July issue 2006
Songs of Protest
Let’s impeach the president for lyin’
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door
These are the opening verses of the most controversial song from Neil Young’s recent album, Living With War — an album that comprises, from beginning to end, a relentless diatribe against the “shadow men runnin’ the government” and their “stinkin’ war.”
There has been plenty of contrarian activity on the cultural front in the United States since the judicial coup that ensconced George W. Bush in the White House. It picked up pace after a brief hiatus in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, and the assault against Iraq served as the spur for many a potent anti-war musical tirade.
In most cases, however, the attacks on that stupid war and associated neoconservative follies emanated from predictable quarters: genuinely liberal or left-wing artists who responded to what seemed like echoes of Vietnam. Most of them didn’t make much of a mark on the cultural mainstream.
There were a few exceptions, of course: the country trio known as the Dixie Chicks found themselves blackballed after one of them confessed, during a European concert, to being ashamed that Bush hailed from her home state, Texas. And then there were unexpected polemics from performers not generally associated with political stances: from a Madonna decked out in Che Guevara chic, for instance, as well as from Eminem and, on the other side of the Atlantic, George Michael, not to mention Coldplay and Pink.
The effect that any of the above may have had on mainstream thinking is open to speculation. Neil Young’s intervention is more consequential not because it is bound to be more influential, but because it is symptomatic of a change that has slowly but steadily been sweeping across the US over the past couple of years. For quite some time now, Bush’s popularity ratings have been hovering around the 30 per cent mark — a level of unpopularity not quite as pathetic as that of Tony Blair, but nonetheless unprecedented for an American president a year-and-a half into his second term (and that includes Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal).
Back in the days when the twin towers were still a part of New York’s distinctive skyline, the Bush presidency didn’t get off to a particularly good start in terms of popularity. Despite their best efforts, its spin doctors hadn’t quite been able to cleanse the stain of illegitimacy that clung to the new administration as a consequence of its anointment by the Supreme Court rather than American voters. The Enron factor added to the impression of a deep-seated malaise.
Then came 9/11, and all of a sudden everything else was not only forgiven but more or less forgotten. That tragedy, it is said, brought out Bush’s leadership qualities. That’s a myth. But his approval ratings did soar into the nineties. The response was based partly on uncertainty and fear, and the administration did its best to sustain the paranoia. Had the regime decided at that juncture to attack Iraq — as it very nearly did — it would have encountered very little public opposition. Only one congresswoman spoke out against the invasion of Afghanistan, a marginally more logical choice.
Not long after 9/11, Neil Young came up with a song titled ‘Let’s Roll,’ a tribute to the passengers of the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. The gung-ho lyrics could also be interpreted as a give-war-a-chance exhortation.
No one was particularly surprised. Young had in the past dabbled occasionally in political songwriting, but stood out chiefly for his idiosyncrasies. Back in 1970, as part of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quartet, he had come up with a reasonably powerful protest after the National Guard shot dead four anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at Kent State University: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,/ We’re finally on our own./ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio.” But he had subsequently climbed aboard the Reagan bandwagon, before flirting with Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid and mocking the aspirations of the first President Bush.
Thus, consistency was never a virtue that held much attraction for Young. And, in view of that, it may be unwise to attach too much significance to his latest change of heart. At the same time, however, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that the emotions he expresses are to a certain extent reflected in public opinion. Besides, most mainstream musicians who have felt obliged to register a protest against the direction in which the US has been taken by the Bush gang, have done so by devoting a track or two on their albums to the subject. Young not only recorded and rush-released an album-length indictment, but began streaming all 10 tracks from his website weeks before the CDs turned up in music stores.
In an interview with The Observer last month, Young confessed that he “trusted the government” in the aftermath of 9/11, when “we were told … that expressing dissent was not patriotic.” He added: “I was one of those guys who thought the Patriot Act was an okay idea when it first came out. I got behind it.” It was, inevitably, Bush who changed his mind. “We need a leader who’s more cautious, not so reckless with things they don’t understand. Other cultures need to be respected.”
The idea of giving vent to his growing anger was sparked by a picture he spotted on the cover of USA Today, showing “a cargo plane full of doctors ready to take off for Iraq. The story was about how medicine had made such leaps and bounds in the war, how doctors had learned so much from this conflict. Man, that was just too much for me. Are you really trying to tell me that the positive side of the war is the medical experience gained from all those wasted people? There’s really something wrong with that picture.”
There has always been something wrong with the picture as far as Iraq is concerned: what’s lately been changing is that large numbers of conservatives (Young might object to being categorised as such, but many of his instincts aren’t liberal) are beginning to recognise the flaws that have been staring them in the face at least since 2002. More and more of them have been waking up to the fact that they have steadily been lied to by the Bush administration: about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, about his links with Al Qaeda, about how thrilled Iraqis would be to find themselves occupied.
Would this realisation have dawned had the US encountered minimal resistance in pursuit of its objective of setting up a stable puppet regime in Baghdad? Quite possibly not, and even now much of the opposition to the Iraq war derives from the incompetent manner in which it has been handled rather than the illegality and immorality of the whole imperialist project. Among the majority of Americans who now reckon that the war was a “mistake” or “not worth fighting,” there are quite a few who object not to the conquest per se but to its mismanagement. To a certain extent, the growing unpopularity of the war is directly proportional to its perceived unwinnability.
Even so, it seems that the Democrats have yet to catch up with the popular mood. Many of them supported the invasion, and not very many of them are prepared to take a stand in favour of ending the occupation. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, such as Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, who seeks the immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq. But most Democrats are hedging their bets. When the House of Representatives voted last month to indefinitely prolong the occupation, 42 of them sided with the Republican majority. Arguably the bigger tragedy is that many of the 150 Democrats who voted against the resolution don’t actually support an immediate end to the US involvement in Iraq. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi challenged the official line: “Stay the course? I don’t think so, Mr President. It’s time to face the facts … This war is a failed policy of the Bush administration. We need a new direction in Iraq.”
Would that new direction entail an about turn and quick march towards an exit? Probably not. That option certainly does not appear to figure on the agenda of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who has been drifting steadily to the right, presumably in an attempt to shed her undeserved liberal credentials. Her candidacy appears to have attracted the interest of Rupert Murdoch, the staunchly pro-war media baron whose stable includes Fox News, a propaganda outlet that would have impressed Goebbels.
The next presidential election is still two years away; of more immediate interest are the congressional contests next October, which are providing Republican strategists with some cause for concern in view of America’s mood swing. The war in Iraq may be the primary cause behind this phenomenon, but it is by no means the only one. The initial perception of the Bush regime as exceptionally beholden to corporate interests has returned to haunt an administration that has been singularly unabashed about protecting the interests of the privileged. It’s contempt for the underdog was particularly conspicuous in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which last year stripped away the veneer of capitalist modernity from New Orleans, revealing a society deeply riven by differences of race and class.
Inevitably, the images of suffering among Louisiana’s predominantly black refugees caused considerable consternation among those who had been taken in by the myth of the American Dream. When it turned out that the deployment in Iraq was a crucial factor in the inability of the state and federal authorities to devote sufficient resources to rescue operations, a popular backlash became more or less inevitable.
A majority of Americans, including many Republicans, are also uncomfortable with the extent to which the Bush administration has pandered to the wishes of Christian fundamentalists: in terms of issues such as abortion and gay rights, its stance has more in common with the ideas of Muslim extremists than with those of the American mainstream. Karl Rove’s strategy of soliciting electoral support from the Christian right proved remarkably successful in the short term, but there is some evidence that it might now be returning to bite the Republicans on the backside. The level of intrusion into the private lives of American citizens, supposedly justified by the so-called war against terror, has also not gone down too well.
It is not inconceivable that the GOP might be pinning its hopes for survival in October on the inability of its Democratic rivals to posit a clear-cut and coherent alternative. Besides, even a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives would not necessarily translate into decisive legislative opposition to the Iraqi occupation. And that, surely, would be an indictment of the leadership options available to citizens in what purports to be an exemplary democracy.
America is changing, but its politicians appear to be far behind the people. For the most part, the people are not as analytically advanced as Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq and is now convinced that “not only is [the massacre of entire families, including infants] at Haditha not the worst war crime committed by American or coalition troops, but the entire war is a war crime,” or commentator Robert Dreyfuss, who argues (there is still no place for such opinions in the mainstream American press): “The war in Iraq was not a ‘mistake.’ It was a deliberately calculated exercise of US power with a specific aim in mind — namely, control of Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. It was illegal and remains so. It was a war crime and remains so. Its perpetrators were war criminals and remain so. Its goals were unworthy and remain so.”
However, even if the intrinsic immorality of the war has not yet registered as an overwhelming concern, recognition of the present administration’s studied incompetence is nonetheless a demand for a change of direction and, thereby, a small step in the right direction.
In conclusion, here are a few more verses from Neil Young’s Living With War (which, as a reviewer in the singer’s native Canada puts it, “is a fierce, comprehensive indictment of the Bush administration and all its failures, but it doesn’t feel like an outsider’s dissent. It’s the work of someone who clearly identifies with the core values of the ordinary middle Americans who voted for Bush”):
Don’t take no tidal wave
Don’t take no mass grave
Don’t take no smokin’ gun
To show how the west was won
But when the curtain falls I pray for peace
Try to remember peace
In the crowded streets
In the big hotels
In the mosques and the doors of the old museum
I take a holy vow
To never kill again
Try to remember peace
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.