We crammed into Scott’s office, six or seven of us. Wasting time, shooting bull, gabbing. Shelly was there, Gerard, the other Scott—Scott Van-Something, the Irish one from Boston. Me too, obviously, and a couple of others, the normal crowd. The conversation ranged as it usually did, free-flowing, following unpredictable paths. Details are murky, this happened a long time ago—thirty years ago, before my brain injury.
Scott, the first Scott, was older than us. A wife, kids, after work he went home and did adult stuff—cut the lawn, helped the little ones with homework, ate dinner at a table. After work, I went to bars, got carry out.
Scott grew up in South Carolina. Southern charm, southern pride. Smiling, friendly, helpful at work. Jovial. I never heard a cross word from him. Not to anyone… except to me, except that day. Cheeks flushed, eyes flashing with fury. “Don’t you dare compare me to a Nazi.”
He overreacted, I think. What I said was “Black people see the Confederate flag like Jews see the Nazi flag. It’s a symbol of hate.” I’m not Black or Jewish, but before my brain injury, I thought knew everything.
Scott was deep in the heritage not hate argument. “I’m honoring my southern ancestors. They fought for states’ rights.”
“That’s BS,” I said. “They fought to own slaves. Besides, it doesn’t matter what your flag means to you or meant to them, when people see it now, they see oppression.” Gerard, who is Black, backed me up. “Plus, your ancestors were racists.”
I’ve argued this point a dozen times since. It doesn’t matter what your reason is to revere the Confederate Flag. It doesn’t matter why you think the Civil War was fought. Today (and even thirty years ago), the Confederate flag sends a message when you fly it. That message is violence and racism—it’s threatening. Those who fly the Confederate flag are making that threat. It’s a simple truth. I can’t understand why everyone can’t see this.
So why do I get so pissed about Killing an Arab?
Do you know this song? It’s on the Cure’s U.S. debut album, Boys Don’t Cry. In 1982 or ’83, back home from college for winter break, driving home from my job at Shakey’s Pizza, late—after midnight, and freezing—the car just starting to warm up. the radio played a song by a band I never heard before, the Cure. The song, Grinding Halt, was a simple pop-punk song with a catchy hook.
♫ Everything’s coming to a grinding halt… ♫
I bought the album the next day. Grinding Halt… sure, good song, but my immediate favorite was Killing an Arab.
The song starts with that iconic Arabian riff, the Streets of Cairo (also commonly referred to as the snake charmer song). You know this tune, it plays anytime a Persian scene runs in a cartoon from the sixties. When the Cure released the song in 1979, the riff effortlessly conjured up visions of the domed mosques of Baghdad.
Standing on a beach with a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea, staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground
I see his open mouth but hear no sound
I’m alive, I’m dead. I’m the stranger
Killing an Arab
Not surprisingly, there was backlash when they release the song, and over the years it only got worse. From Wikipedia: In the US, The Cure’s first compilation of singles, Standing on a Beach, was packaged with a sticker advising against the racist usage of Killing an Arab after a student DJ on WPRB Princeton provided an exacerbating talk-up prior to playing the record in October 1986. The Cure and Elektra Records requested that radio stations discontinue airing the song and saw the warning sticker as a compromise to prevent having to pull the album from sale entirely. Killing an Arab saw controversy again during the Persian Gulf War and following the September 11 attacks
In my head I hear: “So Jeff, why would you embrace such an openly racist song? Killing an Arab? Seriously?” Slow down! The song’s intent isn’t racist, it’s existentialist like much of the Cure’s work. It also has a literary backstory. From Songfacts:
The song was inspired by Albert Camus’ book The Stranger. It is not a racist song, but still caused a lot of controversy because many people assumed so because of the title. The book deals with existentialism, and the title “Killing an Arab” was taken from a passage where the main character thinks about the emptiness of life after killing a man on a beach for reasons he can’t explain. Camus published The Stranger in 1942. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1960 at age 46.
Since 2006, at Cure concerts they’ve replaced ‘killing an Arab’ with ‘killing another,’ but made no other edits. Now the song’s ruined. When I ask Alexa to pay it, I can only get a live version of Killing Another, not the studio version I prefer. The same thing happens with the music streaming service I use. With that change, the clever literary meaning evaporates, or at least weakens.
I’m in an odd position railing on about cancel culture. I feel like one of those right-wing conservatives all pissed at Joe Biden because Dr. Seuss Enterprises took some racist books out of print. But I think context matters. Overlooking the lyrics and focusing on three words is ignorant. Taking a song off the radio because some rednecks misinterpret the meaning is a giant disappointment.
I fully realize I’m being two faced here. My old coworker Scott can’t celebrate his Confederate flag while I want to sing along about killing Arabs. But here’s the thing, this is why I write. It’s the way I get full clarity and understanding on a topic. When I’m done, as I almost am, I’ve planted a seed. I’ll continue to mull this over for weeks or months, and once everything is reconciled in my mind, I suspect the song Killing Another will seem just fine to me. I know this will be the outcome because I’m not changing my mind on the Confederate flag. I’m sure of that.
Listen: Killing an Arab by the Cure.
Image at the top of the page is from the album cover of Boys Don’t Cry.
Follow up: Blogger friend Laurie left the following comment:
I dunno, Jeff…maybe you should give “Killing an Arab” the same test you give the Confederate flag. Ask someone of Arabic descent whether the song is offensive to them. If it is, then it’s racist, no matter what the intent of the lyrics is.
I’m convinced. Yet another benefit of the blogging community… clarity of thought, people smarter than me. “Killing an Arab” is racist.