Update on Seeger: Critics dig deeper holes

It’s not exactly breaking news, but I probably should have caught it earlier — that Ron Radosh article in the New York Sun in which he noted Pete Seeger had condemned Stalin, ‘finally, after all these years?’ The article that made Instapundit exclaim it’s about time?

The New York Times noted that Seeger had made the confession in his book in 1993. Pete was probably too polite to embarrass his former banjo student, Radosh, with Radosh’s being at least a decade behind the times. But of course, the harpy right wing pundits can’t resist taking a swipe at Seeger anyway. I have to wonder whether earlier examples can be found.

Sour grapes articles were expectorated at NewsBusters, by P. J. Gladnick, Hard Country (which inexplicably extolls the virtue of Pete’s music and offers links to several videos of Pete’s performances), Andrew Sullivan (who even more inexplicably links to the NY Times article pointing out Seeger did it at least a decade ago), Dean’s World, Classically Liberal, Assistant Village Idiot (bucking for promotion?), Moonbattery, Mona Charen at NRO (who confesses to having it wrong in the 1970s, too), Dictators of the World, Jim-Rose.com, Synthstuff — whew! Here’s a pre-Radosh column sour grapes swipe from David Boaz in The Guardian.

See also The Philadelphia Inquirer, Walter Weiss, and the AP story in the Miami Herald. And this: The Peekskill riots?

To get the bad taste out of your mouth, see what Marketing Begins at Home has to say, and see the photos. And see this piece on the Highlander School.

7 Responses to Update on Seeger: Critics dig deeper holes

  1. […] Update on Seeger: Critics dig deeper holes […]


  2. […] book in 1993. Pete was probably too polite to embarrass his former banjo student, Radosh source: Permanent Link to Update on Seeger: Critics dig…, Millard Fillmores […]


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I’m not familiar with the song “Mao Tse Tung,” and to my recollection, I’ve never heard Pete perform it or, especially, introduce it.

    I have heard him perform the Chinese Red Army’s “Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention.” On the 1975 album of his 1974 tour with Arlo Guthrie, it’s on side 3. I don’t know the full concert order, but I suspect he performed these roughly in this order: “Joe Hill,” a traditional tune from the U.S. labor movement; “May there always be sunshine,” which he introduces as a tune written by a five-year old kid, a normal kid who wrote the lyrics, “May there always be sunshine/May there always be Mama/May there always be me.” I suppose one could say there’s an unspoken political message there, but only a fool would argue it’s a message in support of Stalin or any sort of totalitarian regime. Seeger sings it in English, then he reveals that it was written in Russian, by a five-year-old kid living somewhere outside of Moscow. I think the rhetorical and argumentive thrust of the performance is that kids are the same all over the world, loving sunshine and their mothers. To those who argue Seeger supported Stalin’s crimes, I must reply with this song, and wonder what it is y’all have against your mother, children, sunshine and happy childhoods? The third song is lyricless, the marching tune from China. Seeger says in his introduction that when soldiers deserted Chiang Kai Shek’s forces to join the communist army, most of them illiterate, they had to learn several things in a hurry. So this marching song was created with the odd title, in order to teach those things. What were they learning? According to Seeger, the song told them to obey orders, march in step — pretty standard military fare that is the same in freedom-loving nations as in totalitarian regimes — and political messages, such as “don’t take anything from peasants, not even a needle, without paying for it,” and “help out the farmers at harvest time.”

    On the basis of what Seeger actually says, I’d say it’s no support of Mao’s crimes, no support of the “Cultural Revolution,” and no support for anything other than a kind of all-American, flag-waving morality that Pete’s critics claim to adhere to.

    And as to our support of totalitarianism in Latin and South America, I’d invite you to restudy events. The complaint of the left was not that we opposed communism, but rather that we supported tyrants. That sort of support almost always got us into trouble, and never vanquished the communists — in Cuba, in Indonesia, in Iran, in the Dominican Republic, in Haiti, in Panama, in Chile, in Peru, in Honduras, in El Salvador. And this support of tyrants was not something that was just a product of the anti-communist, post-World War II world — we did the same thing in Latin America from 1870 on (see the origin of the phrase “banana republic”), shamefully in the Philippines after the Spanish American War to about 1915. In Vietnam, our support for corrupt rulers led to a huge tragedy, in Vietnam and in Cambodia (I’ve never forgotten that it was the U.S., in Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, who refused to allow popular elections in Vietnam).

    Tyranny in support of anti-communism is like drinking arsenic in great quantity to treat athlete’s foot. It’s counter productive. Allende was no more a totalitarian than Tony Blair, and if market forces were the cure to all of Chile’s ailments, there is no reason we needed to support mass murder to get there in the final scheme of things. Once the tyranny was underway, tens of thousands of people were murdered, and the advent of free market economics was still delayed at least a decade, maybe longer. The U.S. is still unpopular with a majority of Chileans, and the U.S. is held suspect by most others. Our actions there have provided a large and stout platform for demagogues in Venezuela and Colombia to campaign for socialism, or anything but supporting U.S. policies. We are still paying a heavy price for not taking the high moral road. I don’t accept the claim that we needed to murder and impose tyranny to fight communism, most of the time, or even much of the time. I’m dubious that it ever works out well in other than the very short term.

    Seeger doesn’t sing much about international and national macroeconomic issues, except to urge the U.S. to take the high moral road. I think that message is what troubles Seeger’s critics so much, and it is why they constantly overstate Seeger’s communist support, and constantly rag on his “failure” to apologize for the sins of Stalin, despite Seeger’s having nothing to do with such sins, and despite Seeger’s having apologized years ago. It’s not the truth Seeger’s critics are seeking — they’re seeking reinforcement for their own choices of dubious policies: “It’s okay to support murder on an industrial scale in Chile because Pete Seeger never apologized for Stalin. Same thing in for the death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and Honduras.”

    These same arguments were used to fail to criticize apartheidt in South Africa. “If we criticize apartheidt, we’ll lose the only democracy and the only strong anti-communist nation friend we have in southern Africa.” When Americans took the Pete Seeger route, and forced the U.S. government to act as thousands of local communities had already acted to yank support from apartheidt, South Africa didn’t go communist. What a surprise. We made deep inroads diplomatically, around the world, when our State Department adopted Seeger’s policies, and sent musicians around the world to perform for foreign audiences. The tours of Louis Armstrong through Africa, for example, did more to fight totalitarianism of all stripes than armed action did. In Congo, both sides stopped fighting and declared Armstrong a hero, so Armstrong could perform.

    I think, in the long run, Seeger’s been more right about how to spread freedom than his critics have been.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    “Swiftboating” would mean accurate accusations, BTW, not an inaccurate set.

    Not to anyone who checks it out. The “Swift Boat Veterans” charged that John Kerry lied about his service, lied about being up the Mekong close to or inside Cambodia, lied about getting three purple hearts, and lied about who did the paperwork to get the medals.

    None of those charges could be verified, and all of them were ruled inaccurate by the Pentagon and by all of the eyewitnesses and everybody involved in the process of getting the medals.

    Denial of reality runs strong in the conservative side, but it’s way past time we stop denigrating the heroic service of brave men, the denigration designed to knock them down to the level of those who lack such service. Heroes deserve celebrating, not calumny based on falsehoods.


  5. “Swiftboating” would mean accurate accusations, BTW, not an inaccurate set.

    There are many decent comments here, worthy of discussion. I have a major difficulty with the response, however. You did not actually address most points, but discussed related issues.

    To keep the focus narrow, I would repeat that Seeger may have always had some general “anti-totalitarian, peace advocating, and freedom extolling” goals, and that sometimes these were even dominant. But his choice of targets betrays that this was not his entire aim. That Pete’s primary audience was Americans and the West, so that he felt compelled to lecture only to those groups does not get him out from under the charge of hypocrisy. He did not sing anti-totalitarian songs in the USSR when he was there. He did not hesitate to support leftist evil in Spain in order to oppose rightist evil. In this he is perhaps like a popular preacher who rails against the decline of sexual morals, then is found to be as guilty as those he criticises: he may be correct in his assessment of society, but the charge of hypocrisy sticks and we no longer attend to him. That Seeger was a cheery guy, and thought he mostly intended good things is insufficient.

    There is also the matter of the sneering and condescension. As these are the primary enforcement tools of liberal ideas, their existence is important. Seeger was not always condescending, and was at times good-hearted. But the darker side must be accounted for. I think Tom Lehrer, himself quite liberal, summed it up best:
    We are the folk song army
    Every one of us cares
    We all hate poverty, war, and injustice
    Unlike the rest of you squares.

    I don’t think that has been successfully countered. As to the Mao-Tse Tung tune, I think you recognised exactly what I meant, but chose to twist my meaning to avoid answering. If someone had written a sprightly Spanish instrumental in 1948 and called it “Francisco Franco,” I doubt many on the left would have missed the point. For the composer to attempt to duck back and say “Hey, there aren’t any lyrics to it, don’t read in what’s not there,” few would be persuaded.

    You are quite right that conservatives did not criticise Pinochet and various other right-wing dictators enough. However, neither did they ever advocate that some gentler variant of South American despotism would usher in a new age of mankind. The equivalence is only partial, yet you treat it as offsetting. I would offer as a general example that the US usually maintained that it was supporting miserable tyrants because they were the only credible alternative to worse tyrants supported by the USSR. If the Russians would leave off, we said, so would we. This argument was consistently rejected by the left and regarded as a mere rationalization. The USSR could make exactly the same claim about us, they said. The argument remained at a stalemate until the collapse of the Soviet Union. As its support for Latin American communist movements evaporated, the US did not then install favored dictators of the right, but left those nations to do as they pleased, even if their decisions were not to our liking. We proved good to our word on that. I haven’t noted much credit given from the left on that score.

    I will note in passing that I have two Romanian sons and many eastern European friends, and so have a pretty high standard for equivalence of the depredations from anti-communists. Those depredations existed, but the sheer weight of opposite numbers is enormous, and each of those 100 – 200 million was an actual person.

    As to ink spilt by conservatives about McCarthy, I would recommend the last 50 years of the National Review. That publication has been pretty consistent in agreeing with some of McCarthy’s assessments but roundly criticising his methods and untruthfulness, for an overall failing grade.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    So, without lyrics, can we say that simply performing on a whistle a tune named “Mao Tse Tung” implies endorsement of Mao? If so, then I’d have to say that Seeger endorses U.S. freedoms and democracy a thousand times more — you’d have to give him credit for all the patriotic tunes he’s played, and all the patriotic tunes he’s sung. Seeger’s critics appear, to me, to be very, very bad at math.

    I think more to the point, there is nothing to suggest that at any point Seeger endorsed any of the totalitarian regimes’ actions, in China, in the Soviet Union, in Bulgaria, in Cuba, in Chile, or anywhere — but instead that he always sang for freedom. If we make the error of assuming that communism always means totalitarianism, we blind ourselves to the many right-wing dictatorships and death squads that blot history through the 20th century. My point, and I think you see it, is that the vast majority of Seeger’s works are anti-totalitarian, peace advocating, and freedom extolling.

    As to China, I don’t think I see any need for Pete to sing against the Chinese government. His work has been consistently directed toward pushing America to better policies. One needs to consider the audience, and Pete’s audience was here in America mostly.

    Joe McCarthy may have killed fewer people, but his assault on the Constitution and freedoms of Americans probably required more urgent action by Americans. I don’t put a lot of stock into calling people “communist” when history shows that hurling that label was one of the first defense of racists, bigots, union busters, and political charlatans, who really didn’t care who they hurt, but instead sought power for themselves. I don’t believe for a moment that Joe McCarthy was working for anyone but himself. Plus, I’ve seen the smear jobs up close. The hacking done to Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, a very conservative, flag-waving Mormon, because he chaired the committee that recommended McCarthy’s censure, should have been a clue about just how far things were out of control.

    You’ve never criticized McCarthy or his supporters for that, by the way. (Nor do I expect it — I’m trying to make a point that the hysteria against Seeger is as silly as it is unjustified, illogical, and emotionally wrong.) And I don’t recall any ink spilled by any conservative over Joe McCarthy. In my time working with the right wing, I found any number of people who had shrines to Whitaker Chambers, and who cherished autographed photos of Joe McCarthy. Some of those nuts decorate his grave every year. Who on the conservative side ever tried to distance themselves from McCarthy? (Goldwater may have — but I don’t recall it.)

    Joe McCarthy was an immediate, clear and present danger to Americans and our freedoms. Stalin was a serious threat only after he got the hydrogen bomb, and even then chiefly on paper (Stalin had no way to deliver a bomb to the U.S., nor easily to anyplace outside the Soviet Union).

    It’s not just apples and oranges, but pomegranates, kumquats, broccoli and mushrooms. Comparisons can’t be fairly done.

    To the best of my knowledge, Friedman not only never apologized for the deaths of Pinochet (in which he played a role no smaller than Seeger’s, which is to say, vanishingly small), he suggested that Allende’s policies would have killed an equal number anyway. Friedman’s greatest defense was that he didn’t order the deaths, and had very little involvement with Chile prior to Pinochet. But never have I heard Friedman suggest the faintest twinge of sorrow for the murdered, like Victor Jara the poet. Here’s a transcript of his discussion for the PBS series “Commanding Heights;” if you can find any sorrow or apology there, please let me know:
    If you have in mind some other words of Friedman, I’d like a citation.

    Do not read my making an example of Friedman for more than what it is, either. I think Friedman was in a tough spot. I don’t disfavor most of the policies he advocates for free markets (though he really is out in the parking lot, not even in left field, on school vouchers). My point is that there is a subtle but consistent hypocrisy in conservatives’ demanding that Pete Seeger apologize for Stalin’s actions, actions Seeger never endorsed, and trying to claim Seeger’s failure to apologize implies some liability for the millions of dead, while not holding their own icons to any similar standard. If you don’t like Friedman as an example, try John Wayne. He never apologized for My Lai. (“So what?” would be an appropriate response — which is my point.)

    Those very same arguments apply in spades to Seeger and the Soviet Union, except that Seeger has lamented the loss of life to oppressive regimes everywhere.

    Plus there is the enormous body of good, patriotic, family-endorsing, virtuous music Seeger performs, and has performed. Pete Seeger’s work for American families, for American freedom, for the flag and American values, is greater than that of almost all of his critics combined.

    I don’t like it when people use shorthand political cartoons that are so grossly in error, and which use people as scapegoats.

    Pete Seeger is very much a hero. Swiftboating him is unwarranted, crass and wrong. I plan to keep pointing that out.


  7. You make fair points, but not convincing ones. Certainly, not everything Pete sang was anti-American – most songs avoided that issue altogether, focusing on more general statements of peace and justice, or just fun and world community. But I sang his songs: “King Henry,” “Talkin’ Ben Tre” “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy,” “My Name Is Liza Kalvalege,” “Viva La Quince Brigada,” among others. The sneering tones, delivered lightly, were not an unfortunate addition to Seeger’s work – they were the point.

    As to patriotism, I have always thought of Pete as trying to accuse America from the standpoint of its own best values. That’s patriotism of a sort, though not what we usually mean by that term. But there is a difficulty with that approach: you have to get it right, or you are just being insulting. If you adopt that method of critique of others, you must endure that method of judgment yourself. On this, Seeger fails often enough to be justly accused of hypocrisy and one-sidedness. If you wish to take a general antiwar stance when your home country is at war, cold or hot, then you have some obligation to stand up similarly for Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, or China. Otherwise, it’s pretty clear who you have in mind when you are singing about war.

    I grant that I can recall nothing in Seeger’s work that speaks any praise of Stalin (he did write the gentle, lyricless “Mao Tse Tung” – I don’t recall a gentle, lyricless “Richard Nixon”), but that is not the only standard by which we judge approval. When there actually are powerful communist leaders on the globe and you voice support of communism, you carry some obligation to distance yourself. As a point of comparison, look at all the ink that conservatives have spilt over the years making a point of distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy. I think Tailgunner Joe killed a few less people than Papa Joe, as well, which should make the need to distance oneself that much greater.

    If the goal was to tell the world about peace and justice, encouraging us all to do better and live to higher standards, then it must be delivered evenhandedly, or it is just a pose, a set of values to hide behind in order to criticise one side only. Seeger was only successful at being sincere in his universality part of the time. The rest, then, deteriorates to mere pose, however well-intentioned in the imagination.

    As to Friedman and Pinochet, you might check out Milton’s own words on the subject before you draw quick equivalences.


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