Commenter CMO#9 writes (slightly edited by me):
I’ve been reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair and there is a profile of the late war correspondent Marie Colvin. The article mentions that growing up, Colvin idolized The New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson.
That name should ring a bell for some of you and I have no doubt that you are familiar with her brief but polarizing entry into John’s life, Michael. I believe it was either 1969 or 1970 when Ms. Emerson interviewed John (and Yoko) at Apple. She basically calls him a fool for him believing that his songs and slogans could and would change the world. I used to feel Ms. Emerson was living in the past, a relic left over from the previous generation and clinging to relevance by publicly challenging a Beatle. I think my opinion began to change with something that you (Michael) wrote on Hey Dullblog. You felt that John made the conscious decision to appear and be taken more seriously towards the end of the Beatles. He believed, as you stated, that in the future (aka now) his participation in marches and demonstrations would be remembered more fondly and admiringly than to a video of him bopping his head along to “She Loves You.” But do you agree with Ms. Emerson?
My response to this is too long for the comments, and I expect a lively back-and-forth, so I’m putting it up as a post.
Watching this again, I’d like to agree with John and Yoko—I’m a comedy writer, not a war correspondent—but I think that Gloria Emerson has been proven correct. Yoko’s point at the end is particularly wince-worthy: “Can you imagine anybody killing someone with a smile on their face?” My god. And I think it’s really interesting how defensive Lennon gets—how he stops trying to connect with her almost immediately, and starts using buzzwords like “middle-class” and “fascist.” He knows he’s playacting, but his ego won’t let him stay calm. Emerson’s no better—”dear boy” ugh—but the intervening 44 years has made her points weather better than Lennon’s. And I want to emphasize that, as a comedy writer (our era’s version of a protest singer), I want to agree with Lennon. I want to think my jokes can change the world, just like he wanted to think his songs could.
But that’s not what the history tells me. My opinion on Lennon as a peace activist is based on nothing more than public sources—I don’t claim any special insight—and it’s idiosyncratic enough to have pissed-off many of my friends in progressive politics. Most not only wholly buy the St. John myth, but see it as a model of virtuous, effective political action in the media age.
The conventional wisdom is that John and Yoko simultaneously led and followed a mass social uprising of youth which ended the Vietnam War. And that John’s future status, his icon-hood, is built on this vision of him as a Man of Peace, similar to Gandhi or Martin Luther King. I think all of this is, if not exactly bullshit, then a questionable reading of the history of the time. It’s very romantic, and very flattering to ex-Movement types now residing in academia, and neither of those things are a big deal. The big deal is that it’s derailed liberalism ever since, and turned it from a largely effective, somewhat unified political force to a largely ineffective, fractured one.
Sincere, but wrong
I think John Lennon was absolutely sincere in his desire for peace; the Bed-Ins were rooted in a psychological need that was always there, kindled by the immense upheaval he went through in 1968-69. But I think that his basic assumptions are flawed. I think he (very understandably) overestimated the power of cultural figures in general and himself in particular. I don’t think war exists just because the masses don’t demand peace; often the masses are the ones demanding war (see: WWI, Niall Ferguson notwithstanding). And I don’t think you can “sell peace like soap,” because peace—even if Lennon ever had taken the time to define it, which he never really did—isn’t a product that can be exchanged for money, it’s an idea.
The power of a “sale” comes from the money that exchanges hands; I buy a Dixie cup, and the Koch Brothers get a dime’s worth of frozen power from me. John and Yoko’s “peace” had to be defined into some real-world action injuring the baddies and/or helping the good guys. You have to not pay the salt tax, or not ride the buses, or fill the jails, or enroll in the University. John and Yoko shied away from this, and they said exactly why: people who do that get shot. So what John and Yoko were doing was performance art, not politics. As “happenings,” their activities were very successful, but they did not make the world more peaceful then or now, and had zero measurable impact on the struggle to end the Vietnam War.
Ideas are powerful, but it’s incumbent on a leader to offer that next step—“if you believe in idea x, then do y”—and if by doing y, people get x, society changes. John Lennon telling kids who are about to go to Vietnam “grow your hair for peace” is like FDR saying to people in the breadline “grow your hair for prosperity.” Ideas are something, but it’s peculiar to suddenly think that they’re the only thing, and this attitude isn’t present before the guns started ringing out. Symbolic action is, by 1969, a substitute for the leaders that aren’t there—from conventional ones like JFK and RFK, to more radical ones like MLK and Malcolm X.
By the time of the Bed-Ins, no American male of draftable age needed a John Lennon song to “Give Peace a Chance”; they had the immensely more real threat of being drafted and dying in a rice paddy. That’s what motivated the mass demonstrations from the Mobe on; and we know this because when the draft stopped, the marches stopped. (In fact, the whole thing we call “the Sixties” stopped.)
What Stopped the War?
So, if not John and Yoko, what stopped the War? My belief is that, after Tet, a significant number of the power elite began to believe that we could not “win” in Vietnam, and that the economic impact of an endless quagmire was too great. If we couldn’t win, and staying was bad for business, the only reason to keep fighting was an implacable fear of Communism—which detente showed was waning. The anti-war movement, while undoubtedly a powerful personal experience, and an undeniable cultural shift, doesn’t seem to have made much of a political impact. Unlike Reconstruction or Progressivism or the New Deal or Civil Rights, the New Left didn’t get anybody elected (cough George McGovern 1972 cough), and didn’t change US policy or laws. The moment the immediate personal threat was removed, its members dispersed. “The Movement” was Vietnam; and all the other parts of it, from brown rice to drug humor, were immediately and seamlessly incorporated into mainstream capitalist culture without a hiccup.
And yet, the Left still really believes in leaderless, ill-defined, transitory mass displays of opinion as effective political action. This is an immensely appealing idea that simply seems unsupported by data, either in the individual case (remember all the people who marched against the second Iraq war?) or in the mid- or longterm view of American politics. Today the US is more culturally progressive, and more politically right-wing, than it’s even been. The personal simply isn’t the political, and once you get rid of that shibboleth, things make a lot more sense.
An Idiosyncratic Commitment
Lennon’s peace activism was entirely—100%—personal. He supported no political candidates, disliked the New Left leaders he came in contact with (he thought were using him), and did not follow through on any of his pledges to mobilize his personal popularity into votes. I can’t blame him, because the world was strangely full of “lone nuts,” and by 1971, the FBI was making it clear that powerful people had taken an interest. He was both prominent enough to be in trouble, but not effective enough for the trouble to be worth it.
The only way John Lennon’s political commitment could’ve stood up under that kind of pressure, was for it to have flowed from a deeply felt, rocksolid set of personal beliefs. That wasn’t his nature. Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (and maybe even JFK and RFK, if you believe Jim Douglass), Lennon’s activities did not take place in, or grow from, any well-defined tradition, religion, or anything more than what he wanted to do that Tuesday morning. In this, Gloria Emerson was right. But she was wrong to think he was insincere. They were, while deeply felt and well-meaning, fundamentally narcissistic, and when he moved on to Primal Scream, he’d moved on.
Why War? Why A Roomful of Fur Coats?
Lennon was never brave enough to acknowledge that modern war is rooted in the scarcity mindset of capitalism—that is why both Gandhi and King and Malcolm X lived (and died) as poor men. Lennon was calling for everyone else to make a better world, while he enjoyed every possible benefit and protection of this one; there simply is not enough moral authority there. It didn’t work when he did it in 1969; it doesn’t work when Yoko or Bono or [insert celebrity here] do it now. It’s merely a symbolic gesture, and if one takes it seriously, it’s apt to be actively irritating. Don’t ask me to buy your latest single so that people in Ethiopia can have a meal; give your money, and ask me to give mine; and hungerstrike until the UN sends relief. Do something real, with real consequences for you personally; otherwise, it’s just talk, and that goes for me, too. Unlike the Jesus comment—which was not a calculated political action—Lennon lost nothing, risked nothing, with his Bed-Ins. The people who liked him would like him; and the people whose respect he’d lose—like Gloria Emerson—he didn’t care about. Does anybody know of any valued friend Lennon lost over his peace activities? I can’t think of one. He was, via the world’s media, talking to himself. But it was harmless, and who knows, maybe it inspires/d others to do real stuff. That’s great, but the kudos should go to them, the ones who risk, not the rockstars doing what rockstars do (write songs, give interviews). That most rockstars are horrible clods doesn’t make John Lennon a Saint, and for my money he’s not even the most virtuous rockstar in The Beatles.
Only the Political is the Political
Which leads me to my final point, and the only real bone I have to pick with John Lennon on this matter. I’m glad he was “for peace.” I’m “for peace,” too. But as it turns out, the personal isn’t the political, only the political is the political; the Left has spent the forty-four years since 1968 marching, making scathing movies, cracking endless jokes—and has less power than ever. As Mort Sahl said, “The right’s taken everything, left us Hollywood, and convinced us we won.” The Bed-Ins hastened the emergence of (seemingly) virtuous consumption, which is the economic equivalent of f**king for chastity. What the 60s counterculture got right was that the dehumanizing horrors of modern life are inextricably linked to our desire for more, more, more, on a planet of finite resources. You don’t make the world a better place by buying stuff—but that is the mass-cult application of what John and Yoko were doing in 1969. They were saying that right attitude, not right actions, mattered; that you could change everything without changing yourself. That wasn’t true in 1969 and it’s not true now.