One day long ago I scrawled “Belsen Was a Gas” on a t-shirt and wore it to school. My social studies teacher flipped right the fuck out. “Why are you celebrating the murder of six million Jews?” He demanded.
Even I knew this was weak. I wasn’t really protesting it. What would that even mean? But I certainly wasn’t celebrating it. I was a nice kid. I didn’t have anything against Jews – I didn’t have anything against anybody, really. I was just trying to be outrageous, and I hadn’t really thought things through. But I couldn’t say this to Mr. Hutchinson, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the shirt. Which was maybe just as well, since the “purpose” of the shirt was clearly quite vague.
In case you’re wondering why I would wear such a fucked up thing to school, I should point out that “Belsen Was a Gas,” is a song by the Sex Pistols, from their second album, the Great Rock and Roll Swindle. I was well into the Sex Pistols then, and even though they seem positively quaint nowadays, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1982 they terrified squares and set free-thinking adolescents alight.
Even so, “Belsen Was a Gas” is far from their greatest achievement: John Lydon himself later disavowed the song as a “nasty piece of work.” All it’s got is a catchy, dark riff and a harrowing verse at the end:
Now that’s a great fucking line.
But it’s not a manifesto.
Still, it’s funny: even though you’d think the Sex Pistols would’ve been completely recuperated by the mainstream by now, I bet if you walked down the street in a “Belsen Was a Gas” shirt tomorrow you might well get nazi-punched by someone who took your art statement the wrong way. That is, of course, if anyone actually knew what Belsen was, which is far from given. Which is perhaps the only good argument, then or now, for the existence of that shirt: to get people to remember Belsen.
And who knows what the rest of the lyrics are about? Who even knows what the lyrics are? I didn’t know back then when I made the stupid t-shirt. I just liked the Sex Pistols because they were exciting, and they had that guitar sound, and they didn’t give a fuck. But it’s weird that they were ever controversial, because now no one gives a fuck. No Fucks Given is a thing people say. The President of the United States is the President of the United States more or less solely because he appears not to give one single flying fuck.
The other day I heard a guy say “We’re all philosophers now.” He wasn’t that kind of guy, though. He was kind of a dickhead, but not malicious, I don’t think. Well, maybe he’s malicious. If I wrote his name many of you would think he was malicious. He’s a bad guy in many people’s minds. Even though he says quite clearly that he hates Nazis, many people consider him a Nazi.
Is he a Nazi? I don’t think so. though I’ve never met him. He reminded me of guys I’ve met in bars, friends of mine. He reminded me of lots of guys when they’re drunk. He said some shit that pissed me off, and some shit that surprised me. He said some shit that I had to look up and then after I’d looked it up, I was uncomfortable, because I couldn’t immediately refute what he had said.
He wasn’t the smartest guy I’ve ever heard, but he wasn’t the dumbest. I figure he’s probably about as smart as me, maybe a bit dumber. I’m not that smart, but I’m not stupid, and I figure he’s probably about as smart as me.
Maybe a bit dumber.
He seems to have done what I did after 9/11, which is to look at himself and say, “Holy, shit, it’s time to grow up.” When I watched the two towers fall I suddenly felt that my life up till that moment had been silly and smug, that I had taken liberty for granted and that my lifestyle experiments had taken place in a laboratory protected by people I not only didn’t thank, but openly despised. I heard people, friends of mine, celebrating the deaths of thousands of strangers and doing it openly, lightly, because they assumed I would agree with them.
Or maybe they were just being outrageous.
“Belsen was a gas.”
A lot of people seem to be scared and hurt right now. Because Trump, because Globalism, because Climate Change, because all of it. People talk about the Left and the Right, about Liberals and Conservatives, as if these are different species. We wage war against one another as if we are devils and angels, as if our bodies are not the same body.
Look at us: we’re so obviously the same: our bodies identical, brought into the world crying, for all our lives dependent on the kindness of strangers. How could it be that violence and strife was the proper way of the world? How could it be that to protect your little tribe was the way for all beings to live?
If you’re an open hearted person, if you want to help, if you care for the weak and the oppressed, how can you be so cruel and dismissive to your neighbor? You say they’re “stupid.” Okay. Is it your highest goal to be cruel and dismissive to those who are less intelligent than you? And are you really so sure that you’re so right?
At heart some of us feel that humans can be saved, and are worth saving. Some Buddhists say “inherent goodness…” I don’t know about that. Things are the way they are, people are the way they are. We want to say “good’ and “bad,” and that’s fine. But our desires and preferences are contained within the world, not the other way around. That is to say, the Universe will continue on heedless of our goals and plans. Still, the Universe works through our actions and intentions: our choices matter—they are the machinery of fate. And we can choose love, or we can choose hate.
There are principles to guide us, principles that will always work. Not to say they will always save us from disaster, but they will come closer than any others. Respect, tolerance, honesty, courage. Speak your own truth, but let others speak.
Let others speak.
And be careful about punching people in the head. Because I heard another guy say, a big meathead of a guy, nice guy, but big, and a fighter, he said, “When you really know how to fight you don’t start fights.” You don’t go punching people in the head when they piss you off because you don’t know. You punch the guy in the head, maybe you take him down, feel good about yourself, you struck a blow for justice. But that’s not it, it’s not over, especially if the other guy doesn’t give a fuck. He comes back, but this time he’s got a couple of buddies with him. And after they beat you down maybe you go back with a couple of friends and some baseball bats. And then they come back with knives or guns.
In Germany in 1932 gangs of Communists and Nazis prowled the streets, breaking up meetings, punching guys in the head. Not giving a fuck. Or giving too much of a fuck. Take your pick.
“Belsen was a gas.”