Monday, August 16, 2010

Why the rise of modern conservatism is like 'Star Wars'

And it has nothing to do with Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative."

This has been my Summer of Cold War Reading. I haven't written up all I've read, and I haven't done it in order, and I've taken some liberties with the whole concept of cold-war fiction.

It began with my decision to finally work through the canonic Ian Flemming/James Bond novels and short stories and -- here's the tough part -- in order. That means that I've been hanging out for a while waiting for 'Diamonds Are Forever' to come in on interlibrary loan.

It's in, but right now I'm in the middle of Rick Perlstein's history of the modern conservative movement -- Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. It's good, although it needs an editor (like me); it jumps around just enough that you can't be sure if you're in, say, late 1966 or early 1966 and, believe me, that makes all the difference. And its index is kind of spotty too, which is only a problem because he likes to spring now-well-known names on you in the context before they were well known, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. (I don't have either book in front of me, so the examples I've bookmarked will have to wait for another post.)

Both "Before the Storm" and "Nixonland" are good reads; Perlstein has a somewhat Tom Wolfe-ish gift for letting his narrative voice occasionally lapse into that of one of his historical objects, at which point the prose usually lets slip what you guessed the characters are thinking anyway.

But the experience of reading them now is a lot like re-watching "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" (I refuse to use either "A New Hope" or any Roman numerals to refer to them; there's "the three good ones," and "the three crappy ones," and that's it).

"Before the Storm" is like "Star Wars:" Even though Vader (Nixon?) is able to escape the destruction of the Death Star (the 1964 apparent rout of the Goldwater/Nixon/Reagan/Birchite conservative movement?) at the last moment, it still looks pretty upbeat. Johnson wins by a landslide. The punditocracy declares the conservative wing of the Republican party dead as a doornail. The Princess and the leaders of the Rebellion give medals to Han, Luke, and Chewy, and you can leave the theater humming John Williams music with a bounce in your step.

Then comes "Nixonland," the "Empire Strikes Back" of the narrative arc. The story-telling is still fun, but you know where this one's going to wind up: the Revolution's been dealt a crippling blow, Han's encased in carbonite, Luke's got the whole lost-a-hand-gained-a-father thing to deal with, and Nixon's going to narrowly win in '68, and win big in '72. I'm only about 100 pages in, the chronology is in early 1969, and yet there is already, one might say, a sense of impending doom.

More later, including thoughts on the birth of the "liberal elites think they're smarter than you" meme.  (Hint: They did. They do.  It didn't help, and it still doesn't.)

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