Today I renewed my annual subscription to Amnesty International. I do this because it’s one small way I can be part of the push back against unaccountable power and the trampling of human rights in the world today.
I cannot claim to have been a lifetime fan or follower of Joan Baez. Not in the way I kept up with Bob Dylan over the decades since I heard him first in 1969 when I was 13. There’s the issue for me. Dylan’s songs are best sung by Dylan. Why listen to others singing them? Baez sang a lot of Dylan. That was the casually uninformed view I picked up in my teenage years, and so Joan Baez’s music never was embedded in my formative experiences of musical discovery.
There was one exception though. I have possessed, in its original vinyl and cover, her album Come from the Shadows since the mid-70s. I don’t recall whether I was given it or sought it out. It made a profound impression. Certainly I recall it rarely strayed far from the turntable in my early student years 74 -77. Baez’s voice is unique and beautiful for sure, and listening to this album I appreciated it, but it was the social justice message of the songs which really hit me. “All the weary mothers of the earth” is a lyric which became one of my lifetime earworms, even during the two decades before Spotify and the vinyl revival, when the record player and vinyl albums languished in the loft.
Earlier this week I found myself reading Elizabeth Thomson’s paen to Joan Baez: Joan Baez The Last Leaf. It was the first full day of the presidency of Joe Biden. He, of course, is an exact contemporary of Baez, only a year or two younger than her.
So here I was reading a book written for Baez’s retirement from her professional career, not unreasonably at almost 80 years old, on the day Biden was entering the pinnacle and greatest challenge of his. Singer and politician are very different careers, as Bob Dylan’s story shows. So there might not generally be any cause for comment, except as this book sets out to make very clear, Baez, whilst a musician to her core, has always been more than that.
Not ever a holder of political office, she became both an active and an iconic leader nonetheless, in the groundswell for global social justice and human rights which began to rise in the 1960s.
More than a singer of protest songs, Baez both founded and funded charities and campaigns dedicated to a vision of a better social compact and world order, in particular based on principles of non- violence she had found in her family connection with the Quakers and her friendship with Martin Luther King. Without subordinating musical integrity to political messaging, Thomson argues, Baez placed her musical gifts , her celebrated fame as a performer, and her money in the service of the cause of global justice. Amnesty International’s growth in the US owes much to Joan Baez.
Notwithstanding Reagan/Thatcher and all that has followed of rampant neoliberal capitalism and the reactionary Right, reaching its noxious apogee, really a nadir, in Trump, the star of social justice has continued to rise. It is the true and only voice of the future, if human species self-destruction is to be averted. With the election of Biden and Harris this week that star shines again.
The poetic voice of social justice has been handed on rightly to the young generation, the likes of the astonishingly talented Amanda Gorman.
Admitting openly her unabashed admiration for Joan Baez as an artist and as a human being, Thomson wants to set on record the true wonder and power of Baez’s life work. Her book has done that for me. It has made me a little regretful that I forgot somehow to keep listening to Baez in the decades I deserted her work. Perhaps too it has been a wake-up call to me, and can be for all who hunger and thirst for justice, not to lose faith, especially now, that “we shall overcome”.
Check out the book Goodreads: Joan Baez: The Last Leaf https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55103476-joan-baez
Here’s a useful round- up from The Conversation of recent hopeful developments in the UK for investigative and local journalism.
I’ve been following the progress of two boats of human rights campaigners which sailed into Gaza yesterday unmolested by Israeli security. The Free Gaza movement organised the voyage to break the Israeli blockade. SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty made the 350 mile journey from Cyprus, despite determined efforts by Israeli government spokespeople to deter them with threats of intervention. Amongst those onboard was journalist Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of Tony Blair. Whilst primarily a human rights action to draw attetnion to the injustice of the Israeli stanglehold on Gaza, the boats also carried humanitarian aid for the people of the territory who are facing severe shortages of essential supplies. Included in the cargo were hundreds of hearing aids for children whose hearing has been damaged by the Israeli practice of flying jets over the population to saturate them with sonic booms.
Paul Larudee, co-founder of the Free Gaza movement said:
“We’re the first ones in 41 years to enter Gaza freely – but we won’t be the last. We welcome the world to join us and see what we’re seeing.”
The case of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir of Nottingham University is a clear example of why the powers to detain people without charge under the Terrorism Act should not be extended to 42 days; in fact, the time should be reduced. The Government says that the new powers will only be used in exceptional cases; but the situation for Hicham and Rizwaan was not exceptional. They were going about their normal daily work of study and research at the university, doing nothing illegal, when suddenly they were incarcerated without the chance to explain themselves and held without charge for six days. For Hicham Yezza the situation was then complicated by confusion over his immigration status which has resulted in his further detention at immigration holding centres, with a threat of immediate deportation within a week; a threat only stayed by the intervention of lawyers who have obtained for him the right to a proper hearing.
Hicham is a respected member of the University and local community; holds a doctorate from the University and is currently an employee there; he has lived, studied and worked in Britain for 13 years and has a settled personal and social life in Nottingham. You can’t help thinking his only “crime” was to be a Muslim and a foreign-born.
The new laws and powers, and their ongoing extension, are creating a culture of fear and suspicion in our country. The right to liberty, to be free from arbitary arrest by the authorities, to be considered innocent until proven guilty – all of these ancient rights which we have taken for granted are part of what makes ours a civilised and democratic country – and which our grandparents’ generation defended with their lives in the Second World War, are being swept away by a government in a state of moral panic.
How can we believe the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary when they tell us these additional powers are necessary? This is the same government that told us the bombardment and invasion of Iraq was necessary because of the weapons of mass destruction which we were assured remained a clear and present danger.
I read with growing horror about the fate of Hicham Yezza; a member of staff at Nottingham University (in which I’m a Master of Theolgy). Hich was arrested last week, together with a student doing a Masters on political Islam, for downloading the Al Quaeda training manual which is publicly available for academics on a US government website. Both men were held six days without charge before being released. BUT Hich was re-arrested days later in connection with his immigration status and he is now being held in a detention centre and due to be sent back to Algeria on 1st June. Hich has been in the UK for 13 years. He is a well-respected member of the local community and employee of the University. Some reports suggest that university authorities were less than unequivocal in their support of Mr Yezza and the student arrested with him. A public reading of the research material and demonstration is planned by academics and students for tomorrow to protest at the assault on academic freedom and call for the immediate release of this innocent man.
What kind of coutry are we now living in where innocent people can be arbitrarily arrested and treated as guilty until proven innocent? ‘It is only necessary that good men do nothing for evil to triumph’ R W Emerson.
Read more on the website http://freehichamyezza.wordpress.com/