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We Take Care of Right-Wing Nonsense about Bruce... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

We Take Care of Right-Wing Nonsense about Bruce...

My new "Think Again" column is called “Labor and the 'Civil Right' to Organize.” 

Tuesday night I went to an extremely well produced benefit for the Blues Foundation in Memphis designed to celebrate (just one year late) the centennial birthday of the (literally) legendary Robert Johnson. Assembled by the actor Joe Morton, the house band was insanely great. Keb Mo, Colin Linden and James Blood Ulmer on guitar; Sugar Blue on harmonica; Willie Weeks on bass; and Steve Jordan on drums. And the lineup: Sam Moore, Taj Mahal, Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, Chuck D., Bettye Lavette, Macy Gray, Sarah Dash, the Roots, the Dough Rollers, Shameika Copeland, Living Colour and Geoffrey Wright.

The peformances were, inevitably, hit or miss. Rundgren was a treat. Sam Moore did a quiet, haunting “Sweet Home Chicago.” Elvis sang “From Four Till Late” also rather quietly explaining, “They don’t allow hellhounds on our trail in England..They worst we get is bloodhounds.” The real revelation of the show, however were the songs played by Keb Mo, who, grown up and gray, gives the impression of carrying Johnson’s ghost inside him. His solo versions “Crossroads Blues” and “Love in Vain” were show highlights sent shivers down my old bones. Show was kinda long, but not at all haphazard, and held together, as I said earlier, by the amazing house band. Give some money to the Blues Foundation here

For the high-minded amongst us, I recommend a recent release by Acorn’s documentary line Athena, of IN THEIR OWN WORDS, a series which features interviews and short readings by Sigmund Freud, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, Evelyn Waugh, among many others, and the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf. It’s never been aired in the U.S., and it’s worth your time. Acorn is also now responsible, somehow for the future of FOYLE’S WAR, which is one my household prized discoveries of the past few years. And you can start at the beginning while they are making new ones.

The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Vols. 1–3. Edited by Melvyn. P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2010. 1999 pp.
Far be it from your humble author to even attempt to do justice to this approximately two thousand page collection of essays by some of the most distinguished diplomatic historians alive. What I find most interesting in thumbing through them is the manner in which what historians agree to be true is often at odds with what our political culture insists must be true. The historiography of the Cold War has gone through many phases from orthodoxy to revisionism to post-revisionism (which some call “orthodoxy with footnotes”) and from being an entirely US-Soviet focused field to one that has engaged historians from many nations who write about Europe and what used to be called “the periphery” as if it were part of a shifting center. Of course these authors take advantage of methods of inquiry that were never dreamed of in the respective imaginations of previous generations of historians and remain controversial to many today.   

Volume I (Origins) examines the origins, causes and early years of the Cold War while Volume II (Crises and Détente) examines the developments that made the Cold War into a long-lasting international system during the 1960s and 1970s. Volume II examines the developments that made the Cold War a long-lasting international system during the 1960s and 1970s. And Volume III tries to ask the question of why did it end, why did it end the way it did, and who was responsible?

Some of the most interesting articles I read were those that might be considered furthest afield from traditional lines of inquiry, such as the one on the intellectual history of the Cold War by Jan-Werner Müller, on science and technology by David Reynolds, the world economy by Giovanni Arrighi and others on topics like migration and consumerism by Matthew Connelly and Emily Rosenberg respectively.

Perusing Volume 3, the articles that made the greatest impression on me, given my own interests, so far, were Archie Brown’s essay on "The Gorbachev Revolution" and Matthew Evangelista on the role of transnational organizations. Together (and with others included here) they easily refute the triumphalist narrative that dominates almost all political discussion of the Cold War in the United States as well as the almost religious mythology that has been purposely propagandized by adhererents to the cult of Ronald Reagan.

Gorbachev, Brown argues, instituted a "conceptual revolution as well as systemic change" in great power foreign policy, rejecting entirely the "common simplification" which credits Reagan’s arms build up for this. And Evangelista demonstrates the key role that transnational organizations played in communicating the bases of some of these ideas between East and West, during times when little communication appeared possible. The two arguments complement one another as Brown also emphasizes the role of "informal transnational influences," in creating the “new thinking” that eventually overthrew the regime. Here is the Amazon page for Volume 3. (I’ll have more to say about some of these issues in my Nation column next week.)

Now here’s Reed on a topic dear to all of our hearts, particularly this week of all weeks, followed by a guest review of Netflix “Lilyhammer” by the Renaissance Record Executive, Danny Goldberg.:

Do You Hear What I Hear?
by Reed Richardson
For those in need of a dose of unintentional, yet laugh-out-loud hilarity this week, I offer up Politico’s take on the conservative’s field guide to the Bruce Springsteen catalog.

Published this past Monday, just one day before Bruce’s new album dropped, as the kids say, this piece of shameless journalistic linkbait joins a small pantheon of other laughable examples of this genre. (Yes, that is Tammy Wynette’s classic country ballad “Stand by Your Man” inexplicably listed among the top 50 conservative rock songs.) In this latest version, we once again find right-wingers straining to gain any kind of ideological purchase from which they can plant their flag on a popular artist’s work, and falling mightily on their faces in doing so.

To wit, who knew that Bruce’s music oeuvre is all about emphasizing Randian philosophy and avoiding the dole? Or so says some conservative blogger/comedian named Evan Sayet: 

"But his lyrics, over and over again, mention some of the fundamentals of conservatism—that though life is horrible, it’s not horrible enough for you to need a handout. When he talks about interpersonal relationships, or the responsibilities we have, one on one … he almost—unconscious to himself—has a conservative message."

Talk about taking the ‘fun’ out of fundamentals. And as far as intellectual loopholes go, one could drive a whole lot of Pink Cadillacs through that wonderfully obtuse “almost—unconscious to himself” phrasing. What’s more, I guess I totally misinterpreted Bruce’s total bummer of an underlying message all these years—life in America sucks, but not as bad as it would if those suffering had to further endure something like, say, free, government-subsidized health care. 

One Mike Brownfield, who works at the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation (from whence Obama’s gravest threat to individual liberty ever known also originated), shows his capacity for conservative projection with a similarly wonkish take on what is perhaps Springsteen’s best-known song:

"When I listen to ‘Born to Run,’ I’m hearing about a man who is struggling to find happiness, not a song about someone who is trying to find happiness and wants the government to step in."

It’s most assuredly also not a song about trying to find happiness amid the joyous invisible hand of capitalism, but I digress. I suppose we now know why Brownfield thinks the lyrics don’t go: ‘’Cause baby, I’m just a scared and lonely [free] rider.’ Because, dammit, that that kind of individual-mandate thinking is just a trapdoor for the federal government’s tyrannical abuse of the Commerce Clause

To find out how academia might treat such a stupid musical premise, Politico readers also get to hear from a professor at Columbia Muhlenberg College, who teaches a course on TV, Media, and Culture Springsteen, meaning that, as someone once told Alvy Singer, “his insights have a great deal of validity:”

"[Springsteen] references flags; he references Jesus; he references God. His approach to lyrics, from a political sense, often uses conservative-tinged words that might resonate with voters who are by no means liberal."

Please to be stopping with the shallow, non-contextual, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks analysis, Mr. Borick, it’s sounds ridiculous. And it makes one long for Bruce to step in Marshall McLuhan-style… But to be fair, Borick does reappear later in the article and sort of backs into the truth about conservative ideology in talking about the themes from the first single of Bruce’s new album, “We Take Care of Our Own.”

"‘This is very much a message that you hear echoed by conservatives—responsibility for one’s self and immediate family,’ said Borick."

Hard to argue with that last statement, I admit. I mean, just look at current Republican presidential frontwalker Mitt Romney. If anyone has any questions about which constituencies he does or doesn’t favor, his hardcore base of wealthy votersmega-rich Super PAC funders, and self-enriching policy proposals should erase any doubt. Maybe Springsteen really is subtly making common cause with a fellow supply-sider here? 

Maybe not. Even the Politico author can’t miss the song’s accusatory allusions to the Bush administration and its inexcusable response to Hurricane Katrina. “[N]ot your typical conservative fare,” the article concedes, in an understatement akin to saying Katrina was not your typical rainstorm. 

Of course, Springsteeen is not your typical musician either. He’s a master storyteller. Someone who’s spent his entire career expertly evoking the experiences of everyday Americans. And while his music has the power to inspire or affect everyone differently based on their own individual interpretation, one can’t ignore as mere coincidence that during Springsteen’s four-decade career his songs have slowly taken on a harder, more complex, and even desperate tone. That’s because life has too, for far too many Americans.

So, one might ask, how do conservatives deconflict their passion for Springsteen’s music and its clear embrace of a competing narrative about the increasing inequality in our country? The answer, we find, is as simple as it is symbolic about the broader, disconnected state of conservative political thought right now: 

"‘I’m going to embrace it as it fits with my way of thinking’ […] Sayet said, admitting that while there is an alternative explanation for ["We Take Care of Our Own"], he’s going to listen to it the way he wants to hear it."

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

Lilyhammer
By Danny Goldberg
Although the American advertising for “Lilyhammer” seeks to exploit Steve Van Zandt’s previous role as Silvio Dante, the aesthetic of the series is more evocative of “Portlandia” than “The Sopranos.”

The publicity around “Lilyhammer” has focused largely on the novelty of the internet service Netflix being an originator of programming in the United States rather than a secondary source, the series was originally produced for Norwegian television and the delight of it is how quirkily Scandenavian the series is. The majority of the dialogue is in Norwegian with English subtitles although the protagonist, a New York gangster named Frank Tagliano played by Steve Van Zandt speaks in English. His character is depicted as being able to understand enough Norwegian to get by.

The premise is a pretty simple “fish out of water” gimmick. Tagliano’s life is threatened by a new crime boss so he rats him out to he government in return for being put in a version of the witness protection program. He chooses Lillehammer, Norway because he’d liked Winter Olympics broadcasts he seen years earlier. Why the spelling of the name of the series differs from that of the city is never revealed.

Tagliano’s new Norwegian name is Giovanni Henrikson and the series created and written by Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, (Van Zandt shares writing and production credits) revolves a lot around gently lampooning assorted politically correct Norwegian cultural and governmental practices. The natives seem to envy the ability of a fantasy mobster to get things done. 

There are times when the series is a little disquieting for admirers of Scandenavian socialism. I kept hoping that Van Zandt’s character would learn to internalize some Scandinavian communitarian impulses but there isn’t much of that. As with the experience of empathizing Tony Soprano, I felt a little weird at times rooting for an amoral thug but since “Henrickson” is a benign Norwegian’s notion of such a thug he has enough of a heart of gold to make him a protagonist one can root for with relatively little guilt. The one character he kills is a sociopathic violent monster who kidnaps his girlfriend’s young son. 

The plot is nothing special but the glimpses of Norwegian culture are far more quirky and entertaining than what can be found in the films based on the Stieg Larsson novels.

The revelation is that Van Zandt can actually act. His character in the Sopranos was so wooden it was never clear whether it was the performer or the producer who was responsible. Van Zandt has a wide range that includes epathy, nuance, romance and a much more subtle with than Silvio Dante ever let him show.

Marian Saastad Ottesen as a (possibly) single mother who becomes his romantic interest has an understated glamour charm and that will likely translate well into a global career. “Lilyhammer” neither attempts nor achieves the gravitas of “The Sopranos” or other classic American cable series of recent years. But it’s funny and smart and unique and demonstrates beyond doubt that Van Zandt’s improbably career has many interesting chapters ahead.

And as someone who prefers to watch TV series, one episode after the other, I appreciate that Netflix released all eight episodes at the same time. 

The mail:
Dr. Howard Brooks
Philadelphia, PA

Eric Alterman writes, “If a Jew-hater somewhere, inspired perhaps by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, sought to invent an individual who symbolizes all the anti-Semitic clichés…” He goes on to characterize Sheldon Adelson as Fagin the Jew to Gingrich’s Oliver Twist. Then he goes on (sorrowfully) to announce the death of that prejudice. “The bugaboo of anti-Semitic accusation is almost nowhere to be found." Oh it’s here alright. But we have internalized it. The author of this screed himself takes up the old, time-honored tropes. He tries to discredit Adelson by listing some "allegations" ("bribery", "prostitution", "organized crime"....). His contributions to Gingrich's Super Pac are stigmatized as a "perversion" of democracy rather than an exercise of democratic free speech. Surely, the Supreme Court would support this exercise of Free Speech even if, like the author, it disagreed with its point of view. That's the point of this Right, isn't it? Oh, and Adelson funds an (Israeli) newspaper to express his point of view? Yo “The Nation”, you got a problem with that? The author also reports Adelson's agreement with Gingrich's domestic policy as "barely concealed racist hatemongering". A bit over the top, no? He then characterizes a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities as "yet another potentially disastrous pre-emptive attack". More “endless Israeli aggression"? Is he conveniently forgetting Ozrick in Iraq and the North Korean reactor in Syria destroyed by Israel? Not the same sized task, to be sure, but successful with little blowback. The author concludes "given the near-complete disappearance of this wholly respectable American prejudice"... Don't worry Alterman, Anti-Semitism is alive and well here on “the Left”, and when convenient on “the Right” as well. 

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