Johnny Cash Would Have Understood James Webb

Spaced over several months, Netflix has been bringing us a series of Johnny Cash – at Montreaux, in Scotland, in Austin. Tonight we saw him in Ireland. These have been enjoyable and at times riveting. They tend to repeat themselves, but on this tour he clearly moved his audience (silently mouthing the words) with one he didn’t sing in the others, “Forty Shades of Green.”

Tonight, however, I was struck again by the emotion he captures in his old standard, “Folsom Prison Blues.” We understand – some of us better than others. I tend to associate that longing with Celtic songs; it characterizes many old Irish ballads: rootless, discontented, melancholy, even angry. As we mature, we become estranged, that’s the nature of our growing self-consciousness. We will never, we feel, be at peace again. And in a way we won’t be. It will take a while to come to terms with that truth. The restlessness is not all that bad. It prods. We probably go farther driven by it.

Cash wrote this early; he matured, but I suspect he always understood it. Late Cash is a gentle man; earlier, his music was edgy and so was he. I suspect he rose above those demons – ones we all to some extent feel within. The lines are:

I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car

They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars

But I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free

But those people keep a-movin’ and that’s what tortures me.

Of course, the reason he “had it coming” is that he shot “a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” But that restlessness, that knowing others are moving when we are staying still, knowing others are – well, others are more successful or richer or just happier than we, that’s what “tortures” us. It doesn’t torture us any the less that we are at fault. It takes some rationalizing, but mostly, we’re just angry.

We grow out of that, maybe. Our religion tells us to leave it alone. But it tugs at us – and I suspect it tugs at some more than others. I understand it; sure, I wish I didn’t, but I do. That is James Webb’s tradition. That melancholy & then angry response to the train that moves on without us. Aggressive, assertive, moody, brooding. Nathan Smith examines just that attitude in “Poor Arguments: Bush, Webb, and Poverty” on TCS Daily. He contrasts Bush’s emphasis on “absolute poverty” with Webb’s on equality. He acknowledges Bush’s ideas may not all work, but their aim is to relieve the fact of poverty. Webb’s emphasis on “relative poverty” leads less to open-handedness & self-reliance, than to hunkering down & isolation. Of course, with relativity there are fewer useful benchmarks of success – someone somewhere else is always like to be happier or wealthier or healthier or. . . This inspires envy. Indeed, it can drive us crazy.
My feeling (and my experience as a reasonably flawed person) increasingly considers views such as Webb’s pernicious and those such as Bush’s liberating. Self-reliance frees us in ways that have little to do with power or money. The commandment is not to covet – the old laws understand our nature, how we are tempted. But part of the liberation from covetousness is to see farther – Webb only sees around him and is sure some are better off. By any standards, of course, we are all pretty well off.

Johnny Cash understands temptation. Bush, schooled in that old pragmatism also so central to our national character, wants to find what works. That discipline tempers the moodiness, the restlessness – it gives purpose. Bush has wrestled with his own demons; I suppose he understands. Still, the path Webb strikes out on makes for memorable music. However, the twentieth century showed us over and over again that a lust for equality nurtures the worst in us, while trying to solve problems together brings out the best.

(Given the quantity of responses, I want to observe: it was edited on at 7:26, Jan 26. I don’t think I changed any meaning or even images. I just saw a lot that needed better expression & especially better punctuation. I added a couple of embeds. – Ginny

(Cash owed & acknowledged a considerable debt to Gordon Jenkins for “Crescent City Blues”, sung from a woman’s point of view.)

32 thoughts on “Johnny Cash Would Have Understood James Webb”

  1. I read the Webb piece and basically agreed with it. I also agree that Johnny Cash would have agreed with it. Merle Haggard has come out against the war for the same reasons: Spend the money at home, getting our people killed for nothing while rich people don’t even act like a war is on is unacceptable.

    If I had not had a lifetime of interest and education in economics, my gut would win over my mind and I’d be a protectionist and a lot more of a populist. This is, after all, a democracy, and if the officers of corporations, who supposedly work for the shareholders, are going to act like (irresponsible) owners and line their pockets instead, the public is going to notice and decide to just take that money away from them. Webb reflects that increasing angry attitude which is brewing up in America. Webb’s attitude toward the war is mixed up for a good reason. He is not against fighting wars. He is against doing it half-assed, and losing. And he is against going to foreign countries to be armed social workers. Most people in the USA agree with both propositions. Bush, whom I voted for twice, has botched this thing and has lost the support of Jacksonian America, which believes in victory through the ruthless application of overwhelming force, or get out and come home — win or get out, no middle ground dicking around. Dragging on losing our people, not the children of the wealthy, but our people, in drip, drip, drip fashion is not going to sit well with this community, as it does not sit well with me.

    If the Demcorats can regain the Jacksonian center of the American voting public, then the GOP is going back to what it was from 1932-68. We’ll see how our libertarian friends who want to walk away from the GOP for not being pure enough feel when that happens.

  2. I think that the behavior outlined in experiment describes what will happen if the Webbs of the world get ahold of the economic levers of a nation. It boggles my mind htat pepole would get rid of their own wealth just to spite someone else. I can see people being shortsighted and not realizing that by handicapping the earnings of the best and brightest, they prevent the rising tide that would float their boat as well – most people don’t think abstractly very well. But to actively kill a bird in the hand – that’s just nuts.

  3. “That’s just nuts.” True. Now it is. For millenia, disparities of benefits from a subsistence base were intolerable because it was a zero sum world. That is still our hardwiring. Overcoming that is hard, and structuring things so it is easier to overcome that is sensible.

    The peasant mindset is solely zero sum. The Russian version goes like this. St. Michael appears to a peasant and says, I will give you whatever you want, but I will give your neighbor twice as much. The peasant says, poke out my eye. Nothing changes.No one remembers that the world was poorer in grandpa’s day. In fact, they think it was better and nicer and simpler, none of which is really true. People can only see ocmparisons between now and now. People care about relative wealth and positional goods. Not just a house, but a bigger house than the other guy. Pride is more powerful than greed or even the desire for comfort. And if you are simply not in the running for the best stuff your society has to offer, it is more satisfying to make sure no one gets it, for many people.

  4. All this belief set really boils down to is that only societies that practice a strong variant of socialism, or even communism, have rights to fight wars and defend themselves.

    And that free societies don’t.

  5. First, it is inapapropriate to take a Cash song, written and performed at a prison to appeal to his audience, though he identified with themn, and jump from that to a discussion on Webb and Bush.
    Cash, after becoming wealthy, in fact was most generous with his mon ey in helping those who were in need.

    Next, I note that Bush in his approach is just wrong if as a way of measuring we simply note that from every report, the gap between the Haves and Have Nots is getting wider and wider.

    Webb: he is right in wantin g to examine (as in Jackson qjuote) what takes place lower down, but as in any vauge generla speech it sounds better than it is. Example: we must protect and do something for those Am nerican workers losin g job because of globalization. Note that he does not say let us get rid of globalization. What he implies is some sort of subsidy–or how else care for thosse losin g jobs?–in the way we subsidize framers (wello, the big farmer companies)…Of course conservatives will object to that. But as JK Galbraith noted years ago, we have socialism for corporations and capitalism for individuals in America these days

  6. Hmm. Maybe I should go back and change the previous comment, but I can’t. I shouldn’t have been skimming.

    (I’m at home sick running a fever, and I’ve been running across the “we shouldn’t fight the war unless we get to do _X_ to the economy…” argument too much, and thought it was happening here as well; I’m sorry).

  7. OK, and there’s something Lex said that I have to comment on:

    If I had not had a lifetime of interest and education in economics, my gut would win over my mind and I’d be a protectionist and a lot more of a populist. This is, after all, a democracy, and if the officers of corporations, who supposedly work for the shareholders, are going to act like (irresponsible) owners and line their pockets instead, the public is going to notice and decide to just take that money away from them.

    You’re looking at it from too abstract a level.

    About a year ago, there was a news item about the debate about the regulatory regime surrounding chromium use for coating, electroplating, etc. Since it was at the last two weeks of the ten year comment period for the court-mandated tightening-of-regulations, those who favored reducing the amount of chromium in certain work environments by a factor of a hundred instead of a factor of twenty had released some sort of report alleging malfeasance on the part of industry. I don’t remember all the details.

    Anyway, since I know people who lost their shirt and went out of business in the field of chrome-spraying, I wanted to find more information, and used technorati or google. Despite the fact that the study was released at the last second, so as to be able to influence the decision-making process without anyone getting a chance to look at it to see if it made sense, I thought I’d find out if anyone had.

    Well, I did find a blog post on the subject by an angry democratic populist, who summarized the case for much greater regulation in typical angry-against-the-Man style, and then finished with “and as whatshername in Congress said about the Port Deal, Not NO, but Hell NO!”

    As if she or anyone else has a right to only have American-citizen-owned infrastructure in this country after they finish shutting down all the local American heavy industries in the name of Striking Back Against The Man.

    (Which sometimes makes me think that the expansion of the service industry, and/or free trade, hasn’t been q

  8. Pardon me, as I said, I’m at home sick, and having trouble typing.

    Anyway, the expansion of the service industry, and free trade, hasn’t been as good for the cause of freedom as we think; it lets the politicians pretend, for a long enough while to confuse the issue, that we can regulate domestic industries without any concern for whether they keep existing, and then pretend, after the local steel mill has been scrapped and shipped to China, that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision, and it was because of “The Man” instead.

    Just to give one example: the nuclear power plant industry’s basically shut down in this country. You can’t drill for oil off of the eastern or western seaboards. Even windfarm proposals like the one in Long Island Sound (?) face strong opposition… BUT, it’s “Big Oil’s” fault we import oil from Saudi Arabia.

  9. “But those people keep a-movin’ and that’s what tortures me.”

    To me the amazing thing is the low note he hits on “tortures.” Any other singer, any other songwriter, would have gone up to the top of the cord. John goes down which is emotionally correct and extremely powerful. My problem with the biopic was that Joaquin Phoenix could not hit those notes.

  10. Virtually all readers of this blog will consider Webb’s speech to substantively be wrong.

    Point conceded. But irrelevant to my point.

    My point is: It will be politically effective and well-received.

    I know better, and I still have a gut positive response to it. Most people do not know better.

    Political reality is part of reality.

    Major realignment will occur if the Jacksonian base goes to the Democrats based on economic populism in the face of job insecurity and the GOP having entirely squandered its perceived superiority on security and military matters, something it took decades to build up. For the next 50 years anytime the GOP says anything on defense, the answer will be, “yeah, those guys, we trusted them on Iraq, look what happened”. It is the foreign policy equivalent of Hoover and the Depression.

  11. Virtually alll state of the nation speeches are vague, ambitious, and detailess. Webb fit that category. But Bush? vacuous to an extreme. Why belittle Webb when “our guy” is so poorly liked by members within the conservative commun ity?

  12. I was not necessarily discussing Webb per se, but populism in general and emotionally loaded but illogical arguments; I suspect the others here wanted to do the same.

  13. “…populism in general and emotionally loaded but illogical arguments…”

    Sometimes they work. All too often they work. They work when people feel like the lives of people like them and their neighbors and their young men and women are being squandered to no good end, while rich people are getting big-bucks raises when people like them are in daily fear of losing their jobs. Also protectionism is not “irrational” for people who are specific beneficiaries of it, only for the population as a whole. But the population as a whole gets a diffuse benefit, while the people who are likely to be out on their butts are well motivated to get some protection. This has always been true and it takes a lot of political effort and political capital to push back against this dynamic.

    It takes rapid and visible success in war and political leadership and articulation by the leader to overcome this sort of thing. Mr. Bush has not done well in any of these categories lately.

  14. There needs to be a lot more understanding of the positive effects of global trade. For example, GE recently signed a deal to sell 300+ locomotives to Kazakhstan. (No Borat jokes, please) Although the locomotives themselves are being assembled in Kazakhstan, the diesel engines will be made in Grove City, PA, and the electrical equipment in Erie, PA.

    If the US were not a heavy importer, I think it’s very likely that these locomotives and their components would be made by a non-US company. That applies also to the jetliners being built and exported by Boeing.

    Lou Dobbs can rage on about the fact that Americans do not manufacture their own clothing, but in general a job building engines for GE or airliners for Boeing is going to be better than a job cutting and sewing fabric.

  15. That said, I do think it’s important to recognize that even when trade is beneficial to the US as a whole, that doesn’t mean it will always be beneficial to all individuals. If you live in South Carolina and have strong family ties there, and the textile mill closes, then the engine-building jobs in Grove City won’t be all that much of a comfort.

  16. You know, all of this discussion has me thinking of an anecdote. Well, we are talking about ‘gut’ reactions, after all. A dear friend’s husband lost his tech job to Indian outsourcing. She is very progressive and was completely furious! The government should do something! Her husband lost his job! Well, quite so. She has young children.

    Her husband soon got another job. She stays at home with the kids, although she is very involved in computer projects, which are doing extremely well. My family is from India and my parents will probably move back part time and do business in-between the US and India. Hey, we even have land in Haryana, near Gurgoan, that’s being farmed currently. Might it be leased to a business? And might that business have an American office with American employees and might that land be more productive, in some way? The Indians get a piece and the Americans get a piece.

    [This comment has been edited. JG]

  17. Lex,
    You were “getting it” before the election and it seems you still get it. It is easy to be philosophical in a “Chicago School” cyber-salon when the “right” party is acting right. It becomes more and more difficult when our party gets besotted with plutocrats and (for a time) neocons.

    I can only speculate that Wolfowicz (sp?) must have very compromising photos of the President and/or VP to pull the blunder he did and get the World Bank (!) as penalty.

    The GOP (my party still) has thoroughly earned a few years in exile. It will take another Teddy Roosevelt to even start turning it around – the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are just plain hilarious as “leadership”.

  18. Am I the only person whose eyes glaze over when reading comments that refer to the evils of the “neocons”?

  19. The word neocon is overused. But to the extent it means people who advocated “using” American “unipolarity” to bring democracy, or whatever, to the world, including Kristol and Krauthammer and Wolfowitz, then I share in the animosity and my eyes remain unglazed. I hope their approach and ideas have been utterly and finally repudiated by the result of the current war. I remember reading Krauthammer’s essay “The Unipolar Moment” some years ago and thinking he was nuts. Little did I know.

  20. Lex: Normally I’d think I’d agree with you. But in these days, I see their stance as absolutely vital for our security. If we give up large portions of the Earth to the grip of orthodox Islam , there will be no future.

  21. Neocons is a common place that means nothing but the abstraction of a reality as seen from a previously tinted glass, the sort of common places the left repeats thousands of times until it sounds like a truth, which then, not being one, makes it instead a myth.
    Myth and not lies are more damaging to the truth and real nature of things.
    It is also a moving target, as Rumsfield was heading out of the office, a new and worse neocon was coming in, of course of a more terrible nature, the likes of which will have the left later say in dismay “at least Rumsfield didn’t do this or that” in an effort to justify and renew their everlasting irrational attacks.

  22. “If we give up large portions of the Earth to the grip of orthodox Islam , there will be no future.”

    The way to do it is not the way these guys were advocating, whatever you call them. They overestimated what American military power could do. They underestimated how resistant people would to American power used in this way. They were mistaken about the supposed attractiveness of America as a model for others. They were mistaken about the efficacy of democracy without the rest of the cultural underpinnings. By “they” I will mean here Wolfowitz, Kristol and Krauthammer, for example.

    Getting into a war on a confused intellectual basis is suicidal. War demands cruel, unflinching realism by the people who engage in it, or they will die or cause those whom they command to die. We did not go into Iraq with that kind of clarity. That was a moral and intellectual failing, and even those of us who have no power but who supported the war, such as myself, bear part of the blame for it. At this point, no matter what ultimately happens, even a “best” possible outcome as of today will not have been worth the human and material and political cost to the USA. Ongoing containment such as we had in place would have been better. This was perceivable in advance had there been clear thinking. We will see what Bush and Petraeus can salvage in the two years or so that Mr. Bush remains commander in chief. A stabilized Iraq with an authoritarian but orderly government and a much reduced level of chronic terrorism may be achievable. I hope so. Even at best it will continue to be expensive, in every sense.

    As to “giving up” large portions of the Earth, one billion people are Muslim. How orthodox they are varies. As to virtually of them, live and let live. It has been centuries since anyone has seriously talked about “rollback” with regard to the Muslims. That is not a viable option. Destroying such people among the Muslims who constitute an active threat to the USA is going to keep us plenty busy.

  23. Lex: Islam was in atrophy at the dawn of the 20th Century and was obscured by the Cold War.

    Islam is at war in the Philipinnes, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Spain.

    I think it’s pretty clear that whereever there is a significant number of Muslims in proxmity to Non-Muslims, there is conflict.

    In fact, globally, it’s about the only war there is.. Muslim vs Non-Muslim.

    And that’s the way it’s been since Mohemmed came around.

    The problem now is that they have access to money and our technology and our weapons. I think we’re in one of those historical periods like the Battle of Tours, or the Seige of Vienna.

    The failure of secular dictatorship had a lot to do with the revival of Islam, so if we don’t offer these people another way of life then Islam is what they will affirm. And this is in fact what is happening and the result is the list of countries at war that I listed above.

    Eventually they will get nuclear weapons. Allah tells them to use them, and they will.

    We should be rallying around Bush, though it’s clearly his fault he lost popular support as he spent virtually no effort on the Home Front and let the Media destroy all morale.

  24. “Ugh, it would help if I did soem proofreading and spell checking. Sorry for the errors.”


    If you are going to do a long comment, do it in Word first. That also makes it less likely you will accidentally lose all your typing if something screwy happens when you try to post it.

  25. By the way, Lex, I didn’t say Cash would have agreed with Webb. He very well might have; certainly his daughter would, though her argument was a good deal more that of a condescending elitist, who said she’d read about it and knew about it, implying that her detractors were uninformed. That was not, generally, the tone her father took. I wouldn’t argue that artists in general are who we look to for policy. As your series of remarks indicate, we do look to them to more precisely represent how we feel than we can, to “understand” human nature by portraying it. I find it powerful not because it is right but because it is true.

  26. Though there is some disagreement among these posts, nonetheless, a fine batch of comments that have us considering possibilities other than those we brought to the post itself. Thanks for the nice comments!

  27. I get a bit emotional about the war sometimes, I do attempt to be respectful and civil when in a disagreement with someone as long as I perceive that person isn’t irrational. Like with Lex , I think I maintained a nice neutral tone.. though with fasteddie on a different topic I was very strident.

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