Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer

norman mailer miami and the siege of chicagoIn the interest of historical comparison, I read Norman Mailer's accounts of the 1968 conventions while I was out in the Midwest campaigning for Obama a few weeks ago. There were, as is usual when reading something historical for its commentary on the present, numerous passages which generated little chills of recognition and "uncanny" similarity.

A remark about Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is extraordinary in its similarity to observations made about Obama: "He had the presence of a man who would deal with complexity by absorbing its mood, and so solve its contradiction by living with it, an abstract way of saying that he comprehended issues by the people who embodied them, and so gave off a sense of social comfort with his attendance in a room."

Mailer is exceptionally fond of forms and formulations that reach after the epic: he employs catalogues, a host of epic similes and nearly invokes Bobby Kennedy as a muse. These aspirant tropes, however, pay off when it comes to characterization: "Nixon had entered American life as half a man, but his position had been so high, the power of the half man had been so enormous that he could never begin to recognize until he fell, that he was incomplete." A writer who wasn't trying as hard as Mailer could simply never write something as good as that.

Of course, Mailer doesn't want to be Homer only: he wants to be Teiresias, too. "One could predict," he says, and he does. "We will be fighting for forty years," he says, which sounds eerily accurate right now, though it should be remembered that we haven't reached year 41 yet. (Perhaps this might end up being Mailer's only recorded instance of litotes.)

Having said that, I'd like to look at one of the longer and more detailed predictions Mailer makes. Like Dartmouth College, Mailer is somewhat obsessed with WASPs.
"for the first time in their existence, the Wasps were modest about power. They were not certain they would know what to do with it... They were the most powerful force in America, and yet they were a psychic island. If they did not find a bridge, they could only grow more insane each year, like a rich nobleman in an empty castle chasing elves and ogres with his stick. They had every power but the one they needed—which was to attach their philosophy to history...

One could predict: their budgeting would prove insane, their righteousness would prove insane, their love for order and clear-thinking would be twisted through many a wry neck, the intellectual foundations of their anti-Communism would split into its separate parts. And the small-town faith in small free enterprise would run smash into the corporate juggernauts of technology land; their love of polite culture would collide with the mad aesthetics of the new America; their livid passion for military superiority would smash its nose on the impossibility of having such superiority without more government spending; their love of nature would have to take up arms against the despoiling foe, themselves, their own greed, their own big business.
Well, if you turned that last paragraph into a checklist, Mr. Mailer would be batting 1.000, and of course the temptation is to turn the 2008 election (and its developing aftermath) into the final confirmation of the doom Mailer predicts. And in a certain way it is, though I want to separate out a few strands here.

First of all, let's isolate two different narratives: there is the long decline of the Wasp and the very rapid dismantlement of the Republican majority. Mailer believes that the 1964 election, when "these same doctors and small-town lawyers, or men not so unlike them, had had their manic dreams of restoring order to America with the injunction and the lash," was a confidence-shattering defeat for the Wasps, leading them into a sort of meekness about holding and exercising power.

This modesty stands, quite obviously, in high contrast to the swelling confidence and rising fortunes of the Nixon-led Republican Party. 1964, in the Republican party's narrative, was the beginning, the glorious defeat which led to long years of stunning success. It did not shatter the confidence so much as purify the party, establishing the basic ideological nostrums which Reagan supposedly fulfilled. Mailer's account of the 1968 Republican Convention, and particularly of Reagan's part in it, complicates this narrative, but it doesn't fully interrupt it. What it does do is encourage more examination of the fortunes and fates of the Wasp within the Republican Party.

Such an examination must start out with one figure foremost: William F. Buckley, for it was Buckley that ties these narratives together in the minds of most conservatives. Newt Gingrich put it plainly at his death, "Buckley began what led to Senator Barry Goldwater and his Conscience of a Conservative that led to the seizing of power by the conservatives from the moderate establishment within the Republican Party. From that emerged Ronald Reagan." For many Americans (and likely for many Wasps), he was a symbol, even the symbol of Wasp culture. Yet what is often overlooked is that he was not, properly speaking, a Wasp—he was not Protestant by practice or heritage.

This matter is not nit-picking, I think, because the political cooperation of various Christian denominations is absolutely critical to the conservative ascendancy. I think too few questions have been asked about the nature and causes of this collaboration, and virtually no attention has been paid to Buckley's involvement in it.

Buckley's ascent to the head of the Wasp establishment (in political terms, at least) marks an earlier loss of confidence, I believe, than Mailer describes. How, in 1951, did a Catholic come to speak for a threatened Wasp hegemony (in God and Man at Yale), even on theological grounds? I can only answer that there seemed to be few Wasps at the time who were speaking out on their own behalf, and they were glad to have someone do it so well in their name. What proceeded from this first intervention was a gradual outsourcing of a huge amount of the defense-work of "traditional values" to non-Wasps—Jews and Catholics, mostly—who were willing to speak for an older order which was not, ultimately, theirs at all. And eventually, the evangelicals were brought in for added vigor and vitriol, though their connection to the old Wasp heritage was remoter still—remote enough, in fact, that they ignored it almost completely.

Look back at the list of the Wasp values which Mailer said were doomed. Abortion is not on there, nor school prayer, nor any of the cultural wedge issues we can associate with the right in its last twenty-five years of demagoguery. When we compare a Republican like Nelson Rockefeller, who plays a big part in Mailer's report but was considered even then a faux conservative, with the gang running about today, one wonders (a bit) what might have been. Certainly a better Wasp than George W. Bush might have been found to represent the right, right?


GRLucas said...

Andrew, a nice reading, though I would like to have heard a more explicit comparison between your reading of Mailer and your own experience campaigning with Obama.

I gave you a mention on the Norman Mailer Society web site. Cheers.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks! I'm really glad to know there is an active Norman Mailer Society--I wrote my thesis on Saul Bellow, and as far as I can tell, the Saul Bellow society is defunct.

I'll try to expand a bit on my reading of Mailer in a subsequent post--I just had this idea about the Wasps and ran with it. Thanks!