Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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From baby boomers to baby bombers: “What’s Left?” March 2010, MRR #322

What an incredibly fucked up, crazed and hysterical country we live in.

I’m not referring here to the latest, unsuccessful attempt by a young Nigerian man to blow up himself and an American airplane just as it landed in the US on Christmas. He was a kid, really, who zealously tried to follow an extreme Islamic religious sect the dictates of which he barely understood. He’s now being called the crotch bomber, underpants terrorist, and the like.

Mykel Board, eat your heart out.

The panic-stricken aftermath of this failed incident certainly reveals the eagerness with which Americans are willing to throw away their personal freedom and privacy for the Big Brother security state they ordinarily eschew with such vehemence. So long as they’re safe. A few more such failures, with the attendant public frenzy, and the Constitution will have been effectively suspended. That’s not my subject this column, however.

What caught my attention was an under reported story from November, 2009, that Santa Claus had finally been exposed as a child molester.

Well, not Santa himself. One of the volunteers who answered letters addressed to Santa at the “North Pole” turned out to be a registered sex offender. At first, the US Postal Service decided to cancel the whole “Dear Santa” operation. Then, the USPS reversed itself and resumed the program, with increased security to screen out the perverts.

This is a nation of goddamned idiots.

I’m not talking here about those rabid fundamentalist Christians who sanctify the embryo in the womb as human life, yet who insist that “to spare the rod is to hate the child.” These wingnuts demand that mommy and daddy be permitted, no, encouraged to beat their kids for the slightest infraction.

Instead, I’m talking about the normal members of society who put warning notices on music, videos, films, websites and just about everything else, yet who insist that teens and preteens be tried as adults for their crimes and who have no problem seeing kids on death row. I mean, if children are these incredible innocents who must be assiduously protected from an evil world, then why hold them responsible when that world succeeds in ultimately corrupting them?

It makes no sense.

Adults go to incredible lengths to control children, under the guise of watching over them. They institute dress codes in school so that kids are not allowed to see clothing with dubious messages, let alone gang attire. They use schools and cops to monitor and prosecute kids for what they say over their phones or post on the internet. They’ve even resorted to microchipping their own progeny, in order to track them, as an excuse to keep them safe. These same adults bewail the fact that, ultimately, technological progress thwarts them at every turn. Or, at least, it runs one step ahead of their efforts to keep the kids in line. Given that youngsters frequently know far more about everything software related, is it any wonder that they can run circles around their parents with respect to “parental controls” on their computers? Sexting and beatdowns are regular features of modern adolescent communication, all powered by iPhone 3G technology. And, you want to bet that somebody, somewhere is working out a clever hack to circumvent those pesky RFID chips, even as you read this?

Don’t get me wrong. I could spend column after column eviscerating fundamentalist yahoos, as when Lawrence O’Donnell ripped Patrick Buchanan, and his fellow über Catholic morons, a new asshole for supporting the Pope’s condemnation of abortion, while conveniently ignoring the Catholic Church’s equally strong denunciation of the death penalty. And I could spend endless column inches condemning the absurdity of the mainstream imbeciles who legislate that sex offenders can’t live anywhere near schools, parks and churches, and who then wonder why there are so many pedophiles living on the streets in major urban areas. The lunacy of my fellow citizens is endless, and endlessly amusing, yet this is about the kids.

It’s all about the kids.

Gregory Bateson took on one of the most famous behaviorists of his day, B.F. Skinner, for raising his kid in his notorious Skinner Box. Skinner’s premise was simple. Raise a child in a box so that you can control all the kid’s environmental inputs. Control those inputs and you control the final output, the nature and character, the thinking and action of the human being that emerges from that box. Bateson argued that this was impossible. The human brain, and by extension the human mind, is a black box. You can control the information that goes into that black box—the brain. But you cannot control what the brain does with that information, nor can you determine what emerges from that brain, that mind, that black box, that Skinner Box, in the end.

Bateson illustrated this by kicking a dog. A hypothetical dog. Kick that canine, and the dog follows a trajectory determined by Newtonian physics. But once the dog lands, its behavior is no longer predictable. The dog might run away, tail between its legs. It might turn back, and bite. It might skulk just out of reach, waiting for the opportunity to either attack or ask forgiveness. The argument from die-hard Skinnerians—that if we only knew all the factors and information that went into making the dog what it is we could accurately predict what the dog will do to any given stimulus—simply doesn’t hold water. You can’t know what goes on in the dog’s brain, how it processes the fact it was kicked, nor how it acts upon what it thinks about being kicked. You might be able to control all the information that goes into the dog’s brain, but you can’t control what meaning the dog makes of that information, or what it does based on that meaning.

Frank Zappa scared the bejesus out of the parents of the baby boomers when, in the June 28, 1968 issue of Life Magazine dedicated to “The New Rock,” he wrote: “If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot, what kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Before we ascribe to Zappa prescience in predicting the evolution of punk rock out of hippie rock per this quote, understand that he had absolutely no truck with the idea that music of any sort could make people do anything. He, among many others, fought Tipper Gore and her ilk tooth-and-nail, unsuccessfully attempting to stop “concerned parents” from slapping warning stickers on all sorts of music “to protect the children.” Now, the whole world has a warning sticker. When a string of murders associated with the horrorcore music scene hit the news, Mars, a Bay Area performer in that musical genre, repeated the popular horrorcore line: “Charles Manson was a Beatles fan.”

So, not only is technology outpacing parental control, even if adults could reliably use technology to effectively shackle their children, that wouldn’t guarantee control over what the kids think, or how they behave. After all, wasn’t that the point behind the 1950s mantra of prosperity and progress for the parents of the baby boomers. Think of the suburbs as the Eisenhower Era’s attempt at a Skinner Box, and then ask yourself how that turned out.

Returning to the Christmas bomber in conclusion, let’s now link Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with this column’s main topic. TSA’s response to his failed terrorist attack has been to deploy full body scanning technology that reveals virtually naked images of those individuals being scanned. But, of course, TSA has insisted that these scanners won’t be used on children, out of fear that this might violate child pornography laws. So, what’s al-Qaeda’s next logical step? To strap explosives to babies going on airplanes in order to commit terrorist acts.

From baby boomers to baby bombers in one fell swoop.

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