Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lou Reed, Israel, and Backlash Politics

Some people on the left will always find something to complain about, and, in the case of Lou Reed, the recently deceased founder of the Velvet Underground, it is the support for Israel expressed in the song "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim." The specific lyrics are "Jesse you say common ground/ Does that include the P.L.O?/ What about people right here, right now/ Who fought for you not so long ago?" Jesse refers to Jesse Jackson, who had run for president in the Democratic primaries in 1984 and 1988, just before "New York," the album including "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" was released (in other words, the song was not very timely, as the Democratic primaries had already run their course, and Jackson would never again play as prominent a role in American life). "the people.. who fought for you not so long ago" refers to Jews who participated in the civil rights movement, as Reed goes on to sing "remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground." The song ends on an even more condescending note: "And Jesse you're inside my thoughts/As the rhythmic words subside/My common ground invites you in/Or do you prefer to wait outside?"  It's a terrible song, and mostly reveals that Lou Reed should have stayed away from politics, which he did nearly his entire career. No point celebrating his engagement with a typical bunch of causes appealing to liberal artists, or his anti-American misanthropy (another standard liberal trope), as John Nichols does

Reed was distinguished by writing about the demimonde he encountered in New York in a decidely private, apolitical manner. Based on their lyrical content, you would be hard pressed to realize that the four great Velvet Underground records were produced during the largest upsurge of protest in the US since the thirties (although there is that reference to "all you protest kids" in "Sweet Jane"). I remember reading somewhere that the Velvets played once with that other great proto-punk band, the MC5, universally regarded as far more political, and were horrified when the MC5's lead singer encouraged the crowd to rip the club up in the spirit of "tear the system down." Reed apparently got out on stage and said he appreciated the club and its owner for letting them play. This story reflects well on Reed, in my opinion.

Notwithstanding that "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" is something of an outlier in Reed's career, I find it strangely fascinating. It does capture something about the mood among Jewish liberals following the sixties. It is not only a question of supporting Israel. At least as important is that Israel provides the context for Reed to disdain Jesse Jackson, as does Louis Farrakhan, elsewhere in the song. The moral structure of the song is an unintentional travesty of the guilt tripping often ascribed to Jewish parents--after all I've done for you ("remember those civil rights workers..."), you go and do this (talk to Arafat). He seems puzzled and angry that Jesse won't follow HIS lead: "My common ground invites you in.."  There is another Reed song that references similar themes. In "I Wanna be Black," a parody of white hipster's racial aspirations, he declares that one of the things he could do if his race were different is "fuck up the Jews." Here again, African American perceptions of Jews are imagined as alienating and divisive (I suspect the reference here is to tensions epitomized by the antisemitic poem read on the radio during the Brownsville Ocean Hill teachers' strike).

The outlook Reed delineates here was shared by a generation of liberal Jews. Those who gravitated to the far left did not share it, but they were a small minority.  The bigger picture is something like this. In the fifties and sixties, Israel was seen as a good liberal cause among American Jews (and even many others on the left). It was not that a big a deal for wider American politics. Jewish life in Israel had socialist overtones--think of the Kibbutz. There was no significant challenge to this perspective within the United States. Jews then, as now, were heavily represented in the liberal professions (teachers, social workers, social scientists) and the worldview fostered fit well with the expansion of New Deal/Great Society programs.Liberal Jews also supported the civil rights movement. Jews know what is it like to be an oppressed minority. Jews simply wanted all the doors of American society to be open to everybody, so talent could thrive (the Jews most directly involved in the civil rights movement may have seen things differently, since they often had a far left background). Then, in 1967, Israel triumphed militarily over its neighbors. This heightened a nationalist identification with Israel among American Jews. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, the world left turned decisively against Israel, and support for the cause of Palestine self determination became increasingly prominent. This alone was baffling for many American Jewish liberals, who had no idea why people might have problems with Israel. The explanation was to mash Yassir Arafat, Adolf Hitler, the Arab public, Third World leftists into a sort of ur Anti-Semitism that is continually reinvented (hence, Kurt Waldheim's inclusion in the song). Add to this the equation of the Soviet Union with anti-semitism, and we can begin to see how US power would be embraced as the last best hope for Jews in the world.  Domestically, liberalism was also in crisis. The aforementioned teachers' strike epitomized liberal Jews declining ability to play a role as a senior partner to African Americans. Riots were sometimes perceived as targeting Jewish businesses in African American neighborhoods. The growing crisis of urban America was often portrayed as one in which African Americans had betrayed their alliance with liberal Jews, although, really, liberal Jews didn't show as much sympathy for concerns more oriented towards self determination, political power and economic struggles that characterized the late sixties and seventies.

This is a forgotten element of the backlash politics of the seventies and eighties. It is far more widely discussed that corporate America organized itself to destroy union and government regulatory power, that whites in the South moved into the Republican column, that working class whites in the North feared competition from African Americans or school integration, and that evangelical christianity reawakened as a political force allied with right wing Republicans. But the crisis of liberalism--and Jews then (to some extent, still) were a disproportionate, even leading element of American liberals--is often forgotten. 

Today, these politics mostly seem like ancient history. The torch at Dissent has passed from the likes of Michael Walzer, who would probably agree with "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim," to a younger generation, that, at a minimum, would be highly critical of Israel. It's been over ten years since Stephen Malkmus, an heir to Reed if ever there was one, sang "my Palestinian nephew got his face blown off in a dusty craft." As third world radicalism and Black nationalism have receded, so has paranoia over them. Given the greater prominence of Arab Americans, it's gotten a lot harder for college educated Americans, Jewish or not, to never learn how others see Israel.The turn to neoconservatism by some after 9-11 was less profound and intense than the earlier shift described above. The Nation still prints the rants of Eric Alterman, but they lack the heft of similar stuff written by Paul Berman in the 1980s. On the downside, neoliberal/neoconservative principles are now so entrenched in the US that it is not clear they require a living ideology to reproduce themselves.

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