July 6, 2012
By Aaron Belz
The formula for political rhetoric is nonpartisan. Compare President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech to President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, spoken from the same platform four years earlier. Both began by acknowledging that the United States was facing economic and political danger, trumpeted our nation’s most cherished virtues and concluded with the same basic message: “We’ll climb out of this mess the way we always have: with courage, hard work, and cooperation.”
Political diction is universal, too. Obama, after citing “the winter of our hardship,” concluded, “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon [etc.]”
Marketing professionals know that phrases like “nor did we falter” and “carried forth” instill confidence in listeners, a sense of, “Don’t worry. We got this.” Look at any Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan or Carter speech, and you’ll find essentially the same approach.
But the reality of the four-year term is never as inspiring as the rhetoric. Trouble presses, ratings rise and fall. When election time rolls around, after many of our domestic and diplomatic problems have not only remained but morphed and multiplied, it’s time for another inspirational speech. It’s time for progress, compassion, prosperity, results—for “change we can believe in.”
This cycle fosters cynicism, but it also provides context for writers like Bob Dylan to create some of their greatest work. Since his first few albums, Dylan has used poetry to question political realities—almost 50 years of questioning, from “Masters of War” and “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” to more recent efforts such as “Everything Is Broken” and “It’s All Good.”
“It’s All Good” begins privately: “Talk about me babe, if you must / Throw on the dirt, pile on the dust.” Then, as if on the same plane of concern, he continues, “Big politician telling lies / Restaurant kitchen all full of flies.” Dylan’s been crossing these planes from the beginning of his career, mixing romantic love and absurdist parables with indictments of political hypocrisy.
But “It’s All Good,” which came out in 2009, suggests a Bob Dylan with a revised worldview. Unlike his early songs of protest and social concern, which are more us-versus-them, hippies-versus-the man, his recent songs recognize brokenness more pervasive. Us-versus-us, one might say, or perhaps even total depravity. “It’s All Good” continues,
leavin' their husbands, they beginning to roam
They leave the party and they never get home
I wouldn't change it, even if I could
You know what they say man, it's all good
Then he hits his typical range of social concern—people “so sick, they can hardly stand” in one verse and in the next, “The widow's cry, the orphan's plea.” In the next stanza, “the man” looks differently than he did earlier in Dylan’s writing; the phrase “cop cars blinkin’” is paired with a “cold-blooded killer / stalking the town.”
Bob Dylan, at least since Infidels, has been more concerned with nation and justice than with merely calling attention to hypocrisy and official evil. This is the sympathetic Dylan, the spiritual Dylan, more like Solzhenitsyn than Mailer. “I’ll pluck off your beard and blow it in your face,” Dylan concludes:
tomorrow I'll be rolling in your place
I wouldn't change a thing even if I could
You know what they say, they say it's all good
The problem, in the end, is not them; it’s us. Dylan himself confesses, “I wouldn’t change it even if I could.” We’re the ones going around saying, “It’s all good,” like the soothsayers in Jeremiah 8:11 who “have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.”
If only there were a way to replace the bravado of American political rhetoric with the humble irony of later Dylan albums—now that would be change we could believe in.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).