In a way you wouldn’t expect, Bill Moyers resembles Lenin. Maxim Gorky (sycophantic Soviet author who died in 1936) told us that Lenin enjoyed Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, but couldn’t bear to listen to music very often. It made him want to say “sweet silly things,” and to pat the heads of people who didn’t seem to realize they were “living in a filthy hell.”
Sometimes, on Fridays, I watch the PBS program “Now with Bill Moyers.” His predictability is remarkable — he could say so many things, yet he keeps on saying the same things. And I disagree with just about all of his opinions. Moyers is well to the left of normal PBS fare, but I don’t mind that. The spectrum of tolerated opinion there is narrow, and there’s something to be said for broadening it. (Any chance of a right-wing Moyers equivalent? I don’t think so.) Anyway, I do watch the program, and sometimes even take notes, as though I were his shrink. Now I have a diagnosis.
Like Lenin, Moyers thinks we are living in a hell. That is his basic message. He can’t change it and he won’t. There was an interesting moment last May when he responded to viewers. Some had been writing in, evidently a bit concerned about his state of mind. “Do we delight in the dark side of human experience, you ask?” Moyers said in his reply. “Do we never see good in the world?”
He was merely being candid, he explained. Telling it like it is. “I like to think journalists are paid for candor.” We need to know “what could kill us, whether it’s too many lies or too much pollution.” So he was the bearer of uncomfortable truths. That was why he kept coming back to “what ails America … things like the bribing of Congress, the desecration of the environment, corporate tax havens …” We know the litany. After the last election he said that George Bush believed he had a mandate to use “the power of the state to force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives,” and to use “the taxing power to transfer wealth from working people to the rich.”
NOW, AMERICA IS A comfortable place to live, perhaps the most comfortable ever, in the history of the world. But there is no point in trying to tell Moyers things like that. You know what his response would be. “Comfortable for some, maybe. Comfortable for rich people.” Then he would launch into another tirade. If you expect Moyers to express appreciation of the country that has given him so much, you will have a long wait.
The contrast with Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” struck me the other day. I listen to him, too. Keillor’s willingness to dwell on our blessings is striking and perhaps the secret of his success. God (not, as normally said, the devil) is in the details, and Keillor lovingly recites those details week after week. In a recent broadcast from Iowa I was amazed to hear him saying with heartfelt appreciation: “Our town is an alabaster city, in the winter it is, when the roofs are covered with snow; beautiful for its snowy fields and the gray skeletons of trees.”
Imagine that from Moyers. I suppose Keillor is a liberal of sorts, but his faculty of appreciation, his love of traditional hymns, and the contentment he derives from describing the world, show conservative tendencies. A great gulf separates him from those, like Moyers, who want to change the world, not describe it.
BILL MOYERS, WHO WILl be 70 in June, grew up in east Texas and by the age of 30 was press secretary to the President of the United States. He worked for LBJ when the Great Society was forming. He became a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Ever since he has kept on moving to the left. Now he controls millions of dollars in foundation money (bequeathed by rich businessmen), has access to taxpayer-subsidized airwaves, and his wife on the payroll. Yet he is a profoundly alienated man. Like Lenin, he doesn’t want to pat heads when we are living in this hell.
His discontent extends far beyond the nation’s borders. The whole world is filled with injustice. If he had found a utopia, you know he would tell us about it every week. But the socialist dream didn’t work out and he knows that. His discontent is guaranteed because he defines injustice so broadly. Inequality yields it automatically. “What has happened to the word equality?” he wondered recently. He sounded like a man stranded in a desert that once seemed to be a friendly oasis. “You don’t hear it in the political lexicon any more.”
Inequality was supposed to have been cured by “democracy.” Didn’t happen. “The rich declared class war, and spent what it took to win” — a typically extreme Moyers statement. “The rich buy the laws and loopholes they want from Congress.” He seems to think of democracy as a substitute for socialism, as though all wealth naturally belongs a common pool and a proper democracy would share it out equitably. Instead, the rich are “taking from the poor.” No doubt the failure of welfare also rankles with him.
Lots of people in America are saddled with this unremitting, burning sense of grievance. You have to be both well off and well educated to reach that mental state. Some appear on Moyers’s program — his comrade from Texas, Molly Ivins, for example; or Barbara Ehrenreich, or New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Maybe Barbra Streisand. Senator John Kerry, too, I suspect. I liked Dorothy Rabinowitz’s recent comment on Kerry (Moyers interviewed her): “When you listen to Kerry you listen to someone who’s describing a nation in such devastated despair that you cannot believe it.”
THERE REALLY IS A LOT of injustice, of course — especially outside America. One day it occurred to me that Moyers’ bitterness is much more fundamental than perhaps even he realizes. He is bitter about creation itself. Why did God have to make us so unequal, with different sexes, abilities, talents? God just doesn’t give a fig about justice! This grievance is at the core of the leftist worldview: disapproval of God. He could have, but chose not to do the job right. Moyers and comrades are not atheists. He is a Baptist of sorts, although antagonistic to any sign of traditional religion.
We’re talking heresy here. One hesitates to use the word because the heretics themselves gained a good measure of social control and almost succeeded in running orthodoxy out the back door. “Heretic” itself has become a term of sly praise. “Galileo, the heretic.” They don’t mind that company. Igor Shafarevich wrote a book identifying the “socialist phenomenon” as a powerful return of the old gnostic heresies. The same ideas obsessively recur: equality, the abolition of property, the destruction of the family, the overthrow of traditional faith. But the heretical movements of old never gained anything like the political control that its modern counterparts achieved in the twentieth century. Its influence may be waning now. And maybe that’s what disturbs Bill Moyers.
The moral of the story is that what people believe about God is more important than we usually imagine. The rise of Islam, a counterpoise to the modern decline of Christianity, should concentrate our minds on this important subject. Allah, as Muslims view him, is omnipotent, above logic and reason, unrestrained by natural law. He can decree at any moment that evil is good and that two and two make five. People are subject to his arbitrary and tyrannical rule and can do little more than plead for mercy. Nations who worship such a God, it turns out, are themselves governable only by a tyrannical ruler. My guess is that democracy is about as likely to establish the rule of law in Araby as it is to achieve the egalitarian communalism of Moyers’ dreams.