With a boat called the “Rachel Corrie” about to be intercepted by the Israeli navy, I thought I’d reprint this post from 2006, which I titled “Philosophizing Disgrace”
Billy Bragg has rewritten The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (hat tip Clive Davis) as a paean to Rachel Corrie, the activist with the “International Solidarity Movement” who was accidentally crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza strip in March of 2003 when she attempted to block its movement with her body. Bragg’s performance is being distributed as a free mp3 here at The Guardian.
It’s excruciating to listen to — and this is from someone who was once a pretty big Billy Bragg fan, and still owns some of his stuff — and the lyric is atrociously bad, even if you should sympathize with its sentiments, which I do not.
Who is Rachel Corrie? Go see what her own International Solidarity Movement says about her (e.g., “she is the new Anne Frank”) or go to the Little Green Footballs blog to see an archive of entries about her and those who have exploited her death. Decide for yourself where the truth may lie.
Billy Bragg’s new ballad was particularly inspired by some difficulty in getting a play about her ( “My Name is Rachel Corrie”) produced by the New York Theater Workshop (it has already been performed in London and looks to be heading back there shortly). As Billy plaintively sings, “Is there no place for a voice in America /That doesn’t conform to the Fox News agenda?” That’s right, Billy: It’s all Fox, all the time, here in America now, even on the stage. Bill O’Reilly’s new one man show is opening on Broadway in the fall, soon to be followed by Romeo and Juliet, starring Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. Get used to it.
It’s really too absurd to respond to, and yet the Dylan connection has compelled me to write this post. Does Bragg, or anyone, mean to suggest that there is “censorship” taking place here, as if anyone with the cash to put forth couldn’t buy out a theater and put this play on for as long they liked? How about all the royalties Billy must have earned from his years of singing songs to try and make Stalinism hip? Has he anted up or is mangling one of Bob Dylan’s great songs the extent of his contribution to the cause?
“Non-person” seems to be Billy’s latest favorite catchword, if this song is any evidence, as in the Palestinians “had become non-persons in the eyes of the media,” and
If America is truly the beacon of freedom
Then how can it stand by while they bring down the curtain
And turn Rachel Corrie into a non-person?
So, the Palestinians, who have received billions in aid through the years from the EU, the United States, the UN, and other international sources (while countless other people without the same spotlight on their troubles have died from malnutrition in Africa, or been murdered in death camps in North Korea) are apparently entitled to Bragg’s new elevating “non-person” catchword, as is Rachel Corrie, whose death has already garnered so much sympathetic ink and who has had a play written about her and performed to sell-out crowds in London.
Corrie’s death, at the age of 23, was certainly sad, not least because she did not have time to grow and potentially realize the extent to which she had been misled and used by movements and forces beyond her understanding. At 23, a lot of sensitive people can find themselves filled with a righteous passion against injustice in the world, and can feel compelled to focus on some piece of it and demand that it be fixed immediately. Which piece that is can depend on whose influence they have fallen under at that particular stage of life. Perhaps, given the time, someone like Rachel Corrie would have begun to question how long the people of Israel would survive if they displayed an unwillingness to defend themselves. Perhaps she would have perceived the restraint shown by a people with vast military superiority against those that sent terrorists and suicide bombers their way with regularity. Perhaps — maybe by the time she was thirty years old, say — she would begun to have understood that if Israel’s enemies ever possessed the same military superiority over Israel, there would be no restraint, but only another holocaust against the Jews. Perhaps she would have begun to perceive reality, in other words, instead of being seduced by the twisted glamor of “freedom fighters” versus bullying “occupiers,” and putting her trust more in slogans than in facts.
Billy Bragg knows the power of slogans, if he knows little else.
Bob Dylan’s original song, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, is a great song in part because it never resorts to slogans or catchwords. Dylan knows the relative value of songs which make their point without bashing the listener over the head.
He also knows a little something about how a people surrounded by enemies — enemies who are determined to see their death at the soonest possible moment — can be portrayed as bullies in a shadowy world where lies are often a lot sexier than truth.
The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive.
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin,
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.
He’s the neighborhood bully.
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