This is how things work; I spend years as an American musician, exploring what that means in history and praxis, and so I watch “Treme” because it matters to me, and I get a copy of Katrina Ballads to review and it fits perfectly with the show, and the larger context comes from the mainstreaming of the most un-American kind of bigotry at the center of a political party that is deeply antithetical to American culture, and apres moi, le deluge . . .
Allow me to vent some cynical bitterness, but I sometimes think that despite the awful unemployment, this country’s economy must be one of the strongest in the world as it can afford the luxury of a class of professional ignoramuses. I mean, could The New York Times really afford to higher Ross Douthat if things were that bad? My own frustration at seeing him appear on the editorial page is balanced by the pity I feel for his astonishing ignorance. I will not profess deep familiarity with his oeuvre as his writing is so dull, so formed by received models of the vaporous politesse of discourse amongst the self-identified swells, that I find it difficult to get through his introductory paragraphs.
But at times sacrifice is called for, and it’s worth reading his apology for bigotry, if just to understand how completely amoral the guardians of the Establishment are. Douthat, with his premise as a humble Catholic, troubled by secular liberalism (which for him simply means The Sex, both hetero and homo), likes to present himself as a thinking, principled “conservative,” one who imagines he has the welfare of society in mind rather than just the usual grasping for material power. Yet his principals are neither so wide nor so deep that he can defend the fundamentally American principal of freedom of thought (the source for freedom of worship) if it means he would have to muster the infinitesimal courage to stand against the shriveled souls of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. He has the coward’s nerve, that of the bully, to condemn Feisal Abdul Rauf for not saying what Douthat wants him to say about 9/11 or Hamas. Douthat’s intellectual and moral ignorance is the definition of incompetence, i.e. he has no ability to see his own limitations. But why should he? Predictably useful idiots like him seem to do well in the culture of the American Media-Political Industrial Complex.
His critics are not much better. Conor Friedersdorf is somehow seen as a thinking person, yet his mild rebuke of Douthat shows the same limits of imagination. They, and their peers on “both” sides of the issues, suffer from the same crippling defect, which is the limits of political thinking. Why, oh why are so many of these published and promoted writers nothing more than political thinkers, why is there no promotion of writers who have a broader view and range of mind, who can see issues for what they actually are, not how they can be shoehorned into a rote set of responses? Because if assimilation is really the issue, then considering that issue means considering what American culture really is. Yet I cannot think of one of these American writers who know what American culture is beyond the commercial mainstream of movies, television and music. There is no awareness that America was not originally an English speaking country, no awareness that America was not originally a white, Christian country, no awareness of what America has brought to the world other than a smug sense of political superiority and the occasional desire to prove that we’re the number one team by sending the armed forces to kill foreigners. I could link to Beinart, Joe Klein, Matthew Yglesias, et. al., but nothing sums it up better than the monstrous, repulsively smug sociopathy of the Times‘ Thomas Friedman:
We know them by their fruits.
A few months ago some bloggers made a discussion piece out of their personal lists of important books. There was a snarky and unfunny discussion that usefully compiles it but that itself can’t see that there is so much more to life than tracking the competition between two bush-league schools of thought. Here’s an example that’s a useful analogy, the argument that audiences don’t like modern classical music because it doesn’t have patterns, and science proves that the mind seeks patterns. The problem here, of course, is that what the scientists consider to be patterns is woefully limited, and the slightest bit of knowledge would allow them to see that their bogeyman, Schoenberg, wrote music that was in fact excessively patterned; that is its essence. Schoenberg is dissatisfactory to so many because his patterns are lifeless and dully predictable. These political thinkers cannot see that there is more to culture than the political view, and that view has been reduced from thinking to wielding useful slogans. Oh, the fucking humanity! The impoverishment of intellect that makes simpletons like Ayn Rand, Charles Murray and G.K Chesterton, who just try to rationalize their own immature prejudices, pass as intellectual reading. The impoverishment of imagination and taste; I have read Dune enough to admit that it sucks, and if you really want to pass yourself off as someone who appreciates baseball, the book for that is The Boys of Summer. Bramwell doesn’t realize how he condemns himself by belittling Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution as pointy-headed, when science should be a matter of importance to any informed citizen. But being a political writer means never having to be informed.
What is saddest about these signifiers of education and erudition is that there is so little of America in them. The lasting things that this country has given to the world and that will be remembered well past the end of the American experiment (and a country that tortures and spies on its citizens is no longer America), are the cultural ideas of Poe, Whitman, Emerson, Ives, Martha Graham, Buster Keaton, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Marlon Brando, Philip K. Dick, Aaron Copland, John Cage, Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix. If Ross Douthat, Conor Friedersdorf and the others had ever actually listened to American music, danced, heard different dialects and eaten different food, gotten drunk and gotten high, they might actually see that assimilation is echt-bullshit, a paragon of cultural conformity meant to perpetuate acceptance of an established structure of economic and political power; speak the accepted general language, eat the accepted general diet, worship at the accepted houses (apparently only two of the three branches of major monotheism are now culturally permitted), discuss the same meaningless trends in pop culture entertainment from year to year. If you act differently than you deserve all the opprobrium for daring to be different. It’s the triumph of political correctness, the quashing of free-thinking because it might reflect badly on someone too cowed to try it, and the failure of political thought.