Last week, Dick Cheney, Robert Mueller, Donald Rumsfeld, and, for all I know, Willard Scott once again warned of modern-day threats to America. Meanwhile, a piece by the Washington Post's David Segal inadvertently reminded us of a time when our primary foe was communism and not a few journalists were oblivious to the wretched nature of this movement.
Segal, who covers pop music and really oughtn't wander far from that genre, earned his Useful Idiot Award with a May 22 article that dealt cluelessly and flippantly with Oakland-based communist rapper Raymond (Boots) Riley, who leads an outfit called the Coup. Plenty of critics, Segal among them, chose the Coup's "Party Music" as one of last year's best albums.
Riley is politically noxious. He refers to this country as the "United Snakes," believes that "the American flag...stands for oppression, slavery, and murder," and asserts that before the state-controlled economic system he desires is achieved, "there's going to be a fight from the people who traditionally maintain profits, and it's not only going to be a fight of words...It's going to be a fight where people are attacked."
A year ago, Riley intended the cover for "Party Music" to depict him setting off an explosion and fire at the World Trade Center as "a metaphor for destroying capitalism - where the music is making capitalist towers blow up." The artwork was shelved in the wake of the September 11 atrocities, a bow in favor of sensitivity but an act of hypocrisy nonetheless. The terrorists behind 9/11 shared Riley's hatred for the American system, only their actions showed the real-life consequences of this hatred.
Yet Segal repeatedly declares that he finds Riley's work amusing. He calls the WTC cover art "jokey" and a bit later describes a track called "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" as "tongue-in-cheek." In his most elaborate encomium to Riley's supposed wit, Segal states, "Most radicals are insufferably dull and humorless. Riley, on the other hand, sells communism not just as a way to seize the means of production but also as a shortcut to the all-night dance bash of your dreams...Riley thinks Bolshevism can be a hoot, and even if you consider that cockamamie, his attempts at persuasion are wry and winningly subversive."
Suggested summer reading for Mr. Segal: "The Gulag Archipelago."
"Genuine pariahs are now a rarity in pop music," Segal salivates, "and the Coup is among the very last...If nothing else, [Riley's] agitprop rap expands the surprisingly narrow bandwidth of what is deemed outrageous these days, which is what pop at its tweaking best often does."
In truth, Riley is anything but a pariah, what with critics like Segal lauding him. And only someone thoroughly ignorant on the subject could suggest that communism "tweaks." It doesn't. It brutalizes, with tens of millions of its murdered victims its global monument.
"'Party Music' looks like it will be one of those peculiar triumph-fiascos of art in the tradition of 'Citizen Kane,'" prophesizes Segal, "a work hailed by critics that failed in the marketplace and then vanished from sight, at least for a while."
Thank God the public isn't as jaw-droppingly naïve as Segal, who took part in a chat on the Post's web site on the day his story ran, and I'm happy to report that he faced some tough questioning about his enthusiasm for Riley and the Coup. To someone who sensibly enough noted that both communism and Nazism are "disgusting," Segal replied, "I see a big difference between an ideology, like Nazism, which was explicitly genocidal, and communism, which is not."
In another answer, Segal claimed, "The politics of ['Party Music'] aren't all that interesting to me," even though downplaying politics in a discussion of Riley would be equivalent to downplaying food in a discussion of Julia Child, which is why Segal didn't.
Finally, after someone posted a rundown of death tolls under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al and added, "Check out 'The Black Book of Communism' for the story of communism and its inherent link to genocide," Segal wrote, "To be clear, I wouldn't recommend communism for anyone, anywhere, ever."
Actually, I doubt that many readers thought the piece endorsed Riley's politics. But in a sense, that would have been preferable to Segal's elitist, arrogant, too-clever-by-at-least-half approach: It would have acknowledged that communism matters. One simply cannot treat as trivial, as "a hoot," this blight on history that remains a malign and menacing, if diminished, force.
Riley can hang out on the ash heap of history all he wants, but that doesn't mean Segal should visit him there and make it sound like a holiday in the sun.