Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Strange Attraction of Political Alienation: "Silent Running"

Back when I was "out there" in the office working world, twenty-some years ago, "Silent Running" by Mike and the Mechanics was playing on the radio all the time. I felt then that being forced to listen to the radio constantly while trying to concentrate on office work was a version of water torture, and I tuned out the repetitious songs as much as possible. I'm pretty certain I'd feel the same way now. So this one got a bad rap. I've become more open-minded since then. Not being forced to listen to a song over and over again helps one to be more objective about it. (But certain Billy Joel songs, like "Honesty," are eternally ruined for me.)

So when I heard "Silent Running" in the store a couple of weeks ago, I got curious: What in the world is that song about, anyway? Now we have the Interwebs (unavailable twenty-some years ago), so I was able to find out.

According to La Wik, the songwriter said that the lyric:
is about a guy who's traveled light-years away, out in space somewhere, and he's ahead in time. Therefore he knows what's going to happen to his wife and kids back home, on Earth. And he's trying to get the message to them to say what's going to happen, the kind of anarchy, the breakdown of society, to tell them to be prepared.
In 2013, the lyric has something eerily evocative about it:
Take the children and yourself
And hide out in the cellar
By now the fighting will be close at hand
Don't believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I'm with the high command
Can you hear me, can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
Can you hear me, can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
There's a gun and ammunition
Just inside the doorway
Use it only in emergency
Better you should pray to God
The Father and the Spirit
Will guide you and protect from up here.
Can you hear me, can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
Can you hear me, can you hear me running?
Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?
Swear allegiance to the flag
Whatever flag they offer
Never hint at what you really feel
Teach the children quietly
For some day sons and daughters
Will rise up and fight while we stood still.
I have little doubt that Mike Rutherford conceived these lyrics in terms of the Evil Republicans (or, in England, the Evil Thatcherians). There is a hint in the "swear allegiance to the flag" line. I realize I'm jumping to conclusions here--assuming that Mike Rutherford was not a Tory. But I think that's a safe guess. It was, after all, 1985, when all the artists were a-twitter (before Twitter) about the Power of the Right. Nonetheless, there's something refreshing about the gun and ammunition. It is interesting to see that the rebel spirit in 1985 did not always take the form of hating guns.  It's difficult to imagine any lefty in 2013 counseling the use of a gun even in an emergency, such as when one's home is attacked by an anarchic mob.

But what is particularly striking is how swiftly the passage of time has made these lyrics applicable on the other side of the political spectrum. Who is it now who is being asked to "swear allegiance to the flag, whatever flag they offer"? Who, now, is having to teach the children in secret? The phrase "political correctness" is really much too tame to describe the ideological totalitarianism and the lockdown on the free exchange of thought that has taken over our Western world, whether the topic be the morality of perverted sexual acts, the blatantly racial aspect of increasing thuggish violence, or, for that matter, gun ownership. Is it not now the Right that is said to be encouraging "vigilantism" by suggesting that people be prepared to defend themselves and their property, as the police in various parts of the West become ineffective at keeping the peace?

These words resonate with a home schooling right-winger in 2013. Now we find ways to keep our countenance in public, and we teach our children to do the same. Now we adults find ways to avoid saying the wrong thing, to avoid losing a job or even getting a visit from the authorities. Now we teach the children politically disallowed truths. We teach them, if not precisely in whispers, at least not very loudly.

This lyric is first and foremost about political alienation. To be sure, it's also about anarchy. In fact, one might have thought a priori that there is a tension: The lyric portrays at one and the same time a totalitarian and controlling State that makes everyone swear allegiance to the flag and, simultaneously, an impotent State that cannot prevent anarchic violence. Ah, but real-world history cannot be done a priori, can it? For anarcho-tyranny is a reality. We in the West now know better than we could have known in 1985 that it is entirely possible to have a government that makes itself impotent to carry out its real functions of keeping streets and homes safe and punishing evildoers but at the same time creates endless fear and harassment for peaceful people who simply want to go about their legitimate business. And naturally, that causes those peaceable people eventually to conclude that their government does not, to put it mildly, represent their best interests.

It goes without saying that political alienation is a dangerous and troublesome thing. But it is worth saying that, for an individual and especially for a Christian, reveling in political alienation is also a dangerous and troublesome thing. Dangerous to the soul if nothing else. I do not wish to be unclear: We need to have a clear-eyed view of the present situation and the future prospects for freedom in our country (or, for my readers abroad, countries). Being a bunch of Christian Pollyannas will only trigger blunders which could cost us dear.

At the same time, however, we need to be aware of the dangers of treachery. I do not use that word lightly. When, inspired by a series of quotations on Bill Luse's blog, I read Witness for the first time all the way through, I was much struck by the way in which treachery comes upon a man unawares. Each of us is preoccupied with his own affairs, and the more thoughtful of us are preoccupied with our own ideas and theories. When the suggestion comes that, because of those theories, a man should do something genuinely treacherous to his own country, the suggestion always comes in plausible guise--at least, a guise that is plausible to that man at that time. No one says to himself, "I am about to be a traitor, but treachery is a good thing." Rather, a man says to himself, "This country is no longer my country, so I am not being a traitor," or "By doing this I am fighting for the true essence of what my country ought to be," or "I am moving forward with the right current of history," or some other excuse.

Of course, most of us ordinary folk are in no position to commit any treachery anyway. At the most we are tempted to commit the tiniest and most trivial of infractions--running a red light or something of that kind. Nonetheless, he who is faithful in the least is faithful also in great matters, and he that is a scofflaw in the least is more likely to be treacherous in the great matters. It is a matter of daily, cultivated attitude, and it is especially an issue for those on the non-mainstream right.

I therefore say: Yes, let us be clear-eyed. Let us acknowledge that we are strangers in a strange land and are, in a real sense, much beset by an increasingly hostile government at various levels. Let us not duck the fact that government officials are not our friends. But at the same time, let us not cultivate in ourselves or in others a spirit in which we are, in essence, waiting only for the right trigger to go from being dissidents and critics to being seditious.

The strange attraction of political alienation is real and therefore calls us to walk a crucial, and all-too-fine, line. It is a line that we cannot afford to ignore, in either direction.


yankeegospelgirl said...

I feel the same way about Paul Simon's "American Tune." Written in a blue funk after Nixon won the election, but startlingly applicable today.

(Yes, the tune is "O Sacred Head!") Lyrics here:

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul
rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me, smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes
could clearly see
The statue of liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying...

Lydia McGrew said...

I haven't listened to it yet but the lyrics are fascinating to me as a Renaisssance and lit. person because they are in the tradition of the Somnium Scipionis.

Also used by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. It's a big motif in Medieval and Ren. lit.--dying and flying up into the heavens and looking back on the earth and seeing its insignificance.

RobertZeurunkl said...

If you catch this song on the radio, you might notice that the "gun and ammunition" verse has been removed. Sad that political correctness extends even into the historical revision of 1980s pop songs.

perheiro said...

Removing lyrics from a song is to me the ugliest kind of censorship possible. How sad it must be to live believing the human race needs your supervision. I suppose cutting our National Anthem to 20 or 30 seconds would speed up the ball game also.

Unknown said...

Especially poignant with Trump in office.