Talking Fascist Coup Blues
or, The Fool on the City on the Hill
I believe in America.
This is a point I come back around to multiple times in this piece. If I rewrote the whole thing based squarely around that sentence, I’m sure it would be quite a bit different. But as I’m here trying to finish the piece off, I find that I need to put that sentence alone up front.
This is a disjoint piece written across multiple days. My emotions have been in a lot of places over this time, and not just because of what all I write about here. I’m adding these paragraphs as a preface to what I’ve already written; I’m not going back and changing big chunks, even if it might be redundant in places.
It’s time to get these thoughts out. It’s time to share and find a space to talk with people about it all.
One note along those lines, as a lot of people signed up for META-SPIEL recently. Substack does allow for commenting / discussion. It’s only open to subscribers. If you’re so moved, please feel free to comment via Substack, or wherever else you may have found this.
Wednesday, January 6, 2021, an armed mob stormed and breached the U.S. Capitol.
I think it’s very important to use correct words to describe things like this. And it is correct to use all of these words: Insurrection. Sedition. Coup. Fascism.
I do not however think most readers here need to dwell upon the language. We’re all aware at a high level what happened. We’re also all waiting to see what the various ramifications will be.
I started writing this Wednesday night and got nowhere with it. I’ve added bits and pieces in the ensuing days, but I’ve had a difficult time processing what all has happened, as I’m sure many others have.
This paragraph is being written on Saturday night. Most of the day today I’ve had a headache. Perhaps there’s a clinical way to describe it, but I don’t know what that is, so I’m going to say that this is an existential headache. Everything that is happening, and the difficulty in processing it, has led to me having a headache.
Often as I write I feel a need to offer elaborate disclaimers. Sometimes - this paragraph being a prime example - I actually wind up writing about disclaimers, out of what I’m going to call an extreme sense of needing to justify or rationalize what I’m doing.
Well, I need to try and work through some of my thoughts here. And while I suppose there’s a performative aspect to it, what it’s really about is connecting. I need to connect. I believe a lot of other people need to connect. I think what went down this week affects us personally and we need to try to deal with this collectively.
My thoughts over the past few days are disjoint. But hopefully they add up to something meaningful, something to allow us to connect more.
Talking blues is a form probably best associated with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. If you’re not familiar with the form, imagine a folk song with a repetitive rhythm behind it, where there’s no formal verse structure, and instead just a story being told over the top. Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is more or less a talking blues song, albeit a very long and ridiculous one.
I associate the form primarily with Phil Ochs. “Talking Vietnam” from his 1964 debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing is probably the song that first comes to mind:
This Christmas I received two books. One is I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writing of Phil Ochs, which is what it sounds like. It was a surprise as I didn’t know such a book existed. And it was especially a surprise because I openly talked about compiling / writing precisely this book 18 years ago. I’ll be reading this soon, but a couple other books were ahead of it in line.
The other book I got for Christmas is Christine Möhle’s Trials and Tragedies: Phil Ochs and his Rehearsals for Retirement, a thin volume which explores Phil’s 1968 trip to Europe, then his time in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic convention, and the subsequent album Rehearsals for Retirement. I just finished this book a couple of days ago. I also this week finished Lee Weiner’s Conspiracy to Riot: The Life and Times of One of the Chicago 7. It seemed an especially relevant book to read after the Möhle book. I didn’t read these books anticipating any particular historical relevance for the week at hand, but hey.
It’s difficult to distill 1968 down into a paragraph, but here goes: There was a very strong movement culture in America. But it wasn’t strong enough. The Democrats came fairly close to adopting an anti-war plank, but they didn’t, and they nominated Humphrey, and the protesters in Chicago were attacked by the Chicago Police Department, and it all ultimately played into the hands of Richard Nixon, who leveraged the nation’s deep-set racism into being elected President.
Chicago broke Phil Ochs. This is the album cover for Rehearsals for Retirement:
During a concert the following March, he introduced the song “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed” by talking to the audience about Chicago, remarking that “something very extraordinary died there, which was America.”
I grant that most people will not so directly associate January 6, 2021 with August 28, 1968. I myself might not be making such a strong association if not for what I’d read this past week. Nevertheless I find the connection profound. The days feel like inversions of one another.
There are a lot of “ideas” about what “America” is and about what “democracy” in “America” is supposed to be all about. The phrase that I think best sums it up is “city upon a hill”, derived from the Sermon on the Mount, coined by John Winthrop in 1630, and cited by a shitload of politicians ever since. America is supposed to represent a “beacon of hope” to the rest of the world.
2020 was a year where America spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with itself: a country founded upon the original sin of racism, yet always and still a “beacon of hope”? Well, yes. That’s always been the American contradiction.
In 1971 Phil told Studs Terkel: “I think what happened in Chicago was the final death of democracy in America as we know it: the total, final takeover of the fascist military state - in one city, at least.” He meant it. He never came to terms with it all.
Lee Weiner did come to terms with it all, although the terms are very ambivalent. His conclusion is that we all need to keep working toward something better, without expecting that paradise will ever be reached. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and I suppose it’s pretty close to my own.
But I can’t help but think that something else really did change on Wednesday. Yes, that was all just a culmination of the Trump years. But consider just how easy it was for the Capitol to be breached. It’s a metaphor for how easy it is for far more to be breached. Indeed, that breach has already occurred.
Unlike major singular events - the where were you when? types of events like 9/11, the Challenger explosion, the, um, white Bronco speeding down the interstate - I think the Capitol breach is a little different. Since it’s a culmination, it makes more sense to think of it as similar to the 1968 Democratic convention, or to Watergate.
My MA is in 20th Century U.S. History. I therefore know a lot about Vietnam, Watergate, Johnson, Nixon, etc. I’ve repeatedly read or heard how the fall of Nixon damaged the faith of Americans in the presidency, how Reagan restored some of that, blah blah.
What occurred to me the other night is that, excluding people at the center of the action, I don’t think I’ve ever heard people talk about how Watergate felt to them. By this I mean something other than someone thinking back and remarking how Nixon was a crook.
Nixon had been overwhelmingly reelected in November 1972. He resigned in August 1974. How did all that feel? I think that for a lot of people there was a sense of justice about it all, but what about all of the people that, you know, voted for him? And is justice even a feeling?
There were three television networks back then. There was no Internet. Watergate was a daily phenomenon, but it wasn’t a minute by minute phenomenon. Surely that affected the way that the whole thing was processed. Even so, isn’t it strange the way that the collective memory around Watergate has been constructed?
The thing is that Nixon’s resignation didn’t really affect anyone’s day. If the question What now? was posed, I imagine the answer would be Get up and go to work. This was a calamitous, unprecedented moment in American history. But on a personal level it’s as though it were absorbed no differently than the Bronco. I’m not claiming that it felt the same! But in terms of the presented collective memory, it’s as though it were hardly any different.
Were people profoundly sad? Were even the happy people sad, because it was such a black mark on America? I’m sure I’ve heard people express how that was a “sad” day, but in my mind the word was used the same way you’d say that someone’s 1978 Ford Pinto was a “sad” looking car.
My first reaction to the Capitol being breached on Wednesday was something akin to resignation. I’d worked about 14 hours the previous day. I was tired. And whatever exactly it was happening in Washington, I felt incredibly detached from it. But detached is not quite the right word. It’s not that I was separate from it. It’s that I was separated from it. As the day went on my exhaustion was mixed with feelings of sadness and anxiety. As the next couple of days have gone on… it’s all become part of a more general malaise.
As the pandemic has gone on, as politics have evolved, I have increasingly felt like there’s just no place for me in all of it. I use the word “politics” very broadly to mean something more than “elections” and something even more than “government”. Even the quasi-political things that I am a part of, I feel quite irrelevant.
The other book I finished in the new year is Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. It’s an excellent book, worthy of the plaudits it’s received. There are important lessons in there which inform how to be a good community member, how to be a good citizen, even how to be a good dad. The catch is that it’s kind of a guide as to how to behave when you go somewhere; but what if you feel like you’re never going anywhere?
This surely is a side effect of the pandemic. But it’s also a side effect of what’s happening politically in the country - or, more directly, I’d submit that it’s an intended effect of what’s happening politically. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do to make a difference.
Intellectually I understand the folly of this thinking. I can look at what Stacey Abrams and others have done in Georgia and say, that’s where it’s at. That’s what organizing looks like. That’s what being part of change looks like. That’s what helping people discover their own power looks like. But I nevertheless feel like there’s no role for me in anything like that. Sure, I know people who wrote postcards and sent them off to Georgia. Meanwhile I spent Election Day in Iowa, sitting in a room doing nothing. I was trying to find something profound to do. And while I’d like to think that maybe I found it anyway - I am trying to get an essay published about my experience - the pessimist in me thinks that, outside of a small circle of friends, nobody is really going to care about the day I spent in Iowa and my observations thereof, and probably nobody will be willing to publish it. Right or wrong, trying to get that thing published right now is something I’m hanging a lot of hope on, and I feel I’ve just set myself up for more failure.
I write about all this in part for the cathartic element but it’s much more than that. I believe that how I feel is wrong; I believe that others feel much the same way; I hope that if we can find better ways to connect, we can combine to find better ways to break free of this restrictive mentality; and I hope and believe that I’m an interesting and persuasive enough writer that all of this can be part of those ways of connecting.
Here’s the thing. I actually still believe in that “city upon a hill” stuff. I actually do still think there’s something to the idea of American exceptionalism that’s not ultimately a destructive thing. It’s not about America as a nation-state per se, but rather about a more abstract notion of “America”. It’s very much in line with the American “progressive” tradition. Whatever all else we might say or think about America - and quite properly so - I think that beacon still shines.
I was once told that I talk like a pessimist and work like an optimist. Perhaps so. Deep down, I’m still an optimist. But I’m a tired one. I think optimistically. But I feel pessimistic. Maybe I’ll never fully resolve that - and maybe that will have to be okay.
The historian in me wonders though. Vietnam, Watergate… did they bust idealism in America? Did the country hold out some, elect Carter, and then just totally give up in electing Reagan? Is that sort of where we’re at now? Electing Carter was, best as I can tell, an optimistic act. Electing Biden, even if we’re all hoping for the best, was frankly an act of desperation. Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez our future? Or is it Joe Manchin?
Well, I know I’ve been sidelined for too long. I think a great many of us have been. We must find our strength and do more. Even if it feels like we don’t know how, we’ve got to come together somehow.
Christine Möhle’s book dwells on Burg Waldeck, a Newport-style festival Phil Ochs performed at in Germany in 1968. At the festival, in introducing “The War Is Over”, he told the audience: “I believe in militancy masked with some imagination rather than straight brawn.” This is a point Möhle emphasizes. Many of the radical German students had come to think that things like songs were ineffective. Phil, up until Chicago, always felt that what he was doing was essential. The most important takeaway from Möhle’s book is how the German students may have helped influence the way he came to think about Chicago.
Nevertheless, today I continue to answer Don McLean in the affirmative. I do believe in rock ‘n’ roll. Music can save my mortal soul.
There’s a newish documentary on Jimmy Carter and music. One of the key stories, which I’d never heard before, is how an underfunded Carter campaign got a jolt from a series of benefit concerts featuring the Allman Brothers, his fellow Georgians. Once in the White House, Jimmy and Rosalynn would host concerts on the White House lawn featuring the likes of Dizzy Gillespie. It’s really a fascinating documentary. It speaks to the sense of optimism that informed the Carter years, something I think we collectively need to recapture. It also speaks remarkably well to the space where music, culture, politics, and history come together.
I seem to invariably float back into that space, without ever figuring out how to stay there.
I also seem to keep floating back around to Phil. Years can go by where it feels like his relevance just isn’t there anymore. But it always seems to come back.
In recent weeks I’ve written a couple of META-REVIEWS, exploring huge albums I’d never listened to. I wound up digressing into cultural analysis as much as anything. In writing about the three mega-huge albums of 1977 - Rumours, Bat Out of Hell, Saturday Night Fever - I wound up talking about the different ways they seemed to interact with the past, present, and future. That kind of thinking gets me back around to Phil as well.
I’m inclined to wonder whether maybe Phil had a forceful understanding of the past and present, and a coherent approach to his own place in the present, but an inability to imagine the future. I believe that in the aftermath of Chicago, he couldn’t see a positive path forward for the country or for himself. He certainly tried at times. But nothing ever took. And there’s a clue to that. Look at the album cover again - he defines himself simply as American. He couldn’t separate himself from the country, whatever exactly “the country” meant to him. As I dive into I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writing of Phil Ochs this upcoming week these are themes I intend to look for.
Copping to a belief in America and then a belief in rock ‘n’ roll in the same piece is probably some combination of absurdity, triteness, naïveté, and a whole lot more. It’s also an honest self-appraisal, albeit one which tends to raise as many questions as it might answer.
I don’t know if you all believe in America. Even if you do, I suspect that what that means for you is not quite the same as what that means for me or the next person. I would expect no less. The very notion of the abstract America is such that it can’t possible mean the exact same thing for all of us. We can’t be expected to all look at things the exact same way; that’s actually part of what elevates America to something that can be believed in.
I think we need to talk about it, how and why it’s important, what we truly mean by it, whether we truly follow through on it.
We all have roles to play in our daily lives. I’m a husband, a father, a son, a worker, a manager. One of those roles, one that rarely gets talked about - unless you’re somehow talking to Ralph Nader - is citizen. But by that I don’t mean simply the legal status of citizenship. I mean being citizens of America - not simply the legal or geographic one, but rather the abstract America in which many of us believe.
I confess in this piece that I have a hard time finding my role. Well, I also have to confront that, I have to get over that bullshit, one way or another. Many of us do.
I’ve got a couple ideas about how to get out of the malaise. They’re not well formed yet, and so I’ll share them in upcoming weeks. In short, though, I think the answer to the question What can we do? is A whole lot. Instead of feeling helpless, we need to regain our agency, and help others regain theirs. We need to look to people like Stacey Abrams, whose magic is not that she has empowered others, but rather that she has helped people empower themselves.
America demands no less.