back home again

May 29, 2014

What: Selections from River Songs (2009) for soprano or mezzo-soprano and piano at a concert celebrating composers who grew up in rural areas
When: Saturday, June 7, 2014, 7:00pm EDT
Where: Lincoln Junior High School Auditorium, Plymouth, IN

I shall be there with many family members. If you’re in the area, come by!

WF

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expletive deleted

May 20, 2014

Continuing with the twin themes of Richard Nixon and resentment as a political tool, here are two links which have been on my mind recently.

This link considers prejudice against Appalachians in academia, and this link examines Sauk Centre, MN, Sinclair Lewis’s hometown and the model for Gopher Prairie in Main Street.

The first article makes me think – what happens when someone willingly embraces the stereotypes of that group, and then uses those stereotypes as a marker of culture? Do the stereotypes become self-generating at that point? Is it a matter of “You think I’m a redneck? I’ll show you a redneck!” There is a natural human response of wagon-circling when a member of your tribe is attacked, to be sure, and I suspect there’s some of that at work here. But it can go to far, and ideology can obscure reality. (Read that link, by the way. It is outstanding.) Sinclair Lewis hit on this when he wrote Main Street. In an insular community, outsiders – or more specifically, ideas promulgated by outsiders – are rarely accepted or even tolerated. I found this out earlier this year when my hometown was in the news for less than good reasons. Even though it was home in a technical sense, I never felt like I belonged there, much in the same way that Lewis never felt like he belonged in Sauk Centre. Yet, that is where his ashes are buried, and it is not beyond the pale of possibility that my earthly remains will at least in part end up back home as well. I have felt the resentment of those who accepted things as they were, and I have also nurtured strong resentments myself at those same people. I love my family, and I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything, but Bedford is not home. It is simply where I am from. (Short form: having a non-majority temperament or views in a small town is tough. I doubt I’m alone in this.)

This politics of resentment is how Nixon captured the White House in 1968. He was careful enough to not be openly resentful in the way that George Wallace was (and arguably having Wallace in the race, instead of splitting the Right, allowed Nixon to use better code language and secure his position as the “Center”), but he still tapped into that. His language throughout his term in office (“Silent Majority,” the constant allusions to a giant conspiracy during Watergate) sent dog-whistles to the resentful base. And as we saw in yesterday’s post, he came by this honestly and at an early age.

I get Nixon. But for differences on political issues, I could be Nixon. In many cases, so could you. And that is why, as much of a populist as I am on economic issues, I have to keep it in check. Because when unchecked, it turns a President who was truly masterful at many aspects of foreign policy* into a punchline, a paranoiac, and a cautionary tale.

This has been a rather rambling excursion into my brain. I hope it resonated with at least some people.

*I propose that Nixon did what he did domestically (EPA, price/wage controls, Keynesian economic policy, etc.) to keep the heat off his foreign policy, making him the mirror of LBJ (who was hawkish in Vietnam to keep his opponents on his side, allowing him to pass his domestic policies).

WF


let me make one thing perfectly clear

May 19, 2014

Recently, I have been reading several things that make me think about Richard M. Nixon, the uses of power, and the politics of resentment.

If you know anything about Nixon’s college years, you know that there was a group of well-heeled upper-class types on the Whittier College campus known as the Franklins. Nixon would have never been accepted as part of this group, coming as he did from a working-class background. So he created an alternate group – the Orthogonians. Throughout his life Nixon set himself in opposition to the elites, even if – nay, especially if – they were from his own party. He was, if it is possible to be such a thing, the consummate outsider. At the height of his power, at a point when he was quite literally the single most powerful person the world had known up to that point, he used that power in ways both subtle and obvious to take (in his opinion) the elites down a peg.

He wasn’t the first outsider President; his immediate predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was also from the wrong side of the tracks. LBJ grew up in a formerly stable family that had fallen on hard times. Like Nixon, he could not afford to go to a major university (Nixon went to the local college; LBJ went just down the road to what was then a teachers’ college and is now Texas State University – San Marcos), and like Nixon, he was all too willing to believe that his humble origins were the subject of scorn and mockery by the wealthier, the smarter, the better-connected.

In both cases, perhaps there was a kernel of truth to the fear. Robert Caro speaks of the Kennedy loyalists referring to LBJ (though never, to be sure, after the assassination) as “Rufus Cornpone.” Film critic Pauline Kael was famously lambasted for elitism after expressing surprise at Nixon’s victory since “no one I know voted for him.” And hey, everyone on the political spectrum from George Wallace to Occupy Wall Street finds “the elite” to be a suitable target for opprobrium. Where it gets dangerous is when Populism – an honest political movement, and one with honorable intentions and goals – crosses a line into what might be termed “elitism of the lowbrow.” When that happens, knowledge and expertise are themselves suspect, since they come from experts. (See this recent article in MacLean’s for a Canadian take on the situation.)

There more coming here, though I’m not quite sure what yet. I suspect it will have to do with feeling an outsider (something I know all too well) and what counts as acceptable prejudice (see this article for more, but don’t read the comments).

WF