It's a sad day when Peter Bronson inspires deep (or at least relatively) thoughts. It all began with this column
in today's Enquirer, a celebration of the country music. Now, let me start by saying two things: 1) I don't particularly like country music; and 2) I respect the fact that there is good country music. And by good, I mean that there is country music that is thoughtful, intelligent, poetic, etc.
Mr. Bronson celebrates another side of country music, however, and that side is characterized by trite, cloying, and easy-to-swallow sentiment. He believes this part of country music is, in the words of Randy Travis, "'as honest as a robin on a springtime windowsill.'" (What?) When I hear it, I tend to think, often parenthetically, "What?"
But Bronson's column got me thinking, as I navigated the rush-hour traffic on I-71, about why country music, particularly the crappy, trite kind, is so popular. (An aside--This is not to single out country music as the only genre that can be crappy and trite. Pop music certainly can, as can rap, R&B, heavy metal, classical, whatever. The difference, though, is that country music has been equated with a certain morality in America. For a tangentially related discussion on this point, check out my earlier post about the Dixie Chicks.)
And while weaving in and out of traffice, I developed the theory that bad country music is so popular because it presents life's problems in easy-to-absorb nuggets. Problems are painted in black-and-white, and every question has only one answer. As Bronson puts it, "There's cheatin' and lyin' and drinkin' to drown the hurtin'. But there's always a price to pay for 'doin' her wrong.' The rules are as straight as fresh-plowed furrows." In other words, there's a simple morality to it. Cheating is wrong, and it carries its own punishment. And I think that most people want that sort of easy solution to life's problems.
Not that I blame them for that, necessarily. There are plenty of people for whom sitting around and pondering the gray areas and asking difficult questions would interfere with more important jobs -- such as earning a living wage or raising children. Nor am I necessarily advocating moral relativity, where no moral question can be answered simply. Rather, I think it's just a fact of life that the vast majority of people choose not to think deeply about issues. For them, the world is more easily perceived in black-and-white terms, because to conceive of moral quandaries in any other way would be inefficient. That being said, I believe, as did Socrates (or at least Plato), that, "The life which is unexamined is not worth living,"
but I also understand that this belief is not commonly shared, or at least lived.
Having recognized this proposition, I then thought about a conversation I had over the weekend with a Boston Democrat, with whom I tried to puzzle out the best Democratic candidate for president in '04. As an initial note, however, I must point out that this guy does not fall into the category of people I have just described above. For him, things were not all black-and-white. But what struck me is that he spoke of his liberalism as somehow foreordained by the fact that he grew up in Boston. Just as many conservatives conceive of conservatism as a natural state, as the end of the spectrum at which ordinary people find themselves unless they've been corrupted by the golden apple of elitism, this guy saw his liberalism as normal and expected. As if being liberal could be just as "ordinary" (as opposed to "elitist") as being conservative. And, of course, that's true. There are plenty of "ordinary people" who are liberals. Unless, of course, you believe that the people in all traditionally blue states (like Vermont, Delaware, Illinois, and Hawaii) are inherently elitist.
But liberalism has lost its grip in America recently. Conservatives have taken over the discourse and, in my view, brainwashed many people into accepting that conservative ideals are morally correct. And that is the problem that I believe that Democrats need to solve before 2004. (Of course, this proposition is based on a somewhat shaky assumption: that is, Democrats can be equated with liberals. But deconstructing that one is for another time.) How can they convince "ordinary," country-music-listening people that liberal ideals, like the government existing to help the poor rather than the rich, are just plain right? How can they recast the black-and-white dichotomies in their favor?
Unfortunately, I don't have any answers to these questions, but I look at places like Chicago, New York, and Boston, where Mr. Bronson's "ordinary people" just are liberal, and I know it can be done.