A high price to pay: “What’s Left?” November 2013, MRR #366

My parents were Polish immigrants, European refugees from the second World War, survivors of Hitler’s forced labor camps. My dad joined the US Army while in UN Displaced Persons camps. He and my mom traveled to America, became US citizens, and settled in San Bernardino at the time of this anecdote. Both my parents spoke English with heavy Polish accents and had only the most basic comprehension of American culture. My mom bought Mahalia Jackson’s vinyl album on Columbia, “Silent Night – Songs for Christmas,” around 1962. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember my mom playing that album over and over in a respectful reverie. A year later, somehow, somewhere, in San Bernardino, my mom managed to find out that Mahalia Jackson was performing in a Southern Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Watts, I think. She corralled my dad into taking our whole family, which included my sister, to drive to the performance.

I have only the vaguest of memories of the drive, of Watts, and of the church. I do, however, remember that we were the only white people in the entire event. I also remember that everybody, all the black people, were incredibly welcoming and polite to my parents, to us. And, I remember Mahalia Jackson singing live, her stupendous voice raising the hair on the back of my neck time and again. My parents had virtually no prejudice against black people at the time. They acquired some in the years afterwards, especially my mom. But, to this day, when I hear beautifully performed gospel singing, I’m roused, I get goose bumps, and my hair on the back of neck stands on end.

This happens even though I remember that Malcolm X once dismissed gospel music as slave music.

Music has always produced visceral responses in me but, unfortunately, I’ve acquired a few prejudices against certain types of music over the years. When I initially heard Beethoven’s brilliant symphonies, I was moved to tears. Yet I considered the music of Brahms to be treacle, despite understanding his virtuosity. Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix induced rapture when I first heard them. I dismissed the Grateful Dead as utterly moronic. Anything with a disco beat I think of as vacuous, and I like to quote Quentin Crisp that: “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference.” Before I came to love Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., I thought all country western music was inbred redneck hillbilly music. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols gave me such an adrenaline rush when I was introduced to punk. But music from the likes of the Cure or Spandau Ballet or Flock of Seagulls? Pour molten lead into my ears and put me out of my misery!

I’ve got wide ranging, eclectic musical tastes. But I also have rather strong, somewhat intolerant opinions about music. I’m trying not to be so judgmental, at least not so openly snide and derisive. Once, when I was reminiscing about the hippie music I used to listen to, I proudly proclaimed: “I drew the line at the Grateful Dead. They were fucking horrible musicians.” One woman in the conversation chided me back: “No one said the Dead were good musicians. That’s not why people followed them around. That’s not what they gave their fans.” That’s when I realized people listen to music for a variety of reasons, only one being the technical expertise and stellar musicianship of those playing said music. I’ve needed to ease up and back off when I praise certain kinds of music and critique others. What I listen to on Pandora isn’t necessarily what you listen to, so let’s give each other a break.

I’m off to Paris for a vacation. November, I sum up international insurrection over the past five years. December, I feature plans for the upcoming year. January, I do some longterm New Year’s resolutions. The last two columns are intended to be suggestive, jumping off points for more comprehensive work. At least, that’s the plan. There might be a surprise or two in the process.

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Western Civilization in Recline: “What’s Left?” November 2011, MRR #342

The jukebox was playing rock—music for civilizations to decline by, man.

Ross Macdonald, The Ferguson Affair (1960)

Steve Allen used to do this bit on his show in the early ‘60s where he would recite the lyrics to rock’n’roll songs as if they were serious poetry. Just imagine The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” treated thusly to realize how vapid the words to most rock music are. Allen was the liberal side of the attack on rock music in those days. He personally despised rock’n’roll, considered it juvenile and untalented, and thought it beneath contempt as music. Rock wasn’t art, nor would it endure the test of time. Yet this was a far cry from the conservative perspective that saw rock’n’roll as immoral, evil, and a threat to the fabric of society. Rock’s overt association with sex and drugs were a particular anathema; an explicit attack on American civilization born of the devil.

Today, of course, rock blares from fundamentalist Christian churches, and family values politicians illegally appropriate rock songs for their electoral campaigns, until sued by the musicians who created them. Roberto “Tax” Farano, guitarist for Negazione, wrote music for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, and The Clash’s “London Calling” is now the official jingle for the 2012 London Olympics. Not only is rock no longer a threat to the social fabric, punk rock has become, not representative of “the decline and fall of western civilization,” but a stellar example of its commercial success.

Me, I used to take pride in being a “barbarian at the gates” in the days of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and anarchy in the streets. I would have seconded John Sinclair’s contention that rock was the weapon of a thoroughgoing cultural revolution, if only to throw the fear of god-knows-what into my elders. Emotionally, I resonated with nihilism, which proclaimed the need to “annihilate the idea of God, or there can be no freedom; annihilate the idea of right, which is only might; annihilate civilization, property, marriage, morality, and justice; let your own happiness be your only law.”

I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I’ve come to appreciate many things about the American society I call home, as well as to respect much bestowed upon the world by the Dead White European Males held responsible for Western Civilization. Yes, I understand the sentiment of Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about western civilization, answered: “I think it would be a good idea.” After all western civilization is based upon rape, plunder, devastation and genocide. Show me a civilization that isn’t. But as for Buenaventura Durruti’s famous quote:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.
I have come to take his nonchalant attitude toward such wholesale destruction with several grains of salt.

I have no interest in seeing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Rodin’s The Kiss, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or Welles’ Citizen Kane, or the Chrysler Building obliterated, even if their destruction would herald the arrival of a stateless, classless, communist paradise. Images of Mao’s Red Guards rampaging during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, gleefully smashing the precious artifacts of China’s past, now sicken me no less than news footage of Afghanistan’s Taliban solemnly dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. That existence is emptiness means that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent. That life is meaningless demands that we create its meaning. Death and destruction are incredibly easy. Anything else is painful and hard.

An SF movie that I like is Cuarón’s Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel of the same name. It’s 2027, and no children have been born anywhere for almost two decades. In the face of humanity’s impending extinction, the world is fast collapsing into riot, terrorism, and environmental catastrophe. Britain alone survives, a bastion of stability, but at the cost of having become a police state that rounds up and imprisons immigrants seeking asylum. Nigel, the cousin of the film’s protagonist, Theo Faron, is a minister in the British government who is obsessed with collecting as many of humanity’s great artworks as possible, despite the fact that in less than a century, no one will be around to enjoy them. Michelangelo’s David stands in his foyer, with one leg shattered and splinted because Nigel was unable to snatch it before rioters attacked it. Nigel and Theo dine beneath Picasso’s Guernica. And out a window, amidst a landscape of industrial smokestacks, floats one of Pink Floyd’s inflatable flying pink pigs.

Street fighting spirit: “What’s Left?” April 2011, MRR #335

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
No

Written about British Pakistani New Leftie Tariq Ali, this tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones ditty remains a rousing anthem to a familiar type of political testosterone. I remember that, during the 1970 Isla Vista riots, a local record store hoisted massive speakers onto their roof and blasted “Street Fighting Man” full blast as students battled police in the winding streets of that soporific beach town. Covered by folks as diverse as Rod Stewart and the Ramones, the version done by Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine embodies the bombast, if not the fury, intended by the Stones.

An acquaintance once commented that politics is a young man’s game. From the Paris riots of 1968, which inspired my initial interest in politics, to the current Cairo riots, young people dominated the streets. And by young people, I mean young men. For while the 60s saw a considerable uptick of female participation in what, at the time, we all considered to be revolutionary activity, the campus occupations and street fighting were still a man’s world. Similarly, reports from Tahrir Square at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak uprising described a surprising sexual equality in the numbers participating in the occupation. But when Mubarak’s supporters, with the help of the secret police, assaulted the protesters with horses and camels, and then laid siege to the square with rocks, molotovs and guns, the complexion of the protest quickly changed to mostly male. Excuse me, but since I don’t give a flying fuck about what’s politically correct, I’m not beyond crediting biology for differences in strength, and testosterone for increased levels of aggression to account for the dominance of young men in street politics.

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Street politics is the crucial referent here. To be young, able to hurl abuse and more at the cops, then to outmaneuver and outrun their fat, riot-gear-encumbered asses; that’s what’s thrilling about being a street fighting man. It’s what, approaching 60, with bad feet and a bum knee, I can appreciate only vicariously, or as ever-receding personal memories. I mean, it’s not like I can’t participate in politics per se. Much like war, in which old men make the decisions while young men do the fighting and dying, politics entails the young in the streets and the old in the smoke-filled back rooms. But politics without the streets—the politics of meetings, deal making and compromise—was always an absolute bore to my way of thinking. So, that leaves me on the sidelines, taking in the only politics that truly matter—street politics—as a spectator sport.

Whether as a spectator or as a participant, being a partisan of those who take to the streets to fight the powers that be can produce a skewed view of things. Siding with rioters against the police is like being a Mets or a Red Sox fan in that you’re bound to be on the losing side most of the time. For every Cairo, there are ten thousand Tehrans. Yet such persistent defeat never seems to dampen an irrational optimism among sympathizers whenever and wherever rioting breaks out. I’m in a radical reading group whose ultra left members invariably go into paroxysms of adulation every time a bunch of students go on a rampage, break windows, block traffic, burn dumpsters, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This exercise in youthful excess, in turn, has been elevated to the absurd heights of a revolutionary strategy by the current crop of insurrectionary anarchists and left communists. Oddly however, Glenn Beck seems to be the only one serious about a specter of permanent insurrection, seeing in Egypt the hand of the Invisible Committee and “the beginning of ‘the coming insurrection.’”

Such surprisingly naïve enthusiasm, and sadly infantile rebellion, is far better than the opportunistic instrumentalism of much of the Leninist Left. When not considered cannon fodder for the party and the revolution, street politics are judged progressive so long as they strike a blow against US hegemony, and insurgents, whatever their political persuasion, are defined either as “objectively anti-imperialist” or in terms of “the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.” Thus, Leninists of various stripes defended the Islamic students who took American embassy personnel hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 as radical, even as those students pledged their undying loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite revolution.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Leave it to Leninism to squeeze all the juice, all the insurrectionary spirit, out of street politics. If the Left were honest, they would take Bakunin’s infamous remark that “the destructive urge is a creative urge” and admit that the destructive urge is sufficient unto itself. There is something absolutely elemental about the whirlwind of destruction unleashed by taking to the streets, and taking them away from the powers that be, even momentarily. We’re not talking about simple hormones here, but about something deeper, Freudian, archetypal; something that transcends human biology to reach what is essential to life. The desire to reduce illusions to ashes, power to shambles, civilization to smoking ruin must be seen in the light of the sheer aesthetic joy in the conflagration itself. It is the stuff of the demiurge, which in Christian mythology goes by the names Satan and Lucifer. Or, as it goes in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds,” which Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased upon witnessing humanity’s detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’ve communed with this deity of destruction perhaps a dozen times in my life thanks to my involvement in radical street politics. An intoxicating experience each time. Which is why this armchair stuff is such a drag.

The universal language of music: “What’s Left?” April 2009, MRR #311

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.

—Hank Williams

I hated country music.

I considered it the epitome of a reactionary, racist, redneck America I was doing everything in my power to rebel against in the ‘60s. The only parts of country music I had any respect for were those elements, like rockabilly, that owed a good deal of their success to black music. Even though I understood that rocknroll had emerged when rural blues and country music moved to the city, I argued that the only authentic basis for rock music was black music—the blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, early jazz, and swing. I tolerated folk music because, after all, it was the voice of my generation rooted in the working class struggles of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I’ll admit to having had a love for Buffalo Springfield that became an unhealthy indulgence in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. At the same time, I despised country as that white, whiny, “I got drunk, beat up my girl, got thrown in jail” cracker type of sentiment that was to Negro blues what white gospel was to black gospel. A pale imitation. I hated when the Byrds released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” under the influence of Gram Parsons. The twang of a pedal steel guitar made me cringe.

Then, I heard Hank Williams do “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Admittedly, I was at an impressionable moment in my life. I’d been dumped by a girlfriend of seven years, who’d moved out just days before. I was a little drunk, and very stoned. Hank’s plaintive vocals, the song’s deceptive musical simplicity, the forlorn lyrics all combined to take me in. I felt that song down to my bones. I got country music, for the first time.

Now, Hank himself had been no stranger to black music, having learned how to sing and play the guitar from Rufus “Teetot” Payne. Maybe his blues sensibilities were what allowed me to experience the plain, unvarnished sincerity that, at its best, is what country music is known for. This was before I got into punk rock of course, and well before I moved up to the Bay Area to start volunteering for that bastion of punk rock purity, Maximum Rocknroll.

By the time I moved to Oakland, I had a modest appreciation for certain country musicians—Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson— as well as for the subgenres of western swing, honky tonk, and the above mentioned rockabilly. The fact is, I enjoyed a wide variety of music, though not without discrimination. In classical music, it had to be Beethoven and after, with a particular interest in composers like Bartok, Copland and the like who incorporated folk themes into their music. It was Parker, Coltraine, Gillespie and Monk, be-bop and straight ahead jazz. I liked the Juju hi-life music of King Sunny Ade, the rai music of Cheb Khaled, the desert blues of Hamza El Din. Blue Oyster Cult circa 1972-74, and Metallica circa 1982-84. As for punk rock, I had a predisposition towards hardcore, though I really dug some of punk’s edges like Operation Ivy’s ska punk and The Cramps psychobilly.

Which is why I couldn’t take Tim Yohannan’s punk purism too seriously. To be fair, Tim judged what was punk on at least three separate levels. The music is the most obvious, and the most fundamental. Tim considered only the most basic, raw, and primitive rocknroll to be truly punk. His opinion led to his decision to purge MRR of several types of punk music because they were no longer punk enough. I’ll return to the subject of music in just a moment.

Tim also had political and social/cultural criteria for punk. He was no anarchist, but he considered some form of leftwing class politics to be essential to punk, in addition to the youthful rebelliousness that said to the world “fuck off and die.” Combine the latter with a “DIY or die” sentiment and you have what Tim considered to be the social/cultural basis for punk.

Having had some experience with the previous period of youthful rebellion and independent activity known as the 1960s, I heartily agree that these are, indeed, the social and cultural foundations to punk, or to any dynamic counterculture. But even though I came out of the ‘60s a hardcore politico, I know full well that most of my fellow “rebellious youth” of that day were monumentally apolitical, or at most they considered getting high on pot to be a supreme political act. I spent a decade in the punk scene in San Diego, going on two in the Bay Area’s scene, and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Most punks get their politics out of a 40-ounce bottle of cheap malt liquor. So, while youthful rebellion, nihilism, DIY independence, and general obnoxiousness are essential to punk, politics, let alone leftist politics, isn’t.

Which brings us back to the music. It’s impossible to conceive of the ‘60s without rocknroll, and the same is true for punk. In my opinion, this fact should be descriptive, not prescriptive. There are a number of reasons why a whole lot of effort should not be spent in trying to define or enforce what is punk, musically speaking. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it’s impossible to do. Tim once did an all-black cover of the magazine, with “The Bible” printed in large white letters above smaller lettering that read “of punk rock.” But when he tried to lay down the correct line on punk rock music, he spawned a half dozen contrary magazines, among them HeartattaCk, Punk Planet, Shredding Paper, and Hit List, all with their own, quite different, understandings of what punk was all about.

That’s because punk rock itself has several different origins, a variety of influences, and progeny too numerous to mention. As such, punk reflects the reality of most music in this country, which is subject to a high degree of cross-pollination and amalgamation. Take country music, which has its roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, with influences from the blues, rhythm and blues, Hawaiian slack key, and jazz. There’s just no way to have a pure type of music, even if it’s reduced to three-chord simplicity. The people who play, and compose, punk rock are themselves molded by influences outside of punk, which comes out in their music. Aside from the impossibility of boiling down punk rock to its essence, whatever that might be, the question becomes, why would anyone want to?

Music is a near universal source of enjoyment that frequently transcends culture and language. It’s absurd to limit one’s pleasure by insisting on listening to only one kind of music, and by insisting that that kind of music be further narrowed to a particular style. I look on all the years I disdained country music as outright foolishness. I could have kicked back, with a beer or a joint depending on what I was into at the time, and enjoyed some good tunes.

Lifesavers for a new life: “What’s Left?” March 2009, MRR #310

I moved to Oakland from San Diego in 1991. In my initial exploration of the Bay Area, I discovered two invaluable resources I relied on for many years to come. The first was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, printed both sides, in very small type, called the Bay Area Progressive Calendar. Produced by Ken Cheetham, it detailed every progressive event brought to its attention and offered, by mail, a directory of local progressive groups and organizations. Incredibly cool. I first encountered the Progressive Calendar in the free literature zone at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, and I made a point of seeking out this valuable little ecumenical leftie calendar.

The second was The List. In the day, it was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, folded widthwise, printed in colorful, incredibly small type, as a smart little four pager produced by Steve Koepke listing all the punk, hardcore, ska, rocakabilly, yada, yada, yada shows in the immediate Bay Area. Incredibly cool. I came upon The List at MRR HQ on Clipper Street, as a shitworker typing, scanning, and laying out the magazine’s now extinct Classifieds Section. I regularly attended shows back then, so I kept a copy of The List handy.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, so I can’t recall if these were weekly or monthly publications, or something in between. Both the Progressive Calendar and The List augmented their street presence with mailed subscriptions and, when it became common, emailed information. And both eventually dropped their physical distribution altogether to bookstores, record shops, political events, shows, and other venues. The Bay Area Progressive Directory and adjunct Calendar are now entirely web based, and can be found at bapd.org. The List still can be had via snail mail by writing The List, P.O. Box 2451, Richmond, CA 94802. You can also get it through email by writing to skoepke@stevelist.com. This information is obtainable online at calweb.com/~skoepke/, and several www versions of The List are available, most notably at foopee.com/punk/the-list/ and kzsu.stanford.edu/~calendar/orig_list.html.

The Progressive Calendar and The List were my lifelines when I moved to Oakland. They helped me get established and oriented, meet people, find things to do, and make the Bay Area my home. They required that I make an effort to go out and about to initially find them, and to subsequently keep track of them. Hunting down a copy of the Progressive Calendar or The List got me out of my tiny apartment to experience the weather, other people, the Bay Area in all its disappointing glory, and the real world. Eventually, I subscribed to both by mail, and I still occasionally refer to them online. What I miss though is that street presence, their physicality, the ability to walk into my local bookshop or record store and find them in with all the other free literature.

It’s the disappearance of a physical geography implied by the evolution of the Progressive Calendar and The List that most upsets me. Now, it’s all about an amorphous digital geography, which I found troublesome. Those who champion cyberspace and tout the virtues of the virtual would call me old fashioned, and point out how much more accessible and available both the Progressive Calendar and The List are, now that they’re online. No doubt, these are some of the same folks who defend CDs over vinyl, and MP3s over CDs.

Personally, I never could tell much of a difference between music on vinyl versus CDs. But I can hear the difference between MP3s and these previous media. The digital revolution is turning the music I like to listen to into low quality crap, much as it’s converting physical community into that sorry-assed excuse for human interaction called the online community. Anyone who has attended a real, live record swap, book fair, concert, or farmers market and then dares to compare them to the shadowy, flame-ridden, cowardly and anonymous, so-called community of your average online chatroom or forum deserves the lobotomy that prolonged internet exposure all but guarantees.

On an unrelated note, I did a column awhile back on political syncretism in general, and the rise of national anarchism on the fascist right in particular. Spencer Sunshine has written a comprehensive article on the latter, called “Rebranding Fascism,” for The Public Eye Magazine, available at publiceye.org/magazine/v23n4/rebranding_fascism.html. A rather anemic debate on the article took place on infoshop.org (news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20081220225130728), which has only reinforced my disdain for modern anarchism. Anarchists no longer have the cajones to defend their politics from such vile interlopers, and thus anarchism fully deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

National anarchists have established a nominal presence in the Bay Area, and they’ve already publicly attended an all-too-conventional, ANSWER-sponsored anti-AIPAC protest in San Francisco on December 11, 2008. Presumably, they also participated clandestinely in the anti-authoritarian bloc called by UA of the Bay for the equally stodgy January 10, 2009 ANSWER demo protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least the national anarchists advertised the call on their website. No one can tell what kind of anarchist you are, whether anarchist at all, if you’re dressed all in black and wearing a black bandana over your face. Australian national anarchists who’ve jumped into Leftist demos explain that “we cover our faces to protect us from the persecution of the other political groups.” Meaning, they dress anarchist in order to avoid getting their asses kicked by Leftists, and other anarchists. And rumor has it that black bloc participants in the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy on August 23, 2001 weren’t all anarchists or autonomists. Aside from the usual quota of police agent provocateurs, a number of young Italian fascists swelled the ranks of the black bloc, in the guise of national autonomists.

I’m looking forward to the day when a group of national anarchists openly try to join a regular local anarcho event, such as the ho-hum December 20, 2008 SF march in solidarity with Greek anarchists and the New School occupation. I bet that such an attempt will produce general consternation and confusion, not to mention much hand wringing. But in the end the regular anarchists will wimp out and let the national anarchists join in. Unchallenged. Any takers?

For someone who has just decried the pernicious effects of the digital over the real, I sure use a lot of internet sources.

UPDATE FOR 2014:

Most of the links mentioned in this column have held up quite well over the years. Can’t say the same for the postal addresses. Even more digital versions of The List can be found by simply googling.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

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