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Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Joan Baez: Obama Inspires Me

The following is a translation of an article by Joan Baez published in the French newspaper Le Monde 26th July, 2008 under the rubric "I Have A Dream."

Much as I love and respect Joan, I can't help having two misgivings about this piece:

1) I thought the whole point of racial equality is that it shouldn't matter what colour your skin is. Obama's major appeal to Joan seems to be that he's black.

2) Is she serious about Obama preaching non-violence and pacifism?! This is a guy who has already threatened to invade a U.S. ally—Pakistan—and has made hawkish noises on Iran etc.

Joan Baez: “I dream that Obama as president will reunite and unify a country that has been divided for too long"

Something unheard of is happening in America. Something bright that I never could have imagined happening in the darkness and torpor that has seized the country for the past seven years. Something moving, motivating, and inspiring. Something that, in the ruins of the current political reality, embodies hope. I have always refused until now to engage in so-called party politics. I have never wanted, despite numerous requests, to lend my support to election candidates at any level. But what is happening today is too extraordinary for me not to change my attitude. 1) Barack Obama is a candidate for the White House. 2) Masses of Americans are ready to accept a black President. That is the healthiest thing that has happened in this country for a long time.

I wrote a letter to Obama. And his reply made me very happy. It was in the style of Martin Luther King. With an expression of sincere faith in non-violence. After all, he has a picture of Gandhi in his office. Something is right, therefore, from that point of view… Indeed, Obama brings me closer to feeling a pride for this country that I've never felt before. When his wife Michelle evoked this unprecedented pride on the evening of a primary, she caused a storm.

But not being a candidate, I can assure you that yes, there would be pride in being – finally! — well represented in the world and knowing ourselves to be reliable and generous, capable of solidarity, and pacifistic… A new feeling for me, as someone who hates any idea of allegiance to a country—birth is such an accidental thing! —and who has never been able to salute the American flag, hand on heart, while reciting idiocies! Or any flag, for that matter!

I’ve always felt myself to be a citizen of the world, even if it means being misunderstood. I remember, for example, a protest march alongside Cesar Chavez and thousands of Mexican workers. “So do you feel a Latino,” the general asked me in the enthusiasm. “No more than I feel Scottish,” I replied.

Hard to describe my evolutionary journey. So many elements unite to make a person. My parents evidently played a big part. My father arrived from Mexico at the age of two; he was the son of a Methodist preacher who had chosen to live in the United States with the most disadvantaged in society. The idea of sharing is essential in our family. My father also decided to become a preacher, before becoming disappointed in the Church and turning toward mathematics and science. He became a physicist, a researcher, and opted for a teaching career rather than accept higher paid posts in the defence sector.

He was profoundly honest and grateful to the United States, which had given him his chance, and it was only at this death that I discovered the importance of his work, notably the invention of the X-ray microscope. My mother, who is now 95, was born in Scotland, but grew up in the United States with her father, who was also a preacher. She never had a particular devotion to America, and it’s from her, I believe, that I inherited a rebel temperament.

When I was eight years old, my parents became quakers. My sisters and I hated at the time the austere and silent Sunday morning assemblies. But their way of according so much value to human life and placing good above nations and territories influenced me greatly. It was in these circles that I discovered that alternatives to violence existed, both at the personal and the political level. And it’s basically around this idea that I built my life.

We travelled a lot as a family. When I was 10-11, we even saw Baghdad; it was like being on another planet. Iraq, it was said, was 50 years behind the other countries of the region and people lived in shocking poverty. The streets were full of beggars, cripples, and children rummaging in dustbins. And I felt a spontaneous solidarity, feeling infinitely closer to them than to the Westerners who frequented the trendy British club. That’s where my passion for social justice was born. It was also there that Mom made me read The Journal of Anne Frank, which had a big impact on my life. I even think it was the trigger for my concern for other people.

My dark Mexican skin perhaps heightened my awareness, in adolescence, of racial discrimination. But there were discussion workshops organized for the benefit of young quakers that kindled my interest in the problems of the world. It was during one of these seminars near Carmel that I was literally bowled over by a 27-year-old black preacher from Alabama, who spoke to us about justice and suffering, about battles to be fought with the weapons of love and non-violent revolution. His name was Martin Luther King, and his words had so much effect on me that I trembled with excitement and fear at the same time. He gave form and words to my passionate but imprecise beliefs. And I felt that there was a path there in which I would do something. Sing, of course, since I have this gift. But sing while expressing something.

I saw King several times again. He had an amazing coolness and sense of humour given the weight on his shoulders. I sang "We Shall Overcome" on that famous 28th August, 1963 in Washington on the stage where he gave his “I have a dream” speech before 350,000 people.

I think Bob Dylan was there too.

I marched at his [King's] side in Grenada and in Mississippi at the head of a procession of black children who were being refused access to a white college. And in 1967 he came to visit me when I had been jailed, for the first time, for protesting against the mobilization for the war in Vietnam.

It was an era of struggle, of faith, of engagement. There were debates, boycotts, and demonstrations. For civil rights, against inequality and conscription. And against the war in Vietnam, of course, for which I refused to pay my share of military tax. I set up an institution for the study of non-violence in California. I also went to the war zones. My whole life has been determined by this permanent mobilization—concerts, protests, travelling—for a multitude of causes: the mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, Andrey Sakharov, Amnesty International, Chilean and Greek political prisoners, the banning of torture, the abolition of the death penalty...

It seems to me, moreover, that not enough credit is given to all these militants for non-violence for the results achieved. There are those who put an end to the war in Vietnam. The president didn’t want it! The marches, chants, petitions, and all the protest action paid off! And they still do! What’s more, it was this spirit, this cohesion, this enthusiasm that was missing in the eighties and nineties, which were marked by people turning in on themselves and by a total rejection of the idea of self-sacrifice. The shock of 11 September, 2001 and the lamentable, criminal response of the American government might have provoked a somersault. But Bush exploited and maintained the fear. Everyone felt obliged to vie with one another in patriotism so as not to arouse distrust and to keep their jobs. Even the media! What a disaster!

And now Obama has appeared. And millions of Americans who have till now been disillusioned and excluded once again want to act. We are seeing crowds of young blacks travel for the first time in their lives to listen to a candidate and to vote. I’ve been told that crime has fallen in some areas and the ghettos are calmer. And Gabriel, my 38-year-old son, who has never been interested in politics, is organizing a concert in his town with his musician friends to collect funds for Obama's campaign. And here am I, who was not so long ago so skeptical about the usefulness of voting, starting to dream.

I dream that Obama as president will reunite and unify a country that has been divided for too long. I dream that he will bring decency and integrity to the troubled waters of Washington. I dream that he will raise the bar on what is morally and legally acceptable in a democracy (neither torture nor the death penalty) and that he will call on the rich to share their wealth. I dream that he will resist the call for war and seek dialog with opposing parties. I am not naïve, I know that the presidency is a dangerous, exposed post, not favourable to the blossoming of a pacifist. But I find this man inspiring.


Meg said...

The idea that Obama is a pacifist is not only absurd but something that I'm pretty sure he himself would refute. Pacifists don't get elected in the United States (or in most countries for that matter).

I do think that Obama symbolizes a certain amount of change, and in taking over from Bush he would no doubt actually bring about quite a bit of change, but I don't see how this messianic view of him is useful or accurate. There is no way he would have reached the heights he has in politics, particularly at such a young age, without being not only extraordinarily ambitious and driven but also a very clever politician. Wouldn't we be better off acknowledging that?

I don't know, I realize that Baez has a long history with the civil rights movement but generally speaking she doesn't strike me as a particularly astute political observer.

Kim said...

Crime is down in certain neighborhoods because Obama is running for president? Is she serious? Crikey...she needs a reality check.

I can't stand her. I really can't. Did anyone else notice how this piece was all about her and her accomplishments?

The problem with how she is thinking is the problem with how millions of people are thinking about Obama: that a man running for president can unify a country. That is NOT the presidents job,nor can he do such a thing.

The US is divided on certain issues, and it always will be. There will always be issues that divide us: Civil Rights divided us, yet I do not hear anyone saying that Kennedy or Johnson were the cause of this division. The Viet Nam war divided us. Both of these presidents were instrumental in our involvement in the war, (as was Eisenhower) and yet it is Richard Nixon who takes the blame for "dividing us."

Feminism in the 60's-70's divided us. Which president can we blame for that? None. A president neither divides nor unifies us.

I'm not saying that I dislike Obama. I don't. But the hope in him, as in any presidential candidate, to unify us is gravely misplaced.

Anonymous said...

joan baez, you are an idiot..

Anonymous said...

Joan Baez is a bore and a fool. And if she would PLEASE STOP name checking Bob Dylan EVERY time she speaks, it would make her seem a little less fatuous.

Anonymous said...

I find these comments off-base. Joan Baez is an admirable person, has led an honest life pursuing an activist path that she feels strongly about. And she felt strongly about Bob, so what mentioning him? He was at that march; it was a defining moment for him too.

Obama is an admirable person who will bring intelligence and honesty to the position. He has inspired hope in many people; he inspires hope in me. I think he can both unite us and posture the US in a thoughtful leadership role that hte world is desperately crying for us to take on - intelligent leadership not afraid of the real challenges of the 21st century and not distracted by fundamentalist dogma about one region.

So she loved Bob and she is honest about that - so what. He has moved millions of people. That's his fate.

Kim said...


The difference between Baez and Dylan being at the March on Washington is this: While he made a comment about his black friends not needing to wear suits (unlike the black men present)to get respect, he stopped singing "protest" songs right after that and she went on to sit in trees.

raggedclown said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I agree with Meg that the Messianic image of Obama is unhelpful. Garry Trudeau had some fun with this recently:

Anonymous said...

How reassuring that Joan is monitoring "the ghettos" for us and that they are calmer now that Obama is running. It's great to read that the words, "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." are idiocies.

Obama is a product of the Chicago Democratic machine that has brought so much good to the world. She claims not to be naive. Joan, meet the new boss...

raggedclown said...

Anonymous wrote:

"Obama is a product of the Chicago Democratic machine that..."

I see you got the latest email from the Rove machine.