The day I arrived on earth back in September, 1953, the number one song in America was Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya Con Dios.” Go With God? Go? Hell, I’d just gotten here. Where was I supposed to go?
A month earlier, the Soviet Union helped put the boom in Baby Boomer by exploding its own thermonuclear bomb (just a few months after the first U.S. hydrogen bomb test). The paranoid’s Strangelovian wet dream became America’s driving spiritual fantasy. In retrospect, “vaya con dios” seems an all-too-relevant prayer.
Decades of right wing revisionist history have given Boomers a bad rap. And, while generational claims of historical uniqueness are odious, we are still not through with the post-War dreams and nightmares. America remains hung up on the Boomer’s phony scarlet letter called the Sixties.
In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama said, “I come from a new generation of Americans. I don’t want to fight the battles of the Sixties.” This was a capitulation to the Right’s furious effort to redefine that decade as a time of excess, irresponsibility, selfishness, frivolousness, promiscuity, crime and drugs.
As Edward P. Morgan points out in his important new study, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, the battles of the Sixties were over intractable poverty, unnecessary war, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, persistent racism, and the desire for a full-bodied, truly popular democracy. If we’re not going to fight those battles, just what are we going to fight?
Morgan notes how the commercial media co-opted and deformed voices of protest in service to a powerful elite. Even the notions of “generational conflict” and “rebellious youth” were invented to marginalize the authentic democratic aspirations so visible in the Sixties.
One of Morgan’s more compelling observations regards the media’s stripping of the content of protest while promoting its personalities and visual drama. This fits quite comfortably with state capitalism’s effort to privatize politics or depoliticize culture. The rise of television and its captivating imagery literalized the 15th Century saying, “Maidens should be seen and not heard,” which, of course, became “children should be seen and not heard.” In media culture, everyone can be seen, and in the seeing, no one is heard. Political dissent disappears in democracy’s vanishing point.
The contradictory dynamic of visual inclusion and substantive exclusion substituted being seen for being heard as a vehicle of empowerment, thereby substituting appearance and behavior for voice.
It’s a terrible paradox. You’re not heard until you’re seen, but once you’re seen you become, effectively, a political mute. We call this phenomenon a “politics of celebrity” or “politics of personality.” By and large the post-World War II generation was suckered by the “if I’m famous we must be winning” con. Sadly, it makes the power elite’s job easier. They don’t have to defend destructive income disparity, for instance. They just demonize their opponents. The Clintons and Vince Foster. Obama and Jeremiah Wright.
A corollary: a mysterious Calvinistic moral authority attaches to celebrity, deserved or not. If you’re one of the Elect, you must be in God’s favor. This is how we wind up with a pundit class of “useful idiots” to use the late historian Tony Judt’s phrase. He means, of course, useful to the mandarins of state capitalism.
I don’t think there’s a handy 12-step program to get us out of the paradox. Left movement leaders need to maintain a constant awareness of the powerful media machine that will happily botox their lips while silencing their voices.
Trouble is, it takes a strong ego to take to the world stage. The media – doing the bidding of the Right and taking advantage of achievers’ ego vulnerability – have an easy time making the story about Michael Moore and not the truths of Sicko. Julian Assange is the current victim. Forget the slapstick secrecy of a supposedly democratic government. The story is about Assange.
Another solution lies in the proliferation of voices on web sites like this one. That pluralistic magic confounds the commercial media by putting the premium on content and not personality.
The de-politicizing of culture has been so successful that we now speak out loud of the Economy as if it was a God of the Volcano. “It’s the economy, stupid,” no longer refers to human activity at all. Talk of economic reform in the political arena becomes as nonsensical as singing about architecture. In this we can see how the power elite is aided while dissenting voices and popular democracy advocates are marginalized.
Like so many popular front Fausts, we might be famous one day. But it’s the most devilish of bargains. What use will the soulless have for a political paradise should we – on some distant, happy day – stumble into one? And so I say, vaya con dios.