How hate groups tried (and failed) to co-opt popular culture

Neo-Nazis have attempted to use 80s John Carpenter movie They Live, Depeche Mode and Johnny Cash but theyve been met with industry outrage

Johnny Cash was a troubled man, but a sensitive one. His music championed those that society had let down, the outcasts and jailbirds, and extended to them a solemn compassion. And because he laid claim to the outlaw persona in a way that few other artists could, one can almost see why a movement as obsessed with outsiderism as the alt-right might place him on a pedestal.

But when Cashs descendants saw one of the neo-Nazi demonstrators at Charlottesville sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the musicians name on the news, they felt his message had been severely misappropriated. Cashs family stated that they were sickened by the association in an emotional open letter that describes the late artist as a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice. The fascists-in-training that have aligned under the alt-right banner have shown a distinct imperviousness to outside criticism, but getting called poison by one of their idols representatives must sting a bit more than most.

Its just the latest instance of a hostile odd angle forming between the hate-fueled political fringe groups edging into the spotlight and the ideologically inconsistent pop culture they claim anyway. As organizations that were once punchlines attract more attention from the media and public, the music and visual media upon which theyve hung their message has been subject to more scrutiny. And on plenty of occasions, the responsible artists have caught wind and had to publicly swear off association with the burgeoning culture of white-power extremism.

This most recent spike in cognitive dissonance ramped up as Donald Trump muscled his way into the presidential race over the course of 2016. He had a difficult time holding on to a single walk-on anthem for his many campaign rallies, as every time a clip would begin to circulate online, the news would inevitably come out that the band in question had never granted permission for their songs to be used in the first place. The Rolling Stones, Twisted Sister and REM are only a few of the groups that have demanded the Trump campaign cease and desist from playing their music. (REM candidly shot back: Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.)

But while its simple enough to threaten legal action against official political entities, a band cant control what protesters choose to chant or write on their signs. Matters have grown messier as neo-Nazi groups adopt works of art in less official capacities, placing artists in a tough position that cant allow for silence. After inflammatory public speaker and frequent punching bag Richard Spencer mentioned that he considered Depeche Mode the official band of the alt-right, the group promptly released a contradicting statement and the fanbase raised an accompanying outcry. In one of the more surreal instances of this tut-tutting from on high, horror godhead John Carpenter had to explicitly state that his cult classic They Live should not be interpreted as a commentary on a Jewish conspiracy to control the banks and media.

And yet the trouble persists that for those in search of a pop-culture slate on which to project Zionist paranoia, They Live works pretty well. Alt-right types and their unsavory brethren are drawn to narratives about reorienting perception of reality, regardless of the espoused politics that undergird them. Consider the rich, profound irony that the online anti-feminist subculture known as the Red Pill derives their name from The Matrix, a work of art created by two trans women. In its way, this rash of misappropriations acts as the ultimate rebuttal to the notion of authorial intent. The fascists inexplicably glomming onto 80s-influenced electronic music referred to as fashwave didnt need Swedish producer Robert Parkers approval to make him their champion, and his protestations havent done much to put them off it.

It wasnt so long ago that Ayn Rand-memorizing objectivists were twisting the moral content of The Incredibles to suit their dogmatic purposes. The stakes in the present day are significantly higher, however, as this period of great upheaval that has already claimed a body count. Real life no longer allows artists the luxury of neutrality; refraining to condemn the white-power groups after theyve contaminated one of your works sounds a lot like condoning to the publics ears. Matt Furie, the originator of the memetic cartoon frog Pepe that the alt-right has selected as their proud mascot of bigotry, joined forces with the Anti-Defamation League to undo that cultural shift and return the image to its peaceable, hate-free roots.

The elasticity of open interpretation is one of the qualities that makes art art, and yet on occasion, that same right to take-it-as-you-will results in some serious perversions of good intentions. The Nazi resorts to these messy magpie-like tendencies out of necessity; the vast majority of historys great artists have had the good sense to not be Nazis, leaving present-day fascists a small well to draw upon without looking elsewhere. (Naturally, the swastika was nicked from the Buddhists, Hindus and Jains in India, who interpreted it as a symbol of good luck.) But this gives artists the opportunity to turn an incident into a platform to speak out against intolerance while theyve got the oppositions ear. Furies case illustrates the best-case scenario of something as sickening as learning your creations have been used to spread hate while you had your back turned. Its a challenge to do more and be better, to capitalize on a reluctant situation and pivot it into activism. As the cinema history books go, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels met with German film-maker Fritz Lang to express his fandom and explore the option of employing the director as the Third Reichs official documenter. Jewish and horrified, Lang promptly fled for America and pushed back the only way he knew how: 1941s Man Hunt opens with a telescopic sniper sight and Hitler in the crosshairs.

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