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I Am the Walrus

by Mark Peres

May 5,2006

This time of year I’m drawn to the pops. “The Beatles – Classical Mystery Tour” joined the Charlotte Symphony at Ovens Auditorium, and jaw-dropping facsimiles of John, Paul, George and Ringo re-introduced hundreds to Penny Lane and Polythene Pam. The lads took us back homeward. Sunday is on the phone to Monday, and I knew what I could not say.

It occurred to me that one is either for or against The Beatles – and there the world divides.

He who determines culture, determines the world. Such is the posit that social theorists have been advancing for centuries, and such is the basis of our culture wars. And, indeed, it is the basis of conflicts that have killed billions, and it has turned, more than any other determinant, the wheel of history.

Much is made of cultural determinism, that culture arranges our political and economic landscape. The Greeks believed that only those who spoke their language could understand their thought and democracy – everyone else was barboroi or barbarians. Machiavelli argued that elements of culture, particularly religion, determined political winners and losers. Max Weber wrote about how the Protestant world view was crucial in the emergence of capitalism. Goethe, and later Hegel and Nietzsche, argued against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and instead favored the sensory romanticism of folk culture – namely, in favor of the uniqueness of nationalism and local customs. Karl Marx argued that history resulted from the habits, ideas and customs of those that controlled the means of production – ideas in combination that ripped the 20th Century apart. And today, we are split red and blue as primarily modern conservatives fight over cultural norms, believing them core drivers of the shape of the world.

The culture wars of the 1960s - civil rights, rock music, the Vietnam War, feminism – and the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s – abortion, family values, flag burning, gay liberation – have escalated in this century into a clash across oceans: Islamic fundamentalism, Western plurality and American exceptionalism.

Which brings me back to the boys from Liverpool. Growing up I was in their camp. I listened to their songs, on vinyl and on the radio, first in New York, next while in an English-speaking Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro (the nuns singing “Let it Be”), and later throughout my teenage and adult years in Florida. Like most every Beatles fan, my appreciation grew from McCartney to Lennon, and later reverentially to Harrison, and back again, in a near religious progression. Their melody, intellect, humor and spirit gave us an optimism and narrative that soared – and soars – above all else.

Taking in the faux Beatles on stage – seeing them go from their black and white Ed Sullivan suits to Sergeant Pepper to their post-uniform Abbey Road individualism – I wondered, what if, particularly, John was with us today. How devastating would his wit be in the face of our current culture wars. How much would he likely skewer our Decider-in-Chief. Or, how much, would he frustrate us, turning our expectations on us, forgiving when we expect venom, excoriating when we expect understanding.

There are artists-in-residence in the world today who are brave and unabashed. They use film and music and paint and language to praise, inspire, remind and take us to task. We know them when we see them – elevating them to seer and prophet (often to their ruin). We do so because we need them. We do so because artists are an elemental force of our humanity. We do so because it is the best of who we are. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

We fight the culture wars to shape the world in our image – an artistic act. But here is the divide: we fight it either to quash creative impulses that threaten a desired world – or we fight it to free creativity in spite of the disorder that it may bring.

Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

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