Tuesday, May 10, 2005
THE WORD IS AVUNCULAR. So I checked in at the Huffington Post looking for the promised GlitzBlogs and who do I find there but the old shoe of NPR, Garrison Keillor. He was talking about radio, but not really. No, he was talking about what's wrong with America, which he can tell by listening to the radio. This site has previously given guidance about how to read New Yorker articles, and some of the same skills are helpful with the writing style of the Sage of Minnesota. The beginning is oblique and tone-setting rather than a straightforward introduction of the subject. Here's his first paragraph. (I know it's a whopper and I'm sorry, but you can get the point by scanning... honest.)
I am old enough to be nostalgic about radio, having grown up when it was a stately medium and we listened to Journeys in Musicland with Professor E.B. "Pop" Gordon teaching us the musical scale, and the guest on The Poetry Corner was Anna Hempstead Branch, who read her sonnet cycle, "Ere the Golden Bowl Is Broken," and the gospel station brought us Gleanings From the Word, with the whispery Reverend Riley trudging patiently through the second chapter of Leviticus, and at night there were Fibber and Molly and Amos and Andy and the Sunset Valley Barn Dance with Pop Wiggins ("Says here that radio's gonna take the place of newspapers. I doubt it. Y'can't swat a fly with a radio."), but I don't feel a hankering to hear any of it ever again. I am rather fond of radio as it is today, full of oddities and exceptions. It is an unmanageable medium. Management is at work trying to format things, but reality keeps breaking through the bars. You twiddle the dial, and in the midst of the clamor and blare and rackety commercials you find a human being speaking to you in a way that intrigues you and lifts your spirits, such as a few weeks ago when a man spoke about his mother, in Houston, who as she was dying of lung cancer made a video for her severely retarded daughter to watch in years to come, which the daughter does not watch, being too retarded to comprehend death, which in itself is a mercy. It was very graceful, a fellow American telling a story unlike all the other stories. Pretty amazing. And all the more so for showing up on a dial full of blathering idiots and jackhammer music.
Folksy, ain't it? Here's a man, we're being told, who knows how to listen, a man whose ear for heartstrings has perfect pitch and infallible memory. The word pictures create for us a space of tender three-dimensional empathy inside which we can share with him everything that is fine and good and humble and human and authentic in the American experience.
But there are dark things afoot, things that cannot help but alarm a man of such exquisite sensibilities and, of course, all who have the depth of character to recognize the harmonic intricacies of his composition. Okay, I'll get to the point. If you want to know what Garrison is working up to here, listen for the discord in this passage:
After the iPod takes half the radio audience and satellite radio subtracts half of the remainder and Internet radio gets a third of the rest and Clear Channel has to start cutting its losses and selling off frequencies, good-neighbor radio will come back. People do enjoy being spoken to by other people who are alive and who live within a few miles of you.
People like Tommy Mischke, a nighttime
guy on a right-wing station in St. Paul and a free spirit who gets into
wonderful stream-of-consciousness harangues and meditations that are a
joy to listen to compared with the teeth-grinding that goes on around
him. Not that teeth-grinders are to be disparaged: I enjoy, in small
doses, the over-the-top right-wingers who have leaked into AM radio on
all sides in the past twenty years. They
are evil, lying, cynical bastards who are out to destroy the country I
love and turn it into a banana republic, but hey, nobody's
perfect. And now that their man is re-elected and they have nice
majorities in the House and Senate, they are hunters in search of
diminishing prey. There just aren't many of us liberals worth banging
away at, but God bless them, they keep on coming. [emphasis added]
My my. The article is 1770 words long, but the bold-faced clause is
just about all you need to read. Like his soulmate Andy
Rooney, Keillor affects a folksiness that is merely a cover for pronouncements by a personage who is, truth be told, superior to most of us.
He simply knows and we should
believe him because he is wired into the real soul of the nation:
The reason you find an army of
right-wingers ratcheting on the radio and so few liberals is simple:
Republicans are in need of affirmation, they don't feel comfortable in
America and they crave listening to people who think like them.
Liberals actually enjoy living in a free society; tuning in to hear an
echo is not our idea of a good time. I go to church on Sunday morning
to be among the like-minded, and we all say the Nicene Creed together
and assume nobody has his fingers crossed, but when it comes to radio,
I prefer oddity and crankiness. I don't need someone to tell me that
George W. Bush is a deceitful, corrupt, clever and destructive
man--that's pretty clear on the face of it. What I want is to be
surprised and delighted and moved. Here at the low end of the FM dial
is a show in which three college boys are sitting in a studio, whooping
Do you see what's going on here? In his universe, good and evil are
so dead obvious and simple that they don't need to be explained,
illuminated, or even considered. They are merely declaimed like
commandments, because the speaker is not, for all his aw-shucks
"hankering" and "twiddling," one of the great unwashed, but a seer. He
listens, he sees, he passes judgment. What is his authority? The wave
of hyper-reticulated sentimentality in which he conceals his arrogant
simplemindedness. He is the mirror image of the cartoonish
fascist fundamentalist he presumes to detect in you and me and everyone
else whose politics do not accord with his.
Beyond this he has nothing to offer but writing tricks. All the
down-home diction is actually a hostile takeover attempt. He is trying
to claim for his side everything that is warmhearted and comfortable in
daily life. It's time for a reality check, Mr. Keillor.
Liberals actually enjoy living in
a free society. Then why do the most exclusively "liberal"
principalities -- for example, universities
and your beloved NPR
-- suppress, ridicule, ignore, or assault
opposing advocates? Why is the most
consistently vicious, ad-hominem bile on the Internet the work of
"liberal" sites like Moveon.org and Democraticunderground.com? Why do
"liberals" openly cheer
when prominent conservatives fall ill or die?
I don't need someone to tell me
that George W. Bush is a deceitful, corrupt, clever and destructive
man--that's pretty clear on the face of it. Clear to whom? Let's
see. The more than half of American voters who reelected him to a
second term are not part of the just-folks country you celebrate so
tirelessly? There are no good-hearted Republicans who carry bunt cakes
to church suppers, plant tomatoes and beans on stakes in the garden out
back, sniff in delighted wonder at the first hints of spring and fall
in the air, and yet see in their president a man who is trying hard to
do an impossible job? If his corruption is so "clear on the face of
it," what does that say about the majority of just-folks who believe
And who is it exactly who "do(es)n't feel comfortable in America"? Which brings me to this gem:
They are evil, lying, cynical bastards who are out to destroy the country I love. You're full of it, Keillor. I've heard your radio monologues about Lake Woebegone. Very charming. Lots of Swedes and Norwegians and Lutherans up in your neck of the woods, aren't there? I have no reason to doubt your love of your country. But I do wonder how comfortable you'd be in some other parts of the country, where the great liberal causes are not just things you read about in the 6-page local newspaper, behind the headlines about crop predictions and snowfall totals. Do you think all your rock-ribbed Democrat neighbors would be comfortable attending Cuntfest in State College, Pennsylvania, operating a grocery store in the part of L.A. that was destroyed without punishment during the Rodney King riots, sending their daughters to incompetent urban public schools where the only thing little girls learn is how to dress and talk like whores, live in a state whose numerous nuclear plants and proximity to New York and Philadelphia make it the number one terrorist target in the nation, cross a state line in the Northeast where the fine print of gun laws can turn a Pennsylvania hunter into a 5-year New Jersey prison inmate, farm in a state whose property taxes and EPA and agricultural regulations require family farms to grow crops they consider poisonous for no profit while the developers queue up at city hall to seize them by eminent domain, take their aged mother to a hospital where the intricacies of Medicare and federal insurance regulations virtually guarantee her premature release and death?
I suppose your beloved Swedes and Lutherans know nothing of these things, either. Authentic good American life is more picturesque and poetic than it is in inauthentic America, where the conservative evil continues to oppose the liberal utopia of your fanciful memories. The funny thing is, I have picturesque memories too. I grew up in the country. I remember the sharp earthen smell of tomato fields present but unseen outside the candlelight of our screened-in porch. We listened to the Phillies games on the radio -- the rich official voice of By Saam paired with the dry humor of Richie Ashburn (there's a Norwegian for you, Garrison) -- and we talked, my father, mother, sister and I, about what we'd do tomorrow and the rest of our lives. Everything seemed possible in those enveloping summer nights, where Johnny Callison hit homeruns and the fireflies danced outside the screen and high up in the whispering elms and buttonwoods the voices of treefrogs bubbled like big drops of rain.
But none of this is good or authentic or even American because there were times when my father spoke of politics, and he would describe Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president for 12 of his first 22 years of life, as a cynical lying bastard who had tried to destroy the country we loved. No point in arguing that my father had a right to his opinion without being evil himself. It can't matter to a patriotic liberal that he joined the Army Air Corps as soon as he was old enough, flew 88 combat missions in North Africa and Italy, and came home to start a family and work hard all his days. It couldn't be relevant that he considered FDR a "deceitful, corrupt, clever and destructive man" in part because after returning safely from Europe, he was compelled to fly submarine patrols in foggy New York harbor to sustain the PR fiction that the continental U.S. was in danger of attack during the 1944 presidential campaign. Since he's evil by definition, it's irrelevant that he lost friends in this dangerous and pointless duty, pilots who survived Nazi anti-aircraft guns and the strafing runs of ME109s, but not the political expediencies of a dying megalomaniac.
Enough. Mr. Keillor, you don't own or speak for everything that's good and true in America. You are entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to deliver that opinion from your platform on NPR or to shout it from the rooftops of Minnesota. I thus grant you what you seem loath to grant us who disagree with you. All I ask is that you be more careful when you think you are speaking for all real Americans. Too much? I will trust not.