As an antidote to despair, consider Seabiscuit. The tremendous popular success of the book and the motion picture reminds us that Americans will still root for an underdog, still hiss when a fat, arrogant plutocrat like the film's archvillain, Samuel Riddle--a caricature of bloated capitalist privilege--sneers at the dreams of the common man and his common horse. Of course there's a cynical objection, that for all its populist sympathies and hobo-jungle heroes, Seabiscuit remains the story of a rich man and his thoroughbred racehorse. But there were fewer cynics in the down-and-out '30s of Seabiscuit's day, when a ragged kind of innocence was common in America and the triumphs we followed on the sports page were the only happy endings we could find.
It takes a sour, hard-hearted individual to resist Seabiscuit, on the page or the screen. I agree with film critic Richard Schickel (an older critic), who wrote, "What eventually steals over you as Seabiscuit unfolds is that its New Deal America is a lot better than the one we inhabit--more generous and shyly exuberant, less noxiously self-centered and confident."
If millions of Americans are touched by this story, does Seabiscuit signal a sea change? Will the American underdog once again have his day? No social historian ever explained for me adequately how the hopeful altruism of the '30s and the impetuous idealism of the '60s could all curdle and drain off, leaving us with "a generation of swine" (Hunter Thompson) like the one that greeted writer Budd Schulberg on a post-Watergate tour of American colleges.
In his bestselling novel What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941, Schulberg had created Sammy Glick, the quintessential Hollywood louse, a Darwinian anti-hero so repugnant that his creator thought of him as a permanent "Caution" sign on the well-traveled low road to success in America. But on campus in the '70s, he began to notice what he called "a 180-degree turn in our national attitude toward Sammy."
"I love him," one student told Schulberg. "I felt a little nervous about going out into the world and making it. But reading Sammy gives me confidence. I read it over and over. It's my bible."
"He put out his hand," Schulberg recalls--"the hand that would soon be knifing friends and colleagues in the back." Schulberg, horrified, remembers thinking, "What have I done?" Looking back from a great distance, in 1989, he wrote that "the dramatic transformation of Sammy Glick from the anti-hero of the '40s to the role-model hero for the yuppies of the '80s is a painful reminder of the moral breakdown we are suffering... the book I had written as an attack on antisocial behavior has become a how-to book on Looking Out for Number One."
We don't have to look far to find those campus neo-Glicks who scared Schulberg 25 years ago. Some of the worst of them (we only hope) were in the business headlines this morning, facing criminal charges for the corporate looting that brought down Enron, Tyco, Adelphia and the rest. And their children, I guess, are the undergraduate Glicklets who defended capitalism by attacking the selection of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as required freshman reading at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Nickel and Dimed is the account of Ehrenreich's "poor like me" adventures in a series of minimum-wage jobs, changing beds, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets--experiences alien, it's safe to say, to a commanding majority of middle-class college students. It's possible to criticize her methodology, somewhat haphazard as Ehrenreich concedes. But all the author asks is that you acknowledge the plight of people who work like Pharaoh's tomb-slaves from dawn to dusk and rarely make enough money to eat decently or pay the rent on a decent apartment. And perhaps, if you're up to it, to share her disgust with the companies large and small--beginning with humongous, hypocritical Wal-Mart--who profit from exploiting this unfortunate underclass.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I know Ehrenreich and admire her style--her feistiness and her combustible indignation. Whichever subject she addresses, her tone is never neutral and her sympathies are never veiled. But a journalist's first-hand report on the misery of the working poor sits a niche above political rhetoric--or it used to--and the hysterical response of Carolina's junior reactionaries caught Ehrenreich by surprise.
Egged on by a few of our chronically benighted legislators, a student group styling themselves the Committee for a Better Carolina denounced Nickel and Dimed as "a classic Marxist rant," and, more colorfully, "intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics." In some circles it's considered pornographic to mention the poor.
"Their ad charged me with being a Marxist, a socialist, an atheist and a dedicated enemy of the American family," Ehrenreich wrote in The Progressive. She concluded her article with a flurry of counterpunches, asserting that "60 percent of North Carolina families with children do not earn enough to meet basic, bare-bones needs... giving North Carolina twice the level of economic misery as the country as a whole."
If UNC's baby Republicans were looking for a fight, they picked on the right liberal. But they added gross insult to negligible injury by inviting Ann Coulter, one of the far right's weirdest novelty acts, to speak in Chapel Hill as a counterbalance to Ehrenreich's socialist subversion. The bleached blond, spectrally thin, maddeningly confident Coulter specializes in thoughtful, measured opinion like her post-Sept. 11 recommendation for the Middle East: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
Once you've read that, what further description or criticism of Ms. Coulter is relevant? Her current bestseller, Treason, resurrects Sen. Joe McCarthy as the great American hero of the 20th century and condemns all of us who rejected him as enemy agents.
UNC paid $20,000--a third of it from student funds--to hear this woman, whom the bland and amiable Katie Couric introduced on the Today show as "a right-wing telebimbo." Coulter's is an act based on shock effect, a career path that dictates ever-wilder rhetoric when every third shock jock is calling for forced sterilization of Muslims and Democrats. In terms of extremes, balancing Ehrenreich with Coulter is like balancing Ted Kennedy with Idi Amin. But the most disturbing aspect of this struggle for the hearts and minds of UNC freshmen is the nagging doubt that Ann Coulter believes a word of the flaming nonsense she peddles so lucratively from campus to campus.
"I don't believe that the politics are real," said her former boyfriend Bob Guccione Jr., son of the Penthouse porn magnate. "It is a product. If she was reasoned and balanced, no one would care."
Rush Limbaugh, trying to explain what the hell he was doing in ESPN's NFL Sunday Countdown booth, betrayed a family secret he shares with Coulter and other right-wing shock troopers--at least the ones who are sane.
"It's all about audience acquisition," he told USA Today columnist Michael Hiestand. "Everything is showbiz."
Of course Rush lasted only a month as a sportscaster, resigning in a blaze of embarrassment after an obtuse remark about black quarterbacks that was not only racist but 20 years past its expiration date. (Liberals shivered with delight when his bum's rush was accelerated by his admission that he's addicted to prescription painkillers, and reports that he's under police investigation for obtaining them illegally.) Rush was simply feeling full of himself and forgot for a fatal moment that he wasn't performing for his usual "dittohead" rabble of bigots and mouth-breathers.
Right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh and Coulter are essentially entertainers, entertainers who stimulate prejudice, selfishness and meanness the way a comedian works for laughs or a tragedian plays for tears. Theirs is a new art form, exclusive to America and bewilderingly successful. In place of traditional conservative ideology, they offer their audience partisan belligerence and a complete package of mail-order hatreds, designed for the conceptually and ethically impaired. If many of these performers are insincere mercenaries, a few may be mentally unstable--Fox's Bill O'Reilly throws red-faced fits on occasion, and there couldn't have been a whole lot of calculation when Michael Savage ended his MSNBC career by snarling at a caller, "Oh, you're one of those sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that?... You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis."
Savage worked for the same network that fired Ann Coulter "four or five times," as she recalls, for inappropriate invective. The right side of the media landscape is crawling with strange creatures, and the shame falls on irresponsible networks who unleash them, in the name of "balance," on quasi-news and even sports shows. The "why" of it is simple. Hate sells, and TV drools over the vast raw-meat radio audience where hatred and rudeness have been hot commodities since the 1980s.
Rush Limbaugh may not be sincere, or even clever enough to remember where he is or which scam he's working, but with 20 million listeners he's one of the major power players in American politics. If you concede that every one of those 20 million dittoheads votes Republican (and that G.W. Bush polled only 43 million in 2000), Rush might claim--without benefit of his Oxycontin--to be the most potent political boss in history. I shouldn't have been so surprised when I saw him sitting next to Barbara Bush at the 1988 Republican convention.
Limbaugh, Coulter, O'Reilly and many of their apprentices are best-selling authors because the talk-radio right will purchase books by the bushel just to prove that it can read. And there's another lucrative market in books for liberals, like Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Franken also wrote Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Liar) that deconstruct the most ridiculous and deceitful rhetoric from Dittoland, a dirty job that wouldn't be necessary in a republic where the average citizen could think for himself.
The painful question is why any of this rhetoric should appeal to young people. To their credit, some UNC students compared Coulter's act to a stand-up comedy routine. "A lot of it was just sort of like, 'Let's make people mad,' " said one perceptive junior. But nationally the 18-to-35 demographic group is a rich one for the right.
I can empathize with college Republicans and teen-age conservatives because I was one--a fourth-generation Republican, in my case, and chief campus rep for Barry Goldwater. I left a part of my heart where lone-wolf, libertarian Republicans used to hang their cowboy hats. (The new successful GOP, which I viscerally detest, is the unnatural offspring of a marriage between John Birch and Jim Crow.) Ironically, Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative is the perfect place to begin an exorcism of the conformist, dittohead right. No honest conservative would so much as shake hands with John Ashcroft, the worst threat to our civil liberties since Sen. McCarthy, nor dream of voting for a president who makes light of a metastasizing $400 billion deficit.
But the most toxic anti-conservative, anti-American quality of the new right is its obsequiousness, its blind submission to authority captured best by the distinguished young philosopher Britney Spears: "Honestly, I think we should just trust our President in every decision that he makes, and we should just support that."
That rumbling sound is the four stone heads on Mt. Rushmore, gagging. Our most terrifying children refuse to question invested authority or corporate prerogatives. Theirs is a worldview promoted relentlessly by the right-wing media--find the power, serve it faithfully, and avoid those loser liberals who whine about injustice. (A liberal, relieved of his baggage, is just someone who tries to be generous and fair.)
How did we breed them, kids who sneer at New Deal sentiments, see a free-market messiah in Sammy Glick and prefer Ann Coulter, with her neo-Nazi Halloween mask and little black designer dress, to Barbara Ehrenreich with nothing but the truth and a dustmop?
Limbaugh said it: "Everything is showbiz." An important writer died last week, two days before the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger confirmed his worst fears for America--a critic who warned that electronic media were marinating and hypnotizing our children, and that a day would come when media celebrity and self-promotion would dominate every aspect of their lives. His name was Neal Postman, and the last book on your required reading list is Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He wrote it in 1985, when his own death--he was only 72--and America's culture death both seemed much, much further in the future.