How a lesson from a legend of country music exposes the fragility of American conservatism
I've told this story before, but it seems to me worth retelling. It's about how old-fashioned American values, specifically manliness and chauvinism, are not necessarily at odds with the demands of a pluralist egalitarian democracy of the 21st century. They can be updated, as long as the men espousing them embody their liberal strains. They should be updated given our current discourse is dominated by fear of being censored. The story is more improbable by the fact that it begins with the late Merle Haggard.
Merle Haggard, for those who do not know him, was a legend in country music. He was an icon whose macho credibility was presumed and therefore never questioned. Unlike Johnny Cash, a peer who merely sang about being in prison, Haggard really was incarcerated, though briefly. He found stardom singing to roughnecks about times hard and good. His hits included "Workin' Man Blues" and "Okie from Muskogee."
These two songs were anthems to the conservative white-power backlash of the 1970s—an era in which respectable white people recoiled from the failures of the Vietnam War and the successes of the civil rights movement. Haggard's working man was white, he was rural and he loved America, unlike those dodging the military draft or rioting in the streets. He helped seed the field for Ronald Reagan's triumphalism. In other words, Haggard might be the last man to teach us something about liberalism.
For certain, the lesson did not take hold until long after I interviewed the music legend. I was, at the time, an arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News, a daily in coastal Georgia. Haggard and his band were touring the area. I got in touch. After talking about music, the conversation turned to politics. This was 2003. The then-president was preparing the country for the invasion of Iraq. I can't quote at length. The article seems to be lost, alas. But this much I remember. It jumped out at me.
"Why're we scared?" he said. "We're America."
Recall the prevailing tenor of all political discourse in the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was fear. Compounded fear. The attack itself was scary enough, but the George W. Bush administration inflamed it to justify invading a nation that had no role whatsoever in the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans. It was in that atmosphere that the bard of the working class asked what we're so scared of.
It was a great question, because it was counter-intuitive. (That's why it jumped out at me.) You were supposed to be scared. Like, if you weren't, something was wrong with you. But neither Saddam Hussein nor Osama bin Laden posed an existential threat. They didn't, nor ever could, destroy us. The US beat the Japanese, the Germans, the Russians and (probably in Haggard's mind) the Viet Cong, too. Yet the White House and press and pundit corps acted like Al Qaeda were the new USSR. We're the most powerful nation the world's ever seen, Haggard seemed to say. "Why're we scared?"
The last time I told this story, it was in reference to the disgraced former president's desire for a military parade. The United States has nothing to prove, I said, and no one to prove it to. "Yes, Russia is again rising, and China may be a military adversary a long way down the road," I said. "For now, however, America has nothing to fear militarily when it can drop bombs from space and hit targets the size of pie plates." A military parade was all about Donald Trump's shattered-glass ego. It was a silly attempt by a pained and hollow man to substitute the symbols of courage for the substance of it.
While President Biden is doing everything he can to unwind 20 years of global war, we are still in the grip of fear. I don't mean fear of authoritarian politics. That's real. I mean fear of censorship, of a leftist ideology as dangerous as fascism, a story being told not just by right-wing pundits but liberal-moderate pundits fearing for their lost authority. That story is almost totally fictional. And yet we are spending so much time telling it. In the name of white American men, I'm asking: "Why're we scared?"
Seriously, why? I live in New Haven. It's majority Black and brown. If anywhere fits Tucker Carlson's enslaved-white-man nightmare to a T, it's the Elm City. Yet when I walk into a local deli owned and run by South Asian immigrants, patronized by Black and white workers and workers of color, it's like I'm parting the Red Sea. Non-white people, especially women, apologize to me as if they were breathing the air and taking up the space that were by rights mine. There's nothing I can do, except be humble. Social conditions are bigger than all of us. But let's be real. Being white is going to be a privilege, like it or not, for a very long time, no matter how "woke" America becomes.
I say this not because I like it, but because my fellow white American men are acting like they are facing an existential threat, as if the whole country (meaning us) were in the throes of a crisis of censorship. Censorship is at the heart of the so-called cancel culture debate. It's so broadly defined, as I said last week, that it has now come to mean anyone disagreeing with me is censoring me. Anyone disagreeing with me is, of course, exercising their right to free speech. Virtually every debate over "cancel culture" has at its heart that fact. No one is cancelling anything. Everyone is speaking freely and, we should hope, responsibly. White American men are not and probably won't ever be victims. Nearly everything about this country works in our favor. Yet we are pretending to be victims. We are pretending to be scared. "Why're we scared?"
If you believe someone else's presence equals your absence—if you believe you deserve to breathe the air and inhabit the space occupied by Black people and people of color, and that when Black people and people of color don't move out of your way at the local deli, it offends you—well, you should be scared. Very. Democratic culture isn't going backwards. But if you believe someone else's presence compliments yours—if you believe the local deli can accommodate you if you'll just wait your turn—there's room to move. You don't need to be a woke liberal. You can be a manly chauvinist like the one who wrote "Okie from Muskogee." Indeed, woke liberals have something to learn.
That's the moral of my story. The takeaway. Woke liberals are often depicted as brittle snowflakes. It's the reverse, though. Americans who believe someone else's presence is the same thing as their absence are the brittlest Americans of all. Merle Haggard wasn't like that. If he can welcome a Black president (he did1), if he can oppose a fascist candidate for president (he did), anyone can. Love of country does not mean, or should not mean, being able to destroy another. Those who believe that should be mocked, should be ridiculed and should be subject to the same level of scorn expressed by Merle Haggard, the legend, in 2003. "Why're we scared?" he said. "We're America."
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