By Marcus Flores
Theoretically, extreme partisanship presupposes a thorough understanding of one’s own party. In reality, it is often an indicator of the opposite—particularly for celebrities who generally forget that fame does not beget wisdom.
Hank Williams Jr. is loose again, scattering falsehoods like a Texas tornado. He has mislabeled President Barack Obama a Muslim who does not celebrate the pastoral values of rural Americans—fishing, hunting, and cowboys. (How conveniently he forgets that Romney—an Ivy League businessman with a blemished NRA record—is not exactly the figure one would expect to see plowing a field.) But Williams did not stop there, and in fact went on to defame liberals and “queer guitar pickers.” His peroration was as grand as it was pathetic: “Obama loves gays and we hate him.”
Oddly, this mantle of social conservatism abruptly vanishes in one of Williams’s more popular tunes, “Family Tradition,” an ode to the habits of a drinker and smoker (and according to popular refrain, not just of tobacco). The singer takes pride in his bullish defiance of social convention while acknowledging the weight of his lineage. It is, really, a tragic departure from the father, Hank Sr., who is to country music what Marcus Aurelius was to Rome. Yet unlike the emperor, Hank Sr. knew nothing of temperance and was slain young by an addiction to the poetic agonies—namely booze, substance, and women—that also left him largely apolitical.
Inspiration stems from personal conflict or social commentary, and country music cannot ignore the landscape of Hard Times: debt mounts to perilously new heights, a record number of citizens have filed for food stamps, and the Middle East is alight with anti-American sentiment. Despite the turbulent sailing, Americans remain glued to Glee and can always exchange small talk about trivial hassles.
Responding to the disjunction between American distress and American superficiality, Toby Keith, country music’s own Uncle Sam, satirizes nearly every American foible in his recent “American Ride”:
“Plasma gettin’ bigger, Jesus gettin’ smaller. Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars. Customs caught a thug with an aerosol can. If the shoe don’t fit, the fit’s gonna hit the shan.”
Keith’s lyrics do not fall to one side of the political spectrum, but rather capture a meaningful medley of topics illustrative of our present: at one point, the video shows the American Gothic painting with a FARM FORECLOSURE sign.
If you have heard about Toby Keith before, it might be due to a 2003 incident when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, apparently unaware of her domestic fan base, announced to a London audience that she was “ashamed” of President Bush’s Texas heritage. Keith publicly denounced the statement as unbecoming of country music singers. It seems reasonable that he was, in the shadow of September 11, defending the office of the President rather than Bush’s politics (Keith is a long time Democrat). But reason dissolved into quite a nasty feud, and if anything, Keith only got more patriotic.
Patriotism—even the occasionally goofy variety Keith employs–is one thing, but defamation of character and fountainous ejections of vitriol are quite another. So aside from hypocrisy, what makes the proclamations of Hank Williams Jr. so despicable is his blind belief that anything country is conservative. His charisma charms his fans who roar in agreement, ignorant of the Southern Democrats and Scalawags whose historical influence on the region can hardly be dismissed. Moreover, he is an outrage to the writ of southern hospitality by letting homosexuals and democrats know they are not welcome to enjoy his music or enjoy his lifestyle. He is, in other words, a turnip that has fallen from the wagon into a puddle of bigotry and ignorance.
As a conservative (with a lowercase “c”), I cannot pretend to support President Obama’s fiscal policies. Still, I prefer attacking ideas to people, and do so with measured tones aimed at mutual exchange. And as a rule, I turn my head and walk away at the first mention of Nazis in a discussion. (Hank Williams Jr. lost his Monday Night Football gig for an Obama/Hitler comparison.)
By manipulating his masses, Williams Jr. only ensures that popular political discourse will remain an ancient Athenian exercise in which the loudest and wittiest wins. In that clime, words inter reason and lure fans to a fictional world where the hive mind prevails. The only greater shame is that Williams drags country music there, too.