Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hippies to the right of me, hippies to the left, here I'm stuck in the middle with Evan Bayh


There was an episode of Law and Order (that would be Law and Order Prime, the one with Sam Waterston) in which Waterston's Jack McCoy prosecutes a case of a 1970s terrorist would gets busted years later after having transformed herself into a respectable Republican lady under an assumed identity. There is a lot of conversation about the meaning of "the Sixties" in connection with the case. In the end, she's sent to prison to get out, as I recall, sometime in the early 2000s. McCoy says wearily at the end (quoting from memory), "Maybe by then the Sixties will finally be over."

The fictional Jack McCoy was too optimistic. For a lot of Republicans, it will always be 1969, Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew will always be bravely defending white civilization and hippies and antiwar protesters and scary rioting black people, and the Commies will always be poised to come ashore in San Francisco and begin their conquest of America. There are even young conservatives who parents hadn't hit puberty yet in 1969 who are stuck in 1969!

So is recovering conservative Michael Lind. Lind is one of the best in analyzing the pathologies of the American right, which he has being doing for years now. His takedown of Pat Robertson's paranoid conspiracy-theory classic The New World Order is one of the best of that sort of thing I've seen. But, Lordy, that fellow Lind is as haunted by the Sixties as he former fellow conservatives are. In Glenn Beck is the new Abbie Hoffman Salon 02/23/10, he argues - I'm not sure if it's even partially tongue-in-cheek - that Glenn Back and the Tea Party movement are the dirty freaking hippies of today.


In doing so, he uses some compulsive Centrism to set up a just-like-the-hippies comparison to today far-right activists and loons. For example:

Just as the New Left claimed that the New Deal era wasn't really liberal, so the countercultural right claims that the Republican Party from Nixon to George W. Bush wasn't really conservative. '60s radicals like Carl Oglesby denounced John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as sinister "corporate liberals" in the same way that the radicals of the right claim that the two Bushes, if not the sainted Reagan, were inauthentic "big government conservatives." The radical left had Ralph Nader. The radical right has Ron Paul.
It's not quite nails-on-the-blackboard bad. But here are a few obvious problems with this approach.

You would be hard put to find anyone reasonably identified with the "New Left" of the 1960s saying that the New Deal "wasn't really liberal". If you were going to research this in some detail, some obvious American sources among the more intellectual ones would be the publications Monthly Review, Radical America, Socialist Revolution (later Socialist Review) and New Left Notes.

The New Left is a term that covered a broad range of people, from some (but not all) civil rights activists, the more militant Democratic Party reformers, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other student activists, anti-Vietnam War protest groups, and an assortment of critical intellectuals, Maoists, and a variety of leftwing political sects. Basically, they rejected what they called "Cold War liberalism", though I'm not sure how often they used "corporate liberal" as a pejorative. "Establishment liberal" was probably more common. (All three are useful descriptive terms, although the outlook known as "Cold War liberalism" or "Scoop Jackson liberalism" back in the day would now be called "neoconservative".) The New Left also rejected Soviet-line Communism. The Communist Party (and the Socialist Party) were the Old Left.

The term New Left I believe originated in Britain, although it wasn't not such a drastic neologism. It was the more-or-less Trotskyist British journal New Left Review, which is still published, that popularized the term. The New Left in the United States is conventionally dated from the 1964 Democratic convention, specifically the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in opposition to the desires of the Democratic leadership at the time.

But the general perspective of the New Left was that they wanted either radical reforms or revolution, the latter term various and imaginatively defined. Except for maybe the more dogmatic (or maybe hack) Marxists, they hardly accused the New Deal of not being "liberal". They might criticize the New Deal for being a too-limited set of reforms designed to preserve the capitalist system, which the New Left generally preferred to see replaced by some form of socialism. Liberals wouldn't argue with that analysis. On the contrary, they would have bragged that the New Deal saved capitalism by curbing its worst abuses. And that Franklin Roosevelt had no intention of setting up socialism, the paranoia of the Glenn Becks of the 1930s notwithstanding.

If the New Left particularly emphasized one negative aspect of the New Deal, it would be that it didn't directly address the problems of white racism and Southern segregation, in particular. That aspect of the New Deal was not liberal, although a 1960s New Leftist might say that it was all too characteristic of Democratic and Republican Party liberalism (yes, there once was such a thing as Republican liberals!) that it failed to address both structural and subjective white racism. And who would step up today to argue against the accuracy of that criticism? Even Republicans are happy for any opportunity to label liberals racists, no matter the contortions in which they may have to indulge to get there.

You can always make superficial comparisons that are plausible at a high level. You could say, for instance, that in 1965 the Democratic Party, the Republic Party and the US Communist Party were all political parties and so they were basically the same. It wouldn't tell you anything meaningful about American politics. It might tell you something meaningful if you were looking at laws applying to political parties in 1965.

So, yeah, Glenn Beck criticizes Republicans as well as Democrats. And New Left activists in the Sixties criticized Democrats as well as Republicans. So what?

Lind's article also blurs the difference between hippies and New Left activists. Yes, there was considerable crossover influence. But the actual hippie counterculture tended to be nonpolitical, and was a distinct phenomenon from the New Left. Hippies for the most part didn't spend their time organizing antiwar rallies or writing historical articles analyzing the history of white racism. And while some members of the Black Panthers may have used drugs, their activity had more to do with things like going out armed with their own shotguns and confronting abusive cops than with getting stoned and teasing out the deeper meanings in Herman Hesse stories.

In the nightmares and daymares on which so many of today's Republican conservatives feed their fears, those hippies are still out there all mushed together with black people with leather jackets and shotguns and unkempt Vietnam veterans demonstrating against the war and Bill Ayers plotting with ACORN to bomb bathrooms in government buildings. I'd prefer to see liberals and progressives de-mystify those fears and distorted images rather than clumsily try to turn the composite bogeyman against the Tea Partiers.

In any case, Lind's article gets the wrong counterculture for the Tea Partiers. Since the 1920s, Christian fundamentalists have nurtured a kind of religious counterculture that heavily overlapped with what is sometimes politely called the "folkways" of white Southerners. And there has been a subculture of fanatical, conspiracist rightwingers with clear continuities back into the 1930s. It today's Tea Partiers are part of a counterculture, those are the sources of it, not the mushed-up scare image of "the Sixties".

In fact, the Christian fundamentalist subculture actually had a small overlap with the hippie movement - not so much with other Republican bogeymen of the Sixties. Those were the "Jesus Freaks" or "Jesus people" or "Jesus movement" of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Billy Graham even cranked out one of his many proselytizing books under the title, The Jesus Generation (1971). It left one clear cultural heritage, "Christian contemporary" or "praise" music. Also known as 7-11 music, i.e., seven words repeated 11 times.

I recently came across a 2007 book by Preston Shires, a history done from a conservative Protestant viewpoint, called Hippies of the Religious Right : From the Counterculture of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell (2007), published by Baylor University Press. Baylor is a private Baptist liberal arts school that in recent years expressed high academic ambitions. But they recently selected former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr as their president; see Marv Knox, Kenneth Starr named Baylor president Associated Baptist Press 02/15/10. From the parts I've read, the book itself seems remarkably superficial and credulous, but it does give an account of the phenomenon of that time.

However, he also absurdly asserts that violence in the anti-abortion movement is the fault of the hippies of the Sixties and Seventies! Here is his typical rightwing justification for that polemic:

This violent aspect of the Christian Right was beholden to the darker side of the counterculture. In the same way that certain sixties’ youth could justify violence against those who advocated and practiced war or who denied civil rights to nonwhites, some Christian Right activists justified violence against those who advocated and practiced, in their mind, murder.
It's all those damn fucking hippies' fault!

Git over it, people! A rightwing fanatic walking into a church in the Midwest and shooting an "abortion doctor" in the head is not the fault of some hippie smoking pot in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1967! This is just the typical projection strategy that so many Christian Rightists commonly employ to avoid taking responsibility for their "bad choices", as they like to say of other sinners. Anybody even remotely familiar with the history of lynching in the US knows that rightwing fanatics and sadists didn't need the Sixties Flower Children to teach them about murdering people for their own bigoted ends.

Here is also the conflation of the conservatives' images of the enemy from 1969 that Lind's article plays into: hippies, antiwar activists, uppity black people, and those dadgum loose wimmin screwin' around and gittin' theirselves pregnant.

Wake up and smell the global warming, folks. Log on to the Internet, this new thing all the kids are talking about. You might even be able to dig up some reality-based information on the alternative movements of the Sixties there. This sitting around yelling, "You hippies git off my lawn!" is getting a little old.

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