Center for American Progress

Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Ms. Dowd?

Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Ms. Dowd?

Maureen Dowd’s attack on Bob Dylan’s recent performance in China raises some questions about what it means to be a pundit, writes Eric Alterman.

<i>New York Times</i> columnist Maureen Dowd had a lot to say about the moral failures she detected in Bob Dylan’s song list in China, almost all of it ridiculous. (AP/Matt Sayles)
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had a lot to say about the moral failures she detected in Bob Dylan’s song list in China, almost all of it ridiculous. (AP/Matt Sayles)

Is there any job in the world easier than being a bad but famous pundit? And is there any profession more rewarding? Bad pundits not only enjoy psychic rewards like fame, good tables at hard-to-get-into restaurants, first-class travel, lots of free stuff sent to them, and people sucking up to them for no good reason, but also genuine rewards in terms of television contracts, massive paydays from glossy magazines, and high-five-figure speaking fees for giving the same talk over and over.

And yet what exactly does it take in terms of constructing an argument and offering it to readers in a convincing and compelling manner? Nothing much, I’m afraid.

Is The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd a bad pundit? Well, it depends on one’s criteria. She’s clever and her writing sometimes sparkles with wit. She’s not easily pigeon-holed politically and this sometimes gives her a column a dose of suspense as to who is not living up to her demanding moral standards. I understand why she has a column but I’m not sure she does.

Take, for instance, this column that some faux-clever person titled—we can’t blame Dowd without checking it out first—“Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind.” In it, we see some of the old Dowd moral opprobrium with which she used to shower poor Monica Lewinsky day after day in the bad old days of the Clinton impeachment soap opera. Dowd’s dander is raised by the fact that Bob Dylan, whom she goofily calls “the raspy troubadour of ‘60s freedom anthems,” would “go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout—even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.”

Dowd had a lot to say about the moral failures she detected in Bob Dylan’s song list in China, almost all of it ridiculous. She seems to think that she, rather than the Chinese dictators, should be allowed to dictate the artist’s setlist. (And by the way, there is no evidence that Dowd has any actual inside information about how Dylan’s choice of songs was determined, nor what, if any, role Chinese authorities played in it.) 

Even so, with all her kvetching, none of its nuttiness rises to the level of her attack on the artist for failing to offer a reprise of “Hurricane,” his song about “the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.” Did it occur to Dowd to check—or have her full-time assistant check—the last time Dylan actually played “Hurricane” live? Um, that would be 35 years ago. The man plays an amazing 200 shows a year for nearly 30 years and yet at every single one of these thousands of shows he has failed to offer such a reprise. (What’s more, if Dylan had, for some reason, chosen to play a song about the inequities of the American justice system when it comes to strong black men falsely convicted of murder, is it possible that the Chinese might have interpreted that song as an attack not on Chinese justice, but on, um, the country whose justice system the song actually attacks?)

Dowd may know nothing at all about Dylan’s typical performance repertoire. And in truth, it would not matter much what songs he played in concert because—and I say this as a Dylan devotee—it is almost impossible for at least half the songs to figure out what the hell he is playing. (His guitarist once told me that the band is often not so sure.) But it’s not as if anything he said on stage was going to spark a revolution.

More importantly, it’s quite clear from virtually everything Dylan has said and done for roughly the past half century that he has no interest in playing the role for which the pundit has cast him. Complicating her task is the fact that she cannot admit knowing this. As Dowd herself quotes the bard, “‘I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,’ he said. He wrote that he wanted to have a house with a white picket fence and pink roses in back. … ‘Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it,’ he wrote. He complained of being ‘anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent.’ The man went so far as to compare performing his protest songs to ‘carrying a package of heavy rotting meat.’”

So how is it that Dowd can work herself up into such lather over Dylan doing exactly what he’s been doing since, say, 1967’s “John Wesley Harding,” and living up to his own idea of himself as an artist? Dowd is herself impaled on the logic of her own column. Dylan—a man of so many masks matched only, in my opinion, by those worn by Picasso and Miles Davis—has no interest in wearing the one Dowd would plaster on his face for the purposes of her Sunday sermon.

OK, bad enough you say, but actually it’s much worse. What, for instance, if not only she is in high dudgeon in America’s most influential newspaper for wrong-headed reasons about the artist she’s attacking but also happens to be wrong about the politics of the freedom she purports to demand that he embrace? The Atlantic’s James Fallows contacted some acquaintances in China, from which he just returned and where he has spent a good part of his professional life, and learns that Dylan sang in Beijing “a corrosive version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ on the heels of an epic ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,’ followed by ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall ’”—all protest songs if the term has any meaning whatsoever.

Moreover, the Jewish Dylan began the show with the strongly Christian “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”:

Jesus said, "Be ready. For you know not the hour in which I come." Jesus said, "Be ready. For you know not the hour in which I come." He said, "He who is not for Me is against Me.”

In present-day China, this is actually pretty revolutionary stuff, though I’m not sure Dylan intended it that way or even gave the matter much thought. It’s not his job—after all, the man is an artist, not a pundit.

There’s one more problem with Dowd’s column and it cuts to the heart of what it means to be a bad pundit: the demand that people behave in ways that you, yourself, lack the courage to undertake. When, I ask you dear reader, was the last time Maureen Dowd appeared in a public forum before thousands of people living under an oppressive regime and attempted to launch a revolution? Does this, for instance, look like a photograph of a particularly chic Che Guevara (or even Betty Friedan)? Read the accompanying article, entitled “A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia,” and see if you can find even a hint of purposeful political rebellion in the thousands of words published in “Maureen Dowd’s Wild Saudi Arabian Adventure,” save perhaps showing up at Starbucks. Dowd did not even try to sneak any booze into the country, much less storm the gates of Mecca and Medina on behalf of female equality. (I feel pretty safe in saying that if Bob Dylan and his band were ever to do a show in Saudi Arabia, they would at least have tried to smuggle in a few brewskis.)

The idea that Dowd, who apparently knows nothing about Dylan, has never demonstrated anything remotely resembling the courage she seems to insist upon for others is an indication of why so many people find it so difficult to take seriously the machinations of the mass media even when its members deal with significant matters in which they might enjoy some expertise. Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning pundit of The New York Times sometimes must stand naked.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow