So the wingers are clutching themselves in excitement today over the news that John Lennon, author of “Imagine” and now over 30 years dead, was a “closet Republican”. Because what matters in politics is what he thought in the last two years of his life.
Except, there’s essentially no information to indicate that that’s really true. Some clown who worked for Lennon for less than two years up to his death gave an interview in a recent documentary about Lennon, in which he claims that:
John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on (Democrat) Jimmy Carter.
He also claims that Lennon enjoyed winding up this guy’s hard-line Communist uncle. So there you go.
He does note that it’s a little odd for Lennon to be such a big Reagan fan, given that it was Reagan who cracked down on the campus protesters of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s (he literally called for a bloodbath). And aside from that, I really don’t think the guy who was persecuted, repeatedly arrested, and subjected to years-long deportation battles under Nixon was going to be a huge Reagan fan. But, hey, it’s not like the knowledge of Yoko Ono, his sons, and his many friends from his life and the peace activist movement, as well as his lifelong output of songs, writings, protest statements, and activism of all kinds, and his vast history of public statements in support of progressive politics and political movments, are any kind of indication of what he believed – his hired bag-carrier for less than two years says he was a major right-winger, so it must be true.
Lennon actually had a very nuanced and surprisingly subtle approach to politics. The documentary The US vs. John Lennon gives a fascinating look at his thinking about his various peace demonstrations – what looked like stunts to many people, such as the “Bed-In”, or “Bagism”, or “flower power”, were to Lennon deliberately calculated attempts to change public thinking. And he was realistic about their meaning; he didn’t set himself up as a political philosopher, and he was aware that at lot of things he did wouldn’t work. To him they were just tactics: he says in the movie “OK – so flower power didn’t work. We’ll try something else.” It’s hard to believe that “by 1979 he looked back on that guy [who had written 'Imagine' 8 years earlier] and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete”, given that he himself didn’t regard his actions and lyrics as end-all statements of political ideology, but simply as ways to move the public by taking advantage of the attention he was given as a celebrity. (“Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism . . . This-ism, That-ism, Ism, Ism, Ism . . . Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout John & Yoko . . .”)
The movie also details the insane lengths Nixon went to to destroy Lennon, or at least have him deported. The CIA got involved, and Lennon’s FBI file eventually reached over 200 pages; the FBI fought for over 15 years to keep it secret after Lennon’s death. Lennon himself fought for many years to defend himself against those forces. He also championed dozens of prominent activists and movements from around the world, throughout his life. He was taken seriously as a proponent of peace (at least by the standards of Richard Nixon’s Enemies List, which weren’t very high). And he took himself seriously in that role, although he knew what his limits were.
The idea that Lennon would turn his back on peace and progressivism because he met Ronald Reagan at a football game is ludicrous. It’s easy to believe he was down on Carter – Carter was never a liberal, and, although a far better man and President than the Republicans who came before or after him, he was lukewarm in supporting many causes. It’s conceivable Lennon might have said something positive about Reagan; it’s hard to believe he would really have preferred voting for Reagan over Carter in 1980, but whatever he did say on that score, at most it stands as a single incident against his entire lifetime’s work and the persecution he endured because of it.
Funny how nobody else in history who ever knew Lennon ever mentioned this Reaganite anti-peacenik side of him. Funny how nothing of his legacy or archives documents any such thing – although there are records of his life and his last musical work from the same period. Funny how only one person, a hired assistant who knew him only briefly, seems to know of this, and has no proof other than his own recollections, from over 30 years ago, of a few statements that add up to almost nothing. Not funny, and not surprising, how the nutters from National Review, Weasel Zippers, Big Hollywood, Pajamas Media, and the rest of the right-wing creepshow are falling over themselves to swallow this undocumented and unlikely story with utter credulity, because it so neatly conforms to their fantasy scenarios of liberals finally acknowledging their superiority, the way they are certain everyone is going to do any day now. Because nobody exemplifies liberal worship of right-wing reactionaries like John Lennon.
These people are just plain stupid.
That’s hardly an original observation, but you have to note it if you’re going to have any truck with right-wingers. Between stupidity and Conservative Reading Comprehension Disorder, “debate” with these people consists entirely of correcting their mistakes. When that’s done, then the adults can go into another room and have an intelligent conversation while the wingers fling more poop at each other.
What I’m referring to here is commentary on the “Lennon <3 Reagan” piece from a different right-wing source. John Nolte notes a piece in The American Conservative, by Jordan Michael Smith. It recounts an interview Lennon gave to Playboy in 1980, not long before his death, in which he makes a variety of provocative statements that Smith interprets as . . . wait for it . . . renunciation of liberalism. Naturally, they’re not – not simply because Lennon never renounced his beliefs, but because conservatives are reporting this and conservatives are very stupid people who can be relied on to get anything more or less exactly backwards. Let’s go through the quotes he pulls out, slowly:
When it was pointed out that a Beatles reunion could possibly raise $200 million for a poverty-stricken country in South America, Lennon had no time for it. “You know, America has poured billions into places like that. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. After they’ve eaten that meal, then what? It lasts for only a day. After the $200,000,000 is gone, then what?”
Smith interprets this as both heartlessness (“had no time”) and “a critique of foreign aid”. Of course, if you actually read the words and look up their meanings (if you need to – and he does), you will note that that’s not what he said. Lennon’s criticism is that what he was capable of doing, after going to great efforts, wasn’t enough to make a difference that would last very long. It’s specifically a statement addressed to efficacy, or the importance of long-term change. Presumably he would approve of aid programs that produced effects that did not “last for only a day” – and there’s nothing to suggest that he opposes US aid, still less that he would oppose aid that was more effective in the long term. He simply opposes spending money when its effects disappear almost immediately – at either the scale he can reach, or that the US government can reach. There is simply nothing in the bit Smith quotes, at all, that condemns foreign aid as such. Apparently Smith is incompetent to make the distinction between criticizing one type of example of a thing, and criticizing that thing in general in every form.
But there’s more:
Not only did Lennon dismiss his earlier efforts, he rejected the entire idea of social change through political action. “I have never voted for anybody, anytime, ever,” he said. “Even at my most so-called political. I have never registered and I never will.
There is nothing in the quote Nolte gives, from the quote Smith gives, from the excerpts Playboy printed, from the interview Lennon gave (and no, I’m not going to look up the entire chain, because there’s a limit to how much stupidity I’m willing to wade through – Smith and Nolte both hung their conclusions on this material, so they can just live by it), that suggests at all that Lennon “dismissed hie earlier efforts”. And it goes without saying that absolutely nothing in the words they quote indicates that “he rejected the entire idea of . . . political action”. What it says is that he doesn’t vote. Again, that’s just one kind of political action, but the part/whole distinction is obviously far too subtle a logical point to be expected to take notice of when you’re a conservative and therefore necessarily very stupid.
But note further on this: he says he’s never voted. Smith – with Nolte approving – cites this as evidence that Lennon “dismissed his earlier efforts” and “rejected the entire idea of social change” (an idea he had obviously had at a previous time in his life). Obviously they agree that Lennon was, at least once, a committed political activist. But not only was he not voting by the end of his life, when he supposedly was no longer engaged in “political action”, he was also not voting at the same time he was engaged in “his earlier efforts”, when he was an activist. He wasn’t voting the year he did the Bed-In. He wasn’t voting the year he wrote “Give Peace a Chance”. He wasn’t voting when he hosted the Mike Douglas show and turned it into a platform for the Yippies. He wasn’t voting the entire time Nixon was trying to have him deported for his peace work. But Smith and Nolte conclude that he had given up “political action” because he wasn’t voting (for John Lennon, not only an unwelcome, but a negligibly tame form of political action) in 1980.
“I dabbled in so-called politics in the late Sixties and Seventies more out of guilt than anything,” he revealed. “Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn’t enough and you have to go and get shot or something, or get punched in the face, to prove I’m one of the people. I was doing it against my instincts.”
Smith concludes that “nothing seems less like the popular idea of Lennon”, which in a way is probably true – people make up their own ideas about others, and Lennon has been thoroughly mythologized – but the implication that there’s something in this that contradicts Lennon’s political beliefs, or denounces them, is just wrong. Here the problem is not so much Reading Comprehension Disorder, but simply the complete lack of right-wing familiarity with human emotions and conflicts. “Liberal guilt” is a cliche on the left wing. It’s problematic, but it doesn’t undercut liberal values, and it doesn’t mean that liberal activism is in bad faith. Lennon says two things, things that are very familiar to progressive activists: he felt guilty about being affluent or privileged, and he felt that, at a time when liberals were literally being beaten and killed, his form of publicity-activism wasn’t committed enough. Those are common feelings many activists have (at many levels of income and involvement). They represent real points of conflict or tension within movements, ones that activists commonly struggle with. “Checking your privilege” is a bedrock of liberal self-honesty, and here Lennon recounts his own form of doing that, apparently somewhat inchoately, but without suggesting that he wasn’t sincere in what he did.
Just a few years before Lennon wrote “Imagine no possessions”, while apparently feeling guilty over having so many, Eric Anderson wrote “Thirsty Boots”, about Civil Rights marchers who took greater risks and endured greater hardships than he did. The phenomenon survives today, among disaster relief workers who feel guilty about going home after spending months saving lives among the worse-off. It’s a product of what makes liberalism good – the awareness of unfairness and the insistence on honesty about one’s place in the systems that make it so. And there is unfairness, and many liberals in privileged societies do benefit from advantages others lack. That doesn’t make their beliefs untrue, or their values unworthy of pursuit.
Conservatives see unfairness and revel in it. They see the wealth and security and privilege they enjoy and others lack, and are pleased with that. John Lennon wasn’t one of them.
The mature Lennon explicitly disavowed [his] naïve sentiments:
I worked for money and I wanted to be rich. So what the hell—if that’s a paradox, then I’m a socialist. But I am not anything. What I used to be is guilty about money. … Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I either have to put up or shut up, you know. If I’m going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, if I am going to try and make money, make it.
Ooh! Scandal! John Lennon wanted to be rich.
It’s true that he wrote of a world without possessions. It’s also true that he never lived in such a world and surely never imagined he would. (He also wrote that having no possessions would give us “nothing to kill or die for – a brotherhood of man”: lines he could not possibly have imagined were literally true.) It’s clear he was never actually a socialist or Communist. It’s apparent that he was conflicted about what it meant to have money. But given that he could make money, and in a relatively benign way, he chose to do so. He says he renounced feeling guilty about having money; he didn’t renounce his general political beliefs – he simply renounced a belief he never had (that no one should have money).
This again is very common. Many rich people are reactionary, but there are, famously, “limousine liberals” – and Lennon was surely one, though he wasn’t a blue-blood. It can’t possibly be a surprise to anyone that Lennon had – and valued – money, given his huge record sales (and the famously grasping Apple Records’s business practices) or his comfortable lifestyle (not lavish, but lacking in nothing). Apparently it’s a surprise to Smith and Nolte that Lennon liked it that way – but that is a product of their own mythologizing: “he’s liberal so he must hate money”. That’s ignorant, but they have only themselves to blame. Lennon was aware of the damage caused by money, and the harm that often attends gaining it; he felt guilty about his own involvement in what can often be such a harmful practice, but got used to it. He had as much right as anyone to feel that way, given that he made his money by entertaining people who paid him out of choice, not necessity.
There is an incongruity between his high income and his simplistic song lyrics, but that’s not a testimony to Lennon’s naivete, but that of conservatives who take song lyrics for political philosophy. Maybe that’s the level they’re capable of thinking on, but it wasn’t Lennon’s.
The man who famously called for imagining a world with “No religion” also jettisoned his anti-theism. “People got the image I was anti-Christ or antireligion,” he said. “I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”
Note that he pointedly declines to endorse organized religion. He simply claims that he’s “religious in the sense of admitting there’s more to it than meets the eye”. That’s disappointing, but not at odds with anything he had previously said. Since he hadn’t been anti-theistic before (presumably they mean anti-religious, since you’d have to be ignorant, stupid, and delusional to think he’d ever said anything anti-theistic, which simply wasn’t the case), it’s not surprising he wasn’t anti-religious at the end. This is just more Conservative Reading Comprehension Disorder – plus some more mythologizing: “obviously he was not a fan of organized religion, so obviously he must be an atheist”. Conservative lack of imagination is solely a conservative problem. They’re free to be amazed by this quote if they like, but it conflicts in no way with any of his previous quotes.
(It must be admitted that Lennon had a conflicted relationship with religion. He went through various religious phases, including famously his dabbling in Rajneeshism in the ’60s, and reportedly even a born-again Christian phase while trying to get off drugs. But that only underscores that he wasn’t anti-religious. He was constantly going on about religion. He was just anti-churches, which is hardly the same thing, and arguably the opposite.)
Finally, I have to admit, there is one shocking revelation in the Playboy interview. Lennon says such unbelievably stupid things about evolution you have to wonder if he was having a stroke:
“Nor do I think we came from monkeys, by the way,” he insisted. “That’s another piece of garbage. What the hell’s it based on? We couldn’t’ve come from anything—fish, maybe, but not monkeys. I don’t believe in the evolution of fish to monkeys to men. Why aren’t monkeys changing into men now?”
Granted, this wasn’t his field, but still it was his choice to open his yap about it. I have no idea what led him to dredge up this fundamentalist nonsense, or why he even cared about the issue (or, worse, why he cared enough to say shit like this, but not enough to understand what he was talking about). This is just weird and saddening.
But nobody’s perfect, and if Lennon did happen to harbor a certain amount of nonsense in his head, he had a lot of good and undeniably well-intentioned stuff in there as well. There’s no reason to think he had backed down on any of it before the end of his life. The fact that conservatives simply don’t know what liberals are talking about when liberals talk about values is hardly surprising, and not an issue that liberals need to be held accountable for. The fact that so many conservatives simply can’t read effectively is a persistent annoyance, but again not our problem.
Nothing to see here. Just two more conservatives making fools of themselves.