I think I need to find the June issue of Harper's. My subscription copy was lost to the subterranean warrens of the U.S. Postal Service during the May exodus. As a result I missed not only Art Spiegelman's take on offensive cartoon images, but this remarkable essay by Kevin Baker on how "the stab in the back"--a lurid fantasy of treachery, betrayal, internal weakness or lack of will--"has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism."
It would be a mistake to attribute conservatism's rise to power, and its remarkable ability to keep that power even in the face of its sustained failures, to a single factor, and Kevin Baker doesn't make that mistake. But if you had to rely on a lone essay to understand the politics of the last five years--or the last fifty--this just might be the one. Baker synthesizes multiple analyses of conservative ideology and cultural myth, from Jerry Lembcke's work in debunking the urban legends of hippies spitting on returning Vietnam veterans to Thomas Frank's assessment of permanent culture war as the overriding conservative wedge issue. (He doesn't share Frank's misstep of trying to make cultural issues subordinate to economic ones simply by wishing it were so.) The piece is more persuasive for abutting so many other well-sourced, well-argued accounts, even those that emerged after it was published; the backstab myth is the necessary counterweight to The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, the narrative of betrayal that explains why conservatism's awesome displays of resolve never work out the way they're supposed to.
Baker also displays a compelling historical sense, tracing the backstab myth's cultural lineage all the way back to the dolchstosslegende of Wagner, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and that wacky Nazi Party. Baker's observations on American history will seem more familiar and immediate, though, his explanation of how Richard Nixon still sets the tone for American political discourse leading right into Bill O'Reilly's request that the FBI incarcerate Air America for the treasonous crime of not agreeing with him.
And while he's mostly concerned with the connections between politics and culture, Baker will occasionally unleash a stinging structural criticism, as when he observes that most Americans' real lack of support for the war in Iraq--our refusal to make any changes in our own lives, to do anything more than slap ribbon magnets on our Hummers--is a result, not of some Wagnerian betrayal on the left, but of conservatism's twenty-five-year agenda to dismantle the very notion of government service. I would pull out a choice quote or two, but every line in this essay is a keeper. Many thanks to Jim Henley for bringing it to my attention.
Jim's been on quite a roll himself lately. Not only has he scoffed at conservative fantasies of weakness, but recent circumstances have, sadly, prompted him to reprise the best line he ever wrote: "George [W.] Bush’s unfailing reaction to a bad bet is to double down."
Just remember, when Dubya runs out of chips the right will have a ready explanation for why it's all our fault.