Bob Dylan, Christian Anarchist
A century ago Henry Adams announced himself founder of the “conservative Christian anarchist” party, and if that first adjective has been blighted perhaps beyond reclamation, “Christian anarchist,” calling to mind Tolstoy and Dorothy Day and brave Anabaptists and nude Doukhobors, has a calming and pacific ring. We could use a few in our post-Christian empire.
Jeff Taylor, gentle soul and wise political scientist, has coauthored (with Chad Israelson) a new book, The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin, locating Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite (well, maybe tied with Celtic Kevin McHale) son within the regional and Christian anarchist traditions.
Like Dylan, the authors are “sons of the Upper Midwest,” the land of hand-calloused isolationists and Non-Partisan Leaguers. The singer has said that being raised along the Iron Range “gave me a sense of simplicity,” steeping him in a culture of community cohesiveness against which bright lads often rebel, but later come to treasure. As a good Minnesotan, young Robert Zimmerman imbibed populist suspicion of the vultures that would pick Hibbing clean and leave it as carrion unless they got pushback, whether from co-ops or strikers or even Reds.
Taylor and Israelson understand that only louts—New Masses propagandists, neoconservative think-tank martinets—subordinate art to politics, so they eschew tortured exegeses of elliptical lyrics and attempt merely to understand, and celebrate, Bob Dylan’s music and Christian witness.
Nonetheless, they detect a Minnesota accent and anarchist bent throughout Dylan’s career, from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1962 to his Christian conversion circa 1979 to his memoir Chronicles, Volume One (in which he revealed that Barry Goldwater was his favorite ’60s politician) to his recent AARP interview, in which he expatiated on plutocrats who find international philanthropy so much more glamorous than helping the single mom in the trailer park or the homeless vet in the ghetto: “Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries? Is there more contentment in that than in giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? … These multibillionaires can create industries right here in America. But no one can tell them what to do. God’s got to lead them.”
When I read of Dylan playing before a huge American flag on his 1965 tour of England, and his confession that “England is OK, but I prefer America,” which is “what I know. … It’s all there for me,” I thought of another patriot of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Sinclair Lewis, who memorized Minnesota’s 87 counties and county seats. When an English magician made a snide crack about America, George Babbitt’s creator stood up and shouted “Take it back! Take it back!” until the flustered thaumaturge apologized and left the stage.
Taylor and Israelson write, “Bob Dylan’s political philosophy since 1979 has been that of Woody Guthrie supplemented by the Gospels of the New Testament, of C. Wright Mills supplemented by the prophet Isaiah, of Merchants of Death supplemented by the Book of Revelation.” Not exactly Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina or A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz.
During his lustrum as an outspoken Christian—he seems to have retained the faith but canned the proselytizing—Dylan told an audience that “politics is an instrument of the Devil. … Politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive.”
Very Adamsian, for the aforementioned Henry called politics “the systematic organization of hatreds.”
Looking for “Dylanesque politicians,” Taylor and Israelson instance the Vietnam-era Protestant evangelical Sens. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Harold Hughes (D-Iowa), both “extreme” in their refusal to countenance “mammon and empire,” abortion or war.
Hatfield was the real McCoy. Right-wingers despised him as a craggy anachronism, a “liberal Republican,” but who else within spitting distance of the White House has ever praised Murray Rothbard, proposed the radical dispersion of power to neighborhood governments, and echoed Sen. Robert Taft in skepticism of a hegemonic America?
Okay, Ron Paul. And I recall a lovely Dylanesque Minnesota moment when Aimee Allen serenaded Paul with his favorite song, Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” at the 2008 Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis. (Over in St. Paul, Lee Greenwood was croaking “I’m Proud to be an American” at the GOP convention. There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’.)
Jeff Taylor’s native Iowa (he teaches at Dordt College in Sioux Center) is about to be flooded by operatives and vote-seekers, with nary a Christian anarchist among them. I’ve heard rumors that a Paul offspring is running, though this filial apple seems to have fallen far enough from the tree that by early fall it had been pressed into cider.
One of the Hawkeye State sojourners writes well (James Webb), one pisses off the right people (Donald Trump), and Rand has a noble father, but by caucus day the sager Iowans may have discovered the truism of a homesick subterranean Christian anarchist: “Don’t follow leaders.”