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Like Andrew, I thought that Peter Robinson was excessively charitable in his discussion of the late Pete Seeger. After all, the old apparatchik waited until 1995 to break with Joe Stalin, and his instinct for thuggery stayed with him to the very end. Witness his support for Occupy Wall Street.
Moreover, when invited to sing at the first inauguration of Barack Obama, Seeger resurrected some telling verses ordinarily snipped these days from his old comrade Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land, which was written in 1940 as the Popular Front’s answer to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,And on the sign there, it said, “No Trespassing.” But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,By the relief office I seen my people;As they stood there hungry, I stood there askingIs this land made for you and me?
Seeger may have decided at some point after the collapse of the Soviet Union to jettison the old baggage. But the old leopard did not change his spots. As he readily acknowledged, he remained a small-c communist until the very end. He was, as Howard Husock observed in a fine article in City Journal nine years ago, America’s Most Successful Communist.
There are only two things about the response to his death that surprise me. The first is the fact that Pravda-on-the-Hudson mentioned that he once followed “the Communist Party line.” Years ago, that outlet decided to redefine Angela Davis, who had actually run for high office on the Communist Party ticket and who never tried to hide her allegiance to the Soviet Union, as a warm and fuzzy “social activist.” That move marked the revival of the Popular Front in American politics, and it prepared the way for the transformation of the Democratic Party visible today. I am amazed that the obituary that appeared in New York’s Pravda said anything at all about Seeger’s unsavory past. I would have expected the folks who brought us Bill de Blasio to write something like this:
Once called “America’s tuning fork,” Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.
That bit of agitprop was reserved, however, for the President of the United States.
The other thing that amazed me was that, in its treatment of Seeger, The Wall Street Journal was considerably more dishonest than Pravda-on-the-Hudson. In the notice that appeared on Wednesday, Stephen Miller referred to “accusations of Communist sympathies [that] hamstrung” Seeger’s efforts. He noted that he had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, that he was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961, and that the verdict was overturned in 1963, but he never acknowledges that Seeger was ever a member of the Communist Party, that he ever supported the Soviet Union, that he was part of a conspiracy to subject this country to a murderous dictatorship. Nope, we learn only that he “marched with Martin Luther King Jr.” and that “his causes came to embrace environmentalism, the Iraq War, and Occupy Wall Street.” In short, one is left with the impression that Pete Seeger was a social activist more sinned against than sinning.
That same day, in the section on Leisure & Arts, Jim Fusilli threw in his two cents. He mentioned Seeger’s participation, along with Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Millar Lampell, in the Almanach Singers, “a folk group staunchly supportive of unions, racial justice and religious equality.” He leaves out their support for communism and their defense of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. To be fair, Fusilli does note that the group was “hounded for its communist affiliations,” but he leaves one with the impression that those affiliations were entirely honorable and that the hounding was entirely regrettable. He, too, touches on Seeger’s refusal to testify and notes ruefully that he was for a time banned from television. But he never pauses to reflect on the man’s allegiances. The last three paragraphs of his piece tell the tale:
Troubadour, rabble rouser, thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent, recipient of the National Medal of Arts, American idealist and family man, Seeger maintained what Mr. Springsteen called his “nasty optimism” until late in life. In 2011, he marched in Manhattan in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, talking reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience,” Mr. Springsteen said in May 2009 during celebrations at Madison Square Garden honoring Seeger’s 90th birthday. The event featured dozens of musicians influenced by Seeger.
“The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place,” said Seeger in 2008. That is his enduring legacy.
Someone should assign Miller, Fusilli, and Bruce Springsteen to read in its entirety Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Perhaps, then, they would come to understand the cause that Pete Seeger’s championing of unions, civil rights, and environmentalism was really intended to serve.
The idea of using music and the arts more generally to subvert allegiance to this country and to make Americans thoroughly ashamed of a history that is, for the most part, admirable, the idea of using music and the arts more generally to undermine the principles that make this country prosperous and free, and the idea of using music and the arts to lay the groundwork for the establishment of a thuggish, populist, kleptocratic dictatorship here—that is Peter Seeger’s legacy, and it is, alas, enduring.
Much, if not most, of what we see on television and in the movies; much, if not most, of what we hear on the radio these days is soothing agitprop, and Pete Seeger was its master.
I sometimes wonder whether Rupert Murdoch ever reads his newspaper. Those who whitewash horrors in the past prepare the way for horrors in the future. If a troubadour really wanted to be “a thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent” today, he would start with the credentialed elite that brought us Obamacare, the global warming scam, and the Occupy Wall Street circus. He would start with those who take communist thugs and pass them off as social activists. I doubt, however, whether such a troubadour would get any air time at all in today’s America.