By The Landlord
"The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal." – Kurt Vonnegut (from Harrison Bergeron, 1961)
“When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser.” – Keith Richards
“I believe in recognising every human being as a human being – neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.” – Malcolm X
“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“All men are born free: just not for long.” ― John le Carré, A Murder of Quality
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" – William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice ((Act III, scene I)
“Once the game is over, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.” – Italian Proverb
"Virtue can only flourish among equals … I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women
“All this talk about equality. The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die.” – Bob Dylan
It’s an issue that may quite possibly be the very first in our lives, and runs through us and our DNA like a message in a stick of rock. We cannot help but self-compare. Are we really equal? Am I treated equally? Have they got more toys than me? Are they bigger, brighter, better looking? Is this all set up from the start? Have they got more of an advantage? Why are they entitled? Or indeed the very opposite, though strangely enough, that status inspires fewer complaints. We weigh up these facts alongside siblings, then other children, from nursery to school, then from college to the workplace. The answer always seems to be no, things are not equal, and life is not fair, but it’s something to aim for. Or is it even possible? That’s a burning issue that many of this week’s Bar guests will argue about. Are are all equal, but not the same? Or the very opposite?
More on that shortly, but while we’re designed to make ourselves as equal to others as we can, in other words, survive, compete, strive and hopefully thrive, it doesn’t make us a heroic Robin Hood or some kind of vigilante the Equalizer. So this week it is equality, and of course inequality that drives our topic, how it is expressed in song lyrics, how it fuels emotions, stories, messages and melodies. Your song suggestions touch on anything from wealth to gender, race to education, industry to politics, personal mental health to the mathematical, but they don’t have to be all heavily serious. How then will we balance this equation?
By 2018 you’d hope that equality would be the norm, but as that line from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story predicts, there’s still a long way to go, and in many ways its seems further away than ever, and even going backwards. Yet this year also marks some significant anniversaries in major landmarks in moving us closer to equality from 50, 100 and just under 200 years ago.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, let’s focus first on one of sport’s most iconic moments and images, when, on 16th October 1968 at the Mexico Olympics, at the first Games to be televised live around the world, 200m winner Tommie Smith (whose sub-20 second world record record stood for more than a decade) and bronze medallist John Carlos made their famous Black Power salute, shoeless and wearing beads to highlight poverty and and hangings of black people in America. This was a year of huge political turbulence and unrest - the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and riots and demonstration in Paris and across America and elsewhere. But the athletes were vilified for their act of bravery, and despite being the world’s best, Smith never raced again. IOC president Avery Brundage suspended them from the team and banned them from the Olympic Village because they’d made a political statement. It turns out that he had expressed no problem with Nazi salutes during the 1936 Berlin Games when he was US Olympic Committee president, probably because he was a Nazi sympathiser. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Yet while the salute was taken as a threatening gesture, Smith and Carlos have always maintained it was a protest for human rights for all disadvantaged and repressed people, indicating this by how they wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. But what is also key is the other runner, who came second, Australia’s Peter Norman, asked to join them by also wearing the badge. He was treated just as badly for his actions. His own country banned him from ever competing again, and his career was destroyed. He was driven to depression and alcoholism. He wasn’t even invited by his own government to the 2000 Sydney Games, despite still being Australia’s greatest ever sprinter. He was offered the opportunity to rejoin the team if he criticised his fellow podium runners, but refused on principle. It was only in 2012 that he was pardoned, but that was too late, because he died in 2008. Smith and Carlos always appreciated his support. Norman was so humble, he even asked for his own image to be missing from the San Jose State University tribute statue of the event, so visitors could stand in his place. Smith said he would die for Peter Norman and his family. Both helped carry his coffin at his funeral.
Their demonstration was also very much in under the shadow of the Vietnam War, and fuelled by how another black sporting hero of the times, Muhammed Ali, was banned from his own sport for taking a stand, because he saw the so-called enemy as being in an equal situation to those of African-Americans:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
With that, how about a little music to start things off? Tommie Smith’s favourite song of the time, and one that inspired his protest, was Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit A Change Is Gonna Come, and true anthem of the civil rights movement, one inspired when Cooke was turned away from a white-only restaurant in Louisiana.
Many an inspiring song at the time of course came from James Brown, one of the great heroes of the black empowerment, the message in the music being clear. There is however, something of an irony in this particular clip, where the great man does a mimed performance in front a bunch of mostly white, attractive, privileged models, who are encouraged to join in on the chorus. Mind you, that wasn’t going to stop James taking the money from, nor indeed the message to, wherever he could. QED again, from the other side.
Fifty years earlier, another milestone over in Britain, the Representation of the People Act 2018, when after years of suffragette struggles, from Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester to Millicent Fawcett and Charlotte Manning in London. It was a limited victory, only giving votes to women aged 30 and over who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands did, and expanding the voting rights to all men over 21, but it paved the way to the 1928 act that gave all women over 21 the vote, another 5 million individuals.
A century later things are far from equal, but it was a step in the right direction. "The battle for women's rights has been largely won,” said Margaret Thatcher, but in her position she would, wouldn’t she? And as time goes on everything she’s ever said is proving to be incorrect. So this is worth exploring this area not just in songs (see this previous Song of the Day entry), or in the many exhibitions and events around this year.
While white supremacy is a burning issue arguable that in the current climate of Donald Trump and those who stand with him, particularly Mike Pence, there is not just a wish to repress non-white people, but to reduce the power and role of women to pre-suffragette times, to turn all wives in the Stepford type. But female empowerment isn’t just a moral issue it’s also an economic one. If only the message of Ban Ki-moon were truly acknowledged: "Countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth. Companies with more women on their boards have higher returns. Peace agreements that include women are more successful. Parliaments with more women take up a wider range of issues - including health, education, anti-discrimination, and child support.”
Of course there are many recognise a superiority in women, but they are often men and not always with seriousness: “No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men,” said the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with a certain idealism that doesn’t always match society. Others are jokier. “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition,” quipped Timothy Leary, even if he thought this might be true. “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.” said William Golding in Lord of the Flies. “Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior,” said Socrates. But Iris Murdoch found this uncomfortable and unhelpful: “The cry of equality pulls everyone down,” she said, and the singer Pink bemoans the fact that: "Women have fought so long and hard for our rights and equality, and now all our attention is put on being a size 0.”
Harking back to one sources of the quest for women’s equality, and subject of Manchester, next year will see the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, marked this summer with speeches and events, and with a new film by Mike Leigh. It was key movement in a time of mass unemployment and famine after the Napoleonic War and the repressive Corn Laws, bringing out a revolutionary level of political awareness from all levels of society, with a huge turnout of women. It was mobilised by Henry Hunt among many others. The peaceful demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, ended up in the killing, via army bayonet and guns, of 15 people and the injury of up to 700 others. It is one of the great scandals of political repression, but helped form the mobilisation of unions, and the formation of the Manchester Guardian by John Edward Taylor and others, witness to the massacre, the newspaper than became a certain rare, in mass media, an independent leftwing national and international publication that remains today.
But equality is, and always will be a burning issue. What do this week’s Song Bar visitors have to say about it? Let’s enjoy some of these arguments with some distinguished individuals discussing it. We’ve already heard how Keith Richards found equality in libraries rather than the church, and ironically Malcolm X himself found liberation in incarceration, in the prison library:
“When Pope Pius XII died, Life magazine carried a picture of him in his private study kneeling before a black Christ. What was the source of their information? All white people who have studied history and geography know that Christ was a black man. Only the poor, brainwashed American Negro has been made to believe that Christ was white, to manoeuvre him into worshiping the white man. After becoming a Muslim in prison, I read almost everything I could put my hands on in the prison library. I began to think back on everything I had read and especially with the histories, I realised that nearly all of them read by the general public have been made into white histories. I found out that the history-whitening process either had left out great things that black men had done, or some of the great black men had gotten whitened.”
His great counterpart took a different approach to looking at the issue: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” said Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in one of history greatest speeches.
But equality isn’t just a black and white issue, in either sense. People should be equal, but they are not all the same, is one of the difficulties that arise from this topic, but also make it so potently interesting. “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” said John F. Kennedy, with a vain hope.
Jimi Hendrix didn’t just do his talking with the guitar. He also had this to say about the changing times, especially around 1968, in which he divided the world on the young and old in attitude: “It’s time for a new National Anthem. America is divided into two definite divisions. The easy thing to cop out with is sayin' black and white. You can see a black person. But now to get down to the nitty-gritty, it's getting' to be old and young - not the age, but the way of thinking. Old and new, actually... because there's so many even older people that took half their lives to reach a certain point that little kids understand now.”
The world is diverse indeed, but how do we really address inequality? Here’s a balanced answer from Terry Eagleton, from his book Why Marx Was Right: “Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs.”
He’s dead right of course, but that’s not easy. And there’s always a right and wrong way of addressing these needs. Here’s Friedrich Nietzsche: “The craving for equality can express itself either as a desire to pull everyone down to our own level (by belittling them, excluding them, tripping them up) or as a desire to raise ourselves up along with everyone else (by acknowledging them, helping them, and rejoicing in their success).” That’s all a matter of what position you’re in and how you perceive it. To some equality is a dream, to others a threat.
“It takes no compromise to give people their rights … it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” said the gay rights activist Harvey Milk. But it certainly takes a lot of suffering and sacrifices.
Again it’s all down perception and education. What about animals as well as people? “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” said George Orwell, in Animal Farm, that political allegory that isn’t really about animals but people of course, and is cynical but realistic. But animals equal to humans? Winston Churchill always had a response, and this one a characteristically clever one in equalisation bring us down to our true level: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
Some think equality is just a pipe dream. ““Equality in happiness is, in the first place, impossible,” said Wataru Watari. “Equality may perhaps be a right, but no power on earth can ever turn it into a fact, said Honore de Balzac. ““All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others,” said Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt.
And here’s Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme: “Looking for equality everywhere is a huge mistake because equals are terrible and boring. But a sense of fairness and justice is a totally different thing and a much more complex thing.”
And so the guest keep piling in, wishing to have their say. Bono is desperate to speak, but there’s no time left. So then, how does the issue of equality square up for you in songs? I’m delighted to announce that this week’s unequivocal judge of equality in all things musical comes in the form of a debut Song Bar guru, the no doubt perfectly poised pejepeine! Place your suggestions in the comments section below in time for deadline at 11pm on Monday UK time, and pejepeine will balance them into playlists next Wednesday. We’re all equally excited here …
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