It’s official. I’m an old fart. Or, well, at least I’m not as young as I used to be. But it didn’t completely gel for me until I read this article about the dearth of decent anti-war songs in today’s popular music scene.
An unpopular president, an unpopular war, a restless young generation eager for change – all the elements of a mass protest culture would seem to be present in this election year.
But one thing is missing: a mass culture.
The Vietnam era produced an entire genre of anti-war and cultural protest songs, the best-known of which became anthems of the age.
Iraq and the Bush presidency have inspired lots of music in this tradition, but nothing that has gained a large popular audience or is vying to be a generational anthem.
It’s something I noticed when I started putting together a kind of anti-war playlist on my iPod. I managed to put the playlist together, but that list consists mostly of Vietnam-era songs. Towards the end, it includes the Beastie Boys “In a World Gone Mad,” Ani DiFranco’s “Self Evident,” Billy Bragg’s “The Price of Oil,” Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God,” and Pink’s “Dear Mr. President,” and a few more songs from the Peace Not War collection.
Beyond that, I bought Bruce Springsteens’ We Shall Overcome on iTunes. And I even downloaded Dolly Partons’ Those Were the Days – which was about as close as a country music star, outside of the Dixie Chicks, can get to a protest album and keep their audience. But in both cases, the artists had to reach back to the Vietnam era for songs that said what needed to be said.
It wasn’t until I heard a song that I now know was written and performed by (the very lovely) John Mayer, that it I realized that perhaps I’d finally arrived at the borders of old-fartdom. I think I was in the car, driving home from running an errand when I heard “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change
It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to
It took me a minute to identify the feelings the song brought up in me. First, the lyrics depressed the hell out of me. Then, the more I thought about it, they started to piss me off.
Waiting? Waiting on the world to change? Good grief. If Fannie Lou Hamer, Harvey Milk, and the drag queens at Stonewall had been “Waiting on the World to Change,” I shudder to think what my reality might be like right about now. Somehow we got from “Be the change you want to see in the world” to “waiting on the world to change.” Maybe it’s me, but I prefer the latter to the former.
But, then again, maybe I don’t get it. Much as I’ve come to dislike generational labels, I’m not a “millennial” or a member of “generation y,” but then I’m not sure I’m a typical representative of “generation x” either. So, I don’t while understand the political apathy that’s supposed to e characteristic of both groups.
But maybe that’s because I grew up in a house where the memory of the civil rights movement was still very much alive, because my parents have lived through it. So, I grew up learning about the Montgomery bus boycott and the Mississippi Freedom Summer. I grew up reading about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Fannie Lou Hamer. I grew up reading about the Freedom Riders and the lunch counter sit-ins.
I guess was raised on the idea that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” It might be “hard to beat the system,” but as long as it wasn’t impossible and the system was unjust, it was worthwhile to try. Even if you didn’t achieve victory, you’d push the ball further down the court for someone to take up after you.
I don’t know that the first anti-lynching activists could have envisioned Barack Obama being a serious contender for the presidency, or that the suffragettes could have imagined Hillary Clinton being serious candidate for the oval office. And the people who fought at Stonewall probably couldn’t have imagined any presidential candidates coming to a presidential forum on LGBT issues, or for that matter a forum broadcast on a gay television network. But each group took the firs steps down the road that led to all of the above. They weren’t “waiting on the world to change.”
Despite having one foot in the realm of old fart-dom, I can’t claim a great deal of experience with the world. But in my brief 38 years here, there’s at least one thing I’m clear on.
Change is inevitable. The world will change while you wait, given enough time. But often how it changes depends on what people who know what changes they want and start taking step to realize them. Those people, if you’re not careful, will change the world while you watch and wait.
It does seem impossible at times. I marched against the war in Iraq, for all the good it did. We had an administration that, at a certain point, just stopped listening. Jim Wallis, in God’s Politics writes of how a delegation of ministers against he war put together a proposal to avoid war while answering security concerns. They travelled to Britain, where the Blair government at least gave them a hearing. But back in the U.S., the Bush administration stopped even listening arguments against going to war.
I felt as hopeless as a lot of people did then. I felt like perhaps it was pointless to try. Then I saw a sign.
One evening, as we were driving home from a social event, I looked out of the car window and saw a banner tied to a wrought iron fence outside of a church. It read, “How are you living your life to prevent the next war?” I had to think about it for a while before I understood what it meant.
…I’d go even further and say that you don’t need to bring yourself through the doors of any church (though there’s nothing wrong with doing so). Any act of kindness may be the best ammunition we have against events like we saw in Blacksburg this week; even the smallest things like a door holding a door for someone, giving up a seat on the train to someone who may need it more, helping someone pick up papers they’ve dropped in the middle of the street, or taking a deep breath in a moment of impatience instead of responding in anger. Even forgiving a slight (real or perceived) that you wouldn’t have otherwise, holding back on an unkind or hurtful word that’s on the tip of your tongue, or offering an apology that you’re not sure is necessary or are reluctant to offer, will go further than we can imagine.
It may be a little naive, but at times like this I have to believe that enough acts of kindness like those above can accumulate and shift the odds in favor of avoiding another tragedy.
Basically, if the only part of the world you can change is what’s within your arm’s reach, change it. Don’t wait.
If you just wait on the world to change, it will change. It may change in a way you don’t particularly like. Wait too long, and it may be too late to do anythinb about it.