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Unpopular Opinions: Musicians Should Have Controversial Political Opinions

It might make me unpopular but… I’m willing to stand up for Brian Eno (even if some people say he’s anti-Semitic).

Liberal activism in entertainment is so standard that no one batted an eye when 623,000 celebs come out for Obama, but what happens when someone says something that could actually inspire outrage? In the infamous case of the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush outburst or the ousting of pop politicos like Bill Maher and Donahue for “un-American” actions, unsanctioned activism got them berated and summarily blacklisted.

Why is it then that legendary UK producer and performer Brian Eno’s recent screed on the Israel/Palestinian conflict — an infinitely more controversial and untouchable issue — has elicited fairly middle-of-the-road response?

While its tone is fairly respectful, saying “Israelis are a gifted and resourceful people who fully deserve the right to live in peace,” the 357-word statement for political newsletter Counterpunch — like its title, “Stealing Gaza” — is unambiguous: Eno believes the situation is nothing short of an “experiment in provocation.”

“Stuff one and a half million people into a tiny space, stifle their access to water, electricity, food and medical treatment, destroy their livelihoods, and humiliate them regularly…and, surprise, surprise — they turn hostile. Now why would you want to make that experiment? Because the hostility you provoke is the whole point.”

In an age when disagreement with Israeli (or certain US) policy is often immediately likened to anti-Semitism, how is it that pro-Israeli pundits haven’t risen in outrage? Sure, the story has been reported and rehashed, but with mostly muted commentary, and even the expected counter-articles have largely avoided attacking Eno outright. It could be that he simply isn’t all that popular or influential, but I don’t think that’s the issue (unpopular, or marginal celebrities are made into straw men all the time).

While it seems rather elusive, the reality is simple: when it comes to this issue, the Western world (including the UK and US) isn’t as one-sided as it seems. Just as opinion polls in both regions of the conflict show a much more tenuous support for the continued conflict than actions on either side would indicate, a lot of people in the rest of the world are open to intelligent argument. Or perhaps better said, they’ll indulge a nuanced discussion or unpopular opinion when it’s coming from someone with some semblance of objective intellectual and moral authority.

Sure, Eno is a musician and entertainer, but he’s one that (no disrespect to the Dixie Chicks or Bill Maher) has built a career based on artistic innovation. He’s simply too intelligent, progressive, likable, and open-minded to be easily branded a bigot. And, if I might make a leap based on the intellectual rigor of his music, it seems his fan base is composed of those with a similar interest in exploring the subtleties of human interaction.

So, perhaps the muted response actually indicates a silent, and rare, acceptance (and in many case quiet endorsement) of his right to an unpopular opinion. Sure this lack-of-response-as-response idea seems pretty strange, but when it comes to this issue, many are afraid that even expressing a probing, academic approach to what’s become a shamefully binary argument could land them in hot water. And in that way, it’s refreshing, regardless of whether or not you stand on one side. Most musicians have avoided taking any side on the issue — a seemingly smart career move. In saying something that others aren’t, and maintaining his position, Eno has proven that dissent is still possible.

To take things a step further, I think it also indicates that contemporary musicians don’t need to be as wary of expressing controversial political opinions as they are (at least not certain celebrities). Do we care what Britney Spears thinks about America’s controversial role in, say, South America? Certainly not, but I would be interested in David Byrne’s opinion. After all, he’s a pretty serious student of the continent and its culture.

I’m not saying he or Eno are experts; that isn’t the point. What I’m really after is that, even in the ultra-liberal world of modern music, we need more, and much more open, argument, and that starts with our cultural authorities. Music and musicians are more than a mirror reflection of society; they’re an engine that interacts. And we need more open interaction.

I’m reminded of a recent discussion I had at a show: I was discussing the current conflict with one friend from the US in the presence of another from Norway. We were talking about how you can’t talk about the Israeli-Palestine conflict in public. What we said isn’t all that important — it was really just an abstract, academic probe more than an argument. What was is the Norwegian’s response: “Do you realize you guys are whispering?”

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