Bruce Cockburn – Call It Democracy


Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn argued back in 1986, that the foreign policy of powerful countries is about making a buck, not lifting people in poor places out of their misery. As well, that international organizations are not benevolent, either. The International Monetary Fund is a target in one verse.

The IMF goes back to 1944, and on the face of it, with almost 200 member countries, seeks to encourage financial stability in countries dealing with low revenues, high debt, inflation, high unemployment, and more. The IMF works to foster international trade.

Cockburn figures the IMF does more harm than good, leaving developing countries in debt.

More generally, the IMF has been criticized for the conditions it has sometimes imposed on countries to get into their version of fiscal shape. This has meant getting troubled countries to reduce public spending to address government debt. The IMF has also been criticized for not been sensitive enough to local conditions and on-the-ground needs of the places it exists to serve.

Also by Cockburn: If A Tree Falls, If I Had A Rocket Launcher

Please leave a comment if the video is no longer available.

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Boris Grebenshchikov – This Train Is On Fire

Called by some the Russian Bob Dylan, “BG” is the face and sound of classic rock music in the Soviet Union. Well, to the extent it was permitted!

This Train Is On Fire is considered a “perestroika anthem.” Perestroika, meaning restructuring, was an effort within the Communist Party, to open up the political and economic system of the Soviet Union, in the 1980s. This happened.

Did a song play a leading role in ending the Cold War? Wow!

They Might Be Giants – James K. Polk

James K. Polk was the 11th President of the USA, serving 1845-49. The lyrics race through the man’s accomplishments, and suggest that he was a successful president not needing to seek a second term. If so, then why is Polk not more on our minds, wonder They Might Be Giants?

It is not clear if they are being cheeky (or if we are too cynical to imagine a neutral biography of a politician). Polk basically governed over a time when the map of the entire continental United States was set, though ethically today we might question territorial expansion (Texas) and invading Mexico. This was part of “manifest destiny,” a belief in the superiority of Americans necessitating expansion.

Eagles – The Last Resort

The final song from the 1976 Hotel California record posits an elegiac tone, dismissive of how modern progress forever harms the natural beauty of the world. Writers Don Henley and Glen Frey link replacing natural surroundings with neon signs and nondescript dwellings to the colonialist zeal of Christian missionaries. It is not an optimistic song, concluding that we have to now sleep in the beds we made, and that we are left with kissing goodbye forever all that once was. The 1970s were a depressing time?

A song reviewed here with a similar theme is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

Genesis – Land of Confusion

Maybe the video is better than the song? Or at least, when it was released in 1986, non-Genesis fans watched anyway. It’s not so simple to assess the song when the video seems to matter more:

The puppets are from a British TV show called “Spitting Image.” The video, given its era, could be about the Cold War and fears of nuclear destruction, but also has a larger reach or point. It speaks to how political authority is wielded, and uses President Ronald Reagan as fodder and example. The Gipper sweats over the challenges, but also is seen as Elmer Fudd-like incompetent and too cavalier with the responsibilities entrusted to him. The consequences are enormous.

So many other things, including political points, are made in the video, that it is a stretch the song meant all its depiction does. Celebrities in puppet form might be a satire on We Are The World efforts at humanitarian assistance. Are modern politicians and celebrities alike in some respects? The band members are parodied, too, as regular folk. Perhaps the video is zooming out from blaming politicians for world problems, to pointing the finger at us.

Now, since the lyrics suggest we need Superman to save us, a land of confusion seems a permanent state.

Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Ethiopia experienced famine in the mid-1980s. Artists Bob Geldof (of “Live Aid”) and Midge Ure (of… Ultravox), penned this fundraising anthem. Rock royalty of the time came around to sing the lyrics.

It is an interesting debate as to what causes famine. We’d quickly go to environmental causes, such as drought, but are people to blame (overpopulation), and/or governments through policy? Too, many deaths in Ethiopia around this time were related to human rights abuses, not starvation.

And then, what happens to the foreign assistance such as from Band Aid? A great portion of the donations went to food that rotted, and funds also went to weapons for a group seeking to overthrow the Ethiopian government of the day. This was very disappointing. Yet Band Aid still had an unintended consequence of highlighting to citizens of the world the need to evaluate foreign aid’s methods and efficacy.

Below The Line – Josh Groban

Operatic pop singer Josh Groban aims his vocal chords at the world’s poorest this year. The smooth arrangement and measured crooning in this 2013 number probably contradicts the hardscrabble, dirty and chaotic lives of those that somehow subsist on less than $2 per day.

The song title references an event, Live Below The Line. Living below the line is about the extreme poverty measure of $1.50 per day. This was actually $1.25 as set by the World Bank, but perhaps has been increased to reflect inflation over the years. Anyway, concerned citizens along with celebrities attempt to temporarily live on this amount to raise funds and awareness for global poverty efforts.

The leading nongovernmental organization working at extreme poverty reduction is the World Bank. Essentially, it is like a bank that since 1944, collects aid donated by governments to distribute to the poorest countries. As these are often in the form of loans, this has been criticized, since loans must typically be repaid. The World Bank still has other programs such as grants. A stronger World Bank criticism is its focus on economic liberalization/free market reforms that assume and impose methods of economic development that are Western-based and may not work in poor countries with different histories, cultures and goals. Still, the World Bank remains the most influential and well-known international economic development institution.

Groban’s Live Below the Line Page