Pete Seeger, Stalin and double standards

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The New York Times wants you to know Pete Seeger renounced Joseph Stalin “years” before his 2007 song “Big Joe Blues.”

In fact, as the Times reported at the time, the folk singer criticized the Soviet dictator “at least as early” as 1993, only 40 years after Stalin’s death.

The Gray Lady dryly summarized the matter: “If anything, the interest in Mr. Seeger’s views on the Soviet Union shows the durability of cold war ideological debates.”

Those debates are once again proving durable now that Seeger has died at age 94.

Nicholas Kristof — a New York Times columnist, natch — described Seeger as someone “whose folk music backed the civil rights movement and stood up to Congress.” The Nation’s John Nichols wrote that Seeger “surrounded hate and forced it to surrender.” (It’s an adaptation of Seeger’s line about his banjo.)

There’s been plenty of criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with which the singer refused to cooperate. Some of this coverage comes painfully close to suggesting that HUAC and Joe McCarthy were the biggest, even the only, injustices of the Cold War era. (Alger Hiss was guilty, by the way).

Deep dives into the political beliefs of musicians and other celebrities, red-baiting or otherwise, are often dumb. Many of them harbor misguided views out of naivete more than malice, as was almost certainly true for Seeger himself. They see sins in their own country, like racism, excessive resort to military force and corporate misconduct, while assuming available alternatives are without sin.

It’s a shortcoming of figures far more significant than Seeger, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela.

In some ways, Seeger was better than other politically expressive singer-songwriters. Yes, he went much further in endorsing an evil political system than most. But he also went further than many in acknowledging error on that front.

Nevertheless, you can’t have it both ways. Seeger is being lauded not just for his music, but his politics. Even President Barack Obama praised Seeger as someone who tried to “move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”

The president said Seeger “believed deeply in the power of song” but also “in the power of community.”

Indeed, Seeger has been celebrated for making it from the blacklist to Obama’s inaugural.

Community is the IS-1 tank and the liquidation of the kulaks? I guess government really is another word for the things we do together.

The Soviet Union was a tyrannical regime guilty of mass murder. Its crimes should be denounced as thoroughly and loudly as Nazi Germany’s.

If Seeger had been an apologist for Hitler rather than Stalin, it is unlikely The New York Times would say, “The interest in Mr. Seeger’s views on the Nazi Germany shows the durability of World War II ideological debates.”

As it happens, Seeger didn’t have much enthusiasm for war with Nazi Germany during the Hitler-Stalin pact.

It seems odd to treat Stalin as less guilty of mass murder because he was less guilty of discrimination.

Even after he admitted he should have asked to see the gulags, there were limits to Seeger’s contrition. “I don’t speak out about a lot of things,” he said. “I don’t talk about slavery. A lot of white people in America could apologize for stealing land from the Indians and enslaving Africans. Europe could apologize for worldwide conquest. Mongolia could apologize for Genghis Khan. But I think the thing to do is look ahead.”

But Genghis Khan and the slaveholders were all long dead, even if the consequences of their actions continue to be felt today. Seeger was personally responsible for whitewashing Soviet crimes and communism was still alive at the time of these remarks.

It is a quirk of progressive morality that the sins of the father should be visited on the son, but the son’s sins should be treated as if they don’t even exist.

And Seeger still didn’t get it. He praised what Martin Luther King Jr. had been able to accomplish “without guns,” but “still hoped that someone like Khrushchev or Gorbachev could open things up.”

Khurshchev and even Gorbachev had guns.

All these things seem at least as worth noting as Seeger’s views on Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar.

Oh when will they ever learn?

Pete Seeger is justly remembered as an American folk icon. But the land his politics would have created isn’t our land.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.