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"Sir, are you a singer-songwriter?''
The question came from a Greeneville High School senior who shall remain anonymous because I don't want to embarrass him. We were at a play-group reunion. Last time I saw him, 12 years ago, he was sporting a Batman cape.
"Now think about it,'' I replied, "if I really looked like a singer-songwriter, would you call me 'sir'?''
Batman didn't miss a beat. "Well, maybe if you were knighted, like Elton John.''
Must be the hair. The fact that I've let mine grow long again probably made me look a tad musician-ish during our recent trip from Oregon back to Tennessee.
Yet, could it also be that some aura of latent talent surrounds me at midlife? Hmm … I do occasionally make up songs. Here's one inspired by a play-group gathering back when the Dark Knight was in diapers. It's sung to the tune of Ricky Nelson's Garden Party.
"I went to a baby party. All the babies were there. There was a baby in tights and a baby in blue shoes and one with a whole lotta hair...''
That garden of tots has grown into a fine patch of young men and women. My little ditty would sound silly to those up-and-coming superheroes. But when I was a new dad, I was fond of it. Yours truly sometimes entertains himself even as he tests the limits of his audience.
By some accounts that's what Ricky Nelson did in 1971, when he performed at a rock 'n' roll revival at Madison Square Garden. Part of the crowd was seemingly disgruntled when Nelson walked on stage with long hair and bellbottoms and sang a few of his newer country-tinged tunes. Evidently, some audience members didn't want the old rock 'n' roll genre to broaden.
The music world back then was about as divided as today's political climate. Labels like "conservative'' and "progressive'' are worn like badges of membership in exclusive clubs, similar to the way musical genres like "country'' and "rock'' once separated subcultures.
Having written op-ed columns for newspapers in Oregon and Tennessee, I'm familiar with a range of audiences. I've called myself both a progressive and a conservative, even as others brandish these labels like battle flags.
Political commentary may be about where the music industry was some 40 years ago — stuck in a rut and in need of transformation. Back at that time, a number of singer-songwriters took the first baby steps to bridge audiences, simultaneously climbing music charts that had previously been separated.
Could we see a similar crossover with politics? Many citizens don't feel at home in today's narrow partisan clubs. We want change, not civil war. In a world dominated by voices like Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart, we'd be pleased to hear from folks who play to broader audiences. Think Glen Campbell and John Denver.
I know, fashion has shifted. But kids of all ages now sample styles from different generations. And it would be refreshing if elements of that earlier folk fusion could be recycled in a new political form. Commentary that bridges progressive and conservative camps could help create a social climate that saves lives and money.
My friend R.C. — a fellow play-group dad — would like to see more of that kind of discourse. R.C. didn't want me to use his full name, for the same reason he uses aliases when posting comments on the seven newspaper websites he reads every morning. He's concerned his opinions might interfere with employment prospects.
Nevertheless, he gives a lot of thought to public affairs. After receiving partisan e-mails from conservative in-laws in Minnesota, R.C. replied with some verses inspired by Dr. Seuss.
"Red state, blue state. My state, your state. My state red state. Your state blue state.''
R.C. shared those Seussical lines when taking issue with his in-laws. He allowed that Tennessee is more conservative than Minnesota. In some ways, that's good. Yet, he also says it hasn't prevented Tennessee from having a higher bankruptcy rate, higher murder rate, higher abortion rate and higher divorce rate.
Is R.C. a progressive? On some fronts, sure. I know he's a conservationist (he opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), and he believes America should provide her citizens with a baseline of public health coverage. But on the fiscal front, R.C. speaks a language that many lefties don't understand.
"Nobody would want me to be president,'' he said between bites of finger food. "But I think I could balance the budget.''
Could America's leadership be seeded with folks like R.C., independents who are as frugal as they are green and humane in setting priorities?
I'm sending copies of this column to members of our play-group. Maybe it will provoke R.C. to come out of the closet and become a full-fledged commentator. Maybe our group will launch a two-fisted political movement that combines the best of the right and left. Call it the Garden Party.
Dreams of midlife revival abound. But mostly, I'm betting on Batman.
The Tennesean ran this as a guest column on Sunday, January 30, 2011. I’ve cross-posted it with the original title at RedState.com and FireDogLake.com.