Two Fallen Idols – Pete Seeger and Woody Allen

wdyalnptsgrShakespeare had Mark Antony comment in his funeral oration for Caesar that “the Evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones” – a wistful remark on the propensity of the Roman mob to forget the many benefits they enjoyed under his reign and how grateful they had been during his lifetime only to abandon him and join in the joy of his overthrow. The Bible too recalls how many exult in “How the Mighty have Fallen” 2 Samuel:27.

The recent death of American folk singer Pete Seeger and the renewed charges of Woody Allen’s ex-wife’s daughter, Dylan Farrow present the reverse case. Both of them continue to be worshipped by the Political Left and, even more remarkably, by many in the American Jewish community who continue to regard them as icons of the cultural wars. This, in spite of a history of more than 40 years of unrepentant Stalinism by Seeger (until he allegedly saw the light when provoked in an open letter) and the grotesque image of their beloved Allen, “cool” character with the same penchant as serial seducer Bill Clinton when able to take advantage of girls 30, or 40 or 50 years his junior. No, it was not just about sex but about the indecency of using wealth, fame and position to exploit and corrupt the young and those who had been placed in a situation of a ward (Mia Farrow’s daughter and Allen’s adopted daughter).

In addition to equaling Bernie Madoff as the very antithesis of common decency, integrity and Jewish moral values, his continual preaching a hedonistic existentialism glorified by the media and an adoring public as “cool”, Woody made a career for himself by utterly denouncing his Jewish roots changing his name (from Allan Konigsberg), ridiculing his parents, mocking their orthodox Jewish background, and attacking the State of Israel.

There is no need to in anyway diminish the artistic creativeness of either man. It would be just as futile to reject the music of Richard Wagner because his views on German nationalism were subsequently endorsed by the Nazis but both Pete and Woody are examples of the power of the American Cultural elite to rewrite history and create a new reality due to their strong attachment and Leftwing sympathies long before the turbulent 60s. Their view of the United States as a corrupt, materialistic, puritanical-religious, conformist sexually frustrated and neurotic society were traced to the root of all evil – American competiveness and the mighty dollar. The other side of the coin is the continued enchantment with the see-hear-and-speak no evil of Leftwing dreams no matter how demented.  If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at the NBC information commercial about the Olympic Games in Sochi in which they praise the many stages of Russian culture for building a colossal empire and refer to the 70 years of communist atrocities and misrule as “A Pivotal Experiment” in world history (Maybe they are still awaiting a final judgment). 

The fawning obituaries for Seeger and the calls to defend Woody from being the victim of a “lynch mob” rallied to their cause in much of the establishment press and Jewish publications during the past month, enshrining them as national heroes.

Time magazine (who else) led the tribute to Pete Seeger followed closely by The new Republic (Long Live the Magnificent Heritage of Pete Seeger!”;  Jan. 28, 2014). The Time obituary under the banner “The Voice of America” (nothing less), by fellow singer and composer Arlo Guthrie idealized him for his stand against the House Un-American Activities maintaining the line endorsed by a whole new generation of young fans that somehow Senator Joe McCarthy was more dangerous than Joe Stalin. Little or no mention is made in the editorial-obituaries of his decades of devotion to the Party Line, even writing and singing a song on the eve of Pearl Harbor against President Roosevelt and his war-mongering allies in Congress.”  In 1941, he recorded the album “Songs for John Doe” with Woody Guthrie and their band, The Almanacs. He wrote the title track, a devastating critique of the president and his wife as steering America towards a policy that would aid Britain while opposing the Nazis and Japanese imperialism. The song even cast the Roosevelts as conspiring with J.P. Morgan as putting America on a war course.

1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger, the son of a famous trained musicologist and a pedigree WASP Ivy League pedigree, studying at Harvard university, joined the Young Communist League and then in 1942 , the Communist Party USA itself. He officially left in 1949 but it took more than 40 years for Seeger to give any public account that his stand might have been mistaken. Former fan, and banjo student Ronald Radosh considered him a childhood hero, only to eventually call him out to end his silence on Stalin. For Seeger until more than fifty years after Stalin’s death the wrost he could say about him was that he was a “hard driver.”

Finally, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Radosh wrote an open letter in the The New York Sun “Time for Pete Seeger to Repent” asking Seeger to give an account why he had ke[t silent so long.  Seeger answered him, writing: “I think you’re right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in the USSR” and  also enclosed a blues song that he had just written titled “Big Joe Blues”.

The Time obituary did not care to bring up even the recent past of silence in the face of the current line of political correctness such as support for the boycott and divestiture of investments in Israel, or his 1999 travel to Cuba to receive the Castro regime’s highest award for “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”

Yet, Guthrie claims that…  “Pete’s causes were not about politics or about an ideology. They were bigger than that, they were part of his soul”. For Guthrie and so many others in academia, the arts and all those who suffer from political amnesia but still want to compute his political activity into a lifetime batting average… the verdict is that “sometimes he was right; sometimes he was wrong (no mention of what, where and when he was wrong) but he was right most of the time.”(Feb.10, 2014, page 22).

I saw Pete Seeger in only one performance – an unusual one in Kibbutz Ein-Gev on the shore of lake Tiberius shortly after arriving in Israel in late 1963, he electrified the audience with his rendition in Hebrew of Tzena-Tzena and even one song in Yiddish – this was well after the brief honeymoon of strong Soviet support for the partition of Palestine in the U.N. resolution of 1947 and the East Bloc aid rushed to Israel in 1948 but the audience composed of kibbutznikim from the Mapam (Far Left) alliance regarded him as a soul brother.

Many other artists who had an infatuation with socialism travelled a similar road and were enticed by the allure of Soviet propaganda but by the 1952 trial of Czech communist leaders of Jewish origin, the 1953 Doctors’ Trials (mostly Jewish physicians accused of planning to poison Stalin), the 1956 Hungarian revolution, it was no longer possible to claim “I didn’t know” even before Khruschev’s famous Twentieth Party Congress speech in 1957 revealing the extent of Stalin’s crimes. 

Those who claimed they didn’t know didn’t wish to ask. Even Paul Robeson admitted as much shortly before his death when he realized the most famous Yiddish writers and actors in the USSR who had led the anti-Fascist Committee were “missing”. Shlomo Mikhoels, Itzik Feffer, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson and David Hofstein. In November 1948, Soviet authorities initiated a campaign to totally destroy the remains of Yiddish culture in the USSR. These leading members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee whom Robeson had met were arrested, charged with treason, bourgeois nationalism and executed. They were found guilty of “planning to set up a Jewish republic in Crimea to serve American interests.”

What makes this all the more grotesque when it comes to Pete Seeger is that besides Tzena-Tzena, his most popular song circa 1950-60 on a Soviet-Jewish topic was his  jolly rendition of a prosperous Jewish (long deceased) collective farm “Zhankoye” in the Crimea!

Of course, Seeger enthusiastically worked for civil rights, against racial discrimination, environmental protection and many other just causes in addition to his noteworthy artistic renditions of American folk music preserving the heritage of Appalachian folklore and introducing broad segments of the American public to the appeal of folk music from around the world. He also served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific where he trained as an airplane mechanic, but was happy to get the chance to entertain American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he modestly answered “I strummed my banjo.” His music was a joy to listen to but his moral failing was stunning and he did not face it honestly.

Compare Seeger with three just as famous European Leftwing artists. They all had a long standing association with the Political left and support for the Communist Party in their homelands but when they faced an agonizing truth, they refused to continue to lend their names and support to suppress it. The three deserve a salute and provide a moral example to artists, actors and directors everywhere. The three are the French actor and singer Yves Montand, the French actress Simone Signoret and Greek director Constantine Costa-Gavras. The film is Confession (French: L’Aveu), a 1970 French-Italian production based on the true story of Czech communist Artur London, a defendant in the infamous anti-Semitic trials held in Prague in 1952, named the Slansky Trials after the chief defendant. The guilty verdict sent eleven officials, mostly Jews to the gallows for spying for the United States and the absurd charge of “Trotskiyite-Titoist-Zionist activities”. As in the purge trials of the 1930s, the defendants were craven in court, admitted their guilt and requested to be justly punished and sent to death. The results were achieved by sleep deprivation, drugs, torture.

To play the role of London, Yves Montand, already shaken by the Hungarian revolt, lost 35 pounds. For him, it was a chance to redeem his conscience. He said in an interview “There was in what I inflicted upon myself [for this role], something of an act of expiation.”

Woody Allen preached a secular existentialism of seeking pleasure to evade all sense of responsibility. It is no wonder that he turned into mocking the dour, pious, Danish philosopher Kirkegaard, a gag routine and source of much of his humor in a number of films, most notably Love and Death. For Allen, mocking and defying death, reducing love to lust, ridiculing meditation and contemplation and spoofing anxiety are all themes that many college students have loved to adopt if they wished to postpone important decisions about becoming adults.

The reaction of the Jewish liberal establishment to the latest charges has been full of hand wringing, dismay and perplexity in trying to bridge the gap between denying the probable, relegating it to a “lynch mob” or insistent editorializing not to confuse the message (Allen’s brilliant satirical humor) with the messenger.

As Ezra Glinter noted in The Jewish Daily Forward (Feb. 3, 2014) ….”It would be different if Woody Allen were dead, or had faded into obsolescence. Then we could say, Well, he was probably a child molester, but he made some great movies. Plenty of great works of art have been created by morally corrupt artists”. And even more honestly conceded that ….”For those of us who have written about Allen or praised him or invested ourselves in his work, it’s hard not to feel tainted. And this isn’t just a problem for a writer — it’s a problem for everyone who ever has, or ever will, watch and love a Woody Allen movie. It’s a problem for Jews, who have made Woody Allen an icon of American Jewish culture. It’s a problem, as Farrow makes clear, for the entertainment industry that supports and honors him. Right now Woody Allen is a problem for us all”.

In one of his most popular films, Love and Death, Allen puts into the mouth of the main character Boris much of what could be called his view on these subjects and it is both revealing and prescient… “The question is have I learned anything about life? Only that human beings are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations like poetry and philosophy but the body has all the fun. The important thing I think is not to be bitter….If it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically He’s an underachiever. After all there are worse things in life than death. If you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I’m talking about. The key is not to think of death as an end but more of a very effective way of cutting down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It’s not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It’s the quality….Well, that’s about it from me folks. Goodbye!

What makes Allen, many Jews and others on the liberal-progressive side of important contemporary issues involving moral values, so contemptuous, ignorant or flippant about the melancholic Kirkegaard who taught that life was inherently tragic?

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, writing in the Menorah Journal in 1949, expressed the view that although Kirkegaard did not directly address himself to Jews or Judaism, they have overheard him. In part, because they could not help it after being confronted by the depths of evil encountered in the Holocaust.  And they would be well advised to learn what Kirkegaard can teach them about themselves. Steinberg took issue with the prevailing ethos of many in the Jewish community whose optimism and belief in the progress of reforming society as well as their concern about material success had made them woefully short-sighted in confronting life’s challenges and the reality of the destructive power of evil. 

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