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

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Lou Reed – There Is No Time

Lou Reed doesn’t want you to rest on your laurels. The lyrics from this 1989 song are like a bullet list, rah-rah speech to get off your duff and do something. It’s not totally clear what you should get up to doing, so what do you care about?

Political apathy is a growing concern to many observers. This is that people are too busy working, shopping and playing to play a part in their democracy. Political participation is a requirement of democracy, and there is the worry that the less we get involved, the more likely government decisions can be made which do not accurately translate and represent the interests of the populace. Public policy then might only reflect the views and preferences of those that do participate, which more often than not tends to be an older, whiter and wealthier demographic.

Lou Reed – Last Great American Whale

Yes, he talked more than sang. But he had lots to say. Here, Reed seems to be using a whale to show how humans tend to recklessly destroy natural beauty, and even life. The song might veer into hating people as much as bemoaning what they do. It offers no hope for redemption – even when the whale fights back and liberates Native Americans, it is then shot dead by a redneck.

Reed suggests at the end this happens because of majority rule – the notion in a democracy that 50 percent plus one of votes/support carries the day. Yet what about when this simple majority are also full of simple people that don’t pay adequate attention to important concerns beyond their interests?

However, it is argued minority rights are still protected by other institutions and mechanisms, such as the law and constitutions, fair elections, a free press and the judicial branch.

Iggy Pop – I’m A Conservative

Online discussion speculates about punk pioneer Pop’s political views. He may have voted for Reagan, and later voted for Clinton. Perhaps he is thus non-partisan, or just confused. This song from 1980 likewise fails to coherently articulate what the ideology of conservatism is all about.

Well, like Iggy’s politics, conservatism is hard to pin down. The dominant writer, Edmund Burke, coined what the ideology might be, but scattered across many writings. And the ideology is considered a reaction against what might come in the future, with reverence for  the past. This means conservatism can be situational and geographically-dependent.

How does this relate to the song? The joke of it is that it is tough to be a conservative, because a life of privilege is challenging. Burke himself was not overly sympathetic to the values of democracy. He felt it is associated with chaos, mob rule and a tyranny of the majority. Instead, people sometimes need the wise guidance of a governing elite. Burke in a way was the conservative Iggy unwittingly lampooned.

Leonard Cohen – Democracy

Democracy is a process or technique for making collective, public decisions. It usually means majority rule, as a system of government in which everyone can have a say, but in practice, often the minority can’t have their way. In part (since the song allegedly has many verses not included) Cohen sings in 1992 about various groups in society that could be treated better, and with respect: the homeless, gays, minorities. In a democracy, we look to a constitution to protect their basic rights. Still, this is part of an observation the singer made at the time, with the end of the Cold War, of democracy spreading to Eastern Europe. Canadian Cohen seems to still ask,  yeah, but what is the health of democracy in the U.S.A.?