The following words are the questions and answers from my interview with Greg Graffin (vocalist of punk band Bad Religion). As not all the questions and answers made it into the finished article, I felt perhaps some people would be interested in seeing what was cut.
GS: Your lyric writing includes a fairly advanced vocabulary — do you ever fear that you run the risk of alienating the audience?
GG: My goal as an artist is to say what is on my mind. Sometimes I am more successful at reaching the audience than other times. I don’t really fear alienation as much as I fear misinterpretation.
GS: In “Requiem for Dissent”, you wrote the line “Authority is Populist Deceit”. What do you mean by this?
GG: The only kind of meaningful authority is that which is granted by the public. 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.
GS: A running theme in many of your lyrics is “time”, often with a negative connotation — e.g., time running out and chronophobia. Is there a bigger message here?
GG: Time is the passage of events. If we ignore past events then we can’t understand the circumstances that led to our present and we are left feeling bewildered. That is why history, or development of causes, is something we need to pay close attention to in order to make good decisions, both personal and political.
GS: “Submission Complete” implies people’s tendency to believe authority without question. You use a school metaphor, not unlike Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. As someone who is an authority in an educational setting, how do you balance the need to educate while also allowing for freedom of ideas from students?
GG: Like I said earlier, the only kind of authority that sticks — that is to say the kind that has lasting impact — is that which is granted by the public. So the goal of an educator is to get the audience to believe in his/her authority. An authority in science, for example, is someone with knowledge who shares that with the public and inspires the public to do good things. The great thing about science is that it is not totalitarian. Free ideas and creativity are encouraged. But all claims in science have to be falsifiable. If they can’t be falsified by observation or experimentation then they are considered useless as scientific claims. So there is no room for a totalitarian style of authority in science.
GS: Tell me about the theme of “Grains of Wrath”, and when you say that we lost our way of life in 1983, is this a specific reference?
GG: The song reference was to recognize that the way of life we, as a nation, are committed to (corporate profits at the expense of family welfare) can be traced back to the early 80s and late 70s, as exemplified by one sector of corporate greed. Certainly a lot of American farms were failing in the 1980s due to numerous factors. One of those factors was the increase in corporate farming fueled by federal policies that benefited large corporations but did nothing for family farms. 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. 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.
GS: “You can’t make man a machine”. Do you see a necessary connection between political freedom/liberty and free will?
GG: I don’t believe in free will. It’s very complicated to explain human behavior, but free will is not an accurate way to depict it. Political freedom is not related to free will, in my opinion. Political liberty is policy-based and begins with tolerance to numerous reasonable ways of maintaining a society. I do believe in political freedom.
GS: Barack Obama is now president. Is this time for liberals to relax, or time to begin an even harder push?
GG: I don’t subscribe to the term “liberal” as it is used in political circles. Being a liberal thinker or eating a liberal portion of ice cream makes sense to me, and they are good things. But the catch-all phrase that is used by the right-wing to discredit the left-wing is very nebulous and weak. It’s good that our president is an intellectual with a background in liberal arts, for instance. So in that sense, yes, it’s important to push harder for liberal educational policies.
GS: What can the average American do to fight for what she believes is right?
GG: Write an essay, paint a picture, sing a song, then talk to others about your beliefs. These aren’t exactly “fighting” activities, but they are the best ways to raise awareness and hammer out the differences between people’s ideologies.
GS: I like to encourage people to do outside reading. What books, magazines, etc. would you recommend to help inform people?
GG: I read the publications from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA.org). Good books include “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan; “Oxygen, The Molecule That Made the World” by Nick Lane, and “Who Is Mark Twain” by Mark Twain.