Saturday, October 03, 2009

Epic Flail

The only thing funnier than Bobo Brooks is two Bobos, and this week finds Our Pastel Hero in rare form, as he once again attempts to limn the American Character by spelunking its stanky nether regions. Let's ponder the nuggets o' wisdom he finds therein.

Anguished Missive the First forges the well-trod iron path of the ivory-tower historian, squaring the usual tropes of classical historical theories and the misgivings of the founding fathers against the current cultural dynamic.

“Human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear prosperity,” John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, warning against the coming corruption of his country.

Yet despite its amazing wealth, the United States has generally remained immune to this cycle. American living standards surpassed European living standards as early as 1740. But in the U.S., affluence did not lead to indulgence and decline.

That’s because despite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed. Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.

Fair enough, except that the fact was that every hardlined pioneer began their trek with the hope of getting rich (aside from your garden variety Great Awakening god-bothering loons), and the government's reach was limited by the size of the country and the constraints of the day. The moment any territory showed a sign of being a profitable venture, it was duly annexed; the idea that there was some underlying libertarian motif is silly. This is a fairly prosaic reduction of human nature, a rhetorical momentum-gathering device.

When economic values did erode, the ruling establishment tried to restore balance. After the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt (who ventured west to counteract the softness of his upbringing) led a crackdown on financial self-indulgence. The Protestant establishment had many failings, but it was not decadent. The old WASPs were notoriously cheap, sent their children to Spartan boarding schools, and insisted on financial sobriety.

Well, the WASPs thought they could take it with them or something, and conflated ritual abuse with familial bonding. "Decadent" does not necessarily require the usual connotation of "hedonistic sybarite" when "unconscionable hoarding" will do just as well. What the leisure class lacked in public displays of sexual excitement was more than made up for in indefensible greed.

I've made the point many times that people in general and Americans in particular have perverse relationships with food, money, and sex. They binge and purge on those things, and feel guilty about it later, engaging in other destructive behaviors as a result, instead of just enjoying all those things in moderation. I don't mean it as a moral injunction, merely to point out how wasteful and dumb it can be at times for a great many individuals. But genetically uptight worshippers of Establishment mores such as Bobo almost always view these issues through the prism of the Sixties.

It is considered practically a given amongst such moral guardians that the sex-and-drug libertines of the Woodstock era eroded some great moral bulwark that had been erected up to that point. They seem to think that people weren't getting high and/or having indiscriminate sex until 1967, rather than that they were simply a bit more circumspect about those things until then. It drove them crazy that those damned kids didn't have the decency to feel guilty and ashamed about what they were doing, invoking Mencken's classic observation of a puritan being someone who was inconsolable that somewhere out there, someone might be having a good time.

Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, “Piss Christ” and the theory of evolution. They were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state, oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet.

Yes, and? It's not as if they weren't actively encouraged to indulge in those distractions by the very same self-styled moral guardians -- that is, Bobo's own Republicans and movement conservatives -- who were fleecing them, and not trying very hard to disguise it. They chose to focus on the perils of sexual licentiousness, because to call attention to financial licentiousness or consumerist depravity would have been bad for business.

The dangers of societal permissiveness are more grave and more profound than whether someone gets or gives a blowjob outside the sacred circle of marriage. Time and again, Bobo fails utterly to even perceive this, much less understand the role his own party has played in their own downfall.

Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.

But this is not merely a story of weakness. It is a story of resilience. For no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.

This is the insularity of the sinecured pundit -- they genuinely do not get that the studied cynicism that they have purveyed for well over a generation has stuck with people who not only don't know any better, but are proud of that fact, make a point of staying in that zone and taking up permanent residence. I recall once linking/excerpting something by Gertude Himmelfarb wherein she tacitly admitted that the whole "America is Jebus' Favrit Nation" schtick was just something to keep the rabble in line, that neither she nor her claque in the opinion-mongering movementarian smart set really believed in the Judeo-Christian deity, so much as they recognized the political utility of encouraging mindless fervor from that crowd.

But that's where cynicism can really bite you in the ass, ideologically. When you have deliberately cultivated this deep-but-narrow swath of morons to do your bidding, not only do you ultimately push out anyone with an IQ over 90, but you force yourself to cater more and more to this political golem of boobism you've constructed. The Republicans heartily encouraged a climate of proudly anti-intellectual licentiousness, made it an issue of freedom and liberty to consume as much as possible, to be gluttonous and dull-witted, to self-actualize by spending every fucking night watching random idiots sort their sock drawers on reality shows, to be heedless of the consequences, and to characterize anyone who raised an eyebrow as practically a traitor.

A true moralizer would have taken issue with the notion that excess, waste, sloth, greed, and ignorance were anything short of reprehensible; the conservatard attitude was that to even suggest that such things were shameful was un-American. So activities such as smoking, eating to obesity, and watching hillbillies drive in circles all day were not just silly pastimes with obvious externalities, they were expressions of freedom. Turn on, tune in, drop out indeed.

They could at any point have made an effort to engage sensible, reasonable people and encourage a climate of intellectual rigor and honesty, and deliberately chose to go in the exact opposite direction. They may not have really meant it as such, but they have no right to be surprised that the people who were dumb enough to fall for that nonsense chose to take it literally and make it a way of life.

It's unclear by Bobo's weak tilt at "slightly educated snobs" whether he means the usual bien pensant limo-lib suspects, or effete snipe-hunting twaddlers like himself. It doesn't matter -- utlimately it's all a bunch of half-assed attempts to chicken-egg the current toxic stupidity back to some First Principle. Again, though, you can't just pump people full of dumbass juice for 20-30 years, and then suddenly climb some high horse of moral rigor because of the lack of prudence that you helped drum into their paper-thin crania.

So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don’t exist.

They pay more attention to Rush’s imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it’s more interested in pleasing Rush’s ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer’s niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician’s coalition-building strategy.

The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.

Yes, poor Republicans, always getting rooked by the "media mythology". Why, it's sad when you think about it, because despite being obstructionist at every turn, despite heckling and taunting Obama even when he comes up with a halfway decent idea, despite having spent the last year doing absolutely nothing other than being a reverse rubber stamp because that's all they have left, they really just want what's best for the country. They've been trying their durndest, only to be thwarted at every turn and taken advantage for their well-meaning naïveté.

Bobo really has lost touch with his party. He seems to think they're trying to return to some sort of Dick Lugaresque vision of moderate, principled, somewhat informed conservatism. He doesn't get that the sideshow has taken it over, that it's just a giant clown car powered by Palin and Bachmann and the screams of small children. The Republican party stands for nothing other than fucking Barack Obama over at all costs, and empowering every dipshit and yahoo with whatever scare tactic their astroturf elves can conjure up.

Whatever Bill Buckley may have meant for the movement in his heart of hearts, his ideological descendants continue to regress, devolved to knuckle-dragging oafs whose sole mission is to stand athwart common sense and decency and scream "Death panels!"


Anonymous said...

Bill Buckley-didn't he call Gore Vidal a queer and threaten to coldcock GV on national television (his words, not mine)? Way to take the moral high ground WFB!

Still spankin' the plank, Heywood? I admire anyone that will sit in a room and run scales for hours on end.

Heywood J. said...

Buckley was a troglodyte, no doubt, but it seemed that one of his final realizations before he met his maker was that the current crop of yahoos make him look like a magical cross between Lincoln and Jefferson. That's karma for ya.

I don't play nearly as much as I used to, just no time these days. Maybe an hour a day, tops, two on the weekends. After 25 years, scales are second nature, so it's more a quick warmup with a few scale-based patterns (ascending/descending thirds; modes; pedal-point sequencing) and standard string-crossing exercises to keep fast and loose, and then just finding interesting chord progressions to mess with.