At one point during the presidential campaign, John McCain seemed to nominate himself for a version of American political heroism that he never completely inhabited. When he corrected an ignorant and frightened woman who said at one his rallies that she did not trust Barack Obama because he was an Arab, not an American, McCain did not let that pass. His was not the way that Republicans have since let slide any lie or paranoid reading of circumstances that can get some media traction. Feed the fire, their thinking goes, even if it calls for immolating the party itself.
Another great moment for McCain came during the mutual roast with Obama held at the Waldorf-Astoria. McCain probably gave a pleasurable shock to those who do not associate elephants with wit and humor. The senator displayed superb rhythm in the timing and delivery of his material and exuded a kind of democratic warmth special to this nation. He appeared profoundly genuine, expressing pride that the country had made Obama a formidable candidate by having grown far enough beyond its once almost inevitable bigotry at every important level of political choice.
Standing tall might mean going against everything that Sarah Palin has come to represent.
Frank Schaeffer, an ex-Republican and runaway from the plantation of brain rot that is the Christian right, recently told Rachel Maddow that he once had some faith in McCain and worked for his nomination in the Republican primary of 2000. He was completely disenchanted, however, with McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin after a lobbying campaign led by William Kristol, an intellectual fraud so marinated in bile he once spoke of “the elites” as though he is not one of them. Palin was McCain’s cynical way of selling out to the bloated horseflies of the Republican base.
Schaeffer believes that our country is most culturally endangered by what he calls a “Fifth Column of Insanity.” That fifth column stems from the Christian right, a cultish version of the religion devoted to ignorance and denial of facts as fundamental elements of faith. As a man who was reared on the Christian right but eventually cut himself loose, Schaeffer should know. This is common knowledge to almost everyone who has looked into these matters, the most recent being Max Blumenthal in Republican Gomorrah, his exceptional study of the elephant take-down by religious extremists.
Do not zealously generalize. Those who would dismiss Christian faith out of hand are always howling up the wrong tree. Christianity was basic to the abolition movement against slavery and equally basic to the civil-rights movement against segregation. In the first case, Christian abolitionists rejected the highly touted 18th-century science, a tenet of which was polygenesis, or many beginnings.
Polygenesis amounted to a justification for Europeans believing themselves essentially different from the rest of the species. The position of Christian abolitionists was the exact opposite. Their belief was that everyone began in Eden and all were then brothers and sisters. That does not seem radical now, but it was then. In the grandest of ironies consistently missed, that mustard seed of faith foreshadowed every scientific discovery, adding more and more ballast to the modern vision of universal humanity.
If John McCain were to rise to the level of heroism demanded by the decay of his party into loon pandering, he would have to put on his maverick armor and step up to the wingnuts. This is more than a notion and would not work in a version of the crying game run by Glenn Beck, nor could bluster be buttered on the daily bread as easily as Rush Limbaugh does. Standing tall might mean going against everything that Sarah Palin has come to represent.
Tough: Any stand in the interest of actual fact would demand some version of that repudiation. How McCain might do it without condemning his own presidential campaign this soon after the election is the problem that looms before him, but heroes become known for not only staring fear and trouble in the face but spitting into it.
Because a valid body of conservative thought is essential to the quality of our democracy, a stand should be taken by McCain or Newt Gingrich or Peggy Noonan or any of the Jewish think-tank Republicans (for whom the vituperativeness of the Christian right should be quite uncomfortable, however much it tends to be supportive of Israel). This is a terrible time for the American mind and the elephants need to rebuild their party.
Most on the liberal left doubt that anyone will, but I am not so sure. Surprise in high human terms is what makes our country great, just as surprise always moving on its belly in barbaric slime is what bedevils us. President Lyndon Johnson, the ex-segregationist, proved that when he signed into law the civil-rights legislation, fully aware that the new laws would become the full moon turning redneck Democrats into redneck Republicans, no change in neck color necessary. Consequently, Democrats would have to rebuild their party. This kind of heroism is as true as the surprise always bedeviling us by so willingly moving on its belly in barbaric slime.
Whomever is willing must be able to move the Republicans back from the fringe-burdened outskirts of town and face what Frank Schaeffer has observed: that the village cannot change the way it does things in order to accommodate the village idiot. That has nothing to do with democracy or giving everyone a chance to be heard. It is no more than a hustle because rabid elephants would allow nothing to be heard in opposition if the right wing were in charge of organizing dialogue.
Part of the way evil achieves debilitating banality in our time is through volume, sentimentality, and repetition. Those elements are more important to certain people than facts, well-documented though they might be. Exceedingly dull evil has become more important than information because our dilemma as a nation is that we live in a time when unprecedented and newfangled technological sophistication is rebutted by malevolent ignorance as old as rape and murder.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.