I hate being the skunk at the garden party, but your worshipful editorial/obituary of Pete Seeger (January 31) requires a response.
I too have sung Seeger’s songs. I too recognize his contributions to American folk music and to the civil rights movement. But an intellectually honest and serious review of his life would not ignore his active membership in the U.S. Communist Party during the 1930s and ’40s. That is when that organization slavishly followed the propaganda line and promoted the policies of the Soviet Union under Stalin, surely one of modern history’s most horrendous tyrants and destroyers of human rights, as well as a major persecutor of Jews.
(For anyone still ignorant or deluded about Stalinism, may I recommend such books as “The Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn, and “Gulag” by Washington Post writer Anne Applebaum.)
Pete Seeger willingly put his artistic talents in the service of a mass murderer. That is a grossly immoral act, no matter how much his admirers wish to forget it. He was a party member even after the Hitler-Stalin pact. If an artist or public intellectual had supported Hitler, would we simply forget it?
Ezra Pound is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century. He also was a rabid Jew-hater and Nazi sympathizer. That may not negate his art, but it is surely part of his life story. Was Leni Riefenstahl a great documentary filmmaker, or Hitler’s cinematic propagandist – or both?
As a recent article on Seeger by David Graham in the Atlantic magazine notes, “As late as the 1970s, in his column in the left-wing folk magazine Sing Out!, Seeger was giving space to horrifying ideas…. In 1999, he accepted an award from Fidel Castro’s regime. It’s hard to square these actions with the ideas Seeger promoted elsewhere, and they deserve condemnation.”
I don’t wish to condemn the man. But even while I admire his good works, I refuse to forget his bad judgments and hypocrisies, like being what used to be called a “useful idiot” for the Soviet regime. The good may indeed outweigh the bad, but the latter should not simply be airbrushed out of the picture, the way Stalin used to erase evidence of the existence of liquidated opponents.
Chief Justice Earl Warren was the main force behind Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing school segregation. He was also the wartime attorney general of California who ordered Japanese-Americans held in detention camps. Unpleasant facts should be recognized, placed in perspective, but not simplistically ignored.
So it should be with Pete Seeger. I don’t hate him. But I don’t worship him, either.