Around two years ago, Donald Trump ordered two U.S. Navy ships to bombard a Syrian airfield. During MSNBC’s coverage of the attack, Brian Williams infamously said, as footage of Tomahawk missiles launching into the night sky ran in the background,
I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons,” and they are beautiful pictures pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over this airfield.
Right…so, that’s not great. However, I want to acknowledge the grain of truth here before I lay into him, because we have to recognize the terrible beauty that war can possess, even for those who have experienced it firsthand. In his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges describes the high of combat, the sharpness of your sensory experience, the rush of adrenaline, and how immediate and alive everything feels. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien says precisely the same thing of his experience in Vietnam. Both starkly illustrate war’s seductive (and, perhaps, ultimately fatal) allure for our species.
Needless to say, Williams’s comments lack any such nuance or self-awareness, coming off as propagandistic. Adding insult to injury is his use of a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” to glamorize the tools of U.S. imperialism. Indeed, I want to take a minute (by which I actually mean most of this post) to discuss what Cohen actually meant by it, because while it was obvious to everyone that Williams came off like a hack, I’m not sure we’ve plumbed the depths of his hackery, or this song’s full power.
First, some quick history: “First We Take Manhattan” was written by Cohen but first released by Jennifer Warnes in 1987. Since then, it’s been interpreted (with good reason) as a world domination or revenge fantasy, or else a look into the darkness and nihilism that often threatened to overthrow his mind. As I say, there’s something to such interpretations, especially in light of the abject, post-apocalyptic menace in his next album The Future. In his work, Cohen often seems to assume a persona that isn’t quite his own (he certainly doesn’t seem to have been a maniacal nihilist in his personal life, for example), yet they clearly express some feeling, some part of his psyche, that he’s wrestling with. Nevertheless, I think these readings miss the undertones of non-violent, artistic and intellectual revolt in the song, forms of resistance as (initially) subtle as they are essential.
Cohen actually says as much himself in a 1988 backstage interview. When asked what the song means, he gives the following answer:
I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane—I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities—but psychic terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was, “Well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there,” he says, “but our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still shaking.”
While his use of the word “terrorism” might seem alarming, it’s clear what he means: dissidents, rebels, revolutionaries. Those who challenge orthodoxy and dogma—whether in art, politics, science, or economics—without shame or reservation.
But is there any evidence for such a reading in the text itself? Fortunately, yes. This song continually addresses several mysterious “yous,” one of whom owns a fashion business, one of whom is a drug addict, and the most important of whom seems to be an ex-lover. In the second-to-last verse, the singer addresses what I assume to be that last character, thanking her for “the monkey and the plywood violin.” From what I can tell, “monkey” could be a reference to the capuchin monkeys used by organ grinders (novelty street performers who don’t actually play any music), and/or any old hack street musician. The plywood violin is less obscure, just a cheap toy version of a real instrument. Whoever sent them to the singer meant it as a not-so-subtle insult, and this verse is an obvious and scathing “fuck you” in reply. In other words, the “main character” of the song, the persona Cohen inhabits, is still very much an artist, not some cackling, bomb-throwing maniac.
For you gamers out there, he’s trying to win a cultural victory in this particular Civilization campaign.
Now, this isn’t the necessary interpretation. The next verse says “I used to live for music,” which could very well imply that this person was a musician before turning to a life as a violent revolutionary, but given the previous verse’s ending, coupled with Cohen’s own explanations, I feel confident going with the “dissident artist” reading here. Further, even if you go with the “violent rebel” interpretation, this guy’s still very much not a member of The Establishment, he’s an underdog trying for some sort of victory against an overbearing, despotic regime.
You can see, I hope, why Brian Williams using such a song from such an artist to wax poetic about Tomahawk missiles is obscene…in addition to idiotic and and obsequious.
So, if guns and bombs aren’t the weapons Cohen refers to, what does he mean? Well, I’ve already talked about the value of art at great length, so I see no reason to belabor the point. Then there’s organizing—labor unions, rent strikes, political movements, and so on. Alas, by that metric, I’m a pretty god-awful leftist (introverted, socially anxious shut-in, remember?), so I don’t have much to offer you in this respect. I can only refer you to those who know far better than I how that sort of thing works, and try to rouse myself to some sort of action as well.
However, one thing we haven’t talked about much is the value of critical tools, the ability to interrogate, deconstruct, and reconstruct…well, anything from ideas and arguments to historical events to what you read in the newspaper. In his video on the shitshow that was Gamergate, Dan Olson argues for and vividly demonstrates the value of such tools beyond simply analyzing media, while another video from “Is This Just Fantasy” reinforces the point that analytical skills taught in any decent English class are transferable, and therefore dangerous to any established socio-political order. I said before that the COVID crisis has torpedoed many myths about how our civilization functions; critical skills also have the power to erode these myths, and we need more than ever to wake up to the kind of society we live in.
Not only must we use these tools, we have to talk about what we find with friends, family, and especially those with whom we disagree. I’ve learned far more from people I disdained back when I called myself a liberal (e.g. leftists and some of my more right-leaning friends) than I did accepting liberal/neoliberal talking points at face value. Our culture is lonely, atomized, and (even without the very real threat of pandemics and economic collapses) fear-stricken. This is by design: keep people isolated and insecure, and you can market countless counterfeit cures in the form of material possessions, “lifestyles,” social media, and tools of self-defense. You don’t even need to worry about them rising up against you, either, because no earnest discussion on the way things are can circulate through the whole society. They’re certain to blame some scapegoat (e.g. ethnic or social minorities, those who don’t live up to their exacting standards of “wokeness”) rather than you. It’s Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 blended in measure.
While I firmly believe that a portion of art’s great power lies in connecting human beings across vast distances of time and space, this is not and cannot be a substitute for actually forming relationships with real, flesh-and-blood people.
For now, though, organizing and connecting are…difficult for those of us who aren’t on the front lines1This was written before George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests, obviously. As of this footnote’s writing, they’ve even spread to places like London and Berlin! Talk about the beauty of our weapons…. Thus, I urge you to spend at least a little time listening to the old music from a time when the American labor and civil rights movements were at the height of their strength. I’m talking about Pete Seeger and the Weavers2Who, incidentally, were temporarily destroyed by HUAC, and each member placed under FBI surveillance., Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez, and just about any kind of bluegrass. Listen to some Bruce Springsteen, who did his best work during and immediately following the rise of neoliberalism and its decimation of America’s industrial base. Listen to the old spirituals and gospel hymns, and for god’s sake watch Gospel at Colonus, a retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus as wonderful as it is gloriously bizarre. Look at how Frederick Douglass used the then-nascent art of photography to (putting it very crudely) stare down an entire nation. Read Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Talk about all of it with friends and family, if you can. Let it all remind you of the ferocity and tenacity of these men and women, and maybe some of your faith in humanity will be restored.
Most of all, let it remind you that their fight is not over. We never actually reached the End of History, which doesn’t end until time’s ending. For better or worse, it’s our fight now.
Then again, I think most of us already knew that.