In Defense of Dylan in China: Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize with Your Pen

By , April 10, 2011

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Bob Dylan performed in concert in Beijing on April 6 and Shanghai on April 8

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times – Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind – lambasts singer-songwriter/protest-singer/civil-rights-activist/voice-of-a-generation/whatever-he-is-to-you Bob Dylan for his recent concert in Beijing, China.  For Dowd, Dylan’s acceptance of the Chinese government’s approval of his set list is anathema to everything he represents.  Dropping his famous protest songs of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” from the set list during China’s most severe crackdown on its own citizens since 1989 and ignoring the recent detention of Chinese rights activists shows, for Dowd, that Dylan is nothing more than a sellout, willing to auction his morals to the highest bidder.

But Dowd’s virulent critique of Dylan makes one wonder, where has she been in all of this?  Dowd is an obvious Dylan fan, likely even a disciple, with her skilled use of Dylan quotes and understanding of the man’s extremely tangled and uncomfortable history with fame.  But China’s “harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade” and its “dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei” as Dowd notes, didn’t just start this weekend and didn’t just start with the detention of Ai Weiwei.

Since the middle of February, the Chinese government has been illegally abducting Chinese rights activists, preventing them from contacting their family let alone a lawyer, and subjecting them to torture and abuse.  This siege on rights activists in China is done as a pre-emptive strike on the nascent civil society that has been developing and is an attempt for the Chinese Communist Party to avoid the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali and maintain its one-party authoritarian rule, especially as a change of leadership comes in 2012.

Tang Jitian was abducted from his home on February 16, 2011, starting what has proved to be a wide-cast net of illegal abductions and abuse (abuse of both China’s own laws and the individuals that remain in custody).  Since then, Dowd has written 13 columns, not a single one dealing with the issue of the Chinese government’s harsh and violent crackdown on its citizens.  Today’s column barely touches upon the issue and instead focuses on Dylan’s “selling out.”

Let’s face it, Dylan is unable to sell out because he never bought in in the first place.  Dylan never fully engaged the civil rights movement.  While his songs did become a motivating force for many of the great civil rights activists and moments in U.S. history, by 1965, he was done with folk and had plugged in.  And since the 1980s, Dylan has been on a non-stop tour, selling the rights of his iconic protest songs to commercial entities (the rights to Times They Are A Changin’ was first sold to accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and in 1996 to the Bank of Montreal), appearing in a Victoria’s Secret ad, producing an abysmally bad Christmas album, and almost never including Blowin’ in the Wind and the Times They Are A’Changin’ in any set list anywhere in the world (review his set lists here:

Dylan’s lack of mentioning China’s recent crackdown on dissent isn’t shocking.  In fact, the old guy likely knows nothing of what is happening in China – why should we rely on him to be our voice and do all the work?  This isn’t his issue; in fact, the man likely has no issues other than himself.

Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd.  Unlike most of the people concerned about human rights abuses in China, Dowd has a powerful platform for her voice – her twice-a-week column in the N.Y. Times.  With a large and influential readership that likely reaches the halls of the White House and Congress, discussion of China’s recent abuse of its own citizens and its subversion of a rule of law in her column could influence important policy makers as well as the world-at-large.

To their credit, some of the world’s major newspapers have been reporting on China’s recent crackdown, but these articles have been cursory at best and do not fully explain why China’s recent assault goes above and beyond what traditionally occurs in an authoritarian regime.  But most individuals knowledgeable on the issue have had extreme difficulty in getting their voice out in the mainstream press (kudos though to The International Herald Tribune and the N.Y. Times for publishing opinion pieces in its print editions and kudos to  The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for having opinion pieces on the issue in their online papers).

Dowd has the opportunity to expose what is happening in China and call for the freeing of, or at the very least the end of the abuse of, not just Ai Weiwei, but also rights-defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Teng Biao, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Li Tiantian, and Gao Zhisheng.  The whereabouts of these lawyers, unlawfully abducted by Chinese authorities (even under Chinese law), remain unknown.  Their only offense: asking the Chinese government to uphold its promise of a rule of law and using the legal system to protect society’s most vulnerable.

Dowd’s disappointment in Dylan’s snub of China’s crackdown on dissent leads me to believe that this is an issue Dowd is concerned about.  But instead of asking Dylan to be the spokesperson for the issue, Dowd should practice what she herself appears to preach.  My challenge to Dowd is to use her sharp-witted pen and find a way to raise the plights of China’s rights-defenders in the American consciousness instead of relegating it to two sentences in a column that is otherwise a critique of Dylan.  If Dowd doesn’t, then I am left to think “you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time….”

9 Responses to “In Defense of Dylan in China: Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize with Your Pen”

  1. […] China Law & Policy This entry was posted in Bob Dylan. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Sea & Cake – […]

  2. thealephmag says:

    For all his garbled vocals and unpredictability, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing when he went to China. Unlike his critics in the Western media egging him on to have some sort of Bjork-like outburst on stage, he understands that protest is best done when it names no specific target. The Chinese government let his anti-oppression lyrics slide, probably because the songs are so damn good and Dylan’s a legend, but probably also because the words could apply to the proletarian struggle just as well as they would to an anti-totalitarian one. In the best way possible, Dylan first looks out for himself as an artist, and isn’t that stubborn defiance of expectations the most universal and powerful protest of all?

  3. BJ Allen says:

    How many times does Bob have to say it? He is not in the business of being a spokesperson, he is poet, nothing more, nothing less. If his poetry inspires people (he has certainly inspired me) so be it, it does not make him a leader of anything. I would rather he spend his time making great art. Dowd may do better to spend her time thinking about the oppression of this country, the US Government is owned by Corporations and citizens who do not employ lobbyists have no voice…if she wishes someone to speak out against Tyrrany, perhaps she should start here at home…but then again, her employer is a rather large corporation. Allen Ginsberg said it best when describing Dylan at the Tom Payne awards “he pissed everybody off because he wasn’t a nice trained seal.”. Bob never has been and I hope he never will be.

  4. Uriah Hamilton says:

    The Christmas album is heartfelt and warm. Dylan in being in China has brought more light to these issues of abuse than they would have otherwise had. Very few people can bring about moral thought by their very presence. Dylan does. Maybe a thank you to Mr.Dylan is deserving and not the hatred.

  5. Richard says:

    “Abysmally bad Christmas album”? Frighteningly compelling, I would say. The sounds of virgin birth and crucifixion. As to the politics, well, “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the several opening lines of “All Along the Watchtower” (to name but two songs played in Beijing) are more powerfully political – including in the Chinese context – than the stuff about answers blowin’ in the wind.

    All cynicism aside, Mr Zimmerman embodies the spirit of freedom, even if he lives it fitfully. I don’t care. The idiot wind will come to humble every empire in the end. It seems good that a few thousand, if not some millions, of sisters and brothers in China will be checking out the work of this one man.

  6. ThomasR says:

    I think you make an excellent point about Dowd’s hypocrisy. And itt is really strange to me that people want political advocacy from musicians. As you say, Dylan probably knows nothing about Chinese human rights issues.

    I do agree with ChasL (aka 50cent) that calling this the most severe crackdown since 1989 may still be a bit premature, but for slightly different reasons. I recall a crackdown on a certain quasi-religious group that could be called more severe than this one, although this crackdown is not over yet.

  7. Dredd says:

    I certainly agree.

    One need only read the lyrics of the songs he sang there and understand that they are protest songs for those that can hear them.

    They have been sung from the days of the Magna Carta and should be sung for years from now.

  8. ChasL says:

    Liz u don’t know what ur talking about:

    “China’s most severe crackdown on its own citizens” – really? how many people? China has like a billion people, u know?

    Seriousely, it’s not hard to find the background on like 20 people. Just to name a couple – Yang Hengjun reappeared and told the Australian embassy he was not arrested; Zhang Jiannan also reappeared; Wang Yenfeng never disappeared, her husband has not tweeted about her disappearing at all (it’s obvious she hide in the country side and he knows where she is).

    “illegally abducting Chinese rights activists” – pleeez, read up on China’s law, it’s a little different than ours. For example, the “illegal detention” is in fact Administra­tive Detention that is allowed under China’s judicial process. BTW double check your list of so called rights activists, they’ve been charged with suspecion of subversion or distrubing peace, just as if it had happened here in US.

    That’s right, READ the Chinese jasmine revolution manifesto published in US (no doubt financed by the NED), it includes plan to esclate protests to violent mass incident dibilitati­ng society and government­, even formation of overseas transition­al government­. Egype and Libya has 130 million ppl combined, imagine 1.3 BILLION people suffering from the same statelessn­ess and chaos.

    Compare that with US Code Title 18 Section 115 on Treason, Sedition, Subversive Activities­. Anyone would similarly be subject investigat­ion and prosecutio­n for advocating jasmine revolution in America to overthrow the Obama administra­tion (not to mention majority of Americans would also reject such undemocrat­ic, violent assult against society.)

  9. Howard Fischer MD says:

    Some of us like the Christmas album.

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