I remember a United States where Andrew Sullivan’s darkest fantasies were fulfilled — and I’ve watched us move steadily away from that for nigh on sixty years. (Yes, kids, people can be that old and still blog, but that’s only because my teams of underpaid, starving research associates can transfer my cursive Gothic script from the parchment I like onto one of those computational devices you young people use.) In more than half a century of watching the ebbs and flows of American politics, I’ve seen this country steadily become more tolerant, more thoughtful, more open and in many ways more just.
The Christian right that apparently keeps Mr. Sullivan up at night shivering with fear is a pathetic, compromising bunch of namby pamby wimps compared to the holy warriors of my youth. If Focus on the Family or even Michelle Bachmann scares him so badly, he should try listening to a standard Sunday morning sermon on AM radio circa 1956 — or read how Time magazine covered homosexuality back then.
Sullivan doesn’t, I think, get the whole sweep of American life. On a couple of issues — abortion comes to mind — the social policy consensus is creeping a bit to the right, but generally speaking the Christian right today stands for positions that were considered fairly liberal not all that long ago. Liquor by the drink, gambling, lesbian and gay equal rights, premarital sex, birth control, pornography, interracial marriage: on a whole variety of issues, some noble and important, some hedonistic and perhaps a bit more questionable, the United States has moved steadily and inexorably toward a more permissive and open stance.
The Christian right has often fought that trend, but over time the right moves left as the center moves on. Divorcees were once shunned outside a handful of big cities in this country and many states made divorce very difficult to get; these days, the right worries about keeping its own marriages intact more than about interfering with other peoples’ lives.
But the paranoid left in America has deep, deep roots, particularly in its desire to feel persecuted by someone — anyone! — on the right. As Tom Wolfe wrote in “The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America,” reprinted in 1980’s The Purple Decades, back in 1965, he was on a panel debating “the Style of the Sixties” at Princeton University, along with Günter Grass, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Krassner, and avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos:
The next thing I knew, the discussion was onto the subject of fascism in America. Everybody was talking about police repression and the anxiety and paranoia as good folks waited for the knock on the door and the descent of the knout on the nape of the neck. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had just made a tour of the country to write a series called “The New Life Out There” for New York magazine. This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history. Not only that, the folks were running wilder and freer than any people in history. For that matter, Krassner himself, in one of the strokes of exuberance for which he was well known, was soon to publish a slight hoax: an account of how Lyndon Johnson was so overjoyed about becoming President that he had buggered a wound in the neck of John F. Kennedy on Air Force One as Kennedy’s body was being flown back from Dallas. Krassner presented this as a suppressed chapter from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. Johnson, of course, was still President when it came out. Yet the merciless gestapo dragnet missed Krassner, who cleverly hid out onstage at Princeton on Saturday nights.
Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!” That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …
Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.
“For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.” Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening.
He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”
He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.
Not very nice, Günter! Not very nice, Jean-François! A bit supercilious, wouldn’t you say!
I don’t think ‘The Christianist Nightmare” will be descending upon Europe — or America — anytime soon; both continents have a rather more potent form of religious fundementalism to worry about these days, one that Andrew once wrote about quite successfully in his earlier days. Whatever happened to that Andrew, anyhow?
(Via Karl of Patterico’s Pontifications, who writes, “I would say [Mead’s essay] will leave a mark, but it won’t. Sullivan is long past the point where things that do not feed his paranoia and conspiracy-mongering leave much of an impression. The former maverick is increasingly a one-trick pony.)