Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
On Wednesday morning, I opened the New York Times to read that president Hu Jin-Tao had denounced the West for launching a culture war against China. “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Hu pronounced in “Seeking Truth,” a Communist Party magazine. “We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Was it really possible that such wooden slogans were still being used by the leaders of the country with the most dynamic economy on earth? “We should deeply understand”? “Always sound the alarms”? Those antique phrases sounded like they’d been torn from a poster that had been pasted up during the Cultural Revolution and somehow never taken down. It seemed that not that much had changed since soon-to-be-Chairman Mao was writing tomes rejoicing in titles like “To Be Attacked by the Enemy Is Not a Bad Thing but a Good Thing” and urging the members of the party to cut off the head of imperialist snakes. A belief system as nutty as Maoism took a long time to get out of a nation’s system. I pitied the poor 1.3 billion Chinese, living in a country so insecure, so adolescent, so in thrall to authoritarian nationalism, that its politicians felt impelled to keep the cult alive. Thank God I’m an American, I told myself. We have plenty of cults, but at least they don’t get involved with our national politics.
Then I watched Michele Bachmann’s withdrawal speech.
Bachmann’s speech was a religious testimony, informing us that on the evening of March 21, 2010, she had a divine revelation. OK, she didn’t use the word “divine,” but that was basically the idea. You see, her holy revelation started with the Founding Fathers. And for Bachmann, Washington and Jefferson, if not literally angels, are flying around in their neighborhood.
“Entrusted to every American is their responsibility to watch over our Republic,” she began her speech. “You can look back from the time of the Pilgrims to the time of William Penn, to the time of our Founding Fathers. All we have to do is look around because very clearly we are encompassed with a great cloud of witnesses that bear witness to the sacrifices that were made to establish the U.S. and the precious principle of freedom that has made it the greatest force for good that has ever been seen on the planet.”
The “great cloud of witnesses” is a biblical term. By invoking it, Bachmann moved the Founding Fathers into the company of the prophets. And then she related her own humble journey to join the saved souls atop that great cloud – an epic quest that was spurred by the near-miraculous intercession of a painting of the Founding Fathers signing the Constitution.
“Every schoolchild is familiar with this painting,” Bachmann said. “But I’ve been privileged to see it on a regular basis, doing my duties in Congress. But never were the painting’s poignant reminder more evident than on the evening of March 21, 2010. That was the evening that Obamacare was passed and staring out from the painting are the faces of the founders, and in particular the face of Ben Franklin, who served as a constant reminder of the fragile Republic that he and the founders gave to us. That day served as the inspiration for my run for the President of the United States, because I believed firmly that what Congress had done and what President Obama had done in passing Obamacare endangered the very survival of the United States of America, our Republic.”
Bachmann closed her sermon by saying, “I look forward to the next chapter in God’s plan.”
Of such blinding revelations, religions are made. And cults.
The Republican hatred of Obama has become a cult. It is typically dressed up with the trappings of Christianity, but the cult does not reflect the teachings of that Jewish heretic known as Jesus of Nazareth — unless you believe, as Bachmann appears to, that defeating “Obamacare” is an essential part of the Lord’s master plan for the universe. (Personally, I would have thought that the great soul who reached out to the poor, the sick and the despised would have preferred universal healthcare over a system devoted to swelling the profits of those modern-day money-changers known as insurance companies, but what do I know?) But that is not to say that the version of Christianity embraced by many members of the anti-Obama cult does not play a key role in the movement, in ways we shall presently explore.
The anti-Obama cult is based on an irrational, grossly excessive fear and hatred of something the cult members call “big government” or “socialism,” and an equally irrational worship of something they call “freedom” or “liberty.” The fear and hatred of big government is irrational and excessive because Obama’s innocuous heathcare bill, the passage of which cult members like Bachmann see as the beginning of the end for America, is far less momentous as a piece of “social engineering” than Social Security, Medicare, welfare or progressive taxation.
We already live in a world where government intrudes on our freedom in a multitude of ways. Moreover, other enormous, impersonal forces, mainly corporate ones, constrain our liberty even more directly. Many of the “average Americans” the cult members claim to be speaking for lost their life savings when the bubble caused by an orgy of unregulated financial speculation burst – a far greater infringement on their “freedom” than being required to carry health insurance.
As for Obama himself, he is a bland left-leaning centrist, a slightly more liberal clone of moderate Republicans like Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his “socialist” policies are part of a long American tradition that goes back to FDR.
Why, then, did the anti-Obama cult suddenly take over the entire Republican Party?
The main reason, I believe, is that the American right was backed into a corner and had no other card to play. The disastrous presidency of George W. Bush revealed the complete bankruptcy (literally) of the two core right-wing nostrums, “freedom” (good) and “big government” (bad). “Freedom” had led to the biggest meltdown since the Great Depression. And big government – which was greatly expanded by Bush, to the deafening silence of the soon-to-be-anti-Obama fanatics – had done nothing to prevent it. In the wreckage left by Bush, there was nothing for the right to do, if it wanted to live to fight another day, except deny causality (and reality) and demonize Obama. By naively reaching out to Republicans, Obama let them get away with this, and squandered a teachable moment that could have changed the face of American politics.
The right survived. But defending this indefensible position squeezed its core beliefs into a kind of black hole, a blank spot of pure resentment, devoid of content, where the laws of logic did not apply. (According to Wikipedia, “Black holes of stellar mass are expected to form when very massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle.”) As a result, “freedom” and its evil twin, “big government,” became metaphysical concepts, so elastic and amorphous that they could mean anything or nothing. They have come to play the same role in right-wing discourse as “the bourgeoisie” and “the workers” do in Marxism – they’re catchalls that can be plugged into any situation.
Thus, “big government” mostly means “giving money to undeserving people with dark skin” – a core GOP belief, central to the party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, that Rick Santorum was rash enough to articulate. But it also has a cultural dimension in which it means pointy-headed elites who look down on “real Americans.” And trickiest of all, it also has a personal dimension in which it means anything that limits individual freedom — which explains the appeal, to those Republicans and independents who are genuine and consistent libertarians, of Ron Paul. (It is because “freedom” does not actually mean anything in the orthodox right-wing universe that non-libertarian conservatives like Romney, Bachmann, Santorum and the rest can advocate for intrusive drug laws, anti-gay laws and massive military budgets, while wrapping themselves in the mantle of “liberty.”)
Because “big government” does not have a fixed meaning, attacking it can simultaneously serve as a rallying cry for racial resentment, an impassioned demand for personal liberation and a marker of class- and region-based solidarity. This is why when the Republican candidates inveigh against big government, which they do approximately every time they open their mouths, their rants have all the weird, malevolent imprecision of a Stalinist attack on “running dog lackeys of the bourgeoisie.” They are the ravings of True Believers, of cult members.
Also lurking in that black hole was the one right-wing card that Bush did not destroy, because it is indestructible — the “culture war.” The far right’s free-floating hatred of America’s liberal, secular culture waxes and wanes, but it never goes away, and it is responsible for the rise of Rick Santorum, the GOP’s latest Dispose-a-Candidate. For Santorum, sinful modern life is to blame for everything, and it is our duty to always sound the alarms and remain vigilant against it. Thus, when the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal broke, Santorum blamed, not the church that covered it up or the individual priests who disgraced themselves and abused their position, but – Boston.
“When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm. We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of liberalizing and dividing America, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”
OK, I borrowed that last sentence from the quote by Comrade Hu, but you have to admit it tracks pretty well with the thoughts of Chairman Santorum.
The implosion of right-wing ideology and the persistence of the culture war toxin might have been enough by itself to create the anti-Obama cult, but two other factors also played a role. The first was his race. For many right-wingers, Obama was a foreign object, whose unexpected entrance into the body politic activated their immune systems – hence the “birther” movement and other bizarre right-wing obsessions. Whether the right’s aversion to Obama constitutes classic racism is a Talmudic question; what is undeniable is that his race activated a horde of (literally) white cells, rushing to expel the invader. Like organisms, cults always delineate themselves by drawing sharp lines between Us and Them.
The second reason involves Christianity. As Michele Bachmann’s speech demonstrated, for many devout right-wing Christians, there is no real difference between politics and religion. If religion is the uppermost thing in one’s life, if Jesus is with one every minute of every day, then it is easy to see how a true believer like Bachmann could come to see preserving her vision of the Republic as a semi-sacred trust, and defeating “Obamacare” as an essential part of that godly mission. Moreover, devoutly literalistic Christians tend to divide the world up into Good and Evil, with the founding dyad of God and the devil lurking in the background; it is not too much of a stretch to say that for many right-wing Christians, Barack Obama is at least of the devil’s party, if not Beelzebub himself.
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing that Christianity itself is a cult, or that Christians (or adherents of any religion) are inherently drawn to cultlike thinking. I am simply making the case that the right wing’s irrational hatred of Obama is cultlike, and that the literalist Christian faith of many right-wing opponents of Obama, including many of the GOP presidential candidates, clearly plays a role in their extreme beliefs.
To be sure, much of the anti-Obama cult is just Machiavellian politics. You hunt where the ducks are, and the ducks in this case are loons. It is extremely unlikely that Mitt Romney stares at a painting of Ben Franklin every day and has celestial visions of turning back Obama’s satanic plan to destroy America — which is precisely why the True Believers can’t stand him. But things have gotten Chairman Mao-y enough in the Republican Party that Romney has been forced to do his best to pretend he is a card-carrying member of the People’s Glorious Tea Party, Determined to Kill All Wriggling Socialist Snakes. Whether a fake cult member will prove more attractive to Republican voters than the genuine article will determine who will face Obama this fall.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.