Bob Dylan Tells President Sarkozy What He Thinks of Globalism (from 2009 Rolling Stone Interview)

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I think it’s actually too much to look at every interesting bit of Bob Dylan’s 2009 Rolling Stone interview all at once, so let’s do it piecemeal. One of the most amusing parts is what may go down in Dylan-lore (whatever that is) as “The Sarkozy Incident.” Bob Dylan was performing in Paris on April 7th while Douglas Brinkley was tagging along to conduct his interview, and so we get a glimpse at something that may happen much more often than we know, i.e., a political leader heading backstage at a Dylan show for an audience with the man himself. The story of what went down when President Nicolas Sarkozy (the conservative French leader) and his wife Carla Bruni met Dylan is conveyed in different parts in the print interview and the online outtakes. And here’s the gist:

[from the print article]

After the show, the Sarkozys wander backstage, anxious to meet Dylan. The French president is attired in a black turtleneck and jeans. In a single swooping motion, Sarkozy seizes Dylan’s hand, welcoming him to France. “It was like looking at my mirror image,” Dylan tells me later, about the encounter. “I can see why he’s the head of France. He’s genuine and warm and extremely likable. I asked Sarkozy, ‘Do you think the whole global thing is over?’ I knew they just had a big G-20 meeting and they maybe were discussing that. I didn’t think he’d tell me, but I asked him anyway.”

[from the online outtakes]

Q: I want to just follow-up on that globalization talk you had with Sarkozy [after his April 7th show in Paris].

Dylan: Yeah, I ask him, I said, “With all these bailouts and stimulus packages, all these bailouts throughout the country. I’m just wondering whether globalism is dead in the tracks? Ya know, is it over?” He doesn’t say yes, he didn’t say no.

Q: Bob, he is a politician…

Dylan: Yeah!

Q: But what intrigued me was you saying that we must get back to being the United States.

Dylan: Oh, and he could get back to being France.

Q: Boy, you’re an individualist, aren’t you? Does globalism therefore get oppressive to you? The global Internet? Global economics? Are you missing what some critics call the older, weirder America?

Dylan: I never thought the older America was weird in any way whatsoever. Where do people come up with that stuff? To call it that? What’s the old weird America? The depression? Or Teddy Roosevelt? What’s old and weird? Well, musically, no. Musically we play a form of American music and that’s not gonna go away. Whatever happens in the world won’t affect that whatsoever. But you know globalism is, I would think, about getting rid of boundaries, nationalities. You’re a part of one big world, no? It might take people awhile to get used to that. I don’t like the trend.

[again from the print article]

When President Sarkozy, looking to make small talk, asked Dylan, “Where do you live?” the quick response was a few simple words: “Right here….No. I’m just joking. I’m from the Lone Star State.” (Dylan ended by giving Sarkozy a Texas-style belt buckle as a gift.)

So, to summarize: Sarkozy and his wife got backstage to meet Bob Dylan. Bob asks Sarkozy point-blank if “globalism is dead,” and tells him that Americans need to get back to being the United States, and then he can get back to being France. Sarkozy gives no quotable answer on this, but at some point asks Dylan where he lives, to which Bob responds, “The Lone Star state,” and then gifts Sarkozy with a “Texas-style” belt buckle. (There’s no word, by the way, on whether Carla Bruni thanked Bob for writing “You Belong To Me” for her.)

After you quit cracking up over all this, what do you say about it? Firstly: Bob Dylan is a heckuva-lot better at choosing meaningful gifts for foreign world leaders than our currrent president. No dumb DVDs from the Bard of Hibbing, but instead a real and concrete piece of Americana. I never imagined, by the way, that among the many burdens of being Bob Dylan was having to meet foreign leaders and give them gifts, but then I guess there’s so much I don’t know.

So what about this globalism stuff? The chutzpah of Bob in just coming out and asking such a question of Nicolas Sarkozy is of-course hilarious—but then what has he got to lose?

Those of us who’ve followed Dylan closely over the years won’t be too surprised by his attitude towards the idea of One Big Happy World, but the directness in his remarks here is noteworthy.

You can go back to Slow Train Coming for his disgust at “Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings / Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and Paris.” And “Union Sundown” takes the issue on from another angle.

At the Live Aid show in 1985, which was to raise money for people starving in Ethiopia, Bob Dylan showed up, but famously (or notoriously as some may think) used the stage to plead the case for small American farmers who were going bankrupt.

And about a month after September 11th, 2001, Dylan made a remark from the stage, responding to something Madonna had recently said from the same stage:

“I know Madonna was here a few weeks ago telling everybody to think global – and I know a whole bunch of you are doing that – I want to try and tell you: rethink it!” (Staples Arena 10-19-2001.)

On his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show—the one with the theme of “Blood”—Dylan at one point said this:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Those are the words of noted politician and clock collector, Thomas Jefferson.

Of-course TJ said that in the days before we were all citizens of the world, in a global environment, when it was still possible to be a patriot in deed and not just in words. Another example of how the future confuses us. Which is why we stick with our credo: Predicting the past is our way to the future.

There are other examples, but I’m too lazy right now to dig around for all of them. Certainly, his 2003 film Masked and Anonymous presents a nightmarish vision of a future America, where borders have been thrown askew and ethnic rivalries fuel perpetual violence.

Bob Dylan is an American (not to mention a proud Texan!). He likes it that way, and clearly thinks that America stands for something worthwhile, or at the very least it used to. I think that his skepticism of globalization also has roots in the biblical prophecy of a one-world-government headed by the Antichrist. People may pooh-pooh that as they choose, but there is no shortage of evidence that Dylan takes his Bible very seriously indeed.

Now, let’s be straight here, and face the fact that this globalization thing cuts across the usual political divisions. On the left, there is that kind of “think global” feel-goodism — the idea that we’re all citizens of the world, in this together, and borders shouldn’t matter, and we’re all just the same etc., etc.. We should believe in “International Law” and we should have “International Courts” to force everyone to get in line. It’s the never-ending push for centralization which is also a core weakness of leftism generally. The global environmentalist movement pushes these themes too, and it also has roots in Marx’s theories about how humanity is divided by class rather than by nationality: the proletariat versus the rich. History has not really borne out these theories, but in each new generation there are those who latch onto it. It’s a brand of utopianism, and it has been very much in ascendance on the world stage in the last couple of decades. We shall see how it shakes out with the current economic crisis (this was effectively the basis of Dylan’s point to Sarkozy).

On the political right (in America), there is a strictly economic globalism: the belief that the nearer we get to truly free trade, no tariffs, no restrictions on the movement of capital, less restrictions on the movement of labor, etc. etc., the better it will be for everyone. Not all brands of American “conservatives” buy into this, but it has been the prevailing view. (I’m no economist myself, but I’ve generally been more impressed by free trade arguments versus protectionist ones.)

It’s safe to say, based on the record, that Dylan is intensely skeptical of both kinds of globalism. For whom is this more of a problem—those who insist on interpreting Dylan in a Leftist framework, or those of us who are (one way or another) conservative-minded Dylan fans? Well, speaking for myself, I have no problem with Dylan’s views on the subject. I think free trade is generally a good thing, but it’s an area where people can disagree amicably. There is clearly a human cost to free trade, in addition to its benefits. On the other hand, I would suggest that Dylan’s rejection of world-citizen-feel-goodism is fundamentally in opposition to leftist modes of thinking.

Which all goes to show that he is not and never has been a political leftist, Q.E.D, game-over, rest in peace. Of-course that old debate is never over, because the media shorthand for Bob Dylan always has him as fundamentally a lefty folk/protest singer and a prince of the “counterculture,” no matter what the evidence to the contrary. It goes on, but with this interview, Dylan has once more demonstrated the untruth of that perpetual caricature.

And another slice from this interview with Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone (the print article):

Like the dour-faced farmer in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, Dylan seems to have the American songbook in one hand and a raised pitchfork in the other, aimed at rock critics, politicians, Wall Street financiers, back-alley thieves, the world wide web – anything that cheapens the spirit of the individual. His nostalgia is more for the Chess Records 1950s than the psychedelic 1960s. He believes that Europe should lose the euro and go back to its old currencies – “I miss the pictures on the old money,” he says. If Dylan had his way, there’d be Sousa bands on Main Street and vinyl albums instead of CDs. Teenagers would go on nature hikes instead of watching YouTube. “It’s peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with mobile phones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games,” he says. “It robs them of their self-identity. It’s a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that’s got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets.”

And, lest we skip over it, there’s also this from the Brinkley interview:

I never thought the older America was weird in any way whatsoever. Where do people come up with that stuff? To call it that? What’s the old weird America? The depression? Or Teddy Roosevelt? What’s old and weird?

The “people” who “come up with that stuff” are, or is, Greil Marcus. He coined the expression — at least as far as I’m aware — in his book “Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.” The book was even later renamed as “The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basment Tapes.”

It seems to me that perhaps Bob just delivered an extremely economical review of that book.

Addendum 5/1/2009: In the interests of fairness, let me print this response from an anonymous reader, titled “What You (And Dylan) Forgot About”:

From the Anthology of American Folk Music liner notes, in an essay by Greil Marcus entitled “The Old, Weird America”, Greil Marcus himself quotes Dylan (speaking on some critics’ complaints that his lyrics are incomprehensible):

“‘All the authorities who write about what it is and what it should be,'” Dylan said, “when they say keep it simple, [that it] should be easily understood — folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird….I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs.”

So the expression does have a root in Dylan. But perhaps Bob can be excused, as it was an awfully long time ago…