Tuesday, September 22, 2009

licking power's boot

In their customary tongue-in-cheek tone, last week's Economist not so much mourned the passing of Soviet/post-Soviet poet Sergei Mikhalkov as tipped their caps to a cynic in the first degree. (Link possibly slams head-first into the Economist's pay wall.)

Born to an aristocratic family pre-October Revolution, Mikhalkov rose to prominence under Stalin and penned the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, and lived long enough to re-write the words twice: once under the Soviets, eager to distance themselves from Stalin's crimes, and a second time for Putin's post-Communist era. That's what I call ideological flexibility. (His survival also came at the cost of his soul, denouncing Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn.) The obit nevertheless puts his compromises into perspective:
Servility towards power is a ubiquitous phenomenon. An 18th-century English song, “The Vicar of Bray”, tells of a country clergyman who changed his allegiance with the times, Romish under James II, strongly Protestant under the Hanoverians, through every other point of the ecclesiological compass. The chorus runs:
And this is Law I will maintain
Until my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
Mr Mikhalkov offered a Soviet version of the theme.
While my instinct is offer a smirk about echoes of 30 Rock pitches for Verizon, it's particularly vapid to equate the celebration of the murderous reign of a police state with the crass commercialism of product placement in our present day.

Nevertheless, it's always instructive to note how history is dotted with countless examples of artistic voices that chose not to speak truth to power, but instead to lick its boot.

We are a society that not only celebrates dissent, we fetishize it. Even those who condemned Joe Wilson's verbal diarrhea nevertheless place it within a proud American tradition of defying authority. While Wilson's suitability to keep such company is up to debate, there is a reason why we treasure lunatics who are brave or foolish enough to shout heresy at those much more powerful than they, and that is because it is historically so rare.

We have this idea that artists are by default brave outsiders who use their creative output to defy the status quo. The fact is that most do not. Most seek to get on the inside as rapidly as possible, and damn the (human) cost.

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