Joanne tipped me off that Jello Biafra, the ex-Dead Kennedys frontman cum P.T. Barnum of political dissent, was speaking a mere stoneâ??s throw from Cato. â??Speakingâ? doesnâ??t quite cover it, though, if what you have in mind is a lecture of the sort you might get in a college classroom or some D.C. policy forum. No, itâ??s more like a combination stand-up monologue and Chautauqua, and he was, as he had been the few other times Iâ??ve seen him, quite funny.
But (ah, yesâ?¦ but) the stated topic â?? â??Freedom of Speech in the Shadow of the War on Terrorâ? â?? was rather misleading. To the extent that there was an overriding theme (and itâ??s only a moderate extent â?? there were lengthy tangents about, for example, his legal wrangles with his old bandmates) it could best be summarized as: â??George W. Bush is a venal little bastard, a political Rainman whose idiot savantism applies not to mathematics, but the commission of evil.â? Well, perhaps thatâ??s not entirely wrong, but over the course of almost two hours, it does wear a little thin. Jello moved from topic to topic â?? military tribunals to the nefarious rejection of the Kyoto Treaty â?? with the same desultory logic that event follows event in a dream. And he resorted throughout to the sort of name-warping (e.g. â??Ashcrackâ? and â??Dumbsfeldâ?) made popular by Mad Magazine, and (I had thought) amusing to roughly the same age group that subscribes to that classic periodical. Indisputable facts, discredited rumors, stylized or spun versions of genuine events, and raw speculation blended into each other with similar ease, and without any hedging or change in tone to indicate that some of these â??suppressed truthsâ? were any more questionable than others.
I donâ??t have anything against preaching to the choir, of course â?? â??energizing your base,â? as the pols say, can be as important as winning new converts. But the general tone did a lot to explain why, for example, the large number of people opposed to war seem to be lacking public spokespersons with whom they can identify. It was quite clear that the intended (and, indeed, actual) audience of this talk was a self-satisfied counterculture seeking a bit of auto-backpatting for their superior insight. One of the things that particularly intrigued me was the mockery piled upon Ashcroftâ??s religious commitments. This was, we learned with a sneer, a guy who held prayer meetings with his staff â?? which revelation was followed by an imitation of Ashcroft dancing about handling snakes and speaking in tongues.
Now, Iâ??m about as secular as they come â?? I tend to see religion as, in the best case, a sort of charming quirk that sometimes afflicts otherwise fairly bright people, albeit typically no more pernicious than a belief in crystal healing or ESP. Iâ??m also pretty hardline about church-state separation, though if some of Ashcroftâ??s employees want to voluntarily join him for a pre-work Bible reading, and it doesnâ??t affect their promotion prospects, I donâ??t have any problem with it. Still, I found this fairly unsettling. How many members of the multiculturally sensitive audience would have laughed as hard if heâ??d mimicked a Muslim cleric scampering about screaming â??Allah akbar!â? and prostrating himself? I imagine that theyâ??d have found it in poor tasteâ?¦ and been right.
This, I suppose, is the deep contradiction in the countercultural-progressive ethos. Though putatively animated by a desire for social change, its adherents cherish too deeply the outsider-Cassandra status they now enjoy to do much that has a prayer of succeeding. The funny thing is, Jello has a spoken word album called â??become the media.â? And heâ??s sharp witted enough to do just that, if he and his admirers had the will to actually subvert â?? by tossing their ideas subtly into mainstream discourse â?? rather than congratulating each other on being so very subversive.