Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Masks We Rent

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.


joebftsplk said...

Great good stuff,this. Consumers of large personal vehicles and suburban McMansions may well flinch as they recall their Dead shows and tie dyes. Left blogs too may be just another item of consumption. Is "die yuppie swine" still current or can they be reached with persuasion yet? Where would Neddie lead?

Nobody said...

Maybe blogs are just another symptom of the 'I Gave At The Office' mentality: "I don't have to do anything because I already did - I wrote about it".

Or perhaps they're just a study of the grand disbelief that we're all somehow more important than everyone else, (the kind of thing that makes people buy SUVs), and that our mundane thought somehow has more validity than everyone elses out there.

How widely read your blog is seems to be a status thing in the gay community at the moment, i'm hoping it's not in the straight community as well. (Though I've noticed it actually seems to be more about how popular you are on the scene and how many readers think you're *fuckable* than actual writing quality or depth of insight).

It's like watching the psychological concept of 'Attribution' in action in front of you: distasteful statements are ignored because the guy is considered 'cute'.

Having lived through the whole alternative explosion of the 90's, I was struck by the realistion that nothing was changing, though everyone seemed to think some grand revolution was taking place.

'Not Striking A Pose' became the new way of 'Striking A Pose', and though Gun's and Roses and Nirvana were supposedly the old and the new, both albums were available from the same stores. Both were product: it was just a new way of marketing.

I was a cynical shit at 21. But I managed to come through it all tattoo, piercing and Nirvana CD free.

Eidin said...

"You can't change anything by buying something."

Can you create change by not buying something?

"Maybe blogs are just another symptom of the 'I Gave At The Office' mentality: "I don't have to do anything because I already did - I wrote about it".

This is an interesting idea that deserves more exploration.

Enjoyed the Burning Man analysis. Doesn't bode well for its 'radicalness' when an article in RS delcares it unhip retro.

Nobody said...

Have no idea what Burning Man is, but:

'...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...'

pretty much accurately describes the image of Rolling Stone magazine itself.

It think it has a heritage and importance in rock history, when it's just another corporate magazine to buy, browse and be discarded. Puff pieces and surface reviewing of records, no depth whatsoever. Once they put a 'masturbate to me' image of Brittany Spears on the cover I never glanced at an issue again.

Mr Pot meet Mr Kettle.

Anonymous said...

The term "Left" possesses little resemblance to its former incarnations of the 20's, 30's and 40's. The 60's are now looked at with some greater level of seriousness(and respect) than they deserve. Children screaming slogans in the street, engendered of an all too valuable emotion of caring pales compared to the responsible working people standing ground against those who would continue to pay a less-than-fair wage to starving families. The 60's were, unfortunately, "let's pretend" and nothing more.

Anonymous said...

OK, all criticisms well deserved and true.

So what are YOU doing besides bitching?

Kevin Wolf said...

Most excellent. It did not occur to me that the prior post on this and the quote therein would be seen by anybody as "conservative."

I've been subscribing to The Baffler for some time; their first collection of pieces was called Commodify Your Dissent which pretty much sums things up.

The Counterculture started to assume they were the dominant culture, mostly because it was commodified and hence seemed to be everywhere. That not every consumer would choose "countercultural" products was seen to confirm their specialness, rather than confirm they were just more product.

"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."

The ugly thing here is that the last clause at least came true. Only the implied change from crass commercialism never happened.

"The term 'Left' possesses little resemblance to its former incarnations of the 20's, 30's and 40's."

True. A lot of people my age owned Naked Lunch but had never heard of John Dos Passos. I'm not even sure what passes for the correctly cool cultural signifiers anymore.

Neddie said...

So what are YOU doing besides bitching?

Ho-ho! Thought you'd catch me out, didn't you, YD?

I'll have you know, this week alone I added several Chinese-manufactured magnetic ribbons in a attractive array of colors to the back of my X-Terra, where they join my already extensive collection in proudly announcing my support for Our Troops, my implacable conviction that Mean People Suck (I will go to the mat on this one, so don't challenge me, people), and my support for those unfortunates who engage in the lonely struggle against the scourge of rectal pruritis.

Finally, all politics being local and all, I fantasize daily about letting the air out of the tires of the particularly egregious Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton

Anonymous said...

Jeddie! Great post. When I started my blog this is the sort of thing I wanted to do. (But mine quickly spiraled - see my last post to prove it. You might call it intellectually lazy, man.)

Lots in this post to ponder -- me being so guilty of most of what you describe. (I won't assume all of you have the same deficiencies...)

I was just a babe in 1970 but I remember being in awe of my older, cool cousins and thinking, "I've GOT to buy a pair of earth shoes and buy a Crosby, Still & Nash album!" *That'll show 'em!*

"Counterculture became a way to avoid hard work: Instead of the slogging tedium of neighborhood canvassing..."

Guilty as charged.

Before the election I volunteered for moveon.org and then got totally stressed out thinking I would actually have to *bug people.* I would have to intrude upon them either by phone or in person and bug them. I have to admit I didn't put my whole heart into it because it made me feel very uncomfortable. (It's partially my fault Ohio went for Bush.)

I could go on and on and will in my own post...you've inspired me to write a real post! Blogging has a purpose!

But I'll leave you with two more thoughts:

1) The whole buying something doesn't change anything...well -- as far as shopping goes, you could be -- and probably are right. My totally awesome record collection never changed a dang thing but me. (That's something though.)

But I think people have a tendency to think that if there aren't DRASTIC changes from an action you or someone else takes, well then it's not worth it, therefore most people do zilcho. I believe that every action may lead to a series of tiny changes that over time may make a big difference.


#2 -- I curse you! I stomp my foot and raise my hand dramatically in the air and point in your general direction and curse you! for quoting Matt Taibbi before I had the chance to!

He's my new boyfriend. He's mine and mine alone. (Come to think of it, I've been meaning to buy his book...)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Neddie. I didn't intend that as a personal attack, 'though I can see how you could it have been taken that way. I meant it for the commenters as much as for you. My point, poorly expressed, is that every one of us needs to look hard at ourselves, and ask "Am I living my ideals?". I do think that your blog is important and valuable; there aren't that many places for southerners of a progressive persuasion. Me, I abandoned the Southern Baptist church in which I was raised because of their agressive, willful ignorance. I fight every day against the 200+ years of racist history that is my legacy from my Mississippi ancestors. I contribute to, and volunteer for, progressive politicians and causes in my reddest of red states (We're not just red, we're infrared). I know this sounds unbelievably naive, but I've intentionally chosen not to become all cool and cynical, because I think that's part of the problem. By the way, I'm a 46yo construction worker, not a callow college boy.

Uncle Rameau said...


must be lonely down there, eh? keep the faith.


while it may not be sufficient, merely letting your freak flag fly, it is nonetheless necessary, don't you agree?

Anonymous said...

the problem or a problem is that taibi and powers are rather vapid as well.

I like taibi, he's kind of funny, but he is also a little brat as well.

Yes, we've got our little personal freedoms, and yes they mask a greater control, but, hey, welcome to liberalism in the larger sense.

The same goes for the Baffler. so what?
many of tom frank's bugaboos are just his little bugaboos. He rarely digs deeper than a surface disgruntlement, and he denies the agency, yes the agency (to use a Frank bugaboo) of the red state publican.

It ain't the man that is bringing you down, it's your own selfish infantile little pampered ass. You are controlled.
The cooptation of the avant-garde started with...the avant-garde. read tj clark on that. don't cry over rolling stone or tye-dye if you can't cry over the cooptation of montmarte in 1900.

if you flip your perspective and lower your expectations, you start to see some good things happening with things like burning man. no, not that silly self expression stuff. but little things like the ability to set up camp in the desert and break camp and leave no trace. the ability to create a city out thin air. the ability to socialize face to face. incremental changes and innovations are being made at places like burning man. and they might just save our asses when the shit hits the fan. bm is apocalypse training in the age of intelligent machines,

Anonymous said...


"I like taibi, he's kind of funny, but he is also a little brat as well."

Leave my new boyfriend alone!

Anonymous said...

Hey Ned, Want to know what the difference is in motivation between 'Nam and now? It's the draft, man. When W institutes that, watch what happens! See you at the Mall on Saturday. Sr. Citizen Anon

Anonymous said...

When it comes to what I've done about it, I'm not really sure. In the past five years I've passed up tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars of income to work for the ((mostly)unsuccesful) election of people I don't really believe in. I've flown into places that barely had an airport to work on elections. In primaries I've always worked for the person I most belived in, but in the generals I simply tried to get one more vote against Hastert and Frist.

Have I done anything? Beats the shit outta me. Tonight is my last night in DC. Moving to the west coast tomorrow. I'm hoping for perspective. At least I finished my tenure here with a shouting match in a bar with conservative.

Eidin said...

"pretty much accurately describes the image of Rolling Stone magazine itself."

good point

burning man is a big event held in the Black Rock desert each summer -

without reading it in RS i could tell you that it has 'jumped the shark' based on a weinie boy my husband used to work with who started going to burning man to be 'cool' (picture that character on Arrested Dev that keeps trying to be a 'blue man' but nerdier)

the Black Rock desert is a beautiful place the rest of the year...

Employee of the Month said...

This just in...

Grateful Dead mines famed '69 Fillmore stand By Barry A. Jeckell
Fri Sep 23,12:17 PM ET

A legendary 1969 four-night Grateful Dead stand at San Francisco's Fillmore West already produced an album in the form of that year's two-LP Warner Bros. set "Live/Dead." Now, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the band, all of the music the Dead played at those shows is being officially released for the first time.

A limited-edition 10-disc box set collecting the entirety of the February 27-March 2 run will be released in mid-October via the band's official Dead.net (http://www.dead.net) Web site. Unfortunately, the top-notch collectable has completely sold out through advance orders and there are no plans to make it available again.

Those not lucky enough to score the box will find solace in a three-disc compilation of previously unreleased recordings from those shows. Due November 1 from Rhino, "Fillmore West 1969" collects material from each night that was not included on the original "Live/Dead" release.

One song from the first night, "Cosmic Charlie," is included, with the rest of its disc one compatriots coming from February 28: "Morning Dew," ""Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Doin' That Rag," "I'm a King Bee" and "Turn on Your Lovelight."

The second disc opens with two songs from March 1 -- "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Mountains of the Moon" -- and closes out with "Dark Star," "St. Stephen," "The Eleven" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy," all from February 28.

Disc three does not mix material from several nights. It sticks to the final show, but fudges the order in which "That's It for the Other One," "Alligator," "Drums," "Jam," "Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)," "Feedback" and "We Bid You Goodnight" were played.

In other news, on October 24, Free Press will publish "The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics." The 480-page tome was compiled by David Dodd, the founder of a Web site (http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/) of the same name, and co-editor of "The Grateful Dead Reader" and "The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads: An Annotated Biography."

The book features original lyrics, explanations and analysis of the songs of Robert Hunter and John Barlow, who penned the lion's share of the words the Dead recorded and performed. Also included are selected traditional and cover songs the band frequently made its own. Hunter contributes to the book's foreword.


Kevin Wolf said...

All this talk of hippies and the left and the reaction thereto - didn't Dave Berg already cover all this in about 1000 MAD Magazine strips from 1970-1990? Ya gotta love yer Dave Berg.

Anonymous said...

bm is apocalypse training in the age of intelligent machines,

Sorry, Anonymous, but there is absolutely nothing at Burning Man that you talk about (other than the silly "self-expression stuff") that could not be done by a competent Senior Girl Scout troop with less media exposure and fewer gasoline generators.