I don’t usually write about international relations. Or about music for that matter. My thing is social policy, whether its welfare, health and social care, housing or education; the Big Society (wherever that went) or nudging (which is ever present). Another favourite, if that’s not too inappropriate a way of putting it, is vulnerable children. Or, rather, the way in which certain children’s charities – we all know who they are – seem to like nothing more than to exploit our anxieties about our children and our suspicions of our fellow adults. All done with a dubious use of research and statistics, and vile adverts featuring supposedly bruised and battered children, to create the impression of widespread child abuse. Which there isn’t. So outraged was I by one of my musical heroes – and another by association – for using that same approach for gaining sympathy and support, that I felt as compelled as he to make my feelings known on a subject about which I hope I know just a little more. Though that, apparently, wouldn’t be difficult.
In the seventies and eighties David Byrne and Brian Eno practically reinvented popular music with their avant-garde takes on the genre, playing critical roles in the development of everything from world music and ambient to sampling. That was after they had taken on tired rock clichés with their respective legendary bands: Byrne as the nervy WASPish lead singer of Talking Heads, and Eno as the professorial cross-dresser who so upstaged the other Bryan in Roxy Music. But more recently they have conspired to create something that could only disappoint this long-time fan of their work. I don’t refer to Eno’s collaboration with the unbearably awful Coldplay; or to the fact that Byrne is as likely to be found these days designing bicycle racks as making groundbreaking music. (They are actually rather lovely.)
No, it is their politics, or ‘beyond politics’ as Eno puts it, and their uncharacteristic eagerness to jump on the Israel-bashing bandwagon, that really grates. Even if, assuming the latest ceasefire holds, the bombardment of Gaza looks to be coming to an end. Thankfully. In a letter to his American friends – including and initiallly published by Byrne on his website under the title ‘Gaza and the loss of civilization’, and latterly in The Independent – Eno despairs at an America that he thinks should be doing more to save Palestinian children from Israeli bombs. The reference to horrific images of children where an argument should be is not only shamelessly emotive and dangerously simple-minded, but it is a cynical way of encouraging the mighty Western powers to throw their weight around too. All under the cover of a peacable intent with regards the Palestinians who also, as it happens, are portrayed as vulnerable and child-like in their helpless suffering. With government ministers resigning, and trade embargos against Israel being considered, one wonders if these one-time rock stars just miss the limelight a little too much to care about the consequences of their pontificating on things about which they know not much. While Byrne, at least, has the good sense to acknowledge that ‘no one has the moral high ground’ on Gaza, Eno has no such reservations only – astonishingly, given his very public statement on the matter – admitting his ignorance: ‘I really don’t get it and I wish I did.’
Not that his lack of understanding matters much. His outburst is not about Israelis or Palestinians, it’s about people like him. And the fact that he doesn’t recognise, as he puts it, this America in his no doubt duly flattered ‘compassionate, broadminded, creative, eclectic, tolerant and generous’ friends across the water. Eno is not only nauseatingly self-aggrandising on behalf of this once trailblazing set. The letter is the political equivalent of post-Punk Byrne renouncing his opposition to lengthy guitar solos; and legendary producer Eno working with the likes of Coldplay. (Okay, so he already did that.) It is that slavish in its adherence to the wrong-headedly commonplace. It is also, ironically enough, an example of the dangerous combination of emoting, cluelessness and self-important meddling that keeps their respective countries recklessly posturing about such far-away conflicts too.
First published in Huffington Post