Pete Seeger died on January 27, rich in years (ninety-four) and in honors (a lifetime-achievement Grammy, the National Medal for the Arts). His death rated a segment on the PBS News Hour, during which the inconvenient fact that Seeger had been a member of the U.S. Communist Party for years was finessed by the expedient of noting that he had eventually left the Party. What Pete Seeger never left, of course, was the left: not the pragmatic liberal world of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, but the hard left that created Stalin’s Popular Front in the ‘30s and later spelled the country’s name “Amerika” in the ‘60s.
With songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” (best performed, if I may say, by the Byrds), Seeger did as much as anyone to popularize the folk music renaissance of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But the adulation that came Seeger’s way in recent decades had less to do with his mastery of the five-string banjo and his song-writing than with his status in certain circles as a living martyr: the man who stiffed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), found himself blacklisted, and was reduced to performing on college campuses for a while.
Blacklisting is obviously bad business. What’s worth noting today, though, is that the ugly habit of blacklisting has migrated on the political spectrum. Ask a lot of people the first thing they think of when they hear “blacklist,” and the response will likely be “Joe McCarthy” or “HUAC.” The proper response would be “Andrew Cuomo.”
In mid-January, the New York governor indulged himself in a remarkable rant on a local radio station. His principle vexation was the “gridlock” in Washington that, on his account, was caused by “extreme Republicans,” which he distinguished from “moderate Republicans” (i.e., Republicans who tend to do what Andrew Cuomo wants them to do). Then, turning to his own Empire State, he announced that such extremists, among whom he listed “right-to-life” people, “have no place in the state of New York.”
My professional obligations take me to New York with some frequency; and despite Cuomo’s rant, I somehow doubt that there will be customs agents at Penn Station checking to see if I am one of those deplorable right-to-lifers before I detrain and begin contributing to New York’s exchequer by paying its exorbitant sales tax on various goods and services. Still, it’s instructive to know that, by the lights of its 56th governor, I am in New York on sufferance: much like I was, I suppose, when I crossed into East Berlin in 1987 and was given a hard stare by the goon who examined my U.S. passport and looked at me as if I were a lower life form.
Andrew Cuomo is a blacklister—in the moral, if not literal, sense of the term. He deems unfit to live in his state those who disagree with his fervent, indeed fanatical, embrace of the most extreme form of the abortion license. Press him hard enough and he might even say such people are un-American. Thus has the HUAC ethos been reconstituted in our time by the governor of New York.
So it was not without a certain sense of ironies in the fire that I read Governor Cuomo’s statement on the death of Pete Seeger, who waited until three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union to apologize “for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver,” not the mass murderer that more honest and discerning men and women on the democratic left knew him to be a half-century earlier: the Pete Seeger who, according to the motu proprio from the gubernatorial cathedra in Albany, inspires Andrew Cuomo and, Cuomo hopes, others in their quest to “make New York State the progressive capital of the nation.”
Where have all the liberals gone, long time passing? Not quite all have gone hard left. But Andrew Cuomo has, becoming a blacklister in the process.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.