John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine” has become a sort of anthem for humanists, and is without doubt Lennon’s most famous solo composition and performance. Its plea for harmony, secularism, and, I suppose, income redistribution, constitute the reasons for Gary Abernathy’s objection to the song, detailed in an essay in the Washington Post. Click on the screenshot to read:
The backstory is that Julian Lennon (John’s son and the inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”) said he’d never perform his father’s song. But he changed his mind when Putin attacked Ukraine. As NPR reported:
Julian Lennon, the son of the late Beatles star turned solo artist John Lennon, publicly performed his father’s hit song “Imagine” last week for the first time. He said he did so in support of Ukraine.
“As a human, and as an artist, I felt compelled to respond in the most significant way I could,” Lennon tweeted. “So today, for the first time ever, I publicly performed my Dad’s song, IMAGINE.”
In a video of the performance, Lennon and a guitarist sit in a room illuminated by candles. The camera slowly swings around them as Lennon sings the antiwar anthem.
“Why now, after all these years? — I had always said, that the only time I would ever consider singing ‘IMAGINE’ would be if it was the ‘End of the World’ …” Lennon said.
He suggested that the song represents “our collective desire for peace worldwide” and that it transports listeners to a place “where love and togetherness become our reality.”
Noting the millions of people who’ve fled the violence in Ukraine, Lennon called on world leaders to support refugees around the world and urged people to “advocate and donate from the heart.”
Here’s Lennon’s performance, which I like.
But as you can tell from the title of the op-ed, Abernathy doesn’t like it. I couldn’t figure out why from his title, but when you know that Abernathy is a pro-Trump Republican, it makes sense.
Here’s his bio from the Post:
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Post, is a freelance writer based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region. After spending 13 years as an editor at three Ohio newspapers from 1983 to 1996, Abernathy worked in Republican Party politics in Ohio and West Virginia, as well as for an Ohio congressman and two U.S. senators. He returned to journalism in 2011, serving until July 2018 as publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette, one of the few newspapers to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016. Abernathy has served as an on-air election analyst for the PBS NewsHour, along with other frequent television and radio appearances. He has won numerous industry awards for column writing, editing and reporting.
I’ve put the lyrics to “Imagine” below the fold so you can see the lyrics Abernathy objects to. Quotes from his op-ed are indented, italics are mine.
Here are the three things Abernathy doesn’t like about the song.
1.) “No religion.”
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try,” the song opens — not a happy thought for Christians and members of other religions who put their hopes in the belief in an eternal afterlife. We don’t want to imagine no heaven. Why would we try?
“No hell below,” suggests the next line. Well, yes, I have to admit that would be nice, but if there’s a heaven …
If there’s a Heaven, then, says the Bible, there’s a hell. He continues
Yes, I know — religion has caused countless wars through the centuries, and so much of our social and political divide is centered on religious differences. There are those who think we’d all just be better off without any belief in God.
And maybe they’d be right. Those who say that in a world without God, people would find other reasons to kill each other, but we already have plenty of reasons. The way I see it, the fewer excuses we have to divide people into groups, the less xenophobia and hatred we’d have. And so I feel (though I can’t prove it), that Lennon is right here: without religion we’d have less reasons to hate and slaughter our fellow humans.
2.) “Nothing to kill or die for”. To Abernathy this is manifestly unpatriotic, because we should be willing to kill or die for our country or for freedom.
“And no religion too,” it dreams. Again, many of us think religion is a good thing, just like “countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours. . . .
Later, the song suggests we imagine “nothing to kill or die for.” Aren’t some things worth dying for? Many have died for our freedoms. I’d hate to imagine where we’d be if they hadn’t.
“Countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours”? What the deuce is he talking about? Wouldn’t it be better if there hadn’t been “countries” in the the first place? They’re just another source of division and hatred. One feels that Abernathy is almost glad that countries exist so he could say he’d die for America and its freedoms. But what if he lived in Russia, or North Korea, or the Afghanistan of the Taliban? Nevertheless, he persists:
. . . And maybe in a world without countries, what would otherwise be Ukraine and Russia could coexist harmoniously. For anyone who feels that way, “Imagine” is for you. (Had John Lennon lived, I think, he would have been right at home in the modern social justice movement.)
Indeed! He’s undercutting his own point. And I don’t think Lennon is saying he’s not willing to kill or die to protect his family. He’s talking about the harmful effect of divisions in humanity—divisions that cause enmity.
3.) “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can/No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of man.” This means only one thing to Abernathy: rampant socialism:
Again, many of us think religion is a good thing, just like “countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours, and “possessions” for those of us who believe in the bedrock concept of private property.
. . . “Imagine,” as beautiful as it is, contains troubling imagery for anyone who cares about faith, patriotism and capitalism. And really, we don’t have to imagine this world. We’ve seen it. It’s called socialism.
Well, you could also call it “democratic socialism”; the system seen in Scandinavia. And that doesn’t sound too bad!
There’s no doubt that Lennon didn’t personally accept the concept of “no possessions”, as he kept a lot of his wealth. I think he’s calling for income distribution, for with “no possessions” it would be hard to live at all. He wants equality, or so I think, because inequality of income or “stuff” is another source of hatred and division. The mere existence of “possessions” doesn’t cause division; it’s the unequal distribution of possessions that does.
In the end, Abernathy wonders if he’s just being an old man yelling at the clouds:
Am I reading too much into a song that just makes a simple plea for peace and unity? Maybe. Maybe not. For many of us, “Imagine” is a siren song to the rocky cliffs of destruction. I love the song for its lilting melody and seductive imagery. I find myself humming along. Imagine if everything were perfect. Wouldn’t that be nice? But then I think about the words: No heaven. No countries. No religion. No possessions. And I make myself snap out of it. Can’t we find a better anthem?
I appreciate Julian Lennon’s intentions in wanting to offer hope to Ukraine. He said the song “reflects the light at the end of the tunnel that we are all hoping for.” Good for him. And his father’s song isn’t going anywhere. It’s become the classic invocation of peace and harmony, while any opposition is just curmudgeonly and old-fashioned.
But if the light at the end of the tunnel is the one of these lyrics, I’m not sure I want to step into it. Imagine that.
Yes, he is an old man yelling at the clouds. He wants his religion, his wonderful America, and he seems to have no problem with inequality. No wonder his paper was pro-Trump!
Maybe readers could suggest a song that better embodies Abernathy’s principles. I suspect it would be a country song.
Click on “Continue reading” to see the lyrics to “Imagine”
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Livin’ for today
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Livin’ life in peace
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Sharing all the world
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one