Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An Artist’s View of Conflict: Phil Collins’s “Both Sides of the Story”

by Michael Kaplan

Phil Collins performs at the Prince's Trust Rock Gala, Nov. 17, 2010.

For more than twenty-five years Phil Collins has been near the top of my list of musical artists. Never a darling of music critics in the U.S. or the U.K., Phil brought to his music, both in Genesis and as a solo artist, a soulful and romantic vision imbued with hope for the human condition that has always inspired me. And some of his songs are downright hilarious. That is to say that Collins is the heir to the British Romantic tradition. Of course the human condition has a way disappointing; many of Phil’s songs are laments for the emotional loss and devastation that follow in the wake of intimacy gone wrong. And now at age 59, having survived three broken marriages (he’s reportedly paid $80 million in divorce settlements and is at a loss to explain why his third marriage failed), Collins swears he will never marry again. (Rush Limbaugh said the same, and he’s now on wife number four.)

But another theme in Collins’s art is the destruction wrought by social and political conflict and the need for social justice. Like many artists (and academics) who see themselves as liberal progressive citizens of the world, Phil feels the need to make big statements on pressing world issues like war, hunger, and poverty. This is the sort of thing that drives Jacksonian conservatives bonkers and led Laura Ingraham to write a book telling liberal-minded musicians to Shut Up & Sing. Having gone to one of Phils concerts at Madison Square Garden (way back in 1994), I can assure you he’s far from the worst in that department.

Phil Collins on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1985.

Recently I rediscovered Phil’s song “Both Sides of the Story” from his 1993 album Both Sides. This album is usually considered the start of Collins’s decline (if you look at it that way) from his 1980s superstardom. And to be honest it was never one of my favorites. But returning to the title song after many years I’ve found a musical and emotional power in it that I hadn’t suspected. It has also led me to think about the very different ways Jacksonian populist conservatives and elite liberal progressives look at the causes and resolutions of human conflict and whether these views can be reconciled. (You can read the lyrics here.)

The theme of the song is set in an introductory verse: “Though we might hate to admit it, there are always two sides to every story...” The song and video present a narrative of four scenes of contemporary social and political conflict: 1) urban homelessness; 2) marital conflict and family breakdown; 3) the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland (the Jacksonian “old country”); and 4) urban crime and racial conflict. In the video Phil is in background of each of these scenes as the unseen narrator apparently trying to make sense of it all. None of these mini-stories end well. For me the most poignant were the young brother and sister in their upper-middle-class home watching their world self-destruct amidst their parents’ bitter accusations, concluding “looks like it’s just us from now on.”

“Both Sides of the Story” is an artistically compelling song with a powerful message. We can always use more tolerance and understanding in human affairs. The goal of resolving conflicts through constructive engagement with an opponent is certainly a noble one. The world would be a much better place if we could overcome enough of our fears to look at an antagonist as a human being with legitimate needs and a legitimate point of view. Winston Churchill famously said “It is ‘better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.’” [New York Times, June 27, 1954].

But Churchill was very much a leader in the Jacksonian mode who knew when the time had come to call an end to jaw-jaw and vigorously prosecute war-war. Rallying the British people in 1940 to the grim task ahead, Churchill proclaimed in his unmatched oratory:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

We know that Hitler had his side of the story; he spelled it out in excruciating detail in Mein Kampf. It was a story that justified conquest and genocide. Neither Churchill, nor FDR, nor most of the American, British, Russian, and other peoples who gave the blood of their sons and daughters to defeat Hitler’s war machine gave it any credence. And thank God for that. There was a reason why the “Greatest Generation” was great.

Like Phil Collins, Tony Blair is an Englishman of the Baby Boom generation and Churchill’s heir as a champion of liberty. He writes in his newly released memoir that while he too can see both sides of the story regarding the Iraq war, he stands by his decision to join with George W. Bush to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate the people of Iraq.

On the basis of what we do know now, I still believe that leaving Saddam in power was a bigger risk to our security than removing him and that, terrible though the aftermath was, the reality of Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq would at least arguably be much worse. . . . I am unable to satisfy the desire even of some of my supporters, who would like me to say: it was a mistake but one made in good faith.
The United Nations, as one might expect, uses calls for dialogue and understanding between nations to push forward its own international agenda. One can, however, question the level of sincerity in such efforts. In January 2001, the General Assembly passed Resolution 55/23, which reads like “Both Sides of the Story” written in diplomatic/bureaucratic jargon. Calling for a “United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations” to reaffirm the principles of the U.N. Charter, the resolution noted that:
Bearing in mind the specificities of each civilization and the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 8 September 2000, which considers, inter alia, that tolerance is one of the fundamental values essential to international relations in the twenty-first century and should include the active promotion of a culture of peace and dialogue among civilizations, with human beings respecting one another, in all their diversity of belief, culture and language, neither fearing nor repressing differences within and between societies but cherishing them as a precious asset of humanity.
All well and good. When one reads further, one discovers that the nation delegated the task of organizing the round table for the dialogue would be none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran! One can be certain that the diplomatic drones of the mullahs would faithfully fulfill one of their assigned tasks, to “effectively promote . . . the empowerment of women.”

Phil Collins on tour with Genesis, 1987.
Now I don’t want to put such a burden of history and ideology on what is, after all, a six-minute rock song. But music has the visceral power to move us in a way that the written word alone cannot. And from a Jacksonian viewpoint the message of “Both Sides of the Story” is problematic. Simply put, in some conflicts, whether between individuals or between nations, there are not always two equally valid sides to the story. Many times there is a right side and a wrong side. Collins’s call for understanding and engagement with an opponent’s point of view can too easily slide into moral relativism. That’s a major weakness of the current liberal progressive worldview. In family conflicts, for instance, it’s often the case that one partner is abusive and cannot be reasoned with. In Northern Ireland one can argue that the both the Nationalist (Catholic) and the Unionist (Protestant) sides had just cause. Since 1998 the two sides have been able to set aside decades of violence, thanks in part to Tony Blair’s leadership (though some critics have called his approach flawed), and more or less resolve the conflict or at least agree to put off its final resolution into the future. Other communal conflicts have not been as amenable to peaceful resolution.

The issues Collins raises in the song have resonance with Jacksonian America. The societal impact of family breakdown and urban crime and violence are major issues in conservative discourse. But Jacksonians take a very different approach to addressing these problems. And they don’t usually involve understanding the other side’s point of view or laying the blame on society. For instance the homeless man who “needs a job, and a little respect, so he can get out while he can.” A Jacksonian, taking a tough love approach, would say that it is this man’s responsibility to pull himself up by his bootstraps and do what it takes to get that job and earn that respect. He can’t just wait around for the government to do it for him. Jacksonians would usually dismiss the social and psychological obstacles a homeless man faces, writing it off to a lack of character.

Or take crime and its racial overtones. The song implies that the black ghetto gangsta who pulls a gun on a white man is justified in so doing because of America’s long history of racism, much of it perpetrated by Jacksonians; it’s the only way he can get some respect. Jacksonian conservatives condemn this as defining deviancy downward; an assault on society’s moral values and liberal political correctness run amok. Whatever injustices the young African American man had to contend with in his life, they do not justify lawbreaking and violence. Collins released “Both Sides of the Story” in the fall of 1993, just a few months before Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York. Giuliani, of course, would clean up crime in New York and make the city livable again using Jacksonian methods of effective law enforcement. Indeed Giuliani’s great achievement was to drag New York, kicking and screaming, back into the mainstream of Jacksonian America.

“Both Sides of the Story” is a call in music and imagery for us to live up to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” With this song Phil Collins lends mythopoetic passion and depth to the often sterile bromides of elite liberal internationalism. This is the challenge we face: how do we as a nation foster a climate of tolerance, mutual understanding and openness to other points of view, while maintaining vigilance against those irreconcilable enemies who work for our destruction? How do we balance what Walter Russell Mead calls (more sincerely than the U.N.) the “diplomacy of civlizations” with the Jacksonian understanding that Al Qaeda and all those intoxicated by the ideology Islamic jihadism are ruthless enemies who cannot be talked to, only defeated and destroyed?

Phil Collins in a Jacksonian coonskin cap with Bill Chemerka, author of Music of the Alamo.

Interestingly, Phil has had a lifelong fascination with the Alamo, one of the most sacred and resonant of Jacksonian historical moments. For the past fifteen years he’s devoted much of his time and resources to the collection of Alamo memorabilia and is writing a book on the Texas Revolution. British as he is, Phil is a Jacksonian at heart. He is certainly not in lock step with those progressive artists/citizens of the world who would condemn the defenders of the Alamo as imperialist aggressors. He doesn’t ask us to see Santa Anna’s side of the story. When he talks about Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis, and the others who fought to the death for the freedom of Texas, as he did before the Dallas Historical Society this past May, Phil Collins too feels the power of Jacksonian honor.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan