In the comments on Songbook #5, I was reminded that Bono said he wrote the central verse of U2’s “New Year’s Day” with Solidarity’s struggle in mind. My reply there lays out the erotic and political elements any full analysis of that song would address, and why the Solidarity connection is not the key to the song, nor entirely “what it is about.” But #5 only considered a single verse, one representative of how rock espouses pacifism(when it does), or more accurately, of how it espouses “anti-war-ism.” That espousal is also the topic of this essay.
U2 were the most prominent Generation X bearers of the counter-culture’s anti-war torch, and they were all the more compelling for connecting this to their (3/4 of the band) Christian faith. An example of how this worked was their slight reworking of Psalm 40:1-3 in War’s closing song “40,” with its How long, did you sing their song? refrain seeming to connect the worldly “their song” to the “they” of “New Year’s Day” (the ones who falsely “say this is the golden age”).
So the anti-war verse of “New Year’s Day’s” is perhaps linked to Biblical belief by another song, and is (rather obliquely) linked to anti-communist protestors by another verse. While both of these features do not fit the usual 60s template for rock anti-war-ism, the verse itself does–it could easily have been written by, say, Jefferson Airplane.
Or, by Bob Dylan. Just as U2 longs for a war-stopping “New Year’s Day” but laments the unlikelihood of it ever happening, Dylan asks:
How many times will the cannonballs fly,
Before they are forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Notice Dylan’s pairing here of the progressivist idea that war could be banned, with old-as-the-hills fatalism about mankind ever being able to do so: How many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea? For the “answer” to be “blowin’ in the wind” means that ending war is not absolutely impossible, but by no means to be expected. Man’s regular pattern is to regularly wage wars, most of them unnecessary(there’s other evidence on the album the song opens, Freewheelin’, that Dylan might not be against all wars), but aggravatingly, man really may have the potentiality to overcome this pattern. To act on it he would just need to really “see” what young Bob does, even if all of history’s witness indicates that he probably never will.
However, the repetition of the “how many times?” question could suggest more than just exasperation, but also a hope that after enough war-times, capital-H History will bring us to the time of perpetual peace. Through History’s repetition and even escalation of horrible wars, mankind will finally see and know that too many people have died. In classic 20th-century idealist style, young Bob feels a measure of outrage that we aren’t already at that time. But in classic 1960s soul-searching style, he also seems doubtful that such a time is even possible.
Dylan did soon sense and sing, also in 1963, that the times, they are a-changin’, but twenty years later we find U2 lamenting, with respect to war and another sort of oppression, that nothing changes, on New Year’s Day. In 1981’s “Rejoice” they had sang I cannot change the world, but I can change the world in me, if I, Re-joice, a statement as much Counter-Cultural (The Revolution will occur via inner-change not New Left political action) as it was Christian, and which also recalled The Beatles’ and Ten Years After’s declarations of desperately wanting to “change the world” while not seeing a way to do so. While “New Year’s Day” reaffirms the commitment made in “Rejoice” to personal change (I…I will begin again), in political terms it appears to adopt the stance that “Blowin’ in the Wind” does, that we have a right to expect progressivist Change, but we live in a world that, outrageously, does not deliver it.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is the slightly more optimistic song, because of its suggestion that the existence of war is as scandalous (and as tenacious) as the racist/segregationist oppression in the South, an oppression which we know Dylan had real hopes for defeating. The note of fatalism in “New Year’s Day” seems stronger. The song’s central Solidarnosc-related verse does have its ( Oh, maybe the time is right) moment of expectation, but the dominant political note is one of daring-to-hope where there is little reason to. U2 thus ennobled that sort of stance not simply with respect to the immediate Solidarity drama, but also with the larger cause of opposing war.
But what is that cause?
Here I need to put my professor of political theory cap on, and analyze the varieties of “pacifism.” Are you ready to take notes? There are three basic options:
1) Pure pacifism: violence always wrong, by states or individuals.
a) Christian or other religious basis.
b) Atheist basis–in my judgment, impossible to make coherent case for.
Corollary(applies for 2 also): whatever the fortunes of the political goal, pacifism must be cultivated as a personal virtue, even rejecting all “violence of the spirit.”
2) Progressivist pacifism, pure form: some day, humans will not need to employ violence or have it on reserve.
Corollary(applies for 3 also): not there yet, so some kinds of violence and wars are justified now(e.g., against Hitler, maybe the “R2P” mission in Libya, etc.), even if most typical kinds are to be opposed and condemned.
3) Progressivist structural pacifism: can get to a place where almost no war and very little violence occurs, but this will certainly require and have to be constantly maintained by one of two “structures”—either,
a) International Law System (various kinds—in political theory circles Rawls’ Law of Peoples system is the best known)
b) The Universal State (i.e., a world government)
If, as I think orthodox Christianity ultimately teaches, and as Solzhenitsyn’s “Father Severyan” plainly teaches in November 1916 (excerpted here), that humans are inherently prone to violence (and that the lesser evil of state-derived war is the price we pay for living not in anarchy but in “sword-bearing” states), then not only is 1) contrary to the New Testament’s real teaching, but 2) is impossible and 3) requires a coercion that will bring with it very deleterious consequences.
Rock anti-war-ism has tended to waver between 2, and the (entirely non-pacifist) capitalism-is-to-blame “Leninist Theory”(see Songbook #5). Less often, it has wavered between 2 and 1. Today, admittedly, the vagueness of 2 and its ultimate basis upon inner-change has been dropped by many progressivist idealists in favor of 3a or 3b: a very-tight system of International Law, or an “EU for the world,” will save us. And getting to 3a can help us get to 3b. A Rawlsian Theory directing the implementation of the latest and greatest game-theory incentive structures will provide us with the win-win formula for gaming the world into consensus, perpetually. This is what more of our “anti-war” liberals really tend to believe in these days (despite the EMU’s present problems). Significantly, it doesn’t lend itself to rock poetry nor to any other sort of literary politics:
If you are going, to the EU in Brussels,
You will find, some gentle Commissioners there…
To “go to San Francisco” was to become part of a drama, one which involved distinct sides, personal transformation, and as Allen Ginsberg puts it, a “revolution in consciousness.” Heroism was a possibility. To “go to Brussels” is basically, to go sit at the feet of technocrats, and maybe to later sip fancy martinis with them in the euro-disco nightclub. They might talk the idealistic talk of type-2 pacifism, they might have fan-boy enthusiasms for U2, Dylan, and the latest idealist rockers, but they are ultimately about formulas. And about the employment of lawyers and police to enforce them.
The Leninist Theory, in which the blame for war is put upon a structure, a system, or a “Machine,” rejects the corollary shared by pacifisms 1 and 2 that insists upon the cultivation of personal peacefulness. Rather, by its logic, which also tends to work in the vague gold is the reason positions that are its ideological hand-me-downs, we must be ready to employ any means necessary for Revolution: verbal violence, calumnies, threats, agit-prop deceptions, hiding the “street-fighters” amid pacifist marches, riot-provoking, and even terrorism, it’s all on the table. It doesn’t ultimately matter what it does to any one person’s soul, so long as it serves History, so long as it has the potential to Destroy the Machine.
If slighter and slighter Machine-destroying potentiality becomes accepted as justification for these tactics, they (particularly the easier ones) become habits, and the stance morphs into an existentialist mandate to Rage against society no matter what.
But let us leave that last Zizek-like and punk-like move aside for now, and return to the fundamental and recurring tension contemporary anti-war-ism finds itself in: if our pattern of having far too many wars really could be decisively gotten over, and if “gold” and “not seeing” really are the “reasons” for the pattern, then calls for a by-any-means destruction of those reasons become difficult to resist. How can refusing to risk all for a New Year’s Day be justified if one is possible? Especially if one does not feel bound by Jesus’ or Gandhi’s religion? (That is, if one is the second type of pacifist.) Even if violence-employing radicals fail by not seeing the necessity of the corollary shared by pacifisms 1 and 2, do they not “have their hearts in the right place?” Are not their eyes “on the prize?” Do they not hate the same war-of-the-day the way we do? So can we really hold a march without allowing them to join it? (Scandalously, in the Iraq war protests of 2003, the anti-war types let their protests be initially organized by the unapologetically fully-Leninist ANSWER, an evil portent of more bile to come circa 2004-2008.) Type-two pacifists can sing a song against the radicals like the Beatles’ “Revolution,” but it turns out they can’t decisively part ways with them, nor with their minds that hate, so long as they believe that war is something we might be able to get beyond. For without a religious mandate not to hate one’s enemies as the ground of one’s pacifism, how can one not fall into such feelings towards those you regard as holding back the Progress towards the reign of peace?
We cherish “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “New Year’s Day.” Their critical and popular reputation is very high, and I remain moved by both of them. We are drawn to their soulful wavering, both between pacifism 2 and second-hand Leninism, and between a Hope placed upon the advent of Change and a suspicion there are timeless barriers to it. But such waverings can drive a soul, or a culture, towards despair. And, into an unhealthy indulgence of anger. This is particularly so when so many of the options wavered between are simply errors, which they must be if Raymond Aron is right about the ways of war here below, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the way God above wants us to deal with them.
I judge that they are indeed right, but for this essay, it is the political philosopher of the future, Chantal Delsol, who gets the last word. It’s true that she would charge rock’s typical anti-war stance with failing to see that the political will always be with us, and thus that war will be also. It’s true that she detests the arrogance of the third sort of “pacifism,” and has shown in Unjust Justice that the present projects for constructing transnational justice are neither practical nor just. And it’s true that no-one has explained better than her how the Icarus-like dreams of the 60s, having fallen from the sun and crashed back onto low reality, can curdle into the poisonous habits of derision and Manichaean politics.
But also present in Delsol’s thought is an insistence on contemporary man still needing dreams and idealisms. She encourages a quest to push up to the limits of what is possible, so long as an awareness that there are real limits is present: “The quest for a more perfect world…is an adventure that improves its seekers more than it expects a successful outcome.” (p. 111) So long as such an anti-war stance, with its own sort of heroic aspirations, does not, through the sorts of errors mentioned above, condemn or spit upon the more tangible heroic feelings stirred up by the real wars that inevitably will come(and thus demand, as C.S. Lewis put it, “long-faced” warriors even for just wars), and so long as it does not plug its ears against the geo-strategic and national considerations that must remain part of all politics, she would broadly endorse it, and would encourage all of us, whether theists or not, to yearningly quest for a world without war that we nonetheless know can never fully arrive. It remains for new poet-songsters, new hymn-writers, or perhaps even for Bono or Dylan themselves, to provide the music for such a quest.