The Heartbreaking Bad Faith of Roger Waters

The Heartbreaking Bad Faith of Roger Waters

The older, richer, more cynical dog offered counsel to the younger, greener, more idealistic dog, and I sat in my car and listened and heard the words of every adult I knew in that senior dog, and I knew I was the younger dog. I dreaded becoming his jaded, hopeless counterpart, fearing it was inevitable.

I was 20, a junior in college, working freelance jobs for local newspapers both for journalistic experience and for a little cash to take my girlfriend to TGI Friday’s on the weekend. Emerging from the fog of respectability politics – I was done with splitting my political reading between centrist liberals and hard-right conservatives – I had recently become infatuated with the writings of Karl Marx, though I dare not tell anyone.

This was 2003. Declaring oneself a socialist would draw fury from conservatives and polite laughs and pats on the head from liberals. Socialism was not cool. The neoliberal order had not yet collapsed; there was no political oxygen for the socialist politics that would bull its way into the American mainstream with Bernie Sanders’ presidential run 13 years later. Maybe I didn’t know if I was a socialist, that I rejected the deranged foundational elements and inhumane incentives of capitalism, the greatest horror to ever be thrust upon humankind. Maybe this was just a phase and I was a run-of-the-mill lib, like my well-meaning friends.

But damn, those dogs were making some good points.

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Pink Floyd’s 1976 album, Animals, blared in my old clunker of a car. The album’s second track, Dogs, a highly ambitious 17-minute song created in the dying days of navel-gazing 60s style progressive rock, had Roger Waters – Floyd’s lead man for eight years at that point – playing the part of two dogs on opposite ends of the career spectrum: A veteran of the business world, run ragged, barely containing his madness and paranoia, telling a dog new to business about what he must do to conquer his peers and superiors alike.

You must not sleep, you must dominate the meek, you must befriend those you will betray and replace, you must not trust anyone at anytime, and you must remember that all of these efforts – all of the pain you will cause yourself and others – will be for naught, for you – like me – will retire, move somewhere warm, and die of cancer at a ripe old age. You will be dragged down by the stone, Waters sings – a recurring theme in his songwriting.

After a lengthy Floyd riff, the younger dog rejects his older counterpart’s advice, determined to maintain his humanity, or doghood, or whatever – to “shake off the creeping malaise” of capital’s insane and hostile logic and to “find my way out of this maze.”

I too wanted desperately to push back against the malaise I felt settling in every day. I would soon work to live and live to work. Life would happen and I would work through it and one day, when the work was over, I could look back and regret my acceptance of the malaise. Waters’ lyrics – and the excellent Animals album – helped open my mind to the possibilities of a life not based on grinding work, but on creating and exploring, on curiosity and love and refusing to accept a life dedicated to making my pile of money higher than the next guy’s.

Roger Waters made me a socialist.

Waters himself has never declared himself a socialist. He was, as you might know if you too are a Floyd fan, unflinchingly critical of the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism, never making excuses for Actual Socialism. In his lyrical attacks on politicians, Waters frequently lumped communist leaders into condemned groups of western leaders whose lives were dedicated to destroying the concept of socialism itself. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with its surface-level theme of alienation, contains myriad criticisms of Soviet-era repression.

It was Waters’ overtly Marxist critique of the capitalist system in the Animals album that made me clear-eyed about the underlying mechanics of capitalism, its zero-sum nature, its need to grow at any cost, and the inherent misery of human beings trapped in such a system. Animals – along with other Pink Floyd works of the 60s, 70s, and 80s – will be important to me until I shove off to that great gig in the sky.

Until then, I suppose, I have to live with Roger Waters becoming one of the world’s most prominent bad-faith political actors, and a de facto proponent of Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine. I have to read about a man I idolized as a kid becoming a pathetic mouthpiece of tyrants he would have excoriated thirty or forty years ago.

Ole’ Roger logged on and could not log off, like so many well-meaning political minds of a previous generation whose views have been permanently warped by the chaos and the ocean of disinformation that has come to define the internet. Waters, whose politics could have once been defined as naively good faith, is now in lockstep with far-right bad-faith performance artists like Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson and Ben Shaprio.

It breaks my fucking heart.

Good And Bad Things Are Exactly The Same

A fascist reality TV star had just won the presidency and my wife and I found ourselves at a Roger Waters concert in Washington, D.C., where he had arranged his familiar show -- The Wall -- to fit the aftermath of 2016’s political and cultural convulsion that seemed to have toppled the United States government. Ninety days after Trump’s victory, after he appeared stunned and ashen, taking a tour of the White House with a thousand-yard stare following an election he did not intend to win, my wife and I were still dazed. We had cried a lot over those three months, unable to understand what happened or what would come next, wondering if we had seen the last free and fair election in the country’s history. We feared for our newborn daughter, who would surely grow up less free than her mother after Trump reshaped the federal judiciary and repealed much of the 20th century.

We were in a dark fucking place. And Waters’ show proved cathartic, arranging The Wall’s themes of resistance and hope to speak to a crowd of Floyd fans who could not comprehend how shit had gone so sideways so quickly. Pink Floyd’s familiar giant pig – representing the “evil of errant government,” according to Waters – flew overhead with Trump’s whiny voice intermingled with the band’s guitars and drums and synths, and of course, Waters’ bass guitar. A picture of Trump appeared on a giant screen behind the band, awash in blood, his grim face wiped away again and again. Above the stage: A screaming neon sign pleading with any god who would listen to Save Us From This Dystopian Nightmare.

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Roger Waters has had no problem with identifying and calling out evil over his fifty-seven years of music making. In 1983’s The Final Cut, Waters raged at politicians who had eviscerated the middle class throughout the western world and launched war upon war of capitalist plunder. His words seethed with anger; you can hear Water sing through gritted teeth in the more emotionally-charged parts of The Final Cut. In one memorable Final Cut scene, Water gathers all the world’s most prominent leaders – including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, “colonial wasters of life and limb” – and gasses them to death.

His fury and hatred for those who commit atrocities and perpetuate injustice on an unfathomable scale has always been clear and animated his music, in 1983, 1963, and into the 2000s, when he spared no niceties in opposing the unconscionable U.S. war against Iraq. While actors and musicians were losing jobs and industry status with any shred of criticism about the invasion of Iraq, Waters released a pair of anti-war songs, attacking George W. Bush and Tony Blair, whose allyship with Bush made the war possible. Waters was brave in the face of a near-total shutdown of dissent against the Iraq war amid a fear-sick public still raw from the horrors of 9/11. He did what he had been doing for thirty years at that point: Spoke out against war.

Waters over the past four decades has frequently and viciously been smeared as an antisemite due to his unwavering support for the Palestinian people and his clear-eyed, often blunt criticism of Israel’s illegal land seizures in Gaza and the country’s massacres of Palestinian civilians. It’s a stance that has gotten him banned from playing in Germany. He has never, however, dealt in ugly Jewish stereotypes; Waters has centered his outrage on inhumane Israeli policy toward Palestinians and their right to land and self determination. Equating reasonable critiques of the Israeli government with antisemitism is, of course, a difficult-to-decipher form of bad faith that lazily groups left-wing advocates for Palestinian sovereignty with right wingers who deal in the hideous hatred of Jewish people the world over.

Whatever your view of Waters and his politics, they remained consistent for his entire adult life. Until Putin threw untrained Russian soldiers into the meat grinder of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Waters’ reaction to Russia’s invasion – cheered on by the most odious sectors of the American right that have long adored Putin and other autocrats – was what you might expect from an artist who has for half a century lambasted any nation that invades another: He called Putin’s aggression “the act of a gangster.” And he was right.

But wait, there’s more.

I recall reading Waters’ whole statement at the outset of the war and knowing full well the circuitous bad-faith path he would travel in the coming months and years – one that would lead him to apologizing for or even supporting Putin, perhaps the most blatantly evil human alive today.

“It is a criminal mistake in my opinion, the act of a gangster. There must be an immediate ceasefire. I regret that Western governments are fueling the fire that will destroy your beautiful country by pouring arms into Ukraine, instead of engaging in the diplomacy that will be necessary to stop the slaughter. I will do anything I can to help effect the end of this awful war in your country, anything that is except wave a flag to encourage the slaughter. That is what the gangsters want, they want us to wave flags. That is how they divide and control us, by encouraging the waving of flags, to create a smokescreen of enmity to blind us to our innate capacity to empathize with one another, while they plunder and rape our fragile planet.”

Waters had carefully laid the foundation for eventually, after so many weeks or months of bloodshed in Ukraine, claiming everyone was equally at fault. His statement at the outset of the war, preemptively condemning western nations for supporting Ukraine in its fight to maintain sovereignty, was designed to one day say the invaders and the invaded bear the same responsibility. Good and bad things, as Dril might say, are actually the same, you imbecile, you fucking moron. I suppose it isn’t entirely surprising since Waters offered some light Putin apologia in 2014, when Russia ransacked Crimea in one of its many imperialist misadventures.

If you’re wondering, Waters did not blame Iraqis for the U.S. invasion of their country, and he did not chastise Middle Eastern governments and insurgent groups pouring resources into the grueling guerrilla war against the invading hordes of Americans. Waters put the onus where it belonged: On the aggressors, on those who lied their way into war, on those salivating at the prospect of landing government war contracts and turning Iraq into a U.S. satellite state from which it could control Middle Eastern politics and energy resources (oil).

For some reason, in the fight between Ukraine and Russia, Waters cannot (or will not) apply the same logic. In this way, the man who penned some of the most eloquent and widely-heard anti-war lyrics of the 20th century has sided with the aggressor.

The Bad Faith Reaches Comical Levels

Russian troops have massacred untold thousands of Ukrainian civilians, they’ve committed well-documented war crimes, they have knocked out power during the coldest months of the year and left Ukrainians to die in frigid temperatures, and they have kidnapped more than 16,000 Ukrainian children and brought them back to Russia for re-education. Russia, in short, is committing genocide. This is not a conspiracy. It is a fact – one for which Roger Waters is unconcerned.

Waters, meanwhile, has taken every opportunity to question the civilian death toll in Ukraine and blame Volodymyr Zelensky for refusing to negotiate a peace with the maniacal autocrat sending ground troops and mercenaries into his country.

Roger Waters has never been a fan of genocide. He’s saved his strongest condemnations for nations and militaries that attempt to wipe out an entire people. And yet, a year into Russia’s war against Ukraine and all Waters can talk about is Joe Biden, who, according to Waters, could "end the war tomorrow."

“Is Putin a bigger gangster than Biden and all those in charge of American politics since WWII?” Water said in early February. “I am not so sure. Putin didn’t invade Vietnam or Iraq? Did he?”

Great point, Rog. No, Putin did not invade Vietnam or Iraq. That must make him a good guy. He didn’t drop nukes on Japan either, or turn dogs and fire hoses on black folks fighting for basic civil rights, or put immigrant children in cages at the U.S. southern border. He didn't write the final two seasons of Game of Thrones either. Putin was not involved in any of these evils, yet you say he’s a bad guy. Curious!

This game is easy. I see why bad-faith political actors play it so often.

Like many today who claim to be anti-war while refusing to criticize the warmongers, Waters has deployed the well-worn argument – used by Putin in the lead up to war – that Ukraine must be de-nazified. The bad-faith anti-war movement has correctly identified sectors of the Ukrainian military sympathetic to the nazi cause, some of whom have nazi tattoos. This has been skillfully used to equate the two sides and lend credence to the laughable notion that Putin stays up at night worrying about naziism in former Soviet states. A dictatorial bully who has killed his opponents for two decades, crushed LGBTQ and minority rights into dust, endorsed the most insane and dangerous factions of Russian Orthodoxy, and criminalized all dissent is naturally concerned about the spread of fascism in eastern Europe. This is what we are to believe. This is the bad faith we’re expected to swallow.

Waters over the past year has written and received letters from a Ukrainian teenager who has repeatedly pushed back on Waters’ assertion that Ukraine (with its Jewish president) is crawling with and perhaps controlled by nazis. He blithely dismissed the teen’s observations from within Ukraine and told the press about it. “I’m sorry, but you are wrong about that,” he wrote in a letter. “How can you live in Ukraine and not know?”

Waters’ sudden inconsistencies on his views of imperialism aren’t isolated to Russia. The man who made an excellent solo album in 1992 containing explicit support for Taiwan as a sovereign nation told CNN in August 2022 that Taiwan belonged to China and always has (it hasn’t). When challenged on his backing of Chinese imperialism, he urged the CNN interviewer to “read more” – the perfect rebuttal for a terminally online baby boomer. It’s possible, I guess, that folks like Waters are ready for another nation to establish global hegemony in a post-US superpower world. The whole America-as-world-dominator thing hasn’t worked out, so let’s let someone else take a crack at it. Trying to get into Waters’ head is neither easy nor comfortable. It requires an abandonment of principle and a truckload of bad faith.

Acknowledging Waters' embrace of bad-faith bothsidesism isn't easy for me. For a year now, I've struggled to square the fierce lover of justice of the 1960s and 70s and 80s with the slippery autocrat apologist of the 2020s. An internet connection can be a terrible thing, as the fracturing of reality into a trillion indecipherable puzzle pieces has left us without an agreed-upon reality. Putin might be bad; he might be good. The war in Ukraine might be produced on a soundstage in Hollywood. Who's to say?

My pet theory is that there are elements of the left who have been so disgusted for so long by the brutality and deadly success of U.S. imperialism that they are willing to excuse other nations’ imperialistic ambitions or simply fail to see any imperialism outside the American kind. That Putin and his top officials talk openly of expanding the Russian empire and taking back what was theirs before the fall of the USSR doesn’t seem to bother bad-faith leftists like Waters. In their criticism of western countries arming Ukraine’s military, these people do not address Russia’s clear and present imperialist aims, instead pointing to western nations supposedly provoking Putin into war with Ukraine. He had no choice, they say. We are to believe that Putin, who has been murdering and imprisoning journalists and left-wing activists since he took over as Russian dictator in 2000, is a peace loving man who did not want to wage war against his neighbor.

It all sounds similar to so-called post-left folks who say transgender rights forced them to support Trump or whichever “based” politician comes along and talks a good enough populist game to provide necessary cover for the bad-faith post-left contingent. You forced me to become a fascist, they cry out, bad faith leaking from their ears. I’m not bad, they say, but you made me bad.

In fact, they were always bad. It just took a while for them to come to grips with it. Roger Waters is a bad guy. And that's heartbreaking.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.