-review by Bill Glahn-
[Note: This review was written in 2001 upon the album's release. It was recently unearthed while going through some files of my previous writing. It was never published. Know Your Enemy was highly successful around the world (Top 10 in most European countries, High chart positions in Japan, New Zealand & Australia as well) but failed to chart in the U.S. That says more about American media than the worthiness of the album. When the band chose to start the Know Your Enemy tour in Cuba, it proved "all too much" in the dawning of the new age of McCarthyism. If songs about Paul Robeson, Elian Gonzalez, and the symbolism of Guernica hadn't already doomed the record, it's fate became sealed the September after its release. In "Baby Elian" the band sings "You don't just sit in a rocking chair/ When you've built a revolution." It's an important line to remember in 2018.]
The most riveting scene in the opening episode of 100 Centre Street, the Art & Entertainment Network’s smart courtroom drama series, takes place in a restaurant between Judge Joe Rifkind (Alan Arkin) and Judge Attallah Sims (LaTanya Richardson). Rifkind is a liberal Jewish ex-cop who has seen all the barriers that can destroy lives among the poor in New York from street level. As a judge, he has earned the nickname “let ‘em go Joe” for his lenient sentences and willingness to offer a second chance to the defendants that he comes across in night court. His polar opposite, Sims, a black lesbian conservative, has earned the nickname “Attallah The Hun” for her stiff sentencing practices.
Judge Rifkind had recently been faced with a defendant with a history of minor crime who was in court for turnstile jumping. The defendant has already been in jail for two days waiting for a hearing and the maximum allowable punishment is three days. The public defender explains that his client is scheduled to start a new job the next day and asks for a sentence of time served. Viewing the job as an opportunity for the young defendant to put his life on the right track, Rifkind agrees. The defendant immediately goes on a crime spree and kills a rookie cop on her first patrol. An infuriated administrative judge tells Rifkind that he let him “swing alone” for his perceived trespass. The media learns of the judge’s unflattering nickname and a feeding frenzy erupts.
Rifkind and Sims meet over supper between sessions to discuss their scheduling. Sims offers to sit in for Rifkin to divert some of the media heat. Rifkind declines, stating that he will not allow media pressure and circumstances to interfere with the judicial process. Unsaid, but probably a consideration as well, is Sims reputation as a tough jurist.
Then Rifkind asks The Question. “How did you get to be this way?” To which Sims provides The Answer. “When I was 8 years old I was dragged under my front porch and every orifice in my body was penetrated. This was done by people who I had known all my life. Joe, there really are evil people in this world.”
It’s an intensely affecting moment. Rifkin and Sims, despite the immense differences in the way they view the world, become allies. But what if The Question had never been asked?
The first page in the booklet that accompanies The Manic Street Preachers new album “Know Your Enemy” presents a quote from Susan Sontag. “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” It’s a brilliant piece of philosophical thinking that, when taken further underlines the importance of the question. That the Manic Street Preachers realize this is what makes “Know Your Enemy” an important work for our times.
Rather than egotistically state “This is our point of view and we’re going to stuff it down your throats” – the Preachers set up their questions brilliantly. Most significant is their homage to Paul Robeson, “Let Robeson Sing”. It’s a fascinating choice of topic matter. Robeson was the first black man to graduate from the Columbia School of Law and was prohibited from practicing as an attorney because of his race. So instead, he became one of the great singers and performers of the 20th century. Despite the obvious injustice, Robeson remained a patriot, bent not on destroying democracy, but to make it available for all peoples. Included in “Let Robeson Sing” is a sample of Robeson reading “Freedom Train”. Its logic and grace are indisputable. The Preachers have done it justice by wrapping it in one of their most beautifully crafted songs. During the Cold War, Robeson believed that dialogue between America and Russia was so important that he actually traveled to Russia. During the McCarthy era, this was immediately considered a treasonous act, and labeling him a Communist effectively ruined Robeson’s career. Robeson vehemently denied this (eventually exonerated) but it didn’t deter him from trying to start a dialogue with Castro as well. His passport was pulled before he ever got the chance.
While acknowledging the importance of dialogue, The Manic Street Preachers recognize that there are indeed evil people in the world when they name-check Guernica (“My Guernica”). Guernica was the Spanish town that was bombed into oblivion in 1937 by the Nazis even though it held no strategic purpose other than to test-drive the Blitzkrieg. It inspired Pablo Picasso’s greatest work (named “Guernica” after the town), a 25 foot mural of immense despair. Picasso intended the painting to be a gift to his home country of Spain, but only after Spain had become a democratic nation. A number of years after Franco was finally planted the painting was finally delivered to Picasso’s native land.
“The Convalescent” follows underlining the importance of The Question. “DNA means ‘does not accept.”
With this groundwork, The Preachers invite The Question(s), “How does a 6-year old child view the Promised Land?” (Baby Elian) “Is freedom of speech enough?” (Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children). In "Let Robeson Sing" the band asks "Can anyone write a protest song?" They destroy that question throughout Know Your Enemy.
Bonus listens: Live in Cuba