Freeborn Frank Turner
The British musician brings a libertarian sensibility to his new folk-punk album.
Be More Kind is the seventh studio album by the British singer-songwriter Frank Turner. The title is based on a Clive James poem published in The New Yorker, and like many of Turner's previous works, the record blends elaborate folk storytelling with a punk rock attitude, overtly political themes, and pleas for social decency. With song titles like "Make America Great Again" and "21st Century Survival Blues," Be More Kind is an album full of literary, political rock 'n' roll. It has also been a critical and commercial hit, pulling rave reviews at publications such as NME, topping the British charts, and rising to 90th on Billboard's top-200 album list.
Turner has described himself as both a libertarian and a classical liberal—ideological descriptors that are rare in his corner of the music world—and has reportedly received death threats for talking candidly about his politics.
In June, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Turner about his new album, his idiosyncratic politics, punk rock's liberal slant, and why the most important debate isn't between left and right but between authoritarian and libertarian.
Reason: Your album is called Be More Kind. What do we need to "be more kind" about in England and America these days?
Turner: The central driving philosophical thought behind the record was just looking around at the rise of instability in our politics and the collapse in people's ability to meaningfully disagree with each other like adults. This is not an original thought on my part by any stretch, but it really does seem like you can surprise younger people by telling them that the purpose of political debate used to be to try to win people over to your side rather than just to insult them in 140-character ad hominems, you know what I mean? We're reaching the point where it feels like the center ground in politics is collapsing, and that seems extremely dangerous to me.
Obviously, I don't think rock 'n' roll written by me is going to save the world, but part of the reason for taking this approach is that trying to remind people about consideration and kindness seems like an appropriate ambition for politically minded music. I feel like in my old age, the idea of writing songs which have concrete policy proposals or indeed revolutionary slogans is kind of naff. But songs that try and address the social underpinnings of the way that we deal with each other in times of political strife—that's an appropriate ambition.
Your "old age." You were born in 1981.
I would say that I'm approaching the upper end of my demographic as a touring musician. I've certainly outlasted almost everybody I started with.
In England, the immediate cause of anger and vituperation is Brexit and immigration. In the United States, a similar kind of populism in 2016 gave rise to Donald Trump, and a lot of people here hate immigration as well. I'm not necessarily saying Brexit is a bad thing or Trump's rise is a bad thing—but what has fallen apart that people are now so angry at each other?
The recovery from [the economic crash of 2008] has been unbalanced, and a lot of people feel left behind by the establishment liberal politics that have dominated the West since 1989. At the same time, I think it's important to recognize that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous moment in human history. I find it slightly galling when people go on about how absolutely bloody awful everything is at the moment. Statistically, that's absolute horseshit. But anyway, that's the world of politics and economics. I think it's important for me to say that I'm a musician. I'm not qualified in any particular way to talk about these things.
One thing that's driving everything that's going on now is that we've had a revolution on matters of communication, which is social media. It would be silly to think that that wouldn't affect the way we talk to each other and wouldn't affect our public discourse.
The thing about the way that social media exists as it currently does now—particularly Twitter, but all forms of it—is that we've accidentally built a machine to dehumanize our opponents. Because when you argue with somebody else on Twitter or on Facebook or whatever, you're not talking to another human, and therefore a premium gets put on the escalation of outrage, and suddenly people are talking to each other online in ways that they would never talk to each other in person. Or at least wouldn't have until the governance of Twitter emerged. One doesn't have to be a historical expert to know that when people start dehumanizing their opponents, terrible things start happening quite quickly thereafter.
Don't some of the very same technological advances that empower social media also help you as a musician reach vastly different audiences and connect in ways—
Is there a way to take the good from the telecommunications explosion and not devolve into this Lord of the Flies mentality we see every day on Twitter?
The internet is a tool. In and of itself, I don't think it has moral content. It's just that it accelerates an awful lot of other things. If you look at the early 1500s, after the invention of the printing press and all that kind of thing, a lot of the same arguments about fake news were had in that period of time.
Also, just to pick something slightly less kind of intellectually weighty, I always find that people on Instagram are much nicer than people on Twitter. I suspect that's because there's a visual aspect to it, so you actually sort of see something of somebody's existence.
Short-term I'm quite pessimistic, but I think I'm medium-term optimistic because I suspect that we have the wherewithal as a species, as a society, to figure out more positive ways of using this [technology]. I just hope that we don't have to go through something like the Thirty Years' War in Europe to get there.
I guess it would be the 280-Character War now, right?
One of the songs on your new album is called "Make America Great Again." I think Americans are always fascinated by British people who have a deep and abiding affection for America. What do you like about this country and where do you think we need to step up our game?
Well, in my personal opinion, I'm a big fan of the American Revolution that posed that question of independence, the Constitution, that kind of thing. I think that in terms of a well-reasoned, well-argued, and well-written documentation of Enlightenment liberal politics, it can't be beat.
Of course, we can now throw in the usual caveats about the fact that historically, America hasn't lived up to its ideals in certain times and certain places. But that's why they're called "ideals," you know what I mean? I would say that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. The fact that people don't necessarily live up to an ideal is not a reason to abandon that ideal. It just highlights that human beings are fallible.
I think America still has a pretty good claim to the best basis for a polity. Now, there are various things that I personally find politically problematic in America. I think the elevation of the presidency towards monarchical heights is a really bad thing, and I think that's a cross-partisan issue. I think the president should be much more of a public servant rather than the sort of king-elect that he's currently treated as by the media among many other things. And there are issues with free speech, particularly campus ideas about free speech, which are quite problematic at the moment in America.
I get that [as] an outsider, there are probably gaps in my knowledge. At the same time, you get the benefit of a little bit of distance, and I can say with a great degree of certainty that Americans are the most open and well-mannered people that I've come across in my travels around the world. And they're still an incredibly optimistic people for the most part, and I think there's something joyous and wonderful about that.
You have said that you're not a Tory, a conservative, or a Republican. You're a small-l libertarian, and you dislike the authoritarian elements of the right and the left. How did you come to that?
The word I use is it's a tendency. In any given political argument, just try and lean in the direction of "individuals should be able to have as much autonomy as they can," and whatever else flows from that flows from it. I don't have a manifesto. I just want to make sure that people are as free as they can be wherever possible.
"Obviously, I don't think rock 'n' roll written by me is going to save the world.…But songs that try and address the social underpinnings of the way that we deal with each other in times of political strife—that's an appropriate ambition."
I got into anarchism as a kid because I grew up listening to punk rock records. I was educated in a very conservative atmosphere and I felt very alienated there. Discovering bands like Propagandhi and The Clash really gave me a psychological and intellectual escape route from that. So I was heavily into anarcho-politics, anarcho-crust punk, all that kind of thing. And indeed, I got involved in some black bloc protesting and stuff like that for a little while when I was in my late teens.
After a certain point you just realize how self-indulgent a lot of it is. Smashing up the Starbucks helps precisely no one. And in my wanderings through the world of anarchism, I encountered the most authoritarian people I've ever come across in my life. There are a lot of people who are very, very interested in telling other people what to do and ordering people around. I've spent time hanging with anarchists in various parts of the world, and they're super-authoritarian places. Which is bitterly ironic in its way.
I then went through a period of time of feeling quite disenfranchised, shall we say, politically. And then I just kind of stumbled across a different approach to politics.
You went to the London School of Economics (LSE), right?
I did, yes, where I was taught absolutely nothing at all about the world of economics.
Back in the '40s and '50s, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper had a connection there. So American libertarians always look at the LSE as a place that kept libertarian ideas alive that were distinct from ancient regime conservatism or hardcore Marxism.
The driving motor of my politics comes from my passion for history. Like everybody else in the U.K.—and I've got a feeling it's like this in America as well—I spent the vast majority of my secondary school education in history studying Nazism. It's a historical calamity that was absolutely appalling. It's the great crime of the right.
But there was precisely zero counterbalance in terms of studying the crimes of the left in the 20th century, and it wasn't until I got into university that I started finding out about what had happened further to the east of the continent. I feel very strongly that the political and social crimes of the right and the left should be held to the same standards, and they simply aren't in our current society.
Why is punk so left-wing? And how have you worked through that to be able to use a punk or post-punk sound to talk about libertarian ideas?
Right at the very beginning, punk rock in London—I'm not sure that you necessarily would call it left-wing. There was a very problematic environment when swastikas became part of the de rigueur punk rock outfit, which I think is bad and terrible.
Yeah. Siouxsie Sioux, later of the Banshees, was wearing one on the Bill Grundy show when the Sex Pistols drove England mad.
A lot of those early punk bands were being given a bit of a pass. I'm not sure it [was] entirely justified. I felt like there was always a lean more towards anarchism than towards Marxism, which is more to my taste anyway. But it's about kind of rebellious, transgressive ideas.
I think punk rock is an ethos. It's an approach to the world, and it still informs an awful lot of what I do. It's iconoclastic, it's egalitarian, and these are all things that I wish to be.
When I was involved in the DIY scene with independent distributors, people pushing their own records and all that—that's a pretty perfect calculation of free market ideals in practice. Unfortunately, everybody involved seems to think that they're Marxists. It's funny to me because it's like, this is exactly what I'm talking about when I say I'm in favor of the market. Everybody independently producing and exchanging with each other to create things that increase value.
One of the great historical disappointments to me is the fact that essentially the free traders in British history were on the left. They were anti-authoritarians. They were people who [thought of] the market as a tool for emancipating the masses.
Do you think people are starting to understand that it's not right vs. left, that actually the big deal is authoritarian vs. libertarian?
I think there is more of an understanding of that now. One of the difficulties I have in life is that the music industry that I work in is very, very hard-authoritarian-left in its politics. When I say that, I'm referring to an awful lot of my friends, and I don't mean this as a character assassination at all. They're welcome to their opinions, and for the most part, we have civil conversations with each other. But it is just entertaining to me every now and again to see various people going, "We've got this outsider view of the world."
You have many tattoos, but you have two tattoos of particular interest to me. The first is the amagi, an ancient Mesopotamian or Babylonian symbol that is somewhat known in America, particularly to libertarians. Tell me about that.
It's actually Sumerian cuneiform. From my understanding [the symbol] literally means "return to the mother"—but in the context that it's used in the document where it was found it's about manumission of slaves, and therefore it's generally understood to be the first written reference to the concept of liberty in human intellectual history.
Do you remember how you stumbled across that and why you thought, "I gotta put this on my flesh"?
I was just reading and coming across different ideas and different symbolism, and finding drawn symbols or effective shorthand for political or social or intellectual approaches can be quite tough sometimes. I guess if you're a communist you can get a hammer and sickle. That's pretty easy. But on the other end of the spectrum, it's more difficult to find. So I came across it and I thought, "That's cool," and I got it done.
You also have a tattoo that was inspired by John Lilburne. I suspect there aren't many people in England who remember him. Tell us who that is and why he's important to you.
Oh, so John Lilburne was a man from the Northeast of England who came down to London during the English Civil War and ended up being one of the leaders of a faction called the Levellers. [They were] an intellectual movement who agitated for, among other things, equality before the law; regular elections; one man, one vote—ideas which at the time were radically liberal and radically new.
He was literally beaten and tortured for publishing these ideas.
Yes. His health was comprehensively broken by the authorities. He died earlier than he should. But what I find interesting about him is he became a very popular figure in London, and he was known as Freeborn John. After he died, there was a tradition that lasted for a couple hundred years, whereby whenever there was incipient popular unrest in the [public housing], pamphlets or rumors would be distributed to the effect that Freeborn John was seen in the hills of North London last night or whatever it might be. He was almost like Jack Frost. He became this borderline mythical character—a symbol for uprising of normal people against authority.
I kind of love that idea. Plus, in wanting to get one's knuckles tattooed, you have to find two four-letter words that make sense together. So "free born" worked for me. Of course, everybody and their dog thinks it says "born free," and they got it the wrong way around. But I knew what I was doing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style.