Lennon, Bono & Neil Young: Humanitarian Rebels With Causes
MusiCares Person Of The Year - 2010
This coming Sunday (March 27), Neil Young will be honored with the 2011 Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at Canada's Juno Awards.
The award honors a Canadian artist whose humanitarian contributions have positively enhanced the social fabric of Canada and recognizes Young's compassionate legacy behind events such as Farm Aid, Live 8, and Bridge School Concerts.
As we have noted previously, rarely -- if ever -- has a single artist supported so many causes, for such a sustained period, raising considerable funds and awareness while reaching out to millions and millions around the world.
When reviewing a listing of benefit concerts that Neil Young has played over the years, one is struck by the sheer diversity of causes he has supported over his 45+ year career.
One could contend that no other artist has made such an impact on causes involving social justice.
One might argue that Bono would be a contender but we would beg to differ. While Bono's benefit work has been hugely more high profile, his results are mixed at best. Bono's work has been described as "wonkish" by William Easterly, author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good."
We contend that Young's work has really only been surpassed by John Lennon's fearless activism against the Vietnam War. Lennon's career sacrificing positions are in some ways similar to Young's activism during Vietnam (see "Ohio", for example.)
While Bono with the band U2 has certainly spoken out numerous times in both song and deed, we would argue that Bono was never willing to put his personal politics ahead of the band's success.
Living with War
One can only reflect on Young's nearly career suicide inducing release of "Living with War" -- bolding calling for the impeachment of a sitting United States President for lying about an unjust war -- to understand that he places his incredibly fearless positions far ahead of career decisions.
Lennon and Young are/were rebels. Bono isn't.
As William Easterly contends:
There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk.
Lennon paid a price for his activities. We now know from subsequent Freedom of Information Act releases that the FBI monitored and harassed him. In 1971, President Richard Nixon set in motion a four-year effort to deport him, which failed after the political tide in America turned against the war.
In this role, Lennon was continuing a venerable tradition: the celebrity as a crusader against the wrongs committed by those in power. In the 19th century, the celebrity activists were not musicians but writers. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other authors loudly supported the abolitionist crusade against slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe went further and wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to boost the anti-slavery cause - a sort of 19th-century equivalent of "Imagine."
U2's Bono and George Bush
The White House, Washington, DC - 10/18/05
Bono once said:
"My job is to be used. I am here to be used. It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date."
No one -- no one -- would ever, ever imagine Young making such a cynical statement.
True dissidents - celebrity or not - play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.
True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard.
We need more high-profile dissidents to challenge mainstream power. This makes it all the sadder that Bono and many other celebrities only reinforce this power in their capacity as faux experts. Where have all the celebrity dissidents gone? It's not a complicated task.
All Lennon was saying was to give peace a chance.
Congratulations Mr. Young.
You've made great art, you've spoken truth to power, and you never sold out.
So keep on rockin'. in. the. free. world. (Freedom v. 2011)