Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lennon and other dreamers of 'Imagine'

John Lennon's 1971 hit single 'Imagine' has inspired people for decades. It is a song about a dream that humankind should live at peace, without divisive barriers. Lennon lists three major barriers: religion, nationalism and possessions. In the lyrics, he envisions 'brotherhood of man' with 'nothing to kill or die for'.

'Imagine' is a song and in general, lyrics to songs should not be taken too seriously. It's poetry, and as a dreamer, Lennon wanted to convey his feelings that there should be peace instead of war and divisiveness. Still, he said he advocated socialism and atheism (albeit not in forms that, for example, Soviet Union represented), and there have been varying interpretations of what he actually meant or how literally the lyrics should be taken, or whether they are just a dream with no real connections or something we should actually strive for.

Stanley's comic

In 2013, artist Pablo Stanley produced a comic version of the song, which can also be purchased as a poster, and he included six examples of other 'dreamers'. On his website, he also has a small disclaimer about how he is aware of some unamicable qualities of Lennon and how the examples do not actually fit Lennon's ideal.

Excerpt from Stanley's comic
Albert Einstein - despite being a pacifist - advocated research of nuclear weapons and his letter to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a key influence that led to the Manhattan Project. His groundbreaking work in physics made the nuclear bomb possible, and the next 50 years of Cold War were marked with constant fear of global annihilation by (accidental) nuclear war.

Bob Marley was a legendary guitarist who was known for his Rastafarian faith. He spoke of how important religion is in his life and how he sees Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, as messiah. His music is known for its religious themes.

Harvey Milk, before his career as a city administrator and an activist, was a professional soldier and an officer in the United States Navy during the Korean War. There have even been calls to name a U.S. warship as USS Harvey Milk in his honor.

Martin Luther King was a Baptist priest and a religious scholar (he held a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University). In his own words, he based his activism on teachings of Jesus Christ.

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist and human rights activist who - like Milk, King and Gandhi in this list - was murdered. She wasn't known for opposing possessions or nationalism per se (but was a known critic or Russian political leadership), and was apparently Orthodox Christian, like a major part of Russians are.

Mahatma Gandhi was the father of the independent India and a legendary nationalist who advocated non-violent resistance against colonial oppressors. Still, he worked as an army recruiter during WWI. He was also known for his religious views - he was Hindu and was inspired by Jain, Christian and Muslim ideals.


I think Stanley's comic was pretty good and he chose very distinguished individuals as his 'dreamers'. But would they be Lennon's co-dreamers? I think not. Much of these people's work and ideals go against Lennon's ideals. However, they all worked for a better world and - in Lennon's words just as Gandhi's - a 'brotherhood of man'.

In Stanley's comic, religious officials stay as religious officials, after settling their differences. There's a Muslim girl playing football. Perhaps Stanley doesn't take Lennon's song too literally - perhaps he goes against Lennon's ideals, as he was pretty radical.

Still, Lennon quite clearly says that in his dream world, there's nothing to kill or die for. To me, this sounds like an utopia where there are no important things to struggle for. Things are given for granted and people are not even willing to defend or challenge them.

You could take 'religion' as everything related to belief in supernatural, omnipotent and otherworldly entities and deities, and claim that it is all bad. Quite often this is how it is understood. However, religion itself could be seen, even by believers, as a man-made institution that often controls, subjugates and abuses its members and puts them against other people, and there exist fine examples of this type of religions. Is this what Lennon meant? Interestingly, Greg Graffin of the punk rock band Bad Religion has spoken about how their band's message is not anti-theist per se, but against institutions that divide and take away freedom, regardless of whether they are religious or not. In this sense, the 'anti-religious' sentiment of Imagine makes sense.

For Lennon, it seems countries are nationalist, artificial, political entities that justify violence. It would be interesting to see Lennon and Gandhi debate this. A national identity is important to people. Gaining independence is often a way out of oppression and violence, and it is a result of nationalism - the Finnish independence in 1917 is one example, the Indian independence in 1948 another. Can countries exist if there is 'brotherhood of man'?

Lennon composed this song using his super duper expensive Steinway & Sons piano, in his lavish house. Maybe he dreamed that these possessions would not matter. What would people play with, compose with, work with, build with, without possessions? Should there also be no ambition?

Interestingly, much of this dream of his resembles the Christian concept of Heaven.

Real dreamers

Stanley's examples of dreamers, as stated above, were very good. These three Americans, one Jamaican, one Russian and one Indian made the world a better place and advanced 'brotherhood of man', but I think not in the ways Lennon envisioned in his song, and direct analogies are naïve. Lennon describes a dream world but uses too specific examples of its features, and it throws me out of it, and distances me from it. There are and will be possessions, countries and religions, and I am not dreaming of a world without them, and neither did those six fine individuals.

Of these, Mahatma Gandhi is probably the closest of Lennon's ideal. He understood religious and ethnic groups, discussed with people and brought understanding and was prepared to take extreme non-violent actions - and died for his country. He built a nation.

There are numerous other individuals that would be in a list of real dreamers, to continue Stanley's list. Billionaires, soldiers, politicians, priests, and others who have made a contribution to advance peace and understanding. Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Andrei Sakharov, Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama), Malala Yousafzai, maybe even Bill Gates (even though I don't like Microsoft, Gates himself deserves praise for many things). I don't recognize them from Lennon's 'Imagine'.

Of course, these 'dreamers' are not a matter of imagination - they have lived, worked, and some still work in an imperfect world, as imperfect people, but not towards a utopia because the brotherhood of man cannot be one.