"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)
Prior to Barack Obama’s presidency, healthcare access was the gaping hole in the country’s tattered, patchwork safety net. If, for instance, you made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, weren’t old enough to qualify for Medicare, never served in the military, and didn’t work for a large employer, you probably had to pay for your own insurance. If you were low- or middle-income, or you had a preexisting condition, there was a decent chance you were uninsured, unable to obtain routine care and at constant risk of financial ruin.
Add ‘em all up and we’re talking about upward of 50 million people.
Part of the reason conservatives fought the Affordable Care Act so relentlessly, and continue to fantasize about its demise, is that it will ultimately fill that hole. Though flawed and inadequate in key ways, the safety net will now lack major structural gaps it just had. When conservatives warn that Obamacare will turn the United States into a European welfare state, they’re being histrionic, but they’re not being entirely disingenuous.
The extraordinary but ultimately failed efforts Republicans undertook in 2011 and 2012 to win back Congress and the White House — the direct assault on public sector unions, systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters, legislative sabotage on Capitol Hill — are perhaps best thought of as rearguard actions to prevent Obamacare from ever taking effect. To keep America from becoming Europe.
Obama’s reelection was Game Over. GOP leaders understood this, even if rank-and-file Republicans and millions of Republican voters remain in denial about it.
But just because the American welfare state no longer lacks the linchpin of a healthcare guarantee doesn’t mean the programs that compose it will lumber along in their current forms unchanged. In other words, the grueling ideological struggle over the shape and generosity of U.S. social programs will continue for years to come.
Enter a snarky, unconventional but ultimately innocuous Rolling Stone article by Jesse Myerson. In it, he proposes five reforms that are pretty far-reaching relative to the country’s existing social and economic regime, and would in fact dramatically alter the balance of economic and political power in America.
When you strip away the comedic framing, though, they’re a fairly straightforward mix of progressive and radical-centrist reforms. (See Matt Yglesias for a complete breakdown.)
But conservatives went absolutely apeshit. So severe was the apoplexy that they failed to recognize that included in these ideas were a bunch of things conservatives like — replacing income taxes and replacing paternalistic welfare programs with cash transfers — and that already exist successfully in the non-communist world. It was amazing.
In their rendering, Myerson hadn’t sketched out a road to serfdom. He’d planned a massive frog-march to Siberia for our society.
Part of this was emotional affect. Myerson’s Twitter bio is satirically hashtagged #FULLCOMMUNISM. Combine that with the article’s hyperbolic framing and many conservatives reacted tribally.
Some of Myerson’s antagonists were smart enough to see past the cultural identity stuff but too weak-minded not to respond with shallow, reactionary nonsense. Sean Davis thinks Myerson’s ideas are discredited because they all appear in the USSR’s constitution (they don’t really). Even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that this rebuttal isn’t historically illiterate, you can’t get past the juvenile reasoning. Even if you assume Soviet leaders rigorously adhered to a constitution, Davis is making an inductive fallacy.
If he’d clicked on the link in his own piece, he’d have seen, right up top, that “women and men have equal rights in the USSR.”
Exercise of these rights is ensured by according women equal access with men to education and vocational and professional training, equal opportunities in employment, remuneration, and promotion, and in social and political, and cultural activity, and by special labour and health protection measures for women; by providing conditions enabling mothers to work; by legal protection, and material and moral support for mothers and children, including paid leaves and other benefits for expectant mothers and mothers, and gradual reduction of working time for mothers with small children.
Here the U.S. was a bit behind the times, but by Davis’ standard we have now largely embraced this particular form of murderous evil. The Soviet Union also guaranteed free provision of higher education. Here in the United States, we limit that to secondary education, which I suppose means we’ve escaped one of the chains of Soviet bondage.
Smarter conservatives both understood that Myerson’s list isn’t communism, but nevertheless had a visceral oppositional reaction to it. Which brings us back to the right’s losing bid to unseat Obamacare and the evolving debate over social policy in the U.S., post-Obamacare.
I don’t think the ongoing freakout over the Rolling Stone article is simply a reflection of cultural anxieties. It also reflects an effort to limit the scope of that debate, so that progressive ideas fall outside of the sphere of acceptability. A basic cash income wouldn’t destroy America, and actually enjoys the support of conservative heavyweights, now and in the past. But it isn’t exactly compatible with significant tax cuts for wealthy people. And it preserves the federal government’s role as the purveyor of public welfare. One way to marginalize ideas like that is to call them communism.
A lot of conservatives just don’t know any better. But for the rest, this is as much about keeping the endless debate over social welfare anchored around shrinking government and privatizing services as it is an ignorant cultural reaction to a writer from New York who made a #joke about #communism on the Internet.
Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.More Brian Beutler.
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)