With this week’s tempest in a thimble over whether or not Pete Seeger has joined the BDS “movement,” I think we can safely say that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has jumped the shark.
Just to sum up, on Monday press releases went out on the “Israel-Sucks” portion of the Internet announcing that Pete Seeger, the 1930s-50s folk icon, had expressed regret for participating in a 2010 online peace/environmental event entitled “With Earth and Each Other – A Virtual Rally for a Better Middle East,” sponsored by Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The announcement also stated that Mr. Seeger was now fully supportive of efforts to pressure/punish Israel via boycott, divestment and sanctions.
The announcement was made by ICAHD, the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (a member of the wide-ranging constellation of anti-Israel groups with noble-sounding names that, in varying ways, support the BDS tactic as part of the overall propaganda strategy to “brand” Israel an “Apartheid state”). And, just as quickly, reporters contacted the 92-year-old singer who clarified that ICAHD’s description of his change-of-mind was (how best to describe it?) “accuracy challenged.”
The key to understanding this broo-ha-ha is the number 92 (as in the 92 years Mr. Seeger has been on the earth). Having apparently exhausted the number of 60, 70 and 80-year-old entertainers to harass, the BDSers have moved onto asking people who were famous before and during World War II to support their cause (apparently, the last veteran of World War I just died and was thus unavailable). And it is within the context of this historic timeframe that this particular Pete Seeger story takes on a level of ironic significance.
You see, Pete Seeger is a bit of a generational Rorschach Test. Members of my parent’s generation who grew up during or after World War II appreciate (some even revere) Seeger and his fellow folk singers as a link between the musically charged Progressive movements of the early 20th century and the post-war era when radical politics, Elvis, The Beatles and LSD led to a romantization of a seemingly simpler polico-musical dynamic of a (possibly imagined) past.
For my generation (who became politically aware in the 70s and 80s) Seeger and other members of his generation of folkies were those guys who kvetched during Live Aid that rockers like Bob Geldoff couldn’t have done it without their historic precedent, a deep appreciation of their own significance that founds its best articulation in the fabulous mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.” And for our kids, Seeger was the singer we put on the CD player whenever we were getting sick of hearing Raffi yammering on about baby whales and banana-phones. In other words, Seeger never succeeded (and, as far as I know, never tried) to follow the course mapped out by the similarly ancient Noam Chomsky to sell the same guff to today’s students that he once peddled to their grandparents.
There is a darker side to the Seeger story, however, one that involved his deep loyalties to the Stalinist wing of the Socialist movement in the 30s and 40s. While many other left-leaning entertainers and politicos were able to navigate between their Socialist principles and demands for supreme loyalty to the Stalinized Soviet Union, Seeger was never able to find the imagination or courage to do so, to the point where on the supreme moral question of the last century (the fight against Nazi Germany), Seeger choked. He was militantly anti-Nazi in the early 1930s (as were all good Socialists), but then turned militantly anti-war after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 forged an alliance between Nazism and Communism to together carve up Europe. It was only when Hitler moved East, invading Germany’s Soviet neighbors and former partners, that Seeger stopped singing about “J. P. Morgan’s War” and became a gung-ho war supporter, going so far as to serve himself in the Pacific theatre.
While harassment by anti-Communists in the 1950s help burnish Seeger’s progressive brand, many people (notably many anti-Stalinist Leftists) never forgave the singer’s seeming willingness to take moral dictation from the reprehensible and murderous Soviet Union. The singer’s embrace of Israeli folk music in the 1950s (when Israel was a Socialist darling) to the conscious removal of Israeli songs from the folk pantheon in the 1960s (when the Soviets switched their alliance from Israel to the Arabs) confirmed the suspicion that, despite his earnest vocal and banjo twang, Mr. Seeger was still willing to outsource his morality to one of the world’s most despicable regimes.
Given that my people were on the receiving end of both of the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century, I can’t claim a lot of sympathy for Seeger and his ilk, even if Seeger himself tried to make amends for the past by finally writing a little ditty condemning “Uncle Joe” Stalin… in 2007! But, having grown up in a part of the world where the Christian notion of redemption permeates the culture, I do appreciate Seeger’s seeming attempt to give that concept the old college try towards the end of his life.
After all, Dante’s Hell and Heaven are populated by people who have committed many of the same sins. But the difference between an adulterous couple blowing around the Inferno and their murderer free of Hell’s torments is that the latter truly repented of his or her crime with a sincerity that even God understood to be genuine.
So is Seeger, having spent the last few decades playing banjo at community fairs, sailing down the Hudson and (last year) publically advocating peaceful dialog as the only way forward in the Middle East, trying to make up for sins of the past? Who knows, but I think it’s safe to say that whatever journey he finds himself on towards the tail end of his life, the last thing he needs is the self-serving members of ICAHD et al fraudulently using a 92-year-old whose political persona resonates with few people below the age of 60 for their own squalid and narrow political purposes.