Country Strong

The music was never political. In junior high it was studying clarinet with that guy from the Pittsburgh Symphony – once a Julliard star, with a wife who had been one of those Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Cool. But there were no politics, just impossible passages from Carl Maria von Weber – dork stuff. And in the years that followed, in the wind ensembles and chamber groups, no one mentioned anything that had to do with the real world. Wagner has his proto-Nazi politics but getting the Rienzi Turn right was the immediate problem. And there was the switch to tenor saxophone in high school – second-rate rock cover bands and dance bands – and playing Polish and Italian wedding receptions here and there in the city. No one mentioned Nixon. Yes, there was the high school’s marching band – but marching band has little to do with music, much less politics. But then, just as the fifties ended, Stan Getz discovered Brazil and all of us were doing imitations of Getz playing that Girl from Ipanema stuff – complex chord structures and oddly shifting rhythms. Yes, the lyrics of many of the other songs were highly political, given the state of things in Brazil at the time, but none of us knew Portuguese, and we really didn’t care. And in the early sixties John Coltrane was big – so jazz it was – and learning a whole lot of harmonic theory – working alone on the family’s old upright piano in the basement. That was not political at all, and of course once you’ve disassembled and reassembled enough jazz standards you somehow find yourself playing what they call cocktail piano – in near-fancy restaurants, where sloppy drunks drop a few bucks in the brandy snifter. George Gershwin and Cole Porter would weep. But it meant nothing earth-shattering – nor did playing with the Puerto Rican salsa band in that local club in the cane fields of Saint Croix one summer, or playing in that polka band organized by an ethnomusicologist in upstate New York – although the lederhosen were embarrassing. It was all music. There was no message.

Yes, music did have a message in the sixties – if Peter and Paul and Mary had actually had a hammer – Bob Dylan noting the times, well, they were a-changing – We Shall Overcome. And all rock pretended to be anti-establishment subversive – and some of it was. But the music itself wasn’t that good – or at least not as important as the message – and that period passed. Somehow we moved on to punk-rock then grunge-rock then art-rock, along with techno-trance and ambient and this and that. The Chemical Brothers were astounding. But the socio-political content had long since drained away. The sixties mixture was unstable, of a particular time and place.

But in a parallel universe country music just kept chugging along. And that would be country pop – not the stuff you hear at the Fairfax Virginia Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, where you might spend an afternoon listening to the semifinals of the claw-hammer banjo competition. That’s arcane folk music. Country pop is Patsy Cline to Dolly Parton to Taylor Swift, with guys like Garth Brooks – if he’s still around. And that’s oddly political. And in fact, in Big Think, Will Wilkinson offers an assessment of country music as ideology:

In the car, I listen to country music. Country has an ideology. Not to say country has a position on abortion, exactly. But country music, taken as a whole, has a position on life, taken as a whole. Small towns. Dirt roads. Love at first sight. Hot-blooded kids havin’ a good ol’ time. Gettin’ hitched. America! Raisin’ up ruddy-cheeked scamps who you will surely one day worry are having too good a hot-blooded time. Showing up for Church. Venturing confused into the big wide world only to come back to Alabama forever since there ain’t a damn single thing out there in the Orient or Paris, France what compares to that spot by the river under the trembling willows where first you kissed the girl you’ve known in your heart since second grade is the only girl you would ever truly love. Fishin’! How grandpa, who fought in two wars, worked three jobs, raised four kids, and never once complained, can’t hardly wait to join grandma up in heaven, cuz life just ain’t no good without her delicious pies.

Yes, he was listening to Collin Raye’s iconic One Boy, One Girl – “a song that takes the already suffocating sentimentality of the FM-country weltanschauung and turns it up to fourteen.”

And that leads him to this:

The overwhelming force of this song’s manufactured emotion led me unexpectedly to a conjecture about conservative psychology and the stakes of the “culture wars.”

It’s all about not being open to new things:

The emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one,” the wedding day, the birth of one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. …

My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.

And after a stroll through the research on conservative psychology, Wilkerson offers this:

But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder openness-conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life.

And that’s where this becomes political:

If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

Ah, that explains the opposition to gay marriage, as it ruins the world forever:

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.

And in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher reacts to this:

When I read that first paragraph, I felt instinctively defensive, because the tone of that writing is massively condescending. But I had to admit that this description, however snotty, is an accurate description of the way my sister Ruthie saw the world, and how lots of folks where I live see the world. I bristle at the snotty tone, because I know how good and true these people are, and I don’t like people like Will Wilkinson talking down to them.

But Dreher describes his sister as both entirely apolitical and conservative, and unhappy with Dreher:

If Wilkinson’s conjecture is correct, the fact that I was raised here and moved away and built a successful life, rather than doing the expected thing and marrying and building a house and raising a family in the community where we grew up might have been experienced to [my sister] Ruthie as a profound threat in ways she couldn’t articulate, though felt deeply. The idea is if I can be raised in the same house as she, yet have very different tastes and feelings about openness to experiences, the nature of our difference was destabilizing of the worldview she embraced. My leaving wasn’t just me going off to find my way through life; it was false consciousness, or perhaps a flat-out rejection of the things she valued. And it would make our children’s generation strangers to each other.

Finally, our inability to coalesce on questions of ultimate meaning must have worried her. She had such a Confucian view of life – the idea that everybody had his place and his duty in the hierarchical order. I had refused my place at home, thereby violating the order of things. My problem is that I probably have a liberal psychology – openness, but conservative convictions.

And Dreher, considering Wilkerson, comments specifically on gay marriage:

I think he’s on to something here, and not just about country music. Conservatives may not be able to articulate why they are against gay marriage, so it gets written off as mere bigotry (because if you can’t explain it, then it must be prejudice, right?). And obviously a lot of it no doubt is just flat-out hatred of homosexuals. But I think Wilkinson’s essay gets closer to the emotional and psychological truth of the matter. To make a major life milestone like marriage into a contingent event is to undermine one’s sense of cultural solidity and unity. Liberals tend to be fine with that sort of thing, because they are more open to it. Conservatives, however…

But E. D. Kain in this item argues that contemporary country music had a more specific problem:

The conservative movement has been cannibalizing conservative art for years now, to the point where I’d say country music is far from a victory of conservative cultural or artistic success and is instead a mirror image of what conservative politics have become: easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular.

Maybe I’m wrong, but building an entire genre on the back of the idea that regurgitating the same sound on top of the same basic premise over and over again hardly strikes me as a triumph of cultural conservatism. Admittedly, country music pulls off a not-overtly-political conservatism in ways that most conservative films have been unable to achieve. When it comes to a distinctly modern-American quasi-nationalistic conservatism, country is hard to beat.

As for easy and unthinking, and the recent mess with its poster boy, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Held Evans suggests easy and unthinking is dangerous:

Currently, evangelicals tend to force young adults, especially young women, into simplistic sexual categories. They are either “pure” or “impure,” “whole” or “damaged,” “virgins” or “sluts.” There does not seem to exist a vocabulary within evangelicalism with which to talk about men and women who are sexually active, but not promiscuous.

But like it or not, nearly every study you find shows that unmarried Christians are just as sexually active as unmarried non-Christians. … If evangelicals feel that the word “slut” is the only appropriate one to use for a woman who is sexually active, then we have a real problem on our hands.

Maybe life isn’t a country song. The simple things are fine, but they are simple – and life isn’t. But don’t tell Senator James Inhofe, who explains here why the overwhelming data on climate change, showing it is as real as real can be, is easily refuted by the Bible:

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that “as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,” my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

There’s a country song in there somewhere, and Andrew Sullivan adds this – “If that is what passes for religion, I really can’t criticize atheists.”

But this has little to do with country music itself, at least directly. There’s more going on, and Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book about it – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – all about tribalism in politics and how each side is obsessed with its own rightness. But that had to happen, as self-righteousness is an essential part of being human, and pretty useful.

In Slate, Alison George interviews him and elicits this comment on Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich is very skilled at manipulating moral sentiments. He understands visceral morality. In the 1990s, he came up with a list of words Republicans should use when talking about Democrats, including “dirty,” “sleazy,” “cheating.” If you talk about “a dirty idea that will bring us down into the gutter,” the words are very powerful. Ronald Reagan was a skilled moral psychologist, too. In fact, for the past 30 or 40 years Republicans have known how to talk in ways that push buttons.

But of course Democrats are no good at this, and no one really knows what their core moral values are, and they’re missing the boat:

To get folks to vote for you – and go on voting for you – you need to tap into several of their moral foundations. When Barack Obama and the Democrats were changing the health care system, couldn’t they at least have put on a show of worrying about cheaters – a concern that is stronger on the right than on the left? Couldn’t they have pretended to care about catching all the doctors and lawyers who are in cahoots with patients to rip off the system?

Is there a righteous country song about that? Maybe not, but Haidt says one should not scoff at righteousness:

In its original meaning, righteous means just, upright and virtuous. I’m using the word in a colloquial sense: self-righteous, judgmental, moralistic. I believe our minds evolved to be moralistic. This may sound lamentable, especially to those of us who think we should be less judgmental. But the evolutionary story I tell in my book is one where judgmentalism – the ability to create moral matrices and punish, shame and ostracize those who don’t behave rightly – was in fact the great breakthrough. We wouldn’t be talking on the phone now if we didn’t have righteous minds. We’d be like chimps, brilliant individuals who are poor at cooperating and collaborating.

And he’s not kidding:

People have long been looking for what distinguishes us from chimps. Is it our thumbs, upright posture, language? I was very influenced by the psychologist Michael Tomasello, whose work shows that chimps are as smart as 3-year-old kids at most physical tasks. But expect them to liaise with another individual, sharing a representation of what they are doing, and chimps do poorly, while 3-year-olds are geniuses. This was the birth of what he calls “shared intentionality,” which includes shared ideas about what we’re trying to do, and how we should do it. This ability allows us all to judge and collectively condemn those who can’t or won’t play along.

Only once we could share mental representations could we do things such as divide labor so some hunt and some stay home and tend the fire, while we all share the spoils. Tomasello’s experiments show that if kids pull on a string together and it gives them unequal rewards, the kids will spontaneously equalize the rewards. They have the sense that we did this together therefore we must split the spoils. Chimps don’t seem to do this.

But of course things can go wrong as well as right:

Morality is a basic aspect of human nature just like, say, musicality or language. Morality binds people into groups. It gives us tribalism; it gives us genocide, war, and politics. But it also gives us heroism, altruism, and sainthood. This is all part of our “groupish” nature.

Dividing into teams doesn’t necessarily mean denigrating others. Studies of groupishness have generally found that groups increase in-group love far more than they increase out-group hostility. Dividing into groups increases social capital and trust, it’s generally a good thing. But when it crosses the line from “we disagree with you” to “you are evil,” then people begin to believe the ends justify the means and all hell breaks loose. That’s where we are now in the U.S. where politicians and their consultants will do all kinds of devious, underhand, sometimes illegal things to help their party win and to damage the other party. They think that if you’re fighting Satan, it’s OK to break the rules.

Yes, he is no fan of “opposition research” these days – nasty stuff justified as for the greater good. But he does say liberals do need to understand the Tea Party:

Liberals have difficulty understanding the Tea Party because they think it is a bunch of selfish racists. But I think the Tea Party is driven in large part by concerns about fairness. It’s not fairness as equality of outcomes, it’s fairness as karma – the idea that good deeds will lead to good outcomes and bad deeds will lead to suffering. Many conservatives believe the Democratic Party has been the anti-karma party since the ’60s. It’s the party that says you got pregnant? Don’t worry, have an abortion. You got addicted to drugs? Don’t worry, we’ll give you methadone. It’s the party that absolves you from moral irresponsibility.

The Tea Partiers don’t hate all government: just government they see as subverting karma, subverting moral responsibility. This hatred is, I think, a derivative of their love of proportionality. They’re perfectly happy with social security, a retirement scheme which Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately portrayed as a form of fairness, you pay in and you get out.

And he says we have to understand that we’re all morally motivated, so we should cut them some slack.

But of course that doesn’t mean we have to like their music, which does seem to have something to do with fairness as karma – or something. Wilkerson is right – country music does seem to be ideological, even if it’s not overtly political all the time. Country music is part of the culture war more than any political war. And they fire the salvos – your casual openness will ruin the world, and you should have stayed home and married the girl you’ve known in your heart since second grade is the only girl you would ever truly love, and that you didn’t is both an insult and a direct threat – as is your Volvo.

Sigh. The music that has to carry all that can never hold up under the weight of all that karma. Even Carl Maria von Weber is better than that.


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.
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