A pep talk with Ian MacKaye on the eve of the US elections

A pep talk with Ian MacKaye on the eve of the US elections

How to handle anything, from Brexit to Trump — Words of advice from the punk pioneer in case the worst should happen: Get offline and have real conversations. Stop trying to blow one another up.

On the morning that news of Brexit broke, my husband woke me up at 6am saying: ‘They fucking did it.’

It seems somewhat melodramatic now, but I burst into tears and started anxiously scrolling through my phone, as if new information could prove him wrong. Across London, my brother-in-law threw his fist into a wall. Friends working overseas were sending frantic messages, searching for signs of life.

In hindsight, sure, things went a little OTT, given the satirical pace at which life has plodded on. But in that moment, everything felt vital. For the first time in our short and delicate lives, the future – our future – was suspended.

Full disclosure: I lost my mind over Brexit, taking to Twitter like it was my own personal soapbox and buzzing off my newfound anger. I had a voice, goddamnit! And come hell or high water I was going to share it from my phone! In 140 characters or less.

It’s funny now but it wasn’t back then. I was filled with an unspeakable rage. So much so that at 6.30am on June 23, still high on a cocktail of emotions, I started a Facebook barney for no apparent reason, after a friend made a comment that was both funny and true: us Brits are fucking stupid. On 23 June, we handed in our god-given right to call Americans dumb.

Two days after our spat, which lasted three comments, I reached out to apologise for over-reacting and we had one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while. She told me about the intricacies of the US political system, and I told her about the absurdity of our pompous Old Boys Network. We exchanged virtual face-palms over the increasingly farcical way that fascism finds ways to be endorsed.

That conversation helped me process what was going on. Suddenly, I wanted more.

So a couple of weeks later, I did what I pretty much always want to do. I called up Ian MacKaye.

Last year, Ian handed me a pandora’s box of life advice, when we were trying to figure out what survival really means. Ian’s life in punk, as a builder of communities and prophetic pioneer (see: Dischord Records, Fugazi, Minor Threat), has rightfully earned him the admiration and respect of a generation determined to build something for themselves. As I said back then, there’s no other way of putting it: Ian MacKaye is just so wise.

So, on the eve of the most anxiety-inducing election in living memory – my reconciliation gift to all my American friends is that post-Brexit conversation.

Here’s hoping we are in fact stupider than you. If not, then this may help you navigate whatever lies ahead.

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One of the things that got us in this mess was all this talk of independence. The Leave campaign co-opted the notion of ‘independence’ and stripped it of its value. 
Independence has been so abused. It’s like the word ‘alternative’. Alternative became so abused in the 1990s. Independence in my mind is a question of: Do you want to do the work or not? And I want to do the work! I like arranging this interview with you, I like sorting through my files, I enjoy alphabetising things, I also like to play shows. I like it all! That’s how I can feel very clear about it and say, yeah, I guess I’m independent: I wake up every day and do something I want to do. But when you try and boutique it, and put a framework around it, it just sounds curmudgeonly to me.

Do you think independence has been stripped of its energy? In the hands of people like Nigel Farage, independence is a selfish, insular, divisive, tribal thing.
I think that was very much a Conservative point of view. The Reagan revolution really moved language around. In the case of independence it becomes a branding concept. They’re talking about it instead of doing it. When people talk about something instead of doing it, it just becomes some fucking chatter in the air. You and I can say, ‘What happened to all the positivity?’ Why has independence become something that’s so codified, but what we’re talking about is a certain strata. As we speak there are people doing incredibly beautiful things completely independent of even our knowledge! That’s independence.

It needn’t be a selfish thing and not all tribes are bad. Tribes are extensions of families. And families are necessary for human life, clearly. So I think there’s community through inclusion and community through exclusion – and people define one way or the other. Tribes that are inclusive are very positive. Where it’s gotten screwy is when language gets usurped by different groups – like I assume this business about the EU: you said it’s a power-grab, it’s a power struggle. There are also enormous money implications in there. I don’t think they were thinking about the good for the world. They were thinking about the good for them. And ultimately, no one wins!


A lot of the rhetoric here was, ‘Take Back Control’. I don’t know if Trump says that? To me, that mantra means something completely different. At our magazine, for example, we want control over what we do so that we have freedom to follow our own principles. But that idea of self-determination has been co-opted into something divisive and disgusting. And it makes me feel sad.
Well, let’s put it this way. Let’s say you guys started a magazine and then started working with other people, maybe a distributor, and then more contributors, and you start to grow. Then at some point you say, ‘We’re going to take it back and be independent. We’re gonna stand up to all you guys.’ That’s when it becomes destructive.

Obama had this discussion once. He always tells these huge companies: ‘You didn’t make this on your own.’ And the Republicans went berserk about this idea. But his position, and I agree with him, was that if it were not for the infrastructure of the country – the streets, the road, everything – these companies would not be here. So they need to give back. That’s the common good.

But the Conservative point of view is like, ‘We don’t want to be beholden to anyone!’ The UK clearly benefitted from its inclusion in the EU. Now they’re like, ‘We want to take our ball and go home.’ Donald Trump’s campaign is ‘Make America Great Again’. A similar kind of concept. A lot of older people don’t know what to make of England anymore. Y’all have changed it. You fucked things up for them, y’know? It’s not just beans on toast anymore, right?

Yeah, there’s lots of talk here of Glory Days, which is another issue. It just strikes me that the people who voted Leave – and maybe the people drawn to Trump – have this false sense of agency. They think they are asserting their independence, when really they’re not in control of anything. If anything, many people who voted Leave will be the ones worst off should Brexit happen. How do you rationalise with someone – a Trump supporter, say – who doesn’t realise they are acting against their own interest?
I don’t argue with them. On September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed, I was like I’m not going to look at the television. I read a book. I looked out the window at the trees and birds – it was a beautiful day. And instead I replied to mail all day and dated every letter September 10th. For one thing – I didn’t want people to think I was totally insane; that I was sitting there writing letters on the 11th. But also: if you write a letter, you believe in the fact that there will be a future because it will take a few days for your handwriting to be seen by someone else. Handwriting a letter and putting it in the mail – that’s a vote for the future.

I think about this a lot, and it’s helpful for me: If someone could crack a knock-knock joke after WW1, we’re going to be okay. WW1 was appalling. The amount of carnage was horrific. Much more horrible than being voted out of the EU. So in terms of navigating something that’s very upsetting, it’s good to get some perspective on the situation. At this point it’s insanity – and no one knows how it will play out. But there’s gonna be joy, you’re gonna be okay.

Look at 2008, the so-called financial crisis. Then look at 1974 and ‘78, the oil crisis. There were lines to buy gas that would go for blocks. So I think about that juxtaposition when people say these times are so hard; not compared to my memory. I understand what you’re going through – when George Bush got elected, I just could not believe it. I could not believe I lived in a country so filled with morons.


I’ve spoken to a few American friends and they keep mentioning Bush. Like, ‘I’m sorry guys, but now you know how we felt in 2004.’ Do you feel like people were more mobilised and active after realising that Bush could actually get in?
It’s a good question. About Bush’s re-election. People were furious of course.

Did they do anything about it?
Well, what do you do?

My worry is that, if we just have faith that everything will be okay, then any anger people have will turn to resignation. That’s kind of what landed us in this situation. There was a 25% turn out for people under 25 – and they are the ones that really should have been out voting because this is really going to affect them. The ebb and flow of the news cycle means that people are angry for like three days and then they just move on. But these issues are unresolved.
We’ve spoken about navigation before. My take is: This is the situation. So how are you going to navigate it? While it’s true that people will be angry for three days and then go on to the next thing, I don’t know if that is necessarily any worse than people self-immolating. I just don’t know if there is a productivity in people becoming so enraged they become insane, where they’re so devastated or depressed they can’t function. That gives too much power to the situation. Did you feel you were empowered before?

I felt complacent. I was comfortable. I remember joking about it the day before and being like, ‘Guys, stop worrying this is never gonna happen!’
Did you vote?

Yes. But I didn’t do any campaigning or join any kind of action beforehand. I knew what I believed in, and just believed others felt the same way. We’re out of touch with much of the country, that’s the biggest lesson here in London.
Well, that’s always been the case. You can think of it as phases of grief and all that crap; you can feel disempowered. But I actually think you’re probably more empowered now than you were before. Because I think you guys are realising, ‘Wow, this is fucking for real. We made a difference by being apathetic.’ And I think you’re having a sense of empowerment because you realise what’s in the balance now.


But what do you do if the system keeps pushing you into a corner?
Then you work within a different system. You do things, and you connect with people, and together you get prepared for the next eventuality.

And we have to make that system ourselves?
Of course! You have to create a bloc. A B.L.O.C. And that has to do with connectivity. Which is interesting because that’s your line of work! But it’s not enough just to produce something like, ‘I made this!’ That’s the problem with this maker-society shit. It’s not enough to make the bread, you have to feed people too. It’s not enough to say, ‘I made the bread and it’s artisanal!’ If it’s fucking $9 for a loaf of bread, you’re not doing enough – if you ask me.

Now the problem is not just the bread, but talking about the bread without even making it. You have frustration for a second, you go to Twitter you let it out. You feel like you’ve made this big statement and then you don’t do or say anything else. I think that’s the trap our generation has found itself in. We know what we care about, but we just talk within an echo chamber on social media. I want all that energy to go somewhere positive but the system won’t allow it to flourish. Maybe that’s where we need to create our own system, somehow…
That’s punk rock! Honestly – I grew up in Washington DC so for me the federal government has always been this giant factory churning away, owned by people that I don’t know. You can hear the whistles and the fucking smoke stack grinding right now! Growing up in the shadow of that and not being a part of it whatsoever, my consequence was: You don’t ask for permission, because the answer is always no. You just make things. And then what you find is that you figure out how to navigate – it’s a craft in a way. You may think you can’t affect change, but the thing about the government is that it has to work with the ingredients that it has. So at some point they have to contend with you.

A friend of mine always says: Bigotry always falls on the wrong side of history. As horrible as you feel right now, if you look at where we are culturally, socially, compared to say 30 years ago – even 15 years ago – the idea that there would be gay marriage or a black president was completely insane. It just never would have happened. But the people who are full of hate are always dismissed. It’s always the right trajectory.


But what if you’re the one who has to live through that blip? Wouldn’t you feel hard done by? Like what if Trump does come into power and you have to live through this period of history, even if it rights itself in the end?
Let’s go back to World War One, okay? Or let’s go back to Europe in 1947. Think about how fucked up that was – that war destroyed every country on the continent. People are like, ‘Oh, it would be so hard for us to have Donald Trump for president’. Fuck that! Everybody was a refugee in 1946 and ‘47. I mean, London was pummelled to the fucking ground! That’s hard.

But what about where that’s happening now?
That’s what I’m interested in. Of course I don’t want Donald Trump to be President – he’s a lunatic. And I think the people behind him are even bigger lunatics. If I could do anything that would stop him from becoming President, I would do it. I don’t think there’s anything I can personally do to stop him – it’s out of my control. What I can do however is to look for like-minded people. If someone makes a spark, I’ll blow on it. And if I can make a spark, I’ll try. But I’m not gonna hinge it all on ‘me’; it’s a ‘we’.

I think in your case, it’s fucked up. People like you are like, ‘My future got destroyed.’ But you still have a future. It may not be perfect but it’s going to work out. I hate nations. I hate the lines between them that’s for sure. I like regionality. Frankly, who knows how it may pan out. I have this concept: if you look at something that doesn’t make sense, change the source of the light. Then you might see it in a different way. I would encourage people to not let fear drive them. Seek clarity.

When I heard the results, I had to remind myself to direct my frustration upwards rather than horizontally. Do you have faith in the masses? Do you believe that the majority of people are driven by good?
Yes, yes I do. It depends on what you’re talking about here. Generally speaking, people are good. People are like, ‘Did you hear about the three murders?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but did you read about the 300 million people who didn’t kill anybody today?’ That’s worth keeping in mind. Take the Beltway sniper in 2002. In 1990, in Washington DC alone, 438 black men were killed in one year. That’s a lot more than 9 people in three weeks. That’s not to say that the government is cooking it up; there was definitely a sniper killing people. But once it’s made available they take advantage of it by making people terrified, because if you’re terrified you can’t think.

I really urge people to not be scared. Because fear is actually what governments use to create compliance. They use fear to make people numb. They just keep hitting us with scary things and then you just don’t know what to do. Look at an animal when it’s scared and it just can’t react. It can only fight or flight. And that’s survival. Fear can help you with your survival but its not a productive way to live. But to answer your question, yes. Generally speaking I think humans have common values.

What do you think those values are?
I think by and large humans want to live well, be well and not hurt each other. I think that there’s madness that ensues and there’s some people – sociopaths or psychopaths – who can’t imagine why killing someone else is a problem for anybody. And a sort of cult develops around them – a philosophy – and that’s when it becomes complicated.


The one thing that struck me about Brexit and Trump is that it takes a lot of work for a good leader to do a small amount of good. But it takes hardly any work at all for a bad leader to cause serious damage. Trump, to me, was the face of The Apprentice. This crazy man who has a palace in vegas. And suddenly in a very short space of time, he is sending shockwaves through a nation…
Right! And is potentially the president of the United States… The president of the world! That’s celebrity for you.

Yeah. But isn’t it scary to think that we’re just these tiny pawns in a massive crowd that can be swept this way or that way by a single person?
That’s true. To some degree, the only way to avoid that is to live elsewhere, away from everything. Go get a place somewhere way up in Scotland and just disappear. You don’t have to look at the TV, or listen to the radio. You can turn this fuckin’ computer off. You’ll be a lot lighter in your life. And it’s not wrong! I’d say most human beings in this world live like that. There are vast quantities of people who have no access to any of this madness. For all the fobdoodle about Trump and stuff, how many people in India could give a fuck? It just doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant to them. And the reason it seems irrelevant is because it is irrelevant. Life is really air, water, food and fucking. Everything else is accoutrement. But really there are only four requirements.

Yeah, except when that one person triggers something that affects billions. Look at what Hitler did. Maybe he was irrelevant to begin with but he became very relevant in the end.
That’s the part I don’t understand. Human brutality. But it’s been around forever. They just developed much more effective destroying machines. Obama killed a lot of motherfuckers too, under his orders. It’s horrible to me.

I always look for perspective on these things. If you think: People need water or they’re gonna die, that’s a good baseline to start with. The fact that you have light? You’re doing alright. Maybe on November 9th, you and I will have a conversation on this video-chat thing and I’ll still be able to say, ‘Look, miracles are still occurring.’ You’re sitting in your flat and it’s, what, 10pm. I’m here in Dischord House and it’s 5pm. And I’m looking at your face, and that’s crazy, I can hear your voice. We’re alright!

I grew up in the ‘60s and saw a leftwing movement that was very powerful. The country was almost socialist in a way. Then there was this hard swing to the right under Reagan and it was so dispiriting except for the fact that I knew it could change. I saw it go from left to right so I knew change was possible. It’s gotta go back, and it has gone back. So it’s about always seeking the horizon of hope.

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And maybe it’s about not being so arrogant to think that you’re the ones living through the end times?
Exactly! It’s good to think about the other billions of people. Right now everything could explode – your house and my house could simultaneously disappear and aside from some friends and family it’s not going to affect a hair on somebody in Sri Lanka. I think it’s important to remember that, as horrible and insane as things feel, that really – it’s not a big deal. Be well. Do well.

That’s it?
That’s it!

Sometimes you have to navigate the whole thing – all the anger and frustration – to find your way back to that.
Humans like to chirp. You were talking earlier about communicating with people on Twitter – but I hope that you can see the benefit of an exchange like this. For me it’s beneficial. Ideas can be… It’s like you can kick ‘em back and forth. They’re not just bombs being thrown at each other like sea warfare. Internet exchanges are like – boom! These two different ideas being thrown at one another. Sometimes having a real exchange, hearing people’s voices and seeing their body language – that’s really important.

I think I’m starting to see the opportunity in what’s happening. Everywhere I go, strangers are striking up conversations about Brexit. Suddenly they have everything in common. I just hope people harness this energy and some good comes of it.
Instead of worrying about that, why don’t you just engage in it? Why don’t you go talk to people? Just be a part of that and experience it. That kind of interaction may not turn anything around in terms of the decision to leave the EU, but it might play a huge role in something else down the road. You just don’t know what that is because it’s down the road. Instead of worrying just say, ‘Let’s create a bloc, let’s be a part of something.’ Let’s stay in touch, and visit each other and collect. That’s what punk was. Then when something else comes down the road – it may be something even more diabolical that needs to be resisted – you would have been in the practice of talking to each other

It’s such an important lesson.
Yes. Stop worrying about shit. Stop worrying, start living.

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