Bob Dylan has noticed the plugged-in, turned-on but oblivious nature possessing many of today’s young people. In an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley, he made some observations.

It’s peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with mobile phones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games. It robs them of their self-identity. It’s a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that’s got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand before they start spending their life with all those gadgets.

Brinkley reported on these comments after Dylan’s 2009 album, Together Through Life was released. Many, especially those who read Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume One, knew of the high regard he has for history and the people of generations before him, but it may surprise others that the proponent of “that thin wild mercury sound” appears a traditionalist. He especially seems so, compared to the babbling, twittering people about us now.

Douglas Brinkley was the ideal choice to pose questions to Dylan and then just let him talk. Having edited the letters of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and the diaries of President Ronald Reagan, Brinkley is the consummate historian for boomers. He knows his Rock and Roll and he knows his Rum, Romanism and Rebellion too.

Rum, Romanism and Rebellion? It sounds like the theme for a toga party.  But, no, the words were used to startle voters and influence an election. We’re talking politics, after all.

The U.S. presidential campaign of 1884 was the first since 1856 that the Democratic Party, with Grover Cleveland as its nominee, regained the White House. Of course, in the great American tradition, an appeal to certain prejudices of many voters was made; but, amazingly, it backfired. In that era, Irish Catholics, particularly those living in the ghettos of such urban centers as New York City, were  unfairly castigated. Voicing the antipathy he and other New York Protestants felt toward Catholics  and the Irish in general, Reverend S.D. Burchard of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church gave a speech declaring  he and his fellow pastors couldn’t support the Democratic Party, accusing it of favoring “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” Reverend Burchard’s speech angered the Catholic priests of New York. On the Sunday before the election the priests urged church members to vote against the Republicans. The priests’ efforts were successful, with Cleveland winning the state of New York by 1,149 votes out of 1,125,159 cast, putting him and the Democratic Party back in the White House.

The Republican nominee, James Blaine, lamented the outcome, saying he would have carried New York by 10,000 votes had the weather been clear and if the Reverend Burchart “been doing missionary work in Asia Minor or China.”

More than 125 years later, Americans view such alarm over Catholics as silly. Slowly but surely, the people of the United States found worthiness in minorities who have been largely discriminated against. In 1960 the nation elected John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, to the Presidency. There were typical reactionary outbursts over a Catholic in the White House, but that aspect of JFK’s political ascendancy is largely set aside as those interested in history focus on his record as President. Women were not constitutionally allowed the vote when Cleveland and Blaine faced off, but since 1984, there have been two women, one a Democrat, and one a Republican, nominated to be Vice President. A Jew was chosen by the Democrats as Vice President in 2000, and most notably, Barack Obama, a black American, was elected President in 2008.

So you’d like to think America’s problems with bigotry have been solved. It’s a great thought, but far from a truthful one.

Barack Obama’s presidency has triggered much of the ugliness Americans had a right to believe would reside in the nation’s past. The loathing of Obama goes beyond disagreement with his policies and the change he represents. Fervid resentment over those policies compel his political adversaries and their followers to hurl invectives and rely on fabrications. In The New York Times on August 28, Bob Herbert writes of uber-conservative Glenn Beck’s railing that Obama is a racist, with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Herbert goes on to quote from a Beck diatribe that makes no point; it just underscores the malice he and his followers have toward a black man who actually followed the rules and made it to the top in America.

“He chose to use his name, Barack, for a reason, to identify not with America — you don’t take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify, with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe of your father in Kenya, who is a radical?”

Say what?

Glenn Beck staged a rally at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday, the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream for America. Hundreds of thousands attended the Beck rally, where the featured speaker was that tweetering sensation, Sarah Palin.

Ms. Palin encouraged the muddled masses as she spoke of the “steel spine and moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King.” This brought to mind something Bob Dylan said many years back in an interview, “There’s an old saying, ‘If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song,’ and that’s pretty much still true.” No kidding. This is the same Sarah Palin who just recently came to the defense of talk-radio shrew Dr. Laura Schlessinger after she used the N-word 11 times over the air to a caller seeking her advice. To publicly confirm her feelings, the Queen of Twits tweeted.

Dr. Laura, don’t retreat-reload!

Dr. Laura=even more powerful & effective without the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice, America.

In a Daily Beast story, CNN contributor John Avlon quoted from a column by conservative Dewey Murdock. Apparently frustration with Palin isn’t limited to those left-of-center. Murdock wrote, “Sarah Palin’s tweets resemble something scribbled by a ninth-grade cheerleader. Is it asking too much for a reputed American political leader to communicate in complete sentences?” He went on to lament that “Palin deploys her vacuity to defend an acerbic talk-show who just detonated herself by tossing around (the n-word) 11 times, as if it were a volleyball. The American right can do better than this. And it must.”

Murdock is right when he says the American right can do better, but it’s not likely. Many of the American right’s newly engaged are like the people Barack Obama accurately described in 2008 as clinging to their religion and their guns. They believe the world is caving in on them and that tweetering Sarah is working to preserve their way of life.

Working on their behalf means stoking fear over supposedly endangered constitutional rights, immigrants, legal and otherwise, particularly those immigrants of the Islamic faith. It was less than a couple of months ago that Palin spoke out against the Islamic center in New York City. She came through for her good Americans once again, seeking to deprive other Americans of their constitutional rights. Palin knows just enough American history to realize that bullying and disparaging minority groups can be good politics when the nation struggles economically. Perhaps one day in between tweets she downloaded a story from our nation’s history, maybe something on the election of 1884. Why, she’d be far more clever than the Republicans of that day were: she would exploit the twenty-first century version of the fears that inspired Rum, Romanism and Rebellion, then defend a public figure who repeatedly used the n-word over the airwaves, and follow up by praising Martin Luther King. This would’ve confounded Grover Cleveland as well.

As Dylan said, the cost of liberty is high, especially with the likes of Beck and Palin among us.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.