Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Save Free Speech, Support Steve Earle!

Steve Earle is currently being vilified for his new album Jerusalem (not even released yet) by various folks, mainly of the knee-jerk right-wing variety. He's written a song called John Walker's Blues which some claim is anti-American and compares John Walker Lindh (remember the "American Taliban"?) with Jesus. No, it doesn't. It attempts to get into the mind of Lindh and show us what this misguided kid might have been thinking when he was wandering around the desert in Afghanistan like John the the Baptist, getting hairier but not getting any wiser. So yes, this is yet another case of folks mistaking the voice of the narrator in a work of art for the voice of the writer. Anyway, some of these folks are suggesting we boycott stores selling the CD, radio stations playing it, etc--your usual anti free-speech, let's repeal the Bill of Rights stuff. Though so far, I haven't heard of anyone trying to ban the CD itself. Yet.

The Nation recently covered the right's attack on Earle as has Salon. The New York Times published an interview with Earle in which he explains the song as well as his thoughts on the John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney. He also clearly explains his thoughts about Lindh and the Taliban on his web site: "I don't condone what he did. Still, he's a 20 year-old kid. My son Justin is almost exactly Walker's age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too."

If you haven't heard Earle's music, he's a tough, gravelly-voiced "country" singer who's music isn't likely to be played on your local country station any time soon. He had a hit back in the '80s with Copperhead Road, then spent a stint in jail for heroin possession. After recovered from his addiction, Earle entered an incredibly creative and productive period of his life: he's released 7 albums in the past 8 years, written a book of short stories, a play, and he's even appearing in the TV show, The Wire. He's a damn fine and thoughtful musician.

Support free speech and go buy his new album, Jerusalem.

Christopher Hitchens, a fine lefty writer, wrote a review of Martin Amis's new book Koba the Dread for this month's Atlantic Monthly. I had a problem with his review, so I wrote a letter:

On Hitchen’s review of the Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread: I know far less about the events involved than Hitchens or Amis, and Hitchens writes far more authoritatively about the era than I ever could (and I enjoy reading his writing); however, he also (somehow) misses the point.

Amis is absolutely correct: figuratively speaking, nobody does know about the horrors perpetrated under Stalin, not compared to Hitler's atrocities. In the language of argumentative hyperbole, simply read “nobody” as most of us, the overwhelming majority of us even. This hyperbole is understood; there’s no intention on the part of Amis to deceive by exaggeration here, as Hitchens would normally understand were his eyes not clouded by his personal engagement in the proceedings.

"Nobody" does know of Yezhov and Dzerdzhinsky, nor of Vorkuta and Solovetski. The fact that there exists an apparently rich body of literature on the subjects, largely ignored by the rest of us certainly says something about our culture, our narrow attention spans, and perhaps most pointedly, the selective interests of the media, Hollywood and publishers (those informing everybody, feeding and shaping our limited interests). When the average person thinks of atrocity his mind jumps to Hitler. Stalin’s not even a close second. It's just Hitler. Why that is the case is a problem ripe for investigation. But Hitchens passes on this opportunity entirely.

Instead, he focuses on those statements Amis makes which affected him most personally. The fact that the whole piece seems to center on this anti-nobody argument undermines Mr. Hitchens credibility since it soon dawns on the reader that the piece serves simply as an opportunity for the writer to lick his wounds, an opportunity to ask to be understood. He does nothing to dispel the visceral and obvious truth of Amis’s thesis.