Tuesday, June 5, 2012

the myth of white fingerprints

This is the kind of shit that just drives me crazy. In the AV Club, Noel Murray reviews the new 25th anniversary boxed set of Graceland. Which is a good album, and a controversial one, considering that Simon has been repeatedly accused of stealing the music of the South African artists (among others), and because he violated the anti-apartheid cultural boycott in order to make and promote the album.

Now, I'm willing to have a discussion about the value of the boycott and the meaning of artistic and intellectual freedom. I certainly think Simon had the right to violate the boycott for artistic reasons, but those reasons are inherently selfish. I think it's fair to like the album and still be unhappy about its genesis, and to praise Simon for what he produced while questioning its production.

But several of the commenters on the review don't do that. Instead, they defend Simon by suggesting that the cultural boycott was an example of sanctimonious white liberals imposing an unhelpful tactic on South Africa. Asks one commenter, "honestly who do you think did more for South African culture and the Anti-apartheid movement: Paul Simon or Stevie Van Zandt?" Which would be cutting! If the cultural boycott was the product of Stevie Van Zandt. Actually, it was the African National Congress-- an internal resistance movement of black South Africans and certainly the single most important group in the anti-apartheid struggle-- that had called for the academic boycott (which became a broader cultural boycott) in 1958. It wasn't a matter of guilt-ridden Westerners being preachy. It was a matter of principled people following the explicit request of an internal resistance movement that opposed a hideously racist regime.

These commenters think that they're cutting against western liberal pretensions by arguing against the boycott and acting as if it was foisted from the outside by white musicians. They're actually revealing both an ignorance of history and the assumption that all activism and resistance ultimately descends from white sources.

This assumption, of political liberal cluelessness, is rampant in our culture, but particularly within the environs of vague cultural liberalism and attendant status competitions. I do wonder when the people of the world will wake up and realize that the knee-jerk, uneducated liberalism of popular culture is a caricature, and that to whatever extent such a phenomenon exists, it's about 1/1,000,000th of our problems right now.

4 comments:

J. Otto Pohl said...

The cultural boycott against South Africa particularly its sports component was very effective. More effective in some important ways than other sanctions. A good argument could be made that banning South Africa from international sporting events had a greater psychological role in pushing White South Africans to dismantle apartheid than did the arms embargo or the oil embargo.

That said I do not think that Paul Simon's technical violation of the boycott is that big a deal. He was not playing in front of all White audiences. He was collaborating with Black musicians. The spirit of the boycott was obviously to put pressure on White South Africans to move towards dismantling apartheid.

I also think that those artists who supported the boycott against South Africa, but play in Israel are hypocrites. Israeli apartheid against the Palestinians is just as evil as the African version and should be boycotted for the same reasons. Artists who want to go to Palestine to work with Palestinian musicians like Simon did in South Africa are fine. Those that play in Tel Aviv in front of almost all Jewish audiences are not any better than people who played Sun City before Mandela was elected.

Jim said...

The typical AV Club commenter is a pop-culture obsessed snarky hipster* who doesn't know the first thing about history? Color me shocked!

* The above may be misconstrued by some as a personal attack. In fact it actually follows from the comments that Freddie is describing.

nutrition and the jews said...

what do you make of the ongoing genocide of white south africans?

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