---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 28 May 2002 18:12:02 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Is Left-Wing Culture Patriotic?
Is Left-Wing Culture Patriotic?
by Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | May 24, 2002
I HAD NOT HEARD of the rapper Raymond "Boots" Riley until earlier this
week, when the May 22 Washington Post Style section ran its feature front
page article about the self-proclaimed "rapper communist," a man journalist
David Segal describes as someone "better known as a bomb thrower;" and as
lead vocalist and longest standing member of a hip-hop group called "The
Coup." That I did not know of him is hardly surprising. Rap music is not
exactly my beat. I tend to prefer bluegrass, alternative country, blues and
traditional folk music. But according to the article, the group's fourth
album, "Party Music", as in Communist Party, not party, party, has been
dubbed by our venerable music critics as an album filled with "wit and
surprising tenderness," as well as "humor and funky bravado." Indeed, three
New York Times pop critics chose it as one of the year's best CDs, as did
Rolling Stone, Spin, The Los Angeles Times---the list goes on and on.
Fortunately for us, the company that produced the album is in the shoals of
collapse, and therefore seems to be generally unavailable. Now I have
admitted I have not heard the album. Perhaps as hip-hop goes, Riley's work
stands out favorably. From the few soundbites of the album available to
hear at Amazon.com, I am not impressed. "Lazymuthafucka" has Riley
proclaiming that were are "all controlled by lazy muthafuckas," which
seems, despite its techno beat and chorus, hardly profound.
"Ride the Fence" includes this verse:
This beat is joyful like jailbreaks
The whole world is anti-United Snakes
So check it out, anticipate the anti-venom
And move your antibodies to this revolution rhythm
We goin' be messin' with 'em.
Another ditty, "Get Up," tells us:
Honestly, I'm against this Government.
I don't have to cover it up; that's what I meant.
^┼.the Ghetto's a cave
They only give you two choices; be a rebel or a slave.
I guess if you're a Chomskyite, then perhaps you will like dancing to it.
Riley covers just about everything. Paul Simon once sang about the many
ways to leave your lover; Riley sings about "5 Million Ways to Kill a
C.E.O." No wonder the media pundits are bamboozled by Riley; David Segal
explains that Riley is trying to "sell communism not just as a way to seize
the means of production," but more importantly, as a "shortcut to the
all-night dance bash of your dreams." He should, of course, speak for
himself. Anyone trying to dance listening to this for more than ten minutes
is certain to come down with one giant migraine. Perhaps on second thought,
that is good preparation for the communist future.
Segal also likes Riley's belief that "Bolshevism can be a hoot," and he
finds his "attempts at persuasion^┼wry and winningly subversive." Or maybe
Mr. Segal doesn't need much to persuade him. As for Boots Riley, he stands
tough as any of his Communist heroes. Don't get caught carrying an American
flag anywhere near one of his performances. As he says in a prepared
statement: "The Coup does not support the American flag. It stands for
oppression, slavery and murder." Segal claims that the high-paying audience
at B.B. King's nightclub in New York City's Times Square cheered. Maybe
Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt was among his fans; seeking musical
support for her now famous refusal to let her daughter fly the flag from
their living room window after 9/11.
Of course, Segal does point out that Riley has a bit of a problem with the
same contradiction that must have plagued "Rage Against The Machine," when
these Harvard Chomskyites became rock and roll superstars on a major label,
playing giant stadiums and making the big capitalist bucks. And so we learn
that Riley is, as Segal puts it, "making a whole lot of peace with
capitalism." Indeed, his recent tour was funded by----you guessed it, Pepsi
Cola. I guess when the means of production are seized; the profits
distributed to the poor and the companies nationalized, Pepsi is seeking an
insurance policy. Maybe Boots will put in a good word for them, and they'll
only nationalize Coke.
Like the new generation of folksingers who carry on their parents'
traditions, Pete Seeger is passing his mantle to his grandson Tao Rodriguez
Seeger, who tours with him; Arlo Guthrie's daughter Sarah is touring and
taking on the family business, Riley is following on his dad's footsteps,
it seems that his father, Walter Riley, was an organizer for the
ultra-Maoist 1960s Communist breakaway group, Progressive Labor. "My wife
and I hoped that our children would ingest our ideals," he proudly
comments. Good thing PL isn't around much; anyone singing rap would most
likely have been expelled for such revisionist deviationism. It's a far cry
from the kind of "people's music" the PL comrades favored.
At least Riley eschews patriotism, and admits up front to being
anti-American, anti-capitalist and to be a self-proclaimed revolutionary.
This is not the case for Peter Dreier and Dick Flacks, two old, New Left
veterans and Red-diaper babies. Writing in the June 3 Nation, they prefer
to resurrect the Popular Front of the 1940s Communist heyday, because
unlike Riley, they want to prove that the Left is really patriotic, and not
anti-American, as its critics charge. What angers them are all those people
who think only conservatives fly the flag and are patriotic. Perhaps their
problem is that they don't read The Nation regularly, or certainly, they
don't listen to Boots Riley.
All their examples of Communist patriotism are drawn from the World War II
years, and they somehow forget to mention that all those lyrics and
cantatas and songs they cite were written during the golden years of the
American-Soviet alliance against Hitler---when the Reds could still serve
Stalin and pretend to be American patriots at the same time. Or they go
back to 1891, when Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of
Allegiance, which went along with a campaign he was involved in to
celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America by
"promoting the use of the flag in public schools." Where have Dreier and
Flacks been these last few years? Can they find me a Leftist today who
wants to celebrate that imperialist racist Columbus by flying the American
flag? As for Bellamy, they note that he wanted "all the schoolchildren of
America to recite the pledge at the same moment." Find me a Leftist today
who calls for that; he'll have the ACLU on his back in one day!
As to the music they praise, it of course is that of Woody Guthrie; Marc
Blitzstein, Aaron Copland and Earl Robinson----you get the idea, Party
members or fellow travelers who tried to, in their words, "combine
patriotism and progressivism."
Now it is true, as they note, that Robinson and John LaTouche wrote "Ballad
for Americans," a sing-song ode to our democracy. During the war years it
was so popular that it was sung both at the 1940 Republican Party
convention and that of the American Communist Party, which then under the
reign of Earl Browder, used the slogan "Communism is Twentieth Century
Americanism." But much to these authors' dismay, they were shocked to find
that the song was revived in our nation's 1976 bicentennial celebration.
Another revived ballad of that era by Lewis Allen and Earl Robinson, was
"The House I Live in," sung in a film short of the ^A'40s written by the
Communist writer Albert Maltz, in which Frank Sinatra is shown singing a
song about racial equality to a bunch of school kids.
Sinatra, they write, had the nerve to sing it at the 1986 Statue of Liberty
Centennial, in front of President Ronald Reagan---where undoubtedly, a good
portion of our countrymen heard it for the first time. To these to it was
the final irony: "Sinatra performing a patriotic anthem written by
blacklisted writers to a President who^┼helped create Hollywood's purge of
radicals." They just don't get it. The irony is that the Communists who
wrote these words thought privately that they were advocating Communism.
Earl Robinson even said in an interview that was what he had in mind when
penning his music. But since it was the Popular Front, only those in the
know got the hidden message---while most Americans saw the songs as musical
contributions meant to bolster the spirit of wartime unity. And the
generalized lyrics expressed traditional American democratic
goals----acceptable to most Americans whose concept of patriotism was not
that of service to Joe Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union.
Sinatra did not have to change the words when he sang it in 1986, and as
President of the United States, Ronald Reagan had as much right to endorse
its sentiment of racial equality as anyone else.
What Dreier and Flacks are arguing is that the Left is really composed of
the patriots and the Right is not. The "progressive authors" they
cite---they really should say Communist authors, are those who rejected
"blind nationalism, militaristic drum-beating and sheep-like conformism."
Actually they are people who supported Stalin and the USSR blindly, who
rationalized the totalitarian dictatorship, and who beat the drums for
peace only at the time when Stalin wanted a peace campaign to offset any
Western response to his global ambition. Today, the hard Left stands in the
tradition of opposing those who understand the need for a tough response to
the threat of terrorism. That is precisely why Michael Walzer wrote his
much-quoted essay "Can There Be a Decent Left?" for the social-democratic
Dissent. He thinks that there can be; he knows that at present, the
mainstream of what remains of the Left first has to prove itself. The
cultural legacy of today's Left is, indeed, that personified by Boots
Riley. It is not that of the cozy and warm dream-world of the Popular Front
Leftists, and it is stridently and proudly anti-American. As for me, when I
order a soda, I'm afraid I'm going to have to remember to ask for Coke.
They need the profits before nationalization takes place.
Ronald Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New
Left and the Leftover Left, (Encounter Books,2001,) and is a columnist for
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