AS A MUSICIAN, everything I hear speaks books to me. With the right mindset, every song, every tune can inspire or conjure up something meaningful about humanity. And growing up reading of the world and its different cultures, and having visited the United Nations, I was in awe of such a massive, ecumenical congregation of people from every corner of the world cooperating to come up with the most transformative solutions to the world’s most important problems. And for most people, when a love of music and the idea of unity converge, there is but one song which comes to mind above all others.
Indeed, even in a book for children published by the UN that I saw when I was about five, John Lennon’s Imagine is paraphrased and mashed several times. One need not be a budding diplomat or policy maker to understand his call; its appeal to the universal desire for peace and love is timeless. Indeed, for anyone who dreams to champion world solidarity, there could be no better anthem than it, with such poetic lines and its soothing harmony. Consequently, one would not be surprised for plenty of young people to recite it as some slogan, along with the idealistic view of ‘world peace’.
But looking closely at its lyrics gives far greater insight into the story of Lennon’s time: a generation disillusioned with the dominance of ideology and counter-ideology of the time. Like many in the postmodern era, Lennon responded with a vision for a utopian society without the institutions and covenants which people believe bound and constrained them. In a world plagued by the Cold War, which barely had time to breathe after the scourge of World War II, who could not be tempted by the idea of a world without countries, religion or anything ‘to kill or die for’.
Such an idea is not new; utopian literature has been around for centuries, most famously in St Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia in the 16th century, which talked of a similar place, although in a somewhat satirical, almost lampooning manner. For, while it may seem like perfection, utopian literature tends to highlight one flaw: the lack of purpose and the breakdown of a society’s members into but mechanical cogs. A world with ‘no countries’ may seem less divisive, but in many ways, are countries not the enshrinements of cultural solidarity? A world with ‘no religion’ would mean no religiously-motivated violence or extremism, but does that not take away humankind’s innate search for the transcendental? If there is ‘no heaven’ and nothing to ‘die for’, then what are we here to live for?
By no means am I trying to nit-pick Imagine to destroy its fundamental cry for some ultimate human solidarity. Lennon’s vision inspires me to seek this out as much as it does for other young visionaries who do similar things. It is, at its foremost, a cry for ‘a brotherhood of man’. But, in the context where many young visionaries hear it, it leads them to subscribe to ideologies which, at their core, are relativist, and somehow eliminate our grasp of the things that make us human: our convictions, our aspirations, our hopes, and our dignity. As More and several other writers of utopian literature acknowledge, such a society attempts to erase many of the things which define us as human. Lennon’s vision of a brotherhood of man begs the question: a brotherhood for what?
One can understand the disillusionment we feel when this conviction or aspiration such as religion leads people to breach each other’s dignity through murder or persecution. But sadly, we often fall for misrepresentations of reality, which such violent acts prove the human conviction itself to be not just corruptible but innately evil. To a generation disproportionately exposed to the dirty side of cultural and religious difference, and philosophy without seeing its innate purpose, it comes as no surprise that in embracing Imagine, people have interpreted it a rallying cry towards a nihilist, empty world which they now seek.
Perhaps, as the young visionaries and change makers, we ought to be imagining a society of every country, every religion, everything to die for, rather than eliminating all these things. But as Lennon himself noted when someone approached him suggesting it should be a world with ‘one religion’, such a call misses the fundamental point. Thus, the onus ought to be on us to see it that way. Not as a call to transcend culture, race, religion, but rather to transcend the false dichotomies which interpret these ways of thinking as divisive. After all, these things represent the call for humanity to transcend divisions into discovering its purpose.
Miguel Vera-Cruz is a WYA member from Australia.