18th April 2006

Posted in

Blog :: American Communism

I saw a story today (hat tip: hit and run) that I just had to point out. Despite the way my theological leanings affect my political outlook (I'm what some would consider a pacifist and am opposed to the death penalty), I've always felt deeply uneasy with the left in America. Part of that is reading history and suspecting that the values I ostensibly share with the left aren't really shared at all - they are just similiar positions derived from very different first principles.

Recently the New Yorker profiled Pete Seeger and gave him the kid gloves treatment. David Boaz over at the Guardian comments on the lack of accountability for old communists -

A regular old American, they say, a guy who would stand by the side of the road at 85 holding up a sign reading simply "Peace." A "conservative" really, who "believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights". And over the years he sang for peace, and for civil rights, and for the workers. And he built his own house on a hilltop. What's not to like?

Boaz notes Seeger's basic hypocrisy by looking at his song lyrics: during the lead up to World War II when the USSR and Stalin were allies, Seeger's group, The Almanac Singers, produced an antiwar album Songs of John Doe featuring lines like:

Franklin D, listen to me,
You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea.
You may say it's for defense
That kinda talk ain't got no sense.

Of course the Hitler-Stalin non-agression pact fell apart and the USSR (and the American Communist Party and hence Seeger) became ardent anti-fascists. Nimbly reversing his field, Seeger's group had Songs pulled and instead released Dear Mr. President which took a slightly more nuanced view of war.

Now, Mr President
You're commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight ...
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!

Boaz accurately writes that no one is nostalgic about old Nazis, but old communists are apparently just regular American's who believe ardently in the Bill of Rights. This is America and Seeger is entitled to his elastic principles (whatever Uncle Joe says, I believe!) But that doesn't mean I have to take him seriously when he talks about how committed to peace and justice he is.

Update: A detailed look at a worse story in a similiar vein can be found at neo-neocon. This story is about the famous singer Paul Robeson and I also first encountered it in  Radical Son (an excellent book I intend to review at some point). I also had a similiar reaction - I was physically angry and had to put the book down (having recently read Applebaum's Gulag didn't help on this point). Be sure to read neo-neocon's lengthy exploration of the anecdote, but basically Paul Robeson became close friends with the Russian poet, Itzhak Peffer during WWII. After the war as Stalin began to purge Jews, Robeson heard rumors that Peffer had disappeared and visited Moscow and requested to see him. Eventually he was allowed to see Peffer under surveillance. Peffer managed to communicate to him that he had been in prison (tortured and starved, as it turned out) and begged Robeson to speak out and save his life and the lives of the Jews who were disappearing into the gulag.

Robeson returned home and said nothing to save the life of his friend. No that's not quite right; he actually assured others that the rumors of the gulag were slanders designed to exacerbate cold war tensions. As neo-neocon relates, he told his son that he couldn't bring himself to criticize the USSR. Dante's placement of Caina seems about right to me...

I should also add the neo-neocon is a new blog to me but one I've already added to my bloglines subscription. Her accurate description of the distinction between pacifism (I'm not) and non-resistant (I am) shows impressive depth for someone who hasn't grown up in Peace Church circles...

Posted on April 18th 2006, 05:04 PM