One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: A Liberal Anthem for our Time

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: A Liberal Anthem for Our Time

    President John F. Kennedy defined the American Liberal as  "... someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties" [cited by Eric Alterman, Why we're Liberals: a political handbook for post-Bush America, 2008]
    Today, when only 22% of Americans identify themselves as Liberals--up a substantial 4 points from a poll in 1992--the term has acquired a derogatory taint.  "There was a time when liberalism was, in Arthur Schlesinger's words 'a fighting faith'...  Over the last three decades, though, liberalism has become an object of ridicule, condemned for its misplaced idealism, vilified for its tendency to equivocate and compromise, and mocked for its embrace of political correctness.  Now even the most ardent reformers run from the label, fearing the damage it will inflict..." [Kevin Boyle,
    Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2008/09, cited Wikipedia, “Modern Liberalism in the U.S.”]


    The other day my daughter received a message from a penpal in the United States asking: “Do you have a crush?” My daughter is only 10 and, unless there's something she's not telling me, I don't think she's started crushing on boys or girls at school yet, but she has begun the all-important process of crushing on heroes and heroines, both fictive and real. She moons over mythologies. At the moment her crushes are all liberal heroes like Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Julian Assange. I think it's great that crushes are passed down genetically (!), while, at the same time, I want to protect her from a repeat of my own experience, the perils of crushing on Liberal good guys, which, in my lifetime anyway, has ended in heartbreak and cynicism.

    I was 13 in 1975, the year Milos Forman's film adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel came out and sparked one of my first, formative crushes on the character of Randle McMurphy. Of course I had to get the book and read it, which I did over and over every night at bedtime. Somehow the world was a better, more reassuring place to grow up in thanks to the existence of characters like McMurphy. For those of you too young to recognize the title, McMurphy was a free-spirited rebel convict who fakes mental illness to get out of a prison sentence. He starts out with no greater ambition than to slack off, but ends up committed to a larger good. Ken Kesey's novel was published in 1962, the beginning of the decade in which, according to our sources at Wikipedia, people started hating Liberals.

    At the same time, Cuckoo's Nest was, according to an interview with Jack Nicholson, who played McMurphy, the highest grossing film of its time, pre-CGI and special effects, which is curious, because it's also—and continues to be—a Liberal Anthem. Given everything we've heard lately about the minority status of Liberals and Progressives in the United States, it's interesting that Cuckoo's Nest set audience records in the mid 1970s, and worth revisiting to see how the myth of badass, devil-may-care Liberalism has changed in the last 35 years.


    In the mid 70s, I think it's fair to say, the average moviegoer identified with McMurphy, whose passion for life was indomitable, who thumbed his nose at supercilious authorities like Nurse Ratched, figures who could find no better place to exercise power than the dead-end corridors of a psychiatric ward. The mistake McMurphy makes is to underestimate how fantatical these folk are about hanging onto power, to the point where even an oddball freak—a bon vivant, rabble-rouser like himself--poses a threat significant enough ultimately to cost him his life.

    I wonder now, in 2011, why I never crushed on 'Chief' Bromden, the half-Indian inmate who, every bit as much as McMurphy, was doing a Hamlet act, faking madness or, in his case, deaf and dumbness, the better to fly below the radar; why, in other words, back then, I never went for the brawny guys, the ones who had the physical power to back up their point-of-view. Maybe it had to do with my upbringing. On the one hand, I was taught to trust in forebearance, because virtue triumphs in the end. On the other hand, my peers and I loved irreverence, as if you could deflate the bogey-people with laughter alone.

    Ironically, the iconic character for those of us currently on the Left is no longer the grinning, maverick, and unabashed McMurphy, but has become the 'Chief' who stands stone mute with his broom in the corridor, listening to, bearing witness to the craziness, and failing to speak or act.

    The most erosive thing Kesey's novel exposed was how, living among cuckoos, the 'Chief'—labeled with that derisive moniker--lost sight of real, factual truths. Despite being physically strong and towering over guys like McMurphy and the aids on the ward, Bromden had bought into the delusion that he was small and powerless. When you lose perspective on personal strength, as First Nations people then and American Liberals now have, it is a rare day when you trust the strength of your own convictions enough, like Sheriff Dupnik did three months ago in Tucson, to speak first and refuse to retract later.

    In the wake of the assassination attempt on Senator Giffords in Arizona, in particular the fierce resistance on the part of gun activists to entertain renewed limits on the Second Amendment, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines, prommie, responding to a forum on, writes:

    I understand that the Arizona legislature, in response to this tragedy, is considering legislation that would require a hunting license before you could go hunting Democrats, and would impose a daily limit of 2 Democrats per hunter. They are hoping this measure will conserve a sufficient number of Democrats for the enjoyment of the sports-hunters, it's the same thing they do with deer, elk, and bear licenses.... it's in the hunters' interest to preserve a breeding population”

    I can't help but note the characteristic use of wit to defuse the gravity of the charge, but prommie's humor is as dark as it gets at a time when Tea Party activists brazenly declare open-season on government, recommending “Second Amendment remedies” to remove popularly elected Democrats from office.

    If the American Liberal starts off his/her run in the 60s with a swagger, a grin, a Jack Nicholson appetite for mischief and upsetting expectation, 50 years later we are the mongrel 'Chief' in the corner, tentative about his roots, for whom the original meaning of American democracy is a faraway myth, who has been reduced to biting his tongue and staying clear of the fray. Poked, prodded, called names, he remains stoic and silent, playing deaf and dumb.

    Rob Harvie—a conservative blogger at Salon--observing events in Tucson, calls for cooler heads to prevail. Cooler heads, Mr. Harvie, don't return to the ward under cover of 'relaxing music' to line up for medication.  They wake up from their delusions and seize on fact, viz, that they have the strength necessary, as Bromden does, to pull that motherfucker of a hydrotherapy unit off its foundations, recognizing that, empirically speaking, it is just big and heavy enough to shatter the walls of the cuckoo's nest.

    I can only hope for my daughter's future that she crushes on characters—and real people--who aren't as easily intimidated, as my generation has been, by untruths and false characterizations.

    The not-so-funny joke of it is that the American Liberal is grand and powerful and rooted in American traditions worth preserving. As President Kennedy said: “if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I’m proud to say I’m a 'Liberal.' Currently the Cuckoo's Nest is the United States, whose nest is in the process of being taken over by corporate, Right-wing interests.

    Mr. President, it's 2011. You were elected with a majority mandate. Show the lucidity you are capable of: make use of fact, leave the squabble behind, and fly over the damn cuckoo's nest. Far from open season, it should be open sky.

    Leslie Katz


    Ever so often I get so damn mad at the savages, and the limbaughs and the hannities...I am ready to declare myself a Chinese Communist.

    But today you really make me proud to be a liberal.

    Your metaphor relating to Cuckoo's Nest is wonderful and makes me think a lot harder about roles in this society.

    This is just a fine essay!

    Thanks for your heartfelt comments.  It's good to be in great company.


    I second Richard. A fine essay indeed. Thanks for sharing with us. I hope that you'll do so again.

    This is beside the point, perhaps, but though I loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it gave me no heroes. McMurphy is an anti-hero, no? Nonetheless, I identified with Chief. When I read the book as a teenager in the 80s, we had no protests to join and few outlets for self-expression. I scribbled poetry in a notebook and dreamed of becoming big. Doesn't everyone dream of becoming big again?

    I looked up Top 40 anti-heroes.  My favourites include:  Leopold Bloom, Holden Caulfield, and Arthur Dent.  According to my source, anti-heroes are basically humanized villains, with an inclination toward decadence, amorality, and violence, tempered by so-called 'virtues' like confusion and self-loathing (Why didn't Nathan Zuckerman make the list?)  My definition of an anti-(establishment)-hero is less literary and more personal:  someone whose libido is plugged into life.  [I'd love to see the Left get hard and wet over Progress.] 

    Thanks, btw, for dagblog.  I moved to Canada in 2000 and got disconnected from U.S. politics, until subscribing to dagblog last January brought me home.

    Oh jeezle, another Canadian. You people breed like arctic hares. ;) I'm sorry to have sucked you back into U.S. politics. It's not a pleasant place.

    Arthur Dent--funny. I'd go with the Notes from the Underground guy.

    How'd you find us, btw?

    From a link on the now defunct underneaththeirrobes.  My fortuity.

    Oh yeah, I remember that one. Articleman's post.

    I'm sure you're right.  In any case, it was going back to July 2009, re Elena Kagan's appointment.

    My mom worked at the VA in Menlo Park, the place that Kesey and Nurse Ratched worked, and she worked with people who remembered them both.

    Indeed a story that begged to be told, and one that upon the telling did no small amount of good, although it changed actual real was, on balance, a social good. Which, if I am not mistaken, is, er, good. One might say, it's all good, even.

    I have progressed beyond liberal into full blown socialist. Me and Bernie Sanders.

    This is just a great story Bwak. My goodness.

    Tell us more someday!

    Thanks for your comment.  Have you and your mom read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?  I wonder how it measures up to fact.  I like Bernie Sanders too  :)


    Excellent essay.  I especially like the comparison of today's liberals to Chief. 

    One thing that does pop into my mind, however, is that because of the 60's, we tend to think that those who identify with anti-establishment individuals are coming from a liberal paradigm.  But as some of those in the recent ranting of the libertarians and tea party folks clearly show, anti-establishment sentiments is not the exclusive domain of liberals.  A case in point would be the very popular film Dirty Harry released 4 years earlier.  Here the audienced identified with the very anti-establishment Harry, who thumbed his nose the bureaucratic powers to be and took matters into his own hands to deal with the bad guys.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.  I didn't reply right away because your question made me think, plus I had to rewatch Dirty Harry. 

    So here's why I think, in these two cases, liberal anti-establishment heroes and libertarians are demonstrably different.

    1) At the beginning of their respective stories:  McMurphy has broken the law and is doing time, while Callahan, trying to operate within the rules of the system, falls from innocence and learns that the system has no interest in protecting him.

    2) Coming from these two different starting positions, I would argue that McMurphy seeks to reform a broken system (returning democracy to the ward, seeking to masculinize and empower his fellow inmates), while Callahan rejects the system and responds to its covert hostility by turning vigilante. Contact with a repressive, messed-up system turns McMurphy from renegade into activist, Callahan from pawn into renegade.

    3) Chief's fate?  After flying the coop, do we imagine him going Dirty Bromden, arming himself for revenge on institutional authority?  Or seeking, by other avenues, to fix it?  I imagine him, following his return to sanity, reconnecting with his people, his identity, and community--in other words, connecting to his true source of personal power.

    Thanks again for identifying a crux point that my essay left open and unaddressed.

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