Beijing Bob: Protester as Possum

April 13, 2011 § 7 Comments

By Rebecca Liao

Uninhibited exercise of free speech is a useless fantasy. Two Sundays ago on Meet the Press, Senator Lindsey Graham gave the following unfortunately-worded condemnation of Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran in Florida: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” The “fighting words doctrine” in US constitutional law recognizes that words that can only inflict injury or immediately incite violence are not protected under the First Amendment. Those are just some of the officially-sanctioned restrictions on free speech. Then there’s the social filtering that Carolina Herrera put best in her Proust Questionnaire for Vanity Fair: when asked when she lies, she answered, the ellipses emphasizing the obviousness of the response, “Whenever I have to…it’s called manners.” Social activists worth their salt would never worry about being rude, but that is not to say they do not have a keen instinct for expedient self-censorship.

Bob Dylan in China

For an iconic voice of the protest generation, Bob Dylan doesn’t talk very much. In concerts, he only speaks to introduce the band members. His interviews are really only quotable if questions are included, just to give a sense of how frustrating and hilarious his stubbornly non-sequitur answers can be. More importantly, Dylan never says what the listening public wants or expects him, of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” fame, to say. The seeming disconnect between the person and the personality is pronounced to the point that many still have a hard time believing it exists, which leads to misguided outbursts as newsworthy as the episodes that inspire them. In reaction to Dylan’s performing in China according to a setlist pre-approved by the Ministry of Culture and failing to voice support for detained artist Ai Weiwei, Human Rights Watch had a go at the singer, as did the New York Post and John Whitehead at HuffPo. In the end, though, it was Maureen Dowd who really did Beijing Bob proud with a scathing op-ed in the New York Times:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding[…]

Dylan said nothing about [Ai] Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of ‘Hurricane,’ his song about ‘the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.’ He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.

Dowd does eventually acknowledge Dylan’s reluctance to be a protest figure, but rather than accept that as an explanation, let alone an excuse, for his refusal to be overtly topical, she suggests that he was a cynical sell-out from the very beginning, leveraging the fertile socio-political culture of the 60s to become famous, only to cut and run once he had succeeded. It’s a fair, but nauseatingly demanding, point that, as Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, said over the weekend, smacks of “the worst sort of armchair moralism”. Given the body of work sung in place of the anthems Dowd so wanted to hear, among them “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Desolation Row,” it’s also a lazy and unprofessional point that was probably conceived and written before Dowd had done any fact-checking (i.e. looked up the list of songs performed). So what she and her fellow critics hated wasn’t exactly what Dylan actually did in China so much as the very idea that he would go there and not be Yankee gangbusters.

This is the exact kind of narrow, inflexible, commercial-friendly generalization Dylan ran away from when he was first anointed a visionary and brave folk singer. Direct criticism is not the only way to effectively make a point. Dylan’s songs largely shy away from proper references; they instead work by playing off the atmosphere in which they are performed. They will always be associated with the events and spirit of a certain era, but someone with no knowledge of their history will find that the lyrics, inflections and chord relations are actually quite well suited to counterculture tendencies in any socio-political landscape.

If anything, Dylan’s decades-long slide into the uncooperative eccentric has further enforced the subversive nature of his work. It began innocuously with altered melodies and transposed lyrics. It graduated to a game of cat and mouse with the press generally and, as Paul Williams put it, “cause-chasing liberals who concern themselves with the issues and have no real empathy for people” in particular. If people insisted often enough that a song had a certain significance despite Dylan’s denial, he would give in and make up a clearly bogus backstory. At some point, the artist became unrecognizable, his delivery in concerts as unpredictable in quality and substance as only the most die-hard Dylan and music-legend fans would tolerate. Whether these are the tricks of a calculating fameball, a tired performer, or just an artist that has refocused his perspective is not clear. What is evident, though, is that Dylan is not comfortable being in anyone’s corner, neither that of William Zantzinger nor Hattie Carroll’s champions. It leads to a funny outcome in which the message of the music maintains its clear bent but remains almost universally claimable because it refuses all allegiances.

More importantly, it’s the sort of “protest” that goes over well in China. The Ministry of Culture allegedly did screened Dylan’s setlist, but lyrics like the following from “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” slipped past:

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools

So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers
And old men turning young daughters into whores

As did this gem from “Desolation Row”:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Chances are the Chinese officials didn’t see a “Free Tibet” riff on the program and let it go. It’s also plausible that the Chinese government categorically likes Dylan’s music: CCTV played “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the background for their feature on him. One man’s protest song is another man’s…protest song, equally applicable against Communist regimes and Imperialist barbarians.

Contrast that with Ai Weiwei, who makes both his political activities and the identity of those on the receiving end clear. On the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for which he helped conceive the Birds Nest Stadium, Ai wrote a column for The Guardian entitled “Why I’ll stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics”. It included the following statements:

Almost 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have anopen media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself […]

We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

Ai has reiterated these sentiments in his blog, twitter feed, and interviews with foreign press on a regular basis. He isn’t simply a pundit, though: after the devastating earthquakes in Sichuan province, Ai created an installation for the Haus der Kunst in Munich comprised of 9000 children’s backpacks spelling out, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” words from a mother who lost her child. Assembling a group of volunteers through the Internet, Ai compiled a list of 5,335 names of children who had been crushed in the rubble. All went to 20 schools whose buildings had collapsed during the quake. Though the government shut down the investigation, it launched one of its own into shoddy classroom construction.

Like Dylan, Ai is an increasingly subversive artist, but their styles could not be more different. In an interview with the Financial Times a year ago, Ai confessed, “You play like a gambler. You may be on a winning streak. You may think: ‘This is a winning table’. And you may fantasize that you can win for ever.” One man has sung his ballads for 60 years; the other has been silenced, hopefully not indefinitely. It would be indefensible to downplay what Ai has sacrificed for his political bravery, but it would be just as irresponsible to encourage him to continue as he has and permanently join the leagues of “crazy, anti-China dissidents” the Chinese public by and large ostracizes. Protest works against a very organized and controlled enemy; it should be just as inclined in order to maximize effectiveness.

Middle Finger at Tiananmen Square

Ai’s work is already a powerful tool: regarding his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai explains, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.” Whether by dropping a Ming vase, giving the middle finger to the world’s most recognizable monuments, or decapitating zodiac signs, an irreverence that makes people laugh along with it without causing discomfort is the most untraceable text message.

When Ai Weiwei is released, and he will be released because the Chinese hate more than anything to lose face, he should, as Dylan has, do his job. At the end of the day, we all just work here.

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§ 7 Responses to Beijing Bob: Protester as Possum

  • Ulysses says:

    Thank for this post, the best one on the recent controversy involving Dylan and Ai that I’ve read so far.

    So far no evidence suggests that the setlist and lyrics were censored, Alex Ross offered a detailed analysis(with the link to the new lyrics of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, as performed in Beijing and Shanghai):

    http://www.therestisnoise.com/2011/04/dylan-in-china.html

    And I’m quite sure that the govt won’t release Ai in the near future, for the same reason you stated, because the Chinese govt hate more than anything to lose face.

    http://www.pekingduck.org/2011/04/the-global-times-and-ai-weiwei/

    • thealephmag says:

      Thanks so much for reading, Ulysses!

      There’s currently no evidence of any censorship. My wager is that the Ministry of Culture just combed for statements like, “Bomb Tiananmen,” the same way that I’m sure any other competent organization would for an event under their purview.

      Do you think the Chinese government might believe it’d lose more face by releasing him than by keeping him in custody? It does seem to be moving quite slowly on this, just releasing specific charges today (PST), which suggests that it’s carefully gauging the pulse of Western criticism before it acts. This story is certainly not first priority for the Chinese–inflation is–so the government’s audience is really the West and its own intellectuals. There are many options for making something like this go away, but the government has to act quickly because it would be supremely awkward for Mayor Bloomberg to reveal Zodiac Heads in NYC and have to account for the artist’s absence.

  • steve says:

    Wow, this is the only not completely stupid piece of journalism I’ve read about Bob in China. That Maureen Dowd piece was especially infuriating, totally lazy, totally hackish. Bob himself addressed people on this recently, FYI, a good piece. Bob has a propensity to self-mythologize as we know so I wouldn’t say there were “no” expats at the show but it’s good to hear it right from his mouth: http://www.bobdylan.com/news/my-fans-and-followers

    • thealephmag says:

      Thanks, Steve! I really appreciate the compliment. I was as surprised as anyone that Bob would issue a direct statement on the controversy. Something moved the old geezer, and the result goes into the annals of Dylan lore.

  • Brian says:

    And, of course, all those statements in his lyrics made in the 60s and beyond, were made, not about China and it’s disregard of human rights, but about the U.S of A and ITS disregard of human rights!!

    • thealephmag says:

      Absolutely. The genius of the lyrics is that they can apply to any repressive regime. What’s really heartening about Dylan’s trip to China and his letter to fans is that both show he hasn’t lost his marbles. It takes a clear head to spot human rights abuses wherever they occur and a real artistry to effectively bring people’s attention to them. One of China’s favorite comebacks to US complaints about human rights abuses is “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Doesn’t really stick when Dylan complains.

      Thanks so much for reading, Brian!

  • BobbyWong says:

    Maureen Dowd or Bob Dylan’s words? I’d pick Dylan anytime.

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