I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot. The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.
The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”. The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”
Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.
So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory. I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian.
And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else.
In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.
But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.