Last month, around the anniversary of the sinking in 1985 of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior and the death of crewmember Fernando Pereira, many New Zealand publications carried the story of a French spy involved in the operation.
She had infiltrated Greenpeace, which was involved in protests against nuclear tests in the Pacific, and passed on information which was used to place mines on the ship’s hull. At the time France was one among many nations which saw nuclear weapons as an essential part of a state’s military scheme, and nuclear testing by many countries had been ongoing since the Second World War.
In New Zealand, Labour had come to power the previous year and one of its key policies was to make New Zealand nuclear free. Against a backdrop of agitation around the globe for nuclear disarmament, Labour leader David Lange took up an invitation to appear at the famous Oxford Union in March 1985 to argue for the moot, “Nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”. His speech, available online, is a rousing argument against the inherent inhumanity of nuclear weaponry and showcases his formidable intellect and wit.
New Zealand musician Tiki Taane took audio of Lange’s speech, and other audio samples, and used them in his track David Lange, You Da Bomb from his 2009 remix album Flux. The song is a slyly powerful indictment of nuclear weapons and of technological advance at the expense of peace and a celebration of wit, wordplay and oratory.
I normally like to hear a song before seeing its accompanying video so someone else’s visual representation of the music won’t cloud my own response, but in this case I’d recommend going straight to a fan-made video Taane has uploaded to his YouTube account and enjoy sound and image together.
The clip begins with the voice of the commander of a US warship which was in the Marshall Islands in 1952 to observe the first ever test of a hydrogen bomb. “Welcome aboard . . . we’ll soon see the largest explosion ever set off on the face of the earth . . . one of the most momentous events in the history of science. . . . We’re in the Thermonuclear Era.”
Taane’s careful selection of these extracts, over an edgy and driving drum and bass beat, points to an unhealthy lust for progress unmoored by ethics that has all too often been an aspect of the scientific endeavour. “I know you’ll join me in wishing this expedition well,” says the commander, but his voice segues into Lange saying forcefully, “Rejecting the logic of nuclear weapons does not mean surrendering to evil.” Lange is black and white in his view: the use of nuclear weapons is evil — no two ways about it — and he and his nation wanted no part of them. “Rejecting nuclear weapons is to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon.”
A bomb falls from an aeroplane (the massive bomb was in fact set up on land) and a countdown leads to still-shocking images of mushroom clouds: the atoll was obliterated in a three-mile wide fireball.
Footage and audio from anti-nuclear video and public service announcements is also included, along with a Vice Admiral’s assertion, “I am not an atomic playboy”, which Taane repeats several times to suggest that perhaps for some military leaders warfare like this might in fact be something of a game.
The extracts of Lange’s speech go on to assert that the rejection of nuclear weapons — the rejection of being guilt-tripped into being a part of a nuclear alliance — is not
cowardice on the part of the New Zealand people, but is in fact a reaction against “the moral position of totalitarianism which allows for no self-determination . . . exactly the evil we are supposed to be fighting against”.
The music fades out into noises of bomb blasts and images of explosions at around five and a half minutes before the audio comes back in unaccompanied for Lange’s immortal line to his opponent: “Hold your breath just for a moment — I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me.”
Not a mere gimmick or throwaway tune, Taane’s song is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work that remains relevant — for me, particularly in the way Lange addresses ideas of good and evil.
In this election year, as the politicking heats up, let’s pray for politicians who have a clear sense of good and evil, of morality and immorality, of the truth of who the human person is. Let’s go and talk to them in their offices, let them know what’s important to us, hold their feet to the fire.
Let’s do it with the same verve, wit, boldness and courage that Lange displayed in his speech and with the same energy and creativity Tike Taane used in his song.
Stand up, say our bishops in their 2017 Election Statement, “uphold the common good of our nation, choose wisely, and your vote will be a blessing for our nation”.