Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If I Had A Hammer, It Would Look Cool Next To My Sickle

Talking Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that is

Leni Riefenstahl never got the respect she deserved. The taint of Nazism overwhelmed all other considerations when it came to her reputation.

Riefenstahl was fairly described as "an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the greatest formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles." All absolutely true, and all of absolutely no help whatsoever in rehabilitating her legacy in cinema.

She was a far greater artist than Pete Seeger. Plus she was a woman, so you might think she'd get at least some grudging acknowledgment as the pioneer for women in her field. She even lived seven years longer than Seeger did (she died at age 101), so she might have qualified for at least a little reconsideration based on the passage of enough time. But, no. She had been pro-Nazi.

Pete Seeger, on the other hand, got a total pass for the nearly two years that he played for the same team as Riefenstahl: 23 August 1939 until 22 June 1941, the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She made pro-Nazi films, and Seeger sang his heart out to keep America neutral while Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia, tried to invade Britain, and established Auschwitz. What's the moral difference between those two propagandists?

Seeger, a U.S. Communist Party member, was being objectively pro-fascist, to use the term that George Orwell applied to pacifists in World War II. Yet, he ends up being the celebrated old leftie troubadour, awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Riefenstahl just ... ended up.

It was Seeger's bad luck that he and the Almanac Singers released their debut album of FDR-bashing anti-interventionism, Songs for John Doe, just one month before Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR. But Seeger was nothing if not flexible. He withdrew Songs from distribution (although you can still find it) and came right back with a pro-FDR, pro-war, album called Dear Mr. President. Seeger did not let a decent interval pass, he just turned on a dime and resumed cheer leading, only for the other side. 

In May 1941, Seeger was all:
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, "I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won't be safe 'till everybody's dead."

Then, in February 1941, he was all:
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!

I dislike the sucking-up tone of Dear Mr. President even more than the objective pro-fascism of John Doe. "I guess you know best ... " Really, now.

Just so I don't speak too much ill of the dead on the day that he died, I'll say something in Seeger's favor. He disagreed with Joan Baez' statement that there are no good right-wing folk songs, which I think showed a commendable magnanimity. I recall seeing him say that in a television interview many, many, years ago; I've been googling like a Stakhanovite all day to find a clip of that interview but came up empty-handed, so please trust my recollection.

Seeger even sang a few examples of good right-wing folk songs, one of which was See the Beatniks (An Ode to Non-Comformity). That was a parody of Little Boxes, a song Seeger had covered and made popular, and which the satirist Tom Lehrer called the most sanctimonious song ever written. There's a good discussion of Boxes here.

RIP Seeger. You came of age in a low dishonest decade, but in the end you lived long enough that those old lies have been almost forgotten.


Anonymous said...

Way to go TSB! I thought Woody was 'old' in 1964 but we were all singing his songs and haven't been able to get em out of our heads ever since. It sure beats psychiatry for promoting mental health. gwb

Anonymous said...

TSB: I used to get 'Little Boxes' in the head whenever landing on an airplane.Now I get it everytime I drive by Loews or Home Depot. (Just a cheaper version of the same thrill)

Heck! I get sanctimonious just perusing the stupid stuff in the grocery cart ahead of me in line. Sanctimony is so humorous!! gwb

Anonymous said...

Ooops.. correction- I meant Pete Seeger.. was who I thought was old in 64. And flexibility is the cool thing about propaganda. Seeger was blacklisted for 9 or 10 years for being a commie but he endured. You have to admit choosing between Hitler and Stalin is a natural 51-49 proposition. gwb

James said...

TSB,GWB: One of the legends of the folkie world was there was a feud between the Axtons and the Seegers et al. Don't know the truth of it, but it was also rumored Hoyt recorded this old song as some sort of retort to the Seeger gang. Definitely un pc even then.

TSB said...

GWB: Seeger was plenty old in 1964; he was born in, what, 1919? I thought he was old, then, too.

I don't know why anybody had to choose between Hitler or Stalin in 1939. There were a couple democratic and humane alternatives, like Churchill and FDR. Seeger was simply on Stalin's side.

James: I'm sure the folk music world, not to mention the country world, had big disputes over hard-left urban elites like Seeger, Aaron Copeland, etc., horning in on their music as a tool for what they themselves called agit-prop. Woodie Guthrie was doing the same, but at least he had some protective coloration, being a po' country boy.

Anonymous said...

TSB: I thought FDR did a great job of mobilizing the Captains of Industry (starting with the head of GM) behind the scenes and getting them to work with the Pentagon while there was no public interest except to stay out of the war.

And supporting Stalin was brilliant. Of course now what we have is the military industrial complex running the country and bringing us gems like the F-35

Anonymous said...

TSB: That's some great history on Leni Reifenstahl and the rest of them too. How far back does your appreciation of her talents go?

TSB said...

GWB: I was awed by Riefenstahl the first time I saw Triumph of the Will, her Nazi Olympics film. Did you know she invented the whole Olympic torch run, and much else of the staging that modern Olympics still use? She invented filming techniques and technologies that revolutionized the film business. If she had been a communist film maker, like Eisenstein, she'd be regarded as one of the two or three great originators, up there with Orson Welles.

Interesting post-WWII career, also, with a lot of photography in Africa, SCUBA diving in her 80s, and much else.

Supposedly, Jodie Foster has long been developing a bio-pic in which she would play Reifenstahl. If that happens, then her reputation might get rehabilitated, if it is possible for people to separate the art from the politics it served. Personally, I can separate that easily; that's why I'm big on Eisenstein, too, and on Jacque-Louis David, the painter who was basically the artistic director of the French Revolution.

Great art can make great propaganda, and I happen to appreciate both forms.

Anonymous said...

TSB: That's all new stuff to me so I'll have to look into it! But meanwhile did you see what the Norwegians have done to retaliate for our new Ambassador? gwb


Anonymous said...

James! I love that song! Way to go Hoyt... It woulda been a hit if they's played it. gwb