The fifties was a time when you really did have to be a real American – and it probably had less to do Joe McCarthy than it had to do with Ozzie and Harriet. The stupefying red scare was remote, really – the whole thing smacked of political opportunism. President Eisenhower, the man who organized and pulled off D-Day, was not an agent of the Soviet government. That was absurd. And Joe McCarthy was a drunk. And that various Hollywood folks had once belonged to the Communist Party, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, seemed a minor matter. Were they supposed to have sided with Franco and the Fascists? And those who kept it up and had no problem with the Soviets, in spite of crazy Uncle Joe Stalin murdering millions, were naïve and stupid. But these were Hollywood people. What did you expect? The movie industry doesn’t exactly churn out subtle geopolitical theorists. These folks do play-acting and become rich and famous for pretending, convincingly – and for looking pretty. But folks were blacklisted and careers ruined. Only the long-time president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, made it through unscathed. And then he pretended he was a subtle geopolitical theorist. He had the lines down cold and nailed the part – that made him president. But that whole red scare thing was a diversion, or a bit of cheap melodrama. And it was stupefying, as in it made people stupid. That’s what the word means.
Of course if you want to move out here and live in Hollywood the building that once housed the Screen Actors Guild on the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Sycamore, and where Reagan had his office up on the eighth floor, was converted to condos, then when the economy crashed, became apartments. You can live in his old office. And you can pretend you’re a subtle geopolitical theorist too.
Or, if it ever comes up for sale, you can live in the actual Ozzie and Harriet house – 1822 Camino Palmero Street. You can almost see it from the window here. David and Ricky grew up there, and it was the site of all the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. That television show provided the nation with the platonic ideal of the real American family – white and polite, with the bumbling but eventually helpful father and the stay-at-home always wise mother, and the two kids, a tad mischievous but always polite and honest, and good and true and all the rest. That’s the way it was supposed to be – hammered home each week from 1952 to 1966. There were no existential problems. No black folks showed up, and no Hispanics. No one was gay. No one was on drugs. There were certainly no crazed Islamic terrorists. The Nelsons seem to have attended an anonymous vaguely Protestant church, but there was no earnest God talk. It was just smooth sailing. Everything worked out for them, eventually, at the end of each half-hour.
That was the instruction manual for the fifties. The post-war economy had exploded – America was the most prosperous place on earth and things just kept getting better and better – and everyone wanted in on that. But how do you get in on that? How should you act? How should you be?
The Nelsons were the answer. Be like them. They were the Real Americans. Don’t be all ethnic, and don’t be one of those deep-thinker types – they were the comic relief on the show. Just do the cheerful white-bread suburban thing and you’ll do fine.
That was the implicit advice, and some say that shows that the fifties was an age of rigid conformity. But that’s too glib. It was more an age where everyone was trying to figure out the new rules, to do the best for their family. You would do best if you were a Real American. And those of us who grew up in those years remember that – the parents and grandparents spoke Czech and Slovak, but no one would teach you those, for your own good. You’d be Real Americans. And sometimes, late at night, talk would drift up from the kitchen – you’d lie in bed and listen to your father talk with your mother about changing the family name. Paulson was the equivalent of Pavlik, after all.
That didn’t surprise you, even if you weren’t supposed to hear any of it. Dad had his career to think about and he only wanted the best for the family.
Of course nothing came of it – it would be hard to pull off and you’d look like a phony. But the whole family had watched all the sitcoms on television, including the adventures of the Nelsons. It was tempting. And the most controversial film of the decade, Rebel Without a Cause, had only driven the point home. James Dean’s Jim Stark was trouble and a mess, but in the end he was a Good Boy. He only wanted one day to live in a suburban house with a white picket fence, with Judy (Natalie Wood) – they daydreamed about that while hiding out in the abandoned mansion over by Griffith Park Observatory. Everyone was trying to figure out the same rules. Everyone wanted to be a Real American, like the Nelsons.
The sixties blew that out of the water. The formerly invisible black folks were saying to hell with the instruction manual – I’m black and I’m proud, so deal with it. The white kids were growing their hair long and breaking all the rules and off to India or reading Alan Watts on Zen or deciding that since grandpa had been one-sixteenth Cherokee they’d go beat drums and do peyote. And young women were saying they didn’t go to college to turn into some damned Harriet Nelson or June Cleaver. And one of your father’s friends might have pulled you aside at your graduation party and said, “Son, I have one word for you – Plastics.” But that was the joke of the decade.
An age was over. The whole concept that there was a specific set of traits that made one a Real American simply fell apart. The concept was no longer needed, and as Bull Conner and the rest of those guys showed in the civil rights movement, that concept was rather evil. We’re all Americans. No one gets to say who isn’t. And yes, the transition was painful.
But it seems we’re back at it. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are leading the charge, to say who is a real American and who isn’t. And it’s also painful:
The author of the blistering Vanity Fair profile on Sarah Palin says he wanted to write a positive piece, but was shocked by what he learned as he researched his story.
“The worst stuff isn’t even in there,” Michael Joseph Gross said on “Morning Joe” Thursday. “I couldn’t believe these stories either, when I first heard them, and I started this story with a prejudice in her favor. I have a lot in common with this woman. I’m a small-town person, I’m a Christian, I think that a lot of her criticisms of the media actually have something to them. And I think she got a bum ride, but everybody close to her tells the same story.”
In the profile, Gross paints Palin as an abusive, retaliatory figure with an extreme ability to lie. “This is a person for whom there is no topic too small to lie about,” he said. “She lies about everything.”
That Vanity Fair profile on Sarah Palin is rather amazing, and revealing. But what you see is a method – she obviously knows little about the issues of the day, and doesn’t seem to want to know, but she blasts out her thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, and when challenged simply says she’s a Christian, and a mother – and the mother of a Down’s Syndrome child and also of a combat soldier. And that’s that. That closes the topic. She pulls rank.
And that works for those who admire her. Call it the Real American Ploy. She’s one, and that settles matters. And that means she’s not exactly lying about those Death Panels or anything else. It’s just a return to the fifties. What she says may be, objectively, nonsense, but that’s not the point. This is a tribal matter, and the tribe is real Americans. Outsiders – and the “lamestream” media – just don’t get it. She and those who love her simply dismiss those outsiders.
The real danger – and the real cunning – of “incivility” such as Palin’s is that it exempts her from dealing with complicated issues head-on. Her healthcare rhetoric shut down serious debate of the issue before it could begin, and implanted in her followers’ minds an immutable image of a threat that does not exist (compounding the already considerable confusion of Americans, 39 percent of whom believe that the government should “stay out of Medicare,” according to a recent poll).
Palin trades in images, not facts. What Herbst perceives as her clever balance of civility and rudeness is better understood as an imagistic shuffling – from “Sarah the hockey mom” to “Obama the socialist murderer” – of tropes that avoid the messy business of the truth.
Actually, it’s kind of like watching a few episodes of that Ozzie and Harriet show. It’s all imagistic shuffling that shuts down debate. There wasn’t a lot of serious debate in the fifties.
As for Glenn Beck and his Restoring Honor rally, see Christopher Hitchens:
In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It’s not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.
Concerns of this kind are not confined to the Tea Party belt. Late professors Arthur Schlesinger and Samuel Huntington both published books expressing misgivings about, respectively, multiculturalism and rapid demographic change. But these were phrased so carefully as almost to avoid starting the argument they flirted with. More recently, almost every European country has seen the emergence of populist parties that call upon nativism and give vent to the idea that the majority population now feels itself unwelcome in its own country. The ugliness of Islamic fundamentalism in particular has given energy and direction to such movements. It will be astonishing if the United States is not faced, in the very near future, with a similar phenomenon. Quite a lot will depend on what kind of politicians emerge to put themselves at the head of it. Saturday’s rally was quite largely confined to expressions of pathos and insecurity, voiced in a sickly and pious tone. The emotions that underlay it, however, may not be uttered that way indefinitely.
It’s that argument about Real Americans.
Of course Jonah Goldberg didn’t see it that way:
One striking feature was how deeply religious, and ecumenical, it was. It seems like just yesterday that everyone was talking about how Christian evangelicals were too bigoted to vote for the upright and uptight Mormon, Mitt Romney. Yet Christians saw no problem cheering for – and praying with – the equally Mormon, but far less uptight, Beck, who asked citizens to go to “your churches, synagogues and mosques!”
And while the crowd was preponderantly white, the message was racially universal – on the stage and in the crowd. When Reason TV’s Nick Gillespie asked a couple whether as “African Americans” they felt comfortable in such a white audience, the woman responded emphatically but good-naturedly. “I’m not African, I am an American … a black American.” She went on to say “these people” – i.e. the white folks cheering her on – “are my family.”
Peter Viereck, a largely forgotten conservative intellectual, would have found this familiar. During the 1950s, he noted that anti-communism had the remarkable effect of lessening inter-ethnic tensions among like-minded activists. Anti-communist blacks were celebrated and welcomed by anti-communist whites. Anti-communist immigrants and Jews were welcomed to the supposedly xenophobic and anti-Semitic movement. Viereck, who disliked the phenomenon, dubbed it “transtolerance.”
I’m more upbeat about the dynamic.
Goldberg goes on to argue that “our constitutional heritage largely defines us as a people, regardless of race, religion or creed.”
In the Economist (UK), Will Wilkerson didn’t see the same thing:
Mr. Beck offered the placid throng an insipid stew of mildly uplifting flag-swaddled God-talk, Bob Hope troop fluffing, “America is the promised land” crypto-Mormonism, and weird “only you can prevent the Eschaton” civic exhortation. This certainly does not strike me as the sort of production one would mount to promote across-the-board legalization of capitalist acts between consenting adults. Of course, no one ever suggested Mr. Beck is the second coming of Murray Rothbard. Still, Saturday’s patriotic pray-in strikes me as precisely the sort of production one would mount to summon and inspire the most staunchly conservative of the nation’s strangely aggrieved religious, white, middle class whilst trying hard not to arouse alarm.
Mr. Goldberg sees it differently, I presume, because he is convinced that a call to the defense of our heaven-kissed American heritage is ipso facto a call to the defense of liberty. I am not so sure. Those whose souls sing to the message of providential American exceptionalism and misty non-denominational pieties are also those most likely to support the use of force to impose conservative morality at home and Western-style democracy abroad. I suspect the tens of thousands who answered Mr. Beck’s call emerged predominantly from the ranks of those who vigorously defend Arizona’s nativist crackdown, who are trying to shout down the so-called “ground-zero mosque”, who have cast Barack Obama as a pretender bent on destruction, and who continue to support the strafing of innocents abroad with taxpayer-funded remote-controlled death kites. And I suspect few of them see dishonor in any of it.
Maybe so, but Goldberg also says this:
There’s been a lot of debate, largely in the context of the so-called ground zero mosque, about the evils of American identity. Will Wilkinson, an influential liberal-libertarian writer, sees opposition to the proposed mosque as a reprehensible expression of the “cult of American identity” and the “zaniness of right identity politics.” The upshot of his argument is that it is preposterous for Americans to see themselves as a people.
Wilkinson is having none of that:
Well, Americans certainly aren’t “a people” in the sense that the Japanese, the Kurds, or the Jews are a people. There is no American ethnicity; the U.S. is a resolutely multicultural (and multilingual) country. The usual idea is that American identity is creedal, or organized around a distinctively American set of ideas and values. Even the State Department says so!
And he cites the State Department on that – “Since the United States was founded in the 18th century, Americans have defined themselves not by their racial, religious, and ethnic identity but by their common values and belief in individual freedom.”
Wilkinson says it’s just not that simple:
The trouble is that even when there is widespread agreement on nominally common values, conceptions of those values vary wildly.
Take the belief in individual freedom. Some Americans have understood individual freedom as freedom from all non-defensive physical force and fraud. Some Americans have understood individual freedom as implying roughly equal voice in the democratic process, which straightforwardly requires the redistribution of resources and state regulation of spending on political speech. Some Americans have understood individual freedom as a condition of robust autonomy or self-governance that requires universal government-financed education and a minimum of material resources necessary to ensure that individuals are able actually to exercise their liberty and are not caged-in by necessity. And none of these are the conception of individual liberty that prevailed among the Founders.
Anyway, there was heated disagreement among the Founders, too. Some of them took the ideal of individual freedom to be consistent with chattel slavery while others correctly found human bondage obviously at odds with liberty. Some defended a robust conception of freedom of conscience while others wished to ban the practice of certain religions for freedom’s sake. And so on.
Not only do appeals to the values of the Founders fail to settle anything, many such appeals are simply ignorant of what this or that Founder actually believed.
Wilkinson goes on to discuss, in some detail, the case of Ben Franklin – everyone is welcome here, except for those swarthy Germans:
Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
Sound familiar? Change a few words and Ben sounds like he’s campaigning for sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. So which is the relevant American value: tolerant openness to industrious foreigners or xenophobic hostility to swarthy, unassimilable, babbling invaders? (Yes, Franklin thought Germans were swarthy!)
He says both are time-honored American values, and argues “that suggests it’s misguided to appeal to the American creed as the basis of the American identity of the American people.”
There are multiple conceptions of American creed equally consistent with American history. That’s why movements to glorify, elevate, and honor a particular conception of American identity based on a particular conception of the American creed necessarily marginalize equally or more historically plausible conceptions and therefore tend to suggest that citizens who favor those conceptions are less or even un-American. It seems pretty clear to me that this is exactly how the conservative politics of American identity works.
So it comes down to this:
I guess I don’t think it’s entirely preposterous for Americans to see themselves as a people. But any conception of the American creed sufficiently general to encompass most widespread American conceptions of individual freedom, equality, tolerance and so on is going to be so general that it will do very little to distinguish American identity from, say, Canadian identity. And that’s clearly not what Glenn Beck or the staff of National Review has in mind when they talk about American values, promote a conception of American identity, or encourage Americans to see themselves as a people.
So we’re back to Ozzie and Harriet:
The conservative conception of American identity is so selective and so specific that it tends to suggest to its adherents that many (maybe even most!) Americans aren’t real Americans, or are Americans who betray real American ideals. Birther and Muslim Obama memes crudely reify the logical upshot of the right’s fixation on its favored version of American identity.
Most conservatives don’t need to believe that Obama is literally an un-American non-Christian. They’re just content to nod along with Glenn Beck when he implies, or outright asserts, that a guy who adheres to a mundane version of liberal politics slightly to the right of the typical “This American Life” fan is hell-bent on destroying the special Americaness of America.
So the fifties return, a time when you really did have to be a Real American. But back then the extended outburst of general prosperity meant that was just what you wanted to be – you wanted to get in on a good thing. Change your name, be the Nelsons – whatever it takes. Bring it on.
Now, why would you bother? An avid and angry twenty percent or so of the population is now screaming out – WE are the REAL AMERICANS!
What can you say? That’s nice. Knock yourself out. The rest of us will be fixing things and making the place work better. Come visit sometime.