The former members of Pink Floyd have had a long-running and highly public feud ever since Roger Waters, the principal writer of the band’s best-known material, left the group in 1984. His former chief collaborator, lead guitarist David Gilmour, carried on using the band’s name, leading to bitter legal battles. Aside from a couple momentary reunions, the two showed no interest in burying the hatchet, let alone working together again.
Recently the feud exploded, going well beyond the confines of the band and bleeding into issues of geopolitics, war, and peace. On February 6, Gilmour’s wife, writer Polly Samson, tweeted, “Sadly @rogerwaters you are antisemitic to your rotten core. Also a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac. Enough of your nonsense.” Shortly after, Gilmour concurred, tweeting, “Every word demonstrably true.”
Samson’s tweet was a shocking, vitriolic series of epithets that paint Waters as a complete and total scumbag. This is no mere difference of opinion. Plenty of people disagree with Waters, but Samson apparently sees him as an irredeemable, worthless human being who contributes nothing but evil to the world.
It’s worth asking what brought her to this venomous string of insults. The personal stuff is difficult for anyone to knowledgeably comment on, but Waters does have a long record of public statements that can shed some light on where she got “Putin apologist” and “antisemitic.”
Roger Waters on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Waters has recently been vocal in his calls for a diplomatic resolution to the war in Ukraine. On February 8, he even addressed the United Nations on the matter. In his impassioned speech, Waters pleaded for an end to all wars, including the one in Ukraine. He also called for a reorientation of global priorities more broadly, speaking for the hungry, the cold, the sick, the oppressed, and the war-torn all the world over.
- “The invasion of Ukraine by The Russian Federation was illegal. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
- “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked, so I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms.”
- “The only sensible course of action today is to call for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.”
Parts of Waters’s speech have been cherrypicked to dismiss him as a pro-Putin propagandist. In particular, his characterization of Russia’s invasion as “provoked” has drawn the most flack.
Saying an attack was “provoked” is not the same as saying it was “justified.” For instance, wondering what provoked Polly Samson to say what she said about Roger Waters isn’t the same thing as justifying her words. Simply trying to understand another’s motivation isn’t apologia. When something happens, thoughtful people ask, “Why?” And in most cases, whether they be interpersonal matters or war and geopolitics, the answers are complex.
It would be convenient if the war in Ukraine was simply a case of irrational, bloodthirsty Russian barbarians waging a war of conquest and the heroic US and NATO sending arms to secure peace. That’s the narrative shared by most establishment media and political figures, and it’s predicated on the perfectly reasonable notion that the invading force is the bad guy.
But Waters acknowledging that the US and NATO have antagonized Russia, particularly around Ukraine, is not the same thing as absolving Putin or acting as his propagandist. Nor is it victim-blaming Ukrainians for their predicament. Waters believes the war in Ukraine is a proxy war, provoked by Western powers, at enormous cost to the Ukrainian people.
And he is calling for a diplomatic resolution before the situation erupts into a nuclear World War III. He’s implored the West, particularly President Biden, to stop fueling the war and inflaming the tensions by pouring money and arms into it. Agree with him or not, those calls for peace don’t sound like the things an unforgivable monster – like the kind Polly Samson depicted in her tweet – would say.
Even today, in concerts, Waters consistently confronts enormous crowds with challenging calls for racial justice, economic security, and peace. He doesn’t have to put himself out there the way he does. Pink Floyd is one of the biggest bands ever and he could easily coast on royalties and reputation. But he can’t help himself because he is passionate, and it does matter to him.
Roger Waters, the alleged antisemite
Samson’s other accusation, which Waters has contended with for years, is that he’s antisemitic. It’s a tough charge to shake, and one that outspoken critics of Israeli policy are often confronted with. Because Waters is forceful with his language, it sometimes comes across as overtly hostile. Critics of Israel must not conflate the state with the Jewish people themselves. By and large, Waters has always been on the right side of that line.
Waters condemns Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, labeling Israel an “apartheid state.” It sounds salacious, but virtually every international human rights organization, including Human Rights Watch, agrees with Waters. He also criticizes the influence of the Israeli lobby in Washington, which some say plays into antisemitic tropes. But Israeli defense lobbies do spend a lot of money in Washington, and Washington does, in turn, send billions of dollars to Israel every year, equipping them with one of the mightiest militaries in the Middle East.
The Anti-Defamation League’s page, Roger Waters In His Own Words, primarily uses Waters’s criticism of Israel and groups like AIPAC as evidence against him. Arguably the most damning thing, perhaps even explicitly antisemitic, was a video Waters played in 2010 concerts that depicted the Star of David and a dollar sign together, which he later stopped using.
A huge part of Waters’s identity comes from losing his father in World War II at the tender age of five months. Waters has been committed to fighting the evils that took his father away from him – war, imperialism, and Nazism chief among them. He has always denied every accusation of antisemitism.
Not just a difference of opinion
As for the personal charges Samson throws – misogynist, liar, thief, hypocrite, tax-avoider, lip-syncing, envious, megalomaniac – only those who know Roger Waters can say. There’s little if anything in his lyrics or public statements to support those accusations. None of us are perfect, but Waters appears, for the most part, to be a fairly dedicated humanist and peacenik.
What’s so sad about this fight, though, is how Samson – and by extension, David Gilmour – employed the lowest of tactics to not only dismiss an ideological opponent, but to dehumanize him, reduce him to beneath contempt. Indeed, this is how many in the neoliberal establishment want to paint their antiwar critics: not just as naïve or wrong, but as villainous, evil, and vile enough, perhaps, to even deserve death.
The War in Ukraine brings out a lot of intense emotion, and with good reason. Any war should. But this war, in particular, has some incredibly unnuanced and aggressive supporters. Until we can break that cycle and that rigidity, it will only escalate.
Fifty years ago, Waters wrote about the folly of Us and Them mentality. Here he is now, being otherized by the partner with whom he recorded some of history’s most impressive and timeless popular music. That music carried a vital message and philosophy, and Waters sticks to it still, offering his perspective and searching for a way out of a deadly war that threatens to engulf the world. For that to prompt such an incredibly vicious tweet from someone so close in his life is incredibly sad.