God is Great, Beer is Good…
… and people are crazy.
Ever since I discovered that my girlfriend listens to country music, I’ve been on a journey to find the words to describe why I do not. Granted, country-infused folk/rock – Wilco, DeYarmond Edison, The Jayhawks, etc. – are another matter entirely. And this is by no means an attempt to persuade one not to listen to the music of their choice, nor a statement about all of country music, a genre which has encompassed such wizards as Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, among others. Rather, I’d like to focus on a more narrow slice of contemporary country music which, by promoting a blatantly WASP-centric mode of thinking, thereby implicitly denounces any oppositional minority perspectives.
In the song presented above, courtesy of youtube.com, Billy Currington sings the line “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.” This is a song I’ve heard many times before; I work as a coordinator and deli personality at a certain on-campus retail store, there’s no getting away from the country. But these are words that have always bothered me, and if my own eloquence cannot avail in describing why, perhaps the words of J.S. Mill will have to suffice.
In On Liberty, Mill highlights the dangers of denouncing other viewpoints:
“Those who desire to suppress [an opinion], of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible… All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” -J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2.
I think I can safely assume that no one person reading this blog can claim, as Mill calls it, “absolute certainty”. We all make mistakes, are exposed to differing perspectives, and have at the disposal of our decision-making brains only the perspective of our own unique circumstances.
So applied directly to much of contemporary country music, which parades this sort of “canned American imagery” about pointedly, to manufacture feelings of nostalgia and pride in those who adhere to a typical WASP system of practices and beliefs, the philosophy of J.S. Mill might maintain that while entitled to their free speech, the work of such musicians claims infallibility (“God is great, beer is good, and [other] people are crazy”) and thereby leaves no room for more minority beliefs in the stirring pot of diverse ideologies.
I, for instance, am a pacifist; I believe in very minimal military intervention where absolutely necessary. I’m also anti-colonialism. So what space does ideology like this leave for my viewpoints? I don’t feel empowered when I hear Zac Brown sing “let freedom forever fly”, I feel the alienating effects of exclusion. And I’d like to reinforce that these are ideas not necessarily inherent within the conventions of the genre, but rather the sort of “implicitly ethnocentric” sentiments of many of today’s top country artists, sentiments likely rooted in the genre’s southern, western origins.
When one discusses Edmund Burke, however, the topic of such ethnocentric Conservative ideology becomes quite complicated. On the one (larger) hand, Burke tells us to embrace our prejudices and our irrational gut feelings, because they are (in his view) practical, and not abstract, means of computation, and therefore at the heart of the human decision-making engine. Our sense of justice and social order, he would maintain, comes from our respective positions within a social hierarchy; there is no more practical a place from which to derive our sense of rights and entitlement. Therefore, he might fall in with a Social Darwinist crowd and support such ethnocentric tendencies.
“Believe me, sir, those who attempt to level, never equalize. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground.” -Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
But American “WASP-centrism” is by no means something particular to contemporary southern country music; the Tea Party uses a lot of exclusive rhetoric to instill feelings of inferiority within any other party of ideological thought. Constantly the far-right separates policies into those that are American, and those that are not, implying that only those who fall in with the former have a true claim to the American “high life”. What’s worse is how many far-right pundits lump “other” ideologies into one single category nonsensically; now we have “socialist Muslim Nazis”, and “liberal fascists” etc.
So, given the revolutionary nature of this group of extreme conservatives – disrupting congressional hearings, using inherently violent rhetoric to rally support – even Edmund Burke’s support might wain substantially. Remember, it was with Reflections on the Revolution in France that Burke both outlined classical Conservatism and condemned the revolution with one broad stroke. Perhaps, he might have to contend, policies enacted by this in power have brought American society to its current state, and perhaps therefore, a violent revolution to reclaim such abstract “rights” as an unrestricted business sector and the bearing of arms in public places no longer have any practical use or raison d’etre.
Conclusion: Associating such ideology with the contemporary country music scene is a bit of a stereotype, but there yet exist plenty of lyrical examples of country musicians exhibiting very WASP-centric modes of thinking about “the good life”, morality, etc. The landscape of the music is certainly changing, however (think Hootie and the Blowfish) – whether exclusive rhetoric ever truly becomes a thing of the past is still yet to be seen. For the time being, we can take solace in the fact that the social world, and especially in America, is a dynamic and rapidly-changing landscape which sees further integration and amalgamation on a daily basis. Perhaps one day, we can drop the WASP moniker altogether and engage socially as a single diverse American people.