I woke up bleary and disoriented on the morning of December 9, 1980. I was at my girlfriend’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was, like most pre-War Manhattan apartment buildings — especially those in which students could afford to live — drafty despite the clattering radiator and pipes that seemed to ...
I woke up bleary and disoriented on the morning of December 9, 1980. I was at my girlfriend's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was, like most pre-War Manhattan apartment buildings -- especially those in which students could afford to live -- drafty despite the clattering radiator and pipes that seemed to give the building a life all its own.
I woke up bleary and disoriented on the morning of December 9, 1980. I was at my girlfriend’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was, like most pre-War Manhattan apartment buildings — especially those in which students could afford to live — drafty despite the clattering radiator and pipes that seemed to give the building a life all its own.
The radio spluttered out static and then the report from the night before that John Lennon had been gunned down in the street fifty blocks, about two and a half miles, from where we had been sleeping. Alison was in the bathroom and I called out to her to share the news and for a while we sat on the bed listening and trying to soak it in.
It was one of those news reports that hits you squarely in the equilibrium. In my life, there have been about half a dozen such events, stories that resonated for reasons often involving much more than the circumstances being reported. They tied together years and core thematic threads into emotional knots by which we, like the Fates, marked the passage of our lives. For me, the first was the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was six. The next was the JFK assassination. Then the assassinations of ’68, Woodstock, and the moon landing of 1969, all in one great chain of events. Then the Lennon shooting, the Challenger explosion, the fall of the USSR and 9/11. I am sure the list is different for others who have lived through it all, but I suspect there is considerable overlap.
It is strange to me that the death of an entertainer, a singer-songwriter, might rank up there with those other developments that seem on the face of them to have so much more historical heft. But, of course, Lennon represented the spirit of a period of great revolution and change perhaps more than any other figure, certainly up there with Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and — from a different arena but atop the list all the same– Muhammad Ali.
Of all these figures, three of whom died violently, Lennon was the poet, the one who distilled and expressed the aspirations of the period. He did it with plenty of innocence and some naiveté but also with a sardonic edge that forgave and qualified much that might otherwise have been a trifle too wide-eyed to seem tied to reality. (And in so doing he also made the career of Paul McCartney.)
And so his memory lingers and anniversaries of his death, like today, resonate. And they cause us to think back and wonder: what would John Lennon make of today’s world? What would his voice be saying about today’s issues?
While it is hard to know for sure since we cannot know how time would have made 70-year-old John different from 40-year-old John. There is one area about which we can have confident certainty. John Lennon would have been actively and aggressively opposed to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s a resonant point because of a trend that had its own watershed just a few weeks before Lennon was assassinated. The turning point was the election of Ronald Reagan and it marked the end of the era of rebellion that went from the mid-sixties through Watergate and was suffering the depredations the passage of the years inevitably brings to any movement. Entropy beats revolution every time.
An element of this new feeling to which the 1980 election gave voice was Reagan’s cheerleading for America and "American values." He was elected by a majority frustrated by what they saw as negativism about the country — whether it was that of anti-war protestors or Jimmy Carter’s dour framing of our problems in the late 1970s. Reagan was not only optimistic but he aggressively wrapped himself in the flag at every occasion, especially when it came to supporting the U.S. military and helping them up after they had been knocked to their knees in Southeast Asia.
Since Reagan, thanks to his success, supporting the military has grown from being a natural patriotic impulse and a reasonable expression of gratitude to those who sacrifice greatly for their country, to being a quasi-religious issue. As a consequence, today it is political suicide to be on the opposite side of the generals. There is something admirable and good in all this. We must never forget the vital contribution our military makes.
But there is also something dangerous in not being able or willing to aggressively and unflinchingly question the strategies and tactics employed by military leaders, the requests for funding they make, the geopolitical stances they back. They deserve immense respect and an honored seat at the table. But history shows… including recent history in Iraq and in Afghanistan… that they make mistakes regularly, miscalculate, overspend and produce collateral damage.
The era that brought John Lennon to the fore may have been seen at the time as one that undervalued the contribution of the military. But in fact, the core impulse was to rebalance the political equation in favor of peace and to resist the too easy impulse to go to war that had resulted in the disaster in Vietnam. That impulse was fed by the mood of the prior era, of memories of World War II and "just wars" and also by Cold War rhetoric and real fears. We failed to question military analyses then and we failed to challenge the assessment of top generals when we should have.
I fear we have fallen into that trap again thanks to three decades in which Reaganism has drowned out Lennonism. Certainly, the expense and losses and frequent course corrections and vast overspending associated with our current wars and our current military stance suggest it might be so. And it would be a welcome change if just a little bit of that questioning, challenging, idealistic spirit captured in so much of what John Lennon did and wrote was somehow channeled to our own era. Not in lieu of respect for the military but as a sign of respect for institutions that can stand and benefit from scrutiny just as all enduring, worthy institutions can and must.
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