No Country for Old Men

That is no country for old men. The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees – those dying generations – at their song

Yeah, Yeats was onto something there. But the recent movie got it wrong – West Texas isn’t Byzantium. If you’re looking for a place filled to overflowing with a heady mix of thoughtless vital youth and elaborate and stunning totally artificial beauty, well, Hollywood will do nicely. It’s a place where old men like Yeats – with a lifetime of hard-earned knowledge and memories of what had actually happened over the long years – have no place. They are left feeling disoriented and ironically disconnected from the flow of life. There’s no history here, save for memories of old movie stars long gone, who in the great scheme of things made no difference in the world, really. But they were gorgeous, and vital – and stood in for everything that really should have been possible, but never was. And they come and go, those dying generations. Out here, two or three years ago, Paris Hilton was already so last week.

But live out here in Hollywood for fifteen or twenty years and you get used to it – when you pass Nickelodeon down on Sunset, the studio walls have the giant posters of some thirteen-year-old kid who is the most famous star with the key demographic of pre-teens. There’s no point in trying to keep up – she’ll be gone soon. And there are all the odd walls everywhere and the daily madness on Hollywood Boulevard. All this should probably make you feel young and vital yourself. It doesn’t. You end up thumbing through an old volume of Yeats, the poet of that wistful and angry Irish sense of what has been lost, and of watching from the sidelines.

But this Byzantium, Hollywood, is the most American of places, in spite of Sarah Palin and the rest saying the real America is rural in a sort of Mayberry way – not full of urbane and multiethnic city folks but just pleasant white folks with small town values.

Yeah, well, as for Mayberry, you may remember the lake in the opening titles for the old Andy Griffin Show – Opie and Andy walking to the fishing hole. Mayberry’s fishing hole is actually part of a park just down Sunset on the edge of Beverly Hills – they made it up. Claudette Colbert’s famous hitch-hiking scene in “It Happened One Night” was filmed there in 1935, and the album covers for the Rolling Stones’ album “Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” were both shot there. That’s what we do out here. We make things up.

And we do the other American thing, we erase history (see this) – we have no use for it. Even the old Hollywood tradition of cranking out a massive historical epic now and then is now long gone – too expensive, and no one watches those anyway. It’s all about the vital now, or space invaders from the future. Paris who? That winsome but aging woman is someone the older folk once talked about, isn’t she?

No, Hollywood is the real America, the epicenter of only now, where no one remembers the past, and where we invent what should be possible, because everyone wants it to be possible.

Oddly, this has something to do with the current madness sweeping the nation regarding healthcare reform. It’s vital, it’s new, the issues are monumental and existential and all that – but we’ve been here before. That’s the joke.

The problem is no one remembers Richard Nixon. Which one is he? Did he come before or after Taft? Was he related to John Adams, or was that the other guy? Like Paris Hilton, he’s ancient history.

Jon Perr argues otherwise – that is what Rick Perlstein captured in his book Nixonland – the spirit of that age – is the spirit of this age too, or at least of the past several weeks. Perlstein chronicles the “fracturing of America” and how Nixon – as “a serial collector of resentments” – ushered in a wave of racism and anti-communism and set off the culture war we have now. He didn’t talk of Mayberry, just those Silent Americans – sullen, angry, outraged, but not showing up in the polling for some reason. We’re there again – the Birthers, the Tea Bag folks, folks showing up at Obama events with guns and signs saying he’s a socialist, or a Nazi, or a Kenyan, and maybe he should die, along with “his stupid kids.” Perr argues it is simply Nixonland, the Sequel:

To be sure, the frothing-at-the-mouth conservatives wreaking havoc at Democratic events around the country are still fighting their losing 2008 campaign by other means. But whether emanating from Glenn Beck or Michael Steele, Mitch McConnell or Rush Limbaugh, the standard GOP rhetoric of nascent government control destroying the economy – and America as we know it – is almost unchanged after two generations.

Perr suggests you take this excerpt from the Perlstein book and substitute Bill Clinton for Harry Truman, Barack Obama for Adlai Stevenson, and so on:

It was the eve of the 1954 congressional election season. On the campaign trail for his party’s congressional candidates, Nixon did some wild shooting of his own. McCarthy originally claimed dozens of subversives had infiltrated the Truman administration. Nixon claimed the new Republican administration had rousted “thousands.” (Eisenhower’s civil service administrator later admitted they hadn’t found a single one.) Nixon also claimed that the new White House occupants had “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America.” Reporters asked him for a copy. Nixon claimed he had been speaking metaphorically – though he also claimed possession of “a secret of the Communist Party” proving “it is determined to conduct its program within the Democratic Party.”

He also made no mistake about whom the Communists’ vector would be. Adlai Stevenson was also chasing around the country campaigning for Democratic congressional victories, in pursuit of which Nixon accused him of “attack[ing] with violent fury the economic system of the United States.”

Do you hear Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and everyone who appears on CNBC in that passage? You should, as Perr notes:

Imagine not Nixon hitting the trail to back GOP candidates in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, but instead Sarah Palin warning about Obama’s “death panels” or FEMA concentration camps run by what Limbaugh and Beck deemed a “racist”, an “angry black man” who “hates white people.”

Perlstein covers such things in Nixon’s time:

For instance, Iowa’s first district. A five-term Republican, Fred Schwengel, was running to recover the seat he’d lost to a young political science professor from the Bronx named John Schmidhauser. One day, Representative Schmidhauser appeared at a farm bureau meeting, prepared for a grilling on the Democrats’ agricultural policies. The questions, though, were all on rumors that Chicago’s Negro rioters were about to engulf Iowa in waves, traveling, for some reason, “on motorcycles.” The liberal political science professor was as vulnerable as a sapling… Now that farmers were afraid that Martin Luther King would send Negro biker gangs to rape their children, the Republican restoration seemed inevitable.

We’ve been here before. Perlstein explains the “sense of victimization” that consumed those Nixon voters:

When the people who felt like losers united around their shared sense of psychological grievance, their enemies somehow felt more overwhelming, not less… Martyrs who were not really martyrs, oppressors who were not really oppressors: a class politics for the new white middle class.

Perr argues we’re still living in Nixonland. It’s not ancient history, and Perlstein decided he had to tug on America’s sleeve and, in an item in the Washington Post, remind us that “crazy is a preexisting condition” of sorts:

So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers – these are “either” the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president – too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters’ signs – too uniform to be spontaneous.

They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

Sigh – same old, same old – except for the media environment:

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” – out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills – the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard – is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

Perlstein kind of misses the old days – “Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill, because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.”

Elsewhere, Matthew Yglesias argues that, since this may be so, something else may be going on, like a crisis of authority:

I guess one thing I would say to this is that the change in the media is part of a much broader shift in American society. Technological and economic change has just made authority weaker and tended to fragment perspectives. If you think of, for example, popular music, things like MTV and Top 40 radio stations don’t have the level of cultural power that they once did. It’s extremely easy for people to bury themselves in a subculture of their liking and not worry too much about the mainstream. Or maybe you ignore the dross that is prime time television programming and rely on cable channels and Netflix instead.

Walter Cronkite broadcast at a time when big cultural players could really run things in a way they can’t these days. That shift has had a lot of consequences, some good and some bad.

Maybe so, but Perlstein also notes that back then we had this:

In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as “20 years of treason” and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America.”

Back then, however, there was no hyper-partisan cable news or the web – such stuff didn’t spread that very far.

But, as Digby notes, we always have such stuff:

Perlstein is an unparalleled historian of the conservative movement and I expect him to know these juicy details from 40 or 50 years ago. But I would also expect Washington politicians and political media to know that many of the same people are who ginning up the lunacy and acting like hysterical freaks right now are not only acting in the conservative tradition, they are also the very same people who pulled this stuff just a decade ago.

I guess everyone thought that that whole “vast right wing conspiracy” thing was something Hillary made up in her head because Tim Russert told them so.

Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak were interviewed yesterday at Netroots Nation by Susie Madrak and Ari Melber. Specter made some news when he revealed that from the beginning the Republicans had circulated among themselves that they were going to “break Obama” – and it didn’t originate over health care, but even before the stimulus. They never had any intention of acting in good faith. This didn’t surprise me either. But it certainly seems to have surprised the administration, or at least they thought they could win them over anyway. But they can’t.

It’s an illness that health care reform can’t cure. You just have to find a way to live with the problem and not let it kill you.

You have to make your peace with history and its current manifestation. Folks who know their history have a leg up, like Todd Gitlin, who wrote the definitive The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Here he says that Perlstein is the Botanist of the Trees of Crazy – and provides a “fine supplement to Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published in 1964 and never, alas, out of date.”

It comes down to this:

If you’ve been wondering whether to blame free-floating whack-job lunacy, right-wing coordinators, or the cable and radio channels of lies and viciousness for the farce that the health care “debate” has become – the correct answer is all three.

But we all live in Hollywood now, where there is no history, which seems insane to Steve Benen:

Bush/Cheney policies failed so spectacularly, Republican candidates and officeholders are generally reluctant to associate themselves with the tarnished name of the previous administration. But Bush/Cheney policies are still those of the contemporary Republican Party. Nothing has changed. Failure and defeat haven’t chastened the GOP at all, and if given a chance to govern again, Republican leaders are quite anxious to return to the exact same agenda they embraced when they were in the majority.

And the political mainstream seems to think this is sane.

Hollywood thinking does that to you. With no history, there is only the vital now:

The same Republicans – literally, the self-same individual people – who were astonishingly wrong about pretty much every area of public policy in recent years, are the same Republicans who feel confident that they’re still credible, knowledgeable, and correct. Not because they’ve changed their larger agenda or worldview, but because a brief period of time has elapsed.

They feel justified proposing a five-year spending freeze in response to the economic crisis. They feel comfortable pretending to care about the “death panels” policy they already endorsed, promoted, and voted for. They have no qualms making bitter complaints about deficits and debts after having spent most of the decade increasing the size of government, increasing federal spending, and creating of some of the largest deficits in American history.

We’re not supposed to point and laugh at their humiliating ideas and attacks – we’re supposed to negotiate with them.

Yes, when there’s no such thing as history, when no one believes in the concept of history, that’s the deal. These same Republicans do insist that what they really deserve is to be back in the majority again – and the media, to be fair, lets them say that over and over, without being so rude, not to mention boring, as to bring up history – you know – what actually happened and all that. That’s for old men, and this is no country for old men.

Benen:

I suppose the word that keeps coming to mind is “consequences.” The Republican Party of the Bush era failed in ways few have even tried, burdening the nation with challenges and crises that are difficult to address and painful to even think about. They believe, however, there should be no consequences for this. There’s no need, they say, to alter their political beliefs at all. Indeed, they see their main goal as the loyal opposition to undermine efforts to clean up the mess they left. They’re the arsonists hoping to convince the public not to have confidence in the fire department.

No penance, no consequences, no self-reflection – only the expectation that they be treated as a serious group with a credible agenda.

Well, welcome to Hollywood. You’ll get used to it. And this really is the real America, Sarah.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Hollywood and America, Nixon's Legacy, Rick Perlstein - Nixonland, Right-Wing Rage and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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