Songs w/ Substance #9 – Nick Lowe – “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) – Peace, Love, and Understanding?”


I was watching an episode of “The Great” the other night on Hulu—an “anti-historical” dramedy loosely based on the rise and reign of Catherine the Great of Russia.  It’s a great show.  And while sometimes I’m annoyed of what I believe to be unnecessary creative liberties in regards to the actual historical narrative, the series does tell a story that’s both fun and educational, and strikes a masterful balance between the comical and the captivating.  At the end of this particular episode, Catherine (played by Elle Fanning) is despondently staring out one of her palace windows at what looks to be a forest fire, but what viewers know is the burning of a serf village (serfs included!) that was suffering from an outbreak of smallpox.   This burning was ordered by Catherine’s despotic emperor husband, who rather than testing Catherine’s “enlightened” solution of variolation, decided to murder an entire village (classic antivaxxer behavior).  The scene concludes with Catherine’s tear-filled eyes “searching for light in the darkness of insanity” midst Sharon Van Etten’s cover of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” 

This cover by Van Etten and Queens of the Stone Age frontman, Josh Homme (I know, right?!?), was released in May of 2020 during the heart of the first COVID lockdowns.  The artists “wanted to share something universal…A feeling of home, safety, insecurities and love.  That we are all in this time together.  All of us, doing what we can to be our best—even during hard times.”  They certainly picked an apropos tune.

The original, of course, was written and performed by Nick Lowe (who makes a brief cameo in the above video), in 1974.  The song is a product of its time.  According to Lowe, the song started out as a kind of a joke—a 1970s post-mortem of the decade prior when “everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind.”  And it’s pretty easy to picture—the jaded, used-to-be Woodstocker mockingly laughing at the naivete of his dreamer buddy still clinging to the tie-dye, flower power, and “sweet harmony” of the 1960s, as Nixon resigns and Saigon falls.  But as the song began to materialize, Lowe realized that what was “originally supposed to be a joke song” had to be something more.  That “there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up.”

The genius of the song is its simplicity.  As Lowe said, “The one clever thing I did with that song was to not mess it up in the verses by making it too complicated. I thought to myself, This is a great title. Let the title do all the work for you.  He was right.

And despite its ironic idealism, the song is also relatable and true.  We’ve all “felt like this inside.”  We’ve all felt it “slippin’ away”.  We’ve all had moments where the world or our world seems to be a place solely defined by “pain, hatred, and misery.”  But like the song, the solution is simple.  The world is a complicated place, but it’s hard to imagine a problem that is immune to the medicine of “peace, love, and understanding.”  Three things we all want.  Three things we’re all capable of.  Three things that if universally embraced, really would make this world a better place to be in for the brief moments we’re here. 

And what’s so funny about that?

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P.S. Following the example of Van Etten and Homme, here’s my own home movie set to this song featuring a compilation of videos I made over the last two weeks while stay-at-home-dad-ing and starring my beautiful daughter, Lenin.

P.P.S. I cannot conclude this blog without sharing the cover that made the song famous. Take it away, Elvis:

Education, History, Race, USA

What Critical Race Theory looks like in my Social Studies classroom

One of the last units of study in the high school U.S. History course I taught this year was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  This unit functions as somewhat of a culmination of our study of the racial/racist history of the United States—a study that includes the colonization/extermination of indigenous peoples, the importation of the first black slaves, the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention, the growth of that institution through territorial expansion, the Civil War that abolished it, the system of Jim Crow that replaced it, and all the other ways that race and racism have manifested themselves as important historical phenomena in this country’s history. 

Our study of the Civil Rights Movement focuses predominately on the non-violent protests of those decades that lead to both concrete judicial and legislative victories as well as sweeping changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans.  However, my students and I conclude the unit by confronting a sobering reality: The Civil Rights Movement made significant progress, but it also left a lot of unfinished business. 

To illustrate this point, we read an article that enumerates the significant racial disparities that still exist today, particularly in regards to economics and education.  These disparities are not ideological inventions.  They are measurable and objective facts, and as I say to the kids, there are two ways to explain them. 

Explanation #1: The racial inequality that still exists today exists because there is something wrong with black people.  There is something about their race or their culture that prevents them from achieving educationally or economically at the same level as whites. The problem with this explanation is that it is literally racist.  It literally ascribes to black people some sort of shortcoming or inferiority that is rooted in the color of their skin.  Luckily, for those who believe in the inherent equality and potentiality of all human beings regardless of skin color—who believe that, everything else equal, black people, white people, and people of any race or color would all succeed and struggle at roughly the same rates—there is another explanation. 

Explanation #2:  The racial inequality that still exists today exists as a result of the historical and/or modern-day societal forces that produced it.  The racial disparities that exist in our country are not and have never been “natural”.  They were intentionally manufactured by a country literally founded on the idea of white supremacy—an idea that was built up and fortified over centuries through the history outlined above.  And while achievements during and since the Civil Rights Movement have dealt great blows to the system of white supremacy, we still very much live with that system’s legacy, and live with a current system that, despite many well-intentioned actors, continues to produce racist results. 

The above paragraph is a great representation of what Critical Race Theory looks like in practice—seeking to explain how structures and systems work to produce the racial inequities that have existed throughout history and that continue to exist today.  It also shines a light on the absurdity of one of the primary attacks levied against Critical Race Theory by its opponents: That it teaches white students that they are all a bunch of racists. 

In my classroom, this could not be further from the truth.  I don’t teach my white students that they are perpetrators of racism any more than I teach my students of color that they need to feel like victims.  Instead, I am trying to help all of my students understand the systemic nature of why people of color—particularly blacks—are more likely to live in poverty, to struggle in school, and to be incarcerated than people who are white.  As writer and researcher Clint Smith said:

“Critical Race Theory is not…thinking about an individual and their relationship to race or racism or their own relationship to their skin, necessarily.  It’s not concerned with what’s in their heart or their interiority.  What it is asking of us is to recognize the ways that racism has shaped what…the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like.   To understand that the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way is not because of the people in those communities, but it is because largely of what has been done to those communities—the resources that have been given or taken away from those communities generation after generation after generation.”

In this sense, an understanding of Critical Race Theory can actually be quite liberating for the not-racist individual.  It can help not-racist cops and judges understand how they can be part of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black people.  It can help not-racist elected representatives and government officials understand how they can be part of a political system whose policies and legislation perpetuate racial inequities.  And it can help not-racist teachers (like me!) understand how they can be part of an educational system that continues to underserve its black students.  Critical Race Theory does not assume our complicity as individuals in any of the racist results that these systems produce.  It does, however, beg the question of what we as individuals and as a larger society should do about it. 

To answer this question, I have my students participate in a Socratic Seminar in which we discuss potential solutions.  The beliefs and attitudes shared by students run the ideological gamut, but they all start with an acknowledgement of the problem—an acknowledgement that racial disparities are a fact of history in this country, and they continue to exist today. 

And while opponents of Critical Race Theory often label it as inherently ideological or a form of indoctrination, acknowledging racial disparities is not an ideological act, no more than it is ideological to acknowledge that George Washington was our country’s first president or that World War II happened.  Acknowledging racial disparities—both historical and modern—is simply a recognition of an objective reality.  

Which is probably why I have never thought of myself as a teacher explicitly teaching Critical Race Theory.  It was part of my graduate school training, and definitely informed my philosophy in regards to the teaching of history, but it is not something I have actively or consciously considered since my official arrival to the classroom, and certainly has not been a term that I’ve used or shared with students.  That’s because to teach Critical Race Theory is simply to teach history and the role that race has played in shaping how individuals and groups have experienced this country in the past and in the present. 

I will concede that it’s not difficult for me to imagine unproductive attempts at teaching Critical Race Theory and teaching about race in general.  Not all teachers are currently equipped to tackle and teach a topic that requires so much knowledge and so much nuance.  I know I have been to plenty of social justice workshops and trainings myself that have not been done well or at times left me rolling my eyes.  But all that means is that we should continue to have conversations about how to best carry out this work, not if we should carry it out.  I also don’t think that school districts should run from the terminology.  Critical Race Theory is something that students should be learning in their Social Studies classrooms, and school districts should demonstrate both a commitment to equity and a backbone and stand by that. 

I’ve always told my students that in order to change the world, you first need to understand where that world comes from.  History gives us that understanding.  It teaches us that the world that we were born into did not fall from the sky—that the present that we inhabit is a product of the past.  This is true about every modern-day phenomenon that you can imagine, and race is no exception. 

Critical Race Theory provides students of all races with knowledge that is essential in understanding the legacy of racism that still lives and breathes in the United States today.  Critical Race Theory helps students to cultivate a true sense of patriotism that recognizes the country for both its virtues and its flaws, and sees criticism of those flaws as something that comes from a place of love that challenges the country to be better.  These are the reasons that I will continue to make Critical Race Theory an essential component of what I do in my Social Studies classroom, and I won’t apologize for doing so.  And if you’re a teacher teaching Critical Race Theory in your classroom, you shouldn’t either. 

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