Bob Dylan's Sad China Concert Double Standard

The legendary Bob Dylan lost hero status when he left out his famous protest songs during his China tour.

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Letting go of heroes is always hard. Finding out that people you once admired were much less than they and their publicity machines let on is never easy. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Bob Dylan provided voice to a generation that set out to change the world, and, in some respects, did. The power of his lyrics and his melodies, repetitious and easy to remember, are what made him famous and ultimately rich.

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For aging baby boomers, who scooped up Dylan’s vinyl albums and plastered their walls with his posters, news that Dylan did not include his signature protest songs, "Blowing in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in his concert in Beijing, so as not to antagonize his government hosts, was nothing short of a Wizard of Oz moment. Like the corporate leaders that preceded him, Dylan appears to apply one standard when it comes to human dignity at home, and another while traveling abroad, especially when those who most routinely violate basic standards of human rights line his pockets.

Dylan’s China tour coincides with the most brutal government crackdown on dissidents since the massacre it unleashed against youthful protesters in Tiananmen Square 22 years ago. Then, it will be recalled, Chinese youths marched on their capital carrying a paper mache replica of the Statue of Liberty. Commentators said that the protesters took their inspiration from the American civil rights movement and antiwar demonstrations a generation earlier. If so, they would have had to be familiar with Dylan’s music. Presumably, the young people who flocked to hear Dylan in Beijing knew upon what his reputation had been built. [See political cartoons on the economy.]

If, as Dylan himself pointed out in song, young people are faster to pick up on trends than their elders do ("the order is rapidly fadin’, and the first one now will later be last"), his listeners may have found it odd that Dylan made no mention of the plight of Ai Weiwei, the artist, architect, and activist who was recently arrested in the latest sweep-up of dissidents or any of the others rotting in Chinese jails for daring to speak their minds. Interestingly, the Chinese leadership did not deem Weiwei unpatriotic when they selected his design for "Bird’s Nest," Beijing’s Olympic stadium, which we saw on television two short years ago. No doubt the oppressed in China and elsewhere are wondering, like the Dylan we used to know once did, "how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?"

One suspects that after he concludes his tour and his managers have had a chance to assess how the harm Dylan did to his image may adversely impact his future earnings, Dylan may start to sing a different tune. Should the Bob Dylan of old seek to come all the way "home," he can take inspiration from any number of public figures who clung to their values while seeking to "engage" the Chinese and other violators of human rights. The list is long. It includes:

  • George W. Bush, who, upon learning that Catholics were being persecuted in China, informed his hosts on one of his visits there that he would like to attend mass.
  • Hillary Clinton, angered at the prospect of forced abortions, proclaimed at a women’s conference in China that "human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights."
  • Tom Lantos, the late California Congressman and only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, who stated at a public hearing that he hoped executives of high-tech companies that shared information about their users with the Chinese government could "live with themselves."
  • The management of Google, which decided that the cost of doing business, in compromised values and loss of self-respect, with a country that treated its citizens as China does was too high.
  • Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker, who, on a trip to Beijing, had herself driven to Tiananmen at sunbreak and unveiled a banner proclaiming solidarity with dissidents who had once gathered in large numbers at the site.
  • Jon Huntsman, the departing U.S. Ambassador to China, who vigorously protested Weiwei’s arrest.
  • Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek,whose protest of China’s active support for Sudan, as it pursued genocidal policies in Darfur, cost him a visa to visit China.
  • Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed an "evil empire" for what it was and asked to meet with Jewish dissidents ("Refusniks") while visiting a nation that denied it persecuted Jews.
  • In one of his finest hours, Reagan said that he took strength in the knowledge that the world would not end if an American president told the truth. And what about the most celebrated musician of the last half century, who made his name urging his listeners to question authority? The ball is in your court, Mr. Dylan.

    "If your time to you is worth savin', Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone. For the times, they are a changin'."

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