Tuesday, November 29

Part II: Hippies Derail America

Look Out, Peter Tork is wielding The Banjo of Satire!

We left Midge Decter in the fetid jungles of Southeast Asia, huddled with the rest of the boys from the 404th Levittown Battalion as tracer fire zipped over their heads, broken only occasionally by Charlie's taunts of "Fuck Pete Rose!" and "Your houses are box-like, identical, and feature shoddy construction, Joe!" We'll get back to her in a moment. But first, here's a little ditty all the privileged kids are singin' along to:

See Mrs. Gray, she's proud today
Because her roses are in blo--oo-oom.
And Mr. Green, he's so serene
He's got a teevee in every ro-oo-oom.

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,
Charcoal burnin' everywhere.
Rows of houses that are all the same,
And no one seems to care.

Gerry Goffin/Carole King used without permission, you kiddin'?

I bring this up because, filled with some sort of bizarro world Weather Underground nostalgia to Bring the War Home, Midge blames the whole thing on...a pop hit folksong from 1962?
the divide over the war had turned out mainly to be one between the children of privilege, a most significant number of whom spent the war years horsing around in school with drugs and protests while being praised for their moral superiority, and the children of the “ordinary” folk—people who lived, as a very popu­lar and very ugly folk-style song of the time had it, in “ticky-tacky houses” and who, happily or not, submitted loyally to what their government demanded of them.

On a certain level this has the same cringe factor as David Brooks' freestylin' on French gangsta rap a few weeks back. Like Brooks, she grabs the product without checking the expiration date. "Little Boxes", by Malvina Reynolds, was a hit in 1962, when there were less than 200 American military personnel in Vietnam. The song's about middle-class conformity. That was hardly a shocking topic. It was a hit. So was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit seven years earlier. This sort of lazy stereotyping of capital-D Decades might do for People, or a teevee countdown show, but it shouldn't fly in front of an educated audience, even at the Heritage Foundation.

And forget that we're simply choosing to ignore the Fifties of Paul Goodman and The White Negro and the Beats. Malvina Reynolds was a 62-year old lifelong Socialist who had, unlike most women of her generation, actually worked for a living her whole life, including in war production in the 40s. If you want to impugn her, Ms Decter, at least have the decency to do it to the memory of her face (however much I hate the song).

Having established beyond all reasonable doubt that a bunch of drug-besotted spoiled brats on the other side are responsible for the Culture Wars, Decter delves into their history with her customary scholarship:
...America’s internal battle of warring attitudes and beliefs is one in which no actual bul­lets are exchanged or bombs dropped, no bodies left to fester on some far-off war-torn field. In that sense, it is not bloody like the religious wars of the past (and indeed, those of the present).

Unless you happen to work in the wrong abortion clinic.
Still, it would be a mistake to imagine that wars of words and ideas, and of ways of living, have not claimed lives. They have, sometimes most cruelly. Consider as just one example that corner of the struggle that has, for something like 40 years now, been devoted to the issue of recreational drugs. The debate continues—as if there were anything to debate—and children continue to lose their lives, literally as well as figuratively.

How often, I wonder, is our professed concern over "recreational drugs" (alcohol exempted, of course!) a code for "hot interracial monkey-butt love"? And of course Decter is keenly aware that the federal war on drugs began as a campaign against blacks, Mexicans, and the Chinese:
I will not even speak of the monstrosity that has been made of race and all the lives that have been claimed by it.

Sure. I think that's a good idea. We have maybe 200 heroin deaths per annum, so it's a much bigger deal than a few hundred years of racial hatred and aboriginal genocide. Besides, somebody might have to ask some embarrassing questions about the company you keep, though they wouldn't have come from your audience. Neither will they ask about your own attitude about homosexuality, which might be summed up "If they get back in the closet and keep their hands off our children we'll leave them alone" in terms of a modern-day segregated lunch counter.

It is a curious matter of such scholarship that the strategic withdrawals of the Right become, within a decade or so, heroic victories. One wonders just who Decter imagines those now-defeated racists were. And is there some fledgling Decter out there today who will, in fifteen years time, be telling us the less said about that evil homophobia in our past the better? Excepting, of course, the "reverse homophobia" of liberals and their nanny-state coddling?

But I'm getting ahead of the story. How'd we get here, Midge?
I like to say that this conflict began on July 8, 1839. Why that day in that year? Obviously, histor­ical developments can never really be dated quite so neatly, or neatly at all, especially where such developments have to do with culture. Anyway, I am, of course, being somewhat facetious.

Still, a date is sometimes helpful in giving one per­spective, and I have picked the date of July 8, 1839, because that was the day that witnessed the birth of one John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. And some time around that year, too, an already 45-year-old gentle­man named Cornelius Vanderbilt was planning how he would become the owner of a certain public util­ity that would before long prove to be of major importance to the economic development of the United States, namely, the New York Central Rail­road. I could go on and on: a list of John D. Rock­efeller’s and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s contemporaries who were responsible for the explosive creation and expansion of American industry, for business inno­vation, for the newly creative exploitation of natural resources—such a list could keep us here all after­noon, sunk in envy for these men’s visions and the sheer moxie with which they converted their visions into a reality. The government of course helped, but mostly by keeping out of their way.

If by "keeping out of the way" you mean "handing over 193 million acres of federal lands" then, yeah. Or "using Federal troops to break strikes". Or "grabbing its share of public-bilking enterprises like the Crédit Mobilier", or ignoring a fixed stock market, or creating the Interstate Commerce Commission that ruled almost exclusively in the railroad's favor. Yup. Grit and moxie.
So now we come to the question that bears on my unhappy subject—culture: Were these men in their own time blessed, celebrated, honored for their achievement by America’s thinkers and writ­ers? Need I ask? Look in any history book; and look at the writings of the time: These men were then, and have continued to be, designated the “Robber Barons”—with no admiration, let alone gratitude, intended.

It is true that many of these men tended to revel in, and make a great and not necessarily attractive public show of, their wealth. Although, in addition to living like emperors, some of them were also, as we know, very civic-minded—throughout the land there are cities with libraries, opera houses, settle­ment houses, museums that are owed entirely to their largesse. And some of them (though most def­initely not, I regret to say, Cornelius Vanderbilt) were also, in one way or another, charitable toward their less favored fellow citizens.

I believe it was Ambrose Bierce who observed that if you steal a large amount of money and keep it for youself you're a thief, but if you give a small portion of it back before you die you're a philanthropist.

This is nothing but sheer idolotry, as befits faith-based history. We simply delegitimize all opposition by fiat, and toss in a "you're just jealous" for good measure. This may do for selling morality tales to toddlers; it does not measure up to the demands of adult discourse. Who says Decter is right about this? Where, exactly, do we get the notion that "innovative capitalism" trumps the claims of thousands of farmers, ranchers, and small businessmen? There might be an argument if all those Gilded Age advancements really did occur with minimal government action, or if we were talking about the innovations of Morse, or Bell, or Edison, which might have been much delayed were it not for them personally. We aren't. We're talking about a group of men who found themselves in a position to control certain technologies and vast amounts of the natural resources of this and other countries, with the aid (often military) of the United States government. If they hadn't been named Vanderbilt and Rockefeller they could have been named Maloney and Shruggs. If not for war profiteers and corrupt politicians, and the chance occurrence of technological advancement and no government oversight the railroads could have been built by the public for the general welfare, as the Interstate Highway system and Rural Electrification were in the mid-20th century.

As for the rest, well, fill in the blanks for yourself. Cultural elites, yadda, socialism, yadda, hippies, yadda yadda, totalitarian heroes, yadda yadda yadda. I don't expect it from Decter or her brood, but just once it would be nice to find a little honesty from that direction, even if it were only designed to shock.


julia said...

oh, damn, that's so cute.

you know what's even cuter? that my father-in-law, a rock-ribbed conservative who joined up in 1939 (and helped liberate Dachau before he went home, back when Mr. Midge was still clawing his way toward his academic eminence as an apologist for Stalin) really likes Little Boxes, because (this is so cute it's just going to kill you) he's a big fan of solid architecture and he didn't like the houses they built after the war.

I could puke this is so cute.

I haven't been so charmed since Midge figured out that gay men spoiled Fire Island by being hairless.

Anonymous said...

The dilemma is this: Either the Heritage boyz are lying or they are stupid enough to believe this crap. If they are this dishonest, how can anyone pay them? If they are stupid enough to believe, then how do they remember to breathe?

I guess what I'm asking is: In what way is an organism that produces this drivel adaptive? In what ecosystem does supporting parasites like Midge make sense?

The only analogy I can think of is the stink of a skunk. They create this smell so that they can continue their crime spree unnoticed.

Anonymous said...

The Banjo of Satire? Damn that Peter Tork and his ill-gotten resources! All I've got is the Octave Mandolin of Whimsy.

Anonymous said...

Mudge (yes, Mudge) is part of that rightwingnut group that finds it morally impossible to look back and admit to anything wrong. Anything. Like this bozo I found next to me in a hotel bar one night; Reagan was the world's greatest president ever because this bozo personally didn't lose his job and got good gas mileage. It's a pathology wherein adherence to idealogical certainties must be maintained so rigidly that no new information is acceptable. A set of "ideals" (pardon the pun) is forged and dammit they're going to work!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate both the review and the insights, and agree on most every point. But, darnit, I still like the song, as I like most everything on my Folkways Smithsonian collections.
And, yes, I admit it sucks that the Smithsonian considers folk songs from the *sixties* "heritage". Man, that's gotta make ya feel dated.

Unrelated, but what's all this about "Froghouse"?

Anonymous said...

Unrelated, but what's all this about "Froghouse"?

Um, it's the same tendency that causes me to refer to Josh Marshall's blog as 'Talking Pants Memo,' and to S.Z.'s joint as 'World of Carp.'

It denotes nothing but great love and admiration.

Anonymous said...

I will not even speak of the monstrosity that has been made of race and all the lives that have been claimed by it.

I'm not the most astute reader in the world, but since this sentence comes right after a reference to the drug war running for "something like 40 years now", it sure looks to me as if she's blaming all those lost lives on the civil rights movement.

Anonymous said...

Were I not the Official Stalker here, I'd advise you to seek help, Gavin. As it is, I think I'll just nod and smile.

Though, I have froghouses outside, here, for the little guys to overwinter. They're little overturned pots, made of ticky-tacky terra cotta, and stuffed with moss and potting soil. It's an odd image, somehow.

Anonymous said...

submitted loyally to what their government demanded of them

Loyalty is a vasty overrated quality. The Nazis were loyal, as were most other totalitarians. Give me someone who questions authority any day.

Brando said...

I have to hand it to Midge, she sounds like the voiceover to an Ed Wood movie about the culture wars.

Doghouse, excellent pair of posts, and two thumbs up for the Banjo of Satire.

Midge's history lesson made me think of my trip to see the Biltmore estate this past summer. My wife and I were walking around the house, marveling at the sheer audacity of it, when we came to the spartan servants quarters in the lower levels. "This is where my ancestors would have been," my wife said.

Anonymous said...

If by "keeping out of the way" you mean "handing over 193 million acres of federal lands" then, yeah. Or "using Federal troops to break strikes". Or "grabbing its share of public-bilking enterprises like the Crédit Mobilier", or ignoring a fixed stock market, or creating the Interstate Commerce Commission that ruled almost exclusively in the railroad's favor. Yup. Grit and moxie.

You're my hero.