The other day I was in a rush to catch my train to Philly, and I grabbed a small book out of my little library – I needed something digestible for the 2-3 hour train ride. It was a copy of Howard Zinn’s “Artists in Times of War” (Seven Stories Press, one of my favorite publishing companies). John Clov had lent me this book a couple years ago, quoting something or other about anarchy as he often did at the time, but to my own discredit, I never sat down and read the whole thing.

The book is a collection of speeches and essays by the late Zinn, the first of which makes a case for why artists, along with ordinary citizens, have a place, a right, … indeed a duty(!) to be active in politics. Often you hear the typical rant against liberal Hollywood and rockstars who speak out against war, the belittling of their views because they’re not ‘experts’ or ‘professionals’ in the field, so they should just do what they do best which is play guitar or act – ie be a monkey and entertain.

But Zinn has a different view. Is there such a thing as an expert in morality? In how to live, in whether your country should kill, to bomb or not to bomb? Does it require an expert to know these things? He points to British actor Peter Ustinov, who was criticized for his lack of “expertise” in the ’70s when speaking out against the Vietnam war:

“[Ustinov] said that there are experts in little things but there are no experts in big things. There are experts in this fact and that fact but there are no moral experts… All of us, no matter what we do, have the right to make moral decisions about the world.”

Therefore artists, along with ordinary citizens, have every right to an activist role in politics. In fact, they are endowed with the unique gift for revealing deep truths to the masses in the guise of what is perceived to be fiction or entertainment, and therefore benign enough for publication (read: Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five)… whereas the very same ideas, written in a paper by a historian or professor might very well be muzzled before seeing the light of day. Zinn quoted Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” (Emily has had that quote in her email signature for awhile and I just now got what it meant!)

Of course when you go out and criticize your government, you more or less beg to be accused of being unpatriotic, yet it is precisely LOVE for your country that calls for keeping sharp tabs on her institutions, and for a diligent and tireless effort to protect your country from those who run her institutions and threaten to trample all that she stands for just because they happen to sit in the driver’s seat. Zinn quotes Mark Twain – author, reformer & activist – in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”:

“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags – that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. … ‘… all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient.'”

Finally, Zinn quotes Dylan in arguably some of the most powerful lines of verse ever written in American history. Incidentally, a couple weeks ago, I came across a story about how Dylan had to cancel his Asia tour because China declined to allow him to perform there.

Apparently they were worried about his iconic counterculture status – and at first I had to laugh at the absurdity of China’s continued censorship. Ok, I guess I can understand fear of the Internet, but how weak must your institutions be that you can’t let a 68-year-old, peace-loving musician perform, who, these days, does nothing more than grunt and growl through his sets? No need to worry about Dylan leading a chant of ‘Tibet’ the way Bjork did. But you know, thinking again, I take that back completely. China’s Ministry of Culture is very wise to decline to be graced by Dylan. He is a terrible danger to weak institutions. He is a threat to China’s national security. Listen to these lyrics and try to imagine a Chinese youth unsparked with a desire for something better… if anything, just a more transparent government that trusts its citizens enough to sift through information on the Internet, even if it reveals past mistakes, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. I was walking home at the time that I read these lyrics and had chills along the back of my neck on a beautiful spring afternoon.

Masters of War (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan):
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

Reading Zinn’s book made me think of a Google alert, also a couple weeks ago, of a YouTube vid in which some anti-war protester used our song Renegade as the soundtrack to footage she took during the anti-war march in Washington in March.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSBr_sXVTb8&feature=related]

The interesting thing to me is that the song wasn’t even an anti-war song, but I suppose it’s the principle that is the same. Renegade is an old song – it was our way of taunting the bland and stifling expectations of life that we kids felt we were expected to have coming out of college – the idea of immediately falling into line and following the paths and ideas of those who came before, simply because all older people know best, after all they’d lived the most years, they should know right? They are the experts aren’t they? Psyche your mind. These would be the most impressionable years of your life. So take the time to sow some fruitful, sustainable seeds.

Now if I might quote someone myself – writer, pastor & thinker Rob Bell who writes in his book “Velvet Elvis” about the “living” nature of truth. Though he writes in the context of the Christian faith, his ideas are applicable across the board. Contrary to knee-jerk perceptions about truth, he welcomes flexibility, reclamation, and redefinition of what has been handed to us as hard, unmalleable truth. He compares the Christian faith to the act of painting – pointing out how absurd it would be to assume that any one work of art could be such a masterpiece as to eclipse the need for any future artists to attempt to paint anymore.

“The tradition then is painting, not making copies of the same painting over and over. The challenge of the art is to take what was great about teh previous paintings and incorporate that into new paintings. And in the process, make something beautiful – for today.”

I’m not even sure we knew what we were fighting against at the time we wrote Renegade, nor what we were aiming for…I’m sure we were just being annoying bratty kids ๐Ÿ˜‰ Be that as it may, I guess the song was our own personal dare to figure out for ourselves, then, what it was we aimed for, rather than incorporating what was conveniently pre-defined for us. And it is a reminder to myself to try to live fearlessly… to own it, and ultimately to receive and accept the authority to define, as a dutiful citizen, what I would like to see my government do (and not do).

Written by devotchkaa

3 Comments

Alan

excellent post!

with regard to your last few paragraphs, i could only wish that every person in our generation(s) would undergo some sort of post-graduate crisis that leads them to focus on some aspect of life to leave a mark on in the world.

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jeff ivins

I took an American History course in college and the assigned readings included A peoples History of the United States by Zinn. I loved the book. My instructor was the great but obscure Michael Wreszin. Anyway the book opened my mind quite a bit and now reading this makes me want to go find Artists in Time of War. Thanks also for writing about so many things that interest me lately ( e.g. the White Stripes &c). I wonder how many people will read this. maybe more than I think. My friend Rich Ruland has hundreds of people reading his blog, which he finds quite shocking!

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MIA vs. New York Times « Mousy Babe

[…] her role as an artist. It sorta echoes what Howard Zinn said in his Artist in Times of War essays (which I posted on a couple months ago). “After all, people don’t need to be “sophisticated” to be right. People […]

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