All right, let's see if I can get this down right.
Yesterday I cited a passage in Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers and Other Strange Species in George Bush's America, by John Powers. Powers is the film critic at Vogue, editor-at-large of LA Weekly and critic-at-large for NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross." The extract's worth quoting again:
Since the fall of Communism and the rise of centrist Democrats, even the faith in action [among the Left] has largely disappeared. The remnant of the Left is largely defined by patterns of consumption -- which magazines we read and which movies we see -- or by newfangled ideas of organizing -- such as Howard Dean's Internet-grassroots campaign. What passes for the serious Left isn't a set of shared ideas or values attached to a living social movement. It's an audience brought together by big-name freelance "radicals" -- [Michael] Moore, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, and showbiz figures like Susan Sarandon or Martin Sheen. What these folks have in common isn't a vision of the world -- it's fame.Matt of The Tattered Coat commented that from his reading of the passage he assumed that Powers is a conservative -- but as you can see, his liberal bona fides are pretty impeccable. I don't think Powers' critique is particularly conservative. Let's see if you agree.
Powers isn't the first to point out the fact that political expression has become a series of visual symbols that we acquire and display outward to the world, a mask we rent. The problem first arose, I think, with the emergence of Counterculture as an alternative to Old Left activism. While at first blush a reasonably logical outcome of the Culture Wars of the Sixties, Counterculture became a way to avoid hard work: Instead of the slogging tedium of neighborhood canvassing, union organizing, running for office -- the sort of tedious Melvinism that was referred to sneeringly as working within the System -- it became possible for the intellectually lazy to declare their enmity against the Squares by grabbing a few contentious signifiers and pasting them to their bodies.
At the cost of long-term detriment to its case, for a short vogue around 1970 or so this actually worked. Hardhatted, buttoned-down squares took deep umbrage at the hair, the slovenly clothes, the herbal smell, and freaked out most gratifyingly. I remember quite clearly the offended-hinterland rage that I felt directed at me, at the age of ten, during a family trip from the Degraded East Coast into deepest Minnesota: I had hair approximately as offensive as Danny Partridge's at the time, and a man in a plastic gimme cap had a grand time projecting all kinds of rage onto me at a County Fair. Wow, I remember thinking, those protein strands really got under his skin!
I enjoyed Matt Taibbi's evisceration of the Burning Man Notion in Rolling Stone last week:
Burning Man presents itself as something new and progressive, but in reality it's something old and reactionary: it's the ghost of the Sixties, kept like a castrated, defanged zoo animal in a cage, wallowing wistfully in its own muck. Forty years ago American kids thought they were going to end war, eliminate hunger and seize the reins of the crass commercial society their parents had built. They stormed the hill and came away with a few real victories here and there, but in the end the system swallowed up most of their causes and left them with changes that were mostly cosmetic. Dress however you want. Fuck whoever you want. Take drugs and party. Be yourself. Do your own thing. As for the politics...you can leave the hardcore stuff behind, but cling to a few vague principles that cost little or nothing to espouse: tolerance, diversity, a fuzzy environmentalism. The politics that were left at the end of the Sixties were a flimsy cover story for an ideology of adolescent self-centeredness -- an ideology that raised a generation of political sheep, who also happened to be perfect and enthusiastic consumers.There's that word again: Consumers.
It was of course Tom Frank and his merry band at The Baffler in the early Nineties who shone the laser on the fatuous notion, then fashionable in academia, that the act of consumption of culture is somehow itself inherently rebellious. Their satirical disemboweling of the idea of the Rebel Consumer was righteous to behold. It was a thought that had lain unexpressed in my own mind since about 1980, when I watched the finest expression of my own generation, Punk, become a defanged and denatured parody of itself at the hands of a vengeful fashion industry. It took approximately 14 seconds somewhere near the end of Bobby Lightfoot's 1979, to castrate the Clash. All it took was one slice from Betsey Johnson's razor finger: You will now...buy...that!
You can't change anything by buying something.
You'd be amazed how many people don't know this.
This is what made me so uneasy during the runup to last year's election, when we were all trooping out to watch Fahrenheit 9-11. I was appalled by the people I talked to afterward who told me, hope springing eternal in their breast, that the mere fact that a film had been made that validated their worldview was somehow a telling blow against the Man. I imagined Karl Rove just licking the drool off his lips: Yeah, you fuckin' chumps. Go watch movies. Go make the fat boy rich. Go stuff some more of that packing-peanut popcorn into your maws, fart your complacency into the theater seats. I'll just be over here talking to my most excellent buddy from Diebold....
Allow me to end this back where it started. Now I'd like to give you the first half of Powers' paragraph that sent me down this train of thought:
For all his skill at making pop culture, [Michael] Moore's recent prominence says less about him than about the slow degeneration of the Left, especially the wing that is more liberal, or even radical, than today's Democratic Party. A hundred years ago, the Left took its strength from offering a muscular blend of theory and action. American radicals -- and this included genuine proletarians -- read Marx and Engels to understand the workings of class struggle, the ironclad laws of history. It was considered essential to the Left that its action would be grounded in a coherent social analysis based on the study of history. Over the course of the decades, that faith in theory was lost, and by the 1960s, the New Left was putting the premium on action. I remember how my fellow students sneered at Old Left professors for being all talk -- we were supposed to take to the streets. Since the fall of Communism...So much water under the bridge.
And at the same time, so little.