"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)
Back in the 1960s, Seymour Martin Lipset and Richard Hofstadter and other liberal sociologists, historians and political scientists, puzzled that anyone could support Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson, concluded that Goldwater supporters were deranged. They didn’t say so directly, of course. They said that members of the radical right were emotionally disturbed victims of “status anxiety.” The evidence? They didn’t vote the way that Lipset and other academics thought that they should vote. Therefore they had to be crazy.
In the decades since, far better scholars than Hofstadter and Lipset, for whom history and sociology are not exercises in partisan Democratic mythmaking, have established that Goldwater and Reagan Republicans often were highly educated, socially secure individuals who happened not to share the values of liberal professors and journalists. This scholarship has been wasted, to judge by the glee with which the liberal blogosphere, in the aftermath of the ephemeral “Birther” flap, has dusted off the old conservatives-are-crazy meme, and revised it to suggest that all white Southerners are crazy.
In a recent Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker quoted Ohio Sen. George Voinovich’s assertion that the Republican Party is “being taken over by Southerners” to suggest that the GOP risks becoming a permanent minority party of the old Confederacy. In itself this is a legitimate point that I and many other critics of Republican conservatism have made for years. However, at Mother Jones, the blogger Kevin Drum used Parker’s political argument as an excuse for all-too-typical liberal Southern-bashing. According to Drum: “There are, needless to say, plenty of individual Southern whites who are wholly admirable. But taken as a whole, Southern white culture is [redacted]. Jim Webb can pretty it up all he wants, but it’s a [redacted].” Drum did the redacting on his own blog post, explaining he’d blacked out the offending text “on the advice of my frontal lobe.”
Drum’s creepy bigotry becomes clear when other groups are substituted: “There are, needless to say, plenty of individual blacks who are wholly admirable. But taken as a whole, black culture is [redacted]. Barack Obama can pretty it up all he wants, but it’s a [redacted].” Or maybe this: “There are, needless to say, plenty of individual Jews who are wholly admirable. But taken as a whole, Jewish culture is [redacted]. The late Irving Howe can pretty it up all he wants, but it’s a [redacted].”
If his Wikipedia entry is to be believed, Kevin Drum grew up in California, the same enlightened California that during his childhood and early adulthood gave our nation Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the tax-revolt politics of Howard Jarvis. More recently, California voters amended the state Constitution to outlaw gay marriage. I grew up in Texas, which gave our nation champions of the New Deal and civil rights like Maury Maverick, Ralph Yarborough, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Gonzalez, Barbara Jordan, Lloyd Doggett and Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v. Wade. Texas is less progressive than it once was and California is less conservative than it once was, but someone from the land of Nixon and Reagan should think twice about lecturing other parts of the country. Nor are other regions bastions of political virtue. The last two governors of Illinois are in prison or on the way there, the biggest political scandal of the moment involves mayors and rabbis in New Jersey, and the world economy was recently wrecked thanks in large part to certain investment banks and hedge funds headquartered not in Mississippi but in Manhattan.
In her Washington Post essay, Kathleen Parker writes: “Hefty majorities in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West believe Obama was born in the United States. But in the land of cotton, where old times are not by God forgotten” — evidently this is intended to be a strained joke — “only 47 percent believe Obama was born in America and 30 percent aren’t sure. Southern Republicans, it seems, have seceded from sanity.” Kevin Drum thinks that Parker is too kind and that white Southerners as a group should be thought of as having “seceded from sanity.”
Oh, those dumb white Southerners! No other group in American society could possibly believe in preposterous conspiracy theories. Well, maybe one other group, the most reliably Democratic demographic in the whole U.S. electorate. A 2005 study by RAND and Oregon State University showed that a majority of blacks believed that a cure for AIDS was being withheld from the poor; that nearly half believed that AIDS was man-made, with a quarter believing that it was created in a U.S. government laboratory and 12 percent naming the CIA as its source. Black paranoia about AIDS is understandable, given the Tuskegee experiments. Even so, the theory that AIDS was created by the CIA to commit genocide against black people is wackier than the craziest Birther conspiracy theories. Would Kathleen Parker write, or the Washington Post publish, a column arguing that black Democrats “have seceded from sanity”? Would Kevin Drum applaud Parker’s insult and extend to it to all African-Americans?
When liberal pundits are not arguing that white conservatives are insane, they are explaining conservatism in the patronizing spirit of Lipset and the ’60s liberals as the result, not of ideology or theology, but of the irrational resentment of the “angry white male.” But what about the angry white female? If white men in the South and elsewhere who do not vote for the Democrats are by definition hate-filled racists upset by social progress, then the same must be true of white women who vote the same way.
By this test, it appears that there are a lot of angry white women and that they have been angry for decades. In 2008 white women preferred John McCain to Barack Obama by 53-47 (compare white men, 57-41). They backed George W. Bush in 2004 by 55-44 percent and in 2000 by a narrow 49-48 percent. A majority of white women in 1996 split their votes among Dole (43) and Perot (8), giving Clinton only a minority of their vote at 48 percent. In 1992 white women were even more anti-Clinton, giving Bush (41 percent) and Perot (18 percent) in combination a majority. White women gave the first Bush 56 percent of their vote in 1988, and they gave Reagan 62 percent in 1984 and 52 percent in 1980. They preferred Ford to Carter, 52-36. I could go on, but you get the picture. Clearly, to judge from their unwillingness to support Democratic presidential candidates since the 1960s, most white women, like most white men, are evil, hate-filled racist monsters.
Curiously, the progressive punditariat, so voluble about “angry white men,” is silent about the decades-old Republican bias of white women. Even more curious is the paradox that liberals routinely denounce white Southern Protestants for holding the very social views that are held by majorities or near-majorities of blacks and Latinos who form the electoral base of the Democratic Party.
Consider gay rights. According to a Gallup poll in December 2008, only 31 percent of black Democrats consider homosexuality morally acceptable, compared to 61 percent of non-black Democrats. The proportion of black Democrats who think that homosexuality is immoral is identical to the proportion of all Republicans who think so. The double standard of the white liberal left was evident, when California voters narrowly passed an amendment banning gay marriage. Here is the AP: “California’s black and Latino voters, who turned out in droves for Barack Obama, also provided key support in favor of the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Seven in 10 black voters backed a successful ballot measure to overturn the California Supreme Court’s May decision allowing same-sex marriage, according to exit polls for the Associated Press. More than half of Latino voters supported Proposition 8, while whites were split.” There were lots of news stories about pro-gay-rights liberals denouncing the Mormon Church for its role in the campaign. Where were the liberals angrily denouncing black and Latino voters opposed to gay marriage?
Latinos, like blacks, are far more likely than whites to oppose abortion. According to a 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly half of second-generation Latinos think that abortion should be illegal, while 65 percent of first-generation Latinos think it should be outlawed. Indeed, the overall level of Latino opposition to abortion, 57 percent, is higher than that of any other group. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, described Latino immigrants as being out of the mainstream, saying that second-generation Latinos (the more “liberal” cohort that is split nearly 50-50!) are “much, much closer to mainstream American values … in stark contrast to the first generation who are much more conservative on this issue.” Imagine the uproar if Rush Limbaugh or Patrick Buchanan said that Latino immigrants are far from “mainstream American values.”
To read progressive pundits, you’d think that illegal immigration would not be controversial, were it not for hate-filled Southern rednecks. But according to a 2006 Pew poll, “Both whites (55 percent) and blacks (54 percent) are more likely than Hispanics (29 percent) to see immigrants as a burden.” In Barack Obama’s Chicago, according to Pew in 2006, “there is a widespread perception among African Americans that immigrant workers are damaging local jobs prospects. Fully 41 percent of African Americans say they or a family member has lost a job, or not gotten a job, because an employer hired an illegal immigrant instead.” A Gallup poll in December 2008 revealed that 47 percent of black Americans thought that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S., while exactly the same percentage, 47 percent, thought that illegal immigrants should be arrested and deported.
Blacks and Latinos, it appears, are allowed to hold conventionally conservative social views about gay rights, abortion and (in the case of blacks) immigration without being mocked and denounced by elite white liberals in the pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones, as long as they vote for the Democratic Party on the basis of other issues. This strategic logic should lead liberals to seek out and welcome the vote of white social conservatives in the South and elsewhere, as long as they vote for Democrats for reasons other than the social issues. Indeed, socially conservative white voters helped to create and to maintain the new Democratic majority in Congress. But many liberals, it would appear, would rather have a smaller Democratic Party than one that includes more white Southerners with typically “black” or “Latino” views about sex and reproduction.
Here’s how I see it. Liberals should respect and promote the interests of working Americans of all races and regions, including those who despise liberals. They are erring neighbors to be won over, not cretins to be mocked.
The majority of Southerners, white and black, including the black Southern diaspora in other regions of the country, are victims of the South’s historic caste and class system, just as many Latino immigrants come from families and regions oppressed by Latin American oligarchies. Needless to say, Southern blacks suffered far more from slavery, segregation and the inequality that has persisted even after the abolition of the formal caste system. But Southern whites reduced to debt peonage after the Civil War, and the half of the white Southern electorate that effectively was disfranchised by the Southern elite in the South between the 1900s and the 1960s, were victims of the oligarchs as well. It is only to be expected that people, black and white, who have been deprived of adequate education will be more likely than educated people to believe in nonsense like Birther conspiracy theories and AIDS conspiracy theories. And it is only to be expected that people, black and white, who have been frozen out of politics by oligarchic elites will turn to flamboyant populist tribunes as their leaders, including theatrical preachers like Pat Robertson and Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton and Jerry Falwell.
The traditional liberal solution to such alienation is economic reform, education and political empowerment. But reform is difficult and expensive. And it is much less fun than caricaturing entire ethnic or regional groups, particularly those whose members tend to have less money, less education and less power than those who lampoon them.
Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.More Michael Lind.
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)