Michael Gerber
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Our John Lennon circa 1971, haunting Gary Abernathy’s dreams.

Because she knew it would get a rise out of me, commenter @Tasmin sent me this cringeworthy Op-Ed from The Washington Post today, which I pass along out of a need to trauma-share. The Bezos-owned WaPo, for any foreign readers, is ostensibly the liberal-est of our oh-so-very-liberal American media, which means its opinions range from far-right, all the way over to center-right whenever the boss is up in space. I do not blame WaPo for this, any more than I expect a man who owns cattle to own a newspaper promoting vegetarianism.

Under the headline “Can’t we ‘Imagine’ a better song for peace and harmony?” contributing columnist Gary Abernathy ladles up a bunch of steaming nonsense not heard since the days of Spiro Agnew. Sure, it’s nice that Julian Lennon recorded a version of his dad’s song in honor of Ukraine, Abernathy says, but if you want a world without religion, without countries, without possessions, you can count him out. “‘Imagine,’ as beautiful as it sounds, has always disturbed me with its overtly anti-religion, unpatriotic recipe for ‘living life in peace.'”

The thing about Utopian visions, Gary, is that they are thought experiments. Adults realize that pop songs are not meant to be taken literally, and bad things happen if you do. (Take for example, Japan’s disastrous experiment with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which resulted in their infamous “Lost Decade.”) In the US however, right-wing schemes even without catchy pop songs are tried again and again and again; trickle-down economics, for example, or abortion restrictions, or “more guns lead to a safer society.” (I think John Lennon would have a tart opinion about that last one.) Politically, the US since 1980 is like a Roomba stuck under a chair. Just today Georgia passed a no-license, no-background check concealed carry handgun law. This time we’ll get that “more polite society,” for sure.

On the other hand, “Imagine”‘s no-government, no-religion, no-possessions prescription really hasn’t been tried. And how could it be? There are too many people—perhaps Gary Abernathy knows a few—quite happy to ditch an ostensibly pacifist, antimaterialist religion whenever it suits. (I think Jesus would have a tart opinion about Abernathy’s belief “in the bedrock concept of private property.”) Nothing even remotely like Lennon’s Utopia has ever come to pass; he is certainly not describing China, Cuba, or the USSR. Those societies where there has been no private property have had immense amounts of government control, to the degree that worship of the government has replaced religion. One out of three is not “Imagine.”

Honestly? Abernathy should applaud Lennon’s song—from the very moment “Imagine” was released, the world has gone in the exact opposite direction. Make it the freakin’ National Anthem and maybe William F. Buckley will rise from the dead. Even though we face arguably worse troubles than the world did in 1971, this columnist’s answer is yet more religion (of the right type—I doubt he wants Sharia Law), yet more capitalism, yet more patriotism. A better Op-Ed would be: “Are you addicted to religion, capitalism, and patriotism? Here are the warning signs!”

Don’t get me wrong: like Guinness and fornication, I think religion, nationalism, and possessions are perfectly all right—in moderation. But they are so deeply ingrained in our culture that John Lennon, proud British millionaire, felt he had to write a song encouraging an alternative. And even though that song seems to be creating the opposite effect, people like Abernathy are ever-more frightened. Perhaps it’s not the song?

You have to hand it to American conservatives; through supreme effort (and lots and lots and LOTS of money) we’re now back having the same idiotic conversations people had in 1971, when cynical, corrupt jerks like Agnew and Nixon criticized the longhairs and plumped for a mythical God-fearing, America-loving past unsullied by dangerous ideas. This fantasy is inevitably paired with a paranoia so unreasoning it can’t even crack a dictionary. Abernathy again: “‘Imagine,’ as beautiful as it is, contains troubling imagery for anyone who cares about faith, patriotism and capitalism. And really, we don’t have to imagine this world. We’ve seen it,’ Abernathy writes. ‘It’s called socialism.'”

Dun dun DUNNNN. 

Wait. “Socialist” like France or Britain? Or contemporary China? Or Mao’s China? Or Pol Pot’s Cambodia? Or Stalin’s Russia? Or Nazi Germany? All of these countries might plausibly be called “socialist,” depending on how you’re defining it, which means that the term is functionally useless in this context. The more accurate word would be “authoritarian,” and God knows why the WaPo editors didn’t make Abernathy use it. An Op-Ed is not license to willingly mislead through unclear language. These days, the only people who fit Abernathy’s definition are hyper-capitalists like Vladimir Putin who use religion and nationalism to exert control over a heavily propagandized people. To which Abernathy says, let’s give arsonists napalm, and hope the fires magically stop. If it was 1950, with Stalin ruling Russia and Mao China, I’d cut this Op-Ed some slack; but to look around at our world and conclude that what we need is more nationalism, religion, and capitalism is practically a cry for help.

Boo to WaPo for publishing this nonsense. Boo to the editors for not editing it. Boo to privileging such sloppy thinking and raising it to the level of adult discourse. Boo.

The shame of it is, there is a great Op-Ed to be written about “Imagine.” The song, as pleasant and apparently heartfelt as it is, was penned by a man deeply attached to his national identity, wealth and power (and if fame is a religion, that too). John Lennon saw these things did not bring him happiness, and so he wrote a song to help people, himself included, aspire to something better. We have tried a world full of countries and money and God, and it hasn’t worked. Even those who would take issue with the previous statement cannot deny that the planet is on the verge of collapse as the result of human activity beginning around 1800—in other words, since capitalism and nationalism hit turbo, and brought religion along for the ride.

What this article is really about is simple hatred for the Sixties, that’s all. “Imagine” is an anthem of the counterculture, and reflects the ideas of that group circa 1971. It plays essentially the same role as a Christmas carol does for Christians—you know, those songs that you hear constantly from November 1 onwards, without getting hysterical? Would WaPo run my article explaining why I, a lapsed Unitarian, find “Joy to the World” problematic? “This song, as beautiful as it is, contains troubling imagery for anyone who is deeply skeptical about the anointing of any human as savior and born to rule, obeyed without question, and endlessly praised through propaganda. And really, we don’t have to imagine this world. We’ve seen it. It’s called Putin’s Russia.”

“For many of us,”Abernathy writes, “‘Imagine’ is a siren song to the rocky cliffs of destruction.” The problem is, Gary, for everybody else, we don’t have to imagine that destruction. Thanks to too much nationalism, capitalism, and religion, we see we’re already there.