The Bridge: Bob Dylan, the ‘Ruling Class,’ and the ‘Country Class’
How Bob Dylan checked out of the culture war.
September 15, 2010 - 12:01 am
Angelo M. Codevilla’s essay, “America’s Ruling Class — and the Perils of Revolution,” published this summer in the American Spectator, and released this week in book form, has already accomplished what few essays do: it has touched a nerve. In his essay, Codevilla contrasts the “Ruling Class,” including both Republicans and Democrats but tending leftward in word and deed, with the the “country class,” consisting of heterogonous individualists who’d rather be judged on their merits than their beliefs and affiliations. Despite its name, it should be emphasized that you can belong to the “country class” and still live in a tattoo-stained neighborhood in a big, fashionable burg like New York City. In fact, many do, even if they often feel a need to lower their voices.
At the heart of Codevilla’s essay lies the charge that today’s “ruling class” was trained to think the same way and speak the same left-of-center ideological language. This he sees as a tragedy for intellectual diversity, and as a danger to America’s future.
Culturally, who represents the “ruling class”? Look at any movie and TV screen, open any newspaper or magazine, and the A-list names and candidates will come tumbling forth like clothes out of a dryer opened mid-cycle. For it often seems as if every actor, singer, novelist, screen writer, TV producer, hairdresser’s assistant, sound engineer, and failed Foley artist aligns his or her beliefs with those of the Democratic Party and will continue to do so until he or she drops dead.
But culturally, who represents the “country class” while also being respected by the “ruling class”? Is there even a Laundromat? Technically, yes, albeit one peopled by strange, threatening, or quarrelsome types like Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Ted Nugent, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, Robert Duvall, and Sylvester Stallone, several possibly armed. Would anyone even dare to go in?
The obvious response on the “country class” side, having a paucity of crossover cultural icons to their name, is to put forward a politician who will immediately and inevitably be covered in opprobrium on a thousand Web sites. After all, few people like politicians. As a certain American sang scornfully over four decades ago, “The drunken politician leaps / Upon the street, where mothers weep.” And if there’s one person who could be said to represent the “country class” it’s the very man who penned those words, namely Bob Dylan. The man, moreover, who was the “voice” and inspiration of the liberal “ruling class” in its infancy, and who nonetheless has long stood apart from its obsessions and precepts.
In the mainstream media, Dylan’s image is still rigidly defined by the social upheavals of the 1960s, though he rid himself of those shackles when he was only 26. To be precise, he divorced himself from the increasingly leftist, anti-American politics of his own generation when, in 1967, he moved to a house in upstate New York to record the Americana-drenched Basement Tapes with The Band. Soon after that, while free love made love to riots and psychedelic stalks burst from a million brain sockets, he married, started a family, and wrote more good songs, few of which had revolutionary applications, although “Dear Landlord” will surely always have a place in city-dwellers’ cramped, rent-obsessed hearts.
So while Dylan may not be conservative in the conventional sense — he’s sui generis, if anyone is — he is definitely not a member of the “ruling class” as described by Codevilla, even if many of its members still regard him with a mixture of wonder and awe. That they do so is partly based on merit and partly on generational solidarity. As the late New Yorker writer, George W.S. Trow, pointed out, rock ‘n’ roll is the baby boomers’ major contribution to the culture and they will forever circle the wagons to protect its status. And by boomer consensus, the most important rock ‘n’ roller of all is Dylan.
Yet by the standards of his ruling-class peers, Dylan is an old-fashioned patriot who wears cowboy hats, loves Texas as much as Greenwich Village, and spoke warmly to Rolling Stone of George W. Bush, whom he’d met when the latter was governor of Texas, while also wishing President Obama well.