The New Yorker has another of its affectionate profiles of old Stalinists, this time the folk singer Pete Seeger. A regular old American, they say, a guy who would stand by the side of the road at 85 holding up a sign reading simply "Peace." A "conservative" really, who "believes ardently in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights"....
Oh, sure, they mention in parentheses that he "knew students at Harvard who were Communists and, with the idea in mind of a more equitable world, he eventually became one himself". Outside parentheses, writer Alec Wilkinson reassures us that Seeger did eventually quit the Party.
Somehow, though, they didn't quite find room to detail Seeger's long habit of following the Stalinist line. Take the best example, his twists and turns during the FDR administration. Seeger tells Wilkinson that when he was at Harvard during the late 1930s he was trying to "stop Hitler" and he became disgusted with a professor who counselled appeasement. Maybe so. But after the Hitler-Stalin pact, he and his group the Almanac Singers put out an album titled Songs of John Doe that called Franklin D Roosevelt a warmongering lackey of JP Morgan.Franklin D, listen to me,
You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea.
You may say it's for defense
That kinda talk ain't got no sense.
Then within months Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The album was pulled from the market and reportedly destroyed. The Almanac Singers quickly produced a new album, Dear Mr President, that took a different view of FDR and the war:Now, Mr President...
You're commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight ...
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!
Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi. It doesn't happen, it wouldn't happen. We're still making movies about the crimes of Nazism, a totalitarian regime that lasted 12 years, while you can count on the fingers of one hand the Hollywood movies about the bloody 70-year rule of the Communist Party....
I haven't read the New Yorker piece, but if Boaz is reporting it correctly, then it seems to me his criticisms are quite apt. Seeger may have had his virtues — whether artistic or personal — and may be worth praising for those virtues. But serious profiles of people in serious publications should discuss their subjects' vices as well as virtues.
Being a lockstep supporter of the Soviet Union, after the Ukrainian famine, after the Purges, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (whether because of moral failing or gullibility about the facts) strikes me as a vice that's much worth noting. I've seen it said that Seeger turned against Stalin eventually, and before 1956; this would be a plus for him, but not one that should lead us to sugarcoat the minuses.