"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)
What a difference a month makes! When my last controversial column posted on Salon in the second week of August, most Democrats seemed frozen in suspended animation, not daring to criticize the Obama administration’s bungling of healthcare reform lest it give aid and comfort to the GOP. Well, that ice dam sure broke with a roar. Dissident Democrats found their voices, and by late August even the liberal lemmings of the mainstream media, from CBS to CNN, had dramatically altered their tone of reportage, from priggish disdain of the town hall insurgency to frank admission of serious problems in the healthcare bills as well as of Obama’s declining national support.
But this tonic dose of truth-telling may be too little too late. As an Obama supporter and contributor, I am outraged at the slowness with which the standing army of Democratic consultants and commentators publicly expressed discontent with the administration’s strategic missteps this year. I suspect there had been private grumbling all along, but the media warhorses failed to speak out when they should have — from week one after the inauguration, when Obama went flat as a rug in letting Congress pass that obscenely bloated stimulus package. Had more Democrats protested, the administration would have felt less arrogantly emboldened to jam through a cap-and-trade bill whose costs have made it virtually impossible for an alarmed public to accept the gargantuan expenses of national healthcare reform. (Who is naive enough to believe that Obama’s plan would be deficit-neutral? Or that major cuts could be achieved without drastic rationing?)
By foolishly trying to reduce all objections to healthcare reform to the malevolence of obstructionist Republicans, Democrats have managed to destroy the national coalition that elected Obama and that is unlikely to be repaired. If Obama fails to win reelection, let the blame be first laid at the door of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who at a pivotal point threw gasoline on the flames by comparing angry American citizens to Nazis. It is theoretically possible that Obama could turn the situation around with a strong speech on healthcare to Congress this week, but after a summer of grisly hemorrhaging, too much damage has been done. At this point, Democrats’ main hope for the 2012 presidential election is that Republicans nominate another hopelessly feeble candidate. Given the GOP’s facility for shooting itself in the foot, that may well happen.
This column has been calling for heads to roll at the White House from the get-go. Thankfully, they do seem to be falling faster — as witness the middle-of-the-night bum’s rush given to “green jobs” czar Van Jones last week — but there’s a long way to go. An example of the provincial amateurism of current White House operations was the way the president’s innocuous back-to-school pep talk got sandbagged by imbecilic support materials soliciting students to write fantasy letters to “help” the president (a coercive directive quickly withdrawn under pressure). Even worse, the entire project was stupidly scheduled to conflict with the busy opening days of class this week, when harried teachers already have their hands full. Comically, some major school districts, including New York City, were not even open yet. And this is the gang who wants to revamp national healthcare?
Why did it take so long for Democrats to realize that this year’s tea party and town hall uprisings were a genuine barometer of widespread public discontent and not simply a staged scenario by kooks and conspirators? First of all, too many political analysts still think that network and cable TV chat shows are the central forums of national debate. But the truly transformative political energy is coming from talk radio and the Web — both of which Democrat-sponsored proposals have threatened to stifle, in defiance of freedom of speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights. I rarely watch TV anymore except for cooking shows, history and science documentaries, old movies and football. Hence I was blissfully free from the retching overkill that followed the deaths of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy — I never saw a single minute of any of it. It was on talk radio, which I have resumed monitoring around the clock because of the healthcare fiasco, that I heard the passionate voices of callers coming directly from the town hall meetings. Hence I was alerted to the depth and intensity of national sentiment long before others who were simply watching staged, manipulated TV shows.
Why has the Democratic Party become so arrogantly detached from ordinary Americans? Though they claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics and lawyers (one reason for the hypocritical absence of tort reform in the healthcare bills). Weirdly, given their worship of highly individualistic, secularized self-actualization, such professionals are as a whole amazingly credulous these days about big-government solutions to every social problem. They see no danger in expanding government authority and intrusive, wasteful bureaucracy. This is, I submit, a stunning turn away from the anti-authority and anti-establishment principles of authentic 1960s leftism.
How has “liberty” become the inspirational code word of conservatives rather than liberals? (A prominent example is radio host Mark Levin’s book “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto,” which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three months without receiving major reviews, including in the Times.) I always thought that the Democratic Party is the freedom party — but I must be living in the nostalgic past. Remember Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “Chimes of Freedom,” made famous by the Byrds? And here’s Richie Havens electrifying the audience at Woodstock with “Freedom! Freedom!” Even Linda Ronstadt, in the 1967 song “A Different Drum,” with the Stone Ponys, provided a soaring motto for that decade: “All I’m saying is I’m not ready/ For any person, place or thing/ To try and pull the reins in on me.”
But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it’s invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote “critical thinking,” which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms (“racism, sexism, homophobia”) when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it’s positively pickled.
Throughout this fractious summer, I was dismayed not just at the self-defeating silence of Democrats at the gaping holes or evasions in the healthcare bills but also at the fogginess or insipidity of articles and Op-Eds about the controversy emanating from liberal mainstream media and Web sources. By a proportion of something like 10-to-1, negative articles by conservatives were vastly more detailed, specific and practical about the proposals than were supportive articles by Democrats, which often made gestures rather than arguments and brimmed with emotion and sneers. There was a glaring inability in most Democratic commentary to think ahead and forecast what would or could be the actual snarled consequences — in terms of delays, denial of services, errors, miscommunications and gross invasions of privacy — of a massive single-payer overhaul of the healthcare system in a nation as large and populous as ours. It was as if Democrats live in a utopian dream world, divorced from the daily demands and realities of organization and management.
But dreaming in the 1960s and ’70s had a spiritual dimension that is long gone in our crassly materialistic and status-driven time. Here’s a gorgeous example: Bob Welch’s song “Hypnotized.” which appears on Fleetwood Mac’s 1973 album “Mystery to Me.” (The contemplative young man in this recent video is not Welch.) It’s a peyote dream inspired by Carlos Castaneda’s fictionalized books: “They say there’s a place down in Mexico/ Where a man can fly over mountains and hills/ And he don’t need an airplane or some kind of engine/ And he never will.” This exhilarating shamanistic vision (wonderfully enhanced by Christine McVie’s hymnlike backing vocal) captures the truth-seeking pilgrimages of my generation but also demonstrates the dangerous veering away from mundane social responsibilities. If the left is an incoherent shambles in the U.S., it’s partly because the visionaries lost their bearings on drugs, and only the myopic apparatchiks and feather-preening bourgeois liberals are left. (I addressed the drugs cataclysm in “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s” in the Winter 2003 issue of Arion.)
Having said all that about the failures of my own party, I am not about to let Republicans off the hook. What a backbiting mess the GOP is! It lacks even one credible voice of traditional moral values on the national stage and is addicted to sonorous pieties of pharisaical emptiness. Republican politicians sermonize about the sanctity of marriage while racking up divorces and sexual escapades by the truckload. They assail government overreach and yet support interference in women’s control of their own bodies. Advanced whack-a-mole is clearly needed for that yammering smarty-pants Newt Gingrich, who is always so very, very pleased with himself but has yet to produce a single enduring thought. The still inexplicably revered George W. Bush ballooned our national deficits like a drunken sailor and clumsily exacerbated the illegal immigration debate. And bizarrely, the hallucinatory Dick Cheney, a fake-testosterone addict who spooked Bush into a pointless war, continues to be lauded as presidential material.
Which brings us to Afghanistan: Let’s get the hell out! While I vociferously opposed the incursion into Iraq, I was always strongly in favor of bombing the mountains of Afghanistan to smithereens in our search for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida training camps. But committing our land forces to a long, open-ended mission to reshape the political future of that country has been a fool’s errand from the start. Every invader has been frustrated and eventually defeated by that maze-like mountain terrain, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. In a larger sense, outsiders will never be able to fix the fate of the roiling peoples of the Near East and Greater Middle East, who have been disputing territorial borderlines and slaughtering each other for 5,000 years. There is too much lingering ethnic and sectarian acrimony for a tranquil solution to be possible for generations to come. The presence of Western military forces merely inflames and prolongs the process and creates new militias of patriotic young radicals who hate us and want to take the war into our own cities. The technological West is too infatuated with easy fixes. But tribally based peoples think in terms of centuries and millennia. They know how to wait us out. Our presence in Afghanistan is not worth the price of any more American lives or treasure.
In response to persistent queries, I must repeat: No, I do not have a Facebook page, nor am I a “friend” on anyone else’s Facebook. Nor do I Twitter. This Salon column is my sole Web presence. Whatever doppelgänger Camille Paglias are tripping the light fantastic out there (as in the haunted bus-station episode of “The Twilight Zone”), they aren’t me!
Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)
On March 21, 2010, the House voted to approve a healthcare bill intended to overhaul the system and guarantee Americans access to health insurance. The vote was 219 to 213. Problem solved? Hardly.