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.
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:
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'."