In Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History (Commentary Magazine), Jonathan Tobin offers what has to be the best, most balanced remembrance of the folk singer and activist that has yet been written. Some may feel that Tobin pussyfoots a bit, and certainly it would have been possible to write a more searching essay about Seeger and his legacy. Others have, just as many have written panegyrics to the departed songster.
Tobin did not follow the path of character assassination, choosing equipoise in his eulogy. He reminds us that in remembering the dead we do neither ourselves, nor the departed, nor the bereaved justice in recalling but a single aspect of that person’s life. If we believe that judgment is the Lord’s and his only, we should not judge. If we do not believe that, we are still obliged to inject balance in our public remembrances. We should come neither to praise the corpse nor piss on the grave, but to call upon our fellows to ruminate on the complexity of the human soul and what the legacy of a man in toto means to us all in our lives.
Remembering the bad with the good invites us to reflect that even heroes are flawed, and that humility remains the highest virtue. Remembering he good with the bad encourages us to go forward and do better, regardless of the chaos and destruction left in our wake to that point.
To do less is not just to display a lack of maturity and menschkeit: it is to forgo intellectual honesty and, in the case of political figures, to make oneself a party to demagoguery. It is as distasteful to eschew balance in the memory of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Margaret Thatcher is it is to do the same with the memory of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Pete Seeger.
Enough with paeans, with juvenile “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead” idiocy. Let’s take a page from Tobin’s book and show some class, even to those whose politics we detest. We may well learn something.