August 9, 2002
Steve Earle: A Real American
By Stephen Gowans
Steve Earle, the Grammy nominated singer-songwriter who's been called the hillbilly Bruce Springsteen, is being denounced as a traitor for writing a song from the perspective of the "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh.
Lindh, who joined the Afghan army in the summer of 2001 to defend the Taliban against rebel Northern Alliance forces, was sentenced to 20 years in prison last month, after pleading guilty to violating a federal ban on helping the Taliban.
Earle's song, "John Walker's Blues," is due to be released next month as a track on the singer's album, "Jerusalem."
The song follows Lindh's conversion from an alienated American teen interested in music videos to Islamic fanaticism.
I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV,
And I've seen all the kids in the soda pop bands,
But none look like me.
So I started looking around, and I heard the word of God,
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Allah, Peace be upon him.
"There's a time to write chick songs, and there's a time when there's too much else going on," says Earle. "I think we're (punishing) John Walker Lindh because we can't catch bin Laden."
Lindh is serving 20 years, on two convictions. One, for violating a 1999 federal ban on aiding the Taliban. And another for being in possession of a firearm -- his Afghan army issued rifle -- while committing a felony (serving in the Afghan army.)
Americans think Lindh has been imprisoned for treason and "choosing terror," but it's clear Lindh was a grunt who enlisted in the Afghan army before Sept. 11, and had no way of knowing the US would soon be locked in (a grossly one-sided) battle with the Taliban.
Federal prosecutors didn't pursue treason charges, settling for a plea bargain that allowed the government to avoid embarrassing revelations about violations of Lindh's rights and his cruel and illegal treatment while in custody.
And prosecution of Lindh was selective.
Laili Helms, a niece of Richard Helms, a former CIA director, isn't facing prosecution, even though she acted as an envoy for the Taliban to the US until Sept. 11, violating the federal ban.
Nor is the University of Nebraska being prosecuted for violating the same federal regulation; it had an exchange program with the central Asian country until Sept. 11.
Lindh almost certainly had no idea he was violating a federal law.
Earle says he doesn't condone Lindh's Islamic fundamentalism, but wanted to explore how the American ended up supporting Afghanistan's now deposed Taliban government.
"I'm trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum," says Earle.
"I don't condone what he did. Still, he's a 20 year-old kid. My son Justin is almost exactly Walker's age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too."
Despite Earle's distaste for Islamic fundamentalism, Nashville-based music writer Bill De Main, warns that John Walker's Blues has "probably finished (Earle) off in mainstream country."
One newspaper ran a photograph of Earle on its front page, under the banner, A REAL AMERICAN ANTI-HERO.
"That (song) puts (Earle) in the same category as Jane Fonda and (Lindh) and all those people who hate America," says Steve Gill, a Nashville talk show host.
Earle's vocal opposition to the death penalty, his self-described Marxist politics, and his sordid past (he is a cleaned up heroin addict who's served time in prison) make him a lightening rod for controversy.
And "John Walker's Blues" contrasts with the popular jingoistic chauvinism of Toby Keith's "The Angry American," with its images of violent, self-righteous, retribution "courtesy of the red, white and blue."
But Earle's being singled out, like Lindh's prosecution, appears selective. Bruce Springsteen's song, "Paradise," released on his new album, "The Rising," is written in part from a suicide bomber's perspective. Springsteen hasn't been vilified.
Earle's mis-step may have been his refusing to obediently accept the Bush administration's "war on terrorism." Whereas Keith has pandered to American jingoism, and others, like Springsteen, have written mournful, reflective songs on 9/11, but have steered clear of politics, Earle hasn't been shy about expressing dissent.
The songwriter wonders whether Bush is using Sept. 11 as an excuse to pare back civil liberties and wage unnecessary wars.
"We were always going into Iraq at some point. Sept. 11 is being used as an excuse."
And Earle disagrees with critics who say his dissent makes him anti-American. "I'm not trying to get myself deported...(but) freedoms, American freedoms, things voted into law as American freedoms, everything that came out of the 1960's, are disappearing, and as any patriot can see, that has to be opposed."
"I understand why none of those congressmen voted against The Patriot Act, out of respect for the Trade Center victims' families," the songwriter adds. "But this is an incredibly dangerous piece of legislation."
"What Earle is doing is what good songwriters -- and in fact, good poets -- have been doing for a hundred years, which is trying to get inside and understand the motivations of people who may not be particularly popular right now," says Charles Wolfe, who studies popular-music at Middle Tennessee State University.
He's also doing what American patriots are supposed to do -- ask questions about important life and death matters, like war.
Is Sept. 11 being exploited as a pretext for expansionist wars?
Is John Walker Lindh a scapegoat?
Are Americans giving up their civil liberties too easily?
Is dissent anti-American?
Toby Keith's invoking chauvinist symbols in a blind, unthinking glorification of American violence, seems closer to the Nazi's emphasis on obedience and nationalist displays in support of a leader, than Earle's rebellious questioning.
"I hold that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical," remarked Thomas Jefferson.
I wonder who Jefferson would nominate as the real American hero?
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