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Friedman Takes on Apartheids and Boycotts

But his subject is 1980s South Africa and Paul Simon

Marc Tracy
May 30, 2012
Paul Simon performing last month.(Charles Eshelman/Getty Images)
Paul Simon performing last month.(Charles Eshelman/Getty Images)

Thomas Friedman’s column today doesn’t merit the Friedmometer, because it’s not explicitly about the peace process or Israel—which is exactly the point. He writes instead about Paul Simon (“a friend of mine”), who in 1985, inspired by a tape he heard of a group called the Boyoyo Boys, made an album massively influenced by South African music. That album, of course, was the classic Graceland.

But in making Graceland with South African musicians, Simon violated the cultural boycott that Artists Against Apartheid had then called for. In a new film, the co-founder of that group recalls, “I think he had a great creative idea to mix his music and his rhythms and his ingenuity with some that he had found in South Africa. But, at that moment in time, it was not helpful.” By contrast, though Simon was “appalled by apartheid,” according to Friedman, “he bristled at the notion that, in collaborating with black South African artists on a synthesis that elevated their music and talents onto a world stage, he was hurting their national cause.” Friedman’s verdict, now that apartheid is gone (and that Graceland is Graceland), is that Simon was right, and he quotes several South African musicians who agree. Message: even where regimes are unjust (and perhaps especially in those cases), cultural boycotts end up hurting the folks that outsiders would most wish to help.

The dog that doesn’t bark, in this column, are present-day instances in which there are calls for a cultural boycott due in part to allegations of apartheid. Friedman doesn’t go there, but given his feelings about South Africa, it’s pretty clear what he would think.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.