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July 08, 2004

Kerry, Langston Hughes, Communism, and the Rectification of Names

Although liberals often link President Bush to the Nazis, Bush never quotes Nazis admiringly. How about Kerry? Does he quote Marxists admiringly? Yes. As Timothy Noah noted in Slate and William Buckley in National Review, and Andrew Sullivan in his weblog, Kerry has more than once quoted the title of a Langton Hughes poem "Let America be America again," which is about the glories of a communist takeover of America:

In the June 1 New York Times, David M. Halbfinger reports that the Kerry campaign thinks it's found a winning slogan in "Let America be America again." They couldn't be more wrong.


Hughes never joined the Communist Party, but he published frequently in its house organs and served as president to the party's principal African-American front group. The same year "Let America Be America Again" was published, Hughes signed a letter supporting the Stalinist purges; he had witnessed, with approval, one of the show trials himself.

Here's a bit more from "Let America be America again".

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--  
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--

Quoting from a bad person is not bad in itself, perhaps. If President Bush quoted a line from some entirely non-political poem of Ezra Pound or from some non-political essay of Heidegger's or De Man's, that would not justify calling Bush a Nazi. It does look bad, I must admit. In his sermon at ECC last Sunday, Pastor Mangrum told about an experiment he heard of that a teacher used on his classes.

The teacher would invent a number of quotations, and distribute two versions to two groups of students. Each version would attribute quotes to people like Hitler, Luther, Lincoln, Stalin, and so forth, but the two versions would attribute different quotes to different people. The teacher would ask the students to say how much they agreed with each quotation. The teacher always found that attribution trumps substance.

I should try that in one of my classes. I'd predict the same thing. But of course that is not reason in itself to criticize Kerry. If the line was from a bad author, but the line and the poem to which it alludes are both correct, then the evil or stupidity of the author does not affect that. Note that I have to add "and the poem to which it alludes", because in quoting one line, you are quoting the poem, unless you make sure to repudiate its associations. "Work will make you free" is a nice line, okay by itself, but if I quote it, I am also linking myself with the Dachau prison gate unless I say I am not.

At any rate, lack of bad context is not an excuse that helps Kerry. He quoted the title from a Hughes poem whose entire thrust is that the America that has existed so far in history is evil and must be replaced by an idealized America that is entirely different.

One might think this is just an unintentional blunder on the part of Kerry-- that neither he nor anyone on his staff has ever actually read the entire poem or knows anything about Langston Hughes. If it was a Republican saying "Let America be America again" that would be plausible. But what is especially striking here is that the idea of this poem *does* capture the way the Left thinks of America.

Here is what I mean by that.

This notion is of course fallacious. Suppose you hate chocolate ice cream, but you want to pretend you favor it. The leftist strategy would be to say,

"I love chocolate ice cream. To be sure, I hate the chocolate ice cream we have now, but that is not real chocolate ice cream. Real chocolate ice cream is white, and tastes like vanilla, and we must all strive to change the false, dark ice cream we have now into true chocolate ice cream."

What would be more honest would be to say, "I hate chocolate ice cream." Or, in the case of America, to say,
"I hate America. It is an evil country, based on capitalism, flag-waving, and other bad things. But I think that it can be replaced by a better system. We must wipe out the old, and replace it with the new."
Confucius was a wise man. This, again is the Rectification of Names problem.

Let's return to Langston Hughes, though. One article to look at is Eric J. Sundquist, "Who Was Langston Hughes?" Commentary, December 1996, Vol. 102, Issue 6:

A characteristic poem of the period, composed for the eighth convention of the Communist party in the United States, begins: "Put one more S in the U.S. A. / To make it Soviet."

In the Soviet Union itself, where he stayed on for almost a year, Hughes ignored clear signs of corruption and repression. Welcoming the privileges of membership in the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, he dashed off "Goodbye, Christ," a poem in which the salvific power of the church gives way to a Leninist pantheon and which would later so haunt his career as to become the centerpiece of an FBI probe. A set of essays for Izvestia favorably compared the Soviet justice system to the American, and in poem after poem in this period Hughes replaced a previously favorite image, the North Star of African-American freedom, with the Red Star of Soviet liberation.

See also James Smethurst, who says,

That Hughes was, with the exception of Richard Wright, the black writer most identified with the Communist Left during the 1930s is undeniable. Hughes's frequent publication of "revolutionary" poetry in the journals and press of the CPUSA, his activity in Communist-initiated campaigns such as the drive to free the Scottsboro defendants and on behalf of the Spanish Republic, his willingness to lend his name to Communist-led or Communist-influenced organizations (e.g., the John Reed Clubs, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the National Negro Congress, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, the League of American Writers), and his public support of the Soviet Union (including his signing of a statement in 1938 supporting the purges of the Old Bolsheviks and others by Stalin) all marked him as an open member of the Communist Left-- whether or not he formally joined the CPUSA.

A couple of other poems round out the picture. First, from Mensnewsdaily,

    We can take anything:
    Factories, arsenals, buses, ships,     
    Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
    Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
    (Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
    Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
    All the tools of production.
    (Great day in the morning!)
    And turn em over to the people who work.
    Rule and run em for us people who work.

    Boy! Them Radios--
    Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
    Another member the International Soviets done come
    Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
    Hey you rioting workers everywhere greetings.  
    And well sign it: Germany
    Sign it: China
    Sign it: Africa
    Sign it: Poland
    Sign it: Italy
    Sign it: America
    Sign it with my own name: Worker
    On that day when no one will be hungry, cold, oppressed,
    Anywhere in the world again.

and one of Hughes's better-known poems:

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all --
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.

Is this the Democratic Party?-- "Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME" ? Remove the peasants and workers, and perhaps it is.

Posted by erasmuse at July 8, 2004 11:07 AM

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