20 years ago, I decided that I was going to be a punk. The particulars that went into this decision escape me today. I was always a confirmed and natural loner, and by eighth grade I’d mustered the personal courage to rise to a lurker. My lurking was broad at first but soon narrowed to the punk crowd who sat in the farthest corner of the cafeteria with few other people and no windows. Weirdly, I hadn’t heard a real punk album before that, not consciously anyway. The timeline of my CD purchases is a bit hazy. Somewhere in there was a basement show attendance. For all intents and purposes, though, it was simply a decision that made sense — it was almost a logical deduction. Being punk appealed to me in some way that I couldn’t quite place but I would have all the time in the world to figure it out. So I made the plunge.
Anyway, it wasn’t really why I became a punk that stood out to the other punks at school so much as how I became a punk. I was in line for lunch with two of them and asked point blank if I could become punk. Yes, I asked permission to join a subculture prided and derided for its anarchic tendencies. My present company, two people in the clique of generous natures, said something to the effect of “Yeah, sure.”
I commenced immediately with an intensive self-education, mostly by way of whatever I could find on the Yahoo! directory. I discovered bands that my peers had never mentioned, explored and compared neighboring subcultures (goth, rivethead, metalhead, rude boy) and punk’s own taxonomy (SHARP, emo, skater, pop punk, oi, hardcore, and so on). I had heard about straight edge before without really knowing what it was, but having connected it to punk and not being interested in pursuing hedonism, I embraced it. During a later lunch period I asked a friend to draw X-marks on my hands using a black Bic. At some point in the day, I asked that friend to make the X’s darker.
Though my autodidacticism makes up a large part of my overall education, I was especially sensitive when I turned it to this subject. I always had the convert’s scholastic zeal; but at the same time I was intimidated by the group. They had forged bonds with each other over the past several years while I plumbed my own psyche in solitude trying to mine an identity worth having. It felt a bit like barging in, and to be quite honest, some seemed to confirm that sense and were not keen on mentoring, not that I could blame them. For instance, reading a Rolling Stone record guide in the library during a study hall, I discovered the term “indie rock” for the first time. When I asked them what precisely it was one answered “It sucks” while another said, possibly sardonically, it was Duran Duran. This is not to say my presence was totally offensive. Some people were generous and perhaps sincerely enjoyed my curiosity, some people were not and could be dismissive or cruel, and some people were amused or at least very patient. But the sense of being judged was always hanging on me.
High school, as I am constantly reminded, is a territorial society. It may not be as strictly zoological as pop culture suggests, but it is remarkable enough that protecting one’s territory is of some importance. Protection is accomplished in a number of ways: pecking order, peer pressure, gossip, and, failing those, bullying. With punk all four manifest in the ferreting out of posers. To the befuddled adult, this concept seems trivial, but to an insecure adolescent mind like mine, few stigmas were more potent.
A teen becoming a punk was making an explicit stance of dissatisfaction, if not disgust, with the surrounding status quo, against parents, teachers, youth pastors, and other students. It did not matter that the status quo more often than not waved off this stance as an excessive affectation of hardly unique sentiments, it was a matter of principle and commitment — an expression, to borrow from Nicolas Cage, of one’s individuality and their belief in personal freedom. The credibility of this position was not going to be threatened by interlopers who either tried way too hard or not at all.
I witnessed these remonstrations firsthand with a classmate whose entry into punk coincided with mine, enduring repeat, and sometimes direct, ire from members of the punk clique. I cannot for the life of me remember what the nature of her transgressions were, I boil it down to a matter of taste. She embraced pop punk, which at that time in New Jersey had a very active scene and which was not very exclusive or demanding, certainly it was not authentic. Whether she minded the bullshit or not I also can’t remember. I do remember that I did nothing to prevent it, so preoccupied was I with my own status anxiety. I was trying far harder than she was and knew in my bones how much more I deserved the mockery.
It actually hit me that spring when I tried to escape from punk by going into industrial. Industrial was a much smaller scene, like of three other people, and it appealed somewhat to my burgeoning curiosity with dissonance and experimental art. But I entered it in so desperate, preening, pedantic, and opportunistic a fashion that I made for an irresistible sideshow attraction. Everything was acquired for maximum signaling effect. I bought a pair of clunky black steel-toes and black jeans. I bought an Einstürzende Neubauten anthology on some random chatroom recommendation, which I didn’t like at all, so I could justify the purchase of a t-shirt, which I wore on yearbook picture day. I vacillated on whether Nine Inch Nails was true industrial or just Cheap Trick with harsh synthesizers (as if that was a high crime). Most comically — most comically — was when I bought a chain wallet, and removed the wallet. Add this to my preexisting social imbecility, and you have what amounts to performative self-destruction.
It was by a gradual, years-long process that I was able to overcome much of my status neuroses, falling back into punk, settled by an ideal of eclectic individuality. In fact, I came to be better defined by my “individualistic” tendencies. Not that I tried to forget my embarrassing beginnings; or maybe I did at first but soon came to accept the futility of doing so. I had the sense that I would encounter that anxiety in the future. Indeed, the upshot of that struggle was its clarification for me about how life actually worked.
The urge for belonging was something from which I could never entirely shake myself free. This seemed to persist because rather than in spite of my natural individualism, which always seemed less like a personal blessing or genius and more like a series of accidents crashing comically into a single vessel. No one of greater wisdom could ever give a contrary assessment to my satisfaction. So it seemed to me more likely that I would trudge onward in search of a place to fit in and falling short each time. I have always regretted this, though I’ve never been quite able to place on whose side the problem lies: my side or the group’s.
For some people in the same position the answer is clearly not them. These are people who claim a certain degree of “tribelessness” from groups caught up in powerplays over the scraps of political and social capital. Rather than resign themselves to the side that offends their instincts the least, these tribeless opt to take a high road on their own — or more accurately a middle road. Think of Dave Rubin, a man of the left utterly disillusioned with its embrace of “outrage culture” and who seeks a “new center” with others “outside looking in” like Ben Shapiro and Mike Cernovich. Think also of the post-Greg Gutfeld punditry of Bridget Phetasy and the post-Tom Wolfe journalism of Art Tavana. There’s much overlap with these figures: they are not experienced political activists, they are connected to the culture or entertainment industry, they dwell largely in blue states, they hate the “regressive” or “postmodern” left, and they are fed up with the hyperpartisan atmosphere that enables the left to thrive.
At a broad glance I should have some affinity with this group. If I understand Rubin, he’s promoting a kind of agree-to-disagree non-ideology, a sort of suburbanization of politics. It’s right-wing in the sense that it resembles what Bernard Crick acidly described as the “lonely nihilism” of Michael Oakeshott, the branch of conservativism to which I am most drawn temperamentally. But it’s hard to tell if Rubin grasps that. He is a savvy promoter of himself and people who best embody his political comfort zone, but he lacks the inquisitiveness and humor of someone like Joe Rogan, and he simply doesn’t seem to be very intelligent, and otherwise more interested in attitudes or fashions than ideas proper. Indeed, his sagacious olive branches to good political opponents barely masks a much more potent contempt for his real enemies. Rubin’s philosophy, so far as it can be called one, is structured like a mullet: Oakeshottian in the front; Schmittian in the back.
More than that, the tribeless are just another variant of tribalism. They are the new try-hards presenting themselves as something they are not: independent rogues of a political warzone. Imagine the father and son from The Road either concealing or in absolute denial that they’d succumbed to cannibalism.
But at the same time that savviness is illuminating. For what they lack in intellect they excel in atmospherics. They understand that today’s political atmosphere is more dependent on ethics-based live-action roleplay than on the finer points of philosophy or policy. It is easier than ever to become an ideological adherent, in fact there are videos on YouTube that can walk you through the correct concepts, the proper language and actions, even when to talk and when not to talk. There are nearly 300 million Google results for “how to be ally” alone. To this the tribeless respond in kind, “truth-bombing” their audience with the finer points of who they can and cannot “converse” with, who they can and cannot tolerate, what they can and cannot believe. Though the tribeless don’t really have a language or code so much as a posture: innocent idealism of a liberal golden age tarnished into cynical righteousness by the betrayals of brainwashed mini-tyrants. In either case there is less room for idiosyncrasy or stylistic innovation. There is no room to play with what few ideas are actually laying around. Hitting the right beats, presenting the right team appearance is what counts. Being a poser is essential to today’s discourse. The call for belonging is answered by the demand for cohesion.
But to equate political teams with punk culture is incorrect. A punk can be on political team, but punk does not seek popularity as these political teams do, it does not seek to dominate other teams but to defend itself against whatever bulbous bland hegemon of respectability that is seeking to inhale it. Punk is also a bunch of kids with kid problems, a silly clique trying to pass time with self-made culture. It’s a complex mixture of communal insulation and a (mostly) innocent pursuit of fun. When I return to what went wrong, me or the group, I come up empty as to what actually went wrong in the first place. The struggle to belong is everyone’s struggle. If I had to do 1999 over again in whatever level of Hell that happens, I would still resolve to be a punk, but at least with the firmer understanding of its meaning to every other young person who, through whatever catalyst, heeds the call: the craft of belonging well.