Members-Only Newsletter Preview: Roger Waters And Boundaries Of Permissible Thought
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Artists should challenge the boundaries of permissible thought. They should transcend orthodoxy or the conventional wisdom of the establishment, and few artists dare to use their voice for peace and human rights like Roger Waters.
Waters, best known for his work as a singer, songwriter, and bassist for Pink Floyd, played the “Barclaycard British Summer Time” music festival on July 6. He donned a keffiyeh on stage and declared before launching into “Comfortably Numb,” “We’re all faced with a choice—all of us—and that choice is whether or not we believe in the contents of the Universal Declaration of Human Right in Paris in 1948.”
“The Declaration states that all of us here in this beautiful park, all of us in this country, all our brothers and sisters all over the world deserve equal and civil rights. And these rights…are irrespective of ethnicity or religion. So they would extend to my brothers and sisters in Palestine,” Waters added.
Waters is possibly the most prominent musician to lend his voice to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. He reminded the public in June that fans of the Scottish football club, Celtic, once raised Palestinian flags during a match with the Israeli club, Hapoel Be’er Sheva and saw their team fined. In 2016, he supported Celtic fans who raised funds to match the fine and donated the money to Palestinian charities in a direct challenge to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
Often, Waters has broadcast images of the wall built by Israel to control Palestinians. Yet, in challenging Israeli apartheid, Waters has opened himself up to charges of anti-Semitism, like anyone else who dares to engage in pro-Palestinian activism.
American Express refused to fund a tour in 2016 because they did not want to have anything to do with his “anti-Israel rhetoric.”
More recently, Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich, blasted Waters days before a concert at Olympic Hall.
“It is important for me to make it unmistakably clear ahead of the concert that antisemitic propaganda of Roger Waters is neither welcome in Munich nor will it remain unanswered,” Reiter stated. He suggested the venue would not be rented out to Waters in the future.
The Munich city council passed a resolution in 2017 to bar members of the BDS movement, including musicians like Waters, from using “space in public facilities and finances” to promote Palestinian rights. Reiter fully supported the measure.
In response to the concert on July 6 in Hyde Park, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, known to equate pro-Palestinian activism with violence by Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, took offense and attacked Barclaycard, a multinational credit card company and sponsor of the festival.
Wiesenthal Center was upset that Waters came out on stage with a sign that said, “Fuck the Pigs!” It accused Waters of “iconizing” Russia, Vladimir Putin, Iran, and WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange. It further suggested Barclaycard was a “purveyor of hate” for giving his “venom” a platform.
It is fairly clear Wiesenthal Center has no familiarity with the “US + Them” show that Waters performed because the images of Russia and Putin appear during a song from his most recent album called “Picture That.” The images, through bright colors, imply the two leaders are too cozy with each other or that Putin is manipulating Trump, which dovetails perfectly with what liberal pundits are consistently arguing on television.
But the most critical aspect of this attack on Waters’ advocacy is the fact that the Wiesenthal Center and others go after his views on other matters to further marginalize his activism for Palestine.
Waters used his power as an artist in the past weeks to condemn the treatment of Assange by the Ecuadorean government, and given the unpopularity of Assange (as well as WikiLeaks), it invited a torrent of bitterness from fans.
In April, during a concert in Barcelona, he spoke out against the Syrian White Helmets, which is seen as sacrilegious among many human rights organizations. This occurred right after an alleged chemical weapons attack took place in Douma.
“The White Helmets is a fake organization that exists only to create propaganda for jihadists and terrorists. That’s my belief,” Waters said.
He continued, “If we were to listen to the propaganda of the White Helmets and others, we would be encouraged to encourage our governments to start dropping bombs on people in Syria. This would be a mistake of monumental proportions for us as human beings.”
Journalist Max Blumenthal revealed how the White Helmets sought to recruit Waters in 2016 by inviting him to a “lavish dinner organized by a Saudi-British billionaire, Hani Farsi.” A French photojournalist affiliated with a “very powerful Syrian network” demanded to be allowed on stage to promote the White Helmets. Both overtures were rejected by Waters because to him they are only out to encourage Western countries to drop more bombs on Syria.
The music of Pink Floyd is legendary, but rather than censor himself to protect some legacy, Waters uses the platforms granted to him to defend dissidents and advance often marginalized causes. Possibly, he recognizes owners will never pass up a chance to host a rock star, who has made music for five decades and can fill giant stadiums.
His show, “US + Them” is one of the most compelling stage shows on tour. It seeks to amplify the voice of refugees and build empathy for those impacted war and famine, particularly in Middle Eastern countries. It combines the iconic imagery of Pink Floyd with images of the world’s ever-growing dystopian reality. It imbues fresh meaning into the lyrics of songs from “The Wall” and “Animals,” which already were fairly political. And it features new solo work from Waters that confronts President Donald Trump’s administration and asks us all, “Is this the life we really want?”
“Us + Them” encourages Us to disarm hate instead of seeing others who are struggling to survive and escape atrocities as Them. The show’s image of a hand reaching out to grasp another hand is a symbol for peace and solidarity to counter the rise of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States.
Coming from Roger Waters, it is not a vapid symbol to be appropriated by mealy-mouthed liberals. His own activism reflects a commitment to elevate anyone and everyone fighting for justice and human rights in their own countries. We know it represents individuals and groups Western superpowers consistently hope we ignore.
So long as Waters is performing music on stage, he will consistently rankle the establishment and spread crucial messages every fan should hear.