Like a 75-year old rolling stone

I was fortunate to grow up in an incredibly rich era for popular music – the 1960s – and to witness the emergence in real time of the two most influential actors of the last fifty-odd years. One was The Beatles, of course, who effectively defined popular music for the modern era, and continue to do so. The other was Dylan.

Now of course there were many others, at a time of almost embarrassing musical fertility: The Doors, naturally, and that guy with the frizzy hair who set fire to his guitar on stage. But, if the Beatles effectively invented the modern rock ensemble, Dylan invented the modern singer-songwriter, at least in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. I remember at school, when I was about thirteen, hearing some of the older children with guitars singing “Mr Tambourine Man” and going into a kind of shock. It had simply never occurred to me that anyone could actually write music like that. So of course I saved every penny I could find and eventually bought myself a guitar. And I little later I watched Dylan’s famous 1965 BBC concerts on black and white television in a kind of stunned admiration.

The Beatles split up, Morrison and others died, and, frankly, little that Dylan has done for the last thirty-five years has interested me very much. But happy 75th birthday anyway, Mr Zimmerman.

Thank you for everything, Mr Putin

It looks as though common sense has triumphed, and that western leaders will, after all, be meeting President Putin in the margins of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day next month, for what are generally being described as “informal” talks.

There’s an element of self-interest here, of course, since western leaders are well aware that without Russia there can be no solution to a number of the world’s current problems, and that, for all that they may sulk about Ukraine, this is likely to be true for the foreseeable future.

But it may not be too much to hope that there’s another component to these decisions: shame. It’s hard to think of a greater historical injustice, after all, than the deliberate minimisation, and even denial, of the incredible suffering of the Russian people between 1941 and 1945, and the overwhelming role played by the Red Army in the defeat of Nazism. It can’t be said often enough: it was the Soviet Union that won World War II. Ninety percent of the German war effort was directed towards the East and, had it not been for the Red Army , there would have been no D-Day to write about, and you would be reading this (if I were even allowed to write it) in German. And I do mean the Soviet Union: without the energy and discipline of the Red Army and the Communist Party, Russia would have gone down to defeat in 1941, unpopular as that idea may be today.

Much as it chokes them to do so, western leaders can hardly deny what every historian knows. It’s nearly a generation now since the end of the Communist party in Russia made it politically acceptable to recognise the real nature of the Second World War and how and why it was won, and by whom. We owe the Russian people a debt we can never repay, even if, one day, we actually started to consider thinking about perhaps starting to pay it. How about just a few words of gratitude for the cameras, oh leaders of western Europe, whose countries would not exist today without Mr Putin’s predecessors. Come on, it won’t actually hurt.


Seeger: Singing to order

I only ever saw Pete Seeger live once, and that was more than forty years ago, at the height of the folk-song boom, when Seeger was a kind of demi-god to us folkies.

I decided then, and I still think now, that Seeger was both a first-class musician, singer and songwriter and also a self-important prick. He used his considerable gifts to pursue the latest fashionable ideas, always adopting the line of least resistance, without ever taking an unpopular or principled position on anything. The most notorious case was the 1940 recording he made, with others, of anti-war songs urging Americans not to support a war against the Nazis. Although this is now indulgently  presented as a youthful error on Seeger’s part, it was nothing of the kind. It was the result of a political instruction from the American Communist Party, which was following Stalin’s orders to respect the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and to present the war as a capitalist confidence trick. When the Nazis invaded, the Soviet Union, Seeger obediently started writing songs in favor of the war. He was both an originator and an example of the disastrous tendency of the Left to abandon any coherent ideology, which might have involved difficult choices, and to opt for the simpler and easier alternative of bending to changing intellectual and political fashions

I remember from that evening how every song, whatever it was about, had a verse in favor of world peace, like, now, sellotaped onto it. I remember also that he followed the incomparable Where Have All the Flowers Gone, which you might think of as a pacifist song, with Viva La Quince Brigada,  a song in praise of the foreign volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which you might not think of as a pacifist song. He seemed completely unconscious of the slight contradiction involved here, and so, for that matter, did the immense and enthusiastic audience. But then these were the days when people would say to you, quite unself-consciously, “I’m a pacifist. I support the Viet Cong.”



For Europe Against Communism

Anybody recognise where this quotation comes from?

“For the last two and one-half years the bitter and costly struggle against Communism has made the utmost demands upon the bulk of our military resources and energies. This commitment was in keeping with the seriousness of the danger, and the over-all situation. The situation has since changed…..The commanders in chief of the services,  will guard against wasting time and energy in useless jurisdictional squabbles, and will direct all their efforts toward strengthening our defensive and offensive power.”

I’ve cheated, of course, because I’ve changed “Bolshevism” to “Communism”. But this is, in case you didn’t realise it, a quotation from Fuhrer Directive No 51, issued over Adolf Hitler’s signature exactly 70 years ago today. The unnerving correspondence between the rhetoric of the Nazis and their sympathisers about “Bolshevism,” and the Cold War rhetoric about “Communism” has never been mentioned in polite society, because it’s too embarrassing. With the passage of time, I suspect, there’ll be even less interest in those who fought, as the French collaborationist government described it in 1942 “For Europe Against Communism”.

America: Where are the pro-western moderates?

I have no idea how the current political crisis in the US will turn out. I don’t know whether there will be a compromise of sorts or whether the country will slide into bankruptcy and anarchy. There’s something more important than that to worry about.

Most political crises are about struggles for power, and they conclude when somebody wins or when there is a compromise. The assumption is always that the actors involved are rational. What’s become disturbingly clear is that some of the actors in this tragic farce are not rational, nor even just somewhat irrational, as politicians can be. They are downright nuts. Many elected Republican politicians, and nearly all their supporters, apparently believe that Obama is the Antichrist, that the end of the world will come soon, that there’s a global conspiracy against them led by the United Nations, that Climate Change is a fraud, and, indeed, almost any other lunatic and apocalyptic conspiracy you can think of, often all at the same time. These are people for whom the concept of negotiation is sinful, and for whom victory means the establishment of a virtuous Christian theocracy. Either that, or very large number of people are systematically lying to opinion pollsters and media interviewers for no obvious reason.

This isn’t really new of course. The great waves of emigration to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were almost entirely from the poorest, most backward and least developed regions of Europe. The immigrants themselves were largely uneducated, and often brought up in highly religious and conservative environments. The tendency of immigrants to cluster together in ethnic groups meant that these tendencies were reinforced, if anything, creating a specific culture of religious extremism, racialism and apocalyptic anti-modernism  in many parts of the country. Modest progress in breaking down these attitudes stopped, and even went into reverse in the 1970s. Since then, economic failure and the disintegration of traditional communities under the lash of the market economy has only encouraged the worst and most dangerous of these tendencies.

For a while, it didn’t really matter. Even on the Right, politics was actually controlled by more educated elites with a more modern and international outlook. But by the Reagan years the cracks were starting to show. The Republican party’s cynical strategy of encouraging all the most dangerous and obscurantist tendencies in American popular culture was starting to produce political figures who thought that a nuclear war might be quite a good idea, or that conservation was pointless because the world would end in a few years time. For the most part, though, these people could be politely ignored, since there were plenty of traditional, conventional right-wing figures around. By the time of the reign of Little Bush, however, it required a stupendous effort of will to ignore the fact that the President of the single post powerful country in the world was publicly announcing that the invasion of Iraq would facilitate the second coming of Jesus. It was just about possible then, but it doubtful if this trick can be pulled any more.

What this suggests is two things. First, the voice of the nut-cases who want to destroy Obama is as close as we are ever likely to get to the authentic voice of the average American. I find that worrying. The second thing is that, as a consequence, we should stop imagining that American is basically a country like Italy or New Zealand, only bigger. It’s not. In many ways it resembles Nigeria or Pakistan – a country with a relatively modern, westernised elite, perched uncomfortably on top of a deeply conservative and backward looking society, divided by extreme religious and racial tensions. And as elsewhere in the world, the extremists are increasing their political power all the time. How is the rest of the world going to deal with a country like that?

British politician in “shows backbone” shock.

So if media reports are to be believed, the leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, whose mild criticisms of contemporary capitalism led to a vicious newspaper attack on his late father, actually intends to hit back at the gutter journalists who produced it.

This is, so far as I know, a unique event in modern history. The “newspaper” in question, which calls itself the Daily Mail, has a long and sordid history of personal attacks and political hysteria directed against any politician not of the extreme Right. Moderate and left-wing politicians have been in fear of it for decades,  hoping that if they kept out of its way it would not attack them. But of course appeasing a bully – well, you know the rest, even if the Daily Mail doesn’t.

What’s most interesting about Miliband’s intended text is its continuity with his speech to his own party conference a week ago, where he said that “the real test of leadership is not whether you stand up to the weak, that’s easy; it’s whether you stand up to the strong and know who to fight for.” In other eras, that would have been too obvious to be worth saying. But for the last generation, the operating principle for vaguely progressive or left-wing politicians has been to bear down on the poor, suck up to the rich, and hope that “newspapers” like the Daily Mail won’t bother to attack them. But what’s become clear in recent years is not just that this policy doesn’t work, but that it can’t work. No matter how far to the Right these politicians have slid, no matter how unpleasant and repressive are the policies they promote, it’s never enough. They are the enemy, and will continue to be treated as dangerous Marxists even if they attend a memorial service for General Franco.

So maybe the worm is starting to turn, or at least pivot, just a bit. Nothing lasts forever in politics, and the headlong gallop of the Left towards the Right, in pursuit of a Right that was becoming a parody of itself, was bound to stop sometime. It could be now, in which case the flash of backbone and determination shown by Mr Miliband this week could actually turn out to be quite important.