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-INTERVIEW: Love is red, death is blue: Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz discuss their amazing new anthology of writing about the American ballad -- and wonder whether Republicans sing better songs of passion and murder than Democrats do. (Charles Taylor, 2004-11-17, Salon)
CT: Forgive me for going relevant on you, but this week everyone is talking about national division. One of the things that struck me here is that in a lot of these songs the America that's being sung about is part of the America that the left is now being encouraged to look down on, in the wake of the election. The passage that smacked me in the head, reading it now, is the one from Steve Erickson's essay where he writes about Lincoln's second inaugural address: "He argued that in fact the country, had, for all its short history, existed as an affront to God in its embrace of slavery, that the Civil War was in fact God's retribution against America for the sin of slavery, that if the nation was destined to fight another 250 years of civil war -- one year for every year slavery existed -- in order to redeem itself, if the nation was to shed its blood to the last drop in order to cleanse itself of the sin, then that was what it would do." Reading that in a week when we hear that God won the election, and the idea that if God is made part of politics it is also the most reactionary part of politics, brought me up short. I don't agree that if the idea of God is present in politics it's reactionary, because then you don't have --

S.W.: Martin Luther King.


G.M.: Well, you know, Steve Erickson's piece is a terrifying piece of writing because he is able to achieve a kind of suspension. There's an argument he makes about there being three Americas, the one that existed before Lincoln's second inaugural, the one that existed afterward, and the one that may have only existed in Lincoln's imagination for weeks or months. And again, it's "In this part of the story, nothing happens," it's the calling up of that void, that place that is a vortex where you can suddenly be sucked into a recognition that we are playing with fire. That when he talks about American identity, the American story, the American mission, the American obligation to live up to its own promises or confront their betrayal, those things are so big, they're so frightening, that people can run from those questions in any direction.

What Steve is writing about here is Randy Newman's "Sail Away" and "Louisiana, 1927," two songs on either side of Lincoln's great divide. You know, people have often said, "Why do you have to pick these songs apart, and why do you have to analyze them, and you put so much meaning on them, and you just destroy them by burdening them with all this significance." And here's Steve Erickson, not burdening these songs with any significance but drawing a whole version of the American story out of them. He's saying, "No, it's not a question of what you put on a song. It's a question of what you can get out of a song and what you can get out of a song is maybe 10 percent of what's in it, whatever the song is." That to me is what's going on here.

S.W.: There is a ballad language that we were out to try and rediscover. And it's a language that no one can quite put a fix on. I think that one of the problems that you might have had, Charley -- and again, I don't want to be too relevant -- is that in some ways the ballad language, the music of America, was actually sung better by the Republicans than by the Democrats. The Democrats don't know how to sing that way; it sounds very technocratic. I think it's one of the reasons why the Democrats lost, actually. Whereas, whatever you think of their politics, when George Bush talks of slavery he talks of the sin of slavery. Well, that's not a whole lot different than what Abraham Lincoln was saying. Regardless of his politics, it's a language he has, and it's that language that's in danger of being lost and we wanted to recover it.

What bothered me isn't what Erickson was saying -- I liked what he was saying. What bothered me was something you're hitting on now, which is the idea that if you speak as he is speaking you are acceding to the most reactionary side of politics.

S.W.: Well, I think that's wrong ...

I do, too.

S.W.: Look, God is part of the language of America. From the first European who settled here, God was here. So let's be honest about it, what's the point in running away from it? It's there. Greil often quotes David Thomas' line, "What the ballad wants, the ballad gets." And what the ballad wants in part, some ballads, is about God, and about a life of the spirit. Indeed, it's not even just about God, it's about a Christian God, and you have to deal with that as part of the language. It's not always there, but it is there.

G.M.: You know, there was a column written by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and the same sort of thing has been written and said by all kinds of people throughout the entire election season. People were voting against their own interests, their own economic interests. If they voted for Bush, people without a lot of money, they were voting against themselves. Well, people want the opportunity to vote for more than themselves --

Someone wrote in to the Times and said they were voting their interests because their interests were more spiritual than economic.
We are at long last in the midst of an oft-delayed reckoning on the Left, as it tries to come to terms with its estrangement from the American people. Circumstances intervened several times in the latter half of the 20th Century to preserve a liberal ascendancy that had only been made possible by the Great Depression. First the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a profoundly conservative Democrat, was brilliantly converted into an electoral and legislative opportunity by Lyndon Johnson, though doing so left him unable to even run for a second term. Then Democrats seized on the unsavory character of Richard M. Nixon and managed to drive him from office and, only just, elect a Southern Christian, though Jimmy Carter likewise was unable to win a second term. Finally, the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 gave Democrats a false hope that they were still a viable national party in America--this despite his running as a conservative Southern Christian, with two major candidates to his Right, the incumbent having violated his no new taxes pledge.

Reality came crashing down in 1994, in the GOP's congressional landslide. But the fact that President Clinton got to serve while America was enjoying the enormous post-Cold War peace dividend did get him a second term and kept the 2000 election close enough that Al Gore would have won if he had just been able to carry his own or his boss's home state. Indeed, the very closeness of 2000 enabled Democrats to pretend that George W. Bush was just an accidental president, as the 1994 Republican majority was surely an accident, and they convinced themselves that as soon as voters had a chance to rectify their error they'd do so. Early exit polls led them to believe that was exactly what was happening on Election Day 2004, and made the ultimate results all the more devastating. At any rate, in the wake of all this we've been treated to a slew of books, essays, articles, etc., all seeking to explain how things could have gone so catastrophically wrong in America.

The Left's attempts to understand their own decline have generally taken two forms, those that seek to minimize the Democrats' structural problems and the resistance of much of America to liberal ideas, on the one hand, and those, on the other, that quite accurately depict religious Red America as so radically different from secular Blue America as to call into question whether liberal politics can ever appeal to most Americans. The problem with these latter analyses has been that they've often been hysterical about and/or contemptuous towards the conservative Americans they are examining. You don't have to read much beyond the title of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? to know that you're in for a diatribe that's going to spread more heat than light.

But you really need to go back to Richard Hofstadter's 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, written at the height of the liberal epoch, to find the first glimmers of understanding on the Left that their country had an innate hostility to their secular rationalist ideology. Hofstadter wrote of the enduring strain of anti-intellectualism in American life and said that: "The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life." It's easy enough to draw a straight line from his fretting to the piece that Garry Wills wrote immediately after the 2004 election, quite accurately titled, The Day the Enlightenment Went Out belief in most of America (Garry Wills, 11/04/04, NY Times). This hardly seems to overstate the case. The modern Conservative triumph in America and the increasing divide between not just Red and Blue America but between an America that must be considered Red overall and a Europe that is quite Blue can probably best be understood as a matter of the tenacity of Judeo-Christian belief on the part of most Americans vs. the Enlightenment secularism/rationalism/intellectualism of coastal elites in the States and most Europeans. America has, almost uniquely in the West, rejected the Enlightenment and any political analysis that doesn't take this rejection into consideration is unlikely to penetrate very far into the heart of the matter.

This brings us to Brian Mann's well-intentioned but rather flawed book, Welcome to the Homeland. Mr. Mann, you see, has tried to write with greater sympathy about Red America and less alarmism about the state of the Left, but in the process has terribly underestimated both the depth of the divide in our politics and the amount of rethinking the Democrats will require if they are to make themselves a consistent and serious alternative to the GOP.

While Mr. Mann is personally a political liberal and a liberal Christian, he covers rural America for NPR and has a brother who is a genuine Christian conservative Kansan. As someone who likes the people and communities he covers for a living and loves his brother, it would be hard for Mr. Mann to maintain the level of hostility towards Red America that many of his peers achieve. This book, much of it spent traveling around with and trying to comprehend his brother, Allen, is necessarily then far friendlier to his subjects than are many other texts in the genre. The better balance he's able to strike makes the book more enjoyable and the relationship between him and Allen, and the interplay of their differing politics, is genuinely intriguing. If nothing else, Allen puts a human face on the Neanderthals that the Left is usually so terrified of and serves as a demonstration that we can all get along. Meanwhile, the basic case that Mr. Mann makes is that while there is a political faultline in our politics it is essentially between rural America, which is dying anyway so we need not worry about it overmuch, and more urban America, which is thriving, growing, and with just a few tweaks to the Constitution would once again dominate Washington. It's all very reassuring for the Left.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mann's case won't withstand much scrutiny. In the first place, while he devotes considerable time to the declining population and fortunes of rural America, Mr. Mann ignores the respective demographic realities of those who adhere to rural values and those of more cosmopolitan bent. Not only do Christians have far higher birth rates than secular, but our recent boom in immigration has basically imported new Christians by the tens of millions. The enormous influx of formerly rural, socially conservative, Christian, Latino immigrants into American cities is hardly likely to be a basis for rescuing liberalism. And the black population of many cities -- which tends to be more church going and socially conservative than white urbanites -- represents an uncertain basis upon which to pin hopes for a liberal future. It is hardly coincidental that across the country, we see the election of Republicans and more conservative Democrats as mayors of big cities, from New York City to Washington, DC to Chicago to Los Angeles. The raw numbers mask many reasons for Democrats to be alarmed. And this is before you even begin to consider the way that Republicans have come to dominate suburbia, and even moreso exurban areas.

Mr. Mann also contradicts his own thesis in one vital respect. While he argues that the seeming conservatism of American politics is really just an effect of the way the Constitution distributes power undemocratically, allowing a few rural voters in each Plains state the same number of senators as all those millions of Californians and New Yorkers, and so forth, he also gives an honest account of how many of liberalism victories were a function of completely undemocratic Supreme Court decisions. When he concedes that, in the 1960s, "federal courts systematically purged overt Christian influences from most of our public institutions" and that, thereby, "urban intellectuals have dragged the nation into a modernist, multicultural interpretation of the Constitution," he really needs to go on to a recognition that as conservatives in turn get to appoint the judiciary the pendulum is going to swing back and we'll return to the traditional understandings of these constitutional matters. There is no possibility that the Constitution will be rewritten to give urban voters more power, but every likelihood that the courts will undo the modernist interpretation by which liberals imposed from above when they couldn't win below. And the concession that liberalism depended so heavily on the courts because it couldn't win democratically is pretty devastating.

Finally, there's one section of the book where Mr. Man reveals, by accident, just how hot of touch he is with America, no matter how well he's tried listening. There are hints early on, when he writes, for instance, of how Allen surely wouldn't want to be thought of as intolerant, even if he does oppose gay marriage and the like. And it's hard not to laugh when he says that he and his liberal friends are just as moral as conservatives, though they may take their morality from novels and music instead of just from religion. It seems a pretty lost cause pointing out that morality is fundamentally at war with tolerance and that an "experimental" morality that would change every time you twirled the radio dial would be unworthy of the name. (Though one would like to see Mr. Mann meet a new neighbor who says he takes his own morality from music as Helter Skelter wafts from his stereo.... ) However, it's when he gets to his own unquestioning faith in Darwinism that Mr. Mann segregates himself out of the mainstream of American thought and reveals why he may have misjudged the anti-intellectual currents. It remains the key to understanding America's peculiarity that the Darwinism he presents as inarguable fact is believed in by just 13% of our fellow citizens. Even most Americans who believe that natural selection may occur also believe that the process of evolution is guided by some intelligence or another. And you can't help but find it odd that Mr. Mann finds it possible to reconcile his Christian faith with the notion that evolution is wholly Natural. Suffice it to say, while Mr. Mann refers at one point to the "strangeness of homelander culture," it is in fact metro culture -- like its Darwinism -- that is strange in the context of the nation as a whole. This reality gives the book a certain quality of a stranger trying to explain your own land to you. It helps that the stranger here is particularly friendly and likable, but he does run into considerable problems bridging the cultural divide.

On balance, this book is much more readable and useful than such tomes as George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant or the Thomas Frank book. However, one of the best reasons to read it is the opportunity to see how Mr. Mann talks past his brother and struggles to understand his political and religious views, which are entirely common to Americans generally. So long as even the very best souls on the Left remain so perplexed by their own countrymen we are unlikely to see any serious reform of the Democratic Party and we're quite likely to see a long period of conservative domination like that which preceded the Great Depression. The intellectual party is a deuced tough sell in anti-intellectual America.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Brian Mann Links:
    -NCPR News Staff: Brian Mann (News Reporter and Adirondack Bureau Chief, North Country Public Radio)
    -BOOK SITE:Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann
    -BOOK SITE: Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann (Steerforth Press)
    -BOOK SITE: Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann (Random House)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Welcome to the Homeland (Laura Knoy, August 22, 2006, NHPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Brian Mann: Welcome to the Homeland... (Martha Foley, AUGUST 18, 2006, North Country Public Radio)
    -ARTICLE: Religion in politics a major topic in fall books: From 'Faith and Politics' to 'The God Delusion,' a range of views on topic (, Aug 23, 2006)
    -REVIEW: of

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH THOMAS FRANK? (Lee Siegel, 8/088/06, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Not God's Party: A new poll shows Democrats are losing (more) religious voters. (Amy Sullivan, Aug. 29, 2006, Slate)
    -ESSAY: A Little Bit Country: Can Democrats compete for the rural vote? (BRENDAN MINITER, September 5, 2006 Opinion Journal)