by Joel Schalit (Akashic Books; $14.95)
“American by birth, Israeli by association, and homeless by conscience,” 34-year-old Joel Schalit is a poster child for the post-modern world. However, the purpose of his new collection of essays, Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World (Akashic Books), is not to flaunt the Punk Planet and Bad Subjects editor’s leftist punk street cred, nor to wallow in the angst of his experience. Instead, Jerusalem Calling delivers thoughtful, passionate analyses of subjects including the religious fundamentalism of American cultural politics, the failures of the left, the inner conflicts of punk, and the past, present, and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As a “homeless conscience,” Schalit presents his views as those of an outsider. However, what makes this book so compelling is that he grounds his arguments in his own engagements with history and the development of his personal beliefs. This approach not only lends contextual support and accessibility to his ideas, but also underscores the timely conviction implicit throughout the book that, whatever countries or cultures we belong to, as citizens of this planet, we are all connected by our humanity and implicated in what happens throughout the world. He argues that, “[w]hen there are no finer distinctions than ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ it becomes almost impossible to inspire meaningful action in a real world where each of us is both ‘us’ and ‘them.'” Schalit’s meditations on a recent journey to Israel are more refreshingly insightful than most any other current writing on the Middle East.
The only dissatisfying part of Jerusalem Calling is Schalit’s essay on music. As he meanders through the rise and fall of the early ’90s Seattle rock scene, and the crimes and punishments of working in the music industry, he eloquently articulates the dissonance between the DIY anarchy of punk in the ’90s and the narcissism and conservative, capitalistically-oriented politics it often became mired in. However, Schalit also condemns the fact that our political culture is so bankrupt that we seek “new heroes to magically transform our frustrated political ambitions into useless cultural capital.” Given that statement, the discussion of the crisis of faith that almost caused Schalit to stop making music doesn’t quite work.
After seven years of culling Christian radio shows for song material, he began to fear he was becoming numb to the exploitation that he and his fellow Christal Methodists were trying to draw attention to. The inspiration that resolves his dilemma is to record a song using a speech by former Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He concludes that he has “finally found a way to have my punk and play it, too.” Has he really? Sure, he’s found a more creatively and politically satisfying way to express himself, but for the rest of us, isn’t it just more “useless cultural capital” to consume? Or, are we simply supposed to be inspired to find our own ways of merging our political convictions with our creative impulses? Is that enough?
Perhaps we shouldn’t look to Schalit the musician to lead us to political nirvana. However, Schalit the essayist provokes so many important questions, and brings so much insight to the table, it’s hard not to ask for more.
(Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of Clamor Magazine.)