US – Protest Politics – Bob Dylan’s Speech to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee – Not Ancient History, But Evidence of How “Emotional Progressivism” Offends Human Decency, Even a Half-Century Later – 3 July 2012

It’s not ancient history when you see it happening again.

I stumbled upon this link a few days ago, which recounts the history of an entirely ill-advised speech given by the folk singer Bob Dylan to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC). I bring it to your attention to illustrate how, nearly fifty years later, “emotional progressive” rhetoric can continue to offend against basic human decency, and attempts to rationalise its impact can do so as well.

Any attempt to make Dylan’s speech to the ECLC look good, presumably, must be preceded by the fact that it was delivered in 1963. That was a tough year, admittedly, especially for those involved with the civil rights movement, as Dylan was. It was the year that Medgar Evers was shot, that George Wallace became governor of Alabama proclaiming “segregation now, segregation forever”, that Martin Luther King was arrested, and that Bull Connor fired water cannons at and unleashed dogs on peaceful protesters in Birmingham. If we’re going to try to present Dylan’s speech in anything approaching a sympathetic light, presumably, we’ll have to do it by pointing out that people felt that progress was not coming quickly enough…and that those feelings were pretty understandable.

But Dylan’s speech is the perfect example of how understandable feelings lead to actions that five decades later seem incomprehensible and irrational – and that’s being charitable to Mr. Dylan. An uncharitable description of his comments would take them to be hostile and heartless.

Dylan was being given the “Tom Paine Award” by the ECLC at its annual “Bill of Rights” Dinner for his work in the civil rights movement. Dylan used the opportunity to comment favourably on the activism of a group of young people who were challenging a travel ban to Cuba. This in itself was unlikely to shock members of the ECLC, a group founded in protest of the ACLU’s decision to ban Communists from their board of directors. This is precisely the kind of thing they liked about Dylan, that he opposed such things as affronts to civil liberties. But Dylan’s speech went a bit further than that, and even today is a testament to how ugly deliberately provocative political speeches can be.

Dylan started off slow, by suggesting that those who organised the March on Washington, far from being brave individuals trying to get America to confront institutionalised racism, were a bunch of people trying “prove that they’re respectable Negroes”. As the audience squirmed in their seats, Dylan kicked it up a notch.

Not even a month after the assassination of John Kennedy, Dylan apparently thought it made sense to add this little chestnut to the speech: “I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where ā€” what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too ā€” I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone – I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me – not to go that far and shoot.”

By this point, the crowd at least recognised that silence would indicate complicity in this morally outrageous comment, and started to boo Dylan. Thank goodness for that, at least.

Why recount this story nearly half a century later? I could say it’s because I like to tell stories about old folk singers, which is certainly true enough, but that’s not the reason. The reason is that there are many floating around in protest movements today, particularly on the edges of the Occupy protests, whose “emotional progressive” rhetoric is just as irresponsible as Bob Dylan’s was.

That it was Dylan who said these things, indeed, is the point. Dylan is by most accounts a gentle and decent human being, and these words are not representative of him in an overall sense as a person. But they are barbaric words and they are his. To my knowledge he has never disclaimed them. Worse yet, we all seem to give him a pass for this stuff because, as a poet and a musical artist, we write it off as a strong expression of “feelings”.

Yes, but feelings like that can be destructive.

I am reminded of a bit from the sixth Star Trek movie here. The plot of the movie is that the Klingon Empire is, for its own internal reasons, offering to make peace with the Federation of Planets, but in the middle of the negotiations, is attacked by unknown attackers. Many on board the Enterprise sympathise with the attackers. Lieutenant Uhura observes that, though those on the Enterprise are innocent of the attack, any one of them felt the same way the attacker did. Captain Kirk disagrees, and his assessment is both straightforward and moral: “Somebody felt a lot worse.”

Dylan’s speech glosses over that someone felt a lot worse. Though Dylan himself remained a man of peace, he spoke that day about the actions of a vicious murderer, and the most that he could say is that he saw a bit of himself in the guy. What needed desperately to be said that day was just the opposite, that he saw something that was not himself in the guy. Something that needed to be defeated.

The most ugly thing about the speech, in the end, however, was not even the speech itself, but the apologia offered by ECLC board member Corliss Lamont afterwards. Even though Lamont obviously found the speech atrocious, he glossed over its content to remind ECLC members that Dylan was being honoured “to recognize the protest of youth today and to help make it understood by the older generation”. Dylan showed in his speech the side of that youth protest movement that should never be “understood” by anyone. We hear this refrain from today’s smiling radical elders as well – Occupy may be a little extreme, but we have to recognise the authentic voice of today’s protest movement, right?

Wrong. Wrong then, and wrong now.

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