"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)
David Brooks disapproves of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
Snowden’s actions, Brooks says, are a betrayal of virtually every commitment and connection Snowden has ever made: his oath to his country, his promise to his employer, his loyalty to his friends, and more.
But in one of those precious pirouettes of paradox that only he can perform, Brooks sees those betrayals as a symptom of a deeper pathology: Snowden’s inability to make commitments and connections.
According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.
This is an old argument on the communitarian right and left: The loss of social bonds and connections turns men and women into the flotsam and jetsam of modern society, ready for any reckless adventure, no matter how malignant — treason, serial murder, totalitarianism.
It’s mostly bullshit, but there’s a certain logic to what Brooks is saying, albeit one he might not care to face up to.
In the long history of state tyranny, it is often those who are bound by close ties of personal connection to family and friends who are most likely to cooperate with the government: that is, not to “betray” their oaths to a repressive regime, not to oppose or challenge authoritarian rule. Precisely because those ties are levers that the regime can pull in order to engineer an individual’s collaboration and consent.
Take the Soviet Union under Stalin. Though there’s a venerable tradition in social thought that sees Soviet totalitarianism as the product of atomized individuals, one of the factors that made Stalinism possible was precisely that men and women were connected to each other, that they were in families and felt bound to protect each other. To protect each other by cooperating with rather than opposing Stalin.
Nikolai Bukharin’s confession in a 1938 show trial to an extraordinary career of counterrevolutionary crime, crimes he clearly did not commit, has long served as a touchstone of the manic self-liquidation that was supposed to be communism. It has inspired such treatments as Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Humanism and Terror” and Godard’s “La Chinoise.” Yet contrary to the myth that Bukharin somehow chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of the cause, Bukharin was brutally interrogated for a year and he was repeatedly threatened with violence against his family. In the end, the possibility that a confession might save them, if not him, proved to be potent. (1)
Threats against family members were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. As I wrote in “Fear: The History of a Political Idea”:
Stalin corralled many individuals to cooperate with his tyranny by threatening their families, and had less success among those with no families. In a 1947 letter, the head of Soviet counterintelligence recommended invoking suspects’ “family and personal ties” during interrogation sessions. Soviet interrogators would put on their desks, in full view, the personal effects of suspects’ relatives as well as a copy of a decree legalizing the execution of children.
It wasn’t just under Stalin that family ties could be leveraged like this. The entire history of McCarthyism, that sordid story of the blacklist and naming names, is littered with similar concerns, albeit of a less lethal variety.
Sterling Hayden — best known for his roles as Gen. Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” and the corrupt Capt. McCluskey in “The Godfather” — named seven names (including his former lover) in part because he was worried that if he didn’t cooperate with the government he might lose custody of his children (he was in the middle of divorce proceedings). (3)
More often, those who cooperated with the government did so because they feared they wouldn’t be able to support their families. That was certainly the case with Roy Huggins, a now forgotten screenwriter, producer and director, who gave us television shows like “The Fugitive” and “The Rockford Files.” Huggins named 19 names to HUAC — though he refused to spell them for the committee, prompting Victor Navasky to drily comment that Huggins deemed it more principled “to give the names but not the letters.” Though Huggins daydreamed of the political theater of going to prison rather than betray his comrades — witnesses refusing to name names could be cited for contempt of Congress and then be tried, convicted and jailed —he worried too much about his family to resist: “Who the hell is going to take care of two small children, a mother, and a wife, all of whom are totally dependent on me?” (4)
As Elia Kazan deliberated over whether to name names (he eventually did), he told the producer Kermit Bloomgarden — who was responsible for bringing such plays as “Death of a Salesman,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Equus” to the American stage — that “I’ve got to think of my kids.” To which Bloomgarden responded, “This too shall pass, and then you’ll be an informer in the eyes of your kids, think of that.” And while Kazan had other options that would have kept his family afloat, as did writers who could write under pseudonyms, that was not the case with well-known actors like Lee J. Cobb, who declared, “It’s the only face I have.” Or Zero Mostel, who said, “I am a man of thousand faces, all of them blacklisted.” (Cobb named names. Mostel did not.) (5)
But it’s not just family connections that do the enabling work of state repression. Other trusted figures in our lives — teachers and preachers, lovers and therapists, even lawyers — can be used by the state (or can make themselves useful to the state) to encourage us to cooperate, to remind us that our local obligations to family and friends, to partners and loved ones, trump our larger moral and political commitments.
Hayden’s example is again instructive. As I wrote in “Fear”:
The more immediate influences on Hayden’s decision, however, were Martin Gang, his lawyer, and Phil Cohen, his therapist. When Hayden first began to suspect that he was being blacklisted, he turned to Gang for advice. Gang suggested that he draft a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, explaining his past involvement in the party and expressing sincere repentance. Cooperating with the FBI, said Gang, would keep Hayden under HUAC’s radar and out of the television lights. Unconvinced, Hayden turned to Cohen, who assured him that Gang’s recommendation was reasonable. So advised, Hayden submitted the letter. But on the day he was scheduled to speak with the FBI, he had second thoughts. “Martin,” he told his lawyer,
“I still don’t feel right about –”
“Sterling, now listen to me. We’ve been over this thing time and time again. You make entirely too much of it. The time to have felt this way was before we wrote the letter.”
“Yes, I guess you’re right.”
“You know I’m right. You made the mistake. Nobody told you to join the Party. You’re not telling the F.B.I. anything they don’t already know.”
Hayden spoke with the FBI, which only made him feel worse and turned him against his therapist. “I’ll say this, too,” he told Cohen, “that if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Not long after, HUAC issued him a subpoena. Cohen again tried to pacify him. “Now then,” said Cohen, “may I remind you there’s really not much difference, so far as you yourself are concerned, between talking to the F.B.I. in private and taking the stand in Washington. You have already informed, after all. You have excellent counsel, you know.” Again, Hayden capitulated.
And as I went onto conclude:
In recent years, scholar and writers have extolled the virtues of an independent civil society, in which private circles of intimate association are supposed to shield men and women from a repressive state. To the extent that these links are explicitly political and oppositional, this account of civil society holds true. Few of us have the inner strength or sustaining vision to opt for the lonely path of a Socrates or a Solzhenitsyn. Deprived of the solidarity of comrades, our visions seem idiosyncratic and quixotic; fortified by our political affiliations, they seem moral and viable.
But what analysts of civil society often ignore is the experience of Hayden and others like him, how our everyday connections can echo or amplify our inner counsels of fear. “Friends and family worry about me,” writes Mino Akhtar, a Pakistani American management consultant in New Jersey who has campaigned against the war in Iraq and the secret detention of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11. “They tell me to be careful, that I’m taking risks. They say that if my face and name keep coming up in public I won’t get any more consulting jobs. I think about that sometimes. You work hard to establish yourself, you have the good job, big home, these mortgage payments; it’s scary to think you can lose it all.”
It is precisely the nonpolitical, personal nature of these connections that makes them so powerful a voice for cooperation. Afraid, we think about our lives and livelihoods, loved ones and friends, and we doubt the meaning or efficacy of our politics. When comrades advise us to resist, we discard their counsel as so much political rhetoric; when trusted intimates advise us to submit, we hear the innocent, apolitical voice of natural reason. Because these counsels of submission are not seen as political recommendations, they are ideal packages of covert political transmission.
Back to David Brooks. Brooks likes to package his strictures in the gauzy wrap of an apolitical communitarianism. But Brooks is also, let us not forget, an authority- and state-minded chap, who doesn’t like punks like Snowden mucking up the work of war and the sacralized state. And it is precisely banal and familial bromides such as these — the need to honor one’s oaths, the importance of family and connection — that have underwritten popular collaboration with that work for at least a century, if not more.
Stalin understood all of this. So does David Brooks.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin" and "Fear: The History of a Political Idea." He blogs at coreyrobin.com.More Corey Robin.
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)