Assassins: The Other America
- Can We Be Arrested just for watching this?
As I watched the nearly sold out closing performance of Stillpointe Theater’s production of Assassins, the thought occurred to me: could we be arrested merely for watching this?
Threatening to kill a President is still a Federal Offense: a Class-E felony under United States Code Title 18 Section 871. It is illegal to make “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”
Personally, I think that’s a violation of Free Speech that can make willing martyrs of insane people who could be provoked to commit mass murder by a parking ticket. But now that we’re in the Obama Era, perhaps these free speech violations make at least a slight bit of sense.
Assassins is a Broadway Musical written 25 years ago. Like so much of the best stuff, it was completely ahead of its time, but it might be appreciated even more in hundreds of years than it is now.
No matter when you see it, you can’t see a creation as explosively relevant to our time as any work could ever hope to be, and not see that at some point this work has the power to change our world in the blink of an eye.
Who knows? The change might be for the good, it might be for the ill, but in an American era when nearly 300 million guns are held for private use, when Presidents both liberal and conservative are routinely compared to Nazis, when a day with mass shootings is practically the rule rather than the exception, there is no work of art that could possibly have more explosive power than this. This is the rare work of art that does precisely what Plato warned against in The Republic. It practically puts the gun in assailant’s hands.
Assassins is an unholy blast of drama that could be written by Satan himself. It is America’s answer to Macb*th. It’s practically an incitement to terrorism. It shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the American Dream was built upon dirt and shit, and does nothing to console us with any redeeming vision. It shows us that the “other” America of people’s nightmares is the true America, and that we’re all just fooling ourselves if we think the world is anything better than the world brought upon us by these agents of the abyss.
When Assassins premiered in the week before Christmas 1990, the mood in America was as happy as ever since the end of World War II. After forty-three years of worry that the Soviet Union could incinerate us in an instant, the Cold War was finally done and we were the victors. The Persian Gulf War was humming along ‘peacefully,’ its resolution in clear sight. It was the first moment since Vietnam when everyone but the most hardened Leftists agreed that the exercise of American power was a concept for good, not evil.
The reviews against Assassins were crushing. Eleven years later, it was slated for a Broadway revival in October 2001. I shouldn’t need to tell you what happened...
This is a musical, with all the trappings that have been in place since Rodgers and Hammerstein, that depicts more than a century’s worth of famous terrorists - terrorists always motivated by fanaticism and pathological loneliness, nihilists like Edmund from King Lear and the Underground Man and the Joker, who want nothing more than to spread chaos and suffering. Fifty years before Assassins, Rogers and Hammerstein gave Oklahoma, a vision of boundless hope - in Assassins, the American Musical comes full circle with a vision of endless despair.
This is the musical that depicted Sam Byck, whom, thirty years before 9/11, attempted the hijack of a commercial airliner to ram the White House. This is a musical that shows Charles Guiteau, the Christian fanatic who killed James Garfield, anticipating his death with all the ecstasy of a suicide bomber: according to the famous drama critic, Frank Rich - “you find yourself wondering if he’s expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward.”
Or just consider some of the lyrics to what is aptly called ‘The Gun Song’:
“When you think what must be done/Think of all that it can do
Remove a scoundrel/Unite a party/Preserve the Union/Promote the sales of my book
Ensure my future/My niche in history/And then the world will see/That I am not a man to overlook...”
II. John Wilkes Booth - The Failure of the Left
“An indictment of the former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who is herein charged with the following high crimes and misdemeanors.
- That you did ruthlessly provoke a war between the States, which caused some 600,000 of my countrymen their lives.
- That you did silence your critics in the North by hurling them into prison without benefit of charge or trial.
This was, at least according to the musical, the unfinished manifesto John Wilkes Booth tried to write in Port Royal, Virginia as he was surrounded in Richard Garrett’s house was surrounded by 50 US Marshals.
If these were actually Booth’s complaints, they sound eerily familiar...
If Abraham Lincoln were a politician today, he would not be popular among many of our contemporaries who lionize him. He was clearly no conservative, but by the standards of his own day, we would call him a Liberal Hawk who believed things that are strangely close to what we would recognize in our own era as neoconservatism: the spread of democracy and human rights through force, preemptive war, rendition without trial or cause, the suppression of free speech and assembly in the name of security, bleeding the country dry of blood and treasure so that the bloodletting can form a more perfect union. These and more were the objectionable beliefs of President Lincoln.
There are only two true differences between Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush. The first is that Lincoln’s policies were much, much bloodier than George W. Bush’s on Bush’s most shameful day. The Iraq War, insofar as we have reliable estimates, killed roughly 100,000 people and uprooted the lives of roughly 4 million: shameful numbers indeed. The American Civil War killed somewhere between 625,000 and 850,000 people. Not a single American was unaffected, the number of displaced Americans was unknown, but clearly in the millions.
The second difference is that by assuming the role of mass murderer to leave a better country than he found, Lincoln was proven absolutely correct and Bush was proven absolutely incorrect.
John Wilkes Booth was right: Abraham Lincoln was absolutely a tyrant, and the world probably has Lincoln’s tyranny to thank for the fact that democracy itself was not snuffed out long before it could take root in a majority (just barely) of the world’s countries. The true ideological heir to the Lincoln Presidency was not Barack Obama, or even Franklin Roosevelt. It was Harry Truman, who ended the war with Japan by dropping two bombs on them that killed 210,000 people in the most horrific ways ever known to man. Thanks to Truman, America lost most of whatever moral capital she earned for being less brutal than the totalitarian regimes she fought against.
And yet, thanks to Truman, Western Europe was endowed the Marshall Plan, which spearheaded prosperity for that region unseen even by America in our greatest years. Thanks to Truman, Britain and France were forced to begin the process of relinquishing their imperial empires. Thanks to Truman, the military was desegregated, a process that not even Lincoln or Roosevelt dare initiate. Most importantly, thanks to Truman, the anti-communist Right, with its notions of maintaining world supremacy over Communism, was prevented from continuing World War against Russia and China - you can’t overestimate how close we came to doing that.
Andre Glucksmann, the French philosopher, writes that there are two planks upon which the modern world order maintains its precarious balance: “Never again Auschwitz, Never again Hiroshima.” We will never know for sure if America was right or wrong to drop the big one, but in today’s world, we can only maintain the peace so long as we assure that it will never happen again; and we only know never to drop it again because we’ve discovered their terrible power once (twice) before.
Everything for which we revile Bush we love Lincoln: a President who suspended civil liberties in the name of security, a President who made extremely bloody war in the name of human rights, a President who detained prisoners for years without trial, a President who did so much within his power to curb Freedom of Speech and Assembly. The difference between Lincoln and Bush is a question of competence, not of tyranny. If anything, there is much more evidence of Lincoln’s tyranny than of Bush’s, but Lincoln was intelligent enough that he turned out to be a tyrant for good, not evil.
There is no question that slavery was an absolute evil, even for its time, and even in the 1850’s, the majority of Americans knew that in their bones. It is America’s original sin through which our country built itself as a free place for its whites on the backs of black bondage. Violent abolitionists like John Brown were radical chic terrorists, but what was the solution that Lincoln enacted but John Brown’s massacre of slaveowners society writ extremely large? How else was America going to free itself of something so deeply entrenched? The ending of slavery took a leader who not only had a genius for politics and law, but a will to commit acts which not even John Brown would dream. Slavery was a sin so bloody had to be paid for in blood just as overflowing.
Ultimately, no one really knows why Abraham Lincoln launched The Civil War. Some say it was slavery, some say it was merely to preserve the union. But at the Civil War’s inception, there was a concern far more basic than either.
If the South were able to secede, the precedent would be set for every minority with an evil ideology to secede. No governance would be possible, because evil values would always triumph over good ones. Republican democracy cannot endure unless it can impose democratic values on undemocratic people.
At the time of the Civil War, America was less than a century old. Were the American republic to dissolve into separate countries, it would have lived far less time than either the Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic. When would another republic, a true republic without a constitutional monarchy, have ever resurfaced? Would it be another two thousand years?
What sort of world would we have faced had Lincoln not launched the Civil War? Might it have been not only a world of perpetual slavery, but of such unintelligible chaos that few people or deeds are ever worth remembering? The vast majority of world history is a dark age about which we know very little, and the vast majority of human future may look like that as well. Lincoln did what he thought was necessary to continue the democratic values that keep chaos at bay, and in order to do so, perhaps he indulged in more undemocratic, chaotic, violent, tyrannical means than any president ever will.
So in the moment I saw Booth compose this letter onstage, all I could think of is so many of the Civil Libertarians that, were we living in 1860, would stand idly by as the Union, and perhaps Democracy itself throughout the world, falls to pieces. In our day, libertarian absolutists of every stripe give themselves every conceivable name: progressive, socialist, communist, libertarian, libertarian socialist, libertarian communist, libertarian objectivist, anarchist, anarcho-capitalist, anarcho-socialist,… Make your own list… but they share in common a very simple problem: what do you do if it becomes clear to everyone but you that the methods in which you believe have failed or will fail? Furthermore, would there be any difference if you can’t convince even a small group of people of your ideas? Rather than guaranteeing greater democracy, you would have to impose your ideas by authoritarian force on millions of unwilling people. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in one of his rare moments of coherence. Lincoln was willing to do all that and more. Are you?
I don’t doubt that, were they to give the matter any thought at all, many of you would fancy yourselves the heirs to the Abolitionist movement. But there was nothing Civil Libertarian about abolition. Many of the most fervent abolitionists were as horrified by the prospect of women’s liberation as they were sanguine about freeing slaves. Some abolitionists, like the preacher Theodore Weld, called for slavery’s gradual abolition, which would take place over a period of decades, a process during which millions more might be born and die in captivity. Another abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of an abolition newspaper literally called ‘The Liberator’, called for immediate abolition, and immediately thereafter the forced removal of blacks from America to a colony Americans would establish for them in Africa. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel once famous beyond all American novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was the impetus for widespread awareness of slavery’s brutality. Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered mostly for the stereotypes of African-Americans it perpetuated to make the story more palatable to the average American reader, the ignorant “pickaninny” children, the loving “mammy” who loves the white children as if they were her own, and of course, “Uncle Tom” himself, who seems almost joyfully loyal to his masters.
These proponents of abolition were, clearly, extremely imperfect people, given to flights of horrible ideas. And yet, horrible as they sometimes were, they were the only people of their time of any significance agitating for the end of slavery. Many of their ideas were terrible, some of them, as in the case of Garrison’s idea for an American state for blacks in Africa, were partially enacted (and became the failed state of Liberia).
But at least they tried.
The equivalent to those of today unwilling to compromise, to entertain the lesser evil until it is proven a greater evil, to make terrible mistakes on the path to greater truth, is not the Abolitionists, it is the Doughfaces.
In the 1850’s, ‘Doughface’ was the term for those who wanted accommodation with the South. It refers to a weakness of character, a wilting at the thought that others might find what you believe to be objectionable, and therefore aligning their soft spines with spines so hard they obliterate human feeling.
The term “doughface” comes from John Randolph, a southern congressman - both ally and cousin to Thomas Jefferson and similarly hypocritical but conflicted on issues of slavery - who in 1820 said with withering contempt of these Northern congressmen who voted with the South on issues of slavery:
“They were scared at their own dough faces—yes, they were scared at their own dough faces!—We had them, and if we wanted three more, we could have had them: yes, and if these had failed, we could have three more of these men, whose conscience, and morality, and religion, extend to 'thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude.”
To be sure, these Doughface congressmen had ample reason to believe what they did. If the South seceded, they would take their economic heft with them, and a bloody, painful war might follow. Follow it did, but Democracy itself was on the line.
When Arthur Schlesinger re-coined the phrase “doughface” for the twentieth century, he used it in a very different context. In the nineteenth century, ‘doughface’ meant the Northern congressmen who voted for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which stipulated that a slave state had to be admitted into the Union for every free state admitted. The northerners who voted for the Missouri Compromise were of many different stripes. Some were simply moderates for their day, Southern sympathizers who held no great love for African-Americans. Others were radicals who simply voted for it because they were too frustrated to make a stand against it. When thinking of such people, one might recall Ralph Nader’s insistence in 2000 that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, or Howard Dean’s strenuous insistence during the Obamacare debate that the whole law be scrapped because it was simply not good enough.
These were the doughfaces who felt that since such an evil law could not be stopped, an attempt to minimize the evil which the law imparts should not even be made. In 1949, when Schlesinger used the term, he was addressing this latter type of pseudo-progressive, whom in 1949, the height of the early Cold War, were the prime voice in the United States arguing for full accommodation to Soviet demands over Europe.
Here’s what he wrote in his unforgettable 1949 book that every liberal should still read - The Vital Center, which, contrary to what it sounds like, does not argue for the kind of moderation between the American Left and Right. Schlesinger’s Vital Center was the bulwarks against the twin threats of Fascism and Communism:
`Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
`Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.
`But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.
Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.
Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire."
Schlesinger later became a figure more like John Randolph, an unforgivably compromised public servant whose tongue seemed to forever be in the backside of the Kennedy Family. When JFK was elected, he accepted a job in the administration for which his sole responsibility was literally to chronicle Kennedy’s actions for posterity. He categorically denied the truth of Kennedy’s risible behavior toward women, and he retrospectively claimed against all evidence that JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam. Among American Historians, he is most famous for writing the book ‘The Age of Jackson’, which argues that Jackson, in spite of his ethnic cleansing, was one of the greatest American presidents.
But what would Schlesinger and Randolph make of today’s doughfaces who enable the John Wilkes Booths of our era? What would they say to the heirs of Henry Wallace and Norman Thomas?
What are these young heirs - or in the case of Baltimore the thirtysomethings who pretend to remain young - truly fighting for? Superficially, that American Militarism has ruined our inner cities and reputation abroad, they proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that Wall Street should be occupied, that America is a country of conservative puritans palpitating with contempt for blacks, women, gays, and sex. The louder they get, the more of us they implicate. It is no longer the conservatives who are the primary villains, but the liberals themselves who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.' They add their voices to American politics’ hateful echo chamber, the din of which could still send the current Presidency, the most liberal in more than half a century, to an early end.
Our grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest conditions the world has ever seen, and as they prepare to pass from this world, the world revolts against everything they stood for for a second time. Yes, unimaginable poverty is everywhere, but for the first time in human history, there would be a fair fight to eradicate poverty if ever the left-of-center forces united with one another instead of silencing heretics who say 'Maybe we can't do it all at once...'
Such people once perverted the Civil Rights Movement into the '68 protests, the urban riots, and stomped out Civil Rights' gains in their infancy. Meanwhile, they had no solidarity at all for the protests across the Iron Curtain in ‘68 Prague, and issued no warning about the tens of millions of deaths in Mao's regime (perhaps more than a hundred million). Their spiritual children have now perverted the gains of Obama into Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders candidacy, calls for slavery reparations when the government is already $20 trillion in debt, calls for internet censorship against politically incorrect statements when we just spent fifty years overturning just such censorship with regard to religiously incorrect statements.
In every era and every generation, a new guise comes about for this unwillingness to make mistakes, this moral wilting in the face of obvious evil, this perversion of ‘Social Justice,’ this ‘National Pacifism.’ 200 years ago, it took the form of accommodation to the South in the face of slavery. 100 years ago, it took the form of accommodating the extreme imperialism that led to World War I and the impoverishment of Africa. Today, it takes the form of extreme anti-imperialism. Inevitably, just like in those former times, these fashionable opinions are drossed up in fashionable language of the day. Seventy years ago, George Orwell had quite something to say about them:
“The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States …”
Substitute ‘Israel’ for ‘Britain’, and you have a perfect definition of the contemporary Hard Left. All tactics are completely acceptable, or at least unable to be censured, so long as they act against the monolithic evil that is the United States, and the evil neo-imperial projects which their involvement overseas inevitably represent.
But you needn’t look overseas to find exemplars of this evil. Here in Baltimore, rioters from last spring are so often excused because white residents, or even middle-class black residents, allegedly have no right to criticize the actions people trapped in urban poverty. Perhaps they’re right, but this would overlook thousands of African-American lives potentially ruined by these riots, and that thousands of jobs which poor people could have gained will never now move to the city.
The goal of such people is not to improve Baltimore - because nothing gradual is fast enough for the instant gratification they seek. They criticize Obama for not standing up sufficiently to Republicans, they revile O’Malley for adapting a zero-tolerance policy when crime was virtually at levels of cities in the Middle Ages, and they automatically assume that the BPD wants to commit hate crimes.
A policeman is a public servant like a teacher, and deserves all the same respect. There are policemen, far too many, whose main pleasure in the force is to abuse their charges (and just as many teachers whose main pleasure is exactly the same). But consider this: both jobs are low-paying, dim-future occupations whose benefits are continually cut to a nub. But for a few (and yes, still too many) abusive exceptions, all they want to do is to make their communities better.
Just as teachers deserve far more respect than they ever get from the Right, policemen deserve far more respect than they ever get from the Left. When people who continually put their lives on the line tell you what’s needed to police a place, what authority have you to doubt them? What statistics? What experience of the fog of violence?
Furthermore, if you believe that the plurality of police or teachers have taken their jobs to abuse their subjects, why the hell are you just protesting them? You should not be protesting them. If you care as much as you say you do, you should put every cent you have to relocating as many people out of West Baltimore and rehousing them in middle class areas as you possibly can. But… you’re not serious enough to play Oskar Schindler are you?...
Whether or not you realize it, the goal you seek is an authoritarian strongman to blow the city up and rebuild it from scratch, because, surely you reason, a faint nub of a slummed out crater like 1945 Warsaw or Tokyo which we can build up in a few months is better than the injustices of 2015 Baltimore, which can only be slowly improved over generations. Even if, as in Warsaw's case, it takes another fifty years for Communism to fall before the city can be rebuilt, such a destructive gamble is justified if there’s even the smallest chance for something greater down the road. What right have you to play roulette with people’s lives like that?
The irony is that all of you who call for the end of capitalism and militarism are completely addicted to its benefits. It was not socialism that made the clothes on which you pin your political statements, it was not communism that created the technology you passionately use to denounce capitalism, it was not anarchism that created the corporate music you listen to and the special-effects laden movies you watch. It was not the Soviet Union that allowed you the freedom to protest, almost always without assault or retribution against you. It is Capitalism which does all that for you and more, but you revile Capitalism because Capitalism demands nothing of you and gives you a secure bed and desk around which you think for yourselves (badly). It is a religion you seek, a religion that demands more of you than the purposeless lives to which you were so comfortably born; for if you truly had the courage of your convictions, you would raise up an army take arms against those conspiring forces that prevent the glorious era you seek, and move heaven and earth to end this cruel world in an ecstatic hail of bullets.
III. The Great American “....”
If you read the back half of our country’s most reputable journals, you’ll inevitably come upon some critic who declares that this next-big-thing, finally, is the ‘Great American Novelist,’ or the ‘Great American Playwright,’ or the ‘Great American Composer.’ But those are the wrong questions. Of course we don’t have a ‘Great American “...”’ America doesn’t “do” novels or plays or symphonies. Don’t get me wrong, we have great novelists and playwrights and composers, but we could never have a single playwright or novelist that means to us what Shakespeare means to England, or what Tolstoy means to Russia, or what Beethoven means to Germany. Europe created the novel, it’s reinvented the theater half-a-dozen times, and the symphony barely ever left Europe.
But now it is ‘us’ who reinvented theater with the ‘musical.’ And, still around in his mid-eighties, we have a theatrical creator in this country who is the voice of our time as perhaps not even any American filmmaker can equal. There has not been a theatrical artist with Stephen Sondheim’s astonishing proliferation of great work since Ibsen. There has not been a writer for the theater so observant and compassionate for human beings since Chekhov. There has not been a voice of the theater who can make fun out of so much seriousness since Mozart. And there has not been a creator of the theater with this much imagination, this much versatility, this much linguistic inventiveness, since Shakespeare himself.
Like with Shakespeare, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work.
Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Tolstoy and Beethoven, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in the very most immortal.
But while other works of Sondheim, with all their cynicism and heartlessness, can still hit you squarely in the feels, Assassins has pure acid and black bile in place of its heart. It begins and ends with the song "Everybody's got the right...", the right to happiness; and because everybody has the right, everybody also has the right to take away other people's happiness. Sweeney Todd shows us a horribly dark world, and then pulls the cape away with a whoosh, and we realize it's all a joke. Assassins shows us a world where you can kid about the darkest subjects, only to pull the cape away again, and reveal to us at all that there was no joke at all.
It should come as no surprise that after Assassins, Sondheim’s industry slowed to a trickle. Three years later came Passion, which is generally regarded as his final great work. Since then, this once unconquerable master who seemed to churn out another masterpiece every three years has ground to a halt, just two shows in the last twenty years, both endlessly workshopped and retooled, with lukewarm reviews at every showing.
There is something different in Assassins that sets it apart from every other Sondheim musical. Sweeney Todd, often called the ‘Great American Opera’, is similarly dark, but it’s just a warmup act for what we get in Assassins. In Sweeney, there is always a wink, a nod, something that assures us that this is all a fairy tale or a Grand Guignol melodrama, a delightful nightmare.
But Assassins is a comedy so black that it ceases to be funny. It’s so light that half the lines in the musical could probably be interpreted as laugh lines, but the stakes are American History itself. The purpose of Sweeney Todd is to make a delightful assault on the audience to enjoy the dark underbelly of human nature, but the purpose of Assassins is to insidiously worm its way into our souls until it can eat away at our faith in humanity.
By any objective standard, the production was thoroughly workmanlike. The demands this musical makes on the performers and directors is superhuman - not even the original or Broadway casts sounded up to them. The singing at Stillpointe was thoroughly decent, but at times you could barely hear them over the pit band. Frankly, except for Chelsea Paradiso as potential Gerald Ford assassin and Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme, and especially John C. Wilson as Leonard Bernstein “acolyte” and potential Nixon assassin Sam Byck, there was not a single actor onstage who seemed within striking distance of meeting this work’s awful demands on its own terms. But we were all the better for being in such thoroughly adequate hands, because except for Mr. Wilson, not a single performance was great enough to distract us from just how disturbing this material is. There were moments in this production that were so sublime and powerful, so lofty and full of awe, that I had to wipe away tears from my eyes. It was as though we were watching a ritual in which the very ghosts of this country, all the toil and sweat and blood, was being conjured in front of our very eyes. This is what it must feel like to watch a religious experience and believe in it.
IV. Leon Czolgosz - The Failure of the Right
“Some men have everything/And some have none/So rise and shine
In the U.S.A/You can work your wayTo the head of the line!"
The falsest dichotomy in American politics is that liberalism and conservatism are two sides of the same coin. Conservatives have dined out on the benefits of that dichotomy for half-a-century, and as a result, conservatives stand a nearly 50% chance before long of rolling back all the reforms of the Roosevelt era and taking us back to the age when there was a depression nearly as large as the Great Depression every twenty years.
I suppose that in a properly functioning democracy, conservatism and liberalism are the two properly competing philosophies. But does anybody reading this think that the US is a properly functioning democracy (and for that matter, is anybody reading this?)?
Back in 1956, Arthur Schlesinger, that same history dude from Part II, wrote this passage in the New York Times:
“The liberal believes that society can and should be improved and that the way to improve it is to apply the human intelligence to social and economic problems.
The conservative, on balance, opposes efforts at purposeful change because he believes that things are about as good as they can be reasonably expected to be, and that any change is more likely than not to be for the worse.
The liberal's belief in working for change does not mean that he regards human reason as an infallible or incorruptible instrument, or that he thinks the Perfect State is attainable. But it does mean that he feels that history never stands still, that social change can better the quality of people's lives and happiness, and that the margin of gain, however limited, is worth the effort.
Nor will the conservative in all cases and occasions resist change. But he inclines to accept it only when the intellectual case for it is overwhelming and the social pressure for it irresistible. Up to that point he clings stubbornly to that which he knows and to which he knows and to which he is habituated. The castle which he is habituated. "The castle which conservatism is set to defend," said Emerson, "is the actual state of things, good and bad.”
The actual state of things… how good it would be to have an American conservative movement set to preserve the actual state of things after the 1950’s, rather than a reactionary stance that would take us back to the 1920’s or before. Sadly, we do have precisely that conservative movement. It’s called the Democratic Party Establishment, and after Obama leaves, it will take ascendence again in the form of Hillary Clinton.
A conservative sentiment is not automatically a bad one, and there are few conservatives more effective than the Clintons - who have been the only thing standing between America and a complete reversion to 19th century economics for an entire quarter-century.
Thirty years ago, the current Democratic establishment was the insurgents. The Democratic Party Establishment was lead by uncharismatic liberals like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, both of whom grew up in the heyday of FDR optimism and experienced adolescence where they flirted with the socialism of Henry Wallace, the Bernie Sanders-like Vice-President Roosevelt ditched so he could nominate Harry Truman. Both McGovern and Mondale lost national elections to Conservative Republican incumbents in catastrophic fashion.
These “New Democrats” did not believe in what they termed the ‘economic populism’ of the New Deal. Their most important belief was in tax cuts for the Middle Class juxtaposed with tax increases for the Upper Class. They didn’t, as Republicans did, automatically believe that the economy would improve so long as the government cut taxes and spending, but they did believe that the social welfare programs instituted Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation enabled many poor people to live their lives without seeking work. They didn’t believe in massive military spending, but they did believe in National Service. They didn’t believe in government-funded universal healthcare, but they did believe in lowering tax burdens for the uninsured so that they could buy insurance. They didn’t believe in putting as much money into public education as possible, but they did believe in giving as much money as the government could to poor families so that they had the option of sending their children somewhere other than their districted public school. They believed in free trade that allowed employers to shift jobs overseas, but they also believed in a mixture of incentives and penalties for employers to keep American manufacturing intact. They believed in a woman’s right to choose, but not in partial-birth abortion. They believed guns should proliferate freely, but not assault-weapons.
Were these politicians operating in 1955 rather than 1985, the “New Democrats,” - politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Sam Nunn - would be considered slightly to the right of the Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. In a properly functioning democracy, they would have been the base of a properly functioning conservative anchor that curbs the excesses of more interventionist statesmen to their left. However, in 1985, there was nothing about them considered conservative; they were called ‘Moderate Democrats.’ Occasionally, as in the case of Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia, they were considered ‘Conservative Democrats.’ Theirs was a true, rational, conservatism - a flawed view of human nature, but nevertheless a principled one that cared about people less powerful than they.
I suppose that so long as the circulation of this ‘magazine’ is confined to Smalltimore, this won’t come as news to anybody, but there is very little that’s conservative about Modern Conservatism. Except perhaps for the permanent relegation of everyone but white males to second-class citizenry, there is no existing order which they wish to preserve. At this point, it’s arguable whether they even wish to turn the clock back to a better time. In so many ways, the Modern Conservative is the most revolutionary person in America. What the Modern American Conservative wants is to transform the existing world order into a Nietzschean imperium where the wishes of America wishes are unquestioningly obeyed around the globe.
Everyone but the delusional is aware that there is no way that the Bush Administration planned 9/11. As I believe Clive James put it: “if the Bush Administration wanted to hit The World Trade Center, they’d have accidentally hit the Sears Tower.” Nevertheless, 9/11 was a godsend for them - the perfect excuse for all the poisonous insects of reaction that lurk in the mud to hatch out.
This is where I have to pause for a moment. It’s almost too easy to hit the Right. There’s no risk in it. Nearly anybody who picks this magazine up will spend their lifetime complaining about how conservatism has ruined this country, and they’re absolutely right to do so. What new insights can I possibly give?
All I can say in response is that the world of conservatism is precisely that: a world. It is by no means monolithic, and the moral character of its adherents is no more or less evil than the rest of us - and, in many ways, it’s precisely that diversity of people who care so fanatically about building the world into a better place which makes them so very, very dangerous.
So many left wingers begin their lives in right wing families, and so many right-wingers are ex-left wing students, that it’s almost tempting to say that politically extreme beliefs are more an issue of temperament than of conviction. Maybe American conservatives are revolutionaries that, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending lectures every night at Red Emma’s. Though perhaps it’s more to the point to say that the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending services at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. The most important difference between the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s and a revolutionaries at Maryland’s largest Megachurch is that there are roughly ten to twelve-thousand more who walk through the Megachurch on any given week.
For lack of a better place to put them, we have to put these pseudo-Conservatives on the far-right of the ideological spectrum. They don’t like government programs, even if they’re often more dependent upon them than liberals are. They certainly don’t think that government can be an instrument to institute greater freedom… but maybe it’s more to the point to say that in spite of their protestations to the contrary, they want less freedom, not more.
In case it isn’t obvious to you, just mull it over a bit. They want a President and Congress who will suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to national security, they want law enforcement that suspends civil liberties in the face of all threats to their personal security, and they want all of the above to suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to ‘traditional’ morality. They want the government to stop taxing the rich, and stop taxing the companies owned by the rich. Perhaps they just don’t understand how finance works, but it’s possible that they want to make corporate boards have as much control over their finances as the government has over all the other aspects of their persons.
In essence, this conservatism, if it’s conservatism, is (fortunately) a diet, decaf version the authoritarian conservatism of Mussolini and Franco - the politics of fear used as a way of manipulating the masses to joyfully give up their freedoms. Nevertheless, even on its worst day, America is not a fascist country, and I would (and no doubt will) argue with anyone who says otherwise. Nevertheless, there is an enormous fascist presence in America, a presence that threatened to become the dominant mode of governance during the Bush years, and may yet reassert itself to exponentially greater levels than ever before.
In the history of conservatism, there are two basic threads. Once again, perhaps the best guide through this maze is Arthur Schlesinger. Both threads originate from the rather authoritarian idea that there is a central source from which power and privilege emanate that must at all costs be preserved, lest chaos reign over the realm. But these two types of conservatism diverge on their attitudes toward those less fortunate. The first type regards it as a moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. A nobleman sees the serfs under him as his property, and a good owner takes care of his property. Obviously, these possessions can never be treated as equals, but they must always be provided for. Schlesinger called this kind of conservatism ‘Aristocratic Conservatism,’ which was the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. One might see this strain represented in contemporary America by John McCain, or even by the Clintons.
The second type sees no moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. ‘We provide for ourselves,’ they reason, ‘so let them provide for themselves, and if they can’t, it’s not our obligation to help them.’ Schlesinger called this conservatism ‘Plutocratic Conservatism’, which was the conservatism of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. One might easily perceive this strain of conservatism personified, almost to perfection, by the second Bush Administration.
But the dichotomy goes still deeper. I apologize for massively oversimplifying what follows, but this bifurcation goes back at very least to late 17th century England, when the English upper classes finally ended 400 years of almost unbroken Civil War with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After 1688, the English upper class was merely divided between two factions: the Tories and the Whigs. Before 1688, Tories were almost unambiguously among the villains of English history. They believed in the Divine Right of Kings, they resented religious tolerance of Catholicism, and they lived for generations off the spoil of their lands and the labor of their serfs. Contrary to popular belief, the Tories were not necessarily titled nobility, but they had so much land and inherited wealth that they didn’t need titles.
By the standards of 1700, Whigs were the acme of progressive thought. Whigs were the first class of people since the guildsmen of the Dark Ages to consolidate enough power to challenge the noble classes. They were, by the standards of their day, the Middle Class. They had as much wealth as the landed gentry, but nowhere near the gentry’s security. The landed gentry lived off their holdings, which slowly accumulated over the centuries into world domination; but the middle class made and lost fortunes as great in the same year as the landed gentry could ever accumulate in a lifetime. The Whigs represented industry, they represented initiative, they represented personal responsibility, they were the dynamism and risk that builds an Empire.
But liberalism is a very fickle thing, and what is truly liberal can change virtually overnight. In 1833, the Whig Prime Minister Charles The 2nd Earl Grey (yes,... the tea was named for him, and notice how new the title was to his family...), instituted the Great Reform Act which allowed urban lower-middle-class males to vote (aka, businessmen who could only rent property in the cities rather than owning it). By enabling these men to vote, the business class would have a much greater share of the electorate.
This progress, of course, begged another question: if the business class could have the vote, why couldn’t the working class? The key man who realized the necessity of addressing their concerns was England’s dominant political figure during the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli.
150 years ago, the world of economic progressivism was precisely the opposite of what it is today. The concepts of individual initiative, free trade, the natural economic cycle of boom and bust, were what defined the ideas of progress. Any attempt to interfere with the economy was seen as an infringement not only on economic freedom, but on personal freedom.
So it was left to Conservatives (as Tories were by then called), seeing that the Industrial Revolution had left the working classes in an even worse state than under feudal rule, to alleviate the burdens of the Working Class. In 1866, Disraeli masterminded the Second Reform Act, which allowed the vote to working class males in the cities who practiced any trade. In the blink of an eye, the vote was extended to 1 in every 3 British men.
To counterbalance the Conservative gains, the Liberal Party (which was basically the Whigs in a different generation) had to extend the vote to working class men still living in the country - lower-class men who still lived on the lands of gentry and noblemen - servants, agrarians, hunters, who owed their livelihoods to the noblemen who allowed them to live on their lands. After 1884, 2 in 3 men in Britain could vote, and thus began the slow march toward financial and economic justice and welfare for all that is Modern Liberalism.
By the standards of the 21st century, the English Conservative Party was in fact more liberal than their Liberal Party. So ‘liberal’ did Conservatives of that age become that Disraeli’s great ally in Central Europe - Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of a newly united Germany - instituted the first welfare state during the 1880s: a social insurance plan guaranteeing a source of income to any family struggling to make ends meet. Liberals of their age were stuck until Franklin Roosevelt in an outdated 18th century model of liberalism that praised individual initiative to the skies and left the poor to rot (and libertarians still are…). It was the Conservatives of their day that thought poverty a crucial enough issue to address.
We in America have no such conservative tradition. The very idea of aristocrats is anathema to the American lexicon. This country was, fundamentally, founded by 18th century mercantile liberals. When the Tea Party wraps itself in the language of the American Revolution, they are fundamentally correct to do so, even if they get just about every particular wrong. 1776 was also the year when the first modern economic text: The Wealth of Nations, was published. The height of liberalism was individual initiative and free trade.
Actually, we do have an ‘Aristocratic Conservative’ tradition, but compared to Western Europe, it’s very weak indeed. Sure, we had Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom could at times make even the Clintons look unfeeling toward the poor. Nevertheless, both TR and Ike were powerless to stomp out the Plutocratic Conservative tradition - which took control of the Republican party almost immediately after their terms in office expired. Purely in living memory, France had Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, while Germany had Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. If any of these candidates ran in America on the same platforms, their economic views would be little different than candidates slightly to the left of moderate Democrats. It should come as no surprise that in these American Centuries, it is this Plutocratic Conservative tradition that proves America’s undoing.
Before World War One, the “One Percent” in England and America received roughly one-fifth of the income within these two countries. By 1950, the share of the one percent was less than one-tenth. Beginning with the Reagan administration, that share began rising, and in the era of “Too Big To Fail” it’s certainly back to one-fifth and only shows signs of rising.
Nevertheless, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves in slamming the One Percent. Even if there’s much more inherited wealth in America than any Republican admits, there isn’t anywhere near the inherited concentration of wealth there was a century ago. However, this “New Aristocracy” in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few tens of thousands of families is exactly where we’re heading. This essay is already too long to provide all the statistics to show it, but they’re only a Google search away.
There is an amazing and almost entirely fictional scene in Assassins (Remember that? The musical this essay’s supposed to be about?) where Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, accosts the socialist revolutionary, Emma Goldman. It’s true that Czolgosz and Goldman briefly met, and Goldman worked very hard in Czolgosz’s defense. But in the play, they don’t just meet. In this fictional interpolation, Czolgosz declares his love for Emma Goldman, and claims he’s followed her from town to town.
Among American Presidents, William McKinley was one of the ultimate Plutocratic Conservatives. His presidency was an unholy alliance of the very 18th century belief in economic non-interference and the very 19th century belief in nationalism. He believed that the best way to ensure American prosperity was through the consolidation of American monopolies, which could dictate economic terms to consumers all around the world; and in rebellion against 18th century liberalism, he instituted tariffs on all foreign imports so that American monopolies could consolidate their power still further. Never had trusts grown at the rate which they had under McKinley, and we can only hope they never will again.
Leon Czolgosz was the virtual embodiment of the factory worker, crushed under the gears and smog of the McKinley era. His hands were utterly damaged by the conditions of the bottle factory in which he worked. Multiple times a day he would have to stick his hands into a 12-1400 degree oven, and if he did not hold his breath for the entire time his hands were in there, his innards would burn. In Assassins reimagining, Emma Goldman becomes a modern Virgin Mary, and Leon Czolgosz is the meek who shall inherit the Earth.
One hundred years later, so complete is Plutocratic Conservatism’s hold upon America - and therefore the world - that even seven years of Obama cannot stop its power. The Left has failed the world, but at least until recently, the Left was completely in abeyance - dishonored and discredited by the failure of the Soviet Union. The failures of our era are almost entirely the failure of the Right. It is only a matter of time before a modern Leon Czolgosz - whether a Latin-American worker, or an African American harassed by police, or a repressed practitioner of Islam, or a white nationalist inflamed by Fox News and talk radio - takes arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, ends them.