Two people sitting at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo: Jean-Luc Mathay / Flickr

Bret and The Baron: on the (de-)platforming of racism

  • February 3, 2020

Race & Resistance

An independent record label showed more diligence in dealing with the creep of right-wing pseudo-science than the New York Times after it ran an overtly racist op-ed.

In early July 2019, Relapse Records canceled the impending release of what would have been the third album by the band Tau Cross, Messengers of Deception.

The band in question is a bit of an underground supergroup whose members have a collective history in several bands; the principal songwriter and lyricist is Rob “The Baron” Miller, whose former band Amebix is legendary in crust-punk and underground metal circles. Amebix itself emerged from the ’80s Bristol squatter scene and had lyrics and imagery that reflected both interest in the occult and revolutionary politics, with the anarchist mantra “No Gods No Masters” frequenting lyrics and band T-shirts. Radically minded fans of the band championed what they felt were shared anti-authoritarian ideals, and saw Amebix — and The Baron in particular — as one of their own ilk.

Given this legacy, it came as a very rude shock for many fans — including this writer — when The Baron’s current band Tau Cross were suddenly dropped from Relapse Records for one simple reason: Holocaust denial. The label’s manager Rennie Jaffe issued a statement explaining the highly unusual move of canceling an anticipated album’s release:

Over the weekend, the German magazine Ox brought it to our attention that a person named Gerard Menuhin was prominently thanked in the new Tau Cross album, and specifically credited in the liner notes for inspiring Rob Miller. All Relapse records go through a vigorous proofing process — checking for spelling and punctuation mistakes, mostly.

We all read this name, but didn’t recognize it or think that it was anything other than a personal friend of the band’s that we did not know. Ox however recognized the name as a far-right conspiracy theorist, focused specifically on Holocaust denial. Suddenly the lyrics and themes of the new record were cast in a new light, for me…There are certain issues that rise above mere political differences and this is one of them…

I had been a fan of both of Rob Miller’s bands and was disappointed to learn that the record’s release had been canceled, but much more so to learn that the Baron’s politics had slid down the slippery slope of conspiracy into the abyss of Holocaust denial. This fact was soon confirmed explicitly when he doubled down, supporting Menuhin’s ideas on social media.

Menuhin himself is a prominent anti-Semite who stated that: “the world owes Adolf Hitler an apology.” No band or music is good enough or important enough to justify platforming racism of any kind, so I applauded Relapse’s swift and principled action in response to the revelations of Miller’s “inspiration.” The label not only canceled the — in context — now disturbingly titled Messengers of Deception, it pulled both of Tau Cross’ previous records from its catalog.

In this climate of heightened racial tension, increased hate crimes and a new public face of neo-Nazism, this move by Relapse Records, itself a small independent record label that mainly focuses on extreme metal bands, is definitely commendable. Their principled stance of intolerance for racism and anti-Semitism should be the rule, if only a voluntary one. Unfortunately, Relapse rises to the surface as an exception, which brings us to the bizarre and now infamous op-ed by self-declared “climate agnostic” and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief, Bret Stephens: “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” (December 28, 2019).

Stephens’ article, for those who have not had the dubious pleasure, was ostensibly an attempt to explain how “…a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most path-breaking ideas and innovations…” — I can only use Stephens’ own words here, since paraphrasing his ideas would require giving voice to tropes that I find abhorrent. What follows is a confusing mix of popular cultural history and race science.

To gird the assertion that: “…Jews are, or tend to be, smart,” Stephens cites — or cited, past tense, as this convoluted case may be — a discredited study by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending, entitled “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.” (The journal that it originally appeared in, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence had incidentally previously been known as The Eugenics Review.) As has been pointed out elsewhere, not only has the study in question been refuted in the pages of the Times itself, but one of its authors, Henry Harpending, is widely acknowledged to have been a white supremacist.

Where this story gets truly strange is that not only did the New York Times — in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide rise in racist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic violence — publish a thinly reasoned article predicated on disproven and archaic racial science, but that it failed to retract the article and even defended it in a disturbingly dishonest fashion. Following the initial outcry over Stephens’ piece, there suddenly appeared above the editorial in the online version of the Times an “Editors’ Note” in which the editors lamented that the article caused an uproar but that they stood by its premise that: “…culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements” and that it was a misunderstanding to think that: “…Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent.”

The editors laid all the blame on the reference to the Harpending et al., article, which they say was “a mistake to cite uncritically,” and stated that they removed the citation to the article itself.  So according to the editors, Stephens’ piece did not mean what it clearly implies — that (Ashkenazi) Jewish people are smarter presumably than people of other unnamed “races” — and if it is read that way then the fault lies only in citing a eugenics article by a white supremacist, which was incidentally the only supporting evidence for the assertion.

The story gets stranger still — if by strange we mean unscrupulous behavior by a prominent newspaper. The citation was not the only excision from the Stephens piece, though it was the only one mentioned in the Editors’ Note. Multiple uses of the word Ashkenazi in the original article were also excised — hence my parenthesis around the same word in the paragraph above — including this zinger of a sentence, quoted from the Harpending paper in question: “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data.”

By multiple uses of the term “Ashkenazi” in the original text, Stephens was seemingly taking a racialist logic even further to exclude Jewish people of non-European backgrounds from his assertion of intellectual superiority. But the editors chose to remove the term from all but their own italicized note defending the article itself. In other words, they tampered with the online record of what they had originally published to digitally backtrack and sanitize the piece. As one online observer noted, the Times’ editors were gaslighting the entire country.

Though the assertion of any inherent racial superiority of course is extremely offensive and scientifically unsound, the notion of Jewish intelligence itself is not particularly dangerous. What is more harmful is the fuel that this kind of writing gives to the fires of anti-Semitism with all of the groundless racialist conspiracy theories it thrives on.

Sadly the original article was published during a Hanukkah in which there were attacks on Jewish folks in New York almost every day, and just a day before the Monsey, NY attack in which five people were stabbed while celebrating at a Rabbi’s private home.

The platforming of work by racists such as Harpending and Menuhin is usually the tip of a dangerous iceberg, often already in full sight for those who care to look. Hopefully the editors of the New York Times — one of the most widely read newspapers in the world — can learn to take responsibility for the messages their work disseminates in as serious and straightforward manner as the independent heavy metal label Relapse Records.

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Devin Hoff

Devin Hoff (he/him/they/them) is a musician and activist living in New York City. Over the past 26 years Devin has been active in international solidarity, low-wage labor and housing struggles, popular education, radical history and political prisoner support work.

Photo credit: Magdalena Wosinka.

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