A tainted prayer for the new year
Conformity; militant, evidenced faith; and parochial, exclusionary Christianity are back in prominence. Only a fool (and there does seem to be an army of them out there) would argue the Christian right has been overwhelmed as this country has witnessed a triumph of the secular. A few court victories, including keeping prayer out of the schools, and a few overzealous public officials trying to avoid promoting specific religious beliefs have been magnified from anecdotes into a triumph of the nonbelievers.
The United States is a strongly Christian country, more devout and practicing than most of the European countries we might think of as hotbeds of religious devotion. This is also a politically conservative country that occasionally drifts toward the moderate. The ridiculousness of depicting Democrats as red-hot Bolsheviks is underscored by the fact that, during most of the decades of their political dominance, one of the most powerful factions in that party was made up of aggressively conservative, pro-segregation Dixiecrats. The United States is and has long been a moderate-conservative, Christian nation. It is one under President George W. Bush, it was one under President Clinton, and it was one (though one trying some unique, massive, widespread public projects in response to the failures of an underregulated economy) even under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the same way that the right, ignoring its decadelong record of comprehensive electoral wins, keeps declaring that its revolution is now beginning, it's managed to ignore as well the fact that when the Democrats ran the country, outside of a number of outstanding progressives, that party was far more conservative. Only after the Johnson-era civil rights legislation, when Southerners' long-held hatred toward the Republican Party was overwhelmed by their even deeper racial and social prejudices, did party allegiances change. But the same mostly male, mostly white power groups that have long run this country still do.
The right, not as a solid entity but in its many manifestations, has really grasped the concept that if you repeat something enough times, it comes to be accepted as a truth. Again, though this country is overwhelmingly Christian, we are being told how the Christian-hating secular forces are winning everywhere. Although this country is traditionally moderate-conservative, we are being told that the America-hating liberals who somehow stole their way to power are finally being beaten back. Mainstream media's already disturbing blandness was further diluted by the widespread acceptance that it is aggressively liberal and overtly partisan. But the most ridiculous charge, the absolute triumph of Humpty Dumpty over the diction, the greatest triumph of those who assume the American people really are fools, is the transformation of the meaning of the word "elites."
In the "we're mad-dog new-right Republicans and proud of it" book of meanings, "elites" is shorthand for media, entertainment, political, and public figures who speak out on politics, arguing positions with which the right disagrees. Thus, Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Rich, and Ted Kennedy would be "elites." Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Charlie Daniels, Ted Nugent, and Ann Coulter would not be so regarded. A member of the "elite" is not simply a public figure speaking out; that status is entirely determined by what he or she says. One of the scariest aspects of the new right is that what they are really targeting is public debate, free speech, and the traditionally accepted balance of powers.
Now, here are excerpts from some recent Chronicle letters, which note that the writers are longtime Democrats who voted for Kerry but are still happy Bush won. I've seen a number of similar letters in other publications. In my experience, when many different letters share similar language, there may well be something going on, though of course it could also be coincidence:
Letter 1: "And yet, I find myself delighted with the outcome because it is clear that the 'silent majority' living in 'flyover country' have found their voice. Though I despise Christian fundamentalism, I abhor the elitist disdain expressed by the liberal media, by Hollywood, and by the academic intelligentsia of those core values quietly held in Middle America."
Letter 2: "Multiculturalism and political correctness are divisive tools of limo-libbies. This abominable double standard is racist. By holding 'disadvantaged' groups to a lower standard of behavior than that of the mainstream, we are saying that these persons are incapable of succeeding in the predominant culture. However, complain about the adverse effects of this misbehavior, and you are branded a racist. All reasonable discourse gets handcuffed by identity politics.
"The left's own elitism has made it irrelevant. ..."
Ignoring the preposterous notion that the same moderate-conservative "silent majority" that has long been in charge just came back into power, think about this: "elitist disdain," "limo-libbies." Again and again, the "elitist" label is laid at the liberals' doorstep.
The real American elites are the ones whose names you mostly don't know. Their extended and extensive families have long run or owned significant interest in major American businesses. They belong to the country clubs and go to the private schools. Their wealth is so vast that tax cuts in stock dividends actually make a difference to them. They continue to run this country as they always have run it. This is not meant to imply they are conspiratorial; I don't think that they gather in locked rooms to plan a detailed future, but this is the elite class that owns more of America than do most other Americans combined. They have been in power for generations; they continue to be in power. They usually don't appear on television; they don't have an official spokesperson; they are not organized. Still, the overwhelming determinant in terms of one's economic status is family. Most of these people were born to power and money. They are overwhelmingly Republican.
Meanwhile, the much-derided liberal elites rarely inherited their positions. For the most part, coming from all economic classes, they earned their positions, as movie stars, rock performers, TV news people, media faces, writers, college professors. Once they achieved prominence, they chose to speak out. Despite the slinging around of the term "politically correct," it has always been a lot more dangerous in America to express progressive ideas than conservative or even reactionary ones. The so-called elites are anything but; they're simply expressing themselves, which has become something about which the right is leading the rest of the country in becoming increasingly disdainful.
Then there are the cheerleaders, the common folk who are sick to death of hearing opinions with which they disagree. They are delighted that the liberal elites have been shown their place. These people, who often speak out against policies that would economically benefit them and who champion unpopular beliefs even though it may damage their careers, have been shut up.
The real elites the elites that get richer off Bush's economic policies and still richer from the Iraqi war are more solidly in power than ever. For the most part, they did not earn their positions but inherited them; they are neither entertainers nor very much in the public eye. They mostly shut up, participating in American politics only by making large financial contributions. They haven't been put in their place by this election. They have been in their place for years; they are in control and are staying there. It's what God and, evidently, the American people want, and so shall it be.
This year I experienced two near-miracles. There was a time when the culture blew my mind on a regular basis. I would discover Lynd Ward, Isaac Babel, Dashiell Hammett, Maya Deren, Francois Truffaut, Diane Arbus, Bob Dylan, D.W. Griffith, Sam Peckinpah, Lizzie Borden, Walt Whitman, Susan Sontag, Woody Guthrie, Will Eisner, Joni Mitchell, Jonathan Richman, to name just a few. My ears would bleed, my eyes bulge, my brain overheat. I would leave movies running, listen to records over and over, and stay up reading until dawn. I was so much younger, more optimistic, and there was so much to discover. Lately, though the pleasures experienced are rich and varied, it's rare that my mind explodes.
It happened twice this year. Both times completely unexpectedly.
The first was when Brian Wilson performed Smile at the Backyard. Usually unfinished legendary masterpieces should stay unfinished and legendary. The recording released before the tour certainly didn't suggest anything too special. The performance was stunning, the piece encompassing and extraordinary. Resurrected, Smile proved more brilliant than had long been supposed (which, before the show, I would have argued was impossible).
The second was reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles. Yes, I had read the mostly rave reviews, but I had also read Dylan's "novel," Tarantula, seen his movies, and read his liner notes. I figure the critics were being unusually kind to Dylan because, after all, he is Dylan. Then producer Bob Johnston gave me a copy of the book. I stayed up until 4am reading. It is the most explicit visit with a notoriously reclusive genius I've ever encountered. Amazingly, Dylan details things he's almost never even talked about before: how he came to be a songwriter, when he fell back in love with performing.
So here's my tainted prayer for this season: May you all have an outstanding 2005. May the truly spiritual light that drives great art and great belief shine more brightly and powerfully then ever, illuminating the darkness while bringing us all closer together under the most inclusive heading "humanity," rather than the more proudly trumpeted exclusionary ones.
This is the last Chronicle, then, until next year (next week). Welcoming in 2005, all of us here wish all of you the very best.