[Marxism] John Kerry and Langston Hughes
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
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
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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