On Frank Sherlock and Redemption
At a recent writing conference, I attended one of the many similarly titled panel discussions that revolved around what “we” are supposed to do with the work/art of people/men who have behaved badly. During the question and answer session, a man in the audience stood up and introduced himself as a teacher in the prison system, teaching creative writing mostly to convicted sex offenders. He mentioned how he now regularly faces questions from his students about whether they should even bother writing or aspiring to be a writer, a new line of questioning that he’s only had to recently address. For his students — aware that much of society wouldn’t hesitate to file them under the category of “bad people” — hope is a crucial motivator for rehabilitation, and art an important vehicle; but what they perceive as a heightened sense of unforgiveness and an eagerness of our culture and media to assert punitive erasure to badly behaving artists, has led them to wonder whether their past misdeeds have already closed the door to whatever could be gained in a creative writing class.
The teacher received a struggling mix of responses from the panel, from a few of the panelists you could almost smell the faint burning of fried circuits as they attempted to reconcile the more recent leftist trend of radical lack of sympathy for the accused against the long-standing leftist position of disdain for the prison system and compassion for the incarcerated.
Never mind trying to explain to a class full of convicted offenders the difference between a person using art as form of rehabilitation vs an artist using art (via their celebrity or cultural status) to take advantage of others, reasonable details and opportunities to treat situations as case by case matters have been drowned out by the absolutist fervor of all things “cancel culture”. You can have as many panels about the topic in an endless loop of academic conferences, yet the fashionable thrill of public punishment in a broadly sweeping panic over badness has shouted down and/or scared off most fine-tuned discourse about the topic. In the assumption that a certain amount of collateral damage is acceptable, those on the side of righteousness have gone largely unchallenged in their purging of “problematic” individuals from art, and with an apparent no re-entry policy, the redemptive, restorative and therapeutic aspects of art are becoming obsolete when those who have been accused let alone convicted of a transgression shouldn’t even be given the opportunity to be redeemed.
The recent controversy surrounding Philadelphia poet laureate Frank Sherlock has revealed some of the most extreme positions and flawed logic that can manifest — most egregiously at the social media phase — during the public tribunals of an offending artist.
In March of this year, Sherlock and poet Amy Saul-Zerby began bickering on social media following a conflict between them that occurred at a poetry reading. They swapped insults on Facebook, exhibited some typical poetry scene drama, and then in a nuclear coup de grace, Saul-Zerby posted a poem citing Sherlock’s skinhead dalliance as a 19 year-old vocalist for a white nationalist punk band. Although Sherlock was never public about it, this dark secret from his youth had been right there and google-able for some time, and when someone who disliked him found it, she outed him.
This caused a social media frenzy, friends distanced themselves from him, the poetry community dumped him in a demonstration of outrage and disgust. The gears of cancel culture started turning as his publishers began dropping his books from their websites, collaborators cut ties, and poets were bandying terms like “destroyed” and “done” in regards to his career.
Sherlock quickly responded with a statement on Facebook, admitting that he briefly played in the skinhead band New Glory in the 1980s, a band that never played live and had some of the worst high school notebook cover art you can imagine. In the post, he discusses growing up in a racially tense neighborhood in Southwest Philly, where a “fortress-style racism was palpable and suffocating”, how he fell down that slippery slope of being attracted to the fascist chic of punk of the 70s and 80s, went in a wrong direction, and wound up a fascist. Sherlock quickly rejected it, realizing that the sub-culture he fell into was “limited, negative and nasty”, and went in search of something more meaningful. At Temple University, he found poetry as an integral tool for his own personal transformation. It was a rite of passage, he changed his name, changed his politics, changed his life. He used his writing and his elevated status in the community not to promote hate, but to the contrary, he went on to establish or work with several community oriented efforts like mural arts projects, disadvantaged youth writing programs and hurricane relief fundraisers. Like many others who reformed after having far more than a passing youthful fling with white supremacy — Christian Picciolini, for example, who was a leader of a white supremacist group and can now be heard on NPR and Democracy Now discussing his reformation — Sherlock dedicated his work, at least in part, to social justice.
Sherlock’s response to all of this was familiar: first you write a long post, then you delete it, then just apologize, say you’re going to take time to just “step back and listen”, and then go into hiding. He didn’t have to apologize for his story, and in my opinion, shouldn’t have. It’s the level of over-accountability and bending to the onslaught of criticism that legitimizes it. But I get it, he was scared, his life forever altered and something like this is rarely something you experience twice, so it’s impossible to prepare for and react to.
But none of this mattered, the damage had already been done; Frank Sherlock’s name was grafted without compromise or context, to one of the most dooming cultural labels: white nationalism.
Frank Sherlock is of course not innocent of being in a Nazi skinhead band, he chose to be involved in that hate group and knew what he was doing even at the dumb age of 19. But he also knew what he was doing for the 30 years of adulthood that followed when he broadened his worldview and gave back to the community through his art and his politics, which promote a message clearly antithetical to lyrics he regretfully wrote for New Glory. The story of Frank Sherlock’s relationship to white nationalism didn’t end with him being a white nationalist, it isn’t a story about white nationalism. It’s also a story of southwest Philly in the 1980s, the punk scene, racial tension along class divisions, the redemptive power of art and personal transformation. But complexity is not conducive to the simplified, dehumanizing straw man narratives that get fed into the cancel machine. So his story and anything redemptive or teachable that could be harvested from it were collapsed, along with the previous 30 years of his life, into one meme-able symbol of skinhead poet.
It’s important to analyze some of the criticisms directed at Sherlock after his call out, which at this point, are textbook criticisms used in a variety of similar situations.
The fact that he no longer harbored racist or violent thoughts was a minor detail to many who merely used the story to push off of his stain of badness in signalling their own virtue. Much of the immediate response from the poetry community applied a “once a skinhead always a skinhead” logic, like a poet interviewed by a Philadelphia newspaper, who was angered that she was friends with a white supremacist the whole time without her knowing it. “Do I, as a person of color, have the choice to associate with a white supremacist?” If transgression is a stain impossible to wash off, then what is redemption? Not even possible.
Others, like artist Rasheedah Phillips, who discarded his story as an excuse, saying “As a white person, you get to say it’s a youthful indiscretion, as a black person, the consequence for youthful indiscretion is lifelong poverty and jail.” So he is guiltier because he is white? Should he be punished more because the world is unjust? This is a mess of logic that implies that in this situation we should alter the punishment depending on the race of the perpetrator because it’s fucked up that society alters the punishment depending on the race of the perpetrator. Her quote is the definition of scapegoating, stepping over the reality of a situation to reach a platform on the other side, but such statements largely go unchallenged.
Then, of course, there is the sassy-disregard-for-evidence-and-nuance response that populates social media comments. One poet got lots of likes and shares (!) for this tweet: “I don’t know the story and I don’t need to but I will say that the question should never be ‘can a fascist change?’ but should a fascist be allowed to change? and the answer is no.” Here again, the details aren’t important, and redemption impossible, you just erect a firm wall separating the good from the bad. I’ve often wondered if this kind of ignorant bacchanalia of banishment is the result of the left getting wasted from finally getting to imbibe the power of intolerance.
Multiple critics landed on the popular claim that he should be shunned because here’s this bad man soaking up the privileges that “other people may have deserved.” Sounds good, but again, makes no sense. Deserve what? To make art? To barely make a living in the marginal world of poetry? And what does it even mean to deserve these things? According to what merit? This rarely ever means deserving it based on the merit of the work itself, but according to some other identity or grievance measurements. Sorry to say, but given the scope, impact and quality of Sherlock’s work, this hypothetical poet who “deserves it more” would be hard-pressed to do as much with the opportunity as Sherlock did.
The response from one of Sherlock’s closest collaborators, C.A. Conrad, is indicative of the lack of analysis, integrity and sense that manifests in these moments. Conrad initially posted a measured response, assured by Sherlock that he did not participate in any violence during the 1980s, but then a day later, the measured response turned into the measuring of career consequence against the optics of associating with a skinhead, and Conrad abandoned Sherlock, suddenly deciding that Sherlock’s failure to disclose his past sooner was too much to overcome. He requested that their books written in collaboration be pulled by the publisher.
Those, like Conrad, who knew in their heart that Sherlock was not a Nazi, found a place for their outrage at Sherlock’s omission of his past. Yet the degree of the sins are made arbitrary when you punish the omission of having committed the transgression with the same terms that you would punish the transgression itself. If Frank Sherlock came out and admitted he was STILL in a skinhead band, he would be just as canceled.
Let’s talk about this notion of disclosure and apology. First of all, we shouldn’t let the idea that how people deal with their past is nobody else’s business except for those directly involved. In many cases, that still holds. Apparently, those who demand door-to-door apologies are too good to have gone through any program of rehabilitation like Alcoholics Anonymous, which explicitly disapprove of public apologies, as they often lead to hollow and performative displays of pseudo-remorse. Second, it’s absurd to suggest that anyone will be jumping at the chance to confess all potential indiscretions in the environment hot with a lack of sympathy, extremes of punishment, and career-ending cancellation manufactured by the same people who demand transparency. This failed logic brings us back to the student learning creative writing and asking, “why bother?” Especially when the likely options of transparency are: don’t tell and be punished if they find out, or confess just to be punished sooner.
What would a young Frank Sherlock (the “bad” version) become without poetry and the meaningful connections he made through it? Yet poetry is what his community is so eager to take away. The smattering of voices in the poetry community who were supportive of Frank Sherlock aren’t likely to put his books back on sale again, or book him any readings any time soon. It’s the unforgiving censorious impulse that holds the power in the situations.
Maybe the particular excess of vacuous mob mentality in response to Frank Sherlock is due in part to the poetry community’s smallness and reliance on good standing in the liberal sphere of academia for survival, but this is in no way an anomaly. These kinds of conversation have transplanted the art itself in many communities; moral arbitration is now a contemporary art form.
It’s time to push back against this censorious impulse, its invalidation of restorative justice, and the ease with which a person (guilty or not) can be “canceled”, and replace shunning and cancellation with dialogue and reconciliation. Otherwise, if we continue this course, we’ll be left only with art made by “good people”. If that’s the case, then should bad people make art? Yes. And more of it.
[Originally published June 7, 2019 on Medium.com’s Culture section: