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.