The Great Airbrushing meets the Great Relearning on the Fourth

posted at 7:30 pm on July 4, 2010 by Ed Driscoll

Like many states with large urban areas, California has a bit of a graffiti problem. Drive past a railroad yard, an industrial park, a bridge or an overpass, and the odds are very good that you’ll the spray-painted markings from a would-be artist’s latest quest for immortality. And given the slow rate that this stuff seems to get cleaned up, if ever, he may have stumbled over the perfect medium to achieve it.

Fortunately, California is getting serious about the issue:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is apologizing for a decision by state transportation officials to paint over a giant American flag mural on the side of a Northern California freeway.The 35-foot long flag was painted on a concrete slab near Interstate 680 in Sunol by three men about two weeks after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Even though the mural had been in clear view of commuters for nearly nine years, a Caltrans spokesman says it wasn’t until last month that someone in the agency asked if the flag was on state property.

Spokesman Allyn Amsk says it was covered up with grey paint Wednesday morning.

In a statement Friday, Schwarzenegger extended his “apologies to the artists whose mural inspired drivers along 680 for over eight and a half years.”

They didn’t intend it this way of course, but the brain-dead bureaucrats that inhabit Sacramento have created the perfect metaphor for this Fourth of July weekend, which certainly feels a bit gloomier than some. (How bad is it? Even Canada’s feeling a bit sorry for us today!) Or as Minority Leader John Boehner said of the Democrats and the president, “They’re snuffing out the America that I grew up in,” causing Rick Moran to add:

The congressman is not referring to the grand plans of statesmen and social engineers, or the yardsticks of social progress that so enamor the left. Boehner was referring to a state of mind about America that is disappearing.What else is America except a place that has lived in the dreams of men since we organized ourselves into nation-states? Each of us alone defines our own America, imbuing it with our own hopes, animating it with our own definitions of liberty, consecrating it by our embrace of its traditions and values. It is this feeling about America that Boehner believes is threatened. But is he right? Is his implication that the growth of government under the current administration — the largest expansion in history — can destroy what we “grew up with” as a vision of America in our minds?

There are other things we grew up with in America — those of us of Boehner’s age and a little younger — and not all of them bring pleasant memories to the surface. In fact, a significant number of them we wanted “snuffed out.” Certainly, the casual kind of racism and intolerance that was not unfamiliar in the America of my own youth should have been snuffed out. The second-class citizenship accorded women (cemented in both tradition and the law) needed to be left behind, as did attitudes toward gays, the handicapped, the mentally ill, and others in society who lived on the margins, largely invisible to the majority of us, and who suffered in silence until their concerns were given voice a decade or two later.

The top down airbrushing out of American exceptionalism, in the both the figurative sense as Boehner noted, and in the literal sense via California’s draconian state government is a big part of why John Podhoretz and Roger L. Simon are also striking similar themes this weekend. First up, responding to today’s equivalent of “the casual kind of racism and intolerance” mandated, then and now by the state, Roger wishes the nation “Happy Unbirthday, America:”

But whatever we call our situation, the causes of our malaise are all too apparent — a depressed economy, out-of-control government spending with the largest deficits since World War II, an intractable ecological disaster with no plan how to end it, a continuing global war against an enemy we dare not even name, a mad theocracy on the verge of nuclear weapons, and so on.

Worst of all, however, may be the growing cancer inside our own house. Difficult as our problems may be, they can be resolved democratically in a society under the rule of law. But we have reason to believe that these days, that most basic of all our legal principles, that keystone of our system, one which was fought for by generations of Americans, equality before the law, is under attack at the center of our government.

That is why the most important story that Pajamas Media has covered since its inception in 2005 may be the emergence of whistleblower J. Christian Adams from the Department of Justice. Adams was an attorney in the voting rights division who resigned when the Department forbid him to testify on the New Black Panther case before the US Commission on Civil Rights. The Department had dismissed that case before sentencing, even though they had won it. According to Adams, the DOJ has a dreadful record when pursuing examples of black on white racism. Only racism towards people of color is countenanced.

As CEO of Pajamas Media, I am proud to have published Adams and will continue to do so. I am also a former sixties civil rights worker and what we were fighting for at the time was true racial equality, not an unbalanced system in which aggrieved interest groups, whatever their historical justification, can threaten and bully people of other races. I can’t say what Dr. King would think today (unlike others, I am not psychic) but I would like to think he would oppose racism from all quarters and toward all races. In fact, I am almost certain he would.

At the New York Post, Podhoretz asks, “How are those of us who stand in opposition to the domestic agenda and foreign-policy views of President Obama and his administration to think about this country in 2010 as we approach the nation’s birthday on Sunday?”

Or, to put it another way: How should a self-described patriot think, act and talk about the United States if that self-described patriot believes the elected leadership of the United States has led the country into a ditch that threatens to expand into a bottomless chasm?

Does the fault lie with the president and his party, or does it reside in the electorate that installed them? If it resides in the electorate, what does that say about the condition of the United States?

People interested in public policy and politics with a philosophical bent are profoundly attracted to these sorts of questions. They seem to cut through the fog of specifics to the clarity provided by an inquiry into the basics, into first things.

(After all, it gets tedious after a while to say, “This detail is what’s wrong with the Obama approach to health care,” or “That consequence indicts the entirety of the Bush approach in the War on Terror.” Arguments conducted on that level invite endless counterarguments and rebuttals. Worse, they elevate the opposition as worthy of engagement — when a ferocious and passionate partisan seeks to discredit the opposition. To delegitimize the opposition.)

In the case of Barack Obama, the root questions are: Who is he and why is he doing this?

Podhoretz’s article is titled,“Patriotic opposition: Loving a nation that elected O.” And while it ends on a hopeful note (help is coming in November), reading it after eight years of a culture war from the left against President Bush, followed by two years of a culture war from left against the Americans involved in the Tea Party, it’s a reminder that the Culture War itself, with roots dating back to the 1950s and earlier, has reached the quagmire stage. You can see it at work in Hollywood, where seemingly every recent product is trashed by some protest group as “racist,” when employees of a General Electric co-owned television network can refer to half their potential audience as racist, and when the journalists writing at an email list started by an employee of the Washington Post can refer to their former editor, today the publisher of one of the left’s flagship house organs as — you guessed it — racist.

Taken as a whole, what do all those charges say about the nation’s critics? As Victor Davis Hanson wrote last year:

The charge of racism has been leveled against critics of President Obama’s health-care reform by everyone from New York Times columnists, racial activists, and Democratic legislators to senior statesmen like Jimmy Carter (“It’s a racist attitude”), Bill Clinton (“some . . . are racially prejudiced”), and Walter Mondale (“I don’t want to pick a person [and] say, ‘He’s a racist,’ but I do think the way they’re piling on Obama . . . I think I see an edge in them that’s a little bit different”).

But are Obama’s critics really racists?

It is a serious charge. If true, it means the hope of a color-blind society is essentially over after a half-century of civil-rights progress. If false, it means that we have institutionalized vicious smears as legitimate political tactics — and, in the process, discredited the entire dialogue that surrounds racial prejudice.

A couple of decades ago, in a piece that was later republished in his Hooking Up anthology from 2000, Tom Wolfe described the twin polarities of the modern left: “Starting From Zero” and the inevitable “Great Relearning” that inevitably follows — typically slowly and painfully — when a nation decides to discard its cultural past:

“Start from zero” was the slogan of the Bauhaus School, a tiny artists’ movement in Germany in the 1920s that swept aside the architectural styles of the past and created the glass-box face of the modern American city during the twentieth century. I should mention the soaring exuberance with which the movement began, the passionate conviction of the Bauhaus’s leader, Walter Gropius, that by starting from zero in architecture and design man could free himself from the dead hand of the past.The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes of restraints of the past and start out from zero. Among the codes and restraints that people in the [hippie] communes swept aside—quite purposely—were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all.

And in 1968 they were relearning…the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the 21st century.

In politics the 20th century’s great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system’s bad reputation in the West today, it is instructive to read John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World—before turning to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Well before the sudden breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the relearning had reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China had begun to wonder how best to conquer Communism into something other than, in Bernard Henri-Levy’s memorable phrase, “barbarians with a human face.”

The great American contribution to the 20th century’s start from zero was in the area of manners and mores, especially in what was rather primly called “the sexual revolution.” In every hamlet, even in the erstwhile Bible belt, may be found the village brothel, no longer hidden in a house of blue lights or red lights or behind a green door but openly advertised by the side of the road with a thousand-watt backlit plastic sign. But in the sexual revolution, too, a painful dawn broke in the 1980s, and the relearning, in the form of prophylaxis, began. All may be summed up in a single term requiring no amplifications: AIDS.

The Great Relearning—if anything so prosaic as remedial education can be called great—should be thought of not so much as the end point of the 20th century as the theme of the 21st. There is no law in history that says a new century must start 10 or 20 years beforehand, but two times in a row it has worked out that way.

In a way, America has inverted the process: we didn’t have a “Start From Zero” revolution in the 20th century, nor in January of 2009; it was a slow, inexorable process on the left in academia and both the entertainment and journalism to snuff out of what made America great. It ultimately produced men like Barack Obama who seemingly display little or no pride in what makes this nation unique, despite its flaws, both real and punitively imagined. But perhaps the fortunate lack of a sudden “Start From Zero” moment means that the Great Relearning could occur faster than most.

Or as Podhoretz adds:

The American political system presents two choices to the American people — Republicans or Democrats. After preferring Republicans for a few election cycles in the early years of the first decade of this century and not liking the result, the electorate decided to go for Democrats for a few election cycles. It now appears they don’t like this result either — and will now go back to the Republicans and give them another chance.

The body politic is not panicking, even though the news is dire — because it knows, somehow, that this too shall pass. America has faced worse times and weathered them. Even within our memory, it has had other leaders who also misunderstood their mandates and offered solutions to the nation’s problems that only exacerbated them.

The body politic learns from its mistakes and uses its power to correct them. Taken as a whole, this bunch of rubes and dupes and boobs shows a remarkably commonsensical approach to these things by saying, in essence:

Nothing is irreversible. Change is possible.

The political message of July 4, 2010 that is looking increasingly like a harbinger of doom for the man who popularized it two years ago is simply this:

Yes, we can.

Hope!

(Originally posted at Ed Driscoll.com)


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