by Johnny Papan
Since releasing their debut record, Die For the Government, in 1996, Anti Flag has been an active figure in modern punk-rock political commentary. Their lighting-fast, in-your-face anthems fire like an AK-47, each bullet inscribed with messages of anti-homophobia, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-xenophobia, anti-war, and anti-government. It’s hard to say if Anti-Flag frontman Justin Sane has ever had even a glimmer of trust in his country’s political leaders. If he has, it’s been a damn long time.
In 2017, Anti-Flag released their tenth studio album, American Fall. The album’s artwork features a meek, muted, hazy rendition of the White House Oval office. Inside this slimy scene are large stacks of cash formed in the shape of a skull, indicating government greed and their exploitive stance towards the profitability of death. The album’s opening track, “American Attraction,” a song that references guns, drugs, bombs and blood, opens with the line: “There’s no escaping the American attraction.”
“The song is really asking the question: ‘do we wanna live in a society with authoritarian style government where consumerism rules our moral high ground? Do we wanna be in a society that’s endorsing a nationalist government and a president who attacks women, Mexicans, LGBTQ people, refugees and migrants? Someone who endorses xenophobia? Or are we gonna find a higher moral compass to follow?” Justin Sane questions. “We were trying to point out a lot of things in our culture that are glorified and say that these things are actually pretty ugly.”
Consumerism has grown to be a staple in modern culture. A needless necessity that has leached onto our prefrontal cortex like a parasite, convincing us we need high-end gadgets and shiny things to feel this false sense of temporary self-satisfaction, feelings cleverly seeped into our subconscious through the use of scientifically-proven manipulative marketing techniques.
“It can’t be escaped in the idea that it’s just in your face everywhere,” Sane explains. “Even when we leave America, American corporate culture is everywhere. You see people walking down the street wearing a Nike shirt or wearing different American brands. I think that this American consumerism has just been sold all over the world as this idea that what we consume makes us happy. Of course, the reality is there’s so much more to life and it’s really the relationships we have in our lives and the ability to be free and have the essentials in life that keep us healthy that actually make us happy. But it’s easy to get caught up in this kind of consumer trap.”
It’s no help that, in a country where things have become more important than people, the elected leader is someone who can be considered a mascot for the almighty dollar. Sane continues
“It’s really interesting when you look at the phenomena of Donald Trump, because when he ran [for president] one of the things that he would brag about was how rich he was. Right there, the inherent message in that, and the subconscious message is that being wealthy and being rich is something we should hold up as a value. I think that is something that’s totally false. Donald Trump is not a good person. There’s just no excusing his blessing of locking up children in cages and separating them from their parents. In my view, right there, Donald Trump should have been impeached. Any lawmaker who’s not calling for that then they’ve completely lost any moral high ground that they may have earned over the years. He’s not someone that is to be valued when you look at him, you realize he’s a compulsive liar, he was obviously involved in a lot of shady business dealings.”
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, was recently found guilty on eight counts of financial crimes, including tax fraud, bank fraud, and hiding foreign accounts.
“Those are the kind of people Donald Trump is surrounded by. Cut-throat, criminal, gangster-like people. They are not people to be valued but they are wealthy people so they have power and they kind of put out this false mythology that because you have money you are someone to be looked up to. I feel that is inherently false.”
So how exactly did the United States end up with an, according to many American citizens, alleged cash-grubbing, corporate criminal with zero political experience being voted into the White House?
“Barack Obama was a neo liberal corporate tool. When you look at where Obama’s money came from for his campaigns, they were from Corporate America. He took care of Corporate America. What that means is wages for poor and working class people didn’t improve. A lot of people are desperate. I know a lot of people who supported Bernie Sanders for his economic vision, but when Sanders didn’t get the nod they saw Hillary Clinton as just another extension of Obama who really didn’t do anything for them for eight years.” Sane continues: “So Trump came along and he was like ‘hey, I’m gonna make things better for you, I’m gonna make sure you have better health care, I’m gonna make sure your wages improve. I think when you feel left behind and somebody says that, you’re willing to roll the dice on them. Especially when you look at someone like Clinton who you consider to just be the same old kind of politician who hasn’t done anything for you in a long time. There was no way my family was gonna vote for Donald Trump based on his social stances, but I know a lot of people who said ‘I can look over that if he can help me get a better job.’ I think that’s a big part of it. You’d be shocked at how many people at this part of the country supported Bernie Sanders and then went over to Trump.”
Anti-Flag dropped a non-album single, “Mr. Motherfucker,” earlier this year. The artwork features a brutalized rendition of Trump, as if he’s been severely beaten. It’s clear that, like the members of Anti-Flag, a lot of America do not approve of Trump, but the question is, is he the worst American president of all time? When asked about how he thinks Trump stacks up against the likes of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, Sane says:
“Well, they were all horrible for completely different reasons, with some overlapping reasons. Nixon and Trump are parallel in a lot of ways, and Obama. I would include Obama in there. Obama put into place a lot of the mechanisms that Donald Trump is using now, especially when it comes to an overreach of presidential power in areas of intelligence, using the military overseas as well as covert and secret operations.Ginsberg was one of the most famous whistleblowers in media and in U.S. history. He said that Barack Obama’s attacks on freedom of the press were worse than George Bush. Obama’s government, with his blessing, went after more whistleblowers than any other government before. That includes Edward Snowden and others who were exposing the United States intelligence agency spying domestically on U.S. citizens. We can’t leave Obama out.”
Sane continues: “Now, that said, Richard Nixon was conducting a secret war, killing thousands of people, and George .W. Bush is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in Iraq and beyond. Bush is just a mass murderer. Donald Trump hasn’t gone that far yet, but he has stepped up Obama’s drone programs which the military know kills countless innocent lives everyday.”
Operating drones, by some people, could be considered a sort of “sanitized” warfare. You aren’t up close and personal, you’re not seeing body parts, being bathed in blood, or hearing wretched, agonizing screams from all around you. It’s believed that because of this, drone pilots are more immune to experiencing war-induced PTSD. American Fall’s seventh track, “Digital Blackout,” states that this is not the case.
“Our bass player and I were reading an article one day about what was deemed, at the time, a new form of PTSD that was being experienced by drone pilots. It was kind of believed that drone pilots were immune to that side of warfare, but what they’re finding is it’s just not true. Killing people or witnessing the deaths of people in a really savage and brutal way leaves a scar on people,” Sane remarks.
“What this particular article was about was the pilots who, once you launch a drone strike, have these surveillance drones that just hang around for hours. They wanna see what the aftermath is. What often happens is they blow up a house and then an hour later, or hours later, family members start showing up to the house, and it wasn’t a military target in the end, it was just somebody’s home. Then you see these family members totally distraught, trying to dig out their family members or finding their family member’s dead bodies and things like that. So, you know, the military refers to it as ‘collateral damage.’ But these drone operators are realizing that these are real people. So the song was inspired by that.”
“In the record liner notes we included an essay by a drone pilot and she talks about being recruited and she talks about the way that the military are really predatory in going after young people, especially poor young people and trying to recruit them at a really young age to do their dirty work. She talks about her struggles with suicide and things like that since she’s left the military. We actually made a video for the song and we had someone read the essay that she wrote. It’s really powerful.”
Fighting for your country is meant to be a source of pride in yourself and from those around you. Some join the military for money, some for a sense of purpose, and others for their genuine belief in protecting what they see as the greatest country in the world. Despite the glorified image of soldiers, truth be told there’s a bloody, violent, scarring side to the job, that has changed a lot of good people for the worse when they were finally welcomed back home.
“I have pretty mixed feelings about the military because I have friends and family who have been in or who are still in the military. Anti-Flag was really a big part of our name and part of our anti-war stance because we grew up during the first gulf invasion and a lot of our buddies had joined the military. It was the only job option in our town because we grew up in a poor roughed up city and there just wasn’t any employment opportunities. I grew up seeing how the military kind of preys on poor kids. The guys that joined up weren’t bad guys. I feel like the reasons that they’re given for joining, and what the military actually is, are very different. Ultimately, I see most militaries around the world, especially the United States, it’s really just a corporate army. It’s an army that goes around the world for corporate imperialist reasons. We started as an anti-war band because we feel like politicians can’t be trusted in their reasons for waging war. We have proven that again and again. For that reason I just can’t encourage young people to join the military. I feel like if we can trust our politicians it’d be a very different thing in my mind for joining the military, but I just don’t think we can trust them at all.”
But not all is lost in the eyes of Justin Sane and the guys from Anti-Flag. Despite the fact that, in a lot of ways, the world is a totally fucked up place, there is still lots of beauty within it. And truth be told, the amount of beauty and ugliness you see comes down to you, the individual, and your choice of perspective.
“I think that people get so caught up in the big picture that they feel like nothing has gotten better or nothing could ever change for the better. I think that that’s a huge mistake people make. We really have to focus on ourselves and what we’re doing and where we stand. If you do feel like ‘I gotta solve all the world’s problems today and if I don’t it’s a failure’ then everybody’s gonna feel frustrated and everybody’s gonna give up. I think that when we’re looking at whether things are better or worse it’s really important to first start with ourselves.”
Sane concludes: “What I do realize is that especially whenever you’re kind of up against the corporate militaristic kind of imperialistic day we live in today, it is very difficult to make progressive change, there’s just no doubt about it. Most politicians are bought off by corporations and that’s what we’re dealing with. But the reality is if you just roll over and give up, nothing positive ever changes. Yeah, we lose a lot of battles and we have a lot of setbacks but we win a lot of battles too. So it’s important to realize change doesn’t come overnight, but it does come.”
Anti-Flag play alongside Rise Against and AFI at the Grey Eagle Event Centre (Calgary) on September 20, the Edmonton Expo Centre (Edmonton) September 21, and the PNE Forum (Vancouver) on September 23.Anti-Flag, PNE Forum, Vancouver