Monday, December 19, 2011

Citizen of the Planet

Quotable speakers from Socrates to Woodrow Wilson (also FDR and JFK) have said that they consider themselves "citizen[s] of the world." Generally, this expression means that one is an internationalist rather than an isolationist, that one can think in terms of one country's impact on the world instead of just focusing on matters inside one's own nation.

So we think we know what to expect when Simon begins his song: "I am a citizen of the planet." While "world" is often a geo-political term, "planet" tens to be favored by environmentalists (and of course astronomers), so we expect an oration on each person's duty to safeguard Mother Nature.

The next line seems to continue in this vein, but maybe not: "I am entitled by my birth/ To the treasures of the earth." OK, so each person is entitled to the "treasures of the earth," as in natural resources-- water, food, etc.-- right? And so next we are going to hear how in return, we owe the earth our stewardship or something.

Nope. "No one must be denied these [treasures]/ No one must be denied/ Easy dreams at the end of the day." This is not a song about, to paraphrase an above-mentioned president, "...ask what you can do for your planet," we now realize. This time it really is: "Ask what your planet can do for you."

As if to drive home the point, Simon uses an unexpected adjective: "At the end of a chain-smokin' day." So this is also not about remote tribes of Brazil being exploited by rainforest-destroying corporations. This is not a "hippie" song at all, even.

No, it is about the rights of even the "chain-smoking" factory and office workers, who fill the air with tobacco fumes and the ground with the discarded butts, being entitled to their slice of the planetary pie. This song is as much about work boot-wearers, and copy machine operators, and even their bosses in industrialized countries, as much as it is about sweatshop workers and refugees in "developing" countries.

Next comes a pair of rhetorical questions. The first seems to be about governmental fear-mongering and military saber-rattling: "Who am I to believe/ That the future we perceive/ Lies in danger and the dangers increase?" The second is about a more diplomatic option: "Who are we to demand/ That the leaders of the land/ Hear the voices of reason and peace?"

Who are we? We'll tell you who: "We are the citizens of the planet," that's who. And maybe we are afraid of the future, but not because of each other. Maybe we're afraid of our own leaders, the very people who need us to be afraid in order to control us. They are the true source of the "danger."

The final verse is also a pair of such questions. The first has two parts: "Who am I to deny/ What my eyes can clearly see / And raise a child with a flame in his heart?" First, we recognize Simon quoting himself, from "American Tune": "And high up above, my eyes can clearly see/ The Statue of Liberty..."

But then we have a question of our own. How can these two parts co-exist? They seem to be at odds. "Who am I to deny what my eyes can clearly see?" most likely means: "No, I can't deny what is so clear." I can't deny, in other words, the reality of what the above verses state-- we are being told to hate each other so our countries can stay at war and compete for resources, when we should really just share. So, I should not deny what I can clearly see.

The second part would be "Who am I to... raise a child with a flame in his heart?" The question is, what kind of "flame"? The Olympic runner's flame of light, which gathers all? Or the arsonist's flame of heat, which destroys and scatters all before it? The flame of compassion, we would hope. So, I should raise a child with a flame in his heart.

Now read the last two lines of the last two paragraphs again. The speaker seems to be saying, in one sentence, "Who am I to deny the obvious (which I should not do)... and raise a compassionate child (which I should)?" It can't be both.

So either he should deny the obvious (which makes little sense, both in general and from what we know of Simon's values, even stated elsewhere in this very song), or the "flame" in question is in fact the negative kind.

If this is the case, the lines mean: "Why would I deny that we are being sold a bill of goods about who the true 'enemy' is, and then sell it to my kid, myself?"

The last lines also need some untangling. Also a rhetorical question, they are: "Who are we to believe/ That these thoughts are so naive/ When we've all disagreed from the start?"

"Who are we to believe that these thoughts are naive?" implies that it takes bravery to believe they are naive. In fact, all those in favor or sharing resources, from Marx to, well, Lennon (in "The Communist Manifesto" and the song "Imagine," respectively) have been considered by many, if not most, world citizens to be very naive. It actually takes bravery to be a sharer.

Shouldn't it be something like: "Who are we to believe/ Dare we be so naive"? Because after all, those in favor of sharing tend to get shot and killed.

But isn't the whole point that we really don't need to "disagree"? That is, that we truly do agree? The song has already explained that we all are "citizens of the planet," and that we all need access to the same "treasures of the earth." So there isn't actually a problem, is there?

Except that not everyone sees this. Each side sees the other as "naive." Those who believe that there is enough for everyone, if we would just share it, feel that the hoarders of resources are being naive-- that they are needlessly willing to kill and die to defend, say, their wheat crop, when there is so much wheat that farmers are already paid not to grow it. Meanwhile, the hoarders think the sharers are naive, because after all, sharing only works if everyone does it... and not everyone does it.

In this sense, we have all "disagreed from the start"-- about whether to disagree or not! Some think we should not; some think we will anyway, or enough of us will, and so we need armies.

This simply worded song is actually very complex, but in the end simple in its message. Benjamin Franklin said, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, that the signers "must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Turns out, that goes for all "citizens of the planet." Now if only we could get rid of the rope altogether.

(This song was intended for "Hearts and Bones" and is now on the extended re-release.)

Next Song: Boy in the Bubble


  1. what a great job you're doing!
    thanks a lot!...and congratulations!
    very, very helpful to understand and perform
    better the work of paul simon

    (amateur)singer and s&g-fan ;-)

  2. Klaus-- Danke! I never thought I would be helping people play Paul Simon's music better, but I suppose if you understand it better, it could only help you play it. Best of luck and keep strumming.

  3. I couldn't untangle these lyrics for the life of me because they seemed so contradictory. Thanks for this!

  4. Emily-- Thanks! It did take me a while. The Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who was a contemporary of Jesus, said we have to do both: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" We have obligations to BOTH ourselves AND our fellow citizens of the planet, he says.