Why you should care
Because imagining a better world is easy if you try.
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By April 1, 1973, the world had witnessed quite a few rather bizarre publicity stunts from the former Beatle John Lennon and his wife, artist Yoko Ono. From the weeklong “Bed-In for Peace” they had staged on their honeymoon to Lennon’s conspicuous return of his MBE medal to Queen Elizabeth II as an act of protest against the Vietnam War, the couple had excelled at using their celebrity to draw attention to the issues that mattered most to them.
On this particular day, the reporters and photographers gathered in New York for yet another announcement from the most famous couple on the planet. Nobody knew quite what to expect, given that it was April Fools’ Day. Lennon and Ono did not disappoint: What came next was a birth announcement of sorts. Not of a child, but of a new country — a conceptual country with “no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.” The declaration of Nutopia — short for New Utopia — was part prank, part performance art, but also part of a shrewd strategy to open up a new front in Lennon’s ongoing immigration battle with the American government.
The peaceniks decided to return fire.…
Ever since Beatlemania first exploded in the early 1960s, Lennon had witnessed the power of music and celebrity to influence the wider culture. “The energy that was released by [the Beatles’] music was really very disruptive and very inspiring to a lot of people,” says Tim Riley, author of John Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music. “The Beatles very self-consciously were creating music as a way of making the world a better place.”
In the wake of his marriage to Ono, and the outbreak of war in Vietnam, Lennon’s efforts to influence culture and government policy took on a whole new tenor. Lennon and Ono — who moved to New York in 1971 — believed that peace could be visualized and even willed into existence through communal visualization. U.S. authorities, on the other hand, felt that Lennon’s outspoken opposition to the war would hinder efforts in Vietnam, and they were willing to do more than visualize the rock star’s departure from the country.
In March 1973, a New York judge granted the government’s request to force Lennon, who had only a visitor visa (Ono had a green card), to leave the country. They gave him 60 days to do so or face deportation. It was a bleak time for the anti-war movement. Richard Nixon had just been re-elected, and the living embodiment of the anti-war movement was being expelled. But Lennon and Ono decided to stay put, and the peaceniks decided to return fire with their own legal and PR battle.
Among the couple’s chief weaponry were celebrity, surprise and a fanatical devotion to the subversive. Ono had introduced Lennon to the world of modern art, including some of its bolder practitioners like the artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously made a urinal (called “Fountain”) into art. “Lennon just loves this toilet-in-the-museum idea. That’s a rock ’n roll move,” says Riley. “It has the same kind of subversive energy. Let’s just do the most outrageous thing and see how people respond.”
And so, a week after Lennon was ordered to leave the U.S., he and Ono called a press conference to display their own proverbial toilet. “We announce the birth of a conceptual country, Nutopia,” Lennon read to the reporters gathered. “Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of Nutopia.”
The declaration ended with trademark Lennon whimsy, requesting recognition for the country from the United Nations and asking for diplomatic immunity. Lennon and Ono waved the flag of their new country (a white tissue), which also had its own national anthem (three seconds of silence). Nutopia was about recognizing your common humanity and rejecting arbitrary labels like Black, white, Muslim, Buddhist, Japanese or British. Or, in Lennon’s case, “illegal immigrant.”
Lennon may have transformed himself into a real-life “Nowhere Man,” but his lawyers were busy arguing that he should be a bona fide U.S. resident, and that immigration authorities were singling him out unfairly for adverse treatment because of his anti-war views. Finally, in October 1975, an appeals court overturned Lennon’s deportation order. Beaten in the courts, and the court of public opinion, the U.S. government ceased its efforts to expel the rock star. “It’s great to be legal again,” Lennon happily informed reporters as he held up his new green card.
Nutopia may have had no land, no boundaries and, in the end, no permanency. But it was a true rock ’n’ roll move.