Dear Glenn Beck: The 80s Called, and They Want Their Culture Wars Back

The 1980s were a long time ago. MTV has now been primarily about reality shows for twice as long as it was primarily about music videos. People born after the decade ended are now old enough to drink. Traveling back to the 80s would now be as much of a jump in time as it was for Marty McFly to go from the 80s to the 50s in Back to the Future.

And yet, the Republican Party continues to cling desperately to the decade. It’s understandable, of course: the 80s were a great decade for Republicans. Under the charismatic if daft leadership of Reagan, they locked up the coalition of voters that would hold Democrats at bay for the next three decades: wealthy tax-haters, conservative Christians, and rural and suburban voters who didn’t care to be told what to do by Starbucks-sipping city folk.

Sometimes Republicans have had the benefit of gifted politicians to speak to this motley constituency and sometimes not, but since the 80s, Republicans have been able to lean on reliable wedge issues that convince single-issue voters—and voters who might be convinced to be single-issue voters–that the G.O.P. is the only worthy box for their ballots.

I’m talking about abortion, of course—and gay rights, and affirmative action, and tax cuts, and welfare programs, and gun rights. In addition, there’s the question of government support for art, which brings us to the very strange present moment when we have Glenn Beck trying to sell a urine-soaked Obama bobblehead on eBay.

Beck’s direct reference is to a painting, by artist Michael D’Antuono, on display in an exhibit at a community college in Boston. The painting, called The Truth, depicts President Obama in a Christ-like pose, wearing a crown of thorns. Beck’s stated point is that if you accept one potentially offensive artwork, you ought to accept another. The conservative pundit’s deeper reference, though, is to Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that depicted a crucifix floating in urine. Serrano’s photograph became a lightning rod for criticism of government sponsorship of the arts, since Piss Christ won an art competition that was partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Those were the days! The Piss Christ controversy was one of the defining points of what became known as the “Culture Wars,” in which conservatives attacked liberals for embracing cultural norms that supposedly undermined the foundation of Western civilization. This included avant-garde art, of course, but it also included “values” like women’s rights and gay rights.

Conservatives continued to find the Culture Wars very much worth fighting through Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in the 90s; by the 21st century, the Culture Wars were losing some steam, but George W. Bush’s plain-folks demeanor reflected the G.O.P.’s reliance on those old tropes, especially as contrasted to the highfalutin John Kerry. Never mind the fact that Kerry was a war hero…look at him on that silly surfboard! Look at him reading the New York Times! He probably thinks Piss Christ is an important work of art, and that kind of thinking is dangerous for America. Right?

Bush eked that one out, but in 2012, when Romney needed some help from the Culture Warriors, he found it hard to come by. This was clearest in the second debate, when, pressed for his views on gun control, Romney whipped around and started talking about single mothers. It was a bizarre play—and an offensive one, given that Obama was raised by a single mother—but it makes sense in a Culture Wars context where the wedge issues are all lined up and everyone believes that they constitute a coherent political ideology.

People just don’t believe that any more. The 2012 election might prove to have been the last presidential election where nationally competitive Republicans took for granted that they could be against Roe vs. Wade, against gay marriage, and against immigration reform and be automatically embraced by both their base and by many swing voters. The social and political landscape is changing, and the era when “family values” meant Ozzie and Harriet—and when that seemed like a good thing to many voters—is long gone. (Jon Stewart likes to make hay about the fact that Republicans in 2012 actually still use that fictional 1950s sitcom family as a point of reference.)

American values are changing. Americans voting in favor of gay marriage this fall included not just the Culture Wars babies of the 80s, but many of their parents as well. The woman-blaming discourse about abortion is not going to work any more. Denying that minorities are becoming the majority is not going to work. Denying that the federal government ever puts money to good use except when fighting wars is not going to work. Suing a university for supposedly rejecting you because you’re white, or arguing that mass shootings illustrate the need for more guns, are…well, I’d better not speak too soon there, but the point is that the 80s are long gone and the Culture Wars are over. That’s not going to change, no matter how much piss gets auctioned off about it.

Jay Gabler

My Northwoods Pinecone Store: You’re Damn Right I Built That!

Obama says, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Oh, really, President Obama? Please allow me to introduce you to my Northwoods Pinecone Store, a small business that I built myself, the American way.

I started out alone on a hill, naked and adult. I was raised to adulthood by my parents, yes, but I’m going to ask you not to hold that against me because I was a mere child and had no say in the matter. As soon as I possibly could, I ran away from home and supported myself by singing “Yankee Doodle” on Georgetown street corners. I had absolutely no help from anyone. Finally I saved enough money to buy this 10×10 foot patch of land in northern Minnesota, and I set out to build my own small business.

I didn’t use any tools, because tools are produced by corporations that have lazily taken governmental subsidies and benefited from federal regulations and inspections—not to mention using banks that have been bailed out by the federal government. I didn’t want to sully my business with any of those social supports, so I assembled a small sales counter out of twigs and stones.

I sheltered myself with thatch, and subsisted on squirrels I caught with my teeth. I know what you’re thinking and, no, these are not squirrels that have been fed by tourists! They were lean and gamey, like squirrels that have had to subsist for themselves. Pure, independent squirrels, as I am a pure, independent human.

My stock in trade is pinecones: pinecones dropped from my trees growing on my land. No one helps me to gather the pinecones. I employ no union labor, nor any other form of labor. I pay no taxes, for I trade in no money. All my pinecones are exchanged for barter…but not just any barter. I don’t want to sully my gullet with FDA-regulated food or tarnish my birchbark pockets with government-printed currency, so I accept only the unprocessed natural products of my fellow Americans’ independent labor. So far, that’s meant trading for pinecones, a welcome diversification of my stock.

When the squirrels came for my pinecones as I slept, did I rely on privately provided insurance or, God forbid, FEMA relief? No, I did not! I gathered pinecones anew, like the resourceful American I am. I had to climb into a tree to procure certain choice cones; I accidentally fell out of the tree and broke my ankle, but since I’ve pledged not to accept the assistance of any doctors demanding government currency, I had to rely on the attentions of a local man who’s watched every episode of E.R. For an easily provided sexual favor, he bound my ankle.

The ankle healed improperly and I’m now forced to crawl or hop about my business, but as I shout my daily special from the hillside—I’ll trade two little pinecones for one big one, or all my pinecones for a game animal you’ve caught with your bare hands—I can take pride in knowing that I can look down on my little pinecone store and say yes, I built that.

Jay Gabler

If U.S. Presidents Were Disney Characters

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John F. Kennedy: Prince Eric
John and Eric grew up royally and spent their childhoods sitting on ornate palace balconies, wistfully looking out at the Atlantic ocean from Massachusetts and Scandinavian shores. Both had an affinity for brunettes (Jackie O, Ursula in disguise), but were open to all kinds of poon—including the ginger/fish variety. John’s sparkling eyes were tragically snuffed out prematurely, but at least there’s still one handsome dreamer left to kiss the girl.

Richard Nixon: Pinocchio
These smiling puppets blossomed in the fairy tale sunshine of magic villages and California, working with honest folks and scoundrels as they found their places in their respective kingdoms. These gentleman of prominent schnozzes were both caught with their pants down in the process of learning the lesson that a lie keeps growing “until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” Jiminy Cricket!

Jimmy Carter: Dumbo
Jimmy and Dumbo both come from humble roots. Jimmy, the only U.S. president to live in subsidized housing; Dumbo, a misshapen elephant delivered to a travelling circus train car by stork. Dumbo and Jimmy both had an affinity for peanuts, though Jimmy liked to farm them and Dumbo preferred popping them into his mouth with his trunk. It took dumbo many a clown performance to end up soaring around the circus tent on his ginormous ears, just as it took Jimmy two gubernatorial runs before he gained the air that would take him flying straight to the oval office.

Theodore Roosevelt: Tarzan
Tarzan and Teddy can tell you that sometimes, the only way to get through the day is to go out and kill a Cheetah. Or battle one with your bare hands while chomping on exotic fruit simultaneously. These two certainly swung from the same vine, valuing loyalty, equality, and man sports. Be it via safari or feral childhood, there’s no question these Ts were kings of the jungle.

Bill Clinton: Aladdin’s Genie
Democratic presidency was kept bottled up in a little golden lamp for more than 20 years before the American people rubbed out this magician. What do you need? A stable economy? Poof! What do you need? Omnibus budget reconciliation? Poof! What do you need? Medicaid reform? Poof! Clinton outruns the genie in that he can kill people, he can make someone fall in love (hey Monica), and he’ll damn well try to bring people back from the dead.

William Henry Harrison: Bambi’s Mom
The Great Princess of the Forest and the ninth president of the United States both reigned with grace and left their kingdoms too quickly. It was the cold bullet of a mean hunter that took Bambi’s mom, and an overzealous approach to public speaking leading to pneumonia that claimed the eloquent commander-in-chief. The Whig party missed their fallen hero almost as much as all the wild forest partiers missed the baddest doe ho in the thicket.

Barack Obama: Robin Hood
These two foxy, left-leaners are all about helping out the little guy. Hood spent his career sneaking into Prince John’s room to steal gold for the poor, while Obama spearheaded wide-scale health care reform and other initiatives to assist the masses. Social critics and big corporate enemies aside, Obama and Robin know how to take aim at their targets, be it an apple balanced on little John’s head or Osama bin Laden.

Ronald Reagan: Mufasa
There’s no question that these pride leaders were giants during their administrations, but it was in death that they became icons. You can’t walk get through a field of tall grass in Africa without hearing “Simba…..REMEMBER” and you can’t get through a right-wing radio show or RNC event without soaking in murmurs of Reagan’s mystical legacy.

- Natalie Berkley