I just finished watching “The US vs. John Lennon.” I have a pretty predictable reaction whenever I watch video of John Lennon for more than five minutes: I start to get depressed, and I cry. In fact, I recall that the one and a half minute preview of this movie was enough to make me sniffly. After finishing this, I find myself wondering why a documentary about his life would affect me so strongly, and I think that above the obvious tragedy of his murder, there is a sense of loss about the promise of the era and strength his political activism represented. I see the period of the sixties and early seventies as one where so much progress came so close to happening…and then it slipped away. Reagan was elected president. Clinton—nominally of Lennon’s idealistic, progressive generation—was as deeply embedded in the imperialistic (“globalization”) project as any Republican. And I obviously don’t need to even get started with Bush (and if I do, please, understand that you have wandered onto the wrong blog).
I look at the state of the anti-war movement today and while I see a lot of activism and anger, it’s hard to see a lot of hope. And what hope they do have often seems to be misplaced in, well, the Democrats, who have consistently undermined every single anti-war principle of peace and sane foreign policy and economic justice that they (I’m sure some of them genuinely) believe in. In the documentary I was struck with this scene where Lennon is speaking to a reporter very enthusiastically about the newly empowered 18-21 year old voting bloc that had just been enshrined in the constitution in time for Nixon’s second-term elections. He was proposing a series of concerts that would dog Nixon’s campaign trail, convincing all the young voters to become active and vote for a candidate. And not just whatever zombie the Democrats prop up as the opposition (though, damn, they don’t make zombies like they used to, do they? I was positively floored by the vague grasp of the nuances of the English language Nixon displayed). No, Lennon (and Jerry Rubin, who I think was helping to conceptualize this) stated explicitly that they would not encourage the kids to vote for any candidate except one who promised a full, immediate withdrawal from the then-current quagmire: Vietnam. What a far cry from the activists that, today, seem to just consult their tarot and pray that once we elect them, the democrats will discover some morals and do the actual fucking one thing we elected them to do.
And then, even beyond the obvious parallels (as regards the domestic situation) between Vietnam and Iraq, I was struck by how absurdly brave and passionate and humane a person John Lennon was (in spite of his personal flaws, which the movie tends to gloss over). I mean, to some extent everyone knows this (and if you don’t, again, you’ve wandered down unfamiliar paths—return to the armed fortresses and gated communities that succor you). But here was a man who was among the top five most famous and beloved people in the world. He was massively wealthy. He could have gone on recording songs and making even more money and eventually getting knighted and going on tour every few years to make even more pots of money. Hell, that’s what Paul McCartney did. So did Mick Jagger. But John Lennon really wasn’t satisfied with that. He couldn’t even restrict himself to the “shop your way to saving Africa” brand of political activism so favored by superstars like Bono. No, he understood the media’s infatuation with him, and exploited it at every moment he could to convey his anti-war, pro-peace, pro-democracy message. His publicity stunts (like the infamous “bed-in”) shock me, thirty years after the fact. No one does anything like this any more. Can you imagine a tabloid star as huge as Paris Hilton turning every story that could be about her, into one about the illegal Iraq war? If Snoop Dogg spent tens of thousands of his own dollars to put up massive billboards all over the world that declare “war is over (if you want it)?” And let’s not even confront the absence of even one modern anti-war song by a new artist that equals the level of dozens recorded by Lennon during his heyday.
This, like the Vietnam era, is one where the lust for power and wealth is slaughtering hundreds of thousands in another country. This is a time when we need, more than ever, another John Lennon to emerge from the narcissistic rubbish heap of popular culture. This is a time when we need weekly, daily marches on Washington, and before our local legislatures. And some of that is happening—I don’t want to denigrate the prodigious efforts of the current anti-war movement. Part of the problem is that the media have learned their lesson (or, you know, have such small and incompetent staffs) from Vietnam—they no longer consider protest marches, no matter how crowded and boisterous, as news. But part of the problem is also a growing sense of disenchantment and cynicism about the world and foreign policy. We have pushed Iraq into a civil war, with at least 4 million internal and international refugees (but only scant thousands allowed into this country). The war was illegal to begin with, and has only turned into a nightmare as terrible as the worst of the predictions as its start. And now, it seems, Iran is being groomed as some kind of next target (I honestly don’t know what else to make of the recent spate of Iran-related proclamations from the White House). I’m afraid of what this country is doing to the Middle East, and the rest of the world. I’m sickened and horrified at the neglect of our own citizens and the citizens of the world who are being cynically left to die at the hands of the multi-national corporations we enable. I, in my own safe New York bubble, can hardly think of a step forward, let alone a way out. And I’m sure many conscientious people with a national platform feel the same way.
But I suppose that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean that someone with John Lennon’s courage, platform and artistic vision couldn’t be one of the most powerful catalysts we have for change. *
(*and that I could do much, much more in this world movement than I currently am. I may not be even remotely famous, but that obviously doesn’t absolve me of responsibility to do something about my outrage. None of us are free from hypocrisy.)