Neil Young, the aged, iconic music star caused a stir recently with his concerts to support the fight against the Alberta Oil Sands. He had with him David Suzuki, the iconic environmental star, famed for equating humans with maggots. Also on the stage lending credibility was the Chief of an Indian band that earns hundreds of millions of dollars annually in oil sands contracts and employment. Chief Alan Adam had fifty-five thousand dollars wired directly to his numbered corporation by the Tides Foundation, acting on behalf of American corporations and billionaires, such as the Rockefellers (Standard, Exxon, Mobil Oil). Indeed, much of the opposition to the Oil Sands is sponsored by Tides’ American donors.
Young passionately recited one untruth after another, from the high rate of cancer among the Indians, to comparing the Oil Sands to Hiroshima. His audience loved it. Most of the media loved it. His dishonesty about the corporate sponsorship of his cause, his fudging of facts, his blithe ignorance were all irrelevant to the multitude of fans and supporters.
Despite protests to the contrary, music celebrities tend not to get worked up over issues that conflict with their career. Performers such as The Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez aren’t reticent to perform in venues such as Dubai, whose very existence is predicated on slave labor, all the while making statements such as they “…would never knowingly support any state, country, institution or regime that was associated with any form of human rights abuse.”
Paul Robeson (1898-1976), was the son of a former slave, an intellectual, singer, actor, All-American football player, and Columbia law school graduate. He was passionate in his defense of the oppressed, to the point of being condemned as a communist.
It was a deserved condemnation. Robeson was an admirer of the Soviet Union, releasing an album “Songs of Free Men” in its honor, and receiving the Stalin Prize in 1953. The horrors of Stalinist Russia were known: the purges, gulags, artificial famine in the Ukraine… Estimates of the numbers of Stalin’s victims range up to forty million people. Yet Robeson remained an unrepentant Stalinist.
He wasn’t Stalin’s only musical fan. In 1993 Pete Seeger agreed he should apologize for ignoring Stalin’s cruelty, but qualified the apology by adding that Christians should apologize for the Inquisition, the Europeans for conquest, and the Mongolians for Genghis Khan. While Seeger was a fervent opponent of oppression in the United States, he turned a blind eye to much greater cruelty by oppressors with whom he shared an ideological affinity, such as the USSR, and the People’s Republic of China.
In 1975, in a concert with Arlo Guthrie, Seeger performed a tune The Three Rules Of Discipline And Eight Rules Of Attention. The title comes from a code of behavior of Mao Zedong’s Red Army. Seeger provided a running commentary during the song about the moral behavior of Mao’s troops, as they sought to establish the world’s most powerful modern dictatorship.
China’s Cultural Revolution was nearing its end by the time of Seeger’s concert. Its viciousness was no secret; upwards of sixty million killed.
China is still not a friendly place. Followers of Falun Gong spirituality are jailed for their beliefs, killed, and their organs harvested for transplants. Tibet has been occupied since 1949. China has recently increased its military sabre-rattling in territorial disputes with the Philippines and Japan.
So where’s Seeger? Where are Lopez or Young, speaking up for the rights of the victims? It seems the superstar rank and file will march only when they believe it will enhance their celebrity status.
The left wing folksinger Phil Ochs mocked the industry before committing suicide: “I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts, he sure gets me singing those songs”
Tom Lehrer, a leftist satirical song writer and mathematician, also came up with a take on musicians with a cause:
“Ready! Aim! Sing!”