Nerds and rednecks

Culture | Reinventing the left and other cultural buzz

Issue: "China’s one-child policy," June 27, 1998

Gen-Xers get their high-school movie
From American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused, Hollywood loves movies that spend a night in the lives of future adults. Now GenX gets a shot. Can't Hardly Wait (Columbia Pictures, PG-13 for teen drinking and sexuality, and for language) will be a sure video pick for the retro-'90s parties coming in 15 years. School's out and Huntington Hills High's senior class has congregated at a suburban house for one last big bash. The typical characters are all there: jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, wallflowers, a rock band, and assorted partygoers. Various vignettes of the ensemble cast are juxtaposed like scenes in a soap opera. The big news is that the homecoming queen (Jennifer Love Hewitt) got dumped by her football-star boyfriend. That means dreams come true for the sensitive kid (Ethan Embry) who has dreamed of her since his freshman year. Can't Hardly Wait moves quickly through a multitude of emotions, as if to trigger empathy from teeny-boppers and nostalgia from older people. Movies like this give the high-school social scene too much credit, as if one night can set the tone for the rest of one's life. Often these parties are considered an embarrassment later on, if they're remembered at all. Opposites don't always attract. In real life, most prom queens don't dream of running away with a Barry Manilow buff. Nerds don't change into social butterflies at a moment's notice. Like so many other pictures of adolescence, this movie swings back and forth from cartoonish to tasteless to melodramatic. High-school life has so many dimensions and parallel plots that painting a good picture is a challenge. Can't Hardly Wait is too contrived to serve as much more than an early credit on the resumés of a pack of budding stars. If everything is relative, which way is left?
Richard Rorty is the pope of pragmatism. He's spent his life telling people that truth is dead. God is dead, too, yet one true faith survives in Mr. Rorty's mind: Leftist politics. So this academic superstar donned his prophet's robes with Achieving Our Country (Harvard UP). Mr. Rorty's latest book is a series of lectures on how to save America from itself. Today's budding activists need to dust off their John Dewey and Walt Whitman. Those guys described Americans as "the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God," says Rorty. So don't trust the Lord; join the author's party of hope. Every worldview must be absorbed into the endless quest for liberal social reform. Imagine a global empire run by Oprah Winfrey; that's Mr. Rorty's endgame. The philosopher says his fellow travelers are too enthralled with cynicism, multiculturalism, and the culture war to capture America. In his view, Leftists accidentally rediscovered sin when they condemned the Vietnam War. So they became so obsessed with theorizing about the establishment that they got lost in rhetoric. Instead of writing another bad postmodern book, Mr. Rorty wants Leftists to proselytize union members and keep them from voting for Pat Buchanan. Mr. Rorty spends most of his book castigating the turgidity of his fellows in the faculty lounge. Unlike them, he writes well. So his points about the political correctness corps are fascinating. Mr. Rorty's views are wacky, but his prose is entertaining. Down with boring theory, he writes, up with politics. His revived Reformist Left is supposed to unify America around the holy cause of socialism. Yet one must ask why anyone should follow his agenda. Relativism is an equal-opportunity destroyer. If truth is dead, everybody is dead. Mr. Rorty wants to bury Plato, Augustine, and even Marx, but not himself. His own voice drowns in his sea of endless diversity. If you still believe in Marxism, you might be a redneck
Communism is dead. So how does one peddle the revolution to the huddled masses of the new millennium? Pretend to be so far to the right that you wind up on the left. That's Jim Goad's plan of attack in The Redneck Manifesto (now in paperback from Simon & Schuster). The subtitle, How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats, describes the contents. Mr. Goad claims to stand up for the white working-class dog-the guy whose ancestors were beat over the head and dragged here as indentured servants; the guy whose grandparents were blown up in coal-mine disasters; the guy the media paints as an oppressor when all he wants from life is an honest job and an honest day's pay. In short, rednecks are America's forgotten minority. "Multiculturalism is a country club that excludes white trash," Mr. Goad writes. With a writing style that cross-pollinates Joe Bob Briggs and Malcolm X, the author bangs the table about how whitey is being oppressed by The Man. I am hillbilly: Hear me roar. You see, says Mr. Goad, America's real dirty secret isn't race, but class. It's "bosses vs. workers." Our rulers are playing whites and blacks against each one another so they can keep their power. Mr. Goad's rhetoric is anti-government, but his ideology resembles Noam Chomsky more than Ron Paul. And the cracker culture described by the The Redneck Manifesto isn't too far from the stereotypes Mr. Goad supposedly hates. The book talks about Bigfoot, Elvis, and trailer parks, but not Hank Williams, Stonewall Jackson, and corn on the cob. In fact, Mr. Goad spews more hate toward Christianity than toward the ruling elite. "Religion gets louder as the paycheck gets smaller," he says. One half-expects him to ramble on about the opiate of the masses. Some of Mr. Goad's cannon blasts are on target. But they're variations on the decades-old theme of fighting political correctness. The main difference is that with both Mssrs. Goad and Rorty, political correctness is being attacked by leftists and unrepentant Marxists. The rant that remains is Fight The Power phooey. As Samuel Johnson once said of someone else, what's new is not good and what's good is not new.

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