When I heard Neil Young’s new protest album, “Living with War,” I had a creeping suspicion: This art is not good art. From so venerable a folk rocker, I did not expect disappointment. The music’s mediocrity would have reflected badly on Young alone — except “Living With War” is a cultural touchstone. Amid the hawkish cheer of the Iraq War’s 2003 launch, liberals pined for a protest movement, one with the color and soul of the anti-Vietnam cause, led by icons like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Young himself. Now, another Bush win and 2,696 U.S. soldiers’ deaths later, here comes “Living With War.”
It aims to win cultural prominence and swing opinion against the war by reviving the ’60s spirit. How far short of that spirit Young’s new work falls reveals how much the intervening years have mutilated American political discourse.
Sixties protest songs expressed lofty eloquence despite the era’s fiery politics. The music helped turn the public against the Vietnam War by achieving genuine artistry. As good art can do, it connected listeners to characters and stories, which formed a lens to see the world better. Their symbols and passions felt timelessly human, not temporarily topical. Lennon asked to give peace a chance, not to give George McGovern a chance or to deprive Richard Nixon of one. Young’s own “Ohio,” responding to the Kent State shootings, pulls you in — though subtle it’s not — with its earnest call that this could be you: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”
“Living With War” makes a poor scion to this dynasty of soul. The music too seldom makes you feel. It feels for you. The feeling is rage.
“Let’s Impeach The President,” the album’s most celebrated song, reduces our national soul-searching to naked bitterness. It is immature — too easy. Young accuses President George W. Bush ’68 of “breaking every law in the country, tapping our … telephones.” Deplorably, Bush commandeered AT&T and Verizon for just this law-breaking. But come on: Not “every law in the country.” And whom will we convince by shouting so?
I heard Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young live this summer with my family. “Let’s Impeach the President” met with as many middle fingers in the crowd as peace signs. This would-be peace anthem turned half the crowd livid, while helping the other half corrupt the peace sign into a symbol of anger. The other “Living With War” tunes blew by drearily, polemically referencing Colin Powell with “shock and awe” and the “stinkin’ war.”
When the band kicked into Graham Nash’s 1971 hit, “Chicago,” its chorus, “We can change the world … It’s dying to get better,” made the air feel palpably cleaner. It was as if the crowd sighed, “Now we can stop being angry.”
“Living With War” is a case study in Bush’s America, where you must scream simply to be heard. Even Nixon recognized “Red China.” Even Clinton professed, “The era of big government is over.” Now, compromise is weakness. Vilification — the simplest, most personal kind — is strength.
“You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” Bush declared. Character assaults on John McCain (in 2000), Max Cleland (in ’02) and John Kerry ’66 (in ’04) placed these fine men with the latter. Ann Coulter’s new book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism,” brands liberals as “the opposition party to God.” (What does she think about Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, Barack Obama and former Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr.?)
The instinct is to caricature, to switch history as facts with history as narrative of why the other side is horrible. “Living With War” gives into this temptation. If mainstream liberals follow, the result will be tragic for the Democrats, and worse for America.
Some fault the Democrats for not hitting hard enough. But cheap vitriol will not solve serious questions. We need serious answers, from soulful protest music — and honest, levelheaded politics.
Liberals have more options than to be mired in bitterness or to wander and waffle, Kerry-esque. Eschewing sound bites and smear attacks for nuanced, hard-hitting, uplifting truth will work to our advantage. On issues that matter, like workers’ rights, public schools, health care and Social Security, our plan is right for the American people.
Liberal rage makes Karl Rove’s day. Sinking to his level completes his nightmarish vision of U.S. political culture. We won’t win — few market anger better than Rove — but we will effectively extinguish what remains of mature debate. As war rocks the Mideast, the gap between the rich and poor widens and polar ice caps sizzle, we in this hour of terrifying complexity will help to suffocate our nation under simplicity.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College.