Ed Kilgore alerted me to the important news that over at the Washington Post, Richard Cohen was turning to my man Merle Haggard about the fact that people in Iowa really hate supposed moderate Chris Christie. He referenced the fact that over two million people had listened to the live version of the following Haggard classic, “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).”
The song is a lament that things aren’t the way they were in the old days. How old? He says, “Back before Elvis.” Well, Elvis burst on the scene in 1956. This was the year before Haggard went to San Quentin Prison, so I can see why he would look back fondly on those days. And also, as always, he’s looking back to the days when he was a kid. But it’s really interesting in this song, the audience is whooping it up, even when he sings, “It was back when the country was strong.” Strong? What is this time when the country was strong? I’d really like to know. And I’d like to know what was so very wrong in 1982 when that song was a big hit.
The chorus of the song proclaims, “Are we rolling down hill / Like a snowball headed for Hell? / With no kind of chance / For the Flag or the Liberty Bell.” This is classic conservatism. The claim is that no one loves the country as much as they do but they hate it and where it is going. In other words, they don’t love America, they love “America”—some vague idea they have of what the “real America” is. In addition to this, people always say this regardless of when and where.
What’s most great about the song is the wonderful “pregnant and barefoot” moment, “Before microwave ovens / When a girl could still cook and still would.” You can just imagine Haggard at home writing the song, bitterly thinking of his country music star wife, Leona Williams, who wouldn’t cook him dinner even if she knew how to! But here’s the thing. Haggard is now on his fifth wife. He’s done serious time in prison and was even arrested numerous times while still a kid. He was also a major user of cannabis and cocaine after writing the lyrics, “I wish Coke was still Cola / And a joint was a bad place to be.” In other words, Merle Haggard is a fraud.
Of course, everyone who makes the dangerous public declaration for the good old days is. It’s demagoguery whether it is done by a politician or a country western star. But still, the hooting and hollering on this song really bothers me. If there is one clear emotional trend that runs through my life it is my ever increasing ability to avoid allowing propaganda to upset me. It is true that I’m often outraged about the state of the world. But it doesn’t come from liberal commentators stirring me up—at least not usually. It comes from just watching the world as it is.
In my conversations with conservatives, I spend most of my time simply calming them down. Most of the things they are outraged about aren’t even real. In the song, Haggard complains that cars don’t last ten years “like they should.” Except that they did last ten years, even during that ignominious time in Detroit. Most of the outrage machine (which as we see in this song goes far beyond political reporting) is a cynical exercise to keep people from focusing on what is really wrong. We live in a nation where not only is more and more going to fewer and fewer, but even our sources of news and entertainment are controlled by fewer and fewer people.
But we’re all supposed to focus on the fact that women ain’t cooking dinner like they ought to: