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O Brother, What Culture War?

"It’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart…What the hell is that singing?"

— Everett, in "O Brother Where Art Thou"

The New York Times’ Tobin Harshaw this weekend sloshed up a river’s worth of opinion from around the intertubes, most of it sagaciously predicting that Barack Obama might just end, win or otherwise confound the so-called culture wars.

Now, I have to ask, if it’s so easy to save the damned or damn (or at least quiet down) the saved, then why didn’t somebody do it a long time ago? Say, before 17th Century European Church or State sent the pilgrims and profiteers packing off to these greener pastures?

There’s something unseemly about Time Magazine-like desire to turn all divisive human hankering, hating, and loving into superficial fads that can be bemusedly held forth upon from above. These precious pundits think, "Lions can be made to lie down with lambs as soon as a good ad man (who I had cocktails with last night) moves them along to tomorrow’s new thing."

But what we so glibly call the culture war, the contest between Christian and Sinner, has been with us a long, long time. In America, it’s the Big Muddy of Culture. We’ve ridden to our future on it. Nathaniel Hawthorn understood this. Elvis Presley lived it, and made millions reminding us that what the citizens of the City on the Hill do best is dance — and condemn dancing.

Amanda Petrusich, in her new book on American popular music, "It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music," gets in right when she described Rock ‘n’ Roll as the, er, love child of the American saint and the American reprobate.

The idea of the Christian and the sinner battling in the same body is inherent to early rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a classic American paradox — sinners obsessed with salvation, puritans engrossed by Playboy, gluttons obsessed with healthy eating…That remarkable tension — between right and wrong, carnal and spiritual — is essentially what fuels rock ‘n’ roll music…

This is only one way to describe the cultural and political tensions alive in America, of course. Accompanying the religious division, as I’ve noted before, is the authoritarian versus the egalitarian. I’m not gonna paddle upstream here, though.

I just want to note that the deeply held values that make Americans American are not so faddish after all. They won’t be easily swept away. Lincoln couldn’t do it. Our two emancipating 20th Century presidents, FDR and LBJ, sure didn’t. Neither can Obama. The good news is, Prohibitionists couldn’t keep us from drinking, either.

I guess some will say, sure, but the degree to which religious division invades the political sphere has ebbed and flowed. Not so much. Politics is life, mud and all. That’s why I like the "Down to the River to Pray" clip from "O Brother Where Art Thou."  It’s America as Big Muddy, full of big-hearted, gopher-eating rogues who can wash their sins away almost, but not quite, as fast as they accumulate.

Isn’t it enough to see that the Age of Reason wasn’t? Certainly, we can hope, pray and work for tolerance, understanding, and a broadened love of the thrill of democracy and the magic of diversity and difference.

If anything can save us, it’s the voice of Alison Krauss’, though I suspect there’s something of the Ahab even in a thought like that.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith