Friday, November 27, 2009

Outlaws, Thugs, Dictators... and Ticky-Tacky Boxes

Sporadically, I've been thinking about the "outlaw." Not so much any particular outlaw, but rather, the Outlaw as a product of cultural mythology. The term "outlaw" itself, I have learned, derives from a legal manoeuvre undertaken by medieval authorities, wherein a particular lawbreaker was declared "out of the law." The law, in other words, no longer offered the outlaw any protection: he could be manhandled, assaulted, murdered, mutilated even, all without his assailants being held accountable under the appropriate statute. What fascinates me is the great reverence and respect accorded to many outlaws by common people. Part and parcel of this is the "mythologising", ie. lying, about outlaw figures. No better example of this is found in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd, about the Depression-era outlaw of that name. Guthrie sings of how Charles Floyd, known as "Pretty Boy", was approached by a deputy sheriff in Oklahoma city, who used "vulgar words of language" in front of Floyd's wife. In reaction, "Pretty Boy grabbed a log-chain/The deputy grabbed his gun/And in the fight that followed/He laid that deputy down." I was able to find no reference to such an incident in a cursory research of Pretty Boy Floyd's life, but I highly doubt the cause of contention between himself and the lawman had to do with the latter's use of vulgar language. It seems rather that Guthrie was attempting to justify the real crime here, the murder of a deputy sheriff by a wanted criminal. In this sense, it is probably not lying, but half-truth being portrayed here: namely, that the deputy did indeed use vulgar words of language, while Pretty Boy Floyd's reaction had little to do with this. Instead, he killed the deputy no doubt to escape being arrested.

The romanticizing of outlaws in this fashion, extends back long before Pretty Boy Floyd and his contemporaries, such as George "Machine Gun" Kelley, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, George "Baby-Face" Nelson, not to mention the psychopathic weirdos Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who seem to be the only Depression-time bank-robbers never to be given nicknames. Indeed not, as the mythological treatment of outlaws was commonplace in the American Old West, and in the Old World, too. "Robin Hood" does not seem to have been actual person living the Sherwood Forest of Nottingham in the thirteen century. Rather, the word appears to be a conflation of a Middle English term to "rob under a hood", evolving to become a placeholder referring to any robber whatsoever. Nevertheless, it is revealing that in the centuries hence, various writers found it productive and profitable to cobble the various tales of the "Robin Hoods", into the band-of-merry-men stories we are familiar with today. Another English outlaw immortalized in poesy actually did exist: Dick Turban, the eighteenth-century highway robber whose exploits were romanticized by Wadsworth Longfellow in The Highwayman.

A century later, in the American West, Frank James and his younger brother, Jesse, came to be known as the "Robin Hoods" of the post-Civil War era. What's revealing is that none of the outlaws so esteemed by the common folk in their time and afterward, ever actually engaged in the practice of "taking from the rich to give to the poor" as the Robin Hood of legend was supposed to have done. There is no way to fairly describe Frank and Jesse James as other than cold-blooded killers. The pair had been Confederate irregular guerilla fighters during the Civil War in the passionately-divided Missouri federal territory. In this capacity, they engaged in several ambushes and massacres of federal troops, mercilessly gunning down soldiers even after they had surrendered. After the war, the James brothers' quickly dropped these activities and turned full-time to the bank- and train-robbing that had been the Missouri guerillas' lifeblood during the conflict itself. Again, there is nothing to suggest that the James' brothers and their partners in crime did this for any higher cause, let alone to "give to the poor." Yet, Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James to death in 1882 for a thousand-dollar award, is known in the folk-song Jesse James as "the coward who shot Mr. Howard/And laid poor Jesse in his grave" (James had been going by the name of Thomas Howard when he was killed in St. Joseph, Missouri). Indeed, a recent film biography — starring Brad Pitt as James — was even titled, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Ford (who was shot to death himself, a decade later), may well have been a coward for gaining the trust of James, and then killing him with a sucker-shot. But how does James escape from the same designation when he was known to have killed unarmed men?

Probably every society in history has had folk-stories and folksongs that romanticized past and present outlaws. What is paradoxical is that the treatment of the outlaw as a hero has occurred where public or "folk" sentiment was clearly on the side of law-and-order. This is especially true of the United States, which today and for all of its history been very unforgiving toward lawbreakers. It is why the reputations of Jesse James, Henry "Butch Cassidy" Longworth and his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (or Wild Bunch), as well as Bonnie and Clyde, must undergo whitewashing, so as to make their crimes "mean something bigger" than mere self-interest. It is entirely perverse, but the fact that the widespread mythologising of outlaws occurs during periods when legitimate government has come under disrepute (as during the Depression, or in the areas of the U.S. Mid-West where widespread sympathy toward the Confederacy was seen, or even during the early-modern period in England, when the Robin Hood tales first took shape), shows that in some way, the outlaw is held up as a paragon before the supposed bumbling and corruption of legitimate political figures such as princes, presidents and sheriffs. The fact that the most famous outlaws are those who are able to escape justice over long periods, further demonstrates the incompetence of constituted authority. I wonder if something like this is not in play with the romanticization of guerillas and strongmen dictators, as has occurred throughout the twentieth century, into the present day. Guerillas are, by definition, outlaws whose crimes are committed but for a higher purpose, ie. Liberation or Revolution. Yet, if one traces the career of the most famous guerilla of our time, Ernesto Lynch, or "Che Guevara" as he is known to the world, the Argentinian doctor who, who under the leadership of the Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, helped overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959, it is impossible not to view him as a psychopathic killer. Guevara was ruthless not only in his efforts to overthrow Batista; upon coming to power, Guevara, as the minister of security under the Castro regime, was equally quick to place before a firing squad those who, labelled "bandits", engaged in the same guerilla tactics that Guevara used to get to where he got to, as well as others not willing to to kowtow to the new government. It is telling that Lynch left Cuba in the mid-1960s, after his reign of terror had either killed off any native opposition, or saw it flee to the United States, and there were only matters of administration to occupy himself with. Famously, of course, Guevara was killed in 1967, while ineptly attempting to foment revolution in Bolivia. Nevertheless, the famous image of Lynch, rendered to appear like Jesus Chris, is one of the most recognizable in the world even today.

It is entirely necessary, given the stark reality of Ernesto Lynch (publicly available to anyone who wishes to look), for Che Guevara to emerge, in popular culture, as a myth. It is a mythological Guevara that is portrayed in recent movie biographies the Motorcycle Diaries and Che, both of which were little-seen when in general release. They may not affect the popular image of their subject the way the names "Bonnie and Clyde" conjure not gimpy near-dwarf Barrow or homely Parker, but Warren Beatty in his hunky prime, and Faye Dunaway, the most glamorous actress of her time. In any case, the guerilla doesn't necessarily relinquish his outlaw image, merely by taking power in government. Fidel Castro was (until a couple of years ago), the president of Cuba, and recognized as such by diplomatic corps of the globe, with the lone exception of the U.S. State department. Castro has been the toast of the intelligentsia and literati of the Western democracies for that same period, precisely because he is viewed as an "outlaw" by the U.S. (which, de facto, recognized the Castro regime long ago). This is in spite of the fact that Castro's government has been blatantly and viciously anti-democratic and illiberal, without regard for any value which the same artists and intellects that toast his success purport to hold so high.

Or really, just because Castro and other strongmen are such outlaws. The ardour with which Western leftists hold toward "outlaw" regimes such as Castro's, is strongly correlated with how flagrantly tyrannical and dictatorial they are. The Soviet Union's strongest support in Western countries came during the time of Stalin the Terrible. Its influence among Marxists in the capitalist Occident waned as the Soviet leadership passed on to ever more duller, greyer apparatchiks, such as Leonid Brezhnev. The USSR under Brezhnev was far less dictatorial than under Stalin. It was hardly liberal in any sense, but opponents of the regime were not summarily executed, as under Djugashvili, nor put on show-trial en masse (as occurred often in the 1930s, and frequently thereafter, in the Soviet Union). Instead, they were jailed, or sent into internal exile, and only seldom made to suffer greatly, as was common under Stalin. Moreover, Brezhnev's KGB, unlike the NKVD, did not persecute ordinary people who merely seemed to be opponents of the New Order. Western Marxists could reasonably point to the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union as an advance upon the Stalinism that existed previously, a state that while not supporting "luxuries" such as freedom of the press, speech or assembly, nevertheless fed, clothed and housed people to a very adequate degree, where no one need go hungry or be without a job (at least, if the entirely bogus state statistics were to be believed, and most did believe them). Yet, rarely did the USSR after Kruschev and before Gorbachev evoke any passion whatsoever in the Western radical and academic left. Instead, this is when Western Marxists began to portray the USSR as a "state capitalist" economy. The fact that Brezhnev entered into detente with the U.S., thus ending any lingering vestige of the Soviet Union as an "outlaw" regime, seems to have permanently ended the romance of Western leftists with the USSR.

Following the ascension of Brezhnev in 1964, Western Marxists rapidly switched their "outlaw" allegiance to Communist China. Just as the USSR was about to enter what was later called "stagnation", Mao Tse-tung was initiating his insurgency against the established leadership of the Chinese state, who had banished Mao from power (if not from office) over the catastrophic Great Leap Forward (an attempt to implement heavy-industry on a village scale), which caused millions to starve to death. Mao used his position as general-secretary of the Communist party to foment rebellion among young high-school and university students against their teachers, professors, administrators, and constituted authority generally, for the refusal of government officials to follow the ideology of Communism, instead becoming "bourgeois pigs" and "capitalist roaders." This eventually resulted in the chaos known as the Cultural Revolution, the real goal of which was to restore Mao Tse-tung to dictatorial authority. This is precisely what happened by 1966, when enraged students were able to storm the compound of the Chinese President, holding him prisoner to their taunts and minor assaults (having won back power, Mao then viciously crushed any of the rebels who persisted in the delusion that they would still be able to wreak havoc, as they had been doing for months and years). On university campuses in Western democracies, the Cultural Revolution was looked upon with envy by the burgeoning New Left movement. Almost overnight, a new strand of Marxism, called Maoism, sprang up, rapidly supplanting Trotskyism as the "alternative" (ie., not aligned with any official Communist line) form of socialist radicalism. Mao's so-called Little Red booklet, a short compendium of the Great Helmsmen's trite, bizarre and ridiculous pronouncements, was resurrected from its deserved obscurity and subject to near-biblical exegesis by the newfound Maoists. The radical pedagogue Paolo Freire, a Brazilian whose theories on the education of the "oppressed" were highly influential at teachers' schools in the years thereafter, lengthily toasted the Cultural Revolution as a new hope for China and the world. The fact that millions of Chinese were oppressed and killed as a result of this movement, was of no consequence to leftists such as Friere. Tellingly, Maoism disappeared as quickly as it arrived, after Mao formalized relations with the United States in 1973, under the Left's and the New Left's old nemesis, president Richard Nixon.

The demise of Maoism after 1973 coincided with the dormancy of leftist politics in the Western academy. Things picked up, though, after 1979, when another guerilla movement, the Sandinista Liberation Front, came to power in Nicaragua. As with Cuba, the United States refused to extend diplomatic recognition to an avowedly-Marxist government. As the Marxists within the Sandinista government consolidated power, deposing their more liberal former allies, refusing to hold free elections, shutting down opposition press, the U.S. began to lend financial and material support to Nicaraguan "contras", guerillas against the Sandinista regime led by remnants of the former Somoza regime, but also former Sandinistas who had been run out of power by the Marxists. This, in turn, became so controversial that a Congress led by the Democrats, outlawed support to the contra rebels (efforts to finance the contras in spite of the law, led to the infamous "Iran-contra scandal", wherein White House operative Lt-Col. Oliver North oversaw the shipping of arms to Iran, the profits of which were to be funnelled to the Nicaraguan rebels). The Sandinistas, needless to say, were quite popular within the left in the United States and Europe, as an outlaw regime allied against the U.S. The Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega (who regained the presidency some years ago), was a bespectacled, unassuming little fellow, even in the military fatigues that he seemed to wear all the time. Reality never prevented to the formation of outlaw myth, but Ortega was too insignificant a personage to mythologize properly. Nicaragua nevertheless became the site of Western-leftist pilgrimage, as earnest people from the United States and elsewhere (dubbed "Sandalistas"), arrived to help build the new rural utopia. I remember the news footage of some of these Western well-wishers, on the evening in 1990 when, under an agreement brokered between the U.S. and Nicaragua, the latter held internationally-monitored, free and fair elections for the first time since the installation of the Sandinistas eleven years earlier. The Sandinista government lost, decisively. The Sandalistas had gathered somewhere in Managua, anticipating victory (as indeed, public-opinion showed the government in the lead), but instead ended up wailing and clutching each other like small children unready for bedtime, apparently indifferent to the spectacle they no doubt produced of themselves.

They and others so dearly affected by the fall of another outlaw before Uncle Sam, soon had cause to dry their eyes, and gaze afar with hope. For, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Kuwait, a tiny emirate to the south. This was, of course, a very flagrant violation of international law. The U.S. government, presided over by the elder George Bush, began immediately to rally international support to force the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. In spite of most Western countries either signing up for direct military engagement, or lending materiel support to the effort, the Hussein regime stoutly refused to vacate the emirate, calling it "Iraq's new province." Hussein's seemingly formidable military (more than 700,000 men at arms), proved to be a virtual mirage, as the U.S. and allied militaries simply mowed the Iraqis over in the re-conquering of Kuwait during January and February of 1991. Saddam Hussein didn't become an antihero to Western leftists, however, immediately during the runup and course of the Gulf War of ‘91. It was simply too discombobulating. After all, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, along with his vice-president Bush the elder, were criticized for having Hussein as an ally, in the years before the latter invaded Kuwait.

Only later, under the sanctions imposed through the United Nations because of Iraq's non-cooperation with the Gulf War truce's weapons provisions, did the country and its leader become a cause celebre of the Western left. Then, a portrait of Saddam Hussein emerged, which characterized him as a "creature of the CIA", who was "best friends" with the United States until he "went rogue", after which he became an enemy of America. Ergo, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It was precisely his status as an outlaw of the international community, which so endeared Hussein to the Western left. It was therefore necessary to lie about him and his regime. A mythology grew up wherein Hussein's many crimes as head of the Iraqi state were either "exaggerated", resulting from "demonization" by the U.S., or else (given their well-documented character) occurred "only when Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally", and not thereafter, as though to say that Hussein was some kind of liberal who only took to torture and murder at the direction of the U.S. And, of course, these same Western pilgrims (such as actor Sean Penn) to Iraq uncritically accepted government propaganda to the effect that half a million children had died as a result of U.N. sanctions on the country. These figures were shown to be fraudulent, after Iraq was finally liberated of Saddam in 2003; and the criticism ignored the reality of the regime's complicity in the admitted scarcities that afflicted Iraqi society in the period between the two Gulf Wars, during which Hussein had more than enough funds at hand to finance the construction of dozens of presidential palaces and other elaborate buildings. I'm sure Saddam Hussein must have marvelled at how an ugly son of a bitch like himself could live in such endearing repute among the beautiful people of the world.

But, even before the U.S. government, recovering from the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001terrorist attacks, decided to take out Hussein and his nuisance regime for good, a new strongman was stealing hearts among the Western left: Hugo Chavez, the teddy-bear thug of Venezuela. Now, the fact that Chavez was duly elected to power must have staunched the heartthrobs of Marxists in the democratic West, at least somewhat. But, long before Chavez received a plurality of votes in a legitimate election in 1998, he and other "Bolivarian"-socialist officers in the Venezuelan military, had in 1992 launched an unsuccessful military coup. This fact surely redeemed him to the outlaw-loving Marxists of the West. And, of course, Chavez wasted little time in shredding democracy and the rule of law in his country. As he did so, his stock among the Western left only went higher.

Thus, when Chavez moved to shut down the main opposition television station, a group of leftist artists and writers (including the loudmouth British playwright Harold Pinter) signed a statement in support of the Venezuelan strongman, denouncing the international associations of journalists, and others concerned about human rights, who had criticized Chavez on this matter. As I recall, their argument revolved around the technicality that, in fact, Hugo Chavez was not shutting down the television station. It would still remain in operation. However, Chavez did in fact revoke the broadcast rights of the station's owners, and grant them to another faction far more sympathetic to his "Bolivarian" revolution. His justification for doing so was that the station had lent support to the coup plotters of 2002. That is, Chavez was condemning the TV station for supporting (assuming that these charges were truthful) the same actions which he also unsuccessfully tried to carry through ten years before that. It shows that committed leftists will cheer for the same actions that they would denounce, if the actions were taken by a strongman or outlaw dictator whom they believed was against their goals. Any South American strongman that attempted to shut down a leftist-sympathizing broadcaster would be immediately be condemned as a "thug" or a "fascist", just for that fact. But because a South American dictator named Hugo Chavez, the advocate of socialism, undertake this action, he is to be hailed. Or, to cite a more concrete example of such blatancy, let us return to Saddam Hussein for a moment. George Galloway, the far-left Scottish member of the Westminster parliament, was known in the runup to the Iraqi war, and afterward, as the most prominent apologist for Hussein. What is less known is that, years earlier, Galloway had been a trenchant critic of the Hussein regime, simply because it was "allied" with Britain and the U.S., against the Iranian regime. His switch was not gradual: instead, he became a Hussein apologist almost from the moment that the Iraqi dictator invaded Kuwait in 1990, and thereby became the enemy of his enemy, the United States.

In regard to Chavez's shutting down the opposition broadcaster, some expressed amazement at the "contradiction" that artists and writers, who presumably value freedom of speech and democratic rights above all, should come out in support of an act that was clearly in violation of these values. Artists and writers may well value these freedoms. However, literati and intellects who are leftists, in common with others on the left, simply do not value democracy and liberal rights at all. Socialism is, even in theory, authoritarian. It is no accident, no "error", no corruption of doctrine, which means that in practice, socialism is always totalitarian.

George Galloway himself has been a leader among at least a faction of the Western left which has embraced those international outlaws who no longer even profess to Marxist or socialist doctrine; it is enough for Galloway, and many other leftists, for an outlaw to be an opponent of the United States in order for much of the left to find a place in their hearts for them. This explains the attraction that leftists had for Saddam Hussein, but even more so for their newfound love of Islamic fascists. And, contrary to what is generally believed, this affair didn't begin the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001. It was budding long before that, during the 1990s, but it took the terrorist attacks of that day for the full consumption to take place, such that we now have a faction that some call the "Islamo-Left." It explains why, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, leftists were so ready to impugn their own grievances against Western society onto the motives of the terrorists that day: the attacks were a reaction against "the growing imbalances between the global rich and poor", or "the illegal occupation of the West Bank by Israel for the last thirty-five years" (although all the suicide-attackers on Sept. 11 were at least middle class in background, several more wealthy than most in the Occident, and no Palestinians were involved in the operation).

From there, the alliance of the left with Islamist and crypto-Islamists only got more intimate. Thus, in December of 2001, when it was revealed that a chapter of the Muslims Students Association at McGill university was involved in fundraising for terrorist causes, a representative of the McGill student was quoted by the Gazette newspaper as being "more worried about the effect that this news will have on our Muslim students than about any allegations of terrorist fundraising..." Of course not. Later that year, on the anniversary or a day or two before or after the Sept. 11 attacks, a mob of leftists and Islamists at another Montreal university, Concordia, blocked access by the public to a speech to be given by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who recently regained that office) on the grounds that the latter was a "war criminal." In the course of this "protest", an elderly Holocaust survivor was assaulted by the blockading students. And, in spite of this outlaw behaviour, few if any of the "protestors" faced prosecution or even punishment as students at Concordia. In spite of it all, to leftists, the Islam Lobby and even the mainstream media persist in the assertion that Muslims are always potential victims of violence, never its instigators (except, of course, in "reaction" to what others have done to them).

From then, this unholy alliance has only solidified. In 2006, representatives of Canadian and other Western "peace" and "anti-imperialism" groups met with Islamists at a conference in Cairo, Egypt, essentially formalizing the partnership. That year, too, it was falsely reported by the National Post and other newspapers owned by the Canwest chain (whose proprietors, the Islamo-left is always reminding the world, are — ahem — "Zionists") that Iran was to impose regulations on its Jewish population, requiring them to wear a gold Star of David on their clothing, as was the case in Nazi Germany and its conquered territories before and during the Holocaust. In fact, the proposal was part of a draft law before the national legislature, a section that was excised from the bill before it came up for debate. It wasn't, in other words, made up by those nefarious "Zionists."

The Post ran, soon after, a front-page retraction of the story, but the whole controversy had the left-Islamists crowing. The next issue of one of those giveaway arts/culture weeklies that end up littering the floors of buses and other places not swept regularly — the editorial line of which, it goes without saying, is resolutely leftist in orientation — had a commentary feature on the Iranian Star-of-David gaffe. The criticisms were completely unremarkable, but the accompanying cartoon both enraged and nauseated me. It depicted the president of Iran with his head on a chopping block, an black-clad and -masked, axe-wielding executioner standing nearby, with a name-tag: "Canwest." It is hard to convey how hideous this is. In Iran, homosexuals are put to death — the fortunate receive long prison sentences — for the crime of being homosexual. The death penalty is otherwise used quite frequently by the regime of the "victim" being portrayed in this cartoon. In no way, however, does a news organization, whether it is owned by "Zionists" or anyone else, have the power to bring down the death penalty anyone in Iran, let alone its president. In any case, I believe it was the very last time I've ever touched that same periodical.

It is long past the point where any reasonable observer can conclude that Western-leftist love of outlaw regimes or dictators is any "contradiction" to or "aberration" from their central credo. It is the psychology identical to the common-folk's reverence for gangster-criminals just as Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde. Except, of course, instead of being the province of just plain folk, so uncomprehending of and frustrated about a society based on law, that they cast their sentimental lot (and sometimes more) with wanted outlaws, leftist outlaw-worship is a manifestation of an elitist disdain for Mass Culture and Mass Society, and the "Babbitry" that supports it. Such snobbery cannot be articulated openly of course. It is conveyed instead with a perverse "identification" with the impoverished masses of the non-Western world, in general, and particularly with the guerillas and strongman that supposedly represent or promote their "aspirations": Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Guevara, Chavez, and so on.

An article published by Time online last year, honestly conveyed the mentality of these thug-loving leftists, with reference to the Nicaraguan Sandalistas (Tim Rogers, "Twilight of the Sandal-istas", Mar. 6, 2008): "When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was voted out of power in 1990 after a decade of battling U.S.-backed contra insurgents, many of its supporters from the United States and Europe packed up their bandanas and Birkenstocks and went home with a good story. The Nicaraguan revolution was over, and most of the `Sandalistas' (the nickname that combined their preferences in politics and footwear) saw no point in staying on: There was nothing sexy about helping out a centrist transition government led by a grandmotherly widow when you'd been drawn here by the allure of a regime of guerrilla poets."

It is, of course, never about the people the Sandalistas were supposedly trying to help — be it in Nicaragua, or elsewhere. It is all about the leftists, their own vainglory as well as their own perverse attraction to "regimes of guerilla poets." My own journey from left to "right" (as adherence to traditional liberal principles is now considered) began when I smelled this rat: the disdain held out by leftists for everyday people and their culture. I don't think there's anything more emblematic of this contempt, than the song Little Boxes, which was popularized by Pete Seeger and appeared on his 1967 Greatest Hits collection. The lyrics run, in part:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.


And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there's doctors and there's lawyers
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

I hated this song from the moment I first heard it. It is, obviously, a swipe at suburban tract-style housing. What justification, though, does the song have in describing the people who live in such housing as "being all the same", or even that the structures are "ticky-tacky", that is, poorly-made? My assumption had been that Seeger wrote this song. In my own judgement, the lyrics are an example of sour grapes. After all, Seeger and other folk-singing apologists for Stalin, had long condemned the lack of adequate housing in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western world, as proof as to how capitalism "immiserated" the common folk. But tract housing pretty much resolved the problem of slum housing at a stroke: it was not only doctors and lawyers, as alleged in Little Boxes, but also factory workers and other members of the working class, were able to afford a single-family residence because of suburban development.

As for the lack of aesthetic values in suburban tract-development, it is remarkable that so many intellects and artists were able to condemn them so easily, when this same group of people did, during the post-war, not only reject considerations of "beauty" and "ugliness" in regard to the visual and plastic arts, as some much "bourgeois decadence"; they also hailed the advent of the brutalism in architecture (pioneered by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) that very few today argue has any aesthetic worth whatsoever. As for the left's hatred of suburbia in general, I cannot help to think about the dialogue in the opening few minutes of the 1997 Brazilian film, Four Days in September, about the 1969 kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to that country by a group of left-wing urban guerillas. Shortly before kidnapping, in response to the mocking by one of the guerillas of American moon-landing triumph in August, his apolitical friend says, "if the Soviets did it, you'd be dancing on the ceiling." So it is, if the Soviets or any other Communist regime had managed to build tracts of little boxes for their workforces, Pete Seeger and any other apologist for Stalin, would be singing the praises of these "workers' houses" to the end of the calendar.

Investigating Little Boxes further, I found that my original assessment of the song was mistaken in only one regard: it was not authored by Pete Seeger at all, but by a far less well-known American folk-singer, Malvina Reynolds. The song is regarded as a folk "classic", and is in fact used as the theme song for an American cable-television drama, Weeds (which is about a middle-aged mother living in suburbia who, facing job-loss, turns to marijuana trafficking in order to support her family). On a web-site associated with that programme, Nancy Reynolds, daughter of Malvina and also a folk-singer (the latter died in 1978) described how her mother came to write the song: "My mother and father were driving South from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee on Legislation".

I think what is being described here is the literal definition of "drive-by smear." Malvina Reynolds wrote a song about people that she literally never had contact with: she came to very negative judgements about them, based on her seeing from afar the housing that they lived in. These facts are not in dispute, but rather than treating the songs as an example of bigotry and prejudice, folk-revival fans have embraced it as a classic.

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