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Brendan Bernhard

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September 15, 2010 - 12:01 am
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Nor does Dylan endorse the anti-Christian fervor prevalent among today’s intellectuals. On the contrary, his work has been suffused in the Bible (Old and New Testament) from the start. One might even argue that the religious, mystical strain which runs through his songs plays a distinct role in keeping his audience interested. They hear it in so few other places, after all, it’s something of a relief. As someone remarks in Don DeLillo’s novel, Underworld, people like to have priests and churches around, or at least to know they’re there, because it would be deeply disconcerting to even the most militant atheist if they all vanished overnight.

Baby boomers have gone ballistic on Dylan from time to time. There was his Evangelical phase of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (which really drove them crazy for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that he is Jewish), as well as the bitter disillusionment among folkies when he went electric in 1965. But as time has gone by, he has been forgiven his various trespasses against the secular order: Dylan is Dylan, after all. As Christopher Hitchens, who calls him “a great poet,” stated in a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt: “I think for every decade … there is a special voice. And certainly for my lot, it was him.”

That left-leaning boomers have put their philosophical differences with Dylan to one side in appreciation of his lyrical gift is to their credit, of course. But the strain often shows. During an interview with Jann Wenner in the 40th anniversary edition of Rolling Stone, Dylan replied to a question about the urgency of solving global warming with the mocking, “Where’s the global warming? It’s freezing here.”

When Wenner pressed him as to who would solve the world’s problems if not politicians, Dylan came out with words so Biblically harsh or nakedly Libertarian they are frankly astonishing to the modern ear. Forget politicians: “The world owes us nothing,” he told Wenner, “not one single thing.” And: “Human nature really hasn’t changed in 3,000 years. … It’s not meant to change. It cannot change. It’s not made to change.” Which does rather leave social engineers out in the cold.

OK, so maybe Dylan’s just a callous multi-millionaire who doesn’t need any government hand-outs, thanks very much. But he’s a song writer, not a policy maker, and he was expressing a view of the universe, not producing a sound-bite for “This Week In Politics.” With Codevilla’s essay in mind, we can also interpret his words in another way: He’s not playing the “what’s-the-password” game (which Wenner so desperately wanted him to) of enthusiastically embracing certain ideas while punitively condemning others, which Codevilla describes as the way to get ahead in modern America.

But to emphasize the ideological or even the counter-ideological is to go against the spirit of Dylan himself. What can be gleaned from the totality of his songs is a fixation on the eternals: love between men and women; an obsession with the mystery of creation and/or God; reverence for freedom and the individual; a love-hate relationship with urban life; and a forceful facing-up to mortality that many of his peers are surgically cutting and putting off.

Not everything Codevilla imputes to the “country class” characterizes Dylan. How could it? But this passage did catch my eye: “Unlike the ruling class, the country class does not share a single intellectual orthodoxy, set of tastes, or ideal lifestyle. Its different sectors draw their notions of human equality from different sources: Christians and Jews believe it is God’s law. Libertarians assert it from Hobbesian and Darwinist bases. Many consider equality the foundation of Americanism. Others just hate snobs.”

That fits Dylan not only because he has a song to represent practically everything on that list, but because above all, you can be sure he drinks deeply from equality’s American well. Dylan is not more impressed by a professor than by a construction worker. He may be famous for songs about outlaws and outcasts, but in the song “Dignity” (whose definitive version was released on the first CD of Tell Tale Signs in 2008), he also tipped his hat to the police:

Searching high, searching low,

Searching everywhere I know,

Asking the cops wherever I go,

“Have you seen Dignity?”

Which is what a lot of Americans are searching for at the moment, although unlike Dylan, it wouldn’t occur to them to ask the “cops” for directions, particularly when the entity being pursued is an abstraction. Yet dignity, or a democratically dignified way of life for all, is precisely what the police – and not only the police — are ultimately supposed to uphold.

It’s just one of those witty, slyly old-fashioned, paradoxical sleights-of-hand that makes Dylan an authentic American artist and perhaps a bridge over the increasingly choppy waters that divide the “ruling class” and the “country class.” Just don’t expect him to admit to it — or to anything else for that matter.

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Brendan Bernhard is a contributing editor to the New York Sun, where he was the television critic from 2006-08, and a former staff writer at LA Weekly. He writes about culture, politics, and sports, and is the author of White Muslim (Melville House), a study of converts to Islam in the West.
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