Harlan Ellison’s Influence Beyond SF

Harlan Ellison is a fiction writer I’ve known about for many years.  I haven’t read him in a while and I’m only generally familiar with what he has written, but to the extent I’m familiar with his career I consider him a worthy writer and thinker.  He influenced the field of SF greatly and is particularly famous for an anthology he edited.  He was friends with the likes of Philip K. Dick, and I must admit I’d loved to have been around to hear those two having a conversation.

Anyways, my point for mentioning Ellison isn’t merely his greatness in the world of SF.  I happened across someone writing about him in another context.  This person claimed him as being his major influence as a blogger.  I’ll post the piece here in its entirety for I only could find it in Google cache.

The Broadband Teat: a blog by AustinCynic

Sarah Palin and the Conservative Cult of the Common Man

I must begin with a word about my “blogfather,” the blogger who has influenced me more than any other. It’s not Markos Moulitsas, or Jeff Tiedrich, founder of The Smirking Chimp, which I used to frequent back in the day; it’s not Joe Conason, Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uyger or Robert Schlesinger, all of whose observations I find intelligent and insightful. It is Harlan Ellison. The same Harlan Ellison who does not have his own website– though the excellent but unofficial site Ellison Weberland (www.harlanellison.com) comes pretty close–the same Harlan Ellison who, for all I know, still writes on a manual typewriter.

For about three and a half years, from late 1968 to early 1972, Ellison wrote a column for the long-defunct Los Angeles Free Press entitled “The Glass Teat” and it was primarily about television. Indeed, a great deal of fun reading the book are reviews of now-classic shows both outstanding (Ellison writes a review of the pilot for All In the Family, at that time titled Those Were the Days), and campy (his review of The Partridge Family in its entirety was “Mother of God”). I first read the two-volume collection of these columns at 13, and what resonated with me as a teen in Reagan’s America were Ellison’s prophetic political observations in the age of Nixon and Agnew, and his warnings both about Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, as well as to not underestimate the power of the “Silent Majority.” I don’t know if Harlan had read Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority, written just before “The Glass Teat” started its run, but Ellison and Phillips are to me two sides of the same coin, with Phillips laying out the road map for precisely that which Ellison feared would come to pass: that the working-class whites who backed Nixon and Wallace in 1968 would work to roll back the New Deal and the progressive legislation that followed. Especially the Civil Rights Act and the measures growing out of it, including The Great Society. Ellison was a blogger before there were blogs.

Perhaps none of the “The Glass Teat” columns has stayed with me so strongly as two from October 1969 on “The Common Man,” Harlan’s reaction to a two-hour episode of The David Susskind Show which featured a panel of working-class white men deemed to be representative of Nixon’s Silent Majority. All of them had families, all of them were the sole breadwinners of their families, making between about $45,000 and $56,000 a year in today’s dollars ($8,000 to $10,000 in 1969) working one or two jobs. In watching Sarah Palin on the campaign trail these last five weeks, and especially after the debate Thursday, I came to the stark realization that not only have the GOP’s arguments to these voters has changed little in 40 years, in nominating Sarah Palin they have put a member of “The Silent Majority” on the ticket. Sarah Palin is the goddess of the conservative Cult of the Common Man.

For example, guess who might have said the following: “I have absolute faith in the Pentagon. I believe they are the only ones qualified to set their budget.” If you guessed Sarah Palin, or even John McCain, I couldn’t blame you; in fact it was Frank Mrak, one of the Susskind panelists. But it easily could have come out of the mouths of either person on the GOP ticket.

“It’s the Liberal mafia that keeps this war from being won.” Again, this was a Susskind panelist by the name of Paul Corbett rather than McCain or Palin, but didn’t Sarah Palin say more or less the same thing on Thursday night?

We have a cherished myth in this country, one that states that ordinary, inherently pure outsiders can storm the halls of power and make things better for the country, unlike the entrenched fatcats who have forgotten their roots. This scenario has been played out time after time in movies ranging from Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the more recent Dave.  Both are movies I happen to enjoy a great deal but reality is much messier. Though I would not call George W. Bush a common man, he likes to play one on t.v. and embodies many of their attitudes. How well has he done over the last 8 years?

Sarah Palin is, if anything, worse. Joe Conason, in his current Salon column, says she represents the dumbing down of the GOP. I submit that it is more than that. She represents the final step from merely pandering to “Joe Sixpack” to handing him the reigns of power. Like some latter-day Mr. Smith she plans to turn Washington around with her homespun wisdom and spunk, but Gov. Palin, you are no Jefferson Smith.

Ellison puts it best, and I cannot improve upon it:

“The Common Man is no longer merely as outdated as the passenger pigeon. He is a living menace. He is the man who votes for [George] Wallace because Wallace offers him easy cop-out solutions to the fears his feels. He is the man who thinks everybody can earn a living. He is the man who…believes there is no such thing as prejudice. He is the man who believes in what affects him, what he sees, or what is most consistent with the status quo that will keep him afloat. The time for worshipping The Common Man is past. We can no longer tolerate him, or countenance his stupidity.”

I have hope that this might be finally getting through to the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats that began abandoning the party in 1968, or at least that this is getting through to their children. My household is firmly in the range of what the Susskind panelists made, and we can barely support ourself on that. Even when you insist on voting against your economic interests at every turn, reality and its liberal bias can slap you in the face, and foreclosure and homelessness is a hard slap indeed.

Instead of being taken in by folksiness, hockey mom anecdotes, and fear-mongering, instead of worrying whether a candidate is “too smart” to be president, maybe we’d better consider whose intellect is best suited for the job. Folksiness and small-town spunk won’t get us out of the mess we’re in.

Harlan Ellison put it best in the conclusion to his two-part column:

“If we are to continue living in this doomed world, if we are to save ourselves, we must kill off the Common Man in us and bring forth the Renaissance Man.”

2 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison’s Influence Beyond SF

  1. Excellent, excellent column. I’m late to this, as I just happened to stumble across it on an internet search, but it’s pertinency has not diminished at all, sadly.

    I recall very clearly reading Harlan’s “Common Man” pieces. Dear God, if he could have but known back then that we were only on the tip of the iceberg of “The Common Man’s” abysmal fear-driven political stupidity, as well as the tip of the iceberg in the Republican’s harnessing and of it to truly horrifying effect in the present.

    • The “Common Man” is like the “Real American”. Both are equally fictitious… or at least they are fictitious today. I don’t know about decades ago, but the “Silent Majority” in reality doesn’t support right-wing positions. I have some doubts that most average Americans ever supported the far right loons.

      That would be my only criticism. These fictions are persuasive. As political narratives, they do help win elections. But the data I’ve seen doesn’t support them. I don’t want to blame average people for false portrayals made of them by cynical politicians.

      It’s true the actual common man isn’t a genius. However, neither is the common many as stupid as right-wing leaders and pundits would like to believe (or like others to believe). I think it’s ultimately about knowledge. The school system and the mainstream media fail in informing the common man (or, if you prefer, succeed in misinforming the common man). That said, on the rare occasions when given correct information, the common man is often able to come to intelligent conclusions and make intelligent decisions.

      I’ve written in great detail about the polling data on what Americans actually believe. It contradicts what is normally heard reported in the mainstream media.


      A bit earlier in the 20th century, Richard Hofstadter discussed many of the problems he perceived with the common man: anti-intellectualism, the paranoid type, etc. Hofstadter wrote a book that was critical of the Populist Era. Populism is the politics of the common man.

      I’m of mixed opinion about the common man. I don’t want to idealize nor demonize the common man. People are just people, just trying to get by. People are busy trying to survive, to pay bills and feed their families. The common man is merely a barometer of how good or bad a society is. The common man isn’t in the position to challenge the lies or even to know they are lies that need to be challenged. Propaganda is very effective (Chomsky discusses the propaganda model of media). I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame people for falling victims to the most effective propaganda program in all of history.

      Rather than the “Common Man”, I would direct my criticism to the common conservative, i.e., the GOP base. Research shows that conservatives and Republicans do have on average lower IQs than liberals and Democrats. Furthermore, most scientists, academics and other highly educated people self-identify as liberals. So, it is an accurate statement to say the conservative movement isn’t based on intelligence.

      When conservatives speak of the “Common Man”, they aren’t actually talking about the “Common Man”. They’re simply talking about conservatives and more specifically about far right conservatives. The criticism of the “Common Man” needs to be directed at the real source of the problem.

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