Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Pete Seeger and the Purpose of Hammers

Pete Seeger performing in the 1950s

If I had a hammer,
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening,
All over this land

I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.


Well I got a hammer,
And I got a bell,
And I got a song to sing, all over this land.

It's the hammer of Justice,
It's the bell of Freedom,
It's the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
—Pete Seeger, 1949

Like everybody else on my Facebook wall — people my age, older than I, and younger than I — I grew up on Pete Seeger's music, on his warm voice, and on his sunny optimism and apparent unflagging commitment to every decent cause of humanity. It is hard to imagine a world without him, for sure. 94 is an impressive age. That said, I feel compelled to raise a few questions about the meaning of Pete Seeger. With all due respect to somebody who lived his long life in an apparently principled. humble and admirable way, I don't mean to piss on his personal reputation. But something needs to be said, not about Seeger the man, but about the comfortable niche that Seeger's vision found in American society.

Somewhere between the late 1930s, the 40s and 50s, American radicalism became so infatuated with its own narrative that it cast aside the quest for actual political power. With a few heroic exceptions (and to be fair, by the 1950s in the face of extraordinary repression), American leftists began to repudiate the idea of making actual revolution, of challenging the state power of capitalism. In hoping to ride progressive but ultimately no more than liberal waves of change and avert the harsh scrutiny of cold-war anti-communism, radicals started to deny that their goals represented any kind of threat to the American system as we know it. By the time that the McCarthyite reign of terror made such disavowals legally beneficial, something was rooted out of radicalism, and that was its revolutionary spirit. While this spirit has occasionally returned for short periods of time (as in the aftermath of the 1960s student, antiwar and black-consciousness movements that birthed the New Communist Movement and a host of other mostly doomed left grouplets), an utterly reformist lack of imagination came to dominate American social movements. Political struggle would be the good fight, but it would only take place in a context of an almost mythological view of America that smoothed out all the rough edges, and assured us that good would triumph over evil if only our intentions were true and our votes wisely cast.

Pete Seeger, as witness to most of the 20th century, was profoundly a product of that process. He came up as a fellow traveler of rightward-drifting American communism. His radicalism was tamed, unthreatening, heartwarming even. The faux nativism of the folk movement, as much as it combined egalitarian notions that allowed common people to make their own music, also marked a perpetuation of the mythological narcissism that defanged the American left. Social justice activism has done a lot of great things, all to the tune of Seeger's soundtrack no doubt. But this sunny narrative of the good fight will never actually end the cause of everything that is foundationally wrong with our system. Indeed, it perpetuates the system because it waves away difficult and unpleasant questions about capitalism itself and what it might take to actually finally transform society by confronting state power. It is a harsh question to ask but at what point does Seeger's music become the lullaby that lulls us to the sleep of satisfaction with the incremental?

All these incremental struggles over the past few decades: there's much real progress there, along with the unresolved and the lost and the undone. But, and nothing has taught me this more than the experience of the Obama years, that hammer has to do more than ring out warnings. The myth that everything gets better and returns to some primal American state of fundamental justice is demonstrably a lie that in turn perpetuates capitalism. I think there's something in the culture of Pete Seeger that consciously perpetuates this liberal, reformist myth.

The love between our sisters and our brothers is a thing of beauty, for sure.
But hammers are also for smashing things that need to be smashed.