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It’s Lit: Youth Culture and the Possible Resurrection of Savonarola

Ludwig von Langenmantel, "Savonarola Preaching against Prodigality"

2017 will see the observance of two significant anniversaries. One, falling on October 31, marks the 500 years since Martin Luther may or may not have nailed his 95 theses disputing the Catholic Church’s sales of indulgence onto the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Another more obscure one, falling on September 3, marks the 30 years since Fugazi played its first show, at the Wilson Center in Washington DC to 300 people. These events, on the surface, have nothing to do with one another, and may continue to be thought to have nothing to do with one another beyond what is said here. But I see them as inextricably linked to the point of codependency.

American punk rock has been reliably infused with the creedal. In the decadent southern California scene of the late-1970s, Black Flag was off-putting not for their chaotic performances but for their “Calvinist” ethic of daily rehearsal and seemingly perpetual touring schedules. Big Black’s salacious and dissonant sound was girded by Steve Albini’s rigid commercial and aesthetic asceticism. Greg Sage of The Wipers took the asceticism further, going so far as to abstain from touring, even with Nirvana. This was a disparate idealism driven by a vague notion of “politics,” not unfamiliar in the United States, which prized autonomy from the stultifying effects of mainstream uniformity. Yet the advent of Fugazi reasserted the idealism, both in expression and example, with an unprecedented consistency and accessibility too timeless to be confined to mere political fashion.

“Let me tell you now,” Ian MacKaye said in 1988 amidst an improvised detour of the feminist anthem “Suggestion,” “I don’t give a fuck what you are. But you do not beat up people for being gay, you do not beat up people for being black, you do not beat up people for being women, you do not beat up people period.” This is one of many such monologues to which audiences of any Ian MacKaye-fronted band have become accustomed and have come to expect. Its appeal is in the cadence, which assumes an unusual balance of the impassioned and the authoritative. And while this style of speaking and playing has been widely imitated, MacKaye’s balance itself has seldom been successfully replicated. For this there is good reason.

“Ian’s not a religious person,” Mark Sullivan said of his classmate and onetime bandmate, “but he behaves like one.” True enough, but that behavior did not come from a vacuum. Ian MacKaye’s father was a theologian who served as the religion editor of the Washington Post. His family attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, “a highly progressive church,” according to Michael Azerrad, “that held rock services, ordained female priests, and sanctioned same-sex marriages as early as the sixties.” His parents were involved in civil rights and antiwar causes. Against the perception of beleaguered outcasts exiling themselves to the city away from dogmatic, close-minded “fundamentalists” of their small town, MacKaye fashioned “an anti-establishment stance” with “strong connections to the best aspects of Christian morality.” It is a stance rooted in both individual conscience and communal solidarity with a mind towards correcting injustice and fostering empathy. More importantly, it was not a passing, largely aesthetic cast of “new morality” like Transcendentalism, Objectivism, or Satanism, but bound by long-held concerns, passed down by broad consensus but free of institutional strictures. In 1517, Martin Luther’s actions sparked the Protestant reformation. 490 years later, Fugazi, however willfully or not, assumed its mantle and perpetuated it in their own image, an act with far-reaching implications, which may have more yet as I hope to demonstrate.

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In recent years, we have been hearing calls for a religious reawakening in the United States. Of course since its founding there have never not been calls for a religious reawakening in the United States, though their sources and timbre have never been uniform and this is no different. “Young people really do desire structure today,” writes Matthew Schmitz of First Things. “Call it ‘rigidity’ if you like, but they have had occasion to learn the value of rules. Some of them would have been spared a great deal of misery if our Church and society had been more rigid on certain points.” He echoes Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative in 2014: “The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity.”

Though Schmitz is Catholic and Olmstead Protestant, both see a generation of believers and would-be believers similarly afflicted by a deflation of religious sentiment by the dual forces of the “spiritual” and the secular. However well-meaning the attempts at reform were in freeing Christianity from the shackles of its own traditions, the result, they argue, has been one of indifference to long term faith and acquiescence short term worldliness. “[Conservative Christians] seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.” So writes Rod Dreher in the introduction to his bestselling book The Benedict Option, named for “the sixth-century father of western monasticism,” which proposes for “a strategic withdrawal” of conservative Christians from “business-as-usual lives in America” and “to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them.” Dreher’s prescription is altogether more ambitious compared to the modest observations of his younger peers; as such it has been criticized to the hilt for this or that theological or political discrepancy. I cannot help but sympathize, however, if only for its thematic echoes.

“People go after sex like it’s the only thing in the world,” said Rob Fish in 1995. “And if you depend upon it for happiness you’re in a lot of trouble, because you’re going to suffer.” At the time Fish was going by the name Rasaraja Dasa, and serving as the vocalist for 108, one of a handful of hardcore bands promoting Krishna Consciousness. “It’s funny, he added, “sometimes people say religion or the Hare Krishnas don’t belong in hardcore, but the Hare Krishnas have been hardcore longer than any of these people. The whole idea of hardcore is to reject the society, this culture that’s forced us into a lifestyle that we don’t want to be a part of. And Krishna Consciousness is about rejecting that lifestyle and coming to the real.”

Just as MacKaye was starting Fugazi, others were already putting his ideas into practice, and some might say getting out of control. Ray Cappo and his band Youth of Today galvanized New York City’s straight edge scene into a far more abrasive and simplistic, if not more militant, form. But even after adding veganism to its regimen that wasn’t enough. “When we started [Youth of Today], I was anti-greed, anti-lust, anti-anger,” he told Spin in 1995. “But as the band got bigger, I found them blossoming more. They were weeds choking the life out of me.” Krishna Consciousness had already made its way into the downtown punk scene by way of bands like the Cro-Mags, Cappo took it up eagerly, traveling to India, practicing Yoga, becoming a monk, and founding a Krishnacore band of his own called Shelter. “I find it peculiar that bands can perform without having any message,” he went on. “It’s easy to spread a message in the hardcore scene because it’s already a little society. And Krishna is a nice message.” Shelter’s album Mantra, according to Spin, “is easily digestable metalcore that includes vegetarian battle cries, attacks on sex and TV, and homages to self-relization and Bhagavad Gita.” “I couldn’t understand people/Wasting their time on so-called love/And drugs and occupations/While outside the window is a crumbling nation/So I searched for sincerity and lost popularity,” goes Shelter’s “Metamorphosis.”

Krishnacore was also controversial. Outsiders bristled at the evangelical fervor of Cappo and his peers. It was criticized for its authoritarian, even cultish, tendencies as well as its stances against homosexuality and abortion. But the criticisms came from inside as well. The Krishna culture in the American temples was fractious, adherents were either too committed or could not commit enough, and gurus were mired in allegations of sexual misconduct. By the late-1990s, Krishnacore had run its course; its brightest talents had softened their stances or moved on. Ray Cappo teaches yoga, and 108 guitarist Vic DiCara practices Hindu astrology.

The failure of Krishnacore is a typical kind that occurs when agitated youth succumb to a subculture for its seemingly exotic and contrarian aesthetic rather than its spiritual or philosophical rigor. The Benedict Option’s similarities with Krishnacore, at first blush, offer a more familiar alternative to newer waves of youth with similar social conflicts. Though they will not so much as align with the Benedict Option, which is designed for families and carries with it an air of defeatism, as find a similar model that better suits their energies. It will be found it short order.

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On February 7, 1497, the streets of Florence, Italy were flooded by thousands of boys, dressed in white gowns and holding red crosses. They set up altars on street corners and sang hymns, then knocked on doors requesting alms, or alms of a sort. From the Florentines they took veil holders, jewelry, wigs, perfumes, card decks, chess sets, gambling tables, any secular work of literature (Boccaccio, Ovid, Greek philosophers), any work of art that suggested the ornate or erotic (paintings with female nudity and immodest religious art), to name a few things. In a word, anything that suggested frivolity and pleasure at the expense of religious devotion was to be collected, amassed in an enormous pile, and set ablaze to the blaring of trumpets. In a few short years, the Carnival procession preceding Lent had gone from a purely pagan ritual, mostly involving the throwing of rocks, to an overpowering display of Christian reverence. The fortunes of its organizer would go decidedly south not long after that, but at that point he was at the peak of his unusual influence.

For the past few centuries, the only really important fact worth knowing about fra Girolamo Savonarola was that he is dead. Second after that was that he died violently, enduring excommunication, torture, hanging, and burning. Eventually one might come to know that this came about because the Dominican friar managed to gain control of the hub of Renaissance opulence amidst a post-Medici power vacuum, and for four years exerted such unofficial control over it that he turned it into both a free republic and a rigid theocracy. Such an arrangement would prove untenable, especially because, as his more fortunate contemporary Machiavelli emphasized, he was an unarmed prophet. But Savonarola, for a time, proved an astute reader of public sentiment, who also happened to be an impossibly holy man. He possessed, moreover, a genius for showmanship. In addition to his Carnival processions and “bonfires of the vanities”, Savonarola was a spellbinding preacher, infusing his sermons with ominous and sometimes accurate prophecies. And he was iconoclastic in ways that would envy most performance artists, going so far as to stab at a Bible, as witnessed by Machiavelli, to demonstrate his Old Testament-style ferocity.

For these attributes, Savonarola was condemned by the Church as a heretic and then beatified by the Whig interpretation of history as the patron saint of lost cause populists. Whether Robespierre or Pol Pot, the Savonarola “type” has occasionally ascended out from the ashes. If ever there was a variation that was politically tenable it was Eamon de Valera, whose sincere devotion was offset by a prudent judgment that Savonarola could never abide, and he prospered in Ireland for nearly half of its lifespan. (Luther, it is worth noting, was also an admirer.) But if politics won’t tolerate Savonarolism for very long, other parts of society might.

Writing of the 1497 bonfire, Florentine historian Jacopo Nardi credited its success to “the agency of children.” Indeed, an important source of Savonarola’s influence was his dependence on the youth, who he organized by the thousands and greatly empowered. “So great was the terror and fright aroused by these children,” goes another account, “that gamblers would flee … leaving everything behind.”

[W]hen they found a girl or a married woman adorned with much pomp and vanity, they would correct her and say, “On behalf of Jesus Christ, King of our city, and of the Virgin Mary, we ask that you lay aside and abandon these vanities; otherwise sickness will fall on you.” But they uttered these words with such gentleness that the women would be stung with remorse by their warning and with many tears remove those vanities from their heads and give them over to be burned.

The children were effectively his morality police, carrying out the bonfires and enforcing his bans on taverns, gambling, and sodomy, regardless of gender. Punishment for sodomy included barring from public office, parading in the streets, branding, and even burning. At the peak of his powers from 1495 to 1497, over 700 people were accused of sodomy, which often included political enemies. These were seen as a gauge of Savonarola’s popularity, but friar’s enthusiasm to burn actual humans, according to contemporaries, was ironically one of signifiers of his downfall. Nevertheless, moral reform and youth’s role in embracing and perpetuating it remain the most timeless and integral lynchpins of his legacy.

In the 1990s it was not unheard of to see news reports and daytime talk show panels about the danger of straight edge “gangs,” kids, dressed in matching hooded sweatshirts, high top Nikes, and X’s scrawled in black sharpie on their hands, so dedicated to clean living that they’d assault anyone so much as nursing a beer. These reports were exaggerated. Youth crews existed, of course, but like the Krishnacore that was born from it, the movement was never easy to manage internally. At times they were more preoccupied with policing for colleagues who “broke their edge” than with any broad moral redress.

Nevertheless, the stridency of these movements and the calls to ritual, tradition, and abstinence from modern secular culture may yet coalesce into dedicated to carrying out moral reform with the Florentine friar as their model. “[T]he reason why I entered into a religious order is this,” Savonarola wrote his father, “the great misery of the world, the wickedness of men, the rapes, the adulteries, the thefts, the pride, the idolatry, the vile curses, for the world has come to such a state that one can no longer find anyone who does good …”

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How a Savonorolan youth culture takes shape in the 21st century is difficult to sketch out with much clarity. First there is the matter of optics. Though it is precisely what readers of The Handmaid’s Tale and other works of dystopia have come to expect, a broad commitment to accost people for their accessories, let alone for burning, is more pathological than moral, and a theatrical message that is more tragicomic than persuasive. Crusading against the unprecedented proliferation of pornography is all the more difficult when fewer and fewer physical stores are selling it. More than that, however, is that Savonarola undercuts the more vibrant existence of young traditionalists. The friar’s asceticism conflicts with their desire to return to high church ostentation. And rather than combat sexual behavior, they prefer to undermine the hyper-categorized sexual liberalism in total.

But even so, Savonarola’s example, and indeed his glamor, will always be compelling. His grave piety and his moral clarity stand in stark contrast to a debased public life. First to an American political class that has reached what one can only hope is its peak in petulance and vanity (though probably not), and second to a liberal culture whose joyous embrace of freedom, inquisitiveness, and beauty has shifted into boredom, rigidity, and brutalism. By what example are the young moralists supposed to conduct themselves?

Whether such a movement ascends one month or 10 years from now, I am more certain that we lack the privilege to be shocked at its coming. The new punk mentality and the old pious morality share an overriding principle that sees wickedness in complacency and obscenity in contentment. Such a principle cannot simply be burnt, because youth is nothing if not consistent.

Chris R. Morgan is a writer from New Jersey. His Twitter is here, his blog is here.