Commentary Magazine


The Ballad of John and Cee Lo

It was, in it’s way, a great moment. Dumb and profound at once. On NBC television, singer Cee Lo Green ushered in 2012 at a Times Square studio by singing John Lennon’s leftist anthem “Imagine,” only he updated an originally atheist lyric so that it now came out as a multiculturally sensitive, ecumenical one. In 1971, Lennon wrote and sang about his paradise on earth, in which there’s “nothing to kill or die for/and no religion too.” Green changed that to “nothing to kill or die for/and all religion’s true.”

I’m very much in favor of “Imagine” as a living document. If you want to know what left-liberals are thinking at a given moment just listen to how they tweak this dystopian dirge to reflect resentments and sensitivites du jour. In January 2012, multiculturalism trumps atheism. Stay tuned for updates.

That Lennon’s original was ever embraced as a harmless expression of goodwill and brotherly love has always been baffling. Four decades of elementary school graduation ceremonies have seen little kids across America sing “Imagine no possessions,” and “no heaven” as if the four decades prior didn’t revolve around the global threat posed by a state-owned and godless Soviet Union. Kids (and adults) sang, “Imagine all the people living for today” right up until the West that ignored tomorrow went broke. The song, if you take it seriously, is a three-minute blueprint for civilizational collapse.

Which means that at the seam of 2011 and 2012, on a live TV show, broadcast from the world’s cultural nucleus, you better take it seriously. So Cee Lo Green, a guy whose biggest hit was “F_ck You,” only without the dash, thought better of going with God is dead as a New Year’s tiding.

He explained via Twitter, after Lennon’s fans and God’s detractors complained: “I was trying to say a world were [sic] u could believe what u wanted that’s all.”

Well, that’s a lot. It’s not so common for cultures to allow you to believe in whatever you want. The only ones that do allow it are those that also value possessions, heaven, hell, countries, ideals “to kill or die for,” and all the other stuff that “Imagine” relegates to the non-“dreamer” category of close-minded buzz-kills. It turns out that eschewing traditional Western institutions is incompatible with religious freedom.

Cee Lo Green’s biggest problem is not the Twitter blowback from aggrieved Lennonists but the unfeasability of his own can’t-we-all-get-along-while-rejecting-serious-ideas position. Not that I credit a pop star who booked a network appearance with maintaining a political position. But there’s a lot more where Green came from. He is reminiscent of Alec Baldwin, who went down to the Occupy Wall Street demonstration to get his fair share of abuse. Baldwin, a liberal superhero, is also a more successful capitalist than any greedy Wall Street trader you’ll ever meet. So he took it upon himself to explain to the anti-capitalist anarchists squatting in Zuccotti Park that they just didn’t understand the gifts and wonders of the free market. They agreed to disagree. It turns out that aspiring to criminalize capitalism is incompatible with Hollywood success.

And capitalist success is crucial to celebrity leftism. Cee Lo Green is apparently a man of some faith, and there is no reason to doubt his enthusiasm for religion. But he is also a man of some means. And if you had just launched, say, a high-profile reality show in England would you want to ring in 2012 with a worldwide anti-God statement? Not if your manager apprised you of the the latest demographics from the UK, you wouldn’t. In England, the most popular name for male newborns is Mohammed, and the head of the Anglican Church has been preaching that “all religions are true” well before Green came to the same public revelation.

But before the Islamophobia spotters fire up their Twitter guns, the following needs to be made clear. I think it’s generally a good thing not to gratuitously offend religious believers. Of all faiths. In a limited sense, Green is right. (Koran-burning Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, is wrong.) But the inability to bring a modicum of intellectual discrimination into line with one’s human decency creates a problem. All religions can–indeed must–be permitted and accommodated, quite apart from the trendy compulsion to advertise the impossible conviction that they are all also “true.”

Yet broadly speaking, if successful performers incorporate the feelings of the faithful into their calcuations for monetary gain, it says good things about capitalism. Empathy and respect are worth something in the free market.

Are liberals squishy ecumenicists or angry atheists? Compassionate capitalists or anarchist socialists? That’s for liberals to decide. But the best among them will do so after a little consultation with the capitalist consumer. One man who both learned and forgot that lesson was the burgeoning capitalist, John Lennon. In 1966, before he felt up to the task of telling humanity what to rid itself of, he contented himself with telling an American teen magazine that the Beatles were “more famous than Jesus.” A global protest erupted and record burnings followed, and in a series of press conferences that would make his Twitter defenders cringe Lennon publicly apologized, regretted, backtracked, and generally atoned. “I just said what I said,” he offered, “and it was wrong.” Imagine that.

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