NO SHORT GOODBYES
In the current edition of Harper’s (October 2008) Arthur Krystal has a review (pp.81-88) of a book on the 1960s entitled “The Sixties Unplugged” by Gerard DeGroot of Harvard. It isn’t available online yet.
Some thoughts occur to me.
Krystal quotes Casey Hayden and Mary King from 1965: “Sex and caste: There seem to be many parallels that can be drawn between treatment of Negroes and treatment of women in our society as a whole”. Well, sorta not exactly. This was one of the key derailment points of the Sixties where things started going off the track even as they sped up so fast that they probably were never be going to be able to stay on the track.
The feminists got it into their heads that ‘women’ (and as always, when I refer to ‘women’ here I am referring to the not-necessarily existent entity or entities hypothesized and asserted by Second-Wave Feminism – 2WF; I hold no brief against those very real individuals among Our citizens who happen to be not-male) were in pretty much the same position as ‘the negro’ (and among themselves would quietly opine that they were actually in worse shape and had been for several millennia longer, and for a far more fundamental reason than just ‘race’) .
The travails of the ‘negro’ community – including slavery and then the far more insidious post-Reconstruction constructions designed to sustain their continuing oppression – were generally understood to be baad by all Americans except the Southrons. And the impressive efforts of the 1955-1965 civil rights era won over large numbers of Americans of decency and good will. How could they avoid it, with Martin Luther King grounding the entire civil rights movement in the very heart of the American ideal, drawing on Scripture, American theology and religious thought, American history and America’s historical ideals, and the remarkable concatenation that was the Lincolnian sensibility.
Indeed, for many Americans the full scope of the darkness imposed by the South upon Negroes was only brought home in the newsreels and television: police dogs, clubbings, fire hoses, and the peculiarly repugnant chimpery of numerous Southern lawmen of the era combined with American idealism and sense of decency to generate a powerful wave of revulsion, amplified by anger at being hoodwinked: hadn’t this all been settled by the Civil War?
It was when LBJ – already starting to get ahead of the country – made his speech at Howard University in June of ’65 – that certain straws appeared in the wind. The Civil Rights Act (of ’64) and the soon-to-be-signed Voting Rights Act were fine. But they were not enough. After all this time, the ‘negro’ would need to be specifically singled out for government assistance. Part of the problem, he said, was simply the “inherited, gateless poverty” that also entrapped “many whites” as well, and at which education and medical care programs of the Great Society initiative would be aimed. So far so much common sense based on a consensus of observation and analysis. In addition to the actual Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, few were going to begrudge help to prime the pump, as it were.
But then LBJ immediately went on to assert that there was also a “special nature of negro poverty”. Worse, he started to get fuzzy: “We don’t know why this is”, it is “much more difficult to explain, and “negro poverty is not white poverty”. He named it as “the devastating heritage of long years of slavery and a [subsequent] century of oppression, hatred, and injustice”. And immediately, to head off a potentially logical but politically unpalatable line of thought, he insisted that “these differences are not racial differences” but instead “they are solely and simply the consequences of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice”.
He made sure the whole thing was given the politically correct spin by adding “For the negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt”. Whether he meant Southern whites or all whites, he did not trouble to say.
So the seeds were laid for the end of the first civil rights era, and the beginning of something else indeed. For where the first era had drawn its moral and social legitimacy and strength – including its remarkable power to unite all Americans of decency and goodwill – from a wide common consensus, LBJ’s limning of the (almost entirely new) problem of ‘special negro poverty’ and its fuzzy but forcefully imposed explanation of the causes for it really got ahead of any consensus whatsoever. Indeed, it got ahead of any facts. And then immediately sought to impose a single interpretation on what was in effect an unclearly envisioned problem with even less clearly asserted causes.
And of course, the seeds of what the government would first call – in a huge Freudian slip – “affirmative racism” were sown here. Not only was there no consensus on the shape and causes of the problem of ‘special negro poverty’, but there was a certain shock and no small sense of being hoodwinked: after a long decade of King’s splendid but demanding struggle for civil rights and voting rights, suddenly – just as the long hoped-for victory was going to be achieved – the government asserts that there is a whole other problem, even worse and even larger, just beyond it. [I guess it sounds very similar to the American citizenry’s situation at the end of World War 2 when they suddenly found themselves facing an even larger and reportedly more dangerous enemy than the Nazis and Japanese militarists they had just defeated.]
And of course, this would lead to the fateful solution whereby the ominous control-seeking impositions of the National Security State were now to translate themselves into the civil-rights field, creating the proto-ground for the National Nanny State: because the government’s solution – just when it seemed wise to give the entire country some time and space to start coming to terms in its myriad incarnations of town and city, county and state, with the implementation of the huge changes just enacted – was to impose a top-down “affirmative racism”, a program that itself encompassed all manner of micro-management not only of actions, but of thoughts, opinions and the expression of opinion, and the deployment of the federal criminal enforcement power as well as regulatory power in the service of a particular group. Oy.
Nor did it help that immediately after The Glorious ’65 (which pretty much ended in early July of that year), the ‘negro’ movement itself simultaneously shocked the nation with the Watts riots and then fractured, as Dr. King’s approach of non-violent social justice for all (he started to oppose the war in Vietnam and talk of that ‘social justice’ that in this country had always been painted with a ‘pinko’ brush) was itself overcome by an impatient, cocky, youthy, violent, revolution-minded ‘black power’ mania that sought not a common cause with other Americans but rather a purifiying separation from ‘whitey’ and an immediate and outright ‘piece of the pie’ that had been for so long with-held.
Enter thus 2WF, just starting to hoist whatever sail it could stitch together, sensing that the wind was up and it was now or never. It absorbed not only French ‘deconstructionist’ theory and Marxist analysis and the Leninist revolutionary praxis (plus Nazism’s brilliant propaganda playbook as well as communism’s agitprop); it also sought to have the government do for it what the government was doing for the ‘negro’, while also spackling itself up with the brass-hard dampdreams of the Black Power movement.
And if the ‘method’ was thus hostile not only to the status quo but to a democratic and deliberative communal resolution to the problems, then the actual content and shape of the ‘problems’ that purportedly constituted the ‘emergency’ did not enjoy anywhere near the clear consensus as the public consensus about the situations that had for centuries bethumped ‘the negro’. Historically, the main American concern had been to give women ‘the vote’, and suffrage had already been bestowed (and Prohibition – most unhappily and ominously – had been imposed in short order, as not a few grown-ups in ’65 would have recalled).
But here was a long list of complaints and ‘outrages’ and demands that were hard to wrap the mind around, let alone come up with any workable solutions for. And it seemed that having the citizenry actually try to ‘think’ and ‘deliberate’ about the long lists of stuff was exactly what the 2WF and its enablers did not want to have happen; and Political Correctness was embraced in order to impose the ‘correct’ answers upon the citizenry forthwith; that is how ‘revolutionary’ enlightenment works – as opposed to Enlightenment enlightenment, which requires the individual to think carefully and confer seriously with other thinking individuals.
But the idea that the 2WF’s best move was to model itself and its agenda on the ‘negro’ and ‘civil rights’ model (with some Black Power revolutionary in-your-face stuff thrown in to spice up the stew) had taken hold. And before long, there were two forest fires burning, and burning toward each other. Presided over, alas, by the Democrats who had started out figuring that it would be greatly in their political interests to sort of clear demographic fresh ground with a ‘controlled burn’. Now they had two, before long there would be even more, the ‘burns’ were burning toward each other so as to promise a conflagration, and the average citizen was beginning to wonder if the government really knew just what the frak it was doing.
Before long, numbers of such citizens were hoping that ‘the other Party’ might be able to at least do a less bad job. And so here We are today.
[It is taken for granted that during all of the decades since the Sixties, the American postwar economic pre-eminence is slipping away, the ‘malefactors of great wealth’ and the malefactions of great wealth – once caged by the two Roosevelts – are slipping out of their cages since there is so much brouhaha and everybody is distracted, and before too long hit upon the marvelous treachery of passing off their own increasing enrichment as ‘evidence of economic productivity’, dragooning in the process the hapless politicians, who had no stomach for the political hard-work of actually addressing the shrinking productiveness of the American economy, and who were now becoming dependent on their corporate betters not only for PAC contributions but for any semblance of an American economy at all. The best the pols will manage to do is to try to pass out more frosting to the little people even as the essential cake has rotted away; credit becomes the ‘proof’ of America’s success and wealth, and as the actual vitals of the economy go into late-stage atrophy, even home-ownership has to be showered upon the little people to keep them ‘happy’. I hold no brief for the malefactors or malefactions of great corporate wealth.
But even if all of the corporations were somehow suddenly brought into line by some magical political combination of will and competence, the damage done to The People – especially the intangible damage to mind and heart and soul – whether directly or indirectly – by corporate chicanery and depredation would still exist, independently of its origin
There was indeed an ‘ethos’ to the Sixties (defined as post-’65 and lasting til say ’73, when the Vietnam War’s active phase more or less ended). If there was a youthy lustfulness looking not only to be liberated but to declare itself to be the very definition of ‘freedom’, there was also a youthy impatience at the slowness of ‘the establishment’ (defined as not just the government but anybody ‘over 30’, thus ‘grown-ups’ in general) to accept the ideals and visions of the young and to implement them forthwith – because if an ideal is ‘good’ because we feel it is, man, then it can only have – like - good consequences, right? And anyway, man, worrying about ‘consequences’ is just what old people do to avoid having to change – everybody knows that, right?
The ‘young’ are the most dangerous age cohort, contra the World War 1 insights as to ‘old men’ who sent young men to die; the youngsters actually signed up in their millions at the outset, and got the thing off to its monstrous start, after which nobody could put it out until it had burned through its awefull course. The young are self-assured though inexperienced, impatient of complexity and nuance, and certain that they have a ‘way’ that will get everything set right if older people – who screwed things up to begin with – would just stop trying to thwart them.
There’s a reason why they were valued as ‘infanterie’, the kids who would make the most enthusiastic cannon-fodder when the time came to charge the enemy, and the most implacable and callow killers when the battle-rage was on them. Hell, they were half-crazy before the battle and its rage even started. Experienced special-operations leaders don’t look for teens and early-20-somethings; they’d like less energy and a little more experience, because what’s needed is not lotsa shooting, but sure single-shot shooting. Kids do ‘burst’ better than ‘single shot’. What they do as ‘voters’ is a still insufficiently appreciated ‘unknown unknown’ that you’d think would be at least a ‘known unknown’ – but like so many of Our problems these days, that one will have to await the historians’ post-mortem, I expect.
“Disorder cannot shape historical narrative”, Krystal notes. No, though it can do a hell of a job on events themselves. Deconstruction and revolution – embraced by the Black Power folk and the 2WF, to no small degree – seek Disorder; indeed they require it, in order to pry open some space in the citizenry’s minds and to weaken the ‘established’ narrative by the terms of which the majority of the citizenry understands and evaluates its experiences and its challenges and any change. So ‘disorder’ became an objective, and the ‘establishment’ and ‘whitey’ and ‘men’ were soon to find themselves both tagged and attacked with no regard for ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ – and that became the new meaning of ‘politics’. And here We are.
But ‘disorder’ would then also have to migrate into the individuals’ interior sphere, because that’s where conceptions and judgment are located. So a certain interior Disorder was also the order of the day – so to speak. As if kids needed disorder to be ‘valorized’ on top of the whackery endemic to that stage of life. But that’s what happened.
So on top of the soul-squashing effects of corporate employment and consumerism, Americans were subjected to a ‘planned disorder’ that would render them more amenable to the Identities’ demands and visions. It would also, alas, reduce the citizens’ already frazzled ability to think for themselves and thus to function as The People, the utterly indispensable and vital struts that alone anchored the massive power of the Branches in the constitutional system. Nor can anybody now claim in stab at self-exoneration that such a consequence was unforeseeable; any more than the surge-induced collapse of the New Orleans levees was unforeseeable.
Krystal rightly faults DeGroot (born in 1955, only a young teen in ’68) for claiming that the Sixties were not that “special”. They were very special indeed. They were ‘speshull’ in the sense that the ideals and practices and characteristics of a mature adulthood were replaced by the values of an age not known for or defined by its ripeness and its readiness for primetime (and we’re talking college-students in the Sixties; now it’s high-schoolers – which statement on my part of course must be classified as an ‘age-ist’ if not also an ‘elitist’ assertion, but here I stand and damn the PC torpedoes!).
They were special in that they created the first incarnation of the National Nanny State, which would come to be as order-and-purity obsessed, as impositional and as directive, as the National Security State. Indeed, up until 9-11, vast tracts of damage that the National Security State would have liked to impose but which American tradition would not permit, were imposed by the National Nanny State under the rubric of ‘concern’ for ‘victims’, ‘the children’ and other handy shields that could be manipulated so as to provide a cover for what was really going on: the engorgement of the police power of the state. And as We have seen with both the Violence Against Women and sex-offense legislation, at great cost to the integrity of Constitutional protections and jurisprudential praxis that had been built on them over the course of centuries.
In an ominous by-the-by, Krystal observes that “to some it seemed as if the country was more divided at that moment than at any time since the civil War”. But of course. Because both the Black Power and the 2WF movements had become hugely tainted with actual revolutionary thought and praxis, their dangerous shame only barely covered by so gauzy a fig-leaf as ‘radical democracy’. The fact that gunfire – with only few exceptions, among the Black Power and other such types – was not deployed does not make the movements less dangerous.
In fact, given that they were revolutionary in content and method, the lack of gunfire helped conceal their actual nature from the citizenry; there was a naïve American assumption that if there’s no shooting then democracy is somehow working. But none of the ‘movements’ was looking to participate in a democratic politics; they were looking to get their particular revolutionary visions imposed by the fastest and easiest (and most ‘efficient’) route, and that was surely not by way of engaging The People in deliberation and debate. Krystal is more accurate than he may realize: A second Civil War did indeed start in this country in the 1960s, and while there was no shooting, there was also a far greater semblance to the revolutionary civil wars of 19th and early-20th century Europe and Asia than to the American Civil War.
So who can now be surprised that Our constitutional ethos and Our societal and cultural unity is in shreds? We’ve been in a ‘civil war’ or several (as the Identities increased, creating more fracture-lines) for decades now.
And what then is really holding Us together any longer? Just what can be left of the content of Our common ‘memory’ such that a Lincolnian appeal to its “mystic chords” could have any effect whatsoever? Try to answer that one.
Consequently, Krystal is spot on when he notes that 9-11 was a single, almost simple, event, compared to “the assault on the senses” that was sustained throughout the Sixties. There was in the actual late-‘60s “one gut-wrenching event after another, one crescendo hardly dying down before another began to build”. These were the birth-bangs of the Identities, and each one arrived with a scream of outrage, a list of ‘oppressions’, a designated enemy, and a list of demands – on top of an implicit or explicit accusation of bad faith thrown at American polity, American culture, and American society.
Some of the outrages – such as the jaw-dropping consistency of the treachery and bloody violence deployed against the Indians – were accurate enough; other such lists were not, and their issuing Identity sought to mask its conceptual weakness with loud and immediate squalls that would preclude any rational assessment whatsoever. It was by then ‘how the game was played’; and ‘the game’ had now become a Fact On The Ground. So ‘just deal with it, dude’ and ‘get over it’. Hitler, once established, wished the same fond thought upon the German volk, not all of whom quickly accepted his visions and demands; they say several of the Supreme Justices, Scalia especially, just wish We would ‘get over’ Bush v. Gore. Yah.
But Krystal uses the right word: “assault”. It was a purposeful and deliberate violence – although emotional and political rather than physical and military – deployed in the service of an objective and as part of a strategy.
And it was indeed deployed against the ‘senses’. ‘Common sense’, especially. It became one of the ‘holy water’ words (phrases, actually) that could stop any demanded ‘agenda’ in its tracks; hence – have you ever watched the 1985 movie “Fright Night”? – the vampire took great care to make sure that all ‘holy water’ was gotten rid of before serious vampiring was begun. The trusting citizens – too decent and too socialized to imagine that any creatures would actually seek to destroy their world – get rid of the ‘holy water’ as a gesture of politeness to the vampire’s ‘sensibilities’. See where that got them. But then, who in their right mind in America of 1966 would have imagined that revolutionary praxis and persons utterly dedicated to an identity other than being ‘American’ would actually enter the national forum and seek to overthrow everything by means of purposeful conceptual and societal and personal destabilization and imposed alterations to long-established tradition (rather than through the more obvious force-and-violence)?
And now that some practitioners are urging that We ‘get over the past’ (and accept what’s been done) and just ‘move on’ into broader and sunnier uplands … well what say We to that seduction? That some would say that good ideals or at least good intentions were co-opted … well, I for one am not sure that the ‘ideals’ were so ‘good’. But even if they were, the implementations demanded were clearly fraught with consequences, yet they just went on and brayed and bawled until the Dems and then the Republicans too tried to shut them up while making or at least not-losing as much political capital as possible. Sorta like the current Wall Street catastrophe, by curious coincidence.
Krystal notes that “The Sixties may be gone, but they’ve left a bad taste: identity politics, political correctness, the collapse of the nuclear family, a perversion of sexual mores, a decline in civility and disrespect for the law”. I’d say he’s wayyyy too nice, understating the effects (and consequences) of the foregoing as merely ‘a bad taste’ in Our mouth. We have been – as a society and as The People – pretty much ‘deconstructed’, and it was deliberately done to Us (and We let it happen). That the ones who started the forest fire had only intended to clear themselves a better patch and maybe make Us ‘better’ at the same time – that’s not hardly enough of a justification. No wonder the politically correct don’t want Us watching Western movies any more; there was a way of dealing with this sort of thing in the Western movie; and the best you’d get out of the townsfolk was a good meal the night before they hoisted you up the flagpole.
Kyrstal himself puts the beginning of ‘the Sixties’ at August, 1964, with the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, that authorized LBJ to wage what would become the Vietnam War. From what is finally now known about that ‘attack’ on US Navy destroyers from declassified materials, it’s clear that there was huge doubt –even then – if anything even happened at all; not even the destroyer commanders were sure that they were firing at anything out in the dark night (although specifically tasked with electronic intelligence missions, their radars were not altogether operational, if you can imagine that), and the jet pilots sent to aid them weren’t sure they saw anything out there beyond the destroyers themselves, but fired off some rounds just to let the float-boys know they were sympathetic to the problem.
But Johnson needed ‘an attack’ and he browbeat and manipulated and selectively accepted just the details that would give him his ‘attack’ (he would do just the reverse when another Navy ship, the USS Liberty, was attacked repeatedly by Israeli jets and ships in June ’67 in broad daylight over the course of hours, while flying an American flag more than a dozen feet long in a stiff breeze). Reading the Tonkin thing, and seeing that a President can also make it work in reverse – that’s how much power he can exercise over the military and intelligence services in the short run – it’s hard not to wonder if Bush and his darkling band didn’t do the same thing in regard to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, using LBJ’s slick moves as their guide.
Some thought is given as to just what happened to the generation of the Sixties – now in their sixties – that helped cause all this.
The Western movies and TV shows come in for accusation. In their vivid restatement of (or fantasies about) the American “myth of national origin”, “dominated by violence and personal freedom, male aggressiveness and daring, geographical mobility and restlessness” was a model for Boomers as kids to later stand up for ‘justice’. And there’s something to that. Although having accepted what was in essence a ‘revolutionary’ definition of justice, then the Boomers stood the old West on its head and became not so much cowboys as cadres. Ach, the hell-hot ironies. But they meant well.
Some of the blame lies with otherwise acute social criticism that saw the dangers of the 1950s’ conformity (which I’d say stemmed as much from lots of military experience and a general relief that the war was over as much as from a bowing to the pressures of corporate employment and group belonging). But the criticism, while acute, was feckless in its proposed solutions: where ‘conformity’ was bad, ‘insubordination’ was good and led to ‘freedom’; where too much “Enlightenment” emphasis on rationality was suffocating emotions, an embrace of emotions and passions and even primality were the path to ‘liberation’ (the current-day philosopher Susan Neiman makes a good case that the Enlightenment actually had such a respect for the fragility of ‘reason’ and ‘reasonableness’ in the human being, that it urged the highest levels of humility and circumspection before deciding that one ‘knew’ something with complete accuracy).
The problem with so much of the social critique was that its conception of the Life Space was insufficient, and so its proposed remedies were thus greatly weakened from the get-go. Human beings interiorly possess a capacity for growing, a Verticality if you will. And they seem most consistently (stubbornly, if you wish) to believe in some sort of Beyond, a dimension beyond this dimension. Thus in addition to the Life Space of the Horizontal, of the Surface and the Appearance, and of the Exterior, there is an axis of Verticality and Interiority, and quite possibly a Beyond. Hence, to presume only the Flat world of the Horizontal, of the Surface and the Appearance, and of the Exterior is to wage ocean war with an 18th century conception of the Battle-Space: only horizontally around your vessel, and to a range of a few hundred yards. Below you, above you, out to a distance of hundreds of miles, utilizing radio and radar and sonar, and all at the speed of computers … well, you see the problem with relying on an outmoded conception of the Life/Battle-Space when trying to achieve something. Or recommend a course of action or solution to somebody in rather pressing need of a good one.
But things are wrapped up with the observation that the Sixties are over now, “except, that is, for the political and cultural residue they’ve left behind”. And from what I’ve noted above, that’s a hell of a lot of ‘residue’. And it’s not just lying on top of the surface of the national pool, like so much inert scum, waiting for the national pool-boy to scoop it away so the party can start in earnest. It’s now a toxic brew of corrosive elements interacting with each other in the water itself, waiting to go to work on whatever goes into the water. “Welcome to fright night, for real” the vampire snidely joked, as he unsheathed his choppers and wagged them at the now-trapped guests. Our only hope is faith and holy water, but We’ve been nice enough to forego those so as not to re-traumatize anybody with delicate, if loudly asserted, sensibilities.
Will this be the end? Who will tune in again next week to see?
Labels: Arthur Krystal, civil rights, Election of 2008, feminism, Gerard DeGroot, Harpers, the Sixties