Pete Seeger and the rule of “de mortuis”

Morally, Pete Seeger stands a lot taller than the people now pissing on his grave. Better banjo player, too.

I see that “conservatives”(Howard Husok and Scott Johnson, for example) are showing their respect for traditional values by pissing on Pete Seeger’s grave before it’s even been dug. Like Mike O’Hare, I have no apology to offer for Seeger’s support of a totalitarian system in Europe except that he failed to grasp the full nature of what he was defending. (Seeger does deserve some credit for his belated denunciation of Soviet tyranny after the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1980.)

What the critics fail to note is that there was a system of totalitarian oppression considerably closer to home than the Ukraine. When the Communists were demading equal rights for African-Americans, “conservatives” such as William Buckley were defending the violent suppression of black voting in the south to maintain the “advanced race” in power.

As to support for totalitarian systems abroad, Dick Cheney remained a fan of white-minority rule in South Africa – and a foe of “Communists” and “terrorists” like Nelson Mandela who wanted to overturn it – long after Seeger abandoned Stalinism. Or think of the long list of “our S.O.B.’s” around the globe: Franco, Battista, Papa Doc, Mobutu, the Somozas and the Contras, the Shah, the Greek colonels, d’Aubuisson, Savimbi, Pinochet, Chiang, the ISI in Pakistan. None of them, and none of the American politicians who backed them as they ruled by terror and torture, attracted any animus from the right wing resembling the attacks on Seeger. Did City Journal publish a memorial F.U. to Buckley, or to Strom Thurmond? Not that I saw.

So the people now denouncing Seeger mostly aren’t in any moral position to criticize him. And not a one of them is worth a damn as a banjo player.

Update In answer to queries in the commments:

1. Yes, Seeger renounced Communism. He quit the Party in 1950, and in 1980, addressing the Town Hall protest meeting over the imposition of martial law in Poland, he gave a long and moving speech (which I can’t find in video or transcript, though Susan Sontag’s talk that same evening is famous) about how his fear of playing into the hands of “anti-Communist” warmongers had caused him to be inappropriately silent about East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Again, I’m not aware of any of the people now criticizing Seeger having made any comparable recantation about the tyrannies they have supported, or comparable criticisms of the people who supported our domestic racial tyranny when Seeger and his fellow Communists were opposing it.

2. And yes, Buckley endorsed violent as well as non-violent means to maintain white power in the South, subject only to the caveat that the costs of violence had to be weighed against its benefits.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

21 thoughts on “Pete Seeger and the rule of “de mortuis””

  1. Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham Church bombing, and the response of the National Review was remembered by some:

    They speculated that maybe the bombing was the act “of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion…” but the circumstantial evidence never existed. And they blamed the bomb on the civil rights protests and the Supreme Court for interpreting the 14th Amendment’s insistence on equal protection of the laws to mean that citizens of the US deserved equal protection of the laws.

    Again, youth and naïveté were not factors in the conservative response to the bombing. They were old enough to know what they were saying.

  2. Thanks for this generous comment. I am not crazy about “totalitarian” in graf 1. This was a term used by Sidney Hook (see AAUP Bulletin, December 1939) to ruin the lives of other academics because of their personal politics. At the same time, Hook et al were promoting Trotsky, who was — as Emma Goldman reminded Hook and his sponsor John Dewey in ’38 — quite brutal himself. Hook (sometimes, in the ’50s, in partnership with Arthur Schlesinger) pursued his foes without mercy, though there is little evidence that the survivors harmed the nation in any way. But they were fired and on odd occasions driven to suicide.

    “Totalitarian” may have some uses, but in this case, the victims had committed no crimes, and their loss damaged the academy, especially in Far Easter Studies and in social and economic history. I’d say, drop the term. It has a nasty history. If people committed crimes, name the crimes. Usually, they did not.

    Dan Tompkins

    1. Supporting Trotsky in the late 1930s was likely to be more about a reaction to Stalin’s purges, show trials, and general evil than it is a dispassionate conclusion based on Trotsky’s own merits and deeds. It amounts to pining for the lost idealism of 1917, not to an endorsement of the many summary executions Trotsky ordered in the civil war.

  3. Not my field, but there ought to be a name for systems of total control more profound than simple tyranny. The Shah ran a nasty, brutal regime. But what replaced him was qualitatively worse.

    1. My field is ancient rhetoric, so I’m right at home with “totalitarian.” The problem is that in the American consciousness, while certainly accurate as a description of the USSR, it was also a weapon used by Hook et al to ruin the lives of their political foes, and by Jeane Kirkpatrick to defend dictators. It’s as if someone had exhumed Sidney Hook.

      In our world — the academy — “totalitarian” was central on the nationwide effort to fire people who signed the wrong petition in 1938 (plenty of accounts in the Hoover Institution archive), or supported Henry Wallace in ’48. Once the term is introduced, all the good acts — e.g. resisting the NY Chamber of Commerce use of crummy eugenic theories in 1939 to oppose immigration by the wrong sorts of people, raising massive sums for Russian War Relief (RWR) — fall under a cloud, and people like Seeger or I.F. Stone become demonized, as Mark Kleiman very helpfully noted.

      The American academy (except for Sarah Lawrence and a few other places) took a step backward in that era. People suffered, but so did our fields, as some of the most creative people doing social and economic history were summarily fired. Ironically, by the 1970s these people were under fire as “anti-Marxists.” Too often they were replaced by shallow unthreatening mediocrities. UK had the Communist Party Historians Group, which did a lot of good without damaging national security at all.

      I’d say, retire the term. It’s too capacious, too indiscriminately damning. NYT records that Seeger did benefits for RWR and spoke back to HUAC. Some of these guys were impressed that USSR had taken and inflicted 80% of the casualties in Europe in WWII. We need to be able to talk about the crimes of Stalin without damning survivors of the Depression who wanted to make America a better place.


      1. Dan,

        Although I’m a statistician, I love words. You’ve made a cogent argument that totalitarian is too loaded with historical connotation to be used in the academy. But as Mark notes, we need an adjective for something beyond tyrannies.

        What do you suggest we use in its stead?

      2. googling RWR brings up, first a lot of stock market related stuff, then “right wing resistance” which strikes me as almost equally implausible in this context. How about giving us a hint?

  4. Seeger does deserve some credit for his belated denunciation of Soviet tyranny after the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1980.

    Does he? Coincidentally, William Hogeland deconstructed Buckley’s apology, then took aim at Seeger’s:

    After printing Seeger’s apology, he imagines what Buckley might say, since it takes one to know one:

    To which Buckley, raising both eyebrows and flashing a shit-eating grin, might purr: “Ah. So you don’t apologize…”

  5. You may produce my defense of a politician at your leisure. (As distinct from my quibbling with a particular attack on one…) But you’re right, I’m no good at the banjo.

  6. I suppose I’ll sum up my feelings about Seeger, and then drop the topic.

    Seeger was a superb musician, and an advocate for an utterly evil cause.

    It’s a measure of his success, and the success of his fellows, that to so characterize a cause that slaughtered so many during the last century is even the slightest bit contraversial, that to state somebody was or is a communist is not to damn them in everyone’s eyes.

    It’s a measure of their failure, that to so characterize that cause doesn’t get me executed.

    Let us celebrate his success as a musician, and his failure as a communist. They’re both worth celebrating.

    1. Let us celebrate his success as a musician, and his failure as a communist. They’re both worth celebrating.

      Well put.

      1. Except he was very successful as a communist – as he defined the term. His failure in arranging the deaths of millions wasn’t actually a failure because that was never part of his plan. His success in portraying the plight of the downtrodden was a result of his deliberate effort.

        The need to tie Seeger to his more naive sentiments was never about anything other than discrediting him for dishonorable reasons. You saw the same thing with MLK and his ties to commies. Those ties were very real, but they aren’t terribly important in the big scheme of things, and their significance needs to be understood in the context of the times.

        The incomprehension over how, say, Paul Robeson arrived at his communist views is the willful ignorance of people who want to paper over their own villainy.

        1. The need to tie Seeger to his more naive sentiments

          The incomprehension over how, say, Paul Robeson arrived at his communist views is the willful ignorance of people who want to paper over their own villainy.

          You appear to understand the evil of “willful ignorance”. I would suggest that you examine Seeger’s “naive sentiments” under the same light.

  7. Note that Seeger’s naive idea about communism pretty much matched that of J. Edgar Hoover. Both understood it to be inextricably tied to basic human decency – they just took different sides on the human decency issue.

    The fact that both were wrong about communism is interesting, but they are both correctly remembered for their stance on the larger issue of human rights.

  8. What about Buckley’s linked article supports “violent suppression of black voting?”

    There are all kinds of ways for the “advanced people” to get their way when a majority disagrees. (Look at the history of gay marriage in California for a current example.)

    Nothing Buckley says sounds significantly different than today’s gay marriage advocates.

    1. Sam gets it! You make history say what you want by stripping out context. Buckley says this:

      Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”

      Regarding the 1957 South, there is zero ambiguity about what Buckley is going for here if you are willing to acknowledge the context of the times.

      But Sam doesn’t want to do that, so okay. But if you want to misrepresent Buckley’s intent, it’s not enough to ignore the obvious context of Jim Crow and lynchings. You have to strip the quote out of the context of the actual article.

      The question, as far as White people are concerned, is whether the claims of civilisation supercede those of universal suffrage.

      Well sure, he’s against universal suffrage in the South, but that doesn’t mean he favors violent suppression of the black vote, right? I mean, yes, he’s writing about “being entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail” and Jim Crow measures prominently featured violence, but a nice patrician guy like Buckley is going to leave Sam the opportunity for plausible deniability, right?

      Except, oops:

      Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence”

  9. They’ll be back. DISQUS is now digesting the 90,000 comments from the old system, and I’m told it will take a day or so.

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