Monday, September 11, 2006

A Picture and A Thousand Words

As leader of the Beatles and as a solo artist, in timeless anthems such as "All You Need Is Love," "Give Peace A Chance" and "Imagine," in bed with Yoko Ono, at press conferences, concerts and demonstrations, John Lennon did something that nobody in pop culture had every done before and really hasn't done since — use his fame to help mobilize a generation of young people to choose love and peace instead of violence and war.

In 1969, Lennon was one of the most famous people in the world. The last thing he needed was more attention. But taking advantage of the world media's obsession with him and his marriage to Yoko Ono, the couple decided to use their fame in a remarkable and controversial campaign for peace.

Integrating politics with his music, Lennon's activism, as one observer notes in our film, was "the conscious use of one's myth to project a political and social goal."

Lennon (working with his artist wife) developed messages that were easily understood — most memorably, "Give peace a chance" and "War is over! If you want it." Beyond any mere slogan, though, Lennon put himself out front through his art, continually offering the world unfiltered glimpses of the human being behind the ideas. Though some of the tactics marginalized Lennon — the press ridiculed him and Ono relentlessly for their "Bed-In" — nothing would deter him.

And when during the next few years the media attention Lennon could command was used in outspoken support for other radical causes, he nearly got thrown out of the United States.

To a certain extent, Lennon understood promoting his beliefs could get him in trouble, but he probably didn't anticipate the extent of the ensuing backlash from the press and the government. Some in the media even went so far as to say he was, in the words of one New York Times reporter seen in our film, "living in a `never, never land.'" But his efforts clearly had an impact, evident in the Nixon administration's harsh response.

Lennon's opposition to the Vietnam War and his association with "enemies of the state" took place during one of the most fractious periods of American history, one in which, as former U.S. Senator (and 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee) George McGovern noted, had the U.S. divided "as it had not been since the Civil War."

What made Lennon so dangerous? Perhaps the main reason this rock musician was seen as a threat to Nixon was that, prior to the 1972 election, the voting age had been lowered to 18. When word got out that Lennon was planning a concert tour to encourage voter participation (a "Vote For Change" style tour), as declassified government documents show, he became a real target of the administration. The Nixon administration feared millions of new young voters — millions of Beatles fans — might be swayed to vote against their man.

The FBI tapped Lennon's phone and had agents outside his apartment. Eventually, Senator Strom Thurmond suggested that Lennon needed to be neutralized, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved to revoke Lennon's visa and deport him.

These frightening and outrageous tactics might seem unbelievable, but in the U.S., during times of war, serious challenges to the constitution have often become part of American life. Which is why, even though The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a film about what happened 35 years ago, it feels like a movie about today.

Lennon is seen and heard talking about the responsibility we all have to effect change. He knew what it took to move any population or generation from apathy to activism, which is why his ideas, art and actions — not to mention what the White House did to him for expressing those ideas, and the battle he fought for what he believed in — become an ever more relevant story.

With images of war and violence bombarding us constantly — the recent conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border, the war in Iraq, genocide in Africa — it's a good time to talk about peace. But can anybody's voice rise above the clutter the way Lennon's did?

Mention "rock star" activism in 2006 and U2's Bono comes immediately to mind. Bono, who counts Lennon as a major influence, has used his celebrity to become a true statesman, doing tremendously important work on issues such as Third World poverty.

And yet there is something about Lennon that remains uniquely inspiring, perhaps explaining why the generations at advance screenings of The U.S. vs. John Lennon raised different, but ultimately similarly poignant questions. "Where is our John Lennon?" younger audiences wondered. "Where is John Lennon when we need him?" asked the baby boomers.

There is no doubt we need more persistent, powerful voices like his. But rather than remain in our safety zones as we wait for this generation's Lennon to emerge, we should heed his message — "War is over! If you want it" — and each embrace our own duty to engage. Lennon understood he could not do it alone, and his experience showed that standing by your convictions carries great risks. But if artists, politicians, and everyday people did it together, we could open an honest discussion of the issues that are defining our world today. And we could identify and embrace sacrifices that would allow us to create the future we desire.

So yes, it's time to talk about peace — and it's time to rock the boat.

Meanwhile, the Lennon that has inspired generations remains where he has always been — in the music. The measure of great art is its eternal meaning, and it is clear that Lennon's art remains relevant. We are still engaged by the musical dreamer, by his intelligence and charisma, and by the courage with which he used his art to espouse the cause of peace and fight the U.S. government.


At 1:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this guy didn't mobilize anyone. he was as naive as a baby, and didn't have much common sense. his main motivation in life was amassing property and increasing his personal wealth while he laughed up his sleeve at the "common man". working class hero, my ass.


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