Marilynne Robinson is not Rock, and this is not a song. Rather, it is simply a three-word sentence dropped by the acclaimed novelist last fall, when I heard her speak at Skidmore College.
But the following was initially provoked by another writer, Bill Kaufmann. Kaufmann is a hard one to categorize, a guy with apparently new-leftish roots, but who writes books toying with the idea of secession and celebrating Republican isolationism. He tries to bring together opponents of American “empire” left and right, the better to formulate a new sort of “isolationism,” but seems to prefer the conservative tag. Well, back in December, he wrote a little piece run by both Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative, called “The Fighting Bobs,” in which Dylan’s “Masters of War” played a starring role. The piece connected two “Bobs,” Robert LaFollette and Bob Dylan, to a certain Wisconsin/Minnesota tradition of populist politics. Here’s a few tastes:
“The week that Wisconsin voters threw out Russ Feingold, the only step-grandson Fighting Bob La Follette had left in the U.S. Senate, I went to hear an Upper Midwesterner of similar pedigree, Bob Dylan of Hibbing, Minnesota.”
“[Dylan is actually an isolationist] …as…Tor Egil Forland explained in a…paper titled ‘Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist.’ …Dylan is …old enough to remember when the people of his place looked askance at empire. There were giants in the earth in those days.”
“When the Masters of War (even Jesus would never forgive what you do) requested the presence of American sons at the blood orgies of 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1964, it was the Upper Midwest, with its Non-Partisan Leagues and retro-Progressives and Sons of the Wild Jackass, that brayed “No!” Where are their offspring?”
This elicited a heated comment from yours truly, but I got too gun-shy, and holiday-season busy, to submit it. Didn’t seem in the Christmas spirit. But with “Masters of War” now on my mind again, and with summer crying out for some excuse to rumble with the Porchers, it’s time has come. So here’s my anti-Kaufmann/Dylan broadside, adjusted for the Songbook:
Ah yes, the “blood orgies” of 1941 and 1950, which could have been avoided without adverse consequences if only Americans had listened to the heroes of the Upper-Midwest, and told their elected representatives and appointed generals (er…their “Masters”) that they weren’t a-marchin’ anymore. Yeah…tell it to, say, a French ex-pacifist resistant during the dark winter of 1941, shivering in some attic fearing arrest at any time, but made hopeful by the news of Pearl Harbor. Or maybe, in our time, you could hip a South Korean grandfather to this? Or an American Korea War vet? T’was all for nuthin’, you’ll tell ‘em? Except for “Imperialism?” Well now, there’s some real populism circa 2010, folks.
Recently, I heard Marilynne Robinson speak, and she said she “misses civilization.” Could it be she misses a time when even a fightin’ Bob, even one acquainted with the roughness of Weird Old America as recorded in folk-song, might be a tad hesitant (see Songbook #8) about sayin’ “I hope that you die” and such? Could it be she’s as wearied as I am by every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanting to recapture the magical “transgressivity” of the “Masters of War” moment? Could it be that like Wendell Berry in Sex, Freedom, Economy, and Community she’s weary of all the “shock art” tactics employed over the last several decades, modeled after such Classic (PBS-fundraiser-worthy) Boomer Moments like Bob’s “Masters” one? Could it be that she laments the way those art tactics, initially only justifiable by a certain political reasoning have worked their way into everyday manners via our comedians, rock-stars, etc.? I confess that I do lack the words to adequately celebrate the Lenny Bruces and Berkley-ites of yore, and all the other “barrier-breakers” who broke down our manners and grammar, but PBS will surely find them for me.
So thanks, Bob. Thanks, “fighters,” who were fighting for… …what was it now? 1962 and 1912 seem so long ago. What was the dream again, and what is it that happens again to a dream deferred? Or wasn’t it actually, for white progressives and lefties at least, a dream that got be-blurred? Half-realized? Changed? Half-forgotten? What happens to young dreamers whose anger gets deliberately stoked by, I mean organized by…oh, but let’s not name any more nameable allegiances and platforms from the days of yore! Let’s not say anything that would be inconvenient for Kaufmann’s trans-ideological “isolationist” angle, nor for Rock’s own mythology.
The key point is that the blanket-damnation of “Masters of War” only did and only does makes sense if using a word like “empire” in the careless way of too many Porchers makes sense. Comparatively speaking, America was all right, even in 1963; moreover, it would have been okay even if it had been deprived of the New Left “rescue” and fought the mistaken Vietnam War through to the (likely-“victorious”-yet-too-costly) conclusion; and furthermore it remains okay enough today, or at least is better than most political communities, even despite the millions of babies we keep killing, acres we keep ugli-fying, young people we keep mis-educating, etc. It doesn’t and didn’t deserve damnation, at least not from anyone not named God, and especially not from remarkably un-peaceful “peace” advocates who seem to find their moral purpose in life by clinging ever more tightly to deluded notions of “empire” the further we get from their hoary 1890s Leninist (See Songbook #5) provenance. I can see why Kaufmann thinks he might be able to win some of these types over to his neither left-nor-right “isolationist” stance, which would at least be better than their typical Lennon-esque leftism. Still, there is something a sick-making about the more general Porcher openness to this denunciatory style regarding America’s wars and war-preparations. This style came out of a sick politics (i.e., it is far more rooted in Lenin than in Jefferson) and has been helping along our descent into a sick culture. It is hateful.
I probably cannot convince Kaufmann on this, but perhaps the Porchers can begin to see their need to start thinking about “empire” in an objective way, so as to understand that a general stand against government bigness and foreign intervention-proclivity has got to distinguish the various sorts and cannot let itself get sounding like Chomskyite b.s. They should read (Norman Podoretz, Why We Were In Vietnam) about why our war in Vietnam is best understood as an earnestly-and-democratically-made mistake (a horrible one, yes), and not as a crime committed by some nefarious conspiracy nor as manifestation of some deep flaw in America. They should read about how thinkers like Michael Doyle, Empires, and Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics, conceptualize “hegemony” and “empire,” and how they then carefully apply such terms to the various examples in history, including the contemporary U.S. and the E.U.
Adult populism, please. An abiding effort to speak and think in a fraternal key. For sobriety-tempered spiritedness, and yes, “civilization,” is what even the American lower and middle-classes really long for.