Can’t explain exactly why I’ve been silent here for so long, or why I’m finally prodded into action by this (uncharacteristically) dumb Charles Pierce reaction to the “Obamacare by Morning” schtick at the CMAs the other night.
To these lyin’ eyes, Brad and Carrie’s routine looks like a fairly safe, innocuous jab at a much-discussed current event. And clever. Both in the wordplay and by the fact that it butters up featured CMA guest George Strait, who doesn’t always turn up for awards shows.
Its attitude is pretty closely aligned to this (also very funny) bit from the Daily Show:
But Brad and Carrie really set something off in Pierce:
Let’s forget, shall we, that the act is working gloriously in places like Kentucky, but that places like Tennessee, which hosted the yearly gathering of artificial redneck morons, have decided to sabotage the act because Tennessee insists on electing idiots, which is why there are a lot of the problems for Jethro and Zelda Mae to make sport of on the electric teevee. Let’s also forget how much an actual Medicaid expansion would help in all those Southern states where these posers sell records and that have governors who suddenly find themselves allergic to Free Money (!) Let’s also forget that none of the make-believe goobers on stage last night ever are going to have to make the decision between medicine for the kids and food on the table.
Not a lot to disagree with here on the substance (though I might be cautious about proclaiming “the act is working gloriously in places like Kentucky” until those enrolled actually try to get their claims processed), but what is notable (beyond the embarrassing attempt at country diction) is the contemptuous “How Dare They” vibe. “Jethro and Zelda Mae.” Wow. “Make-believe goobers”! Pierce knows as well as anyone the glaring issues with ACA, and Jon Stewart’s much more critical satire goes unremarked, but country singers making fun of what is looking (sadly) to be a prototypical product of 21st century (neo)liberalism is just too much for Mr. Pierce to bear.
First the ad hominem, and then the revealing obiter dictum.
Let’s forget all of that and concentrate on the main issue — which is that I think modern country music sucks gigantic bowls of monkey dick. It is, weight for age, the phoniest genre of music since Pat Boone was ripping off Little Richard. Most of what is celebrated as “country” these days is simply bad rock and roll played by people who look like they flunked the audition for a Night Ranger tribute band. I mean, Taylor Fking Swift is already a “legend,” and Patsy Cline would have eaten her on toast.
Stop the presses. Boston-based writer derides current country music as fake, knows what REAL country music is.
Pierce then moves on to the musical question “You know what coutry music is?” and name checks Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Harvard Divinity School dropout Gram Parsons. I’m a fan of all of these guys, but every one of them is a middle-class white dude, applying a bookish veneer to the country genre. To Pierce’s credit he does mention Loretta Lynn, but doesn’t link to any of her iconic songs (you know, the ones a Jethro or Zelda Mae might know), but to “Van Lear Rose,” from the all-over-the-place album she did with another slummer, hipster Jack White.
Which is a little weird. And where am I going with this exactly?
A first bash: patronizing east coast writer’s take can be summarized as: these rubes don’t know what they want (the ACA), or even what they like (debased country music, not the “real” stuff), and they sure as shit don’t know what’s good for them. There’s a lot of the crazy in Southern-identified folks mistrust of Yankee superciliousness, but sometimes there’s some justification….
Country music left its rural roots behind at least as far back as the (then-maligned, now celebrated) countrypolitan era. It’s been a suburban thing for half a century, so the Jethro and Zelda Mae jibe is kind of out of the blue. Are Brad and Carrie trying to act like hicks? Does Carrie Underwood have her teeth blacked out? Not exactly. Say what you will about her outfit here but … not exactly. (OK. Paisley does wear a cowboy hat. It’s a Nashville thing, a shorthand connection to country’s real country (distant) past. Also, a godsend for artists with receding hairlines.)
Ian Crouch’s dispatch in the New Yorker, while still a tad glib, at least indicates that he actually saw the CMAs and didn’t just fly off the handle because OMG these rubes were making fun of Obamacare.
And the music itself, as always, has one foot in respectability and the other in foolishness. The best-selling country album in the United States right now is a Christmas collection recorded by the family from “Duck Dynasty.” One of the tracks, “Away in a Manger,” features the vocals of Alison Krauss. It’s still a weird swamp down there in Nashville.
Weird swamp indeed. And it has always been so. As someone who listens to a lot of country music, both old (“authentic”) and new (“bogus”), I have a lot of problems with contemporary music trends, but beg to differ with the notion that today’s country stars are talentless hacks. All of them are in possession of major chops, as players, singers or writers (or all three) or they wouldn’t be on the CMA stage rubbing elbows with Vince Gill.
Random anecdote: I recently had a quick overnight visit to Nashville. Three friends and I went out to see some music. Being cheap–we only went to free bars, –and old–our night started at 5 and ended before midnight–, we were exposed to the absolute bottom tier of Nashville talent (it was a Sunday night too) but I found it pretty remarkable that everybody at that level could really play and sing. There are tens of thousands of full-time musical strivers between these cover musicians and the Carries, Brads, and yes, Taylors. Country is another classic American winner-take-all, long-shot business–like the movies, pro sports, and fashion–but the problem is never the talent. The business of Nashville is just like those other show biz machines. It mercilessly molds artists into a template that is predictable and sells. But the talent shows through, it always has. Personally, this is why I pay attention to any pop culture: genius, of some sort, rising above an overly rigid framework. The auteur theory of country music, to get all grad schoolier than thou.
A common tactic of those who argue for a false Golden Age of anything is to set up a dubiously intense competition between artists of yore and the poseurs of today. So “Taylor Fking Swift is already a ‘legend,’ and Patsy Cline would have eaten her on toast”. I disagree. If Patsy and Taylor had been contemporaries, they would have collaborated dozens of times.
To be even more contrary, I would go so far as to say that we are in the midst of a Golden Age of Nashville, for female singers and songwriters, at least. In thirty years, a crusty writer will spit when mentioning the current crop of fake country talent, fix you with a steely gaze, jab a bony finger in your chest and say, “Now Miranda Lambert. There was a true badass country singer.” (And so she is)….
Once again stuck for a way to end this, am bailed out by the great Robbie Fulks, who has noticed the tendency of Yankees to preach to country folks what real country is. I love the weird and wonderful adjectival mouthful below, and think Pierce might find himself somewhere in there. He certainly will see his reflection in the opinionated, overalled Bostonian (cue to 2:22).
Not a hillbilly dilletante, fair weather hick, demi-clod, faux po’folks, well-readneck…
Robert-E.-come-lately hayseed wanna-be undercover Yankee…
Mississippi Ph. D., Alabamateur, 50% less Tarheel armchair Arkansan
Basically, I said what is Off the Table is far more important, and more dangerous, than what the parties are arguing about.
Dixon looks back to the post-Civil War era as a comparable era of malign consensus:
Too much agreement between Republicans and Democrats has always been bad news for those at the bottom of America’s class and racial totem poles.
Back in 1875, Frederick Douglass observed that it took a war among the whites to free his people from slavery. What then, he wondered, would an era of peace among the whites bring us? He already knew the answer. Louisiana had its Colfax Massacre two years earlier. A wave of thousands upon thousands of terroristic bombings, shootings, mutilations, murders and threats had driven African Americans from courthouses, city halls, legislatures, from their own farms, businesses and private properties and from the voting rolls across the South. They didn’t get the vote back for 80 years, and they never did get the land back. But none of that mattered because on the broad and important questions of those days there was at last peace between white Republicans and white Democrats — squabbles around the edges about who’d get elected, but wide agreement on the rules of the game.
Like Douglass, the shallow talking heads who cover the 2012 presidential campaign on corporate media have noticed out loud the remarkable absence of disagreement between Republican and Democratic candidates on many matters. They usually mention what the establishment likes to call “foreign policy.” But the list of things Republicans and Democrat presidential candidates agree on, from coddling Wall Street speculators, protecting mortgage fraudsters and corporate wrongdoers to preventing Medicare For All to so-called “foreign policy,” “free trade,” “the deficit” “clean coal and safe nuclear power” and “entitlement reform,” is clearly longer and more important than the few points of mostly race and style, upon which they disagree.
Really good article by Neal Gabler in Politico today. In How conservatives lost their moral compass, America’s Republicans, Gabler writes, have decided that shame is some sort of liberal plot designed to hobble tough, robust Conservatism. Hence, Perry’s unseemly boast about his record-setting execution numbers. And Paul’s (theoretical) condemning of an uninsured 30-year-old man to death if he can’t pay for medical care.
As Gabler notes, the crowds at the debates cheer for this sort of nastiness.
American history can be read as a series of episodes in which we reached what could be called a “tipping point” of shame — when our behavior became so egregious that we, as a people, decided to desist from our worst excesses, whether it was slavery or antipathy to immigrants.
Take civil rights. The majority of Americans, even outside the South, might originally have had little real enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. Most urged patience. It was only after the public saw the beatings during the Freedom Rides, the firehoses and police dogs at Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham that Americans were shamed into accepting the claims of African-Americans to equal justice under the law. Shame was the moralizing force.
Shame also defeated the hatred of Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” who laid the Great Depression at the feet of Jewish international bankers, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who recklessly accused his critics of communist treachery. Both had reached that tipping point at which ordinary Americans felt these provocateurs had gone too far. Americans felt shamed.
There is a reason we have never previously had a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh enjoy popularity for as long as he has. The reason was shame. You couldn’t find enough people, let alone a broadcaster, who wanted to be identified with that sort of viciousness. The initial enthusiasm for it eventually waned.
But that was then. Surely when a group can publicly cheer a man’s death for not having health insurance, the sense of shame is gone. It faded not only because liberals had subverted it by casting it as a conservative scheme to corset society, but because conservatives managed to delegitimize it. They attacked it as yet another elitist scheme, contrived to neuter strong conservatism.
Great stuff. I highly recommend reading it. I would only add that Gabler could be a little more inclusive.
She did the Secretary of State job, she was a G, she held it down, she didn’t cry.
Set aside for a moment the patronizing “she didn’t cry.” This is a shout-out from Ice-T! Hillary Clinton an honorary “G”! I’m pretty sure that HuffPost piece has been printed out and taped up somewhere conspicuous at the Secretary’s office. Did it gave Hillary and her staffers another case of the giggles and high-fives all-around? I have a feeling it did.
True, the Democrats do not seem to revel in cold-heartedness (theirs is still a little school-marmish, “it’s for your own good” affect–see Albright, M.), but let’s look at the bipartisan coldness that is at large in the land.
Start by taking a look at Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on our sprawling, and growing, prison complex, and the ugly fact that, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”
Is that only the product of Republican mean-spiritedness? I think not. Is it possible for a situation like the one described by Gopnik to exist without broad support from politicians of all stripes?
For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
As Gopnik notes, the fact that we’re sticking millions of our citizens down a hole for decades at a time is just the beginning. Absurd numbers of prisoners are singled out for solitary confinement. The very existence of even one “Supermax” prison is pretty much enough to indict our culture as broadly vindictive, even sadistic. There are dozens of prisons with Supermax wings, and I would venture to bet they are in districts represented by politicians of both parties.
And, if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, not only will you be locked up, you will be pretty much on your own vis a vis preventing yourself from being raped. This should be the subject of much outrage, right? Uh, no. Gopnik again.
Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing.
Again, I’m not rejecting Gabler’s point. There’s no question: the state of “conservative” discourse has changed into something that is unspeakably ugly to behold. The past months of virtually non-stop debates have put this fact on dramatic display (while at the same time setting the range of topics for whichever candidate emerges from this clown/monster show to debate Obama).
There are of course significant differences between the parties, but a similar agenda gets enacted no matter who wins. Bold prediction: It will be More War, More Austerity and More Prisons for the foreseeable future. Three things few voters are clamoring for. And you’ll have a hard time finding a politician of either party willing to apologize for (let alone be ashamed of) that state of affairs.
Not that it’s in any way likely, but let’s ask: What happens under President Paul?
Specifically, would there be any reduction in the number of innocent bodies crushed or blown to bits under U.S. bombs and missiles, or hacked to death by the minions of regimes we support?
Paul supports a number of positions that put him beyond the pale of progressive or even civilized thought. But his appeal is real, and cuts across ideological boundaries, because more and more Americans really do see the pointlessness or malign effects of having our military spread across the globe, at war or threatening it, in too many countries to count. Paul, as this excellent “Imagine” ad promises, will do something about that.
There is a serious effort afoot to shame or scold liberals/progressives who have good things to say about Paul. Katha Pollitt, especially, goes to town on any progressive who might consider straying. “Man-crush”–the ultimate insult. That is so grad-school in the eighties (and I know from experience!)
For what it’s worth, in Pollitt’s exasperated contempt for Paul I see echoes of her review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a genuinely radical and important book that painted sympathetic portraits of pacifists and nonviolent activists in the years leading up to World War Two. Her main response, stated up front: “fury at pacifists.”
Because of course, World War Two produced 60 million corpses, a permanently militarized and aggressive United States, and the specter of nuclear annihilation for the planet forever. Only an asshole (or a man) would try to revisit the run-up to such a war and try to imagine alternative scenarios, right?
Is it possible that after everything we’ve learned about America’s low, dishonest wars since the Good War ®, liberals cling to the idea that U.S. bombs and boots on the ground in foreign lands are a force for good? That establishment liberals are not dismissing Paul in spite of his non-interventionism, but because of it?
It’s a partisan thing, partly. Democrats are as good as, or better than, the other guys at starting wars. A combination of the Wilsonian streak and, in recent years, a byproduct of domestic political battles, whereby the Democrats always feel compelled to prove they’re not “soft” on communism, or terror (only the Muslim kind, of course).
Supporters of the the current administration should be forced to confront just how Paul’s positions on foreign policy and war make conventional progressivism/centrism/liberalism (the three conflated in a bewildering way in the current president) look compromised, corrupt, and downright evil.
So, finally, to the point of all this: a consideration of Freddie De Boer’s It’s not about Ron Paul: It’s about you, which uses the case of historic and ongoing U.S. support for Indonesian repression as a representative instance of the liberal establishment’s complicity in barbarism.
When confronting establishment progressives with the reality of our conduct and how much it has cost some of the poorest and most defenseless people on earth, the conversation never stays about our victims; it inevitably changes to those attempting to talk about them, a knee-jerk defense that progressives have made an art form. That’s why Ron Paul is so perfect, for establishment liberals. He is an open invitation to change the subject. The United States keeps killing innocent people, keeps propping up horrific regimes, keeps violating international law, keeps trampling on the lives of those who lack the power to defend themselves– but Ron Paul is a racist, and believes in the gold standard, and opposes abortion, and in general supports some of the most odious domestic policies imaginable. What I insist, and what people like Glenn Greenwald keep insisting, is that Ron Paul’s endless failings shouldn’t and can’t exist as an excuse to look away from the dead bodies that we keep on piling up. What I have wanted is to grab a hold of mainstream progressivism and force it to look the dead in the face. But the effort to avoid exactly that is mighty, and what we have on our hands is an epidemic of not seeing.
Even though De Boer doesn’t allow comments, he does share Robert Farley’s response in an update, which I think takes a useful (theoretical) look at what would be different under President Paul.
And so this brings us to assumption the second, which is that a President Paul would somehow have done something to make all those Indonesia people not dead. I suppose it’s possible that a President Paul would have refrained from supporting the Suharto coup, although it’s also certainly possible that Paul’s free market commitments would have made anti-communist activity attractive; I don’t know enough about Paul’s early career attitudes regarding the USSR, the Sandinistas, etc. I guarantee you, however, that President Paul would have lifted not a finger to assist all the Indonesians killed in the wake of the coup, or in the various statebuilding projects later engaged in by the Suharto and post-Suharto governments. President Paul might not have engaged in a direct military relationship with Indonesia, but he would not have prevented American private military firms from contracting with the Indonesians in training and advisory roles; he would not have prevented the Indonesian military from purchasing all the military equipment that it could afford from US defense corporations; he would not have prevented US corporations with interests in Indonesia from calling (publicly or privately) for violent defense of their extractive and labor interests; and he would not have supported any robust international action to condemn or isolate the Indonesian government.
I would have to point out that all the private military activity is a direct byproduct of America’s armies and navies and air forces having spent the past half century spread out across the planet. How many of these private military contractors are ex-U.S. military? Most? Nearly all?
And yet even if Paul does make radical reductions to America’s military, Farley is right. There will still be plenty of Yanks and plenty of U.S.-made munitions, ships and aircraft. And I don’t imagine Paul would be aggressive in stopping American BUSINESSMEN from doing American BUSINESS, would he? As long as they’re not supported by the tyranny of taxation, that is.
Not that any of this has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening. Paul’s role has been at least partly constructive in this campaign because he has asked hugely important questions and, yes, imagined an alternative. But unless he mounts a third-party run, he’ll be out of the race soon, and the entire debate on “defense” will be reduced again to the moronic question of which party Keeps Us Safe ®. America will continue to be sucked dry by its military no matter who gets elected, and we’ll return to the alternate universe where slight reductions in the rate of the Pentagon’s budget growth are looked upon as brave (or treasonous) major cuts.