by Jordy Cummings
In May 1970, National Guardsmen in the U.S. were called in to respond to a highly militant anti-war protests taking place at Kent State University in Ohio. The protests were an immediate, emergency response to then President Richard Nixon “spreading the war” from Vietnam itself into Cambodia. On May 4, these armed instruments of state power used the same weapons used against the Vietnamese revolution, and opened fire, killing four protesters.
Within a few weeks, Neil Young, with his on again/off again bandmates, Crosby, Stills and Nash, were in the recording studio recording a response which was on the radio within four days. The song explicitly situated itself as coming from “the movement” at a time when millions of Americans believed they were on the cusp of revolution at home. The governor of Ohio felt the same way, calling the protesters violent revolutionaries, and proclaiming that “these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes.”
“Ohio”, the sparse and angry song recorded that day wasn’t your typical protest anthem. It was neither a preachy message song or a simple pacifist chant that reduced the movement to giving “peace a chance”. Instead, it seethed about “tin soldiers” who had caused the four dead. Instead of giving peace a chance, it made the unambiguous plea “gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down..should have been done long ago”. What should have been done, it seems, was revolution . Moving from the general to particular, it then addresses its listener, “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground, how can you run when you know”?
Just as Neil Young did the right thing about the anti-war movement, he has the opportunity to do so on an issue at least as important. With that in mind, I’d like to turn the questions that Mr. Young raised in “Ohio” back onto Mr. Young. Mr. Young , think of the Palestinian people killed by Israeli weapons or the quiet weapon of starvation and open-air prisons. What if you knew them? How can you run when you know? Let us not forget the treatment of Africans by the Israeli state, migrant workers who have been as of late agitating for their rights. Israel’s racist attitudes, far right hate groups and mounting detentions against Africans is not dissimilar to that of the “ Southern Man ” that Mr. Young inveighed against not too long after recording “Ohio”. Would Neil be “ Rocking in the Free World ” by playing Israel? Is this in the interests of the dispossessed “ patch of ground people ”, or the interests of “ Vampires ” that “Sell you twenty barrels worth”.
Even very recently, Young has proven himself to be on the correct side of the question of the day’s most pressing issues. Young has been a lifelong supporter of indigenous struggles, not merely in the form of his songs, like Pocahontas , but in his actions, most recently in his “Respect the Treaties” tour and publicity event . For this sin against Canadian interests, Neil Young was attacked in the corporate media and even by the Prime Minister’s office . This was perhaps one of the most effective political interventions made by a cultural icon in Canada in recent years, and at least so far as I remember. The Two Row Times praised Young’s integrity, calling him “ a deeply spiritual man with the heart of a prophet, who has pointed the way to the future for nearly three generations of young people. ” Neil Young seemed to be the Anti-Bono. As opposed to palling around with George W. Bush and Bill Gates, ostensibly in the service of helping “poor Africans”, Young has taken the lead in what is one of the most important and pressing issues within Canada’s borders.
It is for this reason, more than any, that progressives must demand that Mr. Young cancel his concerts in Apartheid Israel this summer . How can Neil maintain this deeply felt and deserved reputation, as a craftsman, a guitar visionary, a wise man, if he were to betray every principle that culminated in his recent interventions?
It is not unlikely that Mr. Young is aware of the calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. From Gil Scott Heron to Elvis Costello, progressive musicians – and even those not necessarily known for their politics (the Pixies, Annie Lennox, Massive Attack) – have responded to the call by cancelling and/or not booking shows in Israel. Perhaps Neil Young has been informed – even by the people with whom he just concluded a tour – that there were those calling for him to show his principles, and perhaps his attitude is that it would be hypocritical for him to play Toronto and then not play Tel Aviv. Yet there has not been a call from indigenous communities in Canada for a cultural boycott of Toronto. There is, however, a standing call for a cultural boycott of Israel.
Neil Young has sang that he is “ proud to be a union man ”, a member of the American Federation of Musicians. He should realize, then, that the Palestinian labour movement has explicitly called for a cultural boycott. Mr. Young – I know that it may be annoying that you are being addressed after the fashion of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s denunciation of you, but if the shoe fits… But please, “how can you run when you know?”
We all hope you do the right thing, Mr. Young.