Would the world have been a better place without John Lennon?
Such a question will engender a surge of rage in members of my generation. Questioning Lennon’s role and importance in modern culture is tantamount to pop heresy. After all, much of Lennon’s music and late 60s antics were embedded in our adolescent consciousness. Even amongst conservatives it is somewhat gauche to suggest that Lennon was anything other than one of the greatest cultural figures of the modern era, whose signature tunes Norwegian Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In the Life….… and Imagine defined the modern sensibility.
I can’t claim to have ever really disagreed with that sentiment. I am as big a Beatles fan as any. But since this year marks the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s murder (preceded by the 40th anniversary of the Beatles break up), maybe its finally time to take a closer look at Lennon’s real legacy, divorced from the hagiography that has accumulated around his memory.
I had the opportunity to think more about this after seeing a show celebrating his music, presented by Tim Piper and his band in North Hollywood last Sunday afternoon. Piper did a commendable enough job impersonating Lennon (although there were so many Lennons over the 20 years of his public career it would have been hard to represent all his incarnations on stage). He offered serviceable renditions of Beatles songs, as well as Lennon’s solo efforts and the intimacy of the nightclub made the performance feel warmly nostalgic.
It was only on the drive home, listening to Imagine , that I began to think more deeply about how disagreeable some of Lennon’s messages seem today and how deeply flawed was his global perspective. Imagine itself of course, is not a song as much as an anthem, a fragile vision of an unobtainable world, wiped clean of religion, war, conflict, sovereignty and possessions.
Lennon wasn’t so stupid to believe his nirvana achievable immediately. And he certainly liked expensive cars, beautiful homes and the freedom to travel whenever and however he wished, as much as anyone else.
But listen again to the lyrics of that song –
Imagine no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
– and you can begin to hear the first philosophical rumblings of the environmental movement, the U.N.’s global governance campaign and the human rights industry. All of these forces are posed against capitalism, free enterprise, sovereign jurisdiction and representative government. They are supranational in scope, claiming allegiance to nothing and no one, save a nebulous concept of truth and justice.
Lennon was in essence promoting a world without boundaries – and his program would extend beyond bulldozing physical borders, to demolishing sexual, political and economic restrictions as well. But truth and justice, or as, in Ringo Starr’s repetitive mantra “peace and love,” are impossible to imagine without the imposition of boundaries. With no restrictions on sexual impulses, economic transactions or property claims, humanity could not effectively function. Even the primitive tribes in the world’s most remote jungles maintain boundaries over these aspects of human interaction.
Imagine’s world, in the end, sounds more like a place where conflict would be a constant as those seeking to protect what they have and need for sustenance are forced to share it with others, who have not contributed to its growth, harvesting or development.
Of course we had seen this kind of utopianism before. It began once as starry eyed dreaming in the villages of the Ukraine and Hunan Province and ended as inhuman Five Year Plans in the Soviet Union, a crushing Cultural Revolution in China and the murderous Relocation Farms in Cambodia. Commencing with the same brand of utopianism, they degenerated into ruthless campaigns to consolidate power. The misery inflicted on the world by such ideas and their idealogues is something Lennon perhaps didn’t quite link with his own brand of utopianism.
A more realistic world view, one schooled in practicalities of human existence and human nature might take a more jaundiced view of utopianism and embrace the realities of life. Perhaps a more mature Lennon, steeped in these realities, might have written this update to his earlier vision:
Imagine there’s no evil
You know it isn’t too late
Just take goodness and kindness
And fight against those who hate
Imagine no terror
The West’s haters wiped away
Love of democracy and freedom
Might save us all one day
Imagine all the people