World Leader Pretend

Posted: Jun 30, 2014 12:01 AM

Dear Michael (Stipe):

You don't know me but I feel like I know you because I know your music so well. Back in the '80s, R.E.M. was easily my favorite band. In fact, in 1989 I joined a band that played a lot of your music. The job financed my PhD and made it possible for me to become a college professor. Naturally, I thank you for writing those songs. Your music inspired me and countless others.

Just last week, I ordered a copy of the 25th Anniversary reissue (released in 2013) of your 1988 album Green. I listened to it twice in one afternoon and reflected back on the time period when you and I shared a similar worldview. The song "World Leader Pretend" brought back vivid memories of what I now consider to be a glorious time in our nation's history. I've reprinted the lyrics of the song below and made some comments about how history has shed new light on your now 26-year old observations:

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it's all, it's all for nothing
I know the barricades
And I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I've used them well

When I first heard the opening verse of this song, I was thrilled. I was a member of the Democratic Party and a supporter of Michael Dukakis. Your album was released around the time of the 1988 election and I recognized it as a scathing indictment of the Reagan Administration as well as a dire warning that we could not continue with Reagan's foreign policy by electing George Bush to what would amount to a third Reagan term.

This is my mistake
Let me make it good
I raised the wall
And I will be the one to knock it down

I was never exactly sure what every line in your songs was saying because I was almost always intoxicated when listening to them. However, I always sensed that this verse was a reference to alleged deleterious effects of Reagan's policies on our image around the world. I also thought it was a call to repair that image by electing Dukakis - and, believe me, I was on board with the plan. I voted for him proudly - even though I knew he would lose by a wide margin.

I've a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I proclaim that claims are left unstated
I demand a rematch

It appeared to me then, as it does now, that your principal complaint with Reagan was the military buildup of the 1980s. This particular paragraph also seemed to contain a barb against the much maligned SDI missile defense system that was derisively referred to as the "Star Wars" program.

I decree a stalemate
I divine my deeper motives
I recognize the weapons
I've practiced them well
I fitted them myself

Part of the genius of this song is that it juxtaposes two interesting themes. The first is criticism of Reagan for fancying himself to be the leader of the entire world. The next is that of you imagining yourself to be the leader of the entire world and also declaring how you would do things differently. There are religious overtones attached to each idea. Reagan is seen as a religious crusader who equates his own motives with the will of God. But your humanist solution to the Reagan build-up was a crusade of a different sort - no less religious in nature.

It's amazing what devices you can sympathize
This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall
And I will be the one to knock it down

The wall imagery was the most fascinating aspect of your writing in this song. At times, it sounds like you are referring to a metaphorical wall erected by Reagan foreign policy. But at other times it seems as if you are referring an actual wall. I'll come back to the actual will later in my commentary.

Reach out for me
Hold me tight
Hold that memory
Let my machine talk to me
Let my machine talk to me

I have no idea what this verse is saying. I got off drugs back in 1991.I'll just move on to the next verse.

This is my world, and I am the World Leader Pretend
This is my life, and this is my time
I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit
Its high time I razed the walls that I've constructed

In this verse it seems clear that you are referring to metaphorical walls. It is also clear that you are referring to nuclear disarmament as a way of repairing the damage inflicted by the Reagan administration on the rest of the world. The transition from "raising walls" and "razing walls" is clever wordplay, indeed.

It's amazing what devices you can sympathize
This is my mistake, let me make it good
I raised the wall
And I will be the one to knock it down

The only question I have when I read this verse repeat is whether you really think that just one man, positioned as a world leader, can knock down walls (real or metaphorical) on his own. The next verse seems to supply an answer.

You fill in the mortar
You fill in the harmony
You fill in the mortar
I raised the wall
And I'm the only one
I will be the one to knock it down

As you know, Michael Dukakis, was not elected in 1988. Instead, George Bush was elected. Consequently, Reagan's basic foreign policy continued. And just one year later something very interesting happened. A wall fell down. It wasn't a metaphorical wall. It was a real wall that separated East and West Berlin. It was a testament to a failed view of the world.

As I look back on those days of being a leftist atheist and listening to R.E.M. in a drunken and drug- induced stupor, I realize just how truly lost and naive I was. I hated my own country and I sympathized with our enemies. I also imagined a new world order that had its basis in the worship of humanity, not in the worship of God.

Historical events have led me to conclude that my view of the world was wrong. But how about you, Michael? Have you ever considered changing your view of the world now that history has spoken and the Cold War ended through strength, rather than unilateral disarmament?

In other words, is your view of the world one that is based in reality? Or is it only make believe?