The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, June 04, 2004

Decoding Let America be America

Usually, when I slip in some kind of quote or term of art, I signal the fact by italicising the words: Mr Google hopefully does the rest.

John Kerry's slogan is Let America be America again. It feels kind of familiar: let [X] be [X] is, I think, a useful template for the purs et durs to use against the trimmers where X is some politician or institution. One might suppose it just one of those expressions that bubbles up from the ferment of a billion daily conversations and stays on the surface.

But the derivation is specific and freighted with significance, as Timothy Noah explained in Slate (June 1). Kerry's slogan is the title of a poem by Negro poet Langston Hughes, and published in 1938.

The significance: Hughes was a fellow-traveller - Noah makes him a member of one front organization, Louis F Budenz [1] put the figure at 85! - who, it seems, never rejected Communism - though he survived till 1967.

What does Kerry think he's doing pinching a slogan from a dead almost-Commie? And not making the connection clear, so that the reference to Hughes' piece of agitprop will only be apparent to those elites with which the Bushies are apparently so obsessed.

How did the Big Media fare in explaining the origin of the Kerry battle-cry? Right now, the Poor Man's Nexis is showing 17 items (mostly dupes, I surmise) for "langston hughes" "john kerry" - the New York Times (June 1) references the poem, and its theme (more or less) without any context for Hughes as a fellow-traveller [2]. The LA Times limits itself to namechecking Hughes. Nothing from WaPo.

Lady Bracknell famously avers that she does
not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance.

She's not alone, apparently.

  1. The briefest of searches makes him a Commie-turned-Commie-baiter.

  2. Or the very particular political circumstances of 1938 - the height of the Popular Front, CIO organising and left-wing theatre, in which Hughes was involved: a piece about his musical Don't You Want to Be Free he put on with the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938. A very teachable moment gone to waste. (The piece was given the space to mention The West Wing - the niceties duly observed!)

Further mooching online suggests Hughes and Communism is way in to all sorts of historical goodies.

The movie of the blog, the 1939 Mr Smith Goes To Washington, was written by a Communist, sentenced to prison as a result of a HUAC appearance after the War, Sidney Buchman; the Smith Act and Dies Committee; the Hitler-Stalin Pact; the start of World War 2 - these were indeed interesting times for Communism in America.

Nothing outstanding on Hughes yet; promising-looking are a piece on his appearance before the McCarthy Committee in 1953 (an extract from the transcript); a 2,500 word bio; a piece called Langston Hughes in the 1930s.


Touching on Buchman and HUAC, there is this, this and this - the last mostly about the blacklisted screen-writer Michael Wilson.

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