Elvis And Sputnik Are Still Fighting It Out In Our Heads

All stories are true; some even happened. The American story has happened schizophrenically, with its very first settlers a mixed bag of brains and brawn. A division among us which has helped shape our national psyche throughout the centuries.

In the 20th, conventional wisdom reported a particularly schizoid split in the Woodstock Sixties. For the better or the worse, depends on which side of the split you stood. But once again conventional wisdom was wrong, for perhaps an even more epic split had already erupted in the Pleasantville Fifties. A pair of dueling icons: Sputnik [brains] and Elvis [brawn]. What’s more, the icons still duel in our heads today.

In 1957 the Soviet Union shocked us out of our post-war supremacy by getting their sputnik into orbit before we did. About that same time, a singer named Elvis shocked us out of our white-bread-ballads with let-it-all-hang-out rock n roll. At first, most Americans disliked both arrivals.

Actually, the two would unleash old genies that had been dueling in our heads from the get-go. Sputnik stirred the nation’s brain [new appeal to the rigors of math & science] while Elvis stirred its brawn [revived appeal of the rawness of feelings & freedom]. In effect, re-booting the old cultural counterpoint between — what shall we call it? — genius-America and gusto-America.

Looking back, consider the way Eastern bankers and Western gunslingers, campus academics and campus jocks, Silicon Valley performers and Hollywood performers have each written the American story in such opposite ways. In effect, the Fifties were mostly a new edition to America’s long-standing schizophrenia: Always admiring but resenting our best minds all at the very same time.

In politics that’s been a recurring problem for high-IQ pols like John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Adlai Stevenson, and George McGovern. Meanwhile, press-the-flesh pols like Andrew Jackson, Warren Harding, and Ronald Reagan have done much better. Today’s campaign re-echoes this story as both candidates try to satisfy both the brainy and the brawny side to a fickle electorate.

In the coming months, track the campaign-ads. study the fact-checkers. trawl the gaffe-counters. analyze the TV-debates. There will be an avalanche of information and dis-information from both sides. Behind it will be two teams of experts each trying to find that magic chord voters love to hear. The sound of a really smart guy with some really smart answers to our messy problems.


He can’t sound too smart, look too smart, act too smart. Instead, he has to be able to present us with an easy-to-understand package of smart answers while at the same time sharing a back-slapping cup of coffee with us at Emily’s diner in the morning, and a bottle of beer at Gus’s saloon in the evening. You know, sputnik-genius side by side with Elvis-gusto.

Almost sounds like casting for a billion-dollar movie. Come to think of it, it IS!

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  • Using your dichotomy, one could argue that the American Revolution was justified by "brains" but ultimately won by "brawn".

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I think you could make a case for that

  • If there is any analogy between 2012 and 1957, it would be that now we have incomprehensible rap on beer ads (and the fitness center running a cable music channel with repeated incompressible Katy Perry every 10 minutes) and, according to The Economist, Putin has learned how to model his political methods on Chicago (gerrymandering, for which the article gives the U.S. credit, and legally disqualify your opponents way before the need to stuff the ballot box).

    Then I heard the first "call Joe Walsh and tell him..." ad yesterday. If that doesn't show that brains are not going to be part of this year's campaign (at least on the part of the independent PACs), nothing does.

  • Alas....we have so many scarecrows in our electorate, there simply are not enough brains to go around! I know from trying to teache US History for 40 years...

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