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.
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.