I’m currently working on a novel. In it, Chris Matthews gets murdered. So do a bunch of other liberal journalists.
I’ve been working on this crime fiction novel — it’s called “Dead Line” — since before the Tucson shooting. But in the wake of the shooting, I’m thinking of making the book even more violent, maybe adding Keith Olbermann, Maureen Dowd and a few editors of the Washington Post to the body count. Because if Arizona has taught me anything, it’s that right now America needs to increase the number of violent movies being made. And books. And TV shows. And they need to be explicitly political, targeting specific people — or at least making them fictitious characters whose real identities are unmistakable (“Chas Matthews”?).
There was once a time in this country when you could make a movie, or write a book or any essay, depicting your cultural and political enemies as subhuman and worthy of destruction. And this was a very healthy thing. Such works of art could provide a catharsis for the audience, letting them express their revulsion at their enemy vicariously. Catharsis is a basic idea that goes back at least to the Greeks, and our post-Tucson attempts to censor ourselves will only cause more problems. Because let’s face it: liberals think that conservatives are subhuman, and conservatives think that liberals are utopian, baby-killing despots. Pretending otherwise will just prolong the inevitable clash that can only be resolved with one side winning the debate. And part of that debate means giving vent to just how much the two sides hate each other. This can be done crudely — i.e. Keith Olbermann’s tantrums — or artistically, with fictionalized characters and dramatic panache. But pretending the hate is not there, and that catharsis cannot help us deal with it, is like treating a boil with a band-aid.
The value of artistic demonization of the “other” became even clearer to me shortly after the Tucson tragedy, when I saw the movie “Deliverance” on TV. The classic 1972 film depicts a weekend excursion that goes terribly wrong, as four men from Atlanta go into the wilds of Georgia on a canoe trip. During their journey they encounter people who are a liberal fever dream of redneck otherness: toothless, violent, inbred and illiterate, they play banjoes, rape one of the “city boys” who patronize them, and appear to have never been to a dentist. The film, based on James Dickey’s novel, was shot on location in the wilds of Georgia. Upon its release, the filmmakers were criticized by southerners angry at the film’s portrayal of them. “Deliverance” seemed to say that no amount of suburban cleanliness and good will could suppress the malevolent Bubba demon lurking just outside the city limits. “As coffin nails for the sixties go,” critic Walter Chaw wrote of the film, “this negation of all ideological idealism is a pretty final one.” Is Deliverance an unfair exaggeration and calumny on the South? Sure. But it also made a powerful, and true, point about the inhumane mentality down there that drove slavery and Jim Crow. It is an extreme work of art that makes points on several levels — about civilization, geography, manliness.
In 1971, a year before “Deliverance” was released, the rock critic Lester Bangs published what is now considered a classic essay, “James Taylor Marked for Death.” In it Bangs rues the wussification of rock and roll, and specifically fingers folkie James Taylor. At one point Bangs writes the following: “Matter of fact, if I ever get down to Carolina I’m gonna try to figure out a way to off James Taylor. Hate to come on like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.’s-shoulders-song, I will drop everything…and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better, and I wish I could think of worse, but they’re all local brands) and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.”
A sentence later, Bangs calls such talk a “fantasy” and a “joke,” which it obviously is, but it is also more than that. It is a powerful rhetorical tool that allows a writer or artists to do that dreaded thing we hear about constantly — demonize someone. In Bangs’s case, this is done to make a point about music. These days a rock critic could never call for the death of a star, and we are all the worse for it. We’ve become milquetoast instead of the tough, good-humored people who could decide for ourselves whether a strong point is valid. For 40 years this has been the liberal response to complaints about violent TV, movie and music — in a free society, we should be able to police ourselves, to decide what we want to read and watch. It’s why I saw, and liked, the controversial gay art show Hide/Seek recently. And why I like Eminem.
But in the last ten years or so, the Internet and cable has enabled the right to have a larger voice — and this has brought out the left-wing censors. The conservative voice in the culture began slowly, and is now virtually unstoppable. First there was Rush. Then Fox News. Then came “The Passion of the Christ.” For me a turning point was 2007, when the movie “300” was released. Dana Stevens in Slate called it fascist, anti-gay and racist propaganda. What I saw was an amazing film about a group of brave men who resist a tyrant. In her review, Stevens was amazed that the filmmakers didn’t seem to know that, while they were depicting a clash between Sparta and Persia, “we’re in the middle of an actual war [Iraq]. With Persians.”
But what if “300” is indeed a metaphor for the Iraq war? And what if the dictator in the film, Xerxes, is a stand-in for Saddam Hussein? So what? Is there not a shred of validity to the comparison? One is an egomaniac who invades other countries to satisfy his criminal blood lust. The other is — well, you get the idea.
In Dana Stevens’s world, such a film would never have been made.
But we have come too far in our freedom to turn back now. If we decide to outlaw demonizing enemies because we are worried that some lone nutcase will somehow absorb the transmissions in the cultural ether and do something dumb, or worse, because we as a people have become too childish to educate ourselves about what is reality and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda, and how hyperbole and fantasy can serve not only falsehood but also truth, and how removing that weapon from the arsenal of satirists, artists and politicos is the work of a cowardly and supine people, then perhaps our culture is not worthy of survival. I mean, making your enemy the Devil is half the fun.
So in “Dead Line,” Chris Matthews — or rather “Chas Matthews” — will go down. The book, a pulp fiction, is about a killer who decides to go after Washington’s elite journalists. He allows them three mistakes in their reporting, then they get whacked. And they react the way you’d expect journalists to.
Oh, and Joe Scarborough gets it too. Not to demonize, but the man is a big, fat idiot.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.