February 25, 2003

Disco and the Republican Party

"Disco" and the "GOP" are not concepts that usually go together. Until 5 minutes ago, I certainly wouldn't have linked them together.

Let me make this short story a bit longer by letting you in on the rather odd chain of events leading me to the document below. The wife recently got her APO address. For those of you unfamiliar with APO and FPO, it is a US government service offered to American military personel and government employees stationed abroad. They get a US address - you need only pay US postage to send to it - and the Federal Government pays to deliver the package to you out wherever you are.

So, my first thought was to place an Amazon.com order. Among other books, I ordered American Hero, a book I'd been meaning to get to. The wife and I went down to Luxembourg over the weekend, so I had a long train ride to read it in and I finished yesterday morning.

American Hero is a Hollywood detective/conspiracy novel about how Lee Atwater wrote a memo suggesting George Bush hire a movie producer to set up a war so he could get reelected. This war turns out to be the Gulf War. It is an entertaining enough novel, although it's pretty lightweight.

That got me thinking about Lee Atwater. He was the man more singularly responsible for the Republican Party's many narrow and difficult to explain election victories than any one other person. He crafted the famous "southern strategy" of pandering to southern racists while talking a much more mainstream line on race in the open. He turned Willie Horton into Dukakis' running mate in 1988. He invented "welfare queens." He, in short, was one of the people with the greatest responsibility for the current state of American political life.

Lee Atwater - mercenary, racist and consummate political strategist - died in 1990 of brain cancer, age 40. I was 19. I remember hearing about it on TV and knowing who Atwater was, but that was 12 years ago. So I looked him up on the Net.

As far as I can tell, Atwater is the only major conservative figure not to have a fan site on the web. I'm thinking of setting one up just so that somebody out there can find out about him when they hear his name. Among the details of Lee Atwater's life that you can find out on the web is that he was a fairly serious R&B musician.

Lee gettin' down.

So, here is the man more responsible than any one other person for the disempowerment of the civil rights movement in the 1980's, and he is into the blackest of black southern 1970's music. This dichotomy is hard to explain and I won't even try to. It would be like findng out that Pat Buchanan keeps a shelf of Public Enemy CD's.

However, thanks to Google I also found this amusing bit of work. Having just read American Hero, my mind was already primed for thinking about Lee Atwater and political conspiracy, and I couldn't resist it. It has been taken off the web, but I have rescued it from Google's cache and am posting it here in its entirety. I have not managed to determine the author. It was originally up at http://www.soul-patrol.com/funk/lee_at.htm

Lee Atwater and the Destruction of Black Music

Several times in the past year when I have been asked by younger people & by some older people what happened to the FUNK movement? What caused it to end?

My response is a usually a multi-dimensional one involving drugs, the economies of employing/traveling with a big band, the coming of age of the technology that produced rap, and a conspiracy involving the government. The response is usually something along the lines of… "ok that makes sense except for the part about the government."

Some of you younger fans may not remember this guy and some of you old heads out there are probably wondering why I am bringing his name up in this context. Lee Atwater was Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager during the 1980 presidential election and he had a huge influence over just where we are with today’s music. During the 1980 campaign Lee Atwater supplied Ronald Reagan with a vicious campaign strategy designed to make then President Jimmy Carter look like a "n*gga lovin homo" who couldn’t even defend Americans abroad in Iran. It was Lee Atwater who came up with the term "Welfare Queen" with respect to Black women shopping at the supermarket, the phrase "Evil Empire" with respect to the Soviet Union and the notion that the United States was the last world power.

Yes, it was Lee Atwater who devised the catch phrases & buzz words that Ronald Reagan was able to use to paint a picture of an America that had gone "too far" & a government that was so out of touch with the people in middle America , that people (Black people) were actually being paid to go to "no show jobs" (CETA program). This was for the Atwater/Reagan campaign and their supporters the very antithesis of the "shining house on the hill" version of America they were peddling.

In 1980 Lee Atwater was a "30-ish", "yuppieish", young man from South Carolina who had gone to college in the 60’s listening to rock n’ roll, smoking pot & having a good time. After he graduated from college, Lee Atwater joined the public relations firm of Harry Dent. Mr Dent was the man responsible for the successful "southern strategy" employed by the "big Dick" in the 1968 presidential campaign during the 1968 campaign. Lee Atwater although young by comparison to people like Nixon & Reagan, understood some of the core attitudes of Americans and how to exploit them for purposes of wining a election. Down south this is a tactic known as "race baiting" and has served the cause of many winning candidates in the south. Lee Atwater knew how to exploit the worst fears in people to win an election. He was the one who created Ronald Reagan’s "unspoken campaign promise" to effectively put an end to the American Civil Rights movement after the 1980 election.

One of the most vivid images for me of the 1980 presidential campaign is that of Lee Atwater at one of the inaugural parties on stage playing the guitar with BB King.

That’s right. Lee Atwater was a HUGE fan of Rhythm & Blues music!!!

This meant that Lee Atwater southern, racist, vile & vicious person also had a keen understanding of what was going on in the Black community of the late 1970’s.

Lee Atwater knew that he could create vivid images via Ronald Reagan of a country where somehow lazy & shiftless welfare queens & kings with CETA jobs were somehow buying lobsters with food stamps donated by the poor & suffering white folks. Lee Atwater also knew that beyond creating a sense of rage among white voters that to actually end the Civil Rights movement he would actually need the help of Black people in doing so.

In my opinion, historians will someday look back upon the 1970’s and equate it in many respects to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. For many Black folks, the 1970’s resulted in the full flowering of a positive culture that had been "stifled" as a result of Amerika’s racist past Many Black people at this time were finally beginning to enjoy the fruits of the Civil Rights struggle. While it’s true that some government programs such as affirmative action and CETA played a role in this, the real catalyst was the Civil Rights Movement itself. The general perception was that it had been successfully concluded and now it was celebration time.

Black culture flourished during the 1970’s, and it flourished in a way that had not been seen since the 1920’s. "Black" became beautiful for the very first time in Amerika’s history and the culture was in "full effect". Afros, Dashiki’s and Malcolm X became the order of the day for teenagers such as myself at that time. For the first time we began to see Black politicians making serious moves all over the country. Big cities started electing Black mayors and congressmen.. Hollywood began producing a ton of Black oriented movies and TV shows that began to show Blacks as much more than "servants & slaves".

As a teenager during this time, for me personally and for most of the people I hung around with at that time, the music itself core of all of this positive expression.

The decade had started out with the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown, Miles Davis, Funkadelic and others completely revolutionizing Black music by somehow blending together jazz, blues, soul & rock n’ roll and inventing something that today we call FUNK. Later in the decade this tradition was carried forward by artists such as Weather Report, Ronnie Laws, Ohio Players, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliment, Gil Scott Heron and many others. This music was not just a "deep groove", it also made the listener think about their lives and the world around them. It embraced not only the concept of being Black in Amerika, but also made the connection to the Caribbean, Afrika and elsewhere. And it was all positive, not "anti white", but "pro black". This force was so powerful in fact that even white people caught the "groove". White people catching this groove manifested itself in the form of Disco.

Today some people look back at disco and either laugh at or seek to discredit it for various reasons, such as it’s excesses. Those people are DEAD WRONG. Today we can look back at disco and place it in the proper perspective. Clearly disco is an extension of FUNK, not just as far as the musical groove, but also as a "cultural/social/political "groove" of unity. Not just the unity among Black people that FUNK spoke of, but a type of unity that had never occurred before. You see, for me the bottom line about disco was that it was for all practical purposes the LAST VOLUNTARY ATTEMPT BY THE UNITED STATES TO INTEGRATE ITSELF.

To that end it was largely successful and this is what Lee Atwater had to attack and make white people (and Blacks) fearful of. One of the objectives of the Civil Rights movement was an integrated society, where people would be judged not by their color, but instead by the "content of their character". What better place to be judged for the content of your character than on Friday & Saturday nights with a mix of people that crossed every possible demographic line ?

The social setting created by the advent of discos was something that is very unsettling to racists (both Black and White). The very idea of a legitimized place where "race mixing" might occur is something that this country wasn’t quite ready for. Of course it was this very fear that led to the artificial separation between Black & White music in the first place leading to the creation of the "artificial sub categories" known as "Rock" & "Soul". The FUNK (jazz, blues, soul & rock n’ roll) brought it all back together once again, creating a positive & universal groove that created the atmosphere for the emergence of disco.

Disco (and along with it FUNK) had to be destroyed, and Lee Atwater was able orchestrate this during the late 70’s & early 80’s. Lee Atwater knew that by destroying the culture, he could destroy the movement.

Consider for a moment these 4 "genres":

- Country
- Blues

- Punk
- Rap

Do you think it’s any accident that these "genres" were promoted as mainstream at the same time that "disco records" were being blown up in a baseball stadium in Chicago??

The predominant audience today for these "genres" are middle/upper income whites, the same target audience that Lee Atwater was after. It’s also no mistake that each one of these "genres" is promoted as being "pure and untainted", nothing of course could be further from the truth.

Think back to the election itself. Jimmy Carter and his staff were often seen in the company of Black folks, hanging out at places like Studio 54 and "winking" at drug use. On the other hand Ronald Reagan and George Bush were most often seen wearing cowboy hats going to church and listening to country music. Reagan was running around saying things like "We didn’t have any racial problems when I was a boy growing up in Dixon Illinois". Of course what he failed to mention was that there weren’t any Black people around . George Bush on the other hand was used to being around Black people. Raised as the son of a wealthy Connecticut US Senator, I have no doubt that George Bush was exposed to the many Black butlers/maids that likely worked in his home and served his every need as an adult. Jimmy Carter (& his corn poke family) were the types of "po white trash", that are needed in order for integration to occur. As a matter of fact, the presence of "po white trash" is the ONLY way for integration to occur, this was proven by both Jimmy Carter & Lyndon Johnson. Meanwhile Lee Atwater was saying that none of this was racist because he loved Black music and culture because he was a "Blues fan" and that "Blues" was "real/authentic Black music" (enter the "Blues Brothers"), as opposed to disco.

So, just what were Black people themselves doing at this point??

- Nothing… absolutely NOTHING after all the Civil Rights era was over… right??
- No need to be concerned about maintaining or advancing anything... right??
- Heck we don’t even need those "symbols" of Black pride anymore like Afro’s and Dashiki’s... right??
- As a matter of fact, it’s even cool for us to go back to straightening our hair again (jheri curl) after all it was all just a "fad"... right??
- Oh & by the way, lets make a mockery of our recent musical past by having our young people curse and degrade each other while the most positive music ever produced in this country’s history is playing in the background.
- As a matter of fact we don’t need any of it... we can be just like the white folks and become "buppies" as we lose ourselves in a "desert of white powder" and become totally "sedated"... right??

Black folks did just what Lee Atwater wanted them to do and as a result a freedom movement and the music that was at the foundation of it was lost. The failure of Black people to "institutionalize" the positive culture they had created in the 70’s, led directly to it’s destruction. It opened the door for a subtle attack by Lee Atwater, resuling in the mainstream now defining what Black culture is (Gangsta Rap", "Smooth Jazz" and "Today’s R&B" )as opposed to Black people defining it for themselves.

Today we are left musically with the triple threat "horror story" of "Gangsta Rap", "Smooth Jazz" and "Today’s R&B" as the descendants of the music that literally ignited a culture during the 1970’s.

We can thank Lee Atwater for that.

I should add that in Europe the music scene - especially the ever popular if somewhat slippery electronica/house/dance/techno scene - still draws fairly heavily on what are clearly disco roots. I have heard at least one serious music critic treat it as the logical outcome of disco.

I never have really understood why disco failed. My father hated it in public and secretly kept a large Abba collection. I think he felt as ashamed as of it as his powder blue leisure suit. Yet, by all accounts disco was a very popular and successful style of music. If it lacked the larger meaning of "serious" music, so what? Nobody really wants to live in a world with nothing but heavy stuff. Disco was still alive in Europe when I first lived here in '89, so it was clearly not on its last legs artistically.

Of course, Europe didn't have Lee Atwater.

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Posted 2003/02/25 16:22 (Tue) | TrackBack