Politics Beats Art: The Pakistani Government and Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

Photo by David Muir — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Some preach to the choir; others sing for freedom. The former is easy and common. The latter is hard and rare.

That’s why government leaders often choose the first. A perfect case in the point was this week’s decision by the Pakistani government to ban the use of Facebook because of anti-Muslim postings on the site. The offense was an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” page as a provocation for freedom of speech. The page has since been taken down, possibly by its creator, after receiving plenty of press and posts.

There’s no doubt that for the religious this page was an inappropriate and offensive act. There’s also no doubt that the page tested a national approach to freedom of thought and expression. Pakistani officials acted as expected.

We should expect more from our artists, right? After all, few expect moral courage and intellectual leadership from any government in our modern world. However, we do look to politically engaged artists to show us the light.

As we learned about Pakistan’s decision, we also learned that Elvis Costello cancelled his tour’s upcoming performances in Israel. Costello wrote to fans that “After Considerable Contemplation” he could not countenance performing in Israel. Why now? It appears his tour would not receive any money from the Israeli government nor was their any other apparent connection between his stage and their Knesset. Moreover, it was not clear how the situation had radically changed since Costello originally made the tour commitment. Costello posted how he arrived at his decision, concluding:

Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static and so an end to it. I cannot imagine receiving another invitation to perform in Israel, which is a matter of regret but I can imagine a better time when I would not be writing this. With the hope for peace and understanding.

It is his music and his right to perform when and where he wants. Surely, we all hope for a new time of “peace and understanding.” However, given his own country’s tortuous relationship with Israel and its global constituents (see the new book by Anthony Julius), this appears to be more about wanting to preach to the choir than singing for peace. This isn’t about taking money from a government or a company that one disagrees with. That, of course, is totally understandable. If a government turns your stomach, why would you turn up your palm for a hand-out? No, this statement appears to be more about making oneself or one’s actions appear noble. After all, Costello makes the argument that “sometimes silence in music is better.”

Really? In the face of injustice is silence the right response? Wouldn’t it be more powerful to get up on stage and sing about one’s beliefs? Wouldn’t it be more helpful?

Costello had a stage platform to bring people together, but has chosen to use his online platform to separate people.

Governments bring about change by silencing opponents. Artists can bring about change by bringing people together in song, poetry — and politics.

Here’s hoping more artists are up to the challenge.

- Bill Reichblum

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