Monday, July 18, 2011

Bill Maher: Comic High Priest of Liberal Progressive Contempt for Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

Bill Maher, the acid-tongued comic and political commentator, has emerged as the downscale H. L. Mencken of the Baby Boom generation: the high priest of the liberal progressive obsessive paranoia and contempt for all things Jacksonian. In this video from the July 15 episode of HBO Real Time with Bill Maher, the eponymous host launches yet another vicious tirade against Jacksonian America, cheered on by his panel of progressive worthies, including, sadly, financial journalist Chrystia Freeland whose work I respect. Maher focuses his comic ire—surprise!—on the two women who best embody Jacksonian America, its populist culture, politics, and values: Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. You can also find the video herehere, and here.

I must admit that I used to watch Maher in his ABC Politically Incorrect incarnation from 1997 to 2002. He seemed funnier and more engaging back then. Perhaps he was embittered after ABC fired him for a lack of patriotism; after 9/11 he opined that Mohammed Atta and Al-Qaeda’s suicide jihadists showed more courage than Jacksonian America’s fighting men and women in Afghanistan. Since then on his HBO show his act has degenerated into mean-spirtied obnoxiousness, and snide elite contempt.

Like Mencken in the 1920s, Maher since 1993 has built his career on satirizing Jacksonians, the people he too calls “boobus americanus,” and denigrating everything they hold dear.
Like most elite liberal progressives, Maher goes ballistic when he beholds the rise to positions of power and leadership of two women he dismisses as white trash religious fanatics who are as dumb as doornails. As Maher put it with his usual comic eloquence:
Now I’m not saying that sexism doesn’t exist and isn’t real, but we can’t throw around the word “sexist” just to stop people like me from pointing out that Michele Bachmann, now running second for the Republican presidential nomination, isn’t [sic] a dangerous nincompoop. And when I point out that Sarah Palin is a vainglorious braggart, a liar, a whiner, a professional victim, a scold, a know-it-all, a chiseler, a bully who sells patriotism like a pimp, and the leader of a strange family of inbred weirdos straight out of The Hills Have Eyes, that’s not sexist. I’m saying it because it’s true, not because it’s true of a woman.
Maher then takes on his favorite hobby horse, the Christian faith, calling it the font of bigotry and all things rotten and evil in America. “In America, you’re allowed to justify almost any kind of bigotry, sexism or intolerance if you source it to God’s big book of bad ideas.” Maher cuts to the heart of why elite liberal progressives have such venomous hostility toward Jacksonian America. Jacksonian leaders like Palin and Bachmann, and the people who support them, are evil, crazy, and stupid. Jacksonian patriotism and Jacksonian evangelical faith are just covers for hustling, wackiness, and bigotry. No bien-pensant (right thinking, lockstep) avant-garde progressive takes things like patriotism and faith seriously. So they can only be a con game, a conspiracy, or a species of insanity. And people who do take them seriously are either dupes, knaves, or wackos. Even worse, they breed dysfunctional white trash families with more than a hint of illicit sexuality: Casey Anthony anyone? Maher, like most liberal progressives, believes that the roughly 60% to 70% of Americans who are Jacksonian in their culture, traditional conservative values, and way of life, simply lack the brain power and capacity for self-government. They need progressive mandarins to tell them how to live their lives, to avoid being caught in the snares of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. etc. Is it any wonder then that Jacksonians of the heartland, who do take faith, family, and patriotism very seriously, have nothing but contempt of their own for Maher and his ilk.

To say that Bill Maher does not connect with conservative populist Jacksonian America is an understatement. Nor does he understand the Jacksonian style of leadership as embodied by Palin and Bachmann. Such elite contempt for and underestimation of Jacksonian leaders is nothing new. In 1828 Andrew Jackson was denounced as an ignorant, dumbass ruffian by his political opponents. They even called him “Andrew Jackass,” which is why the donkey became the symbol of the Democratic Party.

Andrew Jackass

Jacksonians believe that intelligence and leadership derive from character, instinct, intuition, decisiveness, and common sense, rather than from academic Ivy League credentials or technocratic analytical abilities. A president needs intellectuals among his advisors, but he (or she) needs above all to be a decision maker who can assimilate conflicting strands of advice and information and make a policy decision based on his or her larger vision of where America should be going. (Jennifer Rubin wrote a perceptive article on “Why Jews Hate Palin,” which looks at this issue.) Just as Barack Obama is the model of the liberal progressive technocratic style of leadership, so Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are models of the conservative populist Jacksonian style of leadership.

Maher’s tirade has earned him the applause of liberal pundits. Jason Easley, writing on the PoliticusUSA blog, exclaimed that Maher got it just right. Palin and Bachmann are nothing more than empty vessels with sexually attractive packaging who spew a never ending stream conservative Christian talking points on family values and trickle-down economics, all meant to fool women into returning to a condition of barefoot pregnancy and submission to men. Here, in Easley’s words, is the true evil of Palin, Bachmann, and all the Mama Grizzlies:
Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are disliked because they sell bad ideas. They are reviled because they are arrogant and ignorant. They are deemed repulsive because they are undoing the progress that their own gender has made. These two are walking talking commercials for the religious right’s belief in the subjugation of women. They are sending a horrible message to girls and women that your looks will always count more than your ideas, and that you can only be what a man tells you to be.
Easley’s tirade, like Maher’s, betrays an astounding depth of ignorance of Jacksonian America and its commitment to liberty, honor, faith, family, and patriotism. And they fail to comprehend the extent to which Palin and Bachmann have become symbols of empowerment for conservative women. Both women are redefining feminism in the image of the Jacksonian frontierswoman, updated for modern America, whose strength of character and heroic endurance built the nation. Conservative Christian women see Palin and Bachmann as leaders who eloquently articulate and confirm their traditional values in opposition to liberal elite feminists. Governor Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann have also become role models for living one’s life in a way that joins those conservative traditional values with active engagement and success in the modern world. Their message to women is certainly not “that you can only be what a man tells you to be.” When you put it all together Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are the face of modern Jacksonian populist nationalism, following in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Both women bring together potent symbols of feminine sexual power, motherhood, professional achievement, and legislative and executive authority. Which is why they drive progressive critics like Bill Maher into paroxysms of rage.

For Maher, Easley, and the whole progressive elite, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann embody all their stereotypes of white trash America, its boorishness and tackiness, wrapped up in one package. Both women ooze trailer trash sexuality and fundamentalist brimstone. They are the leaders of the White Trash Nation rising up in rebellion against the bonds of a politically correct nanny state, aiming their moose hunting rifles at everything liberal progressives hold dear. Palin, even more than Bachmann, is a mere cliché in the progressive mind: a badly dressed hillbilly with a screeching voice, a roughneck husband, and a slutty teen mom daughter, and no knowledge of the complex world outside of Wasilla, Alaska. For an avant-garde sophisticate like Bill Maher to have to live in a country filled with such ignorant hicks, who also have the right to vote and choose leaders who support their values and interests, is an outrage to the cynically hip. The very popularity of Bill Maher and his show and his caricatures of Palin, Bachmann, and their supporters in elite liberal circles reveals again the true extent of the cultural divide that separates these elites from populist Jacksonian America.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day 2011: Life, Liberty, and the Meaning of American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, 1818.  Architect of the Capitol, Wikimedia Commons.

Today we celebrate the two hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the birth of our nation, the United States of America, the most exceptional nation mankind has ever created. This year the great anniversary festival (as John Adams called it[1]) comes tinged with sadness for me, as it is the first time I will commemorate it without my beloved mother, whose earthly journey came to an end in May. Mother departed this life full of years, honor, wisdom, and love. She made me who I am and I will love her always. But life does go on and so does the work of studying, teaching, and writing America’s history and securing America’s future.

Americans today tend to take America for granted. We have forgotten the tremendous effort, the blood and sacrifice of lives and property, that was needed to secure American liberty and create an independent republic. We have forgotten what a miracle America is. George Washington, for one, saw the hand of God at work in the course of the American Revolution. He declared in his farewell orders to the Continental Army in 1783, that it was “little short of a standing miracle” that the United States had won the War of Independence against the mighty British empire.[2] Now, on July 4, 2011, the Marist Poll tells us that 42% of their respondents were unsure in what year independence was declared, and 26% were unsure which nation the United States declared its independence from! To say this is very disturbing is an understatement. Were the sacrifices and heroism of the Revolutionary generation and those that followed, whose lives were dedicated to building an exceptional nation committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all for nought?

So this Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the origins and meanings of American exceptionalism and the American Dream, and the struggles of those who fought to make the dream a reality. American exceptionalism refers to America’s unique culture of democratic self-government and liberty, rugged individualism, and stubborn, feisty independence. Its motto is “Don’t tread on me.” The late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset defined the American Creed in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism—which in America means equality of opportunity and respect, but not equality of outcomes—individualism (rugged of course), populism, and laissez-faire economics. To this list should be added the rule of law and justice for all. “The revolutionary ideology” Lipset wrote, “which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures.” This American Creed, in synthesis and creative tension with the nation’s strong religious sensibility and the Jacksonian code of honor, military pride, and nationalism (with its distinct blood-and-soil element), forms the core of American exceptionalism.[3]

Jim Cullen, who teaches history at New York’s Ethical Culture Fieldston School, points out that a distinctive Anglo-American culture with a unique American Dream was born long before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Its first seeds were planted at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and Plymouth and Boston, Massachusetts in 1620 and 1630. “What happened in the 1770s and 1780s” Samuel Huntington writes, “was rooted in and a product of the Anglo-American Protestant society and culture that had developed over the intervening one and a half centuries.” Colonial America, as it developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a society of independent householders bound together in strong communities, which developed habits and institutions of self-government. Religious pluralism, a voluntaristic self-help ethic, a relatively high standard of living, and a belief in individual aspiration to upward mobility, what Alexis de Tocqueville would later call “the charm of anticipated success,” also defined the society of British North America, making it the freest and most prosperous on earth.[4] Jefferson may have invented the term “pursuit of happiness,” but he was merely giving a name to what had long been the driving force in British North America’s society of independent, self-governing householders.


It’s no doubt ironic to point out on Independence Day what should be self-evident: that American exceptionalism has its roots in British exceptionalism. American culture began as British Protestant culture stripped of the restraints hierarchy and aristocracy. America derived its ideas and institutions of liberty, representative self-government and the rule of law, the right to be secure in one’s property, and freedom of religion and conscience from the mother country, a tradition going back to the Magna Carta. More specifically it was the culture of British Dissenting Protestantism—Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and many others—that shaped American exceptionalism. British Dissenting Protestantism encouraged habits of independent and critical thinking. It challenged both religious and secular authority—the authority of bishops and kings. Dissenters, most famously the Puritans of New England, developed autonomous self-governing religious congregations, which prepared them to develop habits and institutions of self-government. “Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit.” Edmund Burke clearly understood the revolutionary nature of dissenting Protestantism when he spoke these words. Dissenting Protestantism, Burke insisted, was a creed built on liberty. In his famous speech to Parliament on March 22, 1775 calling for reconciliation between Britain and the colonies, Burke proclaimed that “the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces.” Dissenting Protestantism, with its spirit of liberty, encouraged ideas of natural rights and human dignity. The mass of common men came to be seen as more than beasts of burden. Instead they could become free men and women with the right to aspire to a better life. British Protestant dissenters had the right traditions for a people who would create societies centered on liberty. They were fully convinced that they could determine what the Bible meant and how to apply its message in the conduct of their lives.[5]