Pawns in the Game

    While watching the documentary Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, I was struck, as so many others have been, by the dichotomy between Dylan the young man and Dylan the artist. As a man, he comes across as immature, petulant, and sometimes downright nasty. As an artist, his musical genius shines through every guitar strum, harmonica chord, and whiny nasally sung note. In one uncomfortable hotel room scene, Dylan wields his multifarious talents - he’s a master songwriter, lyricist, guitar player, and troubador - as weapons against the outclassed Donovan. But Dylan also evinces humanity, humility, and empathy in his public performances.

    For this reason, we would be well-advised to heed the lessons in his civil rights and anti-war songs as well as his songs about aging, break-ups, and pretty much everything else. Although Don’t Look Back takes place almost entirely in England, it does feature a 1963 performance of “Pawn in their Game” filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi shortly after Dylan wrote it for a voter registration drive.

    The first stanza of “Pawn” includes an unflinching description of the slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers by a white supremacist:

    A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
    A finger fired the trigger to his name
    A handle hid out in the dark
    A hand set the spark
    Two eyes took the aim
    Behind a man’s brain

    But he can’t be blamed
    He’s only a pawn in their game

    Dylan emphasizes in the first six lines the culpability of the individual killer. “[One] finger fired,” “[one] hand set the spark,” “[t]wo eyes took . . . aim behind [one] man’s brain.” But the poet immediately undercuts the notion that responsibility for the murder lies solely on one man as he transitions directly to “[b]ut he can’t be blamed, [h]e’s only a pawn in their game[.]

    In each of the next three stanzas Dylan uses the line “it ain’t him to blame” to excuse “the poor white man” for accepting his lot “[o]n the caboose of the train,” for “keep[ing up] the hate,” for “never think[ing] straight,” for “hang[ing],” and “lynch[ing],” and kill[ing].” Dylan appears to be absolving poor whites in their “poverty shacks” from blame since they’re “only a pawn in [the] game” played by and for the benefit of “politician[s],” “deputy sheriffs,” “soldiers,” “governors,” “marshals,” and “cops.” Analyzing “Pawn in their Game,” Princeton historian Sean Wilentz told NPR in 2013: "The whole point is, the killer is guilty, yes, but he's not the person to blame. . . There's rather a much larger system that's out there, and that's what the song is really about."

    This is overly simplistic. Dylan’s repeated use of brutal imagery to describe what poor whites are doing subverts his insistence that they aren’t to blame. Instead, he’s saying that they are pawns yes but they are at least somewhat witting pawns who commit atrocities for the slimmest and least justifiable reason - “to protect [their] white skin.” Dylan provides a complex portrait of poor southern whites as victims without exonerating them for their role in keeping blacks even lower on the socio-economic ladder.

    In these fraught political times, we should bear in mind that the white working class is, like Dylan, complex. The Obama coalition that included large majorities of people of color and 40% of white voters is in shambles. The federal government and much of the nation is in thrall to a resurgent Republican Party that barely troubles to conceal its racism.

    Politicians, commentators, and pundits are proposing various ways to rehabilitate the Democratic Party. To succeed, Democrats must avoid caricaturing Republican voters.

    Among some bigotry is front and center. But others, even a few who backed Trump, supported President Obama and will vote for progressive populists. The Atlantic reports:

    Polling by the group Priorities USA Action shows that a stunning percentage of the voters who switched their allegiance from Obama to Trump believe that Democratic economic policies favor the rich—42 percent, nearly twice the number who consider that to be true of Trump’s agenda.

    Reaching out to the white working class does not have to mean forsaking African-Americans. But avoiding the perception that it does will not be easy. From Kirsten West Savili at the Root:

    As I’ve written previously, the Democratic Party is hell-bent on coddling the so-called white working class—as if these particular poor white folks who voted for Donald Trump aren’t just economically frustrated white supremacists—instead of focusing on and building with disenfranchised and oppressed communities who have remained doggedly loyal despite being taken for granted and advantage of time and time again.

    Persuading these two groups with similar economic interests but deeply entrenched multi-generational suspicions of each other to set aside some of their differences and unite behind Democratic candidates is the critical task the party now faces.

    More than a half-century after Bob Dylan wrote “Pawn in their Game,” it still retains the power to help working-class whites feel viscerally the oppression that some of them and many of their forbears visited upon African-Americans. Perhaps it can likewise increase recognition that poor and working-class whites have also been pawns in a game played by and for the benefit of elites. Should this happen then a prickly, defensive but most deserving winner of the Nobel Prize in literature might want to clear another shelf in his trophy case for the Nobel Peace Prize.


    There has always been this effort to absolve the poor racist of the responsibility for their actions, to excuse them due to their poverty. I don't see them as pawns of forces beyond their control. They are the ones that choose the politicians, sheriffs, governors, members of school boards to enact their agenda. More than pawns, more even than soldiers on the front line, they pick the leaders to enact their agenda and to deploy them to that front line.

    Even racists like George Wallace was the pawn of the whites. He started out as a moderate southern politician until he lost to John Patterson.

    In 1958, Wallace ran in the Democratic primary for governor.  For all intents and purposes, the Democratic primary was the real contest at the state level. This was a political crossroads for Wallace. State Representative George C. Hawkins of Gadsden ran, but Wallace's main opponent was state attorney general John Malcolm Patterson, who ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against. Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. Wallace lost the nomination by over 34,400 votes.[12]

    After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, "Seymore, you know why I lost that governor's race? ... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

    Who is the pawn here? Is it the politician who spoke out against the KKK and lost to the man endorsed by the KKK? Only to return saying, "I will never be outniggered again" and win? Or is the people who decided who would run every position of government from governor down to local dog catcher?

    There are a lot of things that you bring up I cannot address with one reply. I will just talk about guilt.

    Explanations for why bad things happened the way they did is not a measure for personal responsibility of each person involved who did bad things. If person X does a bad thing while also working knowingly or unknowingly for other people, that doesn't change the fact that they did this bad thing on their own account. There is not a giant accounting firm that weighs what we do to other people against whatever menu of choices we gave ourselves at the time. There is only what we actually do.

    So, the idea of personal responsibility, whatever your ethnic background, despite whatever fortune of birth that was given or denied to you, is a thing.

    to be sure, unless they have God on their side cheeky

    Short version of any Dylan lyrics: it's complicated, all answers are true and all are false. Only piping up here because I feel like saying: beware, I doubt someone with your beliefs will find a lot of fruit in Dylan's work. Should you find a tidbit seeming to be in support, someone else will surely find an opposing quote. There is only one thing one can be sure of that Dylan believed then and still believes: in individualism and being an iconoclast. He's never been fan of solidarity much less politics.

    Art... On Dylan... Oh how true this is...

    Short version of any Dylan lyrics: it's complicated, all answers are true and all are false.

    It's quite late for me here to go into much depth, but I would like to post the following from a discussion on another board I frequent. It does sum up the quandary quite well. The man's name is Dimitris and he resides in Greece.

    QUOTE: "I think that painting any picture in black or white is as perplexing as the subject at hand. If only life could be so simple as black or white... unfortunately, every possible shade of grey is really what the palette consists of. Can everything be fit into two opposing categories and the sum solution be defined by either choice? Can things be either black or white? Right or Wrong? For or Against? Up or Down? Good or Bad? Can we really delete and deny a synthesis of multitude ideas and choices, colors, attitudes, etc? How easy, and yet how dangerous would such an approach to life be I wonder?"

    Very very wise words there...


    Yes, he does describe well what certain artists do for the rest of us. It's not always the case--there are other types of art for sure--but many who are considered great geniuses do this thing. It's the iconoclast role, to get people to see with new eyes. This is also why political art is hard to do successfully.

    I should add this clarification: that most artists of this type don't care what you take away from their grays (as opposed to black and white), they just care that your thoughts have been inspired in a new way, to look anew at something. This is why they don't like to answer or explain "what did you mean by that?" It means whatever it means to each and every user. So to go back to my original comment: I wasn't saying HSG's interpretation of Dylan was wrong, but rather, that others could interpret the lyrics totally differently and they would not be wrong either. Dylan's work is not intended to give answers, just to jiggle your thoughts...

    In my own work there are plenty of times I didn't know what I was creating until I'd created it or someone pointed it out or maybe still don't know. The artist deals with the unconscious to some extent - not just show tunes and dance hall. Art is a partial memory. It's too much to say Dylan intended everything, too much to say he meant nothing, still ornery and contrary.

    Dylan 2015, the Anti-Bernie? Believes God may guide the billionaires:

    "The government's not going to create jobs," he said. "It doesn't have to. People have to create jobs, and these big billionaires are the ones who can do it."

    They could all have work created for them by all these hotshot billionaires," Dylan said. "For sure, that would create lot of happiness. Now, I'm not saying they have to — I'm not talking about communism — but what do they do with their money?"

    He later turned his attention back to the underprivileged. "There are good people there, but they've been oppressed by lack of work," Dylan said. "Those people can all be working at something. These multibillionaires can create industries right here in America. But no one can tell them what to do. God's got to lead them."

    Roy Moore just won in Alabama. Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for violating the law. Moore wants homosexuality declared illegal. Moore is a Birther. Moore says that his vision of Christianity is more important than the Constitution, He is a theocrat. The people of Alabama knew who they were electing.

    You say poor whites and blacks view each other with suspicion, it comes across as "both sides do it". Poor whites bombed a Birmingham church killing 4 innocent little girls. That bombing occurred on September 15, 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy on September 18, 1963. George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, used racism to stay in power. The white citizens of Alabama supported his racist platform. I can understand that blacks are suspicious of Alabama whites, can you explain why whites are suspicious of blacks? What have blacks done to whites? "Both sides do it is a lie". It insults the deaths of those 4 little girls.

    We are also told that there are very fine people among those who voted for Moore or Luther Strange. We just need to reason with these folks. Both men are not on the side of black Alabamans. The only saving grace in modern Alabama is the blue city of Birmingham. The rest of the state is red. The rest of the state has no problem electing nuts like Ray Moore. Perhaps we might consider how to give aid and comfort to white and black Democrats before coddling the racists and their fellow travelers. 

    Sanders supporters keep pointing to economic solutions over race. A post-election review will likely find that Moore won whites across all economic classes. Because Sanders supporters see economics before they see race, they will never gain hold in the black community. Blacks known economics will not shield them. In fact, every time blacks advance, there is a backlash from whites. Ta-Nehishi Coates has a book coming out in October that deals with with we are after eight years after Obama. The title is "We Were Eight Years in Power". The title comes from a black Senator who served during Reconstruction. After eight years, came the lynchings and Jim Crow. History is repeating itself.

    Sanders has no answers for the racist society we face.


    Wasn't this the run-off for the primary?  

    Doug Jones (D), for whom Biden will campaign, will face off with Moore in a special election. I may throw a little bit of $$ his way.  Maybe Biden can appeal to the people who need to get the message.  Let's hope.

    I hope you are correct. Outside of Birmingham. I see Alabama as a lost cause

    Edit to add:

    A recent 538 post noted that Roy Moore alone got about 500 votes than all Democratic candidates combined in the Primaries. The total Republican vote in the Primaries was about 425K. It's unlikely that the Democratic candidate is going to pull off a miracle in the general election.


    Huntsville's also halfway liberal (space program, diverse transplanted population), but max metro area 250,000. Then there's the black belt, which can't be gerrymandered out of statewide elections but can be limited by voting places.

    62-34% Trump-Hillary last fall - rather hopeless indeed.

    RMRD - I apologize for taking so long to respond to the question why whites are suspicious of blacks. I think the primary driver of white working class suspicion is the fear that blacks will draw even with or even pass them in the line for scraps from the rich man's table. A secondary driver is the fear that if blacks take power, they will oppress poor and working-class whites in the same way that so many whites have oppressed them.

    This is a centuries old problem. It is not "both sides do it". When blacks point out that whites elected Trump and that Trump is a racist, a common response is "How dare you call those fine white people racists" rather than address the fact that Trump is a racist able to get tens of millions of white votes. How do we change white hearts on both sides of the aisle, those voting for racists and those Progressives who don't want to talk about race and racism?


    Has anyone ever heard a white man express these fears? John Wayne's famous Playboy interview exressed that blacks would have to be educated up before assuming power, not that they'd be vindictive, but in 2017 even the lowest sharecropper trailer trash uneducated black would have trouble fucking things up as badly as our current leaders, so I guess we've hit a milestone - let the true power sharing begin.

    Hal your secondary problem is the primary problem, and it is bigger than "blacks taking power would....", its intolerance in all its forms. Its believing your race, your religion, your Party, your God is superior to others.

    And having a vehement hate for anyone, even of your race, your religion, who doesn't back you up. History is replete with examples.

    See NYT story on Peter Norman today, career ruined, ostracized from Australian sports, for wearing a patch and standing, just standing, with Carlos and Smith.

    Whole courses from the rich man's table aren't going to alter that bigoted conviction.

    You could even take plates OFF their table and they won't change that racist ideology.

    They must be criticized for what they believe in, ridiculed if they are politicians, called out for what they are supporting. Happy talk won't work.

    Republicans expressed their racism under Obama. We had the Birther, "one term President, "You lie", etc. I actually thought that it had served its purpose and Republicans would move on. What we see is not a a vile political tactic but an expression of who Republicans have become. Jewish Republicans don't criticize anti-Semitism. Black Republicans embrace the white supremacist President. Black Christianist stand on stage and can't to shake hands and hug the racist white Christianist Roy Moore. White women vote for the misogynist Trump. We have to call out these enablers as well. The argument is always if you tell people that they are racist, etc.  you will create a wedge and drive them away. The truth is that they are already driven away. Pretending they don't exist will not work. We have to address the racism directly. In the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, MLK was clear that he feared the moderate who coddled the racists more than he feared the actual racist. There is never a good "season" to address racism and bigotry. Trump makes it impossible for us to pretend that a racial rift exists.

    Adding to the need to address race is that violent attacks  y white supremacists are three times those of Islam based attacks. We pretend race is not an issue at our own peril


    Race is a huge issue. That's why Republicans have won. In order to overcome the advantage Republicans have with the white working class when it comes to racism, Democrats must counter with a broad-based program that will redistribute wealth down.

    Sigh. Hal, the white voters who put Trump in office will cheer a bill that will screw them on taxes. They are sheep.

    Obama cut the taxes for the majority of white working households and they were too dumb to do the simple math to notice.

    There is no economic solution to racism.


    There was a point in the 60's where some women got tired of being the prize, the fuck bunnies for the dudes of the revolution, rather than co-revolutionaries sharing in the ideal.

    To a large extent, keeping blacks down is one of the prizes that keeps the deluded white contingent voting for politicians and policies that hurt themselves. As long as there's that bit of class/segregationist payoff, they think they're winning, despite getting screwed on jobs and living conditions and say in most matters. You can excuse blacks for not being thrilled to have their own misfortune tied to this Faustian bargain.

    Hal, regarding economics look at what is happening now. Say what you will about NFL players, you cannot say that they don't have an incredible work ethic. They worked hard to attain a place in the NFL. They have money that they worked hard to earn. Yet when they use their position to support their opinion. They are ungrateful, spoiled, etc. They are the uppity Negroes who don't know their place. They are not respected for hard work they are slapped down because of the color of their skin.

    Former Baltimore Raven middle linebacker Ray Lewis took a knee with the Ravens in London on Sunday. Today, he is apologizing for taking a knee because 50K (non-racist) Raven fans have called for the removal of the statue of Lewis outside of M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

    Lewis kneeling

    Lewis 'splaining that he wuz prayin'

    Ray Lewis has money. Still, Ray Lewis gets pimp-slapped.

    Can you provide examples where this strategy - criticizing, ridiculing, calling out - rather than redistributing wealth, has worked?

    Gandhi. Mandela. Rosa Parks. Brown v. Board of Education

    The system was criticized, called out, and attacked. Individuals were generally not, except to the extent that they were powerful bullies like Bull Conner. I am all for attacking the system and those in power. In fact, that's all I ever do.

    You almost exclusively attack Democrats.

    I said ridicule the politicians. Go on personal attacks, discredit them, call out their lies.

    Their base believes everything they say because they trust the Party that strokes their racism.

    This must change.

    For instance, when the GOP is on record as saying your single payer health care plan will kill babies, you don't open a debate with one of their leading purveyors of malicious lies with:

    Sanders: is the most important point.  We're going to have a debate.  It'll be a good debate.  We like each other.  But — yeah, we really do.  

    And neither lefty in the debate responded to the pernicious opening attack by Senator Cassidy at any point later.   

    Sanders polite debate style had no impact. Republicans would have ended Obamacare. They only thing that prevented bill passage was McCain, Collins, etc. Being polite would have ended in Obamacare dying. Might as well go on the attack like you suggest.

    Oh come on - it's worry about our white women - everything else is secondary.

    People say Moore claims his pee etches glass and the devil himself is deathly scared of it. 

    He compared gay marriage to the Holocaust, and has said there is Sharia law in Illinois.

    That ain't no economic message, it's what gets these racist bigots out to vote.

    People say Moore claims his pee etches glass...

    Sounds more like he has Gonnorhea and jumbled up his words.  It think he meant:

    My pee feels like ground glass and hurts like the Devil!


    Hal, I would like to address what you have put forward here:

    Persuading these two groups with similar economic interests but deeply entrenched multi-generational suspicions of each other to set aside some of their differences and unite behind Democratic candidates is the critical task the party now faces.

    There is an element to the divide that is not about suspicion or cultural rejection, although those attitudes are alive and well. That element is the acceptance that the generation of wealth is not something we can do anything about as a matter of policy. We can redistribute wealth. We can make rules for wealthy people to include more or less of the citizenry. But however much that sort of thing is made the law of the land, the model is based upon controlling the behavior of a certain population to produce a particular result.

    I think an emphasis on equal protection under the law should be front and center in Democratic Party policy. We can't make people stop believing zero sum games exist. But we can curtail the privileges they claim are their natural right as benefactors. That is the cultural war going on. Maybe it is not so much about common interests and more about coming to grips with the world we will be living in. The racial divide serves a great unknowing.


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