When The Pen Is Not Mightier Than The Sword

The inimitable Mark Steyn on risk-free dissent:

So much of contemporary life is about opportunities for self-congratulation. Risk-free dissent is the default mode of our culture, and extremely seductive. If dissent means refusing to let the Bush Administration bully you into wearing a flag lapel pin, why then Katie Couric (bravely speaking out on this issue just last week) is the new Mandela! If Rumsfeld is a “fascist,” then anyone can fight fascism. It’s no longer about the secret police kicking your door down and clubbing you to a pulp. Well, okay, it is if you’re a Buddhist monk in Burma. But they’re a long way away, and it’s all a bit complicated and foreign, and let’s not “confuse the very dire human rights situation” in Hoogivsastan with an opportunity to celebrate our courage in defending “academic freedom” in America. Ahmadinejad must occasionally have felt he was appearing in a matinee of “A Chance To Hear [Insert Name Of Enemy Head Of State Here].” Could have been Chavez, could have been Mullah Omar, could have been Herr Reichsfuhrer Hitler himself, as Columbia’s Dean John Coatsworth proudly boasted on television.

Lots of Prime Ministers and diplomats accepted invitations to meet with Hitler, and generally the meetings went very well — except for one occasion when Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, was greeted by the little chap with the mustache, mistook him for the butler, and handed him his coat. But even that faux pas is a testament to how normal thugs can appear in social situations. Civilized nations like chit-chatting, having tea, holding debates, talking talking talking. Tyrannies like terrorizing people, torturing people, murdering people, doing doing doing. It’s easier for the doers to pass themselves off as talkers than for the talkers to rouse themselves to do anything.

[After his attack on Ahmadinejad,] [Columbia University President Lee] Bollinger got raves even from the right for “speaking truth to power.” But so what? It’s like Noel Coward delivering a series of devastating put-downs to Hitler. The Fuhrer’s mad as hell but at the end of the afternoon he goes back to killing and dear Noel goes back to singing “The Stately Homes Of England.” Ahmadinejad goes back to doing — to persecuting, to murdering, to terrorizing, to nuclearizing — and Bollinger cuts out his press clippings and puts them on the fridge.

…These men understand the self-absorption of advanced democracies. The difference between Winston Churchill and Ward Churchill, another famous beneficiary of “academic freedom” who called the 9/11 dead “little Eichmanns,” is that for Sir Winston talking was a call to action while for poseurs like Professor Churchill it’s a substitute for it. The pen is not mightier than the sword if your enemy is confident you will never use anything other than your pen. Sometimes it’s not about “freedom of speech,” but about freedom. Ask an Iranian homosexual. If you can find one.

And Mr. Steyn on America’s “best-loved Commie”:

In The New York Sun the other day, Ron Radosh had a scoop: Hold the front page! Stop the presses! Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates…

Who? Castro? Chavez? Al-Qaeda?

Whoa, let’s not rush to judgment. No, the big story was: Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates …Stalin.

A couple of months back, there was some documentary or other “celebrating” the “spirit” of Pete Seeger, the folkie colossus, with contributions from the usual suspects – Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, one or more Dixie Chicks, two-thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. Mr Radosh had also been interviewed but his remarks about Seeger’s lifelong support of Stalinism had not made the final cut. No surprise there. In such circumstances, the rule is to hail someone for his “activism” and “commitment” and “passion” without getting hung up on the specifics of what exactly he’s actively and passionately committing to. Giving him a Kennedy Center Honor a decade or so back, President Clinton hailed ol’ Pete as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them”, which is one way of putting it. You can’t help noticing, though, that it’s all the documentaries and honors ceremonies and lifetime-achievement tributes to Mr Seeger that seem to find certain things “inconvenient”. The Washington Post’s Style section, with its usual sly elan, hailed him as America’s “best-loved Commie” – which I think translates as “Okay, so the genial old coot spent a lifetime shilling for totalitarian murderers, but only uptight Republican squares would be boorish enough to dwell on it.”

Anyway, in the Sun, Mr Radosh, a former banjo pupil of the great man, did dwell on it, and a few weeks later got a letter in response. “I think you’re right,” wrote Pete. “I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” And he enclosed a new song he’d composed:

I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe
He ruled with an iron hand
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land
He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race
Instead he set it back
Right in the same nasty place
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast)
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Do this job, no questions asked)
I got the Big Joe Blues…

It’s heartening to see that age (he’s now 88) hasn’t withered Seeger’s unerring instinct for bum rhymes (“fast/asked”). Still, Ron Radosh was thrilled that, just 54 years after the old brute’s death, a mere three-quarters of a century after the purges and show trials and whatnot, the old protest singer has finally got around to protesting Stalin, albeit somewhat evasively: He put the human race “right in the same nasty place”? Sorry, not good enough. Stalin created whole new degrees of nastiness. But, given that the guy got the two great conflicts of the 20th century wrong (in 1940, he was anti-war and singing “Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D/Both agree on killing me”), it’s a start. I can’t wait for his anti-Osama album circa 2078.

…James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, once offered this trenchant analysis of Pete Seeger:

“‘If I Had A Hammer’? Well, what’s stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they’re about a buck-ninety, tops.”

Very true. For the cost of a restricted-view seat at a Peter, Paul and Mary revival, you could buy half-a-dozen top-of-the-line hammers and have a lot more fun, even if you used them on yourself. Yet in a sense Lileks is missing the point : yes, they’re dopey nursery-school jingles, but that’s why they’re so insidious. The numbing simplicity allows them to be passed off as uncontentious unexceptionable all-purpose anthems of goodwill. Which is why you hear “This Land Is Your Land” in American grade schools, but not “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture. Seeger’s hymn to the “senselessness” of all war, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, combined passivity with condescension – “When will they ever learn?” – and established the default mode of contemporary artistic “dissent”. Mr Seeger’s ongoing veneration is indestructible. But at least we now know the answer to the question “When will he ever learn?”

At least half-a-century too late.

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