Bob Dylan took his tour to Beijing, but the authorities wanted to look over his play list first. Maybe there would be some songs they didn't like. So Bob figured he could live with that. He submitted his songs, and the authorities crossed out a few. He couldn't sing Desolation Row, for instance. But so what?.....Dylan's written hundreds of songs, and he mixes them up with each new concert. So he played his show with about 30 songs, like he always does, and the government was happy, he was happy, his musicians were happy, and the attendees were happy, just like my son and I were happy when we went to his Rochester concert at the Gordon Field House.
But columnist Maureen Dowd, from the New York Times, was not happy. “Bob Dylan may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out,” she fumed. Lately China has taken to jailing outspoken dissidents, she pointed out. They've not been nice to people too assertive in demanding change. But if Bob Dylan had stuck it to them, Maureen thinks, singing famous ballads like “The Times They Are a-Changing”..... well, doubtless 1960's flower-power would engulf the country, a new age of Aquarius would descend, and all would be peace and love in China, just like it is in...um...the United....uh...States, the land from which Dowd writes.
Now, Dowd picked the wrong ox to gore, as far as I'm concerned. Isn't Bob Dylan my favorite musical entertainer? But Dowd is a journalist and, yes...I admit it, I have mixed feelings about those folk. Aren't they direct descendents of that kid from school who was always going "to tell"? None of us could stand that kid. This was true even when there were things going down that deserved telling. That kid just had a strange personality, a little too given to sucking up and holding center stage.
Plus, journalists are too often subject to an unreasonable faith that humans, and especially human governments, have the answers to world problems. And that if you just shine the light of journalism upon this or that unsavory circumstance, those circumstances improve. Filling the public's “right to know”.....that's all that is lacking for peace and happiness to prevail! Thus, even good ol Joel Engardio, who's made the most honest documentary examination of Jehovah's Witnesses I've ever seen, left his JW upbringing as a teen, and pursued journalism, because he didn't want to wait for an improved world. He wanted to make it happen now, through journalism. Look, it's true that when you shine a bright light, the cockroaches vanish. But they don't cease to be cockroaches. They just go somewhere else. Put them out of commission, and it's like the Bullet used to say about swatting flies: kill one fly and fifty come to the funeral.
Lee Chugg used to reflect on how Awake's reporting, written by peers, could capture the actual views of whatever peoples it covered. Newsweek would send its own wildly over-educated correspondents into the barrios of this or that country, and the locals would tell them anything they wanted to hear. No one wants to be thought ignorant, and if reporters framed everything in terms of human solutions, political solutions, residents played right along. Probing a certain fellow, (I saw this recently on a BBC item) the man answered that he had faith in God. “Yes, yes, you have faith in God,” acknowledged the reporter, eager to get this useless bit of trivia behind him, but what about politicians? Do you have faith in politicians?” “Some politicians, but not all politicians,” was the reply. Ahh....now we're talking! Human efforts! And the interview proceeded from there, the BBC reporter having established the groundrules. Awake would have pursued his initial answer, taking for granted the general uselessness of politicians.
Common people today tend to liken governments to the unchangeable heavens, just as they did in ancient times. Regularly, that metaphor appears in the Bible. It fit perfectly then. It fits almost as well today. From the heavens back then would descend any sort of weather, blessing you one moment, cursing you the next, and you couldn't do anything about it. It's little different today in most parts of the world. Even in more democratic countries, it is mostly illusion that "the heavens" can be significantly changed, but people buy into that illusion to an astounding degree. I don't think Bob Dylan does. And I don't. And Jehovah's Witnesses don't.
But Maureen Dowd does, I think. Now, isn't Dowd one of those aging flower children from the 60's, you know, the decade of love, who remember fondly those days of war protest, getting stoned, love the one you're with, and bringing down Nixon (whom the Chinese like)? Ahhh...those glorious days when policemen were called “pigs.”* Those reveling youth of the '60's idolized Dylan, and Dowd does not take his betrayal lightly. “The idea that the raspy troubadour of '60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout,” she mutters.
*a taunt that lasted until policemen themselves defused it, turning it into a badge of honor: PIGS = P(ride) I(ntegrity) G(uts) S(ervice)
But in all her Dylan-worshipping fervor, did she never notice that Dylan denied being a god? He never embraced the “spirit of the '60s,” much less try to lead it. Rather, he wrote the songs he did because people ate them up. “I latched on,” he said, “when I got to New York City, because I saw (what) a huge audience there was. I knew I wasn't going to stay there. I knew it wasn't my thing. ... I became interested in folk music because I had to make it somehow." I almost (but not quite) think he regrets doing it, because he was so successful that the beatniks and sycophants back then seized him and tried to make him king. Now, they tried to do the same with Jesus, and Jesus escaped....
Hence when the men saw the signs he performed, they began to say: “This is for a certainty the prophet that was to come into the world.” Therefore Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone. John 6:14-15
.....but Dylan wasn't so adept. He actually got stuck being king for a few decades, the leader of a movement he never liked! "I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of," he writes in his autobiography. "Whatever the counterculture was, I'd seen enough of it," He grumbles on about being "anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent." Instead, he writes that he wanted “to have a house with a white picket fence and pink roses in back, live in East Hampton with his wife and pack of kids, eat Cheerios and go to the Rainbow Room and see Frank Sinatra Jr. perform!”
Alright, alright. So he did walk off the Ed Sullivan show when Ed wouldn't let him sing the John Birch Talkin Blues (sending Maureen Dowd into an ecstatic swoon, no doubt). He was 22. In a huff over artistic integrity, most likely, and intrigued that his lyrics could so rile a guy three times his age. But in 1974 he said "It's never been my duty to remake the world at large, nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge."
Gasp!......is this to say that Bob Dylan doesn't care about injustice? My guess is that he does, but he also has the presence of mind to know it has little to do with human governments. Is there injustice in China? I don't doubt it for a second. It's the notion that there's not injustice elsewhere that's the rub. Different people suffer different forms of injustice, that's all. Human government doesn't stamp out injustice. Instead, it removes the hat of injustice from this head and puts it on that one. If there are things disagreeable about the Chinese system, there are also things agreeable, so that on balance, it's just another form of human government, with both strengths and weaknesses. Is it gauling to have one's freedom restricted by “guy's at the top?” Doubtless, it is. But the other side of the coin is that expressed by H. L. Mencken: "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." Overall, human rulership is a mess. “Man ruling man” is the problem, rather than the specific form such ruling takes.
Or is it that the freedom human governments are able to grant is such a tiny subset of overall freedom that it hardly seems worth getting obsessed about? After all, a relationship with God points one toward freedom from death, and sin. I'll take those freedoms any day to the lesser freedoms humans (unreliably) promise. Oh, I suppose, like Dowd, I should rail about the Chinese authorities, because they are communist, and communists tend to ban Jehovah's Witnesses a lot, and that's who I am. It makes no sense at all for them to do this, but it happens nonetheless. If you want people guaranteed not to rebel or protest, fill your country with JWs. If you want your taxes paid, if you want your laws obeyed, if you want your people to be honest, to work and to mind their own business, fill up with JWs. Let them meet and speak about their faith, and they're happy. All other matters they keep in perspective.
The 1990 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses tells of a Canadian Witness child who was tested with regard to flag decorum. JWs don't salute the flag – an item that riles many a nation. She and another child were summoned separately to the principal’s office, where they found a Canadian flag draped across his desk. The non-Witness child was told to spit on the flag, and she did so, notwithstanding that she saluted it every day. Spitting must be okay….her teacher had told her to do it. The Witness child was brought in and told to do the same. She would not do it. They tried to coax her. Since she didn’t salute, there’s no reason not to spit, they suggested. She held her ground. No, spitting would be desecrating the national symbol, she explained. Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the flag, though they do not worship it. Results were announced in class. Apparently, it was part of some civics lesson.
Now, the Western media – let us choose Dowd as it's representative – is obsessed with freedom from authority. If the U.S. establishment went down 50 years ago, maybe now is the time for China! Does Dowd swoon over memories of the '60s? Are Woodstock posters hanging in her home somewhere? Look, I lived through the '60s, just as she did. I always thought they were phony, and this is long before I became a Witness. Perhaps they weren't phony everywhere, but where I was, on the campus I traipsed, it all seemed just a big reason to party, to riot, to escape the “tyranny” of anyone who would tell us what to do. I followed fellow students, as did everyone, when they trekked into “downtown” Potsdam NY to vent their outrage over the war and stuff in general. I caught a whiff of pepper gas – man, you don't want to get remotely near that stuff! – when the police turned up. It was a wild party gone bad. Maybe there were sincere, mature protesters somewhere. I assume that there were. But I didn't see them.
Many a young person must have cursed their parents for bringing in the “spirit of the '60s.” For the '60s meant an explosion in STDs. Why is herpes widepsread today? Blame the spirit of the '60s. Look, people have always slept around – don't kid yourself – but it was not till the '60s that the changing world embraced sleeping around as a positive, a value to be passed on to the next generation. The '60s brought in a massive refocus on our “rights.” Not bad in itself, one might argue, but it was accompanied by a corresponding loss of interest on responsibilities. I can well understand how the Chinese government might want to safeguard citizens from that. It's not just old guys who want to secure their place at top of the heap, which is the only explanation Western media can imagine. “Generally the Chinese people are happy,” says one fellow who lives in Beijing, who I found somewhere on the internet, and, for the life of me, cannot find again, though I've tried. “Generally they are proud of China; and generally they think more change and freedom are needed. It will come because most of them want it, but they also want stability. It has been rough here the last 100 years or so, and people value the positive things while seeing the need for more.”
You know, I can't quite picture those government authorities sifting Dylan songs, trying to ….um....separate the sheep from the goats. All Dylan lyrics mean something, I suppose, but judging just what they mean is no piece of cake. Seldom are they political. But if you're a critic who can see things only that way, they can usually be teased for some political meaning. “That which is crooked cannot be made straight,” is the Bible statement regarding human governmental systems which might most readily represent his views. His lyrics are “hard on bosses, courts, pols and anyone corrupted by money and power.” They're “infused with subversion against all kinds of authority, except God.”
God comes out in the clear. Good. Bob's not starry eyed over human government. He knows injustice goes far beyond political systems. I like all this. Bob Dylan's not like Randy Newman. He's more like.....um....well.....me.
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Starting with Prince, a fierce and frolicking defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A riotous romp through their way of life. “We have become a theatrical spectacle in the world, and to angels and to men,” the Bible verse says. That being the case, let’s give them some theater! Let’s skewer the liars who slander the Christ! Let’s pull down the house on the axis lords! Let the seed-pickers unite!