05/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Across the Great Divide

A bunch of arugula or a mug of beer? Newsweek's recent cover choice to symbolize the difference between Obama and Clinton could scarcely be more glaring. Enough ink has been spilled over the irony -- to put it generously -- of Clinton's metamorphosis into a working-class heroine. But with a Republican candidate backed by a beer heiress, those of us who tend to order chardonnay will be put on the defensive come autumn, and it's time to get to work now. Not four years after Barack Obama's convention speech imploring us to believe that states don't come in colors, the meltdown into red and blue threatens the newborn democratic processes that lifted our spirits just a few weeks back. Is there a neutral way to describe the culture wars without engaging in them? Blue states think urban while red states think country, blue states talk rights while red states talk values, blue states drink wine while red states drink beer, blue states quote everything else while red states quote the Bible, blue states have irony while red states have sentiment, blue states go for Bob Dylan and red states for Johnny Cash.

Their joint album Nashville Skyline provoked far more outrage than Dylan's electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Though it seemed like a bolt out of nowhere, the two men's interest in each other went back far and deep. Which of us giggling over the hillbilly tune at summer camp imagined that Dylan and Cash were whooping it up with "Mountain Dew" in Nashville, writing the delightfully ambiguous "Wanted Man" together, or doing private duets of each other's greatest hits? It's all on the outtakes, but there were public tributes too. Cash was the first major voice to tell Dylan's early critics to "shut up, he knows what he's doing," and called him "the greatest writer of our time" to an audience at San Quentin prison. Dylan called Cash "the North Star; you could guide your ship by him -- the greatest of the greats then and now."

Is it an accident that both of the excellent recent movies devoted to each man ignored the part of their lives that defies national stereotypes? It just didn't fit. Dylan was the self-conscious intellectual. Who before him thought of putting Einstein, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot into a rock song, and that at a time when nobody even used words with as many syllables as "desolation"? Dylan took the fierce and liberating erotics of popular music and mixed it with reflection, and nearly bottomless irony. Suddenly you didn't have to choose between body and soul. Decades later, some critics still suggested that his turn to country music was the result of brain damage caused by the motorcycle accident, ignoring his claim that "the smallest line in the new album means more to me than some of the songs on any of the albums I've made." The song he wrote much later with Willie Nelson to express their fears that the American dream was coming apart was buried, for most Dylan fans, on one of Nelson's albums, just as the 2004 tour they did together through a series of minor-league baseball parks got no national press.

Let me be fair to die-hard blue-staters like my earlier self. Contrary to what red-staters often allege, it wasn't just a matter of coastal elitism. There were -- and are -- wars raging, and racism was -- and is -- an issue. Whatever the private convictions of its stars, country music was very white, and red states were places where crosses were not only brandished but burned well into the '60s. There were better reasons than snobbery to be suspicious of the culture -- and to feel betrayed by the fact that the man who had shared a stage with Martin Luther King was now crooning away with the icon of the country world. We remembered the songs Cash wrote for Vietnam veterans; how could we know he would choose to play abolitionist John Brown on television? Nor do I imagine that red-staters were keen to embrace a Jew from the North Country whose wild early years were followed by the quests for faith of a man not afraid to admit he was lost, and would probably go on seeking all his life.

But the wheel, as he told us, was still in turn, and what Dylan and Cash did so gracefully forty years ago should serve as our model. Their work contains a vision of America that embraces enough of each part of the equation to make them add up, and not divide. Here is part of Dylan's obituary for Cash:

"Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing."

Both men's generosity towards those from whom they learned was profuse and open-hearted. The ability to offer exuberant praise is a particularly American talent -- one thing that sometimes makes others think we're naïve. It's part of a moral directness that could lead Dylan to write that though he was profoundly influenced by Brecht's Threepenny Opera, he was appalled that "there was no love for people in it." Unlike Brecht's, Dylan describes his own songs as "written to the glory of man and not to his defeat."

Dylan is right to call his values archaic. His fearlessness about sentiment, in particular about moral sentiment, cannot be found in a world read through the glass of suspicion. And the absence of suspicion may leave blue-staters as perplexed as the unabashed patriotism made clear in his Chronicles: "Being born and raised in America, the country of freedom and independence, I had always cherished the values and ideals of equality and liberty. I was determined to raise my children with those ideals." Isn't this the sort of language we've had to endure these last years from the White House? Archaic values, ideals you can touch - what's to distinguish this sort of moral rhetoric from the absolutist poison radiating from Washington?

There are long and sophisticated answers to this question, but you needn't be long or sophisticated to call a hypocrite a hypocrite. The men in the White House have been lying, and next to the wreckage of lives in Iraq the most enduring damage they have wrought has been the speeded-up corrosion of the idea of value itself. Bush's call for moral clarity is a travesty of both words.

Cherishing the world that's centered in Nashville does not mean idealizing it. Like early folk and gospel, country music's appeal is its absence of cool, its claim on a part of us deeper than fashion. But like anything else, unashamed sentimentality can be part of a pose. Not every red state expression of sentiment is genuine, and not every blue state expression of skepticism is caustic, but the greatest songs of Dylan and Cash achieve a mighty balance between both. Their works, taken together, are variations on the national anthem. Or so Johnny Cash suggested in "From Sea to Shining Sea," a 1967 recording of "America the Beautiful."

That song has one line I find myself dwelling on in the last few years: "God shed His grace on thee." The line can sound like a desperate plea. Grace is something that can't be deserved, which led another songwriter to call it amazing. Like any of us individual mortals, America hasn't earned grace, but we need it just because of that.

But while I've found myself hoping for grace these days, Johnny Cash said we've already got it. According to Cash, God did shed his grace on America, and we need to be reminded of the gifts we were granted. To the landscapes celebrated in the original hymn Cash adds two more: Guthrie, Oklahoma, and Hibbing, Minnesota, the town where Dylan was born. Grace we have, Cash insisted: all we need now is brotherhood.

Isn't it time to listen again to some of our best voices? Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan: put the two together, and you get the American dream.