Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fading of the radical spirit

[Continuing my previous Stonewall themes, the following remarks respond to the sense of disappointment that some veterans of that remarkable era have expressed that its radicalism has faded.]

One of Constantine Cavafy’s poems, written long after the fact, evokes the “days of 1909, 1910, 1911.” For many of us of a certain age living today the days of glory came some sixty years later: 1968, 1969, 1970. (Contrary to rumor, I was not around in 1909-11.) The year 1968 saw the uprisings in Paris and at Columbia University in New York; 1969, Stonewall; while 1970 confirmed that these events were not mere flashes in the pan, but indicators of a profound shift in the ethos of our advanced industrial society.

Closer analysis suggests that this shift had two aspects. The first consisted of a fundamental transformation in the deep structure of consciousness, which even in different circumstances would surely have come. This was the change from the culture of conformity to the culture of expressivity. In the ethos of conformity one had carefully to adhere to rigid dress and language codes. Gratification was best delayed. And of course anyone with an inclination to sexual nonconformity had best conceal it as much as he or she could. It was the era of the closet, par excellence.

The deplorable conformism of this era--essentially the period from the end of WW II until the death of President Kennedy in 1963--was well displayed in a scene in the recent film “Revolutionary Road.” In this vivid piece of orchestration a vast army of hatted businessmen, all the same, with no women present, advance in lockstep, having come from their ticky-tack suburban homes by train to the vast concourse of Grand Central Station.

Anticipated by the Beatnik writers, the contrasting culture of expressivity came on strong in the sixties. In the new dispensation, personal satisfaction became the paramount value. The point was to “do one’s own thing.” Each individual was supposed to choose a personal lifestyle. Little matter that millions of others had also chosen that same “personal lifestyle,” more or less. The thing was to avoid being a square at all costs; it was mandatory to be “groovy.” So it is not surprising that in those seemingly happy-go-lucky days open gayness became more accepted (though certainly not universally so). In the new era of expressivity, it was different strokes for different strokes.

Alongside these deep-structure shifts, which continue to permeate our lives, was a series of contingent factors. Among these factors were the maturation of the civil rights movement, the emergence of the women’s and Hispanic movements, the novelty of drugs, and the revulsion against the Vietnam war that was felt almost universally. Many advocates of social change were heartened by the emergence of liberation groups in Latin America, Algeria, Kenya, Angola and other countries emerging from the blight of colonial domination (only to find in the sequel that there was a new blight of corruption and factionalism). In the US, the continuing turmoil culminated in an extraordinary event: the palace revolution that deposed Richard Nixon.

Exciting as these developments were at the time, they pale in comparison with the fundamental shift of consciousness that replaced the culture of conformity with the culture of expressivity.

When I hear laments about the loss of the radicalism of forty years ago, I am doubly skeptical. In terms of the deep structure there is no need (or little need) for further change. In fact, as I reel in the face of the Michael Jackson mania I can’t help wondering if things have not gone too far. (Maybe my own conformist roots are showing.)

By contrast, the contingent phenomena are not destined to recur, certainly not in the combination we experienced in those glorious days of 1968, 69, and 70. As it became clear that George W. Bush was determined to launch his unnecessary and disastrous war on Iraq, I started marching and attending candlelight vigils. Alas, the inspiring days of opposition to the Vietnam war were not to recur.

Trips down memory lane are appealing, I agree. They may even be a necessary journey in terms of sorting out one’s ideas. But it is no good mourning past glories which are never going to be repeated, because, in one key respect,they are already here with the accomplishment of the deep structural shift. Despite the culture wars they have waged, social conservatives have not been able change this. There are signs that they are finally getting used to the change,

By contrast, there is no current basis for recurrence of the second set of factors, the contingent ones I outlined above. Hopefully, we will move towards decriminalization of the more harmless “controlled substances.” But the glamor of drugs has gone. And the fascination with newly independent third-world countries has given way to a sense of despair: will they ever emerge from their poverty and corruption? It is almost superfluous to remark that HIV/AIDS has made the sexual revolution problematic. All these changes have induced a sense of proportion--but they have not reversed the shift in consciousness I outlined.

And of course there is something fundamentally new, not even glimpsed forty years ago. The Internet and other digital developments are of monumental significance. To judge from the “digital natives” I know, young people nowadays have a very different sense of time, one that is radically compressed. It all starts, I think, with video games. I found my current partner on the Internet, and this--not the gay bars and baths of yore--is now the primary venue. Thus far, though, I do not see any great changes in the realm of sex, at least not gay sex. Not to be too gross about the matter, fellatio will never go out of style. What is happening, I think, are major changes in the technology of birthing: older women having babies, embryos being transplanted, and so forth. These changes may lead to new concepts of custody in which traditional claims of parental rights are replaced by a new, more diffuse sense of custody of minors.

NOTE. At the time of the great shift in consciousness several attempts were made to describe it. Much attention was paid to Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970). A best seller in its day, the book is now almost forgotten.

A law professor at Yale, Reich holds that there have been three successive stages of consciousness. "Consciousness I" characterizes the world-view of rural farmers and small businesspeople dominant in nineteenth-century America. "Consciousness II" was the viewpoint of "an organizational society,” fostering meritocracy and improvement through various large institutions; it dominated the New Deal, World War II and 1950s generations. In Reich’s time, it was yielding to "Consciousness III," embodied in the worldview of the 1960s counterculture, focusing on personal freedom, egalitarianism, and the use of recreational drugs.

Identifying with the freewheeling ways of his Yale students, Charles Reich (b. 1928) was perhaps too starry-eyed to offer an objective analysis. In fact Reich is gay, and came to terms with his orientation in San Francisco during the period of rapidly advancing gay rights and liberation in the 1970s. His autobiographical memoir, The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, details his activism and the process of coming to terms with his then long-repressed homosexuality.

Less enthusiastic than Reich was the conservative critic Alan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind of 1987. Ranging from Plato to Nietzsche and Heidegger, this book casts a broad net. One chapter examines the role of rock music in contemporary culture. Disapproving but not unknowledgeable, he directed attention attention to the industry, its target-marketing to teenagers and young adults, its top performers, its place in our capitalist economy, and (of course) its pretensions to liberation and freedom. Bloom singles out pop star Mick Jagger as the veritable incarnation of the hypocrisy and erotic sterility that, in his view, characterize pop music.

A less judgmental analysis would affirm the role of today’s popular music in sustaining the culture of expressivity. Some observers--especially Robert Pattison in his 1987 book The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism--have traced the origins of this music to the cult of feeling exalted by the romantic movement some two hundred years ago.



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