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Kodo and the Republicans


The political discipline of the right is equally sinuous. Like the Kodo drummers, their beat is steady, their timing crisp. Their honed syncopation looks effortless, but I know it isn’t.

The centerpiece of a Kodo performance is the O-Daiko, a massive drum that was once the center of village life in Japan. Its traditional purpose was to keep villagers on task and close by. The sound of the O-Daiko defined the perimeter of the village.

President George W. Bush is the right’s O-Daiko drummer. Not a creative drummer or especially practiced, he is steadfastly reliable, with a firm cadence. From last August through February he pounded out a single, loud and steady beat: Saddam Hussein must go. He never missed that beat.

OK now, if the Bush administration and the religious right are the Kodo drummers of American politics, what is the instrumentation of the political left? Well, certainly no disciplined ensemble.

Progressives believe in historian Arthur M. Schlesinger’s pendulum. The pendulum — that marvelous invisible hand in American politics, driven by Newtonian physics — absolves us from the need for discipline.

Good thing, too.

We don’t care for discipline. Haven’t since the ’60s. When Hillary Clinton made her reference to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” she tipped our hand. That’s how we think about it: Discipline smacks of conspiracy.

And in a refined sense, it is. Over the past four decades, the American right has appropriated the successful tactics of the civil rights movement, which organized through churches. Thanks to the First Amendment, churches have a privileged place in the United States: They are not exactly public or private, neither exclusive nor wholly inclusive.

Through churches, the religious right in America practices the drumbeat every week at Sunday services, prayer services and potlucks. They get things done. We on the left prefer to read a book, hike in the woods, attend a Kodo concert. We take weekends off.

The pendulum will take care of things! After all, it helped us elect Bill Clinton — that self-described Eisenhower Republican — twice!

Before 9/11, this lack of discipline may have served well enough. The core value of 21st-century progressivism, after all, is diversity. And the simplest means for achieving discipline was limiting diversity. The end did not justify the means.

But we follow 9/11. The Wolfowitz doctrine of remaking the world in the image of our wounded democracy is a threat that cannot, must not, be ignored. How can we enjoy our diversity at home when our nation’s leaders threaten to eliminate diversity throughout the world, by force?

On the day that the proxy for Saddam Hussein’s head rolled down the streets of Baghdad, a friend mused: Arthur Schlesinger had better come through with the goods, and soon. He won’t. He can’t. Schlesinger was wrong. There is no pendulum. Newtonian physics doesn’t apply. Gravity and a brief misstep by the right won’t move the nation left.

But it can be done. What we need is discipline and a few hours each week in church or a café, or a meeting hall. And we need a really big drum. S

Mark L. Hineline is a historian at the University of California, Riverside and San Diego campuses. He lives in Escondido, Calif. This essay appeared on Tom Paine (www.tompaine.com)

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