Or, at least, it’ll be the year we make of it.
‘This will be our year,” the Zombies sang. “It took a long time to come.”
There’s going to be an election in 2020. Political partisans already have their New Year’s resolutions ready to go: Win. This will be our year!
Ask your average Fox News host or Democratic rage-monkey on Twitter why winning is so important, and 99 and 44/100 percent of the time you’ll get the same answer: Them. The Other Guys. The Enemy. Half of the country believes that the other half is so wretched and wicked that it must be kept from political power at all costs — and the other half believes the same thing.
But which half has it right? Who speaks for America? Mr. Buzzcut or the dirty hippies?
Being a conservative, my reactionary sympathies are with Mr. Buzzcut, in part because the cultural nadir of the modern United States was 1968. (“Challenge accepted!” I can hear 2020 shrieking in the voice of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.) The Sixties counterculture — which is now simply the culture — did a great deal of damage. For all the banal talk of peace and love, it was and is a culture of viciousness, ugliness, and stupidity, the culture of Charles Manson and Lee Harvey Oswald.
This will be our year.
The bloody year of 1968 saw war and riots, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the year the Zombies, the great English masters of Baroque pop, released their masterpiece, Odyssey and Oracle, while their American counterparts the Beach Boys were on tour with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, because Transcendental Meditation was going to save the world. (This was before veganism was going to save the world, right around the time that slippery old real socialism that has never been tried was saving Cambodia under Pol Pot.) The Beach Boys released a single in December of that year, a cover of the 1958 song “Bluebirds over the Mountain,” and the B-side was “Never Learn Not to Love,” written by none other than Charles Manson, who had titled his version of the song “Cease to Exist.”
The Zombies and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys went on tour this year, calling their 2019 roadshow “Something Great from ’68.” And there was something great from ’68, the year Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But there was also horror.
In The Third Man, Harry Lime had something to say about the underlying duality here: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
(“So long, Holly.”)
Peace and brotherly love are underrated. You want to look at Leonardo’s pictures, but you don’t want to love under the Borgias — any civilized man would much prefer the Swiss and their ridiculous cuckoo clocks. They have museums and galleries in Switzerland, and plenty of paintings, too. But no Michelangelo, just Vacheron Constantin. And I do not think that is an accident: The heroic conception of public life that inspired Michelangelo also inspired the Borgias, Mussolini, and Lenin, whereas the Swiss have a good deal less poetry in their public affairs and prefer a state that runs like — well, you know.
The cultural rot of the Sixties came from an especially toxic mix of antinomianism and romanticism. And what good might come out of a mix of drug addiction and half-understood mysticism? Sometimes you get est or the Manson cult, or what the subtle philosopher Wayne Campbell (or was it Dick Van Patten?) described as his “hanging out with Ravi Shankar phase.” And sometimes you get A Love Supreme. (What a title! — and what an ambition.) It’s a mess, but it’s our mess, and a culture that produces John Coltrane and Tom Wolfe can’t be all bad.
This will be our year.
Years are no easier to characterize than people. I do not suppose that 1851 was the happiest year in human history: The guillotines were busy in France, but in the United States members of the Boston Vigilance Committee stormed a courtroom and freed fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins, an act of glorious lawlessness in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. The same year witnessed the rather more mixed blessing of the first issue of New York Times, founded just a few months before Reuters. But we also got Moby-Dick and Rigoletto.
Sometimes, I think this may all really be about music. This is fanciful, I know, but I also know that one of the reasons I will never be entirely at ease with the American Right is the prominence of Lee Greenwood’s insipid, treacly anthem “Proud to Be an American,” an inescapable feature of Republican mass politics. With the rise of neo-nationalism, a great many cultivated men of the Right have traded in their bow ties for red hats, a fact that can send me into a blue funk that only Operation Ivy can lift me out of. If Lee Greenwood’s sentimentality is really what it means to Make America Great Again, I, for one, will pass. I don’t want Henry Rollins’s politics — but I don’t want Mike Huckabee’s playlist, either.
The story is there in the songs: In 2016, Donald Trump announced his entry into the presidential race on an escalator — going down — accompanied by Neil Young’s caustically anti-American and specifically anti-Republican anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Later, he would introduce the swaggering alpha-male posturing of his campaign rallies with music from Cats. That this struck no one as peculiar is a wondrous sign of the times.
Songs and stories, stories and songs: In 1980, Mac Davis had a song about my hometown in which he confessed, “I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rearview mirror.” If you know country music, you can predict the sentimental shape of the narrative: Boy with big dreams moves to Hollywood, endures failure and disappointment, and becomes his authentic self upon returning to his roots. (Cf. “Gone Country” and a thousand other functionally identical songs.) It’s a good song, and they named a street after Mac Davis in Lubbock. He lives in Los Angeles — in Brentwood, no less. There’s a lesson in there for conservatives, who are so eager to see California slide into the ocean, “like the mystics and statistics say it will.” In Los Angeles, there are kids studying Beethoven at a conservatory founded by a rock-’n’-roll bassist named Flea who made his splendid fortune leaping around wearing only one sock. (Not on a foot.) That’s the great American cultural collision at its most glorious.
Sometimes the Big American Bang — that great loud sublime concurrence of capital, creativity, and liberty that makes us what we are — produces horrifyingly inexplicable dyads like the one we’ll certainly face in November, or solitary monsters such as George Wallace, or temporary crowds and their sundry madnesses. Sometimes it produces only the insipidity that characterized pop culture in 2019. Sometimes it gives us John Coltrane or Walt Whitman or the Ramones, or a long-haired scruff like Jim Allison down in Austin, who sometimes takes a little time off from playing harmonica with blues bands to press forward an inch or two against cancer. I don’t know for a fact, but I’d bet a thousand dollars that Allison’s politics aren’t mine, and I could not care less. I’ll take a hundred more just like him. There’s more to this country than whatever is going to happen in November 2020.
Michelle Obama infamously declared that she had never felt proud of her country until the political ascendance of her husband. Conservatives howled, and with good reason. But we ought to be on guard against replicating her error with some minor variation. Of course, I do not exempt myself here: I can be pretty down on this country and its near-term prospects — not without good reason, but to an extent that is not entirely consistent with the facts. And the facts of 2019 are not all the facts.
Politics matters, but it is not the only thing that matters, and if we allow political tribalism to cut us off from what’s best, what’s most interesting and innovative and thriving in our nation and in our culture, then we’ll be worse off for it. Conservatives of all people cannot afford to make that mistake, because the Left has better songs. If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”
This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility. I myself will not be awake to hear the cuckoo clock announce the new year. The morning will come soon enough. Maybe I’ll put on A Love Supreme and listen to Coltrane’s great American prayer, which sounds just like a great American prayer should sound, full of beauty and near to chaos. And, speaking only for myself, I will try to do some things better than I have: a little less from my own worst inclinations, a little more from Lincoln’s better angels, a little less shallow outrage and a good deal more from the deep sweet well of American goodness, which is the only possible source of American greatness.
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