MANCHESTER, N.H. — Everyone knows conservatives and Republicans are ridiculous squares — button-downed establishmentarians in blue blazers and deck shoes, terrified by anyone who challenges their supine submission to authority.
Everyone knows this. Which is why it came as a shock to so many that Johnny Ramone, the legendary Ramones guitarist who died on September 15, was a self-described Reagan Republican and fan of George W. Bush. Try to cram that into your pigeon hole.
America’s image of conservatives as dweebs in cardigan sweaters is a leftover from the “Caddyshack” school of political mythmaking. All conservatives and Republicans are Judge Smails, fighting to keep the rabble out of the country club. By the way, “Caddyshack” came out in 1980. That year the cardigan-wearing Ronald Reagan beat the cardigan-wearing Jimmy Carter with votes from the leather-jacket-wearing rabble. And The Ramones released “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Many high schoolers who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s found themselves rebelling against failed left-wing economic policies and self-righteous liberalism. Punk and New Wave were the soundtrack of their rebellion.
Left-wing propagandists have successfully spread the myth that non-conformity is their own province. Take punk rock. Punk as a left-wing political movement was partially the product of clever marketing by band managers like Malcolm McLauren, who draped the New York Dolls in Soviet flags and helped craft the Sex Pistols’ anti-establishment image (although the establishment at the time was the Labour government). Left-wing politics were not necessarily synonymous with the punk scene or sound, as the existence of Johnny Ramone proved. But marketing it that way helped get the bands’ names in the papers and establish “street cred.”
THOSE WITH THEIR EARS to the ground have not been surprised that punk has resonated with conservatives. Rolling Stone magazine rock critic Anthony DeCurtis told the BBC this year, “In a lot of ways in the United States, the Republicans have gotten much more punk than the Democrats.”
Why was he telling the BBC this? Because both the BBC and the New York Times did stories this year on punk rockers who support President Bush — as if it were newsworthy that Republicans could like rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. Where have they been? Punk rock is about proclaiming yourself an individual and standing up to authority. The ingredients of punk rebellion — introversion, angst, and teenage alienation — belong to no ideology. However, DeCurtis is onto something. To the extent that conformity is encouraged or discouraged by particular political movements, the right is now more “punk” than the left.
The left espouses group identity; the right promotes individualism. The left holds everyone to be a victim in need of assistance from the authorities; the right wants the authorities to leave everyone alone. The left says we all must hold hands and sing campfire songs together; the right says, “Screw you, hippie, I’m doing my own thing.”
For at least the past 30 years, everything the marketers of hip have brought to your living room, your car stereo, your movie screen has delivered the same political message: liberals are hip, conservatives are square. Even as Johnny Ramone’s guitar shook the mortar from the walls of the nightclub down the street, the broader American culture swallowed this message. Never mind that the left insults the right these days by calling them anarchists. What would Sid Vicious say? Never mind that the Clash album titled “Sandinista” was the beginning of the end of the band’s short but brilliant career, providing ample evidence that huge portions of punk fans were not enamored of left-wing politics (nor an artistically adventuresome triple LP).
When the mainstream press finds it odd that conservatives can like punk or other “alternative” music, even though Johnny Ramone was a Reaganite and Alice Cooper is a Bush backer, there is an obvious disconnect between reality and perception. The stubborn persistence of the myth that all conservatives are conformist dweebs is a testament to the power of pop culture in a mass media age. Stereotypes reinforced daily are hard to break.
YET IT IS MORE than that. My guess is that the myth persists also for the willful ignorance of the allegedly open-minded left. All it takes to understand that conservatives can be attracted to rebellion and nonconformity (and in fact many, many young conservatives are serious nonconformists) is to personally know some conservatives. The style mavens of the left seem to know none. One suspects that Hollywood filmmakers and New York Times editors cloister themselves in liberal enclaves just so they won’t have to know any conservatives.
And then there is the style factor. If you brush your hair and wear colors other than black, the hip consider you a stooge for the establishment. Somehow, dressing exactly like everyone else in New York City, as opposed to exactly like everyone in Birmingham, has become a sign of independent thought. Funny how so many who claim to stand against the alleged shallowness of American culture put such a strong emphasis on clothing rather than thought.
And so it is that if you wear khakis or support George W. Bush, the left elite assume you are a mindless automaton who listens to Toby Keith and follows Rush Limbaugh’s every command. For those of us who have concluded for ourselves that limited government is preferable to state control of our lives, and the Ramones are preferable to Dave Matthews, rubbing against the stereotype is a source of regular irritation.
Sometimes it gets to the point that you wish you could pull Johnny Ramone out from behind a curtain, like Woody Allen pulled out Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, and have him say to the annoying liberal in line behind you at the Billy Bragg concert, “You know, you don’t understand rebellion at all.”
Now that Johnny Ramone is dead, that option is out. In lieu of it, I guess I’ll have to settle for some musical sedation. Where is that Clash CD?