Before The Deluge
"And let the buildings keep our children dry"
It was September 23, in the same month that would years later go down in infamy-plus. Battery Park City was a pit of sand then, not from fallen towers as it is today, but because that corner of Lower Manhattan, next door to the World Trade Center, was still a landfill site on which a city within a city would soon rise.
The year was 1979, and 250,000 people converged in the shadow of the Twin Towers for a giant No Nukes rally headlined by Jackson Browne and other musical superstars. That rally was the culmination of five days of the MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future at a packed Madison Square Garden.
Jackson Browne sang his big hit that Sunday afternoon alongside the majestic Hudson River. It was prophetically called "Before the Deluge" and contained the line: "And let the buildings keep our children dry." He and his counterparts had come to sing against the dangers of an energy policy built around nuclear plants. Many others had come to hear the stars sing, to sing along, to stand with them against a corporate threat that seemed to promise only destruction. In those years, there was a strong intersection between popular culture and movements for change. I helped anchor coverage for a national string of commercial FM rock stations, coverage a political rally would never get today.
Back then, years before we'd heard the term globalization, the World Trade Center was considered a symbol of greed. "Do you lie down and let those corporations roll over you?" Browne asked, "Can you leave your life in the hands of those people?"
That 1979 event, and events like it, slowed (and some think stopped) the momentum of nuclear plant construction. The nuclear industry was put on the defensive and lost billions in the following years after some of the problems critics warned against surfaced in places like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
None of us then could have foreseen the events of September 11, 2001, or how the politics of energy and oil would become the backdrop for conflicts and wars to come. Many of us still don't recognize that the "new war" most Americans support as a just campaign to wipe out a band of evil terrorists may morph quickly into a war to control the oil fields dominated by Iraq and the Saudis, whose society produced Bin Ladin and funds Islamic extremism as a counterweight against political radicalism and democratic change. As the world economy shrinks and corporate profits decline, there will be pressures for more intervention in other lands in a fight over resources.
For many in the desperately poor and developing world, the America they hate or call the great Satan is experienced through the presence of the oil and energy industries. Many of their opposition movements are aware of the power and influence of multinational corporations as the wedge of U.S. influence, even if they aren't much investigated or reported either abroad or here. I have so far seen only one thorough-going analysis, for example, about the oil aspect of this conflict in an American newspaper, a report by Frank Viviano in the San Franscisco Chronicle. "The hidden stakes in the war against terrorism can be summed up in a single word: oil," he writes. ""Rather than a simple confrontation between Islam and the West, [these energy sources] will be the primary flash point of global conflict for decades to come."
Most Americans are not exposed to much coverage of the interests that shape our policies or the problems they exacerbate. At the same time, the people who rally against our country overseas are not terribly well informed about the Other America. Their media are rarely objective nor do they feature the views of critics and dissenters. This is a shame because it is important to know that the interests of the majority of working people are often at odds with those in control. How many readers and viewers in other countries know that an attack on a symbol of financial power also took the lives of 1,000 members of trade unions? Unhappily, the media in many countries keep their cultures in a bubble of insularity and ignorance.
As Benjamin R. Barber makes clear in his thoughtful study, "Jihad vs. McWorld", much of the world is locked in a battle between two fundamentalisms that are equally at odds with the spirit and demands of democracy. Islamic fundamentalism and global market capitalism share more in outlook than is commonly recognized, he says. Both want to silence the voices of ordinary people and impose forms of control from above; both use media shamelessly and all too effectively to promote their ideological mission and values.
Today, Jackson Browne is still at it, this time joining as many as 200 other artists, athletes and others in recording another musical anthem, "We Are Family," a song that originally came out in the year of the No Nukes rally at the World Trade Center. "We Are Family" has been remade by one of its original producers, Nile Rodgers, as an anthem of our common humanity, a song to help promote a sense that we are all part of a global family that has to stand up against the intolerance and hate crimes that have crawled out of the rubble of September 11. I documented the 10-day production and recording sessions for a "making of and meaning of" film, Spike Lee is producing the music video.
Other artists have been very visible in this crisis. A telethon broadcast on 35 U.S. networks and in 156 countries featured top musicians singing powerful songs of social concern (and raised $150 million for disaster relief). A long-scheduled John Lennon tribute was also turned into a fund-raiser. Both events featured renditions of Lennon's anthem "Imagine," which was on the list of songs that Clear Channel communications seemed to want to censor from the radio. Music still has the power to do what journalism does so rarely: reinforce empathy, caring and a sense of a world with other possibilities.
Ten years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, I produced a documentary on the making of another message song, a remake of "Give Peace A Chance" by John Lennon's son Sean and Lenny Kravitz, with 37 other artists from every musical genre. That song was powerfully done but totally suppressed by the media at the start of the Gulf War. No outlets would play a peace song then. It was considered traitorous. Today, Yoko Ono has posted a billboard with the words "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE" on a billboard affixed to our office building in Times Square. It is not signed or identified in any way.
Today, as what CNN calls "America's New War" cranks up, as the flags fly in the news and on the sets of newscasts, will the loving vibe of "We Are Family" get a proper hearing? Let's hope so, even as we seem to be in for a new period of censorship, self-censorship and the muzzling of dissent. It is a message we need more than ever as bombs and missiles crash down on their targets.