Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bob Dylan in China

by Azar Nafisi

New Republic

April 11, 2011

In memory of Farah Ebrahimi.

Times are indeed a-changing: Bob Dylan, who became an American icon by “speaking truth to power,” just gave a concert in China, one of the most repressive countries in the world. While there, Dylan not only failed to express solidarity with the Chinese dissidents in jail; according to The Washington Post, he also agreed to perform only “approved content.”

The scenario becomes even more ironic when you consider that, while Bob Dylan sang “Love Sick” in mainland China, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, a potential Republican nominee for president, spoke in his farewell address about the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and others. He added, “The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur.” The problem is not that Dylan should not sing his love songs in China; rather, the problem is that Dylan was just fine morphing into Barry Manilow in Beijing, when he was his old self just three days prior in Taiwan, signing “Desolation Row” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Artists are only human. They have many sides to them, they can be fickle, and they are mortal. What endures is not the singer but the song. Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence.