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Pied Piper?
Neil Young Takes On Starbucks

By Robb Scott

My brother John and his wife, Linda, visited in our home a few days before Christmas. While John and I (mostly John, for he is a really efficient thinking man's chef) were working on a roasted chicken dinner with dressing and corn on the cob, we listened to Neil Young's newest album, "Storytone."

As usual with a Neil Young album, by the second time through all the songs it was sounding pretty darn good. I was listening to his new music in the context of a recent Howard Stern interview with Young from October, where the musician explains his evolution as a guitar player, singer, composer, and human being.

The first time I heard Neil Young was at my cousins' home on an early Sunday morning in 1975, the day after my folks had died in an airplane accident. One of my cousin Steve's 33 rpm album covers, "After the Gold Rush," caught my attention and I have always felt something like nostalgia whenever I've heard anything by Neil Young since that morning.

In 1989, the year I lived on my own in Tokyo, I got a chance to see a Neil Young concert in Shinjuku and was especially moved by the rendition of "Cortez the Killer" with which he opened his second set.

I also remember in the year 2007, when a friend invited me to see a Poco reunion concert in the old Opera House of Lawrence, Kansas, where the lead singer was someone who had played together with Neil Young in the old Buffalo Springfield band in the 1960s.

These are just a few of the moments through life when Neil Young and Neil Young inspired music has fired my soul. And perhaps all of this background can help to explain the quandary I found myself in as I was trying to express to John and Linda why I am hesitant to join Young's current boycott of Starbucks over the GMO labeling issue in Vermont.

Logically I see how the fact that Starbucks is affiliated with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has sued to prevent Vermont from requiring GMO products to be labeled, puts Starbucks on the wrong side of justice. And Starbucks has been disingenuous at best in trying to deny their involvement in the matter.

At work there is a Starbucks where I often get coffee and sometimes, like when a co-worker gave me a holiday gift card, I even splurge and drink one of their lattes. The people who serve the coffee at this particular Starbucks are people who know me by name, and it is always a pleasure to greet them.

I have a hard time reconciling this level of familiarity in a local context with the national and potentially global context of a boycott against Starbucks on the issue of GMO labeling.

The issues are not necessarily clarified by my memory of Neil Young's involvement in 2012 with the Global Poverty Project concert in Central Park, which my daughter attended. Especially poignant are my memories of her calling me across hundreds of miles from her cell phone to tell me that she and her friends were being treated roughly by bouncers who were using physical force to impose a rule against moving from one "holding pen" to another at this massive event (with massive crowd-control challenges).

When I contacted the leader of the event and chair of the Global Poverty Project, John Wilkerson, his answer was that "a transformational movement" simply could not be asked to focus on the experiences of individuals and families.

My daughter eventually was allowed to join friends in a nearby "pen" and ended up really enjoying Neil Young's long guitar solos which, in her words, sounded like "dinosaurs stomping around."

In trying to figure out my response to Neil Young's Starbucks boycott, I am completely setting aside any disappointment I felt five or six years ago when several friends and I had been looking forward to attending his concert in Kansas City, only to have Young cancel both the KC and Omaha events in order to talk to investors about his gasoline-efficient Lincoln Continental project in San Francisco. Our tickets, by the way, were never refunded.

Setting those disappointments aside, I am left with a real conflict between being a member of ones local community and understanding ones role in larger, more global contexts. Obviously, leaders of major social justice movements cannot be expected to be less human or more perfect in their integrity than millions and billions of those of us who purchase their music or otherwise consume their products.

The true challenge is to have your own integrity at a local level and to support larger causes that match and amplify what you are doing yourself in your own community setting. A key is not to look to national and international movements for direction in forming your own beliefs, values, and ideals. Instead, we need to come to our own conclusions based on real experiences -- including vitally important opportunities to travel and interact with people from outside our "comfort zone."

This means it really doesn't matter whether Neil Young has integrity or whether I like his music, if the question is how to respond to the GMO labeling issue. The key is to understand the issue itself and come to my own conclusions regarding how such a conflict between states' rights and free commerce ought to be resolved.

Story by Robb Scott

2014 ESL MiniConference Online

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