Curious how things meld and, occasionally, spark. Following upon eMusic’s acquisition of ABKCO Records’ Rolling Stones catalog, I’ve been listening to a lot of that band’s music (from 1963 through 1971 or so, specifically), and I’ve found myself analyzing the appeal of Mick Jagger. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about this frustrating electoral cycle, in which the Democratic Party seems poised to again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by, once again, running to the middle with a policy of throat-clearing, half-hearted gestures, and apologies for excesses of those of its adherents who dare to, you know, be passionate about any damned thing. Hillary Clinton is pulling a Lieberman and almost seems to have decided that if she can’t be the Democratic nominee for President, well, maybe she can be the Republican nominee for Vice President: how else to explain her echoing the typical, annoying attacks on the “liberal” Obama as cultural elitist and (shhh!) secret Muslim, angry black man, and closet anti-Semite? And then I read Zoilus’s entry on the latest Obama kerfuffle, which refers to Tom Frank and his What’s the Matter With Kansas?, along the way referring to Ellen Willis’s three-quarters brilliant rebuttal to Frank’s thesis. (It’s only three-quarters brilliant because I think she misunderstands Frank as applying a simple “false consciousness” analysis, when I read Frank not as arguing that cultural issues “aren’t real,” but that Democrats specifically and the larger (actual?) left generally have failed to articulate the connection between their cultural views and a liberatory economic analysis. Certainly the latter is lacking, and Willis is sadly correct that the Dems lack all conviction regarding the former.)
And then I make myself crazy by crunching all that together.
How does that work? Well, let’s look at Willis’s essay. Certainly Willis is correct in asserting that the left (which should not be equated with “the Democrats” … except, of course, as she fails to mention, for the fact that the electoral system gives us no real alternative) should be arguing, passionately, powerfully, and often, for the liberatory potential of its cultural perspective, and not just for the usual subalterns found beneath the yoke of the race/gender/sexuality troika. She’s also correct in implying that Americans are not so conservative as that: certainly in their actual behaviors (as evidenced by their consumption of all those “obscene” cultural products hated by the right wing’s kulturkampf troops) but also in their daily lives. I can attest to this: while few of my students, most of whom are from working-class or middle-class background, identify themselves as leftists, radicals, or even Democrats, and while few of them would claim they’re actively in favor of radical gay, feminist, or anti-racism groups, they are generally repelled by overt racism, homophobia, and (to a degree) sexism…and more to the point, they certainly have no problem with the notion that every one of them, black, white, Latino/a, gay, straight, male, female, should have the right to pursue an education and career path. And while they’re certainly not immune to the cultural stereotypes attached to these groups, they have an unselfconscious gut negative reaction to egregious bigotry. Let one student make a racist remark, even a relatively subtle one, and the discomfort of the rest is clear; the same is true of homophobic comments, etc. And in my classes that have had out gay or lesbian students, I’ve never heard a single student make an overt comment, or even a dirty look, at those students…whatever their private feelings, they recognize either that such negativity is wrong or, at least, is unacceptable. And even if that’s all it is – as in, they don’t want to get on my bad side – at least they’re willing to live with that.
So I don’t think the country is really full of bigots. Obviously, there are bigots…but most of them at least behave in a live-and-let-live fashion.
Okay … but if the consumption of porn and sexy romance novels and the like is evidence that the right’s puritanism is at best a cover for some dicey hypocrisy, isn’t the consumption of the products of Larry the Cable Guy and similar neo-redneckisms evidence that, really, America is good ol’ boy nation?
Maybe. But I think there’s another way to look at it. Please allow me to introduce Mick Jagger, a man of wealth and taste. One of the most interesting things about Jagger’s self-presentation during the mid- to late sixties is the way he embodied any number of contradictory positions. Macho yet effeminate, preening yet insouciant, and most of all, salt-of-the-earth but aristocratic, Jagger simultaneously evoked a street-fighting working class image (which he was not) while conveying a certain regality, an aristocratic disdain, as if he were a prince dispatched amongst the rabble in disguise (which he also was not: from a solidly middle-class family is our Michael Phillip Jagger. Incidentally, it would appear Robyn Hitchcock named Jagger’s father: according to Wikipedia, Jagger senior’s name was “Basil Fanshawe Jagger”). This, I think, is Jagger’s “satanic” appeal, and what millions of not necessarily privileged fans saw, darkly, reflected in his lascivious gaze: the freedom to do, and be, and judge, outside the roles and rules of social propriety. (And his apparent willingness and desire to set that rabble free – take a look at how many Jagger lyrics of the era allude to the underclass rising up against royalty – is what frightened the upholders of that era’s order.) And unlike some of his latter-day disciples in satyrdom, Jagger wasn’t merely a dick with legs: there was clearly a potent intelligence underlying Jagger’s seduction, evident even in the language he used to describe his desires and conquests. (Take, for example, the lyrics of “Stray Cat Blues,” possibly one of the most lascivious songs ever recorded: while Jagger is utterly un-coy about his intentions toward the object of his desire – who’s only fifteen, which you know nowadays would probably get him arrested just for singing about – he also works the “stray cat” metaphor in several subtle ways, my favorite of which is the opening line, about the “click-clack” of his Lolita’s heels in the hall: anyone with a cat knows Jagger’s evoking here the sound of their claws on a solid floor.)
And so we come back to the core of Willis’s argument against Frank: she says that the right has gained standing among the salt of the earth of Kansas not because they’ve duped Kansans into believing they’d legislate their pet issues (while working against the economic interests of such voters) but because the left has been timid and even apologetic about its own positions. Worse – even if only in stereotypical renderings of the left – they’ve become puritanical in enforcing them. The whole “PC” bullshit of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s rests upon the notion that the left is made up of a mob of censorious, overcautious do-gooders ever-vigilant against the possibility that (as the old phrase has it) someone, somewhere might be having a good time. Granted: the qualification was that the left dispatched its correctness curmudgeons only if the person enjoying himself was a white male … but still, this impression went a long way toward the popularity of your Larry the Cable Guy and the like, along with all the talk-radio and stand-up comedy professional assholes who, if nothing else, seemed to feel the freedom to speak their minds (even if any intelligent observer might be forgiven for assuming that their “minds” in this case somehow got crosswired with their excretory systems, given how full of shit they typically are).
But the problem, and the difference, is that while Jagger and his ilk could, at the time, and at least theoretically, be read as embodying a liberatory impulse, one which with some modification and perspective shifts could even encompass apparent misogynist broadsides like the Stones’ “Stupid Girl” and “Under My Thumb” (and hey: the shallow materialism and snobbery of “Stupid Girl”’s titular character is repugnant), the current populist assholism seems content to overlook the difference between then and now and, even though seeming to speak freely, ultimately embodies a far more significant quantity of fear and resentment than anything liberatory. (Let’s not forget that sexual repression, not only of women but of men, along with classism, racism, and homophobia, was overt and blatant among many in the ‘60s, particularly in Jagger’s England.) There’s a real refusal to accept that anyone might genuinely be different from them; that (for example) someone might merely prefer a latté to black coffee (or even orange juice – note to Obama: argue that oranges are a domestic product while coffee’s an import) rather than be affecting a preference in order to curry favor among a cultural elite – which ultimately seems to be the belief underlying that strain of cultural conservatism.
One of Willis’s masterstrokes is to turn the tables on Frank’s analysis: it’s the Democrats, she argues, who deploy bait-and-switch tactics with voters. While the Republicans may indeed draw folks in with “vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes,” the Democrats equally do so: as Willis writes, the Dems’ tenure too often can be analyzed as “vote to protect Roe v. Wade; receive NAFTA.” But it’s not even that simple (“they’re all a bunch of hypocrites”): the Republicans have been unapologetic about both their opposition to abortion and their enthusiasm for lower taxes, while the Democrats have been marble-mouthed about both their support for abortion rights and their support for NAFTA. And (as Willis points out), the “switch” for Republicans isn’t really a switch: while abortion may still technically be legal, various laws, regulations, rulings, and above all rhetoric have made abortions all but impossible to actually obtain for many, if not most, poor women in this country.
Maybe what the left needs, then, is a rock star: someone confident enough in his or her beliefs, and proud enough in his or her own skin, to assert rather than merely defend, to be fierce in standing up for those beliefs rather than constantly appeasing the mythical middle (“mythical” in its scale and relevance, at least). Because, I’d argue, one reason those folks are in the middle is that they’re largely apolitical … but they do recognize timidity and hypocrisy when they see it. And even if it’s been rather disastrous that these folks (or enough of them) looked at George W. Bush, and looked at Al Gore or John Kerry, and saw in one a guy who, flawed as he is, at least stood up for his beliefs (inanely, idiotically, smugly, and defensively, ‘tis true) and on the other, a stuffed suit with all the charisma and conviction of a day-old bowl of soggy cornflakes, and as much backbone, well, they’re not going to look at the politics, or the intelligence. They’re going to vote for freedom. And cautiously living in fear of carefully parsed poll analysis is not freedom.