During the school year, Greg Graffin is a mild-mannered professor at UCLA, where he teaches biology. But once class goes into recess, Graffin dons his other hat as the co-lyricist and lead singer of near-legendary punk band Bad Religion. Having toured for over twenty-five years, Bad Religion has a staying power one does not often find in the ephemeral music scene littered with one hit wonders and pop tarts. They also have a message.
Graffin tells me that one must always question authority’s legitimacy. “The irony of a bad political administration is that they can feign authority by misleading the public through carefully thought-out public relations or propaganda. In an era of bad administration authority is maintained by deception of the public.” So what does constitute legitimate authority? “The only kind of meaningful authority is that which is granted by the public,” he says.
Perhaps some irony or contradiction might be detected in the fact that Graffin himself is a professor — an authority in science. How can his students take his words seriously? “The goal of an educator is to get the audience to believe in his/her authority.” Unlike politics, scientific authority is based on something real rather than a mere social construction. “The great thing about science is that it is not totalitarian… All claims in science have to be falsifiable [or] they are considered useless as scientific claims… There is no room for a totalitarian style of authority in science.” Contradiction averted.
Surprisingly, I am informed that politics is not his “bag”, and he is first and foremost a scientist. Any doubt I have on this is quashed once Graffin reveals his favorite reading material: the publications from the union of concerned scientists (UCSUSA.org). Recent articles cover such topics as climate change, genetically engineered food, nuclear weaponry and “clean jobs”. Books he recommends include “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan and Nick Lane’s “Oxygen, The Molecule That Made The World”. Even his political passion is strongest when biology is involved. He claims the American way of life is “corporate profits at the expense of family welfare” and has been this way since the early 1980s. In particular, Graffin is concerned with agriculture.
“Certainly a lot of American farms were failing in the 1980s due to numerous factors [including] the increase in corporate farming fueled by federal policies that benefited large corporations but did nothing for family farms.” Family farms have been declining in general for decades. A century ago as much as eighty percent of the population worked on a farm in some capacity. Today, that number is a mere two percent. When one considers how many mouths must be fed by this two percent, it becomes clear that these are largely megafarms, with all the glorious side effects that come with them.
The effect of federal policies on farming is clearly illustrated in the example of corn. “Today we are a nation of corn eaters. Corn is used for most sweeteners (not sugar), shortenings (not butter), feed for livestock (not alfalfa), and is subsidized by the government to the extent that to grow another crop could mean zero profits for a small-scale producer,” he laments. “It never escapes my attention when I drive across this country and see mile after mile of monoculture fields without a single family residence in sight.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tracks crops in America and other countries. According to them, more corn is grown each year than the next twelve crops — soybeans, wheat, sugar beets, potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, sorghum, rice, cotton, grapes, apples and lettuce — combined. We need not even mention the connection between corn and ethanol.
What can we do as citizens beyond pulling the lever every four years? “Write an essay, paint a picture, sing a song,” but most importantly “talk to others about your beliefs.” He suggests, “They are the best ways to raise awareness and hammer out the differences between people’s ideologies.” In the end, this is the path to political success — finding common ground and building from there. But also, we must push harder for what we believe in to actualize the will of the people. While it is good that “our president is an intellectual with a background in liberal arts”, Graffin stresses that this alone will not ensure the policies we want and need.
Graffin leaves us with one final piece of Santayanaesque wisdom. “If we ignore past events then we can’t understand the circumstances that led to our present and we are left feeling bewildered.” Remember that we are always entering an event in the middle of its history, so we must appreciate its origins to fully understand where it is heading. Of course, depending on your perspective, this could open your eyes to a world on the edge of destruction, or the beginning of a new era of hope.
On July 30, Bad Religion will take the stage at the Warped Tour on the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee. They are currently touring in promotion of their most recent album, “New Maps of Hell”. If you’re interested in power-driven rock with a biting political commentary, do not wait until the last minute to purchase tickets.