Курсовая Василия K.

Ранее опубликована в журнале «Колодец».

John Walker blues by Steve Earle

I’m just an American boy raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of ’em looked like me
So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God

If my daddy could see me now — chains around my feet
He don’t understand that sometimes a man
Has got to fight for what he believes
And I believe God is great, all praise due to him
And if I should die, I’ll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him

We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong
As death filled the air, we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed
Now they’re draggin’ me back with my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah

This song by the country singer-songwriter Steve Earle, released in 2002, offers an empathetic view of John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old from Northern California, who became Muslim convert, travelled to Afghanistan, joined the fundamentalists’ forces, was captured by U.S. troops, tortured, put on trial and pleaded guilty, under threat of a death sentence, to aiding the Taliban regime. For which he received two maximum 10-year sentences to be served consecutively. Knowing a little bit about America today, one can imagine what repercussions this story had. Steve Earle, who is well-known for being controversial and is called «a lefty redneck» by some, had faced rampant criticism from the more conservative public opinion makers and music-industry heavyweights due to the release of this song, branded as «unpatriotic», compared to actress Jane Fonda during her «Hanoi Jane» phase, Walker Lindh himself and «to all those people who hate America».
Steve Earle. Foto by John Jones

Earle’s song is musically a blues in a minor key, featuring his growling voice over sparse, guitar-driven instrumentation. But in this little essay I am going to consider only the lyrics. It is quite obvious what in this text has angered the patriots in the USA. To a more attentive perception, the song is an expression of defiance against the «good vs. evil,» «our fundamentalism vs. their fundamentalism,» but I will try to analyse the text as a set piece and see how the elements of the song, and the song as a whole, can be related to different cultural and political contexts that are considered by modern International Relations theories.

It is not the actual John Walker who tells the story, and Steve Earle doesn’t give any direct guidance how to interpret either the text of the song or the text of the true story behind. Whether the motivations of John Walker are depicted correctly, we cannot judge; we can nevertheless assume that the core of the story is like that, and the details are of course generalised and simplified, to present things as clear as possible in this format. Earle must have seen the story as demonstrative, as something that was about to happen as a result of significant civilizational, as we can call it, processes that are unfolding progressively. So he must have emphasized the points that are most essential to what he wanted to say. Let’s try to figure out what we can see in it.

The image of the American culture that goes through the song is that of Occidentalism, masterfully modelled by the songwriter. Even for a one who is ethnically fit in, who is born and raised within it and thus is supposed to have a full understanding and appreciation of its values, texts and images, it cannot provide any spiritual input, when one has matured enough to start looking for something that is beyond just entertainment. The spiritual environment in America is called «the dim» — formless confusion and absence of clear and firm principles, of what Islam can offer. Or, on the other hand, as the other side of the same coin, this environment is binding and rigid — one has to look and behave in the way that is acknowledged as modern and actual, simply cool, like the kids in the pop ads; otherwise one cannot count on being relevantly treated. The insufficiency and shallowness of this culture is underlined by the fact that John Walker’s father does not understand the necessity of violence when the reason demands and justifies it. This implication is presumably a challenge to the liberal notion of violence; your belief cannot give you permission to use violence, even though this is rather unusual just for the American way. Therefore we can think that the song’s message concerns not only the USA but the whole Western system of values. In the last line of the song the USA is being called «the land of the infidel»; this line is saying much. In the text, the Americans are never accused for coming to Afghanistan and intervening and imposing their values on other people; but they all, the whole land, are blamed for being on the wrong way on their own, thus and in all reflecting quite accurately the Occidentalism view, as it is described by Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit in «Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of Its Enemies». John Walker fights not just in defence against enemies whose fault is that they kill innocent people on their own land, but against the universal embodiment of wrongness and evil. The Radical Islamist ideas are not confined to any ethnical or cultural background, just as Western liberal values; both claims to be universal.

Martyrdom is described in words that are near those Buruma and Margalit use. It is not enough to die fighting just for the sake of getting into the paradise, one’s heart got to be pure, and there mustn’t be any place for selfish intents of any kind.

Evoking Jesus in the text can mean three things. The first, and this is simple, that Jesus is sanctified and worshiped in Islam as well. The second may be that Jesus’ message is the only thing that is worth to take with you when you leave the West, where it is hopelessly distorted beyond recognition. But the most possibly, Earle uses this image to amplify his main intent with this song, which is to turn all the demonizing of Islam culture back on the Americans, to show that all these patterns can be as well applied to them.

The story of John Walker Lindh, as Earle has put it, is a satire — if we try to emplot it after Hayden White’s theory. The hero is defeated, but not completely, and the war, the course, is not lost. What happened to him has happened according to Allah’s plan which is not to be revealed to the hero. Whatever are the reasons for this, they are not to be questioned. The body of the hero is humiliated and confined, but his spirit has not lost its purpose and its direction. The righteous course shall prevail, sooner or later, with John Walker or without him, but for him the matter of his participation is not crucial, for he has done what he must.

The real story of John Walker Lindh can be considered merely a deviation; but Steve Earle is certain that it is not. Otherwise he wouldn’t choose this topic for a song. The song is showing to the Americans how they may look from the outside, and the fact that the story is lived and the song is sung by Americans makes the whole thing just impossible to ignore. Thence came such storming response. «The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass», wrote Oscar Wilde in the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Well, Oscar Wilde could hardly know much about International Relations theory, but here this line fits just fine, since the American foreign politics tend to be Hobbesian and Realistic in most cases. The war in Afghanistan is an appalling example of such approach, with the fact that the U.S. government had for years built up the Islamic fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan. And just in 2001, they were sending $40 million to the Taliban regime in an attempt to shore up U.S. interests in the region — until the game plan changed and plans were on Bush’s desk to invade Afghanistan before the events in New York on September 11 ever took place.

Steve Earle sympathises neither John Walker nor Islamist Radicalism. What he tries to say is that the boy has done the same thing as American patriots do, but within another paradigm. It is constructed similarly, but it is just another. And both of them are equally dehumanized since they are constantly being used by diverse men of power to get people kill and die for their purposes. Religion is never a cause of a conflict but always a tool, a tool that proved its efficiency. Therefore it is possible that it will be used over and over again, especially when there is an evident resurgence of religion in the most of the world.

Dieter Senghaas in his «The Clash within Civilizations» has not written much about the clashes that can possibly exist within the Western civilization, but the problem is present albeit not explicit, and can be essential. The implementation of Western values along with the economical system failed in several Muslim states, half-failed in the most Post-Soviet states, bringing about existential insecurity and, as consequences, revitalising of religion and the highest suicidal rates in the world; to state that they are a perfect success in the countries of origin is to overstate the case. There is dog-eat-dog philosophy on one side and liberty and tolerance on the other, and when they go out of balance with each other, the whole thing can get dangerously biased. The former element is probably counterbalanced now relatively well in the post-industrial world, so an insider has to be extra-sensitive to signs of injustice in order to consider it essential, but it is certainly more insistent and prone to prevail when the whole system is being exported.

No matter now how well the system is balanced if there is an opening for cases like John Walker’s. He might be an exception, but the story is symptomatic. It can be viewed as an embryonic, undeveloped form of how the seeds of Occidentalism have been brought out from the West (this idea is presented and elaborated well by Buruma and Margalit), not in intellectual discourse but in flesh and blood of a common person. There is always something true in every stereotype, even in the most ridiculous one; the Russians do not drink vodka from a samovar, but they do drink more vodka than Americans, and it is certainly easier to come upon a samovar in Russia than in any other land. A stereotype can be compared with a puzzle that claims to be complete, but with some pieces missing. One can see a reflection in a bent mirror, but the features are distorted; in order to get the right notion of what is reflected one has to possess the knowledge that the mirror is bent.

The John Walker’s blues outlines the most significant features of the real story, invoking the big issues of cross-cultural communication and its consequences that can be tragic. It shows the closeness between Occidentalism and Orientalism, demonstrating key notions that give life to the former; they are not so alien to a human, if even an American boy can stick to them. These notions in the latter are obvious and even self-evident to many, so they might be just as obvious in the former, to many.

«For then we would all become Occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend».

Vassily K.
The West and the Rest in International Relations Theory
Lund University



Printed sources:

1) Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit: Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. London: Penguin Books, 2004
2) Dieter Senghaas, The Clash within Civilizations, London: Routledge, 2001

Internet sources:

1) «John Walker’s Blues’ meets the boos» July 23, 2002, CNN
2) The Storm over «John Walker’s Blues»
Revolutionary Worker, August 4, 2002
3) Cultural Treason? The Right Targets Musician Steve Earle By David Corn
The Nation, July 24 2002
4) Jerusalem by Steve Earle, mp3