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Who Elected Neil Young?

The title of this column brings to mind the unsuccessful confirmation hearing for the man whose name—Robert Bork—became a verb, “to Bork,” meaning to wrap so many of a nominee’s absurd ideas around his neck that he sinks.

Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan. Judge Bork’s previous mark on history was his role in the “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate Scandal.

President Nixon ordered his Republican Attorney General, Elliott Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson resigned rather than comply.

Nixon then issued the order to Republican Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who resigned rather than comply.

Solicitor General Robert Bork was sworn in as acting Attorney General and issued the same order. Bork fired Cox, an act later found by a federal judge to be unlawful. However that may be, Bork was nominated to the US Court of Appeals by President Reagan in 1981 and to the Supreme Court in 1987.

His theory of Constitutional interpretation is called originalism, and that theory led him to a position he had recanted by the time of his confirmation hearings, that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and a free press applies only to political debate. Not novels, not poetry, not photography, not dance, not music—just give and take over political issues.

Most Indian nations in North America have traditions that allow anyone to speak their mind, although it’s certainly true that some tribal governments have departed from those traditions to punish their critics. Since the First Amendment does not apply to Indian nations, it’s good for us to think about the contours of free expression when confronted with the spectacle of a musician who happens to be a Canadian ex-pat in a very public political debate with Canada’s elected Prime Minister.

We know who elected Stephen Harper, so who elected Neil Young?

How dare an entertainer contest with a politician for hearts and minds?

I’m here to suggest that politicians are entertainers and entertainers are politicians and I expect it was that realization that backed Judge Bork from his “originalist” view that because the purpose of the First Amendment was to protect robust political debate, it only protects politicians in the immediate practice of politics.

The poet Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun…?”

The poet Joy Harjo observed “We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to them by their personal names.”

In my poetry book, I wrote of “Briefcase warriors ululating; counting coup; seeking dignity.”

How many ways might poems be read as direct opposition to elected politicians? The politicians are more legitimate than the poets why? One way modern society measures legitimacy is with money.

I know many politicians who became wealthy. I’ve had the honor of meeting Joy Harjo, and she appeared no wealthier than I am, which is to say not at all. Neither would Langston Hughes have fared well in the metric of one dollar-one vote. While I don’t endorse that metric, adding music to the words sometimes levels out the monetary end of the playing field.

The poets who performed under the name Lynyrd Skynyrd did better on the money front that any poets without music, and they went after Neil Young head on in 1974 for denouncing racism in the states of the Confederacy:

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“Well I heard Mister Young sing about her

Well, I heard ol' Neil put her down

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

A southern man don't need him around anyhow…”

(“She” is Sweet Home Alabama.)

It was perhaps inevitable that the movement fueled by “freedom songs” would inspire a backlash from the safety of the rearview mirror.

Is it possible to argue that Lynyrd Skynyrd v. Neil Young is one argument and Stephen Harper v. Neil Young is a different argument without buying into the idea that politics and art live in separate universes? If Judge Robert Bork could not maintain that idea, can anybody?

To the extent they are separate universes, Harper has trespassed on Young’s turf with his own band, but few would rank Herringbone with Crazy Horse.

Young does not propose to return from his US exile and challenge Harper for his political laurels. Some people would say that’s too bad, but most of us draw one thing from this intertwining of politics and art. Since both disciplines contend for the hearts and minds of the public, Harper owes Young straight up responses to criticism. Belittling Young’s profession is not a response.

Neil Young says aboriginal communities near the tar sands development have cancer rates 30 percent higher than the rest of Canada. He says treaties are being violated.

The Prime Minister’s office says the tar sands employ a lot of people and even rock stars need petroleum. If that’s the best the Prime Minister can do, then it’s fair to say that Young is a better politician than Harper is an entertainer.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.