Why Neil Young should speak out

Should artists stick to just one thing?

by Adrian Lee

(FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s a sentiment that floats around whenever we think about culture, and if it’s not quite an adage, it’s certainly a natural bias we should all fess up to. And that sentiment is this: we believe that artists should just stick to their one thing.

Rapper Kanye West shouldn’t be singing in autotune. The essayist Chuck Klosterman shouldn’t be writing fiction. Ronald Reagan should probably stick to his acting day job.

Let it be damned, we all secretly think, the fact that once in a while, stepping outside your box leads to something remarkable, something amazing. No: People should just stick to what they know.

We’re seeing that sentiment crop up again in this week’s latest pop culture brouhaha—although, maybe it’s more haha than it is brou. Neil Young of course touched off a stir with his criticism of the Harper government, saying there will be First Nations blood on their hands if the oil sands creep on.

First, let’s set aside the fact that Neil Young is indisputably one of our finest musical exports. Actually, while we’re at it, let’s also set aside the reality that Young hasn’t really put out more than one essential album in the last decade.

Instead, let’s figure out why we’re so uncomfortable with Young talking political shop. The answer is right there: we think Neil Young should stick to singing tracks off of Harvest, and leave the politics to the wonks and the watchers.

But if we are uncomfortable about this, we really shouldn’t be.

Let me digress for a minute, in a way that won’t surprise you once you find out I graduated from a liberal arts university: For decades, philosophers of science have more or less agreed that objectivity in science never really existed.

Instead, philosophers like Bruno Latour say that what we agree is “factually correct” is driven by a majority consensus of scientists, who are actually rife with beliefs and biases they apply to their findings. A part of the fight for what’s right is actually grounded in things like persuasion, too. So while we put them up as experts, and we expect them to deliver facts, our idea of facts is wrong in that we believe that science exists on this totally different plane from you, me, or Neil Young. The more scientists believe something, the more we see that as “objectively true.” Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean science is false. Scientists do have the benefit of rigorous research, to swat away any climate change deniers in the audience. But science can boil down to the equivalent of “4 out of 5 dentists agree, this brand of toothpaste is the best.” That toothpaste is probably the best one, though, and I for one would buy it. Hard to say you wouldn’t, either.

Alright, so what does one old French philosopher have to do with Neil Young and politics? Well, the reality of celebrity culture is that their platform dramatically increases their value in these weighted consensus affairs. They’re not scientists, no, but they get to speak much louder than them. They’re able to tip the scales and build a consensus all their own.

So it’s a heavy hat to wear. And some wear it really badly. In the U.S., you’ve got people like Jenny McCarthy saying vaccinations cause autism, which science generally agrees is sort of ridiculous. Except, because she’s famous, even the staunchest of us wondered, even if for a second, whether there’s a speck of credibility to it. And here in Canada, there’s Pamela Anderson, slow-motion bounding into Newfoundland to stop the seal hunt by offering career hunters a pithy sum of money. In that instance, it looks like the emperor—or rather, the lifeguard—wears no clothes.

Now, Young isn’t new by any stretch to the political block. “Ohio” is probably the platonic ideal of a folk protest song. He wrote a song demanding that the U.S. impeach George W. Bush. He even prophecized that Barack Obama would run for president, when the then-state senator was just a twinkle in the eye of the U.S. political machine. And he’s been advocating for the environment since as early as 1985. It’s clear he’s done his research.

But the solution is not for people to box people into their one thing. Maybe the solution is to trust ourselves to parse the Andersons from the Young, the Harvest wheat from the chaff, and decide on our own what we think. After all, like Bruno Latour says: facts are only facts until we find out they’re wrong.

Now, Young isn’t perfect. His comparison of the oil sands to Hiroshima might’ve been a bit over-the-top. The hybrid electric car he boasts about feeds on ethanol, and there are plenty of reports that suggest it needs too much farmland and that making ethanol actually takes more energy than the energy produced by ethanol. The car’s also really expensive and not market-ready, so driving it around the U.S. to set an example probably isn’t as practical as it is in theory.

But if there’s one truth, it’s this: Neil Young moved the needle, before he saw the damage done. And if he knows what he’s talking about, there’s really no reason to take issue with him not doing what’s easy: sticking to his own thing.




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Why Neil Young should speak out

  1. If I had a choice , I ‘d take a singer singing about politics than a politician singing. Lil steve and the decievers have been prone to lip-syncing and busking for bitumin .

  2. Because he’s a genius.

  3. Citizen participation in government is called . . . democracy. Obviously it’s an idea hated by self-styled pros.

  4. OK, the Hiroshima comment was over the top. No way the number of dead will ever match that event, right?

    But then there is the physical devastation to the land. Is there another event that draws a better comparison to the aerial photos of the open pit mines near Fort McMurray?

    I don’t think Neil Young is a god but I don’t think he deserved that this portrait be hung on the dart board either.

    let’s also set aside the reality that Young hasn’t really put out more than one essential album in the last decade.

    I think I need to cool off for 2 weeks before I comment on that zinger.

    • I agree. If Neil had just said something like: when you fly over the oil/tar sands you can’t be blamed for thinking it looks like hell – it looks like Hiroshima. The use of metaphor ( similie actually) is powerful but it diminishes the power of the event. As someone who loves language I can’t approve. But then Neil is an artist, not a PR consultant – thank God!

  5. Good article. But there are fail safes that try to deal with consensus bias, principally peer review. Still there are plenty of good examples of what is essentially confirmation bias. Clashing results in environmental field studies for instance.
    Despite his exaggerations and partisan pov I defend Neil because he’s a kind of catalyst, or thorn in the side if you like, to big biz and revenue hungry govt who’s first response is nearly always reactionary and defensive. You don’t overcome inertia by just being meek and not speaking up when the spirit moves you. Govts rarely just do the right thing imv; they often have to be argued, pushed, prodded and goaded into looking beyond next years election.

  6. We’re uncomfortable you bloody fool because Neil Young is wrong. He told a pack of lies and why not? It’s not as if the timorous Media Party will call him on them, as evidenced by this column.

    Virtually every single thing Neil Young said was factually inaccurate. Oil isn’t going to China, cancer rates are actually quite low in Alberta and even lower among Natives. He got emissions numbers wrong, he said land is never reclaimed (it is, by law), that treaties are being broken (last time this band claimed this they lost in court), and that we are “killing” Natives.

    Worse, today at the press conference he now says he’s OK with oil sands (or capitalist rape as he called it a few days ago), as long as treaties are respected.

    ACFN Chief Allan doesn’t even oppose oil sands, he nodded along with Neil Young calling it Hiroshima and rape despite him being director of a $250 million oil sands service company which does reclamation among other things.

    Can you imagine the contempt this guy must have for Canadians to own an oil company while pretending he opposes the oil sands?

    You people make me embarrassed to be a Canadian. Dickless airheads who think how you’re told to think by celebrities, regardless of facts. Too scared to ever gainsay anything any Indian says lest they call you racist. Ugh, disgusting.

    • Bang on. Well done.

      When Neil Young says:

      a) that the oil sands are like Hiroshima, and then
      b) later says that they are OK as long as treaties are respected

      I’m sorry, that’s politician level of double speak. That tells you everything you need to know about Neil Young. He is a pawn. He is saying what he’s been told to say. He is not worth listening to.

  7. Of course, in a democracy, Neil Young has every right to voice his opinion. Being an artist should not diminish that right.

    But he himself has acknowleged that he doesn’t know what he is talking about, and McLeans should therefore pay no more attention to him than they do to any other uninformed Canadian. To publish his oil sands opinion on the grounds that he is a famous artist is simple adolescent hero worship. I would expect more from McLeans.

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