A journalist interviewed during a TV documentary about John Lennon observed that he and Yoko Ono’s campaign in the early 1970s to ”give peace a chance” was both naive and spectacular. Did the songs, the protest marches, the ”bed-in” in Amsterdam and the haranguing of President Nixon’s bloody destruction of South East Asia have any impact? Well the Viet Nam war ended and the Americans didn’t win on their terms… Does that make John Lennon a hero on a par with other non-violent protesters, like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King? Perhaps it does, given that he was able to get the message across to millions through his concert and TV appearances.
Why are there no such high-impact anti-war artists in the miserable times we are living, anno 2018? There are plenty of discontented people watching the madness of Mr. Trumpet and his mob-style cronies cooking up hot wars on top of the pointless trade wars that are being launched in the name of America first. Although the Russian rumblings in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are bad enough, it is hard to believe that the US President can sink so low as to threaten his allies in order to increase spending on war (otherwise known as defence). On the other hand, in the distorted trumpist vision, any old lie is good enough if your fans are still fooled by it. Meanwhile assorted thugs around the planet are able to get away with widespread human rights abuses backed by western weaponry or by idiotic ideologies of repression and hatred or by a combination of both.
Of course there are voices of protest; many journalists and writers seem to be highly skilled at dissecting the political economy of the populists. But there is no unifying force bringing the debate on a sustainable future and the organisation of resistance onto a higher level. The law of the lowest common denominator seems to prevail as politicians become smaller and smaller and increasingly unable to project any coherent plans for anything resembling the ”inclusive, eco-development” which the same heads of government sign up to every time there’s a United Nations jamboree (with their expenses covered by the taxpayers…). It is scary to watch the antics of these second-rate (or discount) politicians stuck in the dead-end streets of Brexit, corporate irresponsibility and beggar my neighbour tariff wars…
Surveying the artistic and musical scene I cannot identify any leading lights in terms of alternatives; the entertainment business seems to have bought off all rumblings of protest or co-opted the critical. Well, perhaps #me too did represent a turning point with respect to gender inequalities, but there are few women who seem capable of taking the campaign a step further and challenging the men in charge of the machines of destruction. So we are forced to witness a steady downward spiral of re-armament, confrontation and resurgent tribalism.
The protests of the 1960s and 1970s are largely lost in hazy memory, despite films telling the stories of people like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Although nostalgia is not a very powerful or useful tool, I find myself longing for the clarity of “all we are saying…” and “war is over…” But there are no heroes on the stage in 2018.
A recent sustained argument for “saving Europe from itself” echoes my thoughts. In “Citizens of Nowhere” Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese (Zed, 2018) dissect the attacks on global citizens made by Teresa Maybe and others. The authors put forward the case for building a trans-national political movement for those concerned about the planet, going beyond national borders, profit motives and short-term interests. In noting how the far right dominates European politics the following words resonated in particular:
“Whereas Syriza (in Greece) may have shown that it is possible to be in government without having any power to govern, the far right has shown that it is possible to be a long way from government but have significant power to redefine what is important, what is acceptable political speech and what are acceptable policy responses. A tiny but well-funded nationalist far right, xenophobic group has been able to win the culture wars and shift common standards of decency, but it has only been able to do so due to the lack of moral backbone in mainstream politicians and worse, their cynical complicity. Sooner or later the far right enters into government and few objections are heard…”