No Man Righteous

Bob Dylan's "Make America Great Again" phase

Troubled by the sectarian, paranoid place America has become—and probably always has been—I sometimes yearn for a moment of negative capability that would allow me to understand where birthers, Tea Partyers, evangelical Christians, and all those who smell apocalypse in every current event could possibly be coming from. At such times I take solace in the album that inaugurated Bob Dylan’s notoriously baffling born-again-Christian phase, Slow Train Coming, which offers as complete a picture of the mind of a newly minted reactionary as one could hope for.

Slow Train Coming is a gospel album, but it isn’t the sort of gospel album that consists mainly of praising the Lord and giving thanks for finding Jesus. Instead, it draws inspiration from the promise of God’s wrath rather than his mercy, showcasing scornful, brimstone-tinged songs about the folly of our sinful times and the threat of impending damnation. When it was released, in 1979, unrest in the Middle East dominated the news, an ongoing energy crisis threatened the “American way of life,” and a recent nuclear accident had prompted fears of invisible radioactive clouds rendering vast suburban swathes uninhabitable. The economy was dogged by stagflation, and unemployment had remained stubbornly high for years. In other words, it was an anxious time quite similar to our own, in which a disgruntled middle class was able to see itself as persecuted and scorned, and more than just the usual suspects on the political fringes seemed to feel the world had gone irretrievably wrong.

Into such times Dylan issued an album that presented itself explicitly as a conversion story, only the conversion was twofold. Slow Train Coming unambiguously conflates Dylan’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity with a conversion to a histrionic form of right-wing thinking that Theodor Adorno branded “pseudoconservatism.” Historian Richard Hofstadter, who adopted and popularized the term, characterizes it in “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954” as a “profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways.” The pseudoconservative, Hofstadter notes, “believes himself to be living in a world where he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin.” In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” Hofstadter argues that for such people, “history is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.”

With that in mind, consider this verse from the song “Slow Train”:

All that foreign oil controlling American soil,
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed.
Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings,
Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris.

Or a verse from “When You Gonna Wake Up,” a song which plays like Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” crossed with The New York Post’s letters to the editor page:

Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools,
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules.
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?

Both of these passages convey the hallmarks of the pseudoconservative’s paranoid style, which, as Hofstadter pointed out, could be difficult to distinguish from religious millenarianism. For the pseudoconservative, “time is forever just running out … The apocalypticism of the paranoid style runs dangerously near to hopeless pessimism, but usually stops short of it.” Hofstadter continues, “Apocalyptic warnings arouse passion and militancy, and strike at susceptibility to similar themes in Christianity.” That is, they play to the religious sensibility, draw strength from it, fusing spiritual and secular goals with the binding agent of rage.

Slow Train Coming captures that process in action: how newfound piety can spill into nativism and aggrandizing intolerance, glorifying blind obedience and demonizing nuance; how a fear of the end-times quickly becomes indistinguishable from a yearning for them. That appetite for destruction animates the entire album, from “Slow Train,” on which Dylan sings, “Sometimes I just feel so low-down and disgusted,” to its closing track, “When He Returns,” on which Dylan has deceptively tempered the vehemence to make a plea for simplicity as the answer to a complicated world.

“When He Returns” seems to be self-questioning, expressing the sort of searching, "Blowin' in the Wind" sentiments his left-leaning listeners appreciated him for: “How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice? / How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness? / Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?” These lines can almost be understood as a willingness to lay aside fundamentalism’s moral certainties and threats for a more tolerant kind of spirituality, but the following lines clarify that Dylan in fact means to suggest the opposite. “Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, / that the war won’t cease until He returns?”

The problem is precisely that he was asking such questions. Won’t he ever learn that nothing but the Last Judgment can lay such questions to rest, and that human inquiry along those lines is essentially useless?

By assuming the attitude of a zealot and claiming liberation from prejudice, self-righteousness, and undue fearfulness, Dylan efficiently delineates the moves typical of and integral to pseudoconservative thinking. First, the responsibility for war and other evils is displaced onto God. Second, intolerance is actually an expression of humility in the face of what the Lord demands, and it is the equivocators and negotiators who are too full of pride, too comfortable in outmoded loyalties. Lastly, from the radical right’s point of view, it’s not Christians who are prejudiced, despite their adamantine certainty about the spiritual errors of others, but secular humanists, who routinely scorn the deeply held and cherished beliefs of the American Christian majority.

These lines, from “Precious Angel,” reiterate that last point, suggesting that secularists are tolerant and sympathetic toward all religions except Christianity: “You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath. / You never mentioned one time the Man who came and died a criminal’s death.” Here, Dylan concocts the same potent blend of persecution paranoia and contempt for cultural "relativism" that has long served to fire up the GOP’s religious base, presenting the supposed persecution of evangelicals not as a logical conclusion but a given certainty, a familiar leap of common sense. Slow Train Coming doesn’t ask you to agree or disagree; it exists in some cultural space beyond dialogue. In polarized political times, it promises a debate-proof realm of moral certainty where what is beyond reason can seem eminently, comfortably, inevitably reasonable.

Understandably, Dylan’s ressentiment confused many listeners. It’s easy to summarily dismiss this kind of rhetoric when it comes from the religious right but harder when it spews from a onetime countercultural icon whose words have long been cherished and carefully parsed for their transcendent truths about freedom and social justice. Yet on Slow Train Coming, song after song depicts the experience of suddenly realizing that the secular, liberal perspective is hopelessly naive and if not altogether decadent, utterly unaware of the threat of evil. This is most pointed in “Precious Angel,” in which he declares that “you either got faith or you got unbelief, and there ain’t no neutral ground,” before offering this chilling verse:

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell,
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?

On Slow Train Coming, Dylan paints a picture of an America in which every civic action must be understood as part of the war against evil, in which neutrality is not an option. You “Gotta Serve Somebody,” whether “it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord.” Taken as a whole, the album offers a political outlook that resembles that of Carl Schmitt. In The Concept of the Political Schmitt claimed that the inescapable distinction of “friends” and “enemies” is the essence of politics and went on to argue that “all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil.” Schmitt insisted that “the high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy.” Dylan’s determination to delineate the enemy on Slow Train Coming — the various songs yield an exhaustive, Whitmanesque catalog of villains — comes to seem like a prerequisite for his accepting the reality of his conversion. The omnipotence of the Christian God has created for Dylan a peculiar kind of spiritual certainty that relies on the proliferation of enemies, at once implacable and clueless, to define the deity’s strength. This contradictory pursuit of powerful enemies is arguably the quintessence of a reactionary, who wants to be righteous more than he wants to be right.

The inherent confusion in the pseudoconservative position—its unstable blend of faith, persecution and antiliberal realpolitik—is enough to make one suspect that Dylan was staging some sort of elaborate critique of the ideas he professed to espouse. In other words, by espousing an absolutist rhetoric that admits of no possible nuance in one’s worldview, Dylan seems only to enhance the mystery of his “real” thoughts. Some wrote off Dylan’s turn to fundamentalism as willful idiosyncrasy, despite his carrying on with two more proselytizing, Bible-saturated records, Saved and Shot of Love. In retrospect it seems even harder to believe he was ever entirely in earnest about his conversion. Was he actually trying to make an oblique and far-reaching comment on America’s growing intolerance and frustration with vicissitudes of pluralism and liberal tolerance? Was he documenting how far an artist must now go to convey any sort of conviction, or was he making a mockery of the very notion of conviction?

There may be an answer in a line from “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” that seems to jump out and stand apart from Dylan’s myriad other complaints on the album: “Don’t know which one is worse, doing your own thing or just being cool.” Here he touches on the underlying existential problems that fuel reactionary politics, the sense of ontological insecurity and inner emptiness that derives from a culture that sends perennial mixed messages about “doing your own thing” and “being cool.” These slangy phrases vulgarize the ideal of self-realization, which consumerism reduces to a series of postures vis-à-vis conformity, but they also capture the way our own identity has come to constitute an inescapable problem for us under capitalism, presenting us with two bad options. Is it worse to try to prove one’s individuality or neglect it?

Dylan’s attempts to escape from himself and his legend are legion, and it’s easy to see his Born-again conversion as merely another attempt to shake off that burden for a rebirth as a nobody in Christ. But even in this, among the most forgettable phases of his career, Dylan proved to be a prophet. The rise of social media means that we all increasingly face Dylan’s dilemma, in which our identity loses meaning for ourselves as it gains economic value generally, becoming an asset to be carefully tended and invested.

Reactionary thinking in its fundamentalist guise promises to halt the vertiginous self-consciousness that stems from that: It lets us think of ourselves not as a personal brand but as a persecuted soul. It tempts us with an apparent liberation from endless self-fashioning, endless risk-taking and deliberation over how best to “do your own thing” or “be cool.” Instead, we are the victims of those cool people, who undeservingly harvest the fruits of this world. As Eric Hoffer noted in The True Believer, “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”