A couple of years ago, BB&T — the bank whose black monolith starkly dominates Asheville's skyline — dangled a generous donation in front of Western Carolina University in exchange for teaching Ayn Rand's fundamentalist capitalism. Yet Rand was also a high-profile, militant atheist who called Christianity “the kindergarten of communism." If that fact became better known here in the “belt buckle of the Bible Belt,” BB&T might lose a multitude of Jesus-worshiping customers.
A more recent example of this ironic contradiction occurred last November, when the Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to allow developments bigger than even the 160,000 square foot BB&T behemoth to be erected without Council review. The sole vote opposing this anti-democratic, anti-community (and, thus, anti-Christian) approach came from Cecil Bothwell — Council’s lone atheist. Ayn Rand would have loved it.
Both these events illustrate the central argument of my new book, Liberating Liberals: "Liberals can run intellectual circles around conservatives." This is true mainly because conservatives simultaneously follow a first-century, fundamentalist religion that commands self-sacrificial community, and an 18th-century, fundamentalist economics that demands just the opposite — self-interested individualism.
Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on fundamentalist thinking. Remember the Rev. Ralph Sexton’s "One Nation Under God" billboards that caused such a stir awhile back? They came in response to the "One Nation Indivisible" billboards partly funded by the WNC Atheists. Both groups were trumpeting fundamentalist theories about the existence (or nonexistence) of God, alongside a freeway named for Billy Graham — Buncombe County's, America's and perhaps planet Earth's most famous fundamentalist.
Freethinking's boundless boundaries
Still, my book’s premise is that liberals (meaning everyone to the left of Republicans) are this society’s freethinkers, following Socrates’ delicious dictum: "Know that you don't know." This, of course, often makes for hard choices with no right answer — except that liberals need to stretch themselves to generously empathize with one another's hard choices.
One of the main tools Liberating Liberals uses to combat fundamentalisms of every sort is Friedrich Nietzsche's exploration of meaninglessness. Although liberals love meaning as much as conservatives, we tend to be more flexible about which meanings we select. Just look at our collective responses to another of the Rev. Sexton’s campaigns: the “We Still Pray” rallies and bumper stickers. In response, local liberals began displaying bumper stickers declaring "We Still Play … Read … Chant … Work Magic" and even "Pray: Five Times a Day." Yet a true freethinker also understands that excessive adherence to meaning can severely inhibit thought.
Thus, liberals easily saw through Tiger Woods’ sponsorship of The Cliffs at High Carolina, an environment-trashing golf development spanning Swannanoa and Fairview. The resort takes advantage of a status-seeking obsession concerning an earth-based heaven requiring only the anemic exercise of riding through manicured, pesticide-laden meadows, stopping periodically to try to knock a little ball into distant holes. Tiger’s personal turmoil aside, his “inspirational” message, looming over the interstate, provided an ironic counterpoint as the local economy inevitably saw itself dragged down by the global malaise.
Let them eat greenbacks
In December, the Asheville metro’s unemployment rate was officially pegged at 7.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but unofficially it was much higher. Kurt Vonnegut, a key player in Liberating Liberals’ philosophical synthesis, explained this frightening phenomenon in his novel Timequake:
“There was a planet where little green people with one eye in the center of their foreheads could get food only by selling goods and services. The planet ran out of customers, and no one could figure out anything intelligent to do about it. So all the little green people starved to death.”
Meanwhile, every Buncombe County commissioner except Holly Jones recently maintained that their hefty salaries were appropriate, as if mocking their electorate's economic suffering. Soon after, however — when the political fallout became glaringly obvious — these same people publicly executed a daring, triple-axel flip-flop. It was Groucho Marx — another of my book's principal guides — who quipped: "These are my rock-hard principles! But if you don't like them, I have others."
The tree museum
Readers of my work know I tirelessly embrace the absolute morality of Gandhi — the last of my book's spirit guides — in ranting against development and population growth. And living in Asheville, I never seem to run out of suitable targets. Among the more recent developmental atrocities are the ransacking of Reynolds’ once-majestic, now-mangy Mountain and the destruction of a rare urban-forest sanctuary bordering Broadway and Catawba streets to make way for The Health Adventure's ludicrously ironic “environmental” museum. So I've tended to dig in my self-righteous, absolute-morality heels.
Is this overly rigid of me? Naw. Maybe…
After all, I do enjoy urban spelunking in the new Hotel Indigo, and I probably would have done likewise in The Ellington or Tony Fraga's twin towers — proposed local monstrosities that didn’t get built (or not yet, anyway). So should I compromise, retreating into Machiavelli’s wispy relative morality? Naw.
— Asheville resident Bill Branyon will discuss his new book, Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche and Jesus, Vonnegut and Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi and Machiavelli, Sunday, March 13, at 3 p.m. at Malaprop’s in downtown Asheville.