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As a life member of the Folk Alliance International and until recently a member of its board, I’d like to be able to congratulate the organization on its move from Memphis to a much better situation in Kansas City.
But the first annual FAI Conference in KC will feature Al Gore in a special presentation, for conference attendees only, of his quasi-prophetic fantasy, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. It makes me feel like FAI is dancing on Pete Seeger’s grave. Does it really matter much whether they’re doing it out of ignorance or making a deliberate effort to steer folk music far to the right of where its political and social allegiances have traditionally belonged?
Am I over-reacting, refusing to come to grips with contemporary political reality and with Al Gore, the wronged should-have-been President, moral beacon, intellectual paragon, and his role as a leader of the ecological movement?
Gore’s approach to solving the world’s problems centers on venture capital firms, such as his own Generation Investment Manager and the firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in which he is a partner. Exactly how he rationalizes such projects of these firms as AOL, Amazon, Electronic Arts and Google as good for the environment and harbingers of a better future isn’t all that interesting. It’s just the usual neoliberal blather, the liberal version of the conservative lie that a rising tide lifts all boats. Neither ever asks whether everybody has a boat, or whether the boats we do have will carry all the people now living, let alone coming generations, or how there can be life-sustaining air, water, soil and minerals if the depredations of high-tech capitalism, which are at least as devastating as those of earlier versions, are allowed to continue.
Folk music is supposed to side with the people whose lives are ruined, from West Virginia to Japan, not the exploiters who mask and attempt to explain away the all-but-irreversible damage that has already been done in the name of “growth.” The question that no Gore speech or PowerPoint has ever answered is “Sustainable for whom?”
It’s a question to which previous generations of folk musicians and activists associated with it have never failed to demand answers.
Gore’s six drivers include nothing remotely related to the kind of human-scale empowerment projects (for instance, the civil rights and anti-war movements, Operation Wall Street, and labor rights) that folk music has traditionally been involved with.
From this point of view, Al Gore is the anti-Pete Seeger: Deceitful where Pete was honest, cowardly where Pete was brave, an apologist for continuing to destroy the environment where Seeger was an ecological champion, a censor where Pete stood on the rock of the First Amendment even when Congress and his own lawyers told him it was a loser. (Pete won his case.)
Above all, Pete Seeger was a champion of music, all kinds of music, in America and the world, whereas Al Gore spent much of the ‘80s berating and belittling popular music, even helping convene a Senate hearing on the “threat” of lyrics to the nation’s children. Ten years later, in typical fashion, he denied he’d even attended most of the conference, although he was the only Senator who was present for all of that travesty (take a look at www.youtube.com/watch?v=d65BxvSNa2o if you must, but I was there and my own eyes swear to it). He and his wife Tipper wanted to raise my kids while at least one of theirs turned out to be a drunk (or was that a druggie?) with a penchant for driving while intoxicated. (Is this unfair to Al Gore’s kids? Much less unfair than the Gores were to the kids—current and former–who loved and found emotional refuge in heavy metal and hip-hop. ) Finally, the moral exemplars’ marriage dissolved as Al was found creeping out of a massage brothel in the middle of the Oregon night.
One wonders if Al Gore ever met Pete Seeger. It’s hard to imagine where it might have been.
It couldn’t have been at a peace rally—as Congressman, Senator and Vice President, Gore voted yes on every war question from Grenada to Iraq to Yugoslavia. He pretended to agonize over whether to support the first Bush invasion of Iraq but, it turns out, this was simply because he was guaranteed to get network TV time with his speech.
It couldn’t have been at a rally for women’s rights. Gore never supported abortion rights more than halfheartedly, and while in the House, played a meaningful role in ending Federal financing of abortion—which had the effect of denying any practical right for the poorest American women to exercise their freedom to choose.
It couldn’t have been at a rally for the environment, because Al Gore’s so-called “environmentalism” ends just about where the deep commitment of Pete Seeger began. Gore is the kind of ecological advocate who damns, say, timber mining in Brazil while either supporting or never uttering a peep about coal companies strip mining the Appalachians. Gore grandstands as Barack Obama’s moral scourge on the Keystone pipeline, but he treads much more carefully around actual energy executives. His inherited wealth stems from favors done for his father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., by Armand Hammer, the owner of Occidental Petroleum. Al Gore’s environmental forte is failed adventures in public relations, such as his mild support for the Kyoto Climate Accords, a cost-free move since there was never any realistic chance of ratification by the U.S. Senate.
It’s not possible that it would have been at a labor rally. Gore blabbers about “growth” and “jobs” just like every other neoliberal bullshit artist. He also was a prime champion of NAFTA, which has been devastating to workers rights and livelihoods in both the United States and Mexico. (He “won the debate” against Ross Perot during the ’92 election, but Perot, reactionary as he is, was right to sneer at the baloney Gore was spouting.) In the 2000 election Gore claimed he agreed with unions “90% but not on free trade.” This is about like the claim that humans share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.
God knows, Al Gore wouldn’t have met Pete Seeger at an Occupy Wall Street event. Gore’s politics have never been remotely inclusive—he is another neoliberal devising programs “for the poor” without consulting anyone who is actually poor. (The first Senator Gore used to boast about his country roots and being sent to a one-room schoolhouse. He never did mention that the vast majority of the children around him—white as well as black—had no schools to attend at all. They were already too busy working for a living as sharecroppers and miners.)
Gore and Seeger definitely would not have bumped into one another at one of the annual rallies held at Fort Benning, Georgia to protest the continued existence of that dictator/torturer training camp, The School of the Americas. Pete never missed one. Gore was never there because he backs U.S. foreign policy, which essentially attempts to treat the nations of South and Central America as a string of colonial outposts led by children who must be instructed by the self-proclaimed grown-ups in Washington.
And for God’s sake, it wouldn’t have been at any kind of music conference because, for two decades, Al Gore has been scorned as wanna-be censor and father of the PMRC. He was the eager assistant for his now ex-wife Tipper in her falsehood and fantasy ridden campaign against rap, heavy metal and rock that didn’t abide by the Gore family’s supposed Baptist principles.
Pete Seeger was one of the half dozen greatest figures in American folk culture.
Al Gore was a Congressman and Senator who opposed gun control and declared that homosexuality was not another “normal optional life style.” (It also might be said that while Pete Seeger was a remarkably coherent, focused and cogent writer and speaker, Al Gore has the verbal felicity of a wooden carving.)
This is the man behind the “frank and clear-eyed assessment” of the present that Folk Alliance International will present as an exemplar of “The Future.” It’s hard to know what Gore’s going to talk about, but it’s most likely to be an extension of his self-promoting film, An Inconvenient Truth.
There is also the significant question of whether Gore is being paid to do his “presentation.” In early February, Gore was paid 100,000 English pounds (more than $160,000) for a speech to the Forbes Forum. In the history of the Folk Alliance, singers and musicians making appearances have never been paid. In most cases, they must pay for their own travel and lodging. It is hard to believe that Gore’s PR machine would not be braying loudly if he were giving away his precious time and PowerPoint to struggling folk singers and banjo players. It’s even harder to believe that the FAI, whose board isn’t even interested enough to have a fundraising committee, is spending the big bucks. It will be a wonder to see how the FAI membership reacts if Gore’s fee is revealed…or if FAI refuses to reveal it, for that matter.
Is it absolutely morally “wrong” for the FAI to invite Al Gore despite all that he has done and represents? Of course not. Is it entirely reasonable to draw the conclusions drawn here about what that tells us about FAI? Of course it is. It would be one thing, for instance, to invite Gore to speak on a Conference panel with divergent views about the future. (That might even be refreshing, since so much folk discussion centers on the past.) But what the FAI has actually done is given a green Bernie Madoff a platform for his sales pitch.
Coda: One might wonder what Pete Seeger would think of a right of center (the center being the American people, not the denizens of the Beltway) politician at a folk music festival. I don’t know. But I do know this:
In October 2000 with the Presidential election between Al Gore and Shrub Bush running neck and neck and a third candidate, Ralph Nader, running on the Green ticket while receiving substantial support and also receiving vicious jibes and threats from loyalist Gore supporters, I attended a dinner party of about a dozen at Harold and Natalie Leventhal’s Riverside Drive apartment. Early in the evening, we were each asked to state our preference in the upcoming presidential campaign. It got to Pete about halfway through. He talked about how he had been doing this a long time, and about his thoughts on splinter political parties. To him three choices was not enough. He said, if I remember the number right, that what was really needed was about eighteen different parties: A party for the vegans and a party for the pacifists and a party for….I don’t know, he might even have said a party for the fascists. (I don’t think so.) What he meant was, I know myself well enough that nobody can bully me.
And then he said: I’m voting for Ralph Nader.
This article will appear in the upcoming issue of Rock & Rap Confidential. You can subscribe for free to the email version of RRC by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.