"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)
Pat Buchanan doesn’t want my pity, and he probably doesn’t deserve it. But I couldn’t help feeling sad for him reading his apocalyptic, overwrought new book, “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” By almost any standard, Buchanan has had a successful life and career – he’s advised two presidents, run for president three times himself; he’s a wealthy author, columnist and MSNBC pundit – but apparently, it’s all been for naught. Ultimately his side can’t win, he says, because demography is against him. As long as white America remains on track to lose its majority status this century – and we can debate when that will happen, but there’s no way around it – the America Buchanan loves is gone.
Buchanan sometimes tries to argue that his lament in this book is about culture and values, but make no mistake: It’s thoroughly about race. Even when Christianity and free-market conservatism might be said to have won, or to at least have a fighting chance of winning, he finds a way to lose. He puts together a strategy for Republicans to take back the White House in 2012 – it comes down to openly and unapologetically focusing on turning out more white people – but by his own account, a 2012 victory would only be temporary.
“Is America coming apart?” he asks on Page 2. “This book’s answer is yes. Our nation is disintegrating, ethnically, culturally, morally, politically.” The U.S. is hopelessly split, Buchanan says. “We seem to detest each other in ways as deep as Southerners detested a mercantile North and Northerners detested an agrarian slave-holding South.”
Ironically, historian Rick Perlstein labeled that modern warring America “Nixonland,” in his fine book of the same name, and he credits Buchanan as a founding father, for helping Nixon split the white working class from the Democratic Party using cultural and racial appeals. In his infamous 1971 “Dividing the Democrats” memo, Buchanan told the president that if he could convince the white working class that the Democrats favored black people, while also convincing blacks that Democrats were “denying them effective participation,” Nixon could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have by far the larger half,” he confidently concluded. In 1972, Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern in a landslide.
But Buchanan doesn’t think his side has “by far the larger half” anymore. And although culture-war battles over abortion and gay marriage have a lot to do with it, as does runaway federal spending (really), the main problem Buchanan identifies is that “the European and Christian core of our country is shrinking. The birthrate of our native born has been below replacement level for decades. By 2020, deaths among white Americans will exceed births, while mass immigration is forever altering the face of America.”
If you listen to Pat Buchanan, Democrats needn’t fret about politics any more; demography is destiny.
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That outcome wasn’t always inevitable, Buchanan says; that’s why he calls it “suicide.” It’s partly the result of “the diversity cult;” at other points he calls it a revolution. “The avatar of this revolution is Obama,” he insists. “Pro-gay rights, pro-choice, pro-amnesty, pro-affirmative action, one foot firmly planted in the Third World, he campaigned on raising taxes on the rich and redistributing the wealth.” Our half-white corporate centrist president, in Buchanan’s telling, is an “Afro-nationalist” socialist sympathizer with little sympathy for white people. Soon, even whites who supported Obama, Buchanan warns, “may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.”
And with that “insight,” a book that aspires to be serious winds up being silly, a crazy mashup of stereotypes and paranoia. Buchanan gets angry when Tea Party supporters are accused of racism; he and I have had that argument many times on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” But in this book, he makes plain that they’re driven by fear of their white, Christian country disappearing, a fear symbolized by Obama’s presidency — and he thinks that’s perfectly OK. Meanwhile, he sees anti-white racism everywhere, from Obama dissing the Cambridge police for acting “stupidly” after white officer James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates for breaking into his own home, to Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Awards to say the award should have gone to Beyonce. (Really. Kanye vs. Taylor. Listen to the audiobook excerpts compiled by Peter Finocchiaro below.)
You can listen the audiobook’s other gems of wisdom here.
If Buchanan has to contradict himself in order to win his argument, he’ll do it. Facts be damned: Diversity always leads to division; homogeneity to harmony. The book mourns the decline not only of white Christian America, but of Europe, since we share a common white European heritage. But then he runs down the history of European wars and ethnic nationalism, which makes me wonder what constitutes a “European” heritage or identity, other than (some comparative shade of) white skin — and why it matters anyway, if Europeans fight so much. He conflates Catholicism with Christianity, ignoring centuries of intra-Christian strife globally, and most notably, our own American history of white Protestant nativists attacking Catholics as unfit for democracy from the late 18th century through the election of John F. Kennedy. A supposedly common religion hasn’t kept people from killing one another, whether in Iraq or the U.S.
On one page, he tells us the Founders were a monoculture, intentionally forming a country by and for white Christian gentlemen; on another page, we learn that the revolution made “a new people” out of formerly warring colonial factions. “Virginia Cavaliers, Boston Puritans, Pennsylvanian Quakers and Appalachian Scots-Irish, who had all cordially detested one another, had begun to meld into a nation.” Which is it?
“Suicide of a Superpower” confirms something I’ve felt for a while: It’s Buchanan and his Tea Party friends who’ve given up on the idea of America. Buchanan’s book validates the stereotypes of the most negative, America-hating faction of the left (which is itself mostly a Buchanan-created stereotype): The founders were all elitists, he insists; they didn’t believe in equality; they restricted citizenship to “free white persons” of “good moral character,” and with good reason. He sounds like a ’70s black or feminist separatist when he declares that “e pluribus unum” was basically just a cover story for white, Christian, male power.
In truth, Americans, including the founders, have always struggled over the meaning of equality and citizenship. But Buchanan simply whitewashes history, leaving out things he doesn’t like. In his telling, it was all settled before the ’60s, and only became unraveled by impious multi-culti modern hordes. Thus even Thomas Jefferson, a deist who fought against the imposition of a state religion, becomes a Christian who believed in a Christian nation. “We are not ruled by the same ideas nor do we possess the same moral character as our parents did,” Buchanan inveighs. “‘One nation, under God, indivisible’ has become an antique concept in an age that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism.” The fact is, most of our parents didn’t recite “One nation, under God, indivisible” growing up; the words “under God” were added in 1954. The pledge itself was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister active in the Society of Christian Socialists, who attacked the excesses of the Gilded Age from the pulpit (he was the cousin of utopian American socialist Edward Bellamy, author of “Looking Backward” and “Equality.” Who knew America had Christian Socialists? Not Pat Buchanan!) When it comes to history, Buchanan reminds me of the sort of “cafeteria Catholic” he no doubt despises (I’m one of them), cherry-picking principles and stories that he likes, and ignoring the ones he doesn’t.
The book’s most pernicious chapters seek to “prove” white superiority and black and Latino inferiority, in the U.S. and worldwide. And yet Buchanan’s cult of meritocracy can’t quite let in the information that in fact Asian-Americans are out-performing European-Americans in high schools and universities throughout America, and Asian-American family income is growing faster than that of whites. He appears to blame affirmative action for the high number of Asian and Jewish students in Ivy League schools, when in fact both groups have proven that admissions directors over the years have found shady ways to cap their enrollment despite their high achievement. He acknowledges a “white-Asian” elite in California, which he charges is being overtaxed by a lazy, underachieving black-Latino plurality supported by white liberals. But mostly he seems to see Asian-American achievement as just another affirmative action plot to take America away from white Christians. In Obama’s America, “the white working and middle class is being made to pay disproportionately for America’s past sins,” he writes. Eventually, “there is no doubt as to who will be running the country and who will be riding in the back of the bus.”
Yes, that’s two references to “the back of the bus.”
In Buchanan’s dim view of civilization, it’s not only white Christian countries, or cultures, that are on the decline. “American Jews seem to be an endangered species,” he declares (a little comically, since he’s never been a particular friend of American Jews). In fact, the U.S. Jewish population is declining, in part because of intermarriage, and each younger generation getting progressively less observant in our overall less tribalist society. But Buchanan doesn’t mention any of that: he blames birth control and abortion, which is a form of karmic payback in his telling, since Jews tend to support reproductive rights. “How many of the 50 million abortions since 1973 were performed on Jewish girls or women?” Buchanan asks. “How many Jewish children were never conceived because of birth control?” It would be funny if it weren’t so creepy.
Japan, Singapore and South Korea are declining, too, Buchanan notes – but since they weren’t white Christian countries to begin with, he doesn’t seem able to explain why. There is at least one thing he admires about those declining Asian countries, though. They’re not hiding their decline with immigration; they’d rather die than let in folks different from them. Europe, on the other hand, is being reconquered by Islam, via immigration: “Millions [of Muslims] have come to fill spaces left empty by aging, dying and aborted Europeans.” Buchanan admires what he sees as the declining Asian countries’ stoic refusal to let immigrants somehow keep their nation alive. But that seems like suicide to me.
And while he spends a lot of space lamenting the decline of Catholicism in the U.S. and globally — Islam has officially displaced it as the world’s largest religion – he has to acknowledge that the church continues to grow in Africa, Latin America and Asia. But somehow, they’re the wrong kind of Catholics: “With the number of bishops and cardinals from Latin America, Africa and Asian inevitably rising … [the] Church may be more orthodox on theological and moral issues, but it will be far less receptive to capitalism and Western concerns.” Clearly capitalism trumps theological and moral issues for Buchanan. That’s good to know.
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As a Californian, I’ve heard Republicans make the case that Latinos and Asians, as immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, could be a new GOP constituency, open to their free-market policies. I always thought that seemed possible. Likewise, I remember San Francisco political meetings in my youth where people worried that the gay vote was up for grabs, our left-wing hero Harvey Milk notwithstanding, since affluent childless straight couples might be more likely to vote free-market Republican. (Thank God for gay parenting!) But increasingly, Asians, Latinos and gay people have gravitated to the Democratic Party, at least partly because of the racial exclusivity and homophobia of much of the GOP. That’s OK with Buchanan. He doesn’t care to contest his ideas in a multiracial democracy; it seems as though he’d rather see his party and his country die than go brown; turn gray, but never gay.
In fact, he blames George W. Bush’s outreach to Latinos, and his support of immigration reform, for the fact that the GOP lost so badly in 2006 and 2008. Immigration reform likewise doomed Sen. John McCain, in his view, as did his refusal to press Obama’s connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Buchanan attacks former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman for telling the NAACP in 2005: “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I’m here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” Of course, McCain got only 4 percent of the black vote against Barack Obama, Buchanan delights in reminding us, and Mehlman later “came out of the closet and went to work in support of gay marriage.” So what kind of a Republican was he, anyway?
But 2010 gave Buchanan hope, he says, because “white America came out to vote, and minorities and the young stayed home.” He promises more of the same in 2012 — if Republicans are courageous enough to take his advice. Forget about black and Jewish votes, Buchanan tells the GOP: If the party can increase its edge with whites and Catholics, they’ll take back the White House and Senate. (He seems to be forgetting that a lot of Catholics today are Latino, and therefore not entirely fit for white Christian Republican America; I’m not sure how that will work.)
The end of the book contains Buchanan’s template for success in 2012, which consists of restricting trade, halting immigration, slashing federal spending and — one point many progressives will agree with – “dismantling the empire,” and dramatically cutting military spending. (There’s a reason why when I first started out doing MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” I frequently agreed with Buchanan, as long as we discussed the Iraq war.)
At times in that last chapter, he’s almost the old Pat Buchanan, urging Republicans to embrace their status as “the white party” and double down on their old-fashioned values. If the GOP can just increase its share of the white vote in 2012 to 52 percent – the share George W. Bush got in 2004 – the party can defeat Obama, he says. He insists a “silent majority” shares his opposition to abortion, gay marriage and the Obama revolution. But here again, he cherry-picks poll data. Majorities of Americans want abortion to be legal, although as Buchanan notes, they back certain restrictions. Larger majorities support gay marriage. A majority of American Catholics support gay rights, and 43 percent, almost half, support gay marriage. An astonishing 86 percent of Americans, including 84 percent of whites, support interracial marriage, an important force behind the “browning” of America. Buchanan has lost the culture war, and I think he knows it.
But it’s also as if he’s decided to lose the larger war. I can’t imagine giving up on my country, my party and even my religion, just because the people who had come to share it didn’t quite look like me. I take this book seriously because I owe a certain debt to Pat Buchanan. Doing television with this infamous Irish Catholic conservative, I began to reflect seriously for the first time on the vision of America I grew up with. It was handed to me by my parents, working-class Irish Catholics who believed in e pluribus unum – that those words made their inclusion possible, and they would stretch forward to make sure the civil rights movement accomplished its goals, too.
They took seriously the promise of America – that a nation composed of the world’s cultures and religions could be stronger than the sum of its parts, indivisible – and so do I. Pat Buchanan doesn’t. I’m sure he intends the “suicide” in his title to refer to decisions made by American democracy, and American Democrats — to turn our back on our white Christian heritage, I guess. But I think it describes Buchanan’s decision to turn his back on his multiracial country, to let a change in its racial and religious composition snuff out his faith in its future.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)