[Marxism] John Kerry and Langston Hughes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 26 08:56:42 MDT 2004

The neoliberals at Micro$oft's Slate Magazine are red-baiting John Kerry 
over his appropriation of a line from a Langston Hughes poem:

Kerry's Lit Crit The soon-to-be nominee sanitizes a Stalinist poem. By 
Timothy Noah Posted Monday, July 26, 2004, at 6:08 AM PT

Last month, Chatterbox urged John Kerry to drop the campaign slogan, 
"Let America be America again." Instead, Kerry has wrapped his arms more 
tightly around the slogan's regrettable source.

As Chatterbox noted in the earlier column, "Let America be America 
again" comes from a poem published in 1938 by the Harlem renaissance 
poet Langston Hughes. But Hughes intended the line ironically. A black 
man living in the pre-Civil Rights Era would have had to be insane to 
look back to a golden age of freedom and equality in America, and Hughes 
was not insane. Hughes was, rather, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the 
Soviet Union at the time he wrote "Let America Be America Again," which 
explains the poem's agitprop tone. "I am the young man, full of strength 
and hope," Hughes writes in the poem:

Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold!
Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men!
Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

Toil good, private ownership bad, etc. Hughes ends his poem on a more 
hopeful note ("America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this 
oath—/ America will be!"), but the future Hughes imagined for America 
when he wrote those words probably looked a lot like Stalinist Russia.


Before turning to the substance of Slate's red-baiting, it is worth 
pointing out how both Slate and Salon function in American political 
discourse. Slate's role is to push liberals to the right, as befits its 
New Republic lineage. The original editor was Michael Kinsley, who 
started his career at this DLC house organ. More recently, Kinsley has 
shifted to the left if his LA Times editorial attack on Kerry's prowar 
stance is any indication. On the other hand, Salon's mission is to push 
radicals to the right. As a watchdog for officially-sanctioned 
liberalism, it is constantly on the attack against Ramsey Clark, Ralph 
Nader or any other figure who strays too far to the left. Both 
publications are funded by the Silicon valley bourgeoisie, which was 
profiled in a very perceptive NY Times Magazine article yesterday: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/magazine/25DEMOCRATS.html. If they 
were not funded by rich people, they would probably go out of business 
immediately. This raises the interesting question of political culture 
in the USA. With so much of the soft left being sustained by the George 
Soros's and Paul Newman's of the world, one wonders what would happen if 
there was a huge crash that left such individuals in dire straits. If 
political opinion is published solely on the basis of volunteer labor, I 
suspect it would be weighted much more to the left.

Turning to John Kerry and Langston Hughes, it is obvious we are dealing 
with the sort of phenomenon that Thomas Frank honed in on in the pages 
of Baffler Magazine, namely the capitalist appropriation of 
countercultural themes. Kerry has about as much in common with a black 
radical's poetry as The Gap had with William S. Burroughs who modeled 
their trousers some years ago. Or Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" being used 
as the backdrop for Royal Caribean Cruise-Lines.

Just as they don't use these lyrics from "Lust for Life" in that cruise 
line commercial:

Here comes johnny yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He’s gonna do another strip tease.

I wouldn't expect Kerry to ever refer to the lines cited by Slate.

In fact, Kerry's attitude toward the sort of people championed by 
Langston Hughes has much more in common with Slate Magazine's. Their 
problem is that they are so uptight they won't allow one of their own to 
appropriate a catchy slogan, even if it was written by somebody who 
despised capitalism and racism.

Despite borrowing from Hughes, Kerry's outlook has much more in common 
with the Don Imus show, where he is a frequent guest. It was on the Imus 
show where Kerry made that crack about opponent Bill Weld "taking more 
vacations than people on welfare." Kerry often uses that show to make 
key announcements, such as his denial that he had an affair with an 
intern. Imus was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile a couple of years 
ago, where he admitted to Mike Wallace that he used the word nigger in 
private conversations. That any big-name politician would continue to 
appear on this venue is simply astonishing. But I guess if the goal is 
to remove Bush, it is okay if his replacement hangs out with 
cracker-barrel racists.

When Kerry accused Bill Weld of taking as many vacations as people on 
welfare, this wasn't just a racist jibe to endear himself to Don Imus's 
listeners. He competed with Bill Weld for the prize of sticking it to 
the poor. When he ran against Weld, he made sure to attract the votes of 
racist Boston suburbanites just as he is doing today with his attack on 
the right of undocumented workers to get a driver's license.

In 1995, the Boston Herald reported that "Bay State human services 
advocates yesterday accused Sen. John Kerry of turning his back on the 
poor by voting in favor of the GOP's sweeping welfare reform bill."

"Sen. Kerry has sunk to the lowest level of political expediency," said 
Betsy Wright, head of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition. "He's 
abandoned the children of Massachusetts."

Jim Stewart, head of Cambridge's First Church Shelter, ridiculed Kerry 
for backing a "bigoted, ill-conceived and punitive" plan. Wright said 
many activists believe Kerry's vote was influenced by the looming shadow 
of a potential 1996 challenge from Gov. William F. Weld, who pushed a 
statewide welfare crackdown.

Wright charged that Kerry, a Democrat, backed the GOP plan in hopes of 
defusing criticism from Weld that he's too soft on welfare recipients.

"Kerry has one eye on Weld," said Wright. "It's disgusting. He's afraid 
to take the heat from Weld. Activists are horrified by Kerry."

I guess that the ABB crowd is all too willing to back him despite this 
record, since he is not as evil as Bush. I'll have lots more to say 
about this down the road, but this was basically how the German people 
ended up with Hitler. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the bourgeois 
parties will continue to shift to the right. Unless the left constructs 
an alternative, we will end up not with the "lesser evil" but the 
"greater evil". That is what history reveals.


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