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May 26, 2004 6:19 am

But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on...

I was reading through this week's crop of HNN articles, and I noticed an interesting thread. This week's articles include "The Politics of Cutting and Running" by John Mueller and "End the Occupation Now" by Ruth Rosen. (Next week's will, reportedly, include an article by me with another attempt at historical analogy leading to a similar conclusion.) Last week included "Can We Really Get by without a Draft?" by Michael S. Foley and "Why Extending Soldiers' Time in Iraq Could Prove Dangerous" by Philip Gerard. Historians, HNN readers at least, overwhelmingly believe the President is doing a terrible job (or a good job towards terrible aims, in my case), and even Matthew Mason's article finds virtue in President Bush over Saddam Hussein only by careful comparison (and it strikes me that the differences are structural, rather than personal).

I'm reminded of Pete Seeger's infamous (well, banned from the Smother's Brothers Hour by the network, anyway) "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", and for those of us who are rooting for the taller of the two candidates (actually a good bet most years), the line"Soon even a tall man'll be over his head" seems a little, well, prophetic.

Some would simply cite this as an example of the"liberal professorate" or as evidence of editorial bias. But those charges of bias, frankly, doesn't carry a lot weight at a site that carries both P.M. Carpenter and Daniel Pipes, leftists like Herbert Bix and Chalmers Johnson, and stuff from CampusWatch and FrontPageMag. Any site that includes both me and Thomas Reeves covers an awful lot of ground. Both our own forever-fresh Cliopatria and freshly-launched Rebunk include scholars who disagree on fundamental political issues and ideas (which is really rare for blogs, in my experience).

So perhaps there is a consensus emerging: we need to reconsider our position, without pride or prejudice, and seriously consider what we want to accomplish, how it can be accomplished without creating new problems, and what we can afford to commit without sacrificing other important goals and projects.

Update: MoveOn.org is doing a survey to see what Americans want to do about Iraq, and currently about 1/4 of us want to pull out now, 1/4 haven't a clue, and half want to set a firm date for withdrawal. Not surprisingly, the number of MoveOn supporters who want to"stay the course in support of President Bush" is well under the margin of error. I probably got put in the"don't have a clue" category, because I didn't pick a button. Here's what I wrote:

None of the above statements reflects my position particularly well. The op-ed you sent by Steinberg and O'Hanlon [Washington Post, or you can click the survey link and scroll down] comes closer because it argues in favor of meaningful self-determination as both the goal and the end-point for the US occupation. I support a substantially stepped up effort to help the Iraqi people create and function under a democratic government, and to respect the will of the Iraqi people as expressed through that government. I support increased efforts to create a secure Iraq, both internally and externally. I support increased efforts to rebuild Iraq, not to the level of"pre-war" which is usually cited as the standard by the government, but to the level of pre-Gulf War, because our illegal attacks on non-military targets in that conflict and under sanctions (which also were arguably illegal) set the stage for the decade of misery, death, suffering and decline in Iraqi society. I support the restoration of American honor through a committment to justice. That's how we get out of this situation, and, by the way, make sure that we don't make more problems for ourselves in the future.
Just in case you had any doubt about my position.

Second Update: OK, the President's position doesn't seem that far off from mine. Curious. Is he serious, or double-talking us moderates with what we want to hear? Like he did last election? The specifics of the UN draft resolution seem less promising....

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Richard Henry Morgan - 5/26/2004

Jon, my objection to Pete is not that he had a different opinion on the war, but that he had three different opinions on the war, all within a year, all dictated from afar, and adopted uncritically without regard to evidence. His Plow Under was and is, as I maintain, obscene in the given context.

That politics was part of his "art" is evidenced by the fact that with the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he recalled Songs for John Doe, and attempted to have all copies destroyed. Apparently he had learned a thing or two about air-brushing history from Stalin. Art is disposable, I guess, from his point of view, when politics demands it -- so much for the idea that art addresses the timeless questions of the human condition (what a bourgeois concept). The Kennedy Center is, after all, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and its Honors are for artists ostensibly based on their art, not their politics (even if the artist doesn't make that distinction). I insist on that analytic distinction -- Marquez, for instance, is a really good writer, even if he worships at the temple of Cuban totalitarianism. Similarly, contra the Marxists, Eudora Welty is a far greater artist than Howard Fast. Even if Seeger can't divorce his politics from his art doesn't mean I can't, nor does it mean that his art immunizes his politics from criticism.

My objection to the Kennedy Honors bio is not that it uncritically honors his art -- when giving honors for art, encomiastic remarks on the art are a given, even expected, almost rude not to deliver them. It is not an appropriate setting for a critical examination of his art, pros and cons. When in such a setting one then injects politics into the equation in his bio, by way of quite accurately pointing out his blacklisting, without also pointing out his servility and dishonesty regarding Stalin, then one has descended into hagiography.

I'm not ignoring his decades of political activism -- I just think that it too is a mixed bag (his support for Castro, his support for Stalin's plan to ship all Soviet Jews off to the desolate border with China, don't count in his favor in my book), and that it should not add or detract from an appreciation of his art, though it might temper (or increase, if that's your view) one's admiration for him as a man. Trust the tale, not the teller. Or in religious terms, put not your trust in princes (Psalms 146).

When I read that we are in Iraq in order to pump profits into Halliburton, I hear echoes of Plow Under, which makes it oddly prophetic in an unintentional way.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/26/2004

You're ignoring decades of his political activism, which had a lot to do with his "art"... never mind. I can't really have a discussion with someone who insists on "pimping" and clearly doesn't know how many different opinions there were on the war in this country.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/26/2004

I think Pete is a great artist, and one can't dismiss his art based on his politics. Nor should one elevate a great artist to a great man, based on the quality of his art. I think the Kennedy Center bio counts as hagiography when it paints him as a victim of McCarthyism, but doesn't point out that he pimped for Uncle Joe. And I think it positively obscene to charge a man (Roosevelt) with planning the murder of millions of Americans -- a charge made in service to a man (Stalin) who had already murdered 7 million in the Terror Famine of the Ukraine. I'm not impressed by the servility and lack of intellectual honesty of a man who can switch back and forth on war according to the directions of Uncle Joe -- and dream up arguments on demand to support his orders received. That said, there are many things about his art to admire.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/26/2004

And you leave the rest to the quiet faith of man, as the song goes.

Your dismissal of Pete Seeger based on his association with the CPUSA is short-sighted. If you really read the bio, instead of scanning it for your favorite flaws, you'd understand that. Hagiography? No. Admiration and respect and gratitude. Different things, though you clearly don't understand the difference yet.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/25/2004


Did I forget to mention (as though it were necessary) that Pete was all for war before the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/25/2004

Well, Ralph, by all appearances Jon knows what I'm talking about. Songs for John Doe, an album Pete cut with the Almanac Singers, came out in mid-1941, and it accused FDR of wanting to plow under every fourth American (via war) just as the AAA plowed under crops.

Next year, with the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Pete was singing a different tune (or tunes), such as "Dear Mr. President" and "Round and Round Hitler's Grave". Pete liked to take his marching orders from the CPUSA and Uncle Joe, and his Songs for John Doe were, I'm sure, much appreciated by Hitler and Stalin alike (for a while). If you check the Seeger bio at the website for the Kennedy Center honors, you will find no mention that at one time he pimped for Uncle Joe.

Now Pete is a great artist. I just don't see him as a fount of political wisdom. To give him credit (but not too much), Pete did in his later years admit to mistakes in his love affair with Uncle Joe.

I don't think one should judge a man simply on the basis of the worst he has ever done, nor exonerate him on the basis of the best he has ever done. Hemingway was a great writer, a liar, and a bully. We should take the whole man. GW probably is an alkie, who dodged Vietnam in the NG, and even skipped out on that for three months. Kerry lobbied ridiculously for a Purple Heart he didn't deserve, and had his marriage annulled when his ex-wife asked for more child-support. Let's draw a line between history and hagiography (and by that, to be fair, I'm not even implying that Jon has done otherwise in this case, I'm just pointing out that men don't make great prophets, generally, but songs can be stored and delivered on demand to simulate prophecy).

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2004

Richard, Name names and cite evidence.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/25/2004

I seem to have hit a nerve. Pete is a great artist, no doubt. He used to say that songs are weapons. It's unfortunate that he put his weapons in the service of two of the greatest mass muderers of the last century.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2004

Well, I imagine the reason he doesn't play it anymore is that he has other songs more appropriate to the current situation. Plus, at his age and given his distinguished status, he's not under any obligation to take snippy requests from rude and ungrateful folk like yourself.

But if you want one he probably will sing, how about Malvina Reynolds' "The Bankers and the Diplomats are going in the Army"?

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/25/2004

Reading a lot of reactions to Iraq, I'm rather reminded of Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers' "Plow Under". Can't seem to get ol' Pete to play that one much anymore (I wonder why?). There's an old saying: if you marry the zeitgeist, don't be surprised if you end up a widower.

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