May 8, 2008


American Dreamers: Pete Seeger, William F. Buckley, Jr., and public history (William Hogeland, May/June 2008, Boston Review)

The eighty-nine-year-old musician and activist Pete Seeger, who is largely responsible for connecting folk music to the American left, joined the Communist Party in his twenties. Seeger has been candid, if at times self-serving, about his early support for Stalin, but the recent PBS “American Masters” documentary on Seeger is so disingenuous, when it comes to his and the Party’s activities, that it gives an impression of 1930s communism as a program for nothing more than peace, equality, and down-home music. The young Seeger comes across as a cheerleader not for Stalin’s Russia, but only for the sorts of social reforms any progressive might advance today.

Equally misleading in its portrayal of an unsettling early position has been press coverage of the career of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died in February. Buckley made his name by providing intellectual leadership to those who did much, in the 1940s and ’50s, to punish Seeger, other former Party members, fellow-traveling liberals, and certain bystanders. Appreciations of Buckley’s contribution to conservatism blur not his embrace of McCarthyism—some of his admirers remain fairly proud of that—but his support for white Southern efforts to prevent black citizens from voting.

Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.

But these two men—their careers strangely linked in the hunt for communists, the struggle for equal rights, and the emerging “culture wars” of the postwar era—are worthy of consideration without air-brushed reminiscence. Their names alone may evoke, for those who lived through it, the anxiety and turmoil that marked American cultural and political life during the Cold War. Mutual hostility between Seeger types and Buckley types devolved on fears of imminent, world-ending invasions; plans for preventing evil from ever recurring on a mass scale; and stark disagreements over what is legitimately American. When the Soviet Union was annexing its neighbors, filling gulags, and making swaggering predictions of world dominance, and the United States was toppling elected leaders in favor of authoritarians and hounding domestic dissenters, all amid the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the division among Americans could feel, to those on both sides, like the last battle for humanity’s soul. What Seeger and Buckley’s youthful actions meant in their time, deliberately obscured by today’s lionizers, continues to mean something crucial now. [...]

That strange relationship between homemade music and left politics was further complicated in the 1930s by changes in both the U.S. government and the Comintern. In 1935 Stalin announced “The Popular Front”—a worldwide coalition of communism with liberal politics that the Party had formerly excoriated. A goal was to restrain the rise of Nazi-allied fascism at any cost. The Daily Worker started encouraging communists to collaborate with liberals. Many leftists—some of whom were disaffected by Stalin’s nationalism and dictatorship in Russia—found a place in the New Deal government. Among them were Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax, a left-wing folklorist who gave Pete Seeger a job at the Library of Congress.

But the coalition of communists and liberals did not last. In 1939 Stalin made a nonaggression pact with Hitler and repealed the Popular Front, leading many to flee the Party in disgust at the alliance with fascism. In this new ideological environment, Pete Seeger’s career blossomed. Having traveled in the South and become adept at five-string banjo, the younger Seeger put his music to the service of the new Party line, which now opposed New Deal liberalism and U.S. war against Germany. In 1940 and ’41, with the approval and guidance of Party elders (against whose dictates Seeger sometimes chafed), the group that would become known as the Almanac Singers, most notably featuring Seeger on banjo and Woody Guthrie on guitar, yoked “people’s songs” to the Party agenda in a way that neither the philosophy of Charles Seeger, nor the musicians of the Southern backcountry, ever could. As stars of Party-inspired organizing, playing for strikers and at New York rent parties, the Almanac Singers invented the music that leftists had failed to find among the actual folk.

The Almanacs gave the old songs new lyrics, celebrating unions and mocking FDR as a warmonger. (In his book Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Seeger is refreshingly self-deprecating about his “peace” verses’ doggerel and thin satire.) They began the vogue for wearing work clothes—overalls, jeans, denim shirts—to denote membership in the people. According to Joe Klein, in his definitive biography of Woody Guthrie, they adopted fake Southern accents and concocted biographies of hard travel. Most importantly for American music, The Almanacs invested their sound, which was far smoother than the real thing, with a mood of authenticity that the real folk never aspired to. Heads thrown back and mouths wide open, strumming and “singing out” with rousing, clean-cut intensity, they conjured a communist American future that was a fantasy of the rural American past.

Seeger was playing a rent party in June of 1941 when somebody rushed in with the news: Germany had invaded Russia. The pact was broken. Another reversal of the Party line immediately ensued. [...]

In the edit, there is no mention of the Party’s decisive role, which had Seeger singing against the war, then had him singing in favor of it, well before Pearl Harbor. Lost with all salient fact is any feeling for the high political emotion of the period. Nor is there any mention of Stalin or the pact, although Seeger himself has not been afraid to discuss these issues before. When he says, for example, that the communists wanted to quarantine Hitler, he is probably reviving an argument he made in his book: the great powers were actually hoping Hitler would knock out communist Russia; when ambassador Litvinov asked, in the late 1930s, for a plan to bottle Hitler up, the liberal democracies turned their backs. While some might take a more critical view of Stalin’s hope for quarantine, in the book Seeger is making a point with a basis in fact. An authorized biography by David King Dunaway (who appears as a talking head in the film) presents the young Seeger as unhappy about the pact but taking a “wait-and-see attitude.” As recently as last year, in a widely published letter to the conservative Ronald Radosh, Seeger discussed his delusions about Stalin.

In the film Seeger’s comments become meaningless. His declaration that strikes would have to wait until after the war only makes sense in a context that the film cannot give, as doing so would reveal Seeger’s tailoring his music to Communist Party instructions. [...]

But in one area—the civil rights movement—Buckley conservatives were decisively not on the winning side. “Why the South Must Prevail” is the title of a 1957 editorial by Buckley addressing efforts to enforce federal laws ensuring blacks the ability to vote. The piece argued in part:

The NAACP and others insist that the Negroes as a unit want integrated schools. Others disagree, contending that most Negroes approve the social separation of the races. What if the NAACP is correct, and the matter comes to a vote in a community in which Negroes predominate? The Negroes would, according to democratic processes, win the election; but that is the kind of situation the White community will not permit. The White community will not count the marginal Negro vote. The man who didn’t count it will be hauled up before a jury, he will plead not guilty, and the jury, upon deliberation, will find him not guilty. A federal judge, in a similar situation, might find the defendant guilty, a judgment which would affirm the law and conform with the relevant political abstractions, but whose consequences might be violent and anarchistic.

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

At the time, Buckley had been editing The National Review for only two years, having founded his magazine at twenty-nine. Though the editorial is unsigned, there can be little doubt that it is his work: editorial policy was his domain; more tellingly, its idiosyncratic blend of elegance and provocation was already becoming a Buckley trademark.

The National Review would reject the very term “civil rights movement” as “ludicrous,” insisting instead on “the Negro revolt” as late as 1964. Not only did the effort to keep blacks from voting fail, Buckley’s carefully articulated justification for illegally denying them the vote failed too, so utterly that today’s Buckleyites, celebrating the great sweep of the man’s pervasive influence, can’t seem to recall a thing about it.

The New York Times obituary did mention, briefly, that Buckley supported the segregationist South on the grounds of white cultural superiority. More typical of mainstream assessment was the long summation of Buckley’s career in Newsweek, which said only that Buckley “tolerated” segregation and supported white southerners’ “protesting.” That characterization, misleading in its vagueness, softens the conservative position on integration—the defining issue of the day, along with the Cold War. Readers of recent articles on Buckley’s career could be forgiven for having no idea that The National Review described Martin Luther King Jr. as a “rabble-rousing demagogue” who taught “anarchy and chaos” and identified integration with Soviet communism.

The more textured, less temperate discussion of Buckley’s politics developed online, where some bloggers and commenters loudly celebrated Buckley’s death as the end of an evil phony, whom some called, among other things, a racist, citing part of the ’57 editorial. Buckley fans responded that the civil-rights position was a glaring exception to a tough, not bigoted program; that the position amounted to states-rights advocacy, not racism; that Buckley later took a more enlightened view (Newsweek said that too); and that he’d acknowledged and taken responsibility for his error. Many defenders cited Buckley’s answer to a question in a 2004 Time interview: “Have you taken any positions you now regret?” Buckley’s answer: “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

There Buckley admits to having been wrong about a position far different from the one he took in “Why the South Must Prevail,” quoted above, which asserts a right—even a duty—of southern whites to preserve Jim Crow, on the basis of the white race’s supposedly greater advancement. [...]

The essay’s occasion was the recent success of Senate conservatives in preventing passage of legislation that would have required federal judges, not juries, to render verdicts in prosecutions of political operatives who failed to count black votes. The law was meant to hamper white juries’ tendencies to free such defendants regardless of evidence. A striking feature of the essay is Buckley’s outright support for jury nullification. Even more daringly he identifies a right for white southerners, when in the minority, to “take such measures as are necessary to prevail.” He presents that right as beyond the law, which he associates with “political abstractions,” and beyond even the Constitution, which he calls not adequate to cope with issues raised by Jim Crow and the struggle against it.

Buckley is making the kind of “natural law” argument for rights transcending charter and legislation that late-18th-century Americans made against the British Parliament’s incursions on their liberties. It was a case that Bilbo and Byrd, sunk in hysteria and ignorance, needed a Yale man to make for them. Instead of denying or glossing over the consequence of the bill’s defeat, Buckley announces it: “The effect of it is—and let us speak about it bluntly—to permit a jury to modify or waive the law.” Buckley calls the supposed fact that whites are morally entitled to prevail by any means necessary a “sobering” one, admits that it is “unpleasant to adduce statistics” proving the white race superior (and does not actually do so), and appeals to the better angels of southern nature, closing with a veiled threat that, if the South does not behave as Buckley expects it to, his support may have to be withdrawn:

[The South] must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.

That is the evolution Buckley was calling for in 1957: not that “we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” as he said in 2004, but that “the Negro” might, during some period determined and overseen by the superior race, evolve upward from the backwardness that had made Jim Crow not only permissible but necessary.

While this early entry is characteristic of Buckley’s lifelong approach to argument, his fans and protégés cannot claim and celebrate it, because its most important theme—about which Buckley is also blunt, and which bears on his conservatism as a whole—comes down to the three-part statement that undergirds the essay and that few conservatives today would want to affirm:

The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage . . . If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened . . . 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.

Civilization over democracy, even at the calculated, possibly tragic price of violence, taken up more in sorrow than in anger and then fought to the finish. That is the stance with which Buckley began creating a persona that may be unique in our cultural history. [...]

An important difference between Seeger and Buckley is that Seeger suffered for his beliefs.

To the contrary, while it is entirely appropriate to recall this great intellectual error in the long career of WFB, the important difference is not only that he was more often right but that he did recognize that this argument was wrong, indeed recognized it long ago. Moreover, it is especially unfair to compare him to Pete Seeger who more or less didn't acknowledge being wrong about Stalin and the USSR until that letter to Ronald Radosh in 2007 and who was generally both wrong and unrepentant on issues other than civil rights for blacks. Meanwhile, the notion that supporters of Stalin shouldn't have suffered is downright bizarre.

What might be instructive here is to examine why WFB got this question so wrong. When we do so, we discover that, strangely enough, this long time champion of conservatism and Christianity (but I repeat myself), fell into error when he adopted a Darwinian worldview. Mr. Hogeland is quite wrong that the principle of restricting suffrage is indefensible, but Buckley was tragically wrong about the basis on which it can be restricted and be consistent with the culture. In a republic Founded upon the principle that all Men are Created equal, there can be no morally just basis for treating men differently solely on the circumstances of their birth. It can not matter that one man is white, one black, one brown, one yellow, because they all have the same Creator and are endowed by Him with the same rights. Peculiar notions about superior and inferior races, while they make sense from a Rational perspective, are antithetical to Anglo-American religious and political ideology and are, quite literally, unAmerican.

On the other hand, because the Republic eschews the sort of egalitarianism that the French model insists on, it is appropriate to treat men differently on the basis of what they make of themselves. To take the most commonly accepted example--though the Left rebels even at this nowadays--we generally consider those who transgress against social norms so severely that they end up being sent to prison to have forfeited the right to vote. This is not a function of who they are, but rather what they've done. To take a less popular example, but one that would tend to elevate preservation of the culture above the cant of universal suffrage, it would be appropriate to deny the vote to non-tax payers (anyone who receives more in benefits from the state than they pay in) because they are essentially dependents whose vote is compromised. In a system that so carefully guards against the accretion of state power there is obvious danger in a situation where the state controls the livelihoods of ever more citizens and, thereby, gains power over same.

Note that the reason such restriction is permissible under the rubric of the Founding, but that Mr. Buckley's restrictions are not, is that the former conforms to the basic tenets of republicanism while the latter don't. The republican conception of liberty identifies freedom with not being dominated by the arbitrary will of others but allows for restriction on freedom so long as it is universally applied to all individuals. There is poetic justice, though little comfort, in the way that Mr. Buckley's deviation from classical conservatism and flirtation with the isms led him into the biggest mistake of his career. On the other hand, he should have known better than to accept Darwinism, even if just of the Social sort.

We Shall Overcome (Lyndon Baines Johnson, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Voting Legislation)

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans. We are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal," "government by consent of the governed," "give me liberty or give me death." Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test -- to deny a man his hopes because of his color, or race, or his religion, or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2008 9:06 AM

And old LBJ got that right.

Posted by: Mikey at May 8, 2008 4:40 PM