Sunday, November 27, 2005

Can Buffy Save the Democrats? Can Mark Warner?

There is something here in the air of New England which was not here when I was a child. It seems to have come into the world like a spirit born of its own accord about the time when the great elms died all throughout the region’s countryside. It is the dissident spirit of trash social studies which pervades the university, politics, the press and the public culture up here and it has mushroomed in my lifetime.

Nathanial Hawthorne says it is a life force from the spirit world which has always been here. It is a witch spirit, he says, from “those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life.” That would be the Puritans he was referring to, those high-minded early New England settlers who were big on concepts and religious fanaticism, but unable to farm enough food to keep themselves from starving to death. I think it has come back. Maybe it is that witch spirit which prevents Boston area politicians from being able to properly route traffic, coordinate transportation or generally help you find your way around the region.

When I attended the University of Massachusetts this spirit rose into the world and Awakened, much like the corpse plant that is hatching today in the Smithsonian’s Botanical Garden. Surely every strain of humanity from Southie, Cohasset and Roxbury was there then, smoking a joint – sometimes with the professor – before the 10 am class . . . something funkatatious in the popular culture oeuvre, most likely, which you might want to take pass/fail. I think we were assigned The Autobiography of Malcom X even for math class in those days. I distinctly remember being assigned it for economics.

It was a spirit pretentious and somewhat pitiful. It seeped throughout my generation and pervaded New England, like the ooze of industrial sludge which covered the ponds in towns like Fall River, where I grew up. It was a kind of half-knowledge and half-hostility which saw itself exclusively in opposition to power. That was the ticket. I’d just caught the end of it as I’d spent the late Sixties in military service. But it was still in blossom in the early 1970s when I attended college.

In those days teachers still openly called themselves Marxists. But these pale, suburban political nihilists who came to lead us young people further into confusion were absurd caricatures compared to their fierce spiritual ancestors in Russia and China. (As one commentator said back then, “These people don’t want to take over the world. They want to take over the English Department!”) I saw this as a by-product of class mobility in an industrial region – proles aspiring to higher class, coming from the honest desire of parents to get their kids to do better than they did – but then the kid didn’t really do any better, just put on airs – perhaps they weren’t so smart as the parents thought they were.

This condition was well expressed by the second generation, New Jersey Italian psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi – that would be Tony Soprano’s shrink - in an episode where she was having dinner with her yuppie son, who happened to be a student at Bard (Tony’s daughter also considered Bard – Yankeeland colleges like Bard represents a step up socially to Paulie Walnuts & crew). She asked him how his studies were going and what he was studying. “I’m studying some of the Deconstructionists,” he told her. Her sardonic response: “A Deconstructivist. And your grandfather a General Contractor.”

This episode flashed to mind last year when I brought my son to one of the most formidable of New England colleges and one of the most hallowed in the oldest Calvinist New England tradition. It was the college once honored with the presence of Joshua Chamberlain as its President.

There was a time when all New Englanders knew who Joshua Chamberlain was and honored him. Joshua Chamberlain was a soldier from Maine who served in the Civil War. At the time of his enlistment soldiers served with brigades from their own state, and Chamberlain & company one day defended a piece of real estate on the top of Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. The ensuing combat intensified and the Maine soldiers ran out of ammunition. But they saw no reinforcements coming in. So they continued to defend their position with the butt end of their rifles and with knives and stones against the Confederates. Historians consider this to be one of the most important moments in the Civil War. In hindsight, it is one of the most important moments in human history in the past few hundred years as it not only changed the course of the Civil War, but opened the gate to the American condition and its tempo, which would change the way of the world for 150 years and continues to do so today.

But when we went to look at the college, the perky undergraduate who gave us the tour had little regard for “the soldiers” that they used to make such a fuss over. Indeed, she could barely conceal her contempt. That was before they allowed women on campus, she pointed out, although I didn’t see the connection. Things were different now, she said. Now you could take a course on “the evolution of Bart Simpson,” she told us with great enthusiasm and flourishing of the arms.

So this condition not only afflicts the pitiful fictional children of the New Jersey suburbs like Dr. Melfi’s - neither masters nor men, and stuck somewhere in the ozone between gentry and proletariat - but the traditional New Englanders of greater means and their schools as well. From Joshua Chamberlain to Bart Simpson in just 40 years. Seems like a paraphrase of my Marxist math teachers from university days, who often quoted Trotsky’s famous New Man dictum. How did that go? Every man a Plato, every man a Lincoln, every man a Marx . . . ? But here we have it: Every man a Bush, every man an Oprah, every man a Bart Simpson.

So I was pleased with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a New Englander like myself, when he refused to submit to the Demon Spirit and call the new spruce in Boston a “Holiday Tree.” It is a Christmas Tree, said the mayor.

In Boston, many residents voiced their dismay over the state’s official Web site that promoted a December 1 ceremony for "Boston's Official Holiday Tree Lighting.” The official reference is to a Holiday Tree they were lighting up. But Menino said he would keep calling the Nova Scotia spruce a "Christmas tree" regardless of what it said on the city's official Web site.

"I grew up with a Christmas tree, I'm going to stay with a Christmas tree," Menino told reporters on Thursday.

This is not really about Christmas trees. It is about refusing to be territorialized by the language and the pseudo-anthropology of Revenge Demons. Regular viewers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer know what Revenge Demons are. (See I don’t have anything against pop culture studies, per se.) They are spirits which identify at every turn with the discontent, rather than with the civilization. They come out of the earth just when you are doing something joyful, healthy and family-like, such as trimming the Christmas Tree or stuffing stockings, and they attempt to disrupt the situation.

Buffy is the avatar and front line of defense against Revenge Demons. In Buffy World, men are no longer men and they no longer have the political will to defend themselves, their traditions and their families. Indeed, family is a shattered shard of the past and men who once defended the hearth have been made cowering wimps by these Creatures from Beneath the Earth. So Buffy – (for aficionados, she is technically the Earth Mother Incarnate and we call her The Slayer) – has to take it back by herself and her few heroic mortal apprentices.

Christmas is prime time for Revenge Demons, as the Christmas Tree and its sacred celebration descends to the spirit of the English-speaking people like no other and goes to the core of our spirit. The crazy Puritans who settled up here in the northern hills tried to ban Christmas and did so successfully for awhile. It was only when the more sensible English, Irish, Portuguese, Italian and French came over later that things returned to normalcy. But as we see today in Boston, Hawthorne’s spirit force from the Hollow of the Three Hills lies dormant and waits, occasionally awakening.

Until now, New England politicians have been easy prey for Revenge Demons. But Thomas Menino has an inherently happy nature and won’t be taken in by these critters from the Dark Side. Frankly, I’m surprised Governor Mitt Romney allowed it. I thought he had more cajones. So far as I know, the only other prominent politician this side of the Mason-Dixon Line who calls it a Christmas Tree is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the Christmas Tree ruckus, like the annual crèche ruckus is only one manifestation of Revenge Demons. The spirit seems to pervade the Democratic Party like a virus, to some degree infecting almost all Democratic contenders and aspirants to public office. It is this spirit which lifts up the hearts and minds at the thought of new hope for the sick and the weak in the world at a Global Initiative Conference, like the one Bill Clinton recently held, then sinks them when he invites Mick Jagger to make his presence felt (did somebody say Symphony for the Devil?). It is this spirit in which his First Lady, when she finally condescended to speak to the general public in a general interest woman’s magazine in her husband’s first term, venomous commented about “taking back this country” from the “damage done in the Reagan administration” (will somebody tell this woman that 49 out of 50 states voted for Reagan?) It is this spirit which bewilders the average working man and woman after a anomalous candidate like Howard Dean, governor of a state with no actual economy and whose main run of citizens consist of vacationers and retirees, destroys the chances of victory for serious Democratic contenders in the last Presidential primary. It is this spirit which leads the Democratic Party’s most out-of-touch rank and file to appoint him to be Party leader (and leaves them crippled in their fund-raising attempts). And most unfortunately, it is this spirit which invariably pervades the rhetoric of he who held the Democratic Party standard against George Bush in the last Presidential race.

It is a spirit which seems to come, as Hawthorne said, out of New England itself. It is this spirit which presents itself as Victim. It is this spirit which sees itself as self-righteous, indignant and high-minded. It is this spirit which calls itself victorious, even in defeat. And it is this spirit which will destroy the Democratic Party or force it to self-destruct, much like the effete Whig Party, captive of its own witch spirit and lost in the reverie of its own righteous indignation, self destructed in the 1830s.

I think Democratic politicians today should be sent to court-ordered therapy, much as first offenders are sent to Anger Management therapy for minor infractions. The therapists would all wear t-shirts which said, “It’s a management thing. You wouldn’t understand.” I’d force them to watch some of the recent C-Span shows, like the one featuring Newt Gingrich on “Road to the White House” this past week. It shows Gingrich talking about business management. It shows Gingrich talking about attending class recently with W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality control strategies of manufacturing, which allowed America to make good cars again in the 1980s and 1990s. It has Gingrich quoting Peter Drucker. It has Gingrich talking about failure of the Katrina rescue on three levels, federal, state and local and writing Failure on the board three times. It has Gingrich talking about these issues as management failures. It has Gingrich talking enthusiastically about how to face the challenges in economy coming from India and China today and outlining in a quiet voice and in a measured manner how we can address these challenges and grow by these challenges.

Gingrich might be running for President pretty soon. This is how he will present himself to the public.

If the Democrats are going to survive the Jacksonian Presidency of George Bush and not self destruct as their New England Whig ancestors did, they need a new start. Tom Menino appears to have immunity from Revenge Demons. He is a good manager. I hope he runs for Governor of Massachusetts. Perhaps Menino could lead us to the other side of the river.

The first thing Democrats have to ask themselves is what candidates do we have who are noted for management? Wes Clark, Russ Feingold. But by far and away Virginia governor Mark Warner leads the pack. Recently, he was voted by Time to be the Governor of one of the five best-managed states in the country. And recently, The Wall Street Journal has written that there is a strong argument to be made that he would be the party's strongest conceivable general election candidate.

He is a breath of fresh air in a party that is suffocating itself to death.

Warner said recently to the graduating class at Virginia Military Institute, “I come from the business world, where you have to look beyond the next horizon to survive. If you don’t have annual goals, two year goals, and five year goals -- you’re out of business before too long.”

When was the last time the Democrats had a candidate from the business world? When was the last time a Democrat had a five-year plan?


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