Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lennon Documentary: stories of the revolution

The 2006 documentary The U.S. v. John Lennon stirred feelings in me that I think reflect a great question in the American Left currently. People like me have heard stories about optimism crushed by reality. We've heard about touchy-feely naivete. Middle class kids getting their kicks by smoking pot and rebelling against their parents. Unrealistic. The words they used are tainted with the negative light on these activists: "love", "peace", and even "activist". These are the narratives through which we understand the protest movements of the Viet Nam war years.

And these narratives are the ones through which mainstream American culture understands the politics of those days.

There are alternative narratives like the documentary. Democracy in the Streets which I wrote about last month is another counter-narrative. These show another perspective and another set of stories and experiences. There was real intellectual force to the left. And this force was beyond simple anti-war and anti-establishment. Certainly there were real problems. In the operation of political power, hypocrisy and abuse can happen. Miller's book gives a good explanation of some of the problems that developed in the student protest movement. But real vision was present as well. In the documentary Lennon appears in footage calling for peace. He calls for peace everywhere: in the world, in the city, in the bedroom. Everywhere.

So it turn out that social transformation like we talk about today was the goal of some. They hoped to transform people and our social and cultural machines such that we could stop producing the many kinds of violence that appear at every level of our societies. What happened? Why are most narratives today that the peace-niks failed? And why are the peaceful themselves marginalized?

Lennon said at a concert, (I'm paraphrasing) so what if flower power didn't work? We start with something else. He also said that people make a mistake when they say they see kids getting bored with "activism" and think the revolution is over. The revolution, he said, the peaceful transformation of every aspect of society, will take a long time. The stories tell us that ideals of the protest movements were wishy washy and have passed away. But maybe those are just stories. "War is over, if we want it".


Mariel said...

It's amazing, your post has made me look at the Beatles in a way I never allowed myself to before, in spite of the fact that I've been a Beatles fan since I was in the fifth grade. While I knew that the Beatles were revolutionary for their music and what they represented, at the young age at which I started to enjoy them, I was intimidated and put off by their later music. Why? Because it seemed as though the Beatles had stopped being fun. I couldn't listen to songs from Magical Mystery Tour or even Rubber Soul without feeling the overwheming weight of seriousness that inevitably goes along with those songs. I didn't understand it. And I wanted to use the Beatles to my own end of blocking out the world . . .I mean, that's what we do when we listen to music for the most part, isn't it? It's an escape. I wanted to stick with She Loves You, and A Hard Days Night. But looking at this video of All You Need Is Love, a video which I've seen many times before, I suddenly realized what a rut I've been stuck in. The Beatles, in particular John Lennon, were trying to do something huge! Something that most of us don't feel we have the power or the influence to start up on our own. They transformed the use of their music from "an escape" into a direct conversation with the world around them. And how ridiculous is it then, to look at this video of people trying to affect a serious change and then to juxtapose it with the fact that countless of us have dressed up as hippies for halloween, and countless of us have heard these songs playing in an Acme or a drug store and we simply say to ourselves "aw, I love the Beatles" and continue with our day. What is wrong with us? How is it that the message these individuals were trying to deliver has shrunk back down to the love of music? For something that has become so widespread, so known by everybody, the real message of these songs should be smacking us in the face. Why isn't it? Why isn't it still reverberating in an active way? It's not about the Beatles, it's about the world, and we all need to get out of our collective rut of escapism and listen to these messages.

julie said...

While I agree with Mariel that our current culture ignores and even disparages the revolutionary messages of Beatles music, and I share her frustation in many ways. But she may be undervaluing the importance of escape, whether through music, books, hiking, cloud watching, etc. Here's a favorite Edward Abbey quote that makes my point better than I can:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can.

Have a great weekend! Julie