Sunday, October 18, 2020

Both Sides Now

There's a Saturday-night radio program out of Chicago that I listened to when I was in high school.  It featured a range of music I hadn't heard before, from show tunes to cabaret to folk to blues to jazz, and occasional standup.  Rock was the only genre it excluded, because there were plenty of other outlets for that.  I first heard Tom Lehrer on this show, Tom Paxton, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and many other performers.  When I moved to Bloomington it was too far out of range to listen to, though I'm surprised I never looked for it when streaming became an option. When I moved back to northern Indiana last year, I tracked the station down on the Internet.  The host I remembered was long dead, but it continues in the same format.

I find it less fascinating than I did fifty years ago, probably because other stations and programs offer the same kind of musical variety, and the rock press and Bloomington record stores had encouraged me to range even further.  If anything, the program now seems parochial to me, with too many sanctimonious folkies preaching love and brotherhood and too many cabaret artists serving up toothless satire.

Last night the problem started with the song above, and I nearly shut off the station.  It's intolerably dishonest. What's wrong is summed up by a comment under another video of the song posted to Youtube: "i really wish people on both sides of the argument would listen to this song. if we want change, we MUST be that change".  It's a paradigmatic example of "both-sidesism": the song puts George Floyd on one side, and Derek Chauvin on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Andrew Jackson on one side, and the Cherokees trudging along the Trail of Tears on the other, and blames them both equally.  It puts Harriet Tubman walking to freedom on one side, and her former owner, deprived of his lawful property, on the other.  It puts Richard Speck on one side, and the eight student nurses he murdered on the other.  It puts the Klan on one side and the NAACP on the other side.  It's reminiscent of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's infamous duet "Accidental Racist" with its iconic rhyme "If you don't judge my do rag, I won't judge your red flag" -- "that whole let bygones be bygones" thing, as Paisley put it.

Now, I admit that there is a problem with some people on the left (for lack of a better word) stereotyping people who may or may not be their antagonists, by assuming that all West Virginians are Donald Trump supporters, ignoring West Virginia's tradition of left-wing activism; or gloating that poor whites are suffering under Trump's destructive policies.  This is what Patricia Roberts-Miller calls "demagoguery", the radical division of people into mutually exclusive groups, with all humanity on one side and none on the other.  But rejection of these tendencies in no way obliges me to postulate that the racist and the anti-racist are equally at fault, equally intolerant in the same way.  Bigots have been pushing that false equivalence for decades, and it's not only fair, it's necessary to reject their tactic.  I don't quite know how to contend with someone who thinks that black people demanding to vote is as intolerant as white people refusing to let them vote, but if you grant them that claim, you've already lost.

Copeland didn't write "Uncivil War," as you can see if you last till the video's end credits: it was written by her producer.  But she chose to record it.  I think perhaps she didn't really listen to the words, didn't think through what she was singing.  That itself would be a moral failure.  The song itself certainly is.