoxication culture. I started thinking about ways in which sober communities and harm reduction communities could work together” (p. 274). Furthermore, her work is layered. Clementine’s path, which is rooted in a “principled life,” also includes other political dimensions as she critiques a “heteronormative, capitalist narrative of what sobriety should look like” (p. 276) – institutions that she thinks are socially accepted and reinforced without challenge.
Another powerful piece that is included in this volume is by Sarambi, who writes about the harmful effects that drugs have on different parts of the world. For example, subjugation and exploitation have occurred across Latin America as some people are caught up in a drug economy that is both condoned and condemned by different actors for their own political reasons. “I watched too many people end up in the clutches of the state for abusing or pushing drugs only because they had nothing else to gain or lose” (p. 235). The author claims that a person will never be free when they are confined by the severely limited options dictated by nations such as the United States. “Many people are no longer able to access their generational homelands due to violence related to the purest capitalist motives of those who have ‘moved up,’ forced to take work as runners, pushers, guards, etc. since there is nothing else because the land is poisoned or monocropped” (p. 237). Ultimately, the U.S. government conducts drug interdiction efforts that decimate communities of color within its own borders while reinforcing white supremacy abroad.
Another strength of X is that it illuminates ideas such as “total liberation” and “intersectionality” that have taken root among participants in the hardcore scene. Eva Hall recalls how some didn’t make connections between social issues when her previous band, Gather, performed in the mid 2000s (p. 24, 27). Still committed to her principles, she’s concerned about a variety of issues, including “capitalism, and…industrialized civilization” because our practices are “devastating this planet and everything on it,” (p. 26). Furthermore, she explains how the once predominantly male scene has shifted and how she found a place as Gather’s vocalist (p. 29). Next, Kat, who self-identified as straight edge in reaction to where she lived, describes her experiences editing the fanzine, xclusivx. She believes vegan straight edge isn’t an “isolated theme,” rather it’s associated with others in the human condition (p. 202). With regards to the zine’s contents, the collective wanted “to present perspectives that allowed readers to connect the dots” for themselves (p. 202). It served as a vehicle to disseminate ideas about issues such as feminism because the hardcore music scene is male dominated. To Kat, “in a puzzle of oppression, no piece is isolated” (p. 203). Lastly, the Sober Anarchist Feminist Trans Crew (SAFT) argues that class is just as important as gender. “Alcohol soothes aching bodies and becomes a simple escape from the alienation of work and the hate of the world around us. But it doesn’t create revolutions. A pacified working class doesn’t rise…The system hands us a bottle and wants us to be lonely, quiet, and weak” (p. 255). For SAFT, alcohol distracts people from their miserable condition and undermines their ability to change it.
As one might imagine, no book is perfect and I have a few critical thoughts about X. Why not conduct a new interview with Martin Sorrondeguy to explore why he no longer self-identifies as straight edge? If you’re going to interview people who abstain, but don’t embrace a label (e.g. Jon Active), it makes sense to ask other figures why they distanced themselves and reframed their lives. Also, might Kent McClard have additional insights to share now that he’s middle aged and has decades of experiences to reflect upon? Lastly, Kuhn’s own essay on events in Madrid, Spain (p. 135-138) leaves me with multiple questions about what happened there. If you’re going to include a discussion of straight edge anarchists being accused of orchestrating an act of political violence, then the reader deserves a more thorough narrative to understand the case along with its implications.
Ultimately, X appeals to two separate parts of me. First, there’s the aging suburban punk who loves hardcore – from the classic bands and records to more contemporary acts and their respective output. The ideas drew me in as a teenager. I can’t see that fading. So, reading this book gives me hope for tomorrow because another world is waiting for us. Secondly, it’s an entry point for academics like myself who are fascinated by radical subcultures that transgress normative behavior as their participants envision a different society. Yes, there’s a wealth of primary material here to analyze. Thank you, Gabriel Kuhn, for putting it together.