Amazing the trouble that a reaction-baiting local TV news segment can work up, isn’t it? In Euclid, a small city to the east of Cleveland, Ohio, the race to send a representative to the state house in Columbus recently got a healthy injection of political punk art—not always the most welcome addition to a candidate’s resume. The controversy stems from a book that one of the candidates wrote in 2008, a book of good old-fashioned pamphleteering called Please God Save Us. The text of the book is by current Euclid school board member and possibly future state representative Kent Smith, and the art is by renowned master of the punk rock poster idiom, Derek Hess.
On September 22, a markedly one-sided news segment by political reporter Tom Beres on local station WKYC all but accused Smith of being a virulent anti-Semite—over a book that has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism—because Hess (not Smith), in order to land a specific point about specifically extremist brand of Republican thinking—incorporated a modified swastika in some of the images. Predictably, it isn’t all that difficult to get the vox populi tut-tutting if you show an older voter a picture of a swastika and refuse to explain the full context. The WKYC segment explains that Smith is listed as an author of a book that does have a weird kind of swastika-ish symbol on the cover and then cuts to some older women saying (and this is a quotation), “I find it very disturbing, I find it insulting,” etc etc. Basically a respectable TV station said “Boo!” to some random shoppers in a retail mall and got them to say “Eek!”
Kent Smith finds himself in a tough race with Republican Mikhail Alterman and Independent Jocelyn Conwell, a race that would be a shoo-in for the Democrat if not for some gerrymandering shenanigans from 2010 that put portions of impoverished (read African-American) East Cleveland and predominantly affluent and Jewish Beachwood into the previously unified 8th district of Euclid. Alterman is an interesting guy, a former metal DJ at WRUW, the radio station of Case Western Reserve University—hey wait, don’t you reckon Alterman has to have purchased more than a few pentagrams in his day? Does that make him unfit for office? (For the record, Cleveland.com, the online presence of the Plain Dealer, enthusiastically endorsed Kent Smith on October 3, saying that Alterman is “armed with lots of ideas but some don’t make sense.”)
I spoke with Smith on Sunday evening. He insists that there isn’t anything to the charges, reasoning that the book has been in circulation for a while without anyone objecting to any anti-Semitic content: “Mr. Alterman and the Ohio Republican Party are not objective book critics or art reviewers,” said Smith. “The reason they are offended by the positions taken in the book is because those positions run counter to their Far Right, Tea Party agenda for Ohio and this nation. Please God Save Us has been in circulation since 2008 and not one professional, impartial reviewer found it to be antireligious or anti-Semitic.”
The fuller context you need to know is as follows: Kent Smith is a responsible and accountable representative of his community; the book was an expression of Democratic anger directed at the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, and Smith is being branded an anti-Semite for images he did not draw in a book that has zero to do with Judaism. But more to the point, the book has been out for six years now. It was conceived in 2006, not long after the bitter defeat of John Kerry, when liberal anger over the excesses of the Bush administration was at its peak. The book was released on July 4, 2008, the heady days of Obama’s first presidential run, and received positive notices from many quarters, including the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Weekly, Real Detroit Weekly and Juxtapoz. The book received national coverage for a brief period, and to be frank, nobody said diddly squat about any anti-Jewish sentiment in the book. Kent Smith has run for office several times since then and the issue has never come up because it’s completely clear that the charges of anti-Semitism are utter nonsense.
The book has ten chapters, which tackle themes like opposition to creationism, opposition to fossil fuels, opposition to the Iraq War, support of stem cell research, and a few other topics like that. Where’s the substance to the anti-Semitism charge? Alterman threw a stinkbomb into the middle of the race as a kind of Hail Mary pass, but the tactic reeks of desperation and threatens to sully Kent Smith.
Kent Smith and Derek Hess
And what of Derek Hess, self-described “superhero + overrated artist” (the verbiage comes from his own website). Angry, oh so angry, intemperate, irresponsible Derek Hess? Come now, this is rank silliness. Hess is a gifted graphic artist of whom it can safely be said that moderation is not his strong suit. But who really gives a tinker’s damn about the political agenda of Derek Hess? He’s not running for anything. He’s an internationally acclaimed artist whose work the Louvre in Paris has called “une remarquable série d’affiches” (a remarkable series of posters); the museum has acquired some of Hess’ posters. Derek Hess is not an amateur, he’s not a crank, and he’s not a joke. If anything, the decision of Derek Hess to choose Smith as a co-author can only reflect positively on Smith.
Let’s talk about the “swastika.” It isn’t really a swastika, to begin with. You can see it on several of the images on this page—it’s a swastika that Hess has (rather cleverly) modified with some care to make a specific point. In the book, which probably nobody involved in this whole fracas has even read, Hess explains that the symbol in question, which variously appears on a U.S. flag where the stars would normally be and as a kind of elongated cudgel, is a “Crosstika,” elaborating further that the hideous red Republi-creature is holding a “half swastika, half cross” that is designed to “create blind faith and allegiance, much as the swastika was used by Nazi Germany.” In other words, Hess is linking the swastika with the extremist right wing, which makes sense insofar as the original Nazis were an extreme and hyperconservative reaction to left-wing/collectivist political groupings like Marxism, socialism, and so forth. In other words, Smith and Hess aren’t advocating anything at all with respect to the stupid swastika.
One might ask, what is Mikhail Alterman’s objection to anti-fascist art? Why is he hostile to outspoken denunciations of fascism or movements that bear some similarities with fascism? Does every political objection have to take the form of “candidate X” strayed within 1000 feet of “annoying object Y”—is that where all thought processes have to end? Does anyone, Alterman included, really want a world like that? I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
As Smith said to me, “Neither Derek Hess nor myself are anti-religious – any religion. But we both strongly disagree with Republican Party positions on the economy, environment, going to war over trumped up claims and faulty intelligence, freedom to marry and women’s reproductive rights. Please God Save Us is a rebuke to the Far Right and I do not back off from what I wrote.”