Find the Cost of Freedom (of Speech)

Jan 30, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

I've just completed trips to two large-scale American trade shows. The first was CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. The second was the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Desert heat/mountain snow. Neon lights/moonshadow. Anything you want 24 hours a day/last call before 1 a.m. Sin City/Mormon Utah. About the only thing the two locales have in common is that both have people. Lots and lots of people.

The U.S. Constitution might say that all men are created equal, but that doesn't mean they all get treated the same way. Five years ago, quite suddenly, my image became familiar to people as a result of appearing on a popular TV show. Since that time, there's been a dazzling transformation in the way people respond to me when I walk the enormous indoor boulevards of CES, or the quaint, steep slope of Main Street in Park City. I now walk the Earth in possession of a very small amount of celebrity status, and I've learned even a small dose can have powerful effects.

At CES Miss America embraced me and asked if she could have her photograph taken with me. That sure wouldn't have happened before I'd been on Sex and the City. Companies offered to send me free products in exchange for being photographed holding them, or in the hopes I'd be seen using them in public (now that's my idea of a good trip to Vegas: no losses, all gains). At Sundance, I had access to supposedly sold-out screenings, or to seats that had previously been cordoned off as "reserved." I'm not saying anything about it is fair, and I can easily see the caste system it stems from as being reprehensible. That doesn't mean I'm going to make it my mission in life to change it. For 42 years I was on the outside, for the past five I've been (now and then) invited in. I'm not one of those recognizable people who feel conflicted about their fame. My very small degree of it has been almost purely enjoyable, with benefits far outweighing any impositions.

But at Sundance I got to gaze up at hierarchical ladders that reach much further toward the heavens than I'll ever climb. The closing night film of the Festival was the documentary CSNY/Déjà vu, featuring the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The four sexagenarian lads -- David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young -- were known to be in town, and expected to be in the audience for the screening. To say there was a palpable buzz in the crisp mountain air would be a dramatic understatement.

Most of the screenings at the Sundance festival feature appearances by the film's director and some of its cast. There are usually question and answer sessions afterward, in which audiences have the opportunity to speak directly to the work's creators. Audience members are almost always respectful, and most often enthusiastic and supportive. Personally, however, I have never seen them reverential.

Waiting with 1700 others in the Eccles Center Theater to watch the CSNY film I was aware of a completely different dynamic. Everyone's eyes, it seemed, kept drifting over to the house left doors every few seconds. Every time those doors opened, a few hundred people on that side of the auditorium all popped out of their seats and stood to see who would emerge. The rest of the crowd would then either half-rise or crane their necks to catch a glimpse of what turned out to be the badge wearing festival official who'd walked in.

I leaned over to the friend who was sitting next to me. "We're going to have standing ovations here tonight," I said. "This crowd is ready to flip out already."

And sure enough, when the four musicians entered the auditorium and took the stage to be introduced, the audience stood and cheered for nearly a minute.

"We love you, Neil!" women shouted out from the back of the house.

There you go, I thought. It's like the game "paper, rock, scissors." Movie stardom trumps TV stardom; rock stardom trumps movie stardom; iconic rock stardom trumps everything known to mankind.

I'd had the chance to briefly meet three of the four guys at a dinner in town the night before (another semi-celebrity perk). They'd seemed relaxed and friendly, without any airs of distance or inapproachability. And that's the way they presented themselves onstage before the film's screening. They were self-deprecating, and seemingly reluctant to do much public speaking. They thanked everyone for coming, and promised to be available to answer questions after the film.

I feel strange saying it, but CSNY/Déjà vu might just be the most important film to come out of the 2008 Sundance festival. Not due to any great filmmaking innovation (though I do think it's a good movie), but due to the simple choice by director Neil Young (working under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) to make the film's focus not so much his and his bandmates' outspokenness in opposition to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, but the reactions that outspokenness provoked in their audiences and the press. The film documents the Living With War tour Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young did in 2006. The concerts on the tour featured classic songs from the quartet's various repertoires, but focused primarily on Young's songs from his blisteringly anti-war and anti-Bush album of the same name. Through voiceovers reading excerpts from contradictory reviews of the tour, as well as interviews with audience members either moved or outraged, we see a nation divided not only in terms of support or opposition to the administration and the war, but divided over whether they think musicians who gained exalted status forty years ago by embedding antiwar statements in their music ought to ever make such statements again. The film even shows a number of Americans who don't seem to think freedom of speech itself is such a great notion, who don't seem to crave it themselves, and who don't think it should be tolerated even if it is technically allowed. The film is a candid and canny illustration of a nation completely cracked open and torn apart by vehemently differing philosophies, populated by people who, for the most part, seem utterly unwilling or unable to take forceful action in support of whichever viewpoint they subscribe to. As such (and with such iconic figures featured within it, both as they were in 2006 and circa 1970) the film draws a devastating comparison between the United States of today and the similarly divided nation of forty years ago.

I found watching the movie to be a complex experience. First, as unfair as it is (and as guilty as I feel for saying it), I found it difficult to reconcile the men today with the youthful figures from my memory -- and from archival footage included in the film. Watching them perform with members of Neil Young's band on the Living With War tour was a bit like watching Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe play tennis on the senior circuit. You know they can still beat the hell out of you, or anyone you know. You know they're phenomenal players. But the power, quickness, and agility you're seeing don't match up to what you've seen from them in the past. I don't know why athletics and rock-and-roll should still be so bound up with expectations of youth and beauty. I know it's a problem with my perception, not with the band's presentation. But as much as I admired what was happening right in front of my eyes, I felt a sense of loss when I compared it with what I remembered, or with the film's images from the past. I don't intend that as a criticism or shortcoming. On the contrary. I found it to be a fascinating component of the film's comparison of two eras.

In fact, Young chooses not to shy away from those aspects in the film. The men comment on their ages and their frailties, and how poor their playing was at the beginning of the tour. "No one ever accused us of being over-rehearsed," Stephen Stills says at one point, shortly before he's shown tripping over a footlight on the stage and playing flat on his back while he rolls from side to side trying to get himself back up. They don't just tell you they were rusty, they show it. I don't believe I've ever seen anyone do that in his own film before.

I also found myself tempted to categorize Young's early interview footage in the film as naïve. The opening minutes feature him speaking of his mission to concentrate on his songs and music as a way to speak out on behalf of his beliefs. But those feelings were quickly replaced by a genuine sadness that naivety is what had crossed my mind. After all, as the film points out, there was a time when popular music did both excite and incite. There was a time when a cleverly phrased indictment could sear through the nation's consciousness, making continued acceptance of whatever hypocrisy had been exposed impossible. Not only was that once the case, but it was those guys on the screen who were then doing the writing and singing. What seems impossible now is to imagine how any truth -- no matter how brilliantly spoken -- could have a similar effect.

Some of the pathology behind that phenomenon is visible in the film. The group travels through what they represent as traditionally "blue" states enjoying enthusiastic acceptance. As they approach the "red" state portion of the tour they express apprehension. And, sure enough, toward the end of a concert in Atlanta, when Young and the others launch into his song "Let's Impeach the President," much of the crowd turns on them. Boos are loud and sustained, and a significant portion of the audience storms out of the arena. The cameras capture the exits, as well as the comments of those who've felt offended.

"I didn't pay $350 to come to a political rally," would be a fairly accurate representation of many of the complaints. "Everything was going along fine, I love their music, and they were being really entertaining. Then they started in with the antiwar stuff, and that's not what I came here for."

But, according to the film's chronology, these are the same people who'd chanted along delightedly as the group sang "Four dead in Ohio..." They sang along with "For What It's Worth" and "Find the Cost of Freedom." The sudden turn, as represented in the film, begged several questions. Had those people found those politically charged and issue oriented songs offensive when they were new, while the Vietnam war was going on? If so, had they softened their position on them now because, forty or so years later, their views on that military endeavor have changed? Or, have the songs lost all original meaning for them and become only nice tunes that are remembered fondly? Maybe some audience members never had any idea what they were about to begin with. Regardless of the reasoning, there's an astonishing mass psychosis on display during portions of the film. Songs of past dissent are apparently acceptable, and their composers are beloved. But current dissent is despicable, and, if delivered by those same messengers, they are equally reviled. Young makes no attempt to solve these riddles, but he certainly exposes them. The positions of the musicians are on constant display, but the film doesn't really promote their agenda. It shows them promoting it, and the responses that promotion provoked. Concentrating on the responses to what the featured characters in a film are doing is novel. And, because of the specifics of those responses, it's very telling.

Those same responses bubbled up immediately after the film screened at Sundance. As soon as Neil Young invited the audience to ask questions a man standing in the far left aisle spoke out in a confrontational tone.

"With all respect to your music, I feel I have to comment on behalf of my brother, Staff Sergeant Brian Nemahy, who was killed in Bagdad on June 19, 2006 (I've invented a name and date, since I don't recall the actual ones). If he were here, he would have told you that you don't know what you're talking about."

It was an electrifying moment, and the audience seemed to hold its collective breath. Young immediately responded by saying, "You're right. I don't."
A man in the front row of the theater called out, "On the contrary, I think you know exactly what you're talking about." Not surprisingly, the audience of fans applauded. Young then said, "I agree with you, too."

I didn't have a recorder and didn't take notes, so I'm relaying these exchanges from memory. I also won't be able to quote Young perfectly (and I hope he'll forgive my paraphrasing). But what he said, essentially, was, "I have a tremendous amount of respect and feeling for your brother and for everyone serving their country over there. I really do think I understand how you feel, and I feel for your loss. That's why I can say I agree with both of you. We're just talking here. That's all we're doing is talking, and saying that people should be talking. There's nothing unpatriotic about talking, and that's all we're doing here."

What seemed to be exposed by the exchange, and by several scenes within the film, is nothing remarkably new. The film's just distilled it quite vividly. There are two groups of people who see the events happening around us in completely different ways, and who have diametrically opposed ideas about how to deal with them. There are people who believe that the war conceived and executed by neoconservative Americans is the only solution to the problem of militant Islamic terrorism, and that elected leaders aren't ever to be questioned or criticized. A similar number believe that war to be misguided, counterproductive, and abhorrent, and feel it's their right and responsibility to speak out. Meanwhile, it seems that no one from either group can even begin to fathom how anyone on the other side could have come to the conclusions they have.

The film posits that a tide has begun to turn and that greater numbers of Americans have now decided that the war effort must be halted. The solution, as suggested in the theater, is that people need to vote. "It comes from the top down," it was said.

Here's where, in spite of my admiration for those men and their film, I don't really agree. I don't think these particular kinds of social change come from the top down, and I don't believe modern political leaders have any track record in instigating them. Changes in the past have come when there has been such disruption of the social fabric that political leaders -- whatever their original stance on an issue -- were forced to adjust their policies. That degree of social unrest was accomplished by non-elected leaders organizing citizens who'd become radicalized in response to their discontent. In the civil rights movement it was Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, or any number of others, leading citizens who were willing to face fire hoses and dogs and months of hardship enduring bus boycotts and jail. The Vietnam War effort was halted, in part, by college students - inspired by leaders like Abby Hoffman, and David Dellinger, and Bobby Seale -- who were willing to face down the National Guard and absorb clubs or even bullets in protest of government policies. I can't imagine the college campus where students would be willing to take such stands today. I can't imagine a town able to organize, or willing to endure, a boycott of public transportation. It doesn't even require imagination to illustrate the current malaise of the American public. The foot-on-pavement protests during the early days of the Iraq war were several times larger in any number of other nations, in spite of much smaller troop commitments. Now that the tide is supposedly turning against the war here, there are no large-scale protests at all.

The CSNY film posits that it's the lack of immediate threat in the form of a military draft that keeps many people from forceful resistance. I suspect there's some truth to this theory, though I doubt it's a complete explanation. But, true or untrue, if significant change in policy is what the people want and it's not forthcoming, what -- in the absence of a military draft -- will drive them to the levels of resistance necessary to force such change? I don't know the answer to this. I'm not sure anyone does. I'm not even convinced that most people are as vehemently opposed to the current war -- or to suspension of Habeas Corpus rights, or to state sanctioned torture -- as polls might indicate. (After all, even as polls suggest opposition to the Iraq war is growing, there are indications that the current presidential nominating process is elevating the most pro-war candidates.) If people are truly opposed to current policies, but unwilling to mobilize, there's a serious tactical problem. If they're not really opposed to those policies, or are even ambivalent, then what's required to change their minds would be different tactics altogether.

If the CSNY film stirs any kind of renewed activism, that would be an astonishing - and currently unprecedented -- occurrence. If it's absorbed into the drone of competing messages currently inundating everyone and goes largely unheard, that would be a statement of even greater profundity. If it settles somewhere in the middle and simply gets people talking, then it will have met the filmmaker's stated aim.

Neil Young asked three of his friends to join him in singing songs of protest, and in filming the public's reaction to the four of them speaking out, as they have in the past. The reactions to four Americans speaking their minds, as shown in the film, are striking, and often troubling. Reactions to the film itself -- whether vehement or indifferent -- might be even more so.