"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Golly, it’s tough being a conservative! Here’s a typical day that a member of the American right must endure as imagined by Ann Coulter in her new screed “Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right.” Wake up to Katie Couric haranguing Charlton Heston about gun control or claiming hate speech is what killed Matthew Shephard. Flip the channel to Bryant Gumbel — but not before you put Aunt Tillie back to bed to keep her from seeing “smut peddler” Hugh Hefner asked his views on the presidential campaign. Pick up the New York Times and read trumped-up articles about the alleged threat of the religious right or something derogatory about President Bush.
If that doesn’t have you ready to crawl back in the hay with Aunt Tillie and you still manage to summon the strength to make it through the day, there’s more to be endured at the end of it. In the evening, you’ve got to face Dan Rather “falsely accusing Republicans of all manner of malfeasance.” If you decide to relax by taking in a movie you’ll see “kind-hearted abortionists, Nazi priests, rich preppie Republican bigots, and the dark night of fascism under Senator Joe McCarthy.” Gee willikers, what’s a right-winger to do?
Coulter could probably have a day much more to her liking by skipping the TV and heading straight for the radio, tuning in to hear Rush Limbaugh talking about “feminazis” or G. Gordon Liddy giving instruction on the most effective way to kill federal agents (“aim for the head”). She could pick up the Washington Times or the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal. She could change channels to Fox News and listen to the headlines of the day from Brit Hume. Or tune in to Alan Keyes on MSNBC or Bill O’Reilly (though, Coulter tells us, he’s not really a conservative since he’s against the death penalty). If she felt like an evening out, she could go see “The Sum of All Fears” and relive the thrill of the Russian threat, or rent “The Patriot” and groove to its vision of government as an alien force that will burn your home and kill your children. Or, if a quiet evening is more to her taste, she could relax with her vintage collection of Everett Dirksen records, or perhaps peruse such literary classics as “Six Crises” or “God and Man at Yale.” It’s her choice.
But just like the liberals she hates — the ones who think Fox News is a threat to the nation or who want to keep Eminem’s “hate speech” off the radio and MTV — Coulter knows the rhetorical value of crying coercion. The easiest way to protest speech that offends you is to act as if you are forced to listen to it. Rather than doing the work of finding media in tune with your views — not especially hard for either a conservative or a liberal — it’s more dramatic to portray yourself as an oppressed victim à la “1984″ enduring the lies of “newspeak.”
Coulter, an attorney and one of the “elves” who aided Paula Jones in her lawsuit against Bill Clinton, is too combative to ever envision herself as a hapless Orwellian drone. The self-portrait that emerges from “Slander” and from her regular TV appearances (which must have somehow been arranged when the liberal ayatollahs who control the media were asleep on the job) is of a freedom fighter in Manolo Blahniks, tirelessly pointing out the liberal propaganda that threatens free speech and the Republic itself, preferably in a chic and simple outfit that will take her from policy meetings to television interviews to cocktail parties without missing a beat of her busy day.
Coulter is the most visible and vociferous of the conservative fembots (hereafter known as the CFs) who have emerged in the last few years. Her mob-hit style of discourse is captured by David Brock in his tinny, gossipy mea culpa “Blinded by the Right” when he quotes her, speaking in reference to Bill Clinton, wondering whether it would be better “to impeach or assassinate.” Some of her colleagues seem to have fallen out of the spotlight, depriving conservatives of media heroes and liberals of favored targets (“Coo, coo, ca-choo, Laura Ingraham, the Nation turns its lonely eyes to you”). But there are still enough around to make the soon-to-be-late “Politically Incorrect” look like “The Dating Game” as fantasized by the Young Americans for Freedom.
Besides Coulter there’s the likes of Kellyanne Conway (nee Fitzpatrick), Lisa Pinto of the Oxygen Channel’s “SheSpan” (catchy) and Dr. Monica Crowley. We have yet to see their glamorous equivalent among young male conservatives where the closest thing to a star is Tucker Carlson on “Crossfire,” playing Jimmy Olsen to Robert Novak’s cranky Perry White (“Great Goldwater’s Ghost!”), who in turn is on guard against James Carville’s Lex Luthor.
The media stardom of the CFs is a perfectly logical phenomenon, one that actually started before the trend of TV news outlets (like CNN and CNN Headline News) making the move to younger, “camera-friendly” anchors. The CFs’ demeanor and presentation is carefully calculated to counter the traditional image of Republicans as uptight, cigar-chomping fat cats. And probably some of the resentment against these young women has come from liberals who wish that the left could be represented by their own spangly equivalents. (To anybody who doesn’t think liberals could use some pizazz, I offer these four words: Sex God Warren Christopher.) Be careful what you wish for.
The views of the CFs emulsify like a perfect mayonnaise, but what they share apart from ideological consistency is a uniformity of attitude. I don’t know the social background of Coulter, Ingraham, Conway or Pinto, but I’ve encountered their type before. They are the essence of the white, privileged kids at the small New England college I attended during the conservative heyday of the early Reagan years. What characterized those kids and what characterizes the CFs is that they seem unaware that not everyone shares their privileged existence, or seem to believe that anyone who doesn’t has only themselves to blame. It’s a small world, after all, and the CFs are absolutely secure about their place in it and the rightness of their views.
Nobody does smug like Ann Coulter. Like the other CF sorority gals, she is always ready to flash a look of incredulity at anyone stupid enough to hold beliefs different from her own. It’s a look of self-satisfied disdain, and she’s got it down as perfect as Edgar Kennedy’s slow burn. For all of her jibes at the snobbishness of liberals who patronize the people they purport to be championing — and she is often quite right about that — Coulter doesn’t project a sense that she is speaking for anyone beyond her little clique. She has none of the populist demagogue’s gift for humor (sarcasm isn’t the same thing) or geniality, two of the things that made Rush Limbaugh so popular. (The guy conducts his show something like the DJ he once was, performing his political rants as patter. You half expect him to segue into an ad for drag-racing or spin “a hot new platter from the Shirelles.”)
There’s no point arguing with someone like this, no matter what side she’s on. And predictably, “Slander” is not an argument for balance in the media or for civility in political discourse, even though it pretends to be. “Instead of actual debate about ideas and issues with real consequences,” Coulter fumes, “the country is trapped in a political discourse that increasingly resembles professional wrestling.” If you can read that sentence coming from the Chynna of the far right and not wet your pants with laughter, you’ve got more control than I do.
Coulter complains because the New York Times likened Tom DeLay’s efforts to turn the nation into a theocracy to the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials. She steams up at Ted Kennedy for saying that the logical extension of Robert Bork’s constitutional vision, judging from his previous judicial opinions, would bring about the return of segregation, a decrease in rights for women and extraordinary powers to the police to override any right to privacy. She gets her thong in a bunch over commentators who point out similarities between Timothy McVeigh’s anti-government beliefs and the demonizing of the very idea of government that came out of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Congress.
All of this she considers unforgivable rhetorical exaggeration, yet she has no trouble calling Bill Clinton a rapist. She compares liberals who favor affirmative action to the Ku Klux Klan (they’re both practicing racial separatism). She derides as disingenuous liberals who claim people they disagree with have a right to say what they want (even though she herself begins a later sentence “The New York Times has every right to …”).
In short, Coulter can call any liberal any name that strikes her fancy and yet pretend she still wants “actual debate about ideas and issues.” And if you can’t take her hard knocks, you’re a “pantywaist” or a “girly-boy,” as Coulter called the editors of the National Review after they shit-canned her following an editorial in which she wrote, of Muslim nations, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” That column provoked an outcry on the right as well as the left. When the National Review declined to run a follow-up in which Coulter argued, “We should require passports to fly domestically. Passports can be forged, but they can also be checked with the home country in case of any suspicious-looking swarthy males,” Coulter, accused her editors of censorship, even though she’d ridicule any liberal who claimed the same thing. National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg commented, “It’s called editorial judgment, and there’s a world of difference,” proving himself able to make a distinction that’s beyond many liberals and conservatives.
Coulter has a lot in common with the liberals she despises. Just as, for some liberals, there is no such thing as a principled conservative, in Ann Coulter’s world there is no such thing as a principled liberal. And it seems there aren’t even that many principled conservatives. To determine who passes muster and who doesn’t, she applies standards of ideological purity that Stalin would admire. Phyllis Schlafly makes the grade, but not Bill O’Reilly. John McLaughlin passes, but not William Safire (“voted for Clinton”). Jerry Falwell squeaks by, but not Pat Robertson (wanted to drop the impeachment and spoke in favor of China’s one-child policy). In the book’s most hilarious moment she lauds the unshakable conservative credentials of right-wing publisher Henry Regnery by telling us he was deemed “the most dangerous man in America.” Where? Why, in Pravda.
Getting mad at Coulter is exactly the reaction she sets out to provoke. Debating her on her “ideas” does about as much good as kicking a retarded puppy. She has no ideas and she’s not a thinker. Here are a few of the plums awaiting any Little Jack Horner who sticks his thumb into “Slander”:
I could go on, citing claims and quotes, but since I do believe in fact and truth, I don’t believe anything Ann Coulter says without seeing it in its original context. The following passage gives a good example of how “Slander” works:
“After Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion contrary to the clearly expressed position of the New York Times editorial page, the Times responded with an editorial on Thomas titled ‘The Youngest, Cruelest Justice.’ That was actually the headline on a lead editorial in the Newspaper of Record. Thomas is not engaged on the substance of his judicial philosophy. He is called ‘a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests,’ ‘race traitor,’ ‘black snake,’ ‘chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom,’ ‘house Negro’ and ‘handkerchief head,’ ‘Benedict Arnold’ and “Judas Iscariot’.”
The passage is conveniently phrased to make it look as if the quotes, as well as the headline, appear in the Times editorial. They don’t (notes in the back of the book identify the sources as former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder’s interview in Playboy, and Joseph Lowery at a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference quoted in the New Yorker). Coulter sets up the passage to give the impression that the Times called Thomas a “lawn jockey” and a “house Negro” and hopes that we won’t notice that she’s fudged it.
Convenience is Coulter’s m.o. Dismissing the claim that echoes of the rationale for the Oklahoma City bombing can be heard on conservative talk radio, she neglects to mention G. Gordon Liddy’s comments on how to effectively kill federal agents. A list that is meant to demonstrate that “liberals have been wrong about everything in the last half-century” includes the Civil Rights Act. She’s not against it, but she labels the segregationist Southern Democrats who opposed it as “liberals.” She omits the fact that the act was pushed through Congress (as was the Voting Rights Act a year later) by a Democratic president, a product of those segregationist party politics, who understood the moral necessity of the measures and fought like hell to achieve them.
Coulter cites numerous examples of conservative books described as “surprise bestsellers” in the press to demonstrate the media’s inability to imagine anyone would want to read them. But what surprised people about the success of “The Closing of the American Mind,” “Illiberal Education” or “The Bell Curve” was that the bestseller lists are not usually the province of dense, academic cultural studies, policy discussions or scientific (or, I should say, junk-scientific) theory. After all, no one expected Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” or Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae” to become bestsellers, either.
Coulter isn’t wrong about everything. She scores some real hits when it comes to left-wing condescension toward the working class and the religious. In one of several examples, she cites a 1993 Washington Post report saying the “Gospel lobby” is made up of the largely “poor, uneducated, and easy to command” (i.e., dumb Southern “white trash,” a phrase John Waters has rightly called “the last politically correct racist phrase”). She calls Michael Moore’s dodgy documentary “Roger & Me” on the carpet for setting up the people it supposedly sympathizes with as hicks and rubes and fools.
And though she goes too far, she’s got a point when she says, of the left’s reaction to Sept. 11, “Here the country had finally given liberals a war against fundamentalism and they didn’t want to fight it.” The Taliban enacted the left’s worst nightmare vision of the American religious right, yet waging war on them was denounced as xenophobia. With a few exceptions, Michael Walzer in Dissent prominently among them, the left’s intellectual reaction to Sept. 11 was embodied by those two quislings Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, whose implicit view was that America is too morally dirty to ever be justified in defending itself or retaliating against attack.
This inability to come up with new political frameworks to deal with new political realities was, Coulter points out, embodied in liberal complaints about “flag-wavers.” It was as if showing solidarity with your country after 3,000 of your fellow citizens had been killed was equal to the worst, love-it-or-leave-it chauvinism. (At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a faculty member who was a friend of Todd Beamer, the man killed in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was prevented by her department members from placing a flag outside her office.)
Of course, Coulter can’t leave one of her few cogent points alone. She has to push it to an absurd extreme and say that if Islamic terrorists had devoted as much energy to hating America as American liberals do, “they’d have indoor plumbing by now.” (But, then what would swarthy males want with indoor plumbing?)
Toward the end of “Slander” comes a passage that can stand for the limitations of Coulter’s intellect. “Between 1995 and 2001, the New York Times alone ran more than one hundred articles on Selma alone. [This sentence copyrighted by your Department of Redundancy Department.] I believe we may have revisited this triumph of theirs [emphasis added] sufficiently by now. For anyone under 50, the ‘heady’ days of civil rights marches are something out of a history book. The march on Selma was 35 years ago.”
“History,” in that passage, means the same thing as “dead.” The triumphs of the civil rights era didn’t occur in Coulter’s lifetime, so it’s past, done with (she may as well be saying, “Oh, not that tacky old Negro stuff again!”). That’s a very strange notion for a conservative to espouse, one that goes against the very meaning of the word “conservative.” And funny that an affirmation of the American principles of liberty and justice for all is “their” triumph (meaning, I assume, blacks and liberals) instead of a triumph for all Americans.
It’s a definitive moment, the essence of the shallowness and insularity that the CFs epitomize. It’s politics and history and culture as a clique, a coffee klatch, a night spent mooning with your girlfriends over “An Affair to Remember.” And it’s fatal to Coulter’s efforts to represent herself as a thinker. Even those in opposition to a culture have to be able to engage it rather than shut it out or sarcastically dismiss it.
We all know that liberals hate Ann Coulter and her sisters. But what about conservatives? Do they really want to be represented by this nonthought, this conscious shunning of history? There’s no reason conservatives shouldn’t be as susceptible to media glitz as everyone else. So it’s no surprise and no sin that the notion of young, glammed-up women touting conservative ideology holds some appeal for them. But the smugness and conspicuous lack of experience and seasoning in these telebimbos should give conservatives pause. Coulter and her brood could benefit from a little conservative ideology themselves. Arguing with them is like paying attention to disobedient children. They should be treated like spoiled brats who mouth off. Put them over the knee, paddle their fannies, tell them to wipe that smirk off their face and to speak up only when they’ve learned something about the world.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)